Tag Archives: readers

First Lines of Novels: What Works?

They used to hang men at Four Turnings in the old days.–My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

In the spring of that year an epidemic of rabies broke out in Ether County, Georgia.–Paris Trout by Pete Dexter

We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.–The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

It began the usual way, in the bathroom of the Lassimo Hotel.–A Visit from the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan

I’m collecting first line of novels that I think provide particularly good models and possibly rules of thumb for those of us hoping for just that one read. Why are these so important? I can’t help remembering my trip to the Backspace Conference in New York, sitting around a table for a “two-pages-two-minutes” critique with editors and agents. Reader after reader got stopped before getting past one-minute-one-page, or in some cases, thirty-seconds-one-paragraph. “This is too familiar,” said the agent. “I’ve heard this a million times before,” said the editor.

That experience impressed on me something my own experience as a browser in bookstores confirms: yes, the language of your whole book has to sing, but if you want people to pay the price of the concert, the first line has to be so high and clear and pure it blasts through their earphones as they’re passing on the street.

I thought I’d spend a few posts thinking about why these are examples of first lines that did that for me, in hopes of deriving some ideas as to how it’s done. I’d love it if readers would post their own favorites, with some speculation as to what makes the lines work. Be specific! Don’t just tell us “I like this” or “It works for me.” Why does it work? How does it work? So we can see whether we’re hitting your criteria in our own efforts.

Obviously, it’s not that the first line carries the book. The paragraphs that follow have to bear out the promise. But I do think that one strength of these lines is that they do make a promise. We read on to see if that promise is going to be kept.

Okay, the Daphne du Maurier line: what promise does it make?

It’s actually fairly simple at first glance–this is a haunted place. Only something bad can be set in motion here.

That promise resonates for me because I’m a firm believer in the truism that in narrative, only trouble is interesting. Promise your readers upcoming trouble in twelve simple words and they will at least finish the paragraph.

There’s more going on, though, I submit. This, like Rebecca, is to a great extent a Gothic novel, and “the old days” conjure the fatally romantic past that, in Gothic novels, no one will escape. The old days aren’t gone; they’re hovering in the shadow cast by this nameless “they” whose memory just won’t be expunged. The whole atmosphere of the book emerges: something looming. Its shadow is that of the noose.

I hear the rhythm of the sentence as well:

They used to HANG men /at Four TURNings /in the OLD days

It breaks into three parts, like a poetic stanza, with an accent on the next to last syllable of each phrase. We almost have three anapests, with a falling syllable after each. There’s all kinds of literary and neuro-cognitive speculation as to why rhythm captures us as it does; suffice it to note here that the accented moments are the central moments that almost deliver a message in themselves: HANG, TURN, OLD. Something old is going to turn on us and deliver us to that noose.

I’m going to finish the series before I try to generalize some rules from this example. I’m curious whether I’ll see the same things in all four.


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Kindle Author? Take a look

In case you haven’t seen it: Kindle author.

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The Answer is 42

Having had the benefit of a nice road trip during which I was able to contemplate the issue I’ve been exploring in the last few posts—the virtues or lack thereof of letting learners figure things out for themselves—I’ve arrived at an unexpected conclusion. The answer to the question of whether this is the ideal pedagogical method, for teaching writing or many other things, is—drum roll—42!

No, seriously, the definitive answer is yes and no. Or, put differently, it depends. Or: on one hand, on the other. Or possibly: sometimes.

A quick recap: I’ve always wanted to learn programming. Told that Python was useful and accessible, I bought a $35 book. Within hours, I was just barely resisting the urge to hurl the book at the stupidly blinking computer screen. The author adopted the “throw them in and they’ll teach themselves to swim (or not)” school at its most extreme. He provided readers with code they were to dutifully copy, producing a simple game called “Find the Wumpus.” I copied, I played, I found the Wumpus. But throughout, I had to puzzle out for myself what different commands meant—for that matter, even how to write and run a command, which was one of the numerous things this author assumed I already knew how to do!

I showed this book to a mathematician friend adept at programming. He told me to go to Louisville and throw it off the Big 4 Bridge. “This is completely wrong. The way to teach programming is to provide short bits of code that illustrate specific commands and functions. Get another book.”

I already had, being a Very Smart Girl. I bought two on my Kindle. I perused the first one. Within just a few screens, I knew what operators were, and what some major ones did. I knew what functions were. (I already pretty much knew what variables were.) I knew the difference between a number and a string! (It’s just a matter of punctuation. If it’s inside quote marks, it’s “text” and it’s a “string,” Ain’t that cool?)

And yet.

I learned how to tell the computer to add 2 and 3 and get 5. I learned how to convert the price of an Apple computer into euros using functions. I learned how many spaces I could insert before a decimal.

No doubt there are people out there who need to do these things. Who want to do them. It was unclear to me why I would want to do them.

Here’s the upshot. The Find-the-Wumpus game, maddening though it was, Continue reading

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Maybe Just a Tiny Bit More Rant. . . .

And some thoughts on what it means for writing.

Last time, I wrote about the tendency of the author of my beginning Python book (computer programming) to leave out what seemed to me simple yet rather foundational instructions for the beginners he was supposedly addressing, my implication being that he failed to understand his readers’ needs, thus undercutting the effectiveness of his text. I wanted to take the experience of trying to follow his directions toward a discussion of why (in my experience) many writers, including writers of fiction, seem to actively resent being asked to explain themselves to readers.

But I have a new gripe after working through Chapter 2. (I suppose I’ll have to take a vow not to collapse into a rant after every chapter! I do plan to buy another book to supplement this one, so if you were thinking of suggesting that. . . .)

In this chapter he gives you lots of steps. He gives you whole programs to copy into your text editor (characteristically without explaining that it’s in the text editor that you’ll find that rather essential “run” command!).

But along with these whole-cloth programs, does he tell you what you just did, why you did it, and how it worked?

You have probably intuited that no, he does not.

Nor does he define terms as consistently as he would have you believe. “Because the player enters a string instead of a number—” Excuse me. I most certainly entered a number. I assume he doesn’t mean we’re doing some version of string theory here.

He implies—actually more than implies—that he’s operating under the theory that readers will learn best by doing and then by figuring out the “grammar” of this language on their own as they go along. I think he’ll eventually tell me some of the stuff I want so much to know. In the Find-the-Wumpus game he has me coding, in “raw­_input(“>”),” what in the world is that little caret for? In “for i in cave_numbers” when you’re setting up caves that the player can see from a given cave, where did that “i” come from? Is it some arbitrary identifier? I could pick “s” or “m” just as easily? Maybe I should try the substitution and see what happens. But why not tell me instead of just dropping an unexplained item into the program for me to copy? Am I really better off figuring such things out on my own? Continue reading

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Bad Writing: A Very Small Rant

Very small.

Steven Pinker can get away with ranting about bad writing, but it remains to be seen whether I can. But since my rant more or less illustrates Pinker’s on a smaller canvas, possibly I may be indulged.

And I can only do so with a qualification: this particular aspect of bad writing is inherent—perhaps even inevitable—in one of the most difficult genres known to writers: explaining how to do something to someone who comes to the lesson relatively or even completely ignorant of the topic.

I’ve run into this aspect of bad writing a lot recently because I’ve been teaching myself new stuff. Like GIMP. Like Python. It’s the particular Python experience I now rant about. And I do so, believe it or not, with sympathy for the challenges faced by anyone who dares explain virtually anything involving a computer.

The book cost $35.00. It has lots of sweet little cartoons. But its writer lacks that single magic ingredient of good writing. He can’t imagine his readers’ minds.

Now, no one can ever completely enter and know another’s mind. If we could, we’d be each other. It’s the growing knowledge of difference that makes the existence of an “I” possible. (I didn’t make this up. I got it, in roundabout ways, from Emmanual Levinas.) But like it or not, writing for others, writing to be read, demands at some point some tangents of contact between the writer’s mind and the reader’s. Otherwise, we have gibberish. True, between some minds there never is such contact, and between those writers and readers there is gibberish. (I submit that the intersection, when it can be created, is where what is called “rhetoric” takes place.) But on to my rant.

Having downloaded and installed the program and having read in the introduction how welcoming a beginner like me would find Python, I proceeded to follow the directions for setting up the program on my Mac. Never mind that there were pages and pages of instructions for PC users and only a couple of paragraphs on Macs that instructed me to go back and read the pages on Linux. I eventually did find the screens that showed up in the figures, although the screen that came up when I dutifully clicked “Update Shell Profile” was supposed to “run” and as far as I could tell it just sat there, no matter what keys I plunked. At this point, I was already starting to seethe.

He kept telling me to “run” things in a “terminal.” He kept talking about “running” programs from the “command line.”

Well, I got the word “terminal” to show up in the menu line (still not sure how I managed it or whether I can do it again), so I assumed that the box that opened, with various references to my name and the date in plain text, was the “terminal.” But nowhere was there any apparent command I could click to “run” anything. And a “command line”? I looked in vain for the blinking cursor I remember from my short experience with Basic (and of course Wordstar) from 30 years ago. At the end of the text in the “terminal” was a little box that sat immobile no matter what I did.

I can hear you out there, your derisive mocking howls. But you’re the problem! You really do not want people like me to learn your secrets. You want to protect your arcane universe from the uninitiated (cf. Pinker).

But I foxed you.

After some forty-five minutes of reading and rereading the chapter, looking in vain for some definitions or some moment when he said, “In order to run a program, you do this and then this,” I conjured from somewhere some basic intuition born of those 30+ years of mud-wrestling with computers, often armed with nothing but my instincts and willingness to push buttons at random. I thought, I wonder if that little box is the “command” icon. What happens if I try to type there? And then, with the lines of the little demo program waiting, inert but there, I did what intuition sweetly whispered: I hit return.

Now I ask you, what would it have cost to tell me those two things?

Let me quote from the back cover: “Even if you’ve never written a line of code before, you’ll be writing real Python apps in just an hour or two.”


Another, very quick, related example: my first Adobe Connect session. No one conducting the session seems to have even considered the possibility that some in the audience had never been in that environment before. I missed the first twenty minutes of the presentation trying to figure out the basic layout, which proved to be accessible and useful with just the slightest bit of orientation.

There. I’ve said it. Done.

Except that this struggle to sense and foresee our readers’ needs is so fundamental to writing to be read that we ignore it at our peril. But why is ignoring it (or at least not recognizing it) so tempting, such a common phenomenon? I have a completely unprovable theory, which I’ll explain (with numbered steps) next time.


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Writing the Synopsis: Or, What Took Me So Long?

I’ve been away for a few days, and if you’ve been watching the weather reports, you know what I spent much of the day before yesterday dealing with–yes, it’s a four-letter word beginning with “S.”

I’ve also been dealing with an eight-letter word beginning with “S”: “Synopsis.” I’ve never met a writer yet who liked dealing with synopses. I’ve always believed I couldn’t write them–just didn’t get it. I’d tell what I thought was the story I’d told, only to have readers respond, “I’m totally confused.”

I faced the need to confront the demon synopsis because I’m trying to get my out-of-print suspense novels up as e-books, and I need covers. I had some ideas of my own, but my excellent and candid volunteer critics (or should I say “impressed” critics in the sense that sailors off merchant ships were once impressed into the British navy) generally agreed that I should solicit ideas from actual designers. At my university, we have students who do superb work. But could I ask students to read two fairly hefty novels between class assignments? Uh, no, not if I want to get the books up any time soon. Hence, synopses.

My first efforts were on a par with my earlier efforts. A masochistic colleague whose opinion I value actually volunteered to read the books and write the things for me. I spared him: read two hefty books between grading assignments in four (yes, four!) writing classes?!!! So he read the synopses I produced. I reproduce here the bare bones of this experience, because it was a eureka experience. For the first time, I was like, “Oh!” It’s what can happen when you have a truly good reader who is willing to tell you the truth and you are ready to listen–a crucial component, but I was desperate. They always want a synopsis. Who wants two pages to be the death of a three-hundred-page gem?

Here is the heart of what my colleague Tom O’Neal wrote for me:

Continue reading


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Digression: In Praise of My Writing Group

A good writing group keeps you honest. Good readers remind you that you can’t fall back on your genius. I guess if I were a genius, I wouldn’t need readers. From my keyboard to the mind of God.

No, a good group reminds you that you have to work at this stuff. It’s like riding my horse. I keep slipping back into old habits (right knee locking into the saddle, heel slipping up; taking back without realizing it in front of fences). My trainer’s “You’re doing it again” is the only way to create new mind/body memories and make them stick. Little by little I think they do.

So I go to my writing group with major revisions of The Drowned Man (the ms. I took to the conference I’ve been writing about—I’ll get back to that shortly). I decided that one tack would be to veer more toward the “literary.” Now, one thing I’ve learned is that I fall just a few pixels short of literary most of the time. But genre clearly doesn’t cut it. The answer to the “But what is it?” question confounds editors and agents every time. (Well, yes, it’s a sort of mystery, but no, it doesn’t have a knitting shop in it. Not that kind of mystery. Well, not that kind either. Darn.)

Anyway, I thought that even if I didn’t slip across the literary line, I could at least bump up the suspense with some piquant foreshadowing if I changed the point-of-view character. The POV character now telling the story knows what happened in the end, so he can drop some titillating portents here and there. I like the way this works. Problem: as my group told me, I liked his voice a little too much.

They said:

Get rid of the floating talking head. Move the action up front. (Remember, writing fiction depends on the ability to write scenes, not exposition, no matter how piquant.

Did I know this? Yes. Did I do it? Now I am.

Don’t dump a lot of names on us all at once. Get your readers invested in one or two main characters right away. Bring the others on stage when you can give them the stage time they need.

Did I know this? Yes. Did I do it? Now, yes.

Locate your opening scenes in place and time. Let your readers walk into a landscape or a room and meet a flesh-and-blood being (even if he does have to be a vampire). There’s a fine line between being mysterious for the sake of suspense (“I’m confident that that question is going to get answered”) and for the sake of being mysterious (“Who the hell is this person I’m having to listen to? Is there a reason I’m here getting vertigo in this mind fog? Help!”)

Did I know this? See above.

Let readers know early whose story it is. Okay, in someone else’s story told by a narrator (Nick Carraway, for example), readers may have to figure this out. But they should figure it out, IMHO, as they interpret the relationship between the narrator and the other characters. Who embarks on the major trajectory may change with events (and it can even be the reader, IMveryHO). And it quite often is the apparently peripheral character whose trajectory is the most interesting. But starting out in a text, you haven’t won the willingness of readers to do that kind of interpretative work. They want to get started on a road, in somebody’s tracks, before the feral pigs start jumping out of the woods at them (I ended up taking the feral pigs out of my book: see “Deleted Scenes”).

Did I know this? Ditto.

Give readers a sense of something at stake. Okay, they may not get to know right away just how much is at stake. But they need to know somebody’s in trouble, and why. I may still need to work on this. Bellweather knows Michael’s in trouble from Page One and why. He’s telling readers so. But readers have to get a sense of this by themselves. I hope when I take my revisions to readers who weren’t there last time that I get a sense of whether I’ve met this mandate.

Did I know this? Well, yes, but it’s the hardest, least concrete of missions. What makes readers care? Well, someone in trouble. Yes. I want to think about that in tomorrow’s revisions. How do readers know Michael’s in trouble?

You really have to work at this stuff.

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Digression: What is “College Writing”?

In the course of a project I’ve been working on, a book for people about to take their first college writing course, I’ve been doing some reading to locate the personal experiences I’m drawing on in the continuing conversation among college writing professionals about what a college writing course or major ought to be and do. One source I’ve found usefully provocative is What is “College-Level” Writing?, edited by Patrick Sullivan and Howard Tinberg, both community college professors. High-school and college teachers, students and administrators have contributed.

No Definition for College Writing?

I wonder how surprised most readers would be to learn that the collection begins with the premise that there’s no agreed-upon definition for “college-level” writing. Contributors do seem to resist the idea that writing is de facto “college level” because it is written in college. But many also resist the idea that there should be some set of specific criteria that student writers have to meet if their writing is to be acceptable college work. The perceived danger is that locking college writing to “standards” will drive it the same way “standards” have driven high-school writing: toward shallow and reductive formulas that privilege being able to follow a set of steps over thoughtful analysis of a topic. (George Hillocks’ The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning, is a lucid exploration of the effects of various rubrics and standards on how teachers teach and how students write.) The writers in this volume tend to agree that college writing should be more flexible, more responsive to the different writing situations students in college will encounter.

So What Is College Writing. . . . ?

And this view of the difference between college and high-school writing points to a consistent thread of consensus among the contributors (and among my colleagues, with whom I shared many discussions of our program and the kinds of writing it was producing). What made me want to insert this post into my narrative of my own struggles was an essay close to the end of the book. By Chris Kearns, then an assistant dean of student services at the University of Minnesota, this essay advocates for what I would consider an absolutely essential component of successful college writing, Kearns writes:

[C]ollege writing proper begins whenever an undergraduate takes the first consequential step from self to other on the grounds of care for one’s audience. This is best done by opening oneself to the fact that meaning does not belong to the writer; it unfolds in the shared space of acknowledgment between the reader and the writer. (350)

This is remarkably in tune with my favorite quotation about writing that I’ve published in these posts at least twice, the quote from the reading historian Alberto Manguel that “[a]ll writing depends on the generosity of the reader.” This idea, Kearns points out, runs counter to the romanticized view that the self-regarding individual is the font of expressive genius. Kearns contends, rightly I think, that we cannot imagine this unfolding of meaning between reader and writer as a linear process of following steps or using the right toolset, and, moreover, it is difficult to explain as a concrete process, which is a possible reason so many college students find that magic something that their college teachers “are looking for” so amorphous and elusive.

Kearns points out that this process requires writers to inhabit three consciousnesses: that of writer, reader, and a third “critical reader” who experiences both perspectives and engages with the tensioned interplay between them. Kearns calls this process “recursive,” by which I interpret him to mean that one begins with an idea or a point, which then blooms in the space in which it is offered, is molded by the critical reader, and then returns, changed. This process repeats as long as a piece of writing is still attached to us intellectually and emotionally, even if it has left our hands.

This is about college writing, but I think it is about all writing that means to do more than sit in a drawer. Readers are the most surprising people. They never give you back what you think you gave them. And when you get back their gift, you–even if you resist–are what has changed.

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The Best Advice I Remember Receiving. . . .

. . . . generally, ironically, came from those family members and friends we should ideally avoid.

But they are the ones who will actually read your stuff.

  • My sister, who said of an early (and I suspect chaotic) draft of KOTR: “This isn’t a novel, it’s a character sketch.” Bingo. I may misremember, but I seem to recall I was on track with the trajectory that eventually did become a book within days.
  • My friend and academic colleague, who said (paraphrase) of a draft of a different novel, “I was so angry at the beginning. I didn’t know who this was, where she was, what was going on. I made myself keep reading [friends may do that], and I loved it. But the beginning doesn’t do it justice. You have to give me more help than that.”
  • A former student and one of the best writers and readers I know, who had the temerity to cross out whole pages of “character development” in my then-and-current-and-maybe-forever novel in progress: “They slow me down and besides they’re hard to read. I wanted to know what was going to happen.” Again, bingo. I actually had to admit they were hard for me to read, too, and beastly to write. Note to self: Most of the time, it’s the pace, stupid.
  • A former teacher who heroically read everything I gave her, about an even earlier draft of KOTR that I tried to render in first person (the one I went off into the woods to write, convinced that if I did nothing but write I’d make it happen): “I got tired of hearing him whine.” Boy, did that get my attention.
  • The professor and friend who said of my failed novel, “I couldn’t get into it. It was just a bunch of people sitting around a room talking.” If ever there was a wake-up call. . !
  • All the friends who’ve said, “Whose story is this?” I’ve been trying to keep that question before me in my current revision project, which, like so many of my projects, wants to spill out all over the place (my curse). (And there was the generous academic colleague who said gently of yet another project, “It’s just . . . just sort of overgrown“).

Now if I can just make use of these treasures—and get more.



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Paying for It: Story II

Okay, let’s get the rant out of the way so we can move on to practical applications.

Like applying due diligence, perhaps?

It’s embarrassing because my second attempt to purchase good feedback was as much of a foreordained conclusion as the first.

I found this fellow in my search for likely looking conferences and workshops. I don’t actually remember his name. I do have the material he finally sent me (see below), but it supplies only a first name. Perhaps that’s just as well.

The workshop was small, private, held on a major university campus, where I was able to acquire a dorm room. The apparent imprimatur of the university disarmed me. And the workshop itself, me and a couple of other people, working with this genial individual with a bucketful of droppable names, was stimulating, full of good exercises, with some useful discussion of our projects. I was beguiled.

I had two efforts underway. I had decided to rewrite my failed novel. And I had a terrific premise that I had turned into a very rough draft of a screenplay. For $450, this person was to advise me on the screenplay. Then he would partner with me to edit my novel, parts of which I had shared at the workshop. (He did not warn me, as a conference panelist was to do soon thereafter, that revising that novel in hopes some editor would take on a chance on republishing a better version of it was pointless: “If it didn’t sell the first time, why would they think it might sell now?”).

In any case, off he went with my $450.

I waited six months.

I emailed him a couple of times, only to be assured my critique was on the way.

We’re used to this from agents. But I had paid.

I finally wrote and asked that he either send my critique or give my money back.

Bad move? I honestly don’t know. It triggered two things. I got my critique. I also got an email, since lost (as an act of psychological self-defense?), that I remember as a bruising, sarcastic excoriation that I would dare to make such an unprofessional, harassing request.

I’ve fished out the critique. Nine pages. Up to about the midpoint of the script, very detailed discussion of problems interspersed with often-specific praise, focusing largely on the nuances of scriptwriting versus writing prose, help I desperately needed as I was a complete beginner at scripts. Rich as well with the kinds of global comments I also desperately needed to hear: What is the story question? It’s hard to know what this character needs or wants. Too many characters playing redundant roles. Some logical missteps, obvious when pointed out. But at midpoint, I’m told, the story veers so far off course that it doesn’t warrant further comment (“organizing deck chairs on the Titanic”). But then: “Tremendous potential. The ending is emotionally arresting and disturbing, the eoncept is unique.” And finally, a cryptic “Well done.”

Of course, now I couldn’t do what I most wanted: arrange a (paid) follow up meeting to nail down my understanding of the technical advice and to talk through how to make the shift of direction in Act II organic and supportive of my larger hope for the story.

I see now that I could have learned from this man. But, struggling under the devastating collapse of relations (by my doing? by his?), I did a further unprofessional thing. I simply set it all aside. I could persuade myself not to trust it. Did his anger at me color his response to the story? Did he really read past page 55? In the end I gave up on the screenplay, turning the premise into a novel. (And rereading that long-ago critique, I am glad for the reminder to ask that crucial question that I’ve heard myself ask others in our writing group: Do we know what this character wants and needs? Now that I’m back to writing, time to double-check, make sure.)

But the more immediate question is whether I could have prevented these two disasters (begging the question, of course, as to whether they really were disasters). The first one, possibly, by not wanting so badly to be misled. The second one, surely. Preditors and Editors existed then; a quick trip to http://pred-ed.com/general.ht?t1 would have given me the basic advice I should have followed, to wit: a) get a written contract specifying what was to be done and when; b) start small and see how it works out.

In short, good advice is worth paying for, but with much greater caution than I exercised.


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