Moving beyond the opening of a novel and completing its first chapter, although it must be done, can be emotional and stressful, like dropping your child off on the first day of school. Is he or she truly ready? After one long, last, careful examination—zippers zipped, hair combed, face free of smudges, stains and boogers—we wave goodbye and drive away. The kid must eventually cope on his own.
There exists a parallel “zipper-hair-face” type checklist for a story’s opening. Does it, for example, economically set your novel’s tone, mood, setting and point of view? Has it introduced the reader to at least one compelling character? How quickly does the reader learn what your story is about? Did it happen at a healthy pace, with clarity?
50’s Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ernest Hemingway advised writers to make all their writing their best writing. It’s good advice, but be careful not to confuse your best efforts with perfection. The world is full of unfinished novels. Write your best then move on, avoiding at all costs getting caught in an editing death spiral.
Remember, in the end, writers write. Get down your best opening. Complete the first chapter. Write new stuff the next day and the next. Novels aren’t limericks. They take time. Write doggedly, daily (or nearly so) until you have created a complete and, most likely, highly flawed first draft.
Then feel free to revise away. Your revisions will be more meaningful now that you have finished the first draft and know your novel much better than when you began.
The importance of understanding Why we write
The immensely popular (in his day) short story writer, William Saroyan, a notorious “rule-breaker” (the preceding is in quotes because there are no rules, but it is usually wise to follow them), was said to have never revised his work (which makes him a shameless liar or a profound genius), knew exactly why he wrote.
If I wrote something, it was written, it was itself, and it might continue to be itself forever, or for what passes as forever. Thus, I could halt the action of things, after all, and at the same time be prepared to learn new things, to achieve new forms of halting, or art.William Saroyan, Why I write
Everyone writes for their own reasons, but not every writer understands or can articulate those reasons. But knowing one’s motivation will naturally unify all his work and undergird his style.
It made sense to William Saroyan to write in order to manufacture permanence, “new forms of halting.” Why do you write? Knowing the reason is as important as it can be elusive. If you want to write to sell books you are reading the wrong blog. If you write to be understood, you are bound to be disappointed. Readers have their own problems and are unlikely to be concerned about yours.
Unlike Saroyan, I write because I have, since childhood, felt almost mystically compelled to do so and I learned later in life that satisfying that compulsion is the most gratifying thing I know to do. Like Saroyan, it pleases me to learn as I write and to know that whatever I have written “might continue to be itself…for what passes as forever,” but I don’t share his concern for, appreciation of, or belief in the value of “halting things.”
On to Chapter One, The Castle of the Jew’s Daughter, and how it evolved.
Say a lot, say little. Say little, say a lot.
Because of my questionable first choice of a working title (See First things first, Part II), the first opening I wrote was doomed. The first paragraph appears below. It is vague and uninteresting because, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the governing working title at the time I wrote it –> JEREMIAH <– was simply much too broad.
The mighty Prophet Yermiyahu—Jeremiah, we shall call him—stood sighing at an open chamber window gazing upon Tahpanhes and Lake Manzala’s rippling water and its idly bending reeds, as did doubtless Thothmes’ daughter upon the day she innocently chose to bathe along the Nile’s banks but founded, instead, by rescuing the infant Moses, a faithless and therefore doomed nation.Opening to chapter 1, The castle of the Jew’s daughter, First try
So, as you can see, I opened with ancient Egyptian topography, rippling water, bending reeds and a murky allusion to the Book of Exodus. Not good. Embarrassing actually, but I recovered. My meandering continued for quite a while before the entire approach died a painful death.
I eventually decided upon the story I would tell and then began to tell it. The second try, below, is in my opinion a distinct improvement because it quickly introduces the story problem. “Take the cart and mule…” Jeremiah says in the second sentence, “then head west.”
Soon afterward, the reader learns of the prophecy that will drive the novel (Jeremiah 43:8-9) and the burden the prophet places upon his scribe, Baruch ben Neriah, to help him fulfill it. (Note below that the opening is in the first person, another choice that turned out poorly, but all is well that ends.)
One morning in the month of Tevet, the prophet Jeremiah spoke to me plainly for the first time since Jerusalem fell. “Take the cart and mule,” he told me, massaging his lower jaw to start, “then head west.” We were standing side-by-side in The Land of the Great River—Mitsrayim, we called it—near the gate to our captive compound. Jeremiah pointed out that gate, toward the dunes that lined the narrow road that paralleled the sea. “After you have travelled about 40 miles,” he said, “you shall find a rock pit, not too far past where you go to fetch our salt each month.”
“A rock pit?” I asked, both mystified and waiting patiently.
The once-powerful old seer, now fading rapidly, spread his tired arms and raised his nose a notch to suggest how immense the pit I would find would be. “Gather several large, smooth stones from there,” he said, “and bring them back to me.”
“It is good to hear you speak again, Prophet,” I told him truly.
The old man smiled for the first time in quite a while but with irony, not happiness. “I’ll need big, smooth, cut rocks,” he said, “and quickly. Start now if you hope to be back before dark.”Opening to chapter 1, The castle of the Jew’s daughter, Second try
It seemed better, but not good enough. To their credit, the five preceding paragraphs also specify…
- The time of the year (the month of Tevet)
- Jerusalem has previously fallen (so, after 586 BC)
- Baruch and Jeremiah are captives
- Jeremiah’s health is fading (“once-powerful old seer”)
- They are in Egypt, not too far from the Nile River
- Jeremiah is in a hurry for Baruch to find stones for him
I eventually revised the opening 18 times over a period of two years. (I know because, while I am writing a novel, I compulsively save them as successive versions, although I rarely refer to them.) Some of the 18 revisions were extensive, some inconsequential. The earliest versions continued in first-person but about six months into the process I changed the narrative voice, almost throughout, to third-person imperfect. (Here and there, the narrative switches to the third-person perfect tense, but I am hopeful that no one will notice.)
The finished opening chapter: The Castle of the Jew’s Daughter.
John Wyatt says
Wow! This is cool, I mean interesting. Really. Did you learn all this from Mr. Etheredge or Mr. Riley (just joking)?
Someday we’ll get together and you can give the whole author talk on how you got here.
Gloria and I met an author named Ace Atkins at an “Author Talk” in a bookstore in Greenville and he filled us in on how he got from having a writing bug to getting published – I mean making a living (and incidentally being chosen to be one of the ghost writers for Robert Parker’s “Spenser” series. (Parker was one of my ‘go to ‘ authors for years and years. Until he died. To me, Atkins is good, but no Parker).
We ended up talking about closing which beer his character Quinn Colson would drink as opposed to Spenser.
Glad you liked it. I actually do think of Mr. Riley quite a bit when I write. He once said in class that authors pay great attention to every word they put down. Every word! I remember thinking that that had to be terribly overstated but I have found it to be true. I think that’s why it’s so hard to finish something that works. Consider this odd observation from long ago when I wondered about things. I was in a shopping mall in Dallas eating lunch in a place with a view of a huge ice skating rink. And I noticed how many “really good” amateur ice skaters there were there. So many skaters with cool outfits who could jump and spin and skate backward, etc… But when I looked more closely I noticed that their fingers were usually not quite perfectly aligned or their toes didn’t point just right or their knees buckled just a bit after they jumped. I concluded that those tiny things must be what completely distinguished those “very good” skaters from “highly accomplished” skaters. I think it’s true in everything. Golf, bowling, horseshoes, billiards… The details make the difference. There are no perfect novels, but if a writer doesn’t apply effort and attention down to the word level, just like Mr. Riley told us in high school, the end product will likely not cut it.