Posts Tagged ‘first lines’

Literary Beginnings: An Interview with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

May 1, 2010

Today we are going to have a conversation with Wendy Nelson Tokunaga    on literary beginnings. Wendy is a novelist living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her debut novel, Midori by Moonlight is available in paperback from St. Martins Press.  Her new novel, Love in Translation   was released last November and is also in paperback from St. Martin’s.

Wendy is giving a class at Book Passage called: Strong Beginnings: A Workshop for Novelists on Saturday, May 8 from 10 AM -4 PM.

Andy: Wendy, last week I did a blog entry having some snarky fun with literary first lines. But all the writers I know take the first lines very seriously. Why so?

Wendy: I enjoyed your fun take on literary first lines, but I have to say that I don’t obsess about them. If you can write a grab-worthy first line that everyone will quote from years to come, that’s great, but I don’t think it’s mandatory. What is mandatory is writing a compelling opening to your novel. As I’m sure you can attest, agents and editors will find any reason to toss a manuscript into the rejection pile as quickly as possible. So it’s crucial to make a good impression in a novel’s first five pages.

Andy: Is there any general advice you can give about how to manage the opening? Is there a single objective that needs to be met? Do you want to set the scene? Is it all about foreshadowing? Do you just want to grab the reader’s attention with something unexpected? Or is it more je ne sais quoi ?

 Wendy: Well, there’s a lot of je ne sais quoi that goes into writing a novel, that’s for sure. But I think that the one thing the opening must have is “profluence.” This is a term used by John Gardner in “The Art of Fiction,” which basically means to move forward. There has to be a forward momentum, an emotional energy and feeling of  “getting somewhere” that will compel a reader to want to continue reading. Another important factor is a strong “voice.” This includes the words the writer chooses (diction), how she arranges and groups the words (syntax), the order in how she presents events (structure) and the attitude toward the characters, subject and events of the book (tone).

Andy: What are the big mistakes with literary beginnings that you see repeatedly by other writers, both experienced and newbies?

Wendy: Common mistakes I’ve seen include starting the story in the wrong place (e.g starting at the very beginning of the story is not necessarily the best strategy); opening with a scene that is too mundane and thereby lacking tension (e.g. the character wakes up, has a cup of coffee and ponders the start of his day); loading the opening with too much backstory and extraneous details; and using an action scene that serves no purpose other than the mistaken assumption that any “exciting incident” will draw in the reader.

Andy: Your class at  Book Passage looks fascinating. What do you want the participants to get from it?

Wendy: We’ll be doing “close readings” of the openings of some recently published novels by analyzing the craft techniques these authors use to pull it all together and get us to keep reading. By looking at a variety of different styles and genres of novels I hope that students will come to see the value of learning from observing an author’s craft techniques without worrying about whether the book is one they would personally choose to read. In other words, you don’t necessarily have to “like” a book in order to learn things from the way it’s crafted that will help you improve your own writing. And, of course, the techniques we’ll discuss can be applied to the writing of the entire novel.

We’ll also analyze the first five pages of students’ novels to see what works and what needs improvement. Students whose work is not discussed in class will receive feedback from me via email if they wish.

The class is designed especially for students who have finished their novels and are considering querying agents or those who are searching for answers as to why their manuscripts have been rejected. Writers who have yet to finish their novels are also most welcome.

Andy: Wendy. One last thing. Can you describe some of your all time favorite literary beginnings?

Wendy: Here are some that I like from an eclectic selection of books:

Notes from the Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864)

“I am a sick man. . .I am a wicked man. An unattractive man. I think my liver hurts. However, I don’t know a fig about my sickness, and am not sure what it is that hurts me.”

The Stranger – Albert Camus (1942)

“Maman died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. I got a telegram from the home: “Mother deceased. Funeral tomorrow. Faithfully yours.” That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it was yesterday.”

Play It As It Lays – Joan Didion (1970)

“What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.”

Story of My Life – Jay McInerney (1988)

“I’m like, I don’t believe this shit.”

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Beginnings: First Lines in Literature

April 25, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings, first lines in literature. Which ones are satisfying and what makes them so? And others, admired by all, that still just leave me cold. My friend Susan and I walk around Lake Merritt every day and talk about this. Susan is writing a novel, and we are having , uhh, differences of opinion on the subject of first lines. There is a bunch of material on the internet about beginnings. Lists of the 100 best first lines in fiction. Advice to writers about how to construct a first line. Stuff like that.

Since I’m not a creative writer, I can’t dispense writing tips with any authority. As a literary agent though, I have to take beginnings seriously. For me the  first line is the most important sentence in the book. Editors are very busy people and  receive stacks of manuscripts every day. If they get turned off by a clumsy first line, they are likely to cast a cold eye on the rest of the manuscript.

So here are a few of my random thoughts on this subject focusing on some illustrious examples.

“Call me Ishmael.” –  Moby Dick by Herman Melville

 This first line is always at the top of the list. The most famous first line in all of literature. So what’s so great about it, anyway? I thought about that today and decided that it was overrated, that it is one of those things that people  think is great because everybody else thinks it’s great. It’s catchy. It’s different. But why would it lead me to read the rest of the book?  What if I wrote a book that began: “My name’s Andy”? I don’t think it would make the 100 best  list of anything. Why didn’t Melville start with something like: “Ishmael’s my name. Whales are my game.”? Think about it.  Tells a whole lot more about the story. It really is a better lead, —  wouldn’t you say?

But stay with me on this. Let’s  dig a little deeper. Here is the second line in Moby Dick .“Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.” Wow! Now that’s writing. Here we have a book that does more than tell a story. It has the boldness to tackle THE BIG QUESTION;  man’s struggle for truth in the face of an indifferent and inscrutable universe. I mean, duh! We are not in “chick lit” territory here. And this second line —- what would the critics call it? Understatement? Ironic foreshadowing? Because whatever this book is going to be about, you know it isn’t going to be about sailing a little to see the watery part of the world. Magnificent!

***

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” —   The Bible  by God  (or was it King James? Or was it The Gideons?)

 

 

This is pretty good as far as beginnings go. I’m trying to think of a better one. The only thing I can come up with  as an alternative is: “Call me Yahweh”. And that really  doesn’t work as well. But when we think of the Bible as literature, we really think of the King James Version which, as the learned biblical exegetes will tell you, is a triumph of form over substance. Not an accurate translation at all.

Here is a literal translation of  The Book of Genesis  from the Young Literal Translation Bible:

“In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth –the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness is on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters.”

Not exactly something you expect to hear from  the deep, rich voice of James Earl Jones. And can you imagine Michelangelo’s God in the Sistine Chapel with little yellow and black butterfly wings  “fluttering” on the face of the waters? I’ll stick with King James, thank you very much.

***

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”.  — Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

 

This famous beginning has really become a kind of joke, a metaphor for bad first lines. Just mention it at a cocktail party of literary snoots, and you will hear uncontrollable guffaws and  belly laughs around the room. Honestly, I don’t think this is such a bad first line.  Maybe a little overwritten with some murky syntax; maybe a little bloated; maybe a little attenuated by the author’s sense of the of his own unmerited importance. But otherwise, not bad.    It sets up the scene pretty well. The reader really has a sense of where he is. And it gives us a pretty robust  foreboding of what will follow.  Now let’s compare it to this famous first line:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from the swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

 I bet you can’t name that one.  It’s Finnegans Wake, you moron!   I bet you can’t tell me what it means. I bet Thomas F**king Pynchon couldn’t tell me  what it means.  Try dropping that first line at the literary cocktail party. No snarky snickers with this one. The room will be silenced by the crushing weight of your gravitas.  And you might as well forget about your designs on that sexy assistant editor  from Knopf  wearing  the black dress standing by the sushi platter. Because tonight   you’ll be going home alone to the solitude of your bedroom,  Bub.

***

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” — The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

 

Oh yes. This is really sweet. I bet every modern writer has wished they could have thought of this beginning. And I suspect that many of them think of it still when they sit down staring at their blank page ready to begin  their novel. By the way, gentle reader, if you know of any beginnings by great modern writers that are clearly derivative of this masterpiece, can you share it with other readers of this blog?

***

“In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. —  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

 

This is my favorite. I won’t sully Gibbon’s gorgeous beginning with an impertinent comment. Gibbon’s language is commanding, lofty, elegant, and confident. Worthy of a work of such grandeur.   What is even more remarkable is that this level of writing continues over six volumes and 3000 pages. And look at the vocabulary, the syntax, the voice and the cadence. It is the quintessence of perfection. It has the faultless precision of Mozart and the epic splendor of Wagner.   I am in awe!

I’m going to leave this now.  But I don’t want this to be the last line. I would really like you readers to weigh in with your favorite first lines and why you love them.