All the latest news, ideas, and opinions from Denver's Independent Literary Center: lighthousewriters.org
by Ted McCombs
Beginnings, we know, are important. Agents decide on a manuscript within the first few pages, because readers in bookstores do too. As book-lovers, we each have our running canon of favorite opening lines. It is a truth universally acknowledged… Lolita, light of my life… Something something Ishmael. But what does that translate to in terms of craft? Where do you start with beginnings?
At Lighthouse’s Lit Fest 2013, we heard ideas from several authors, editors, and agents on what makes a beginning work. Kristin Nelson, of Nelson Literary Agency, looks through the slush pile for openings that “anchor the reader in time and place,” while Robin Black, teaching the Advanced Fiction workshop, held up “orientation” as an opening’s #1 goal. In Steve Almond’s craft seminar, How To Create an Irresistible Narrator, Steve urged on us a narrator that takes up the story confidently, candidly, assuring the reader that a good storyteller is at the helm.
The funny thing is, when excellent writers do this well, we hardly notice. Such beginnings almost never make it on to our list of great opening lines. In Robin’s workshop, I brought in Ann Radcliffe’s first line from The Mysteries of Udolpho, the single most successful work of Gothic fiction from the 18th-century Romantic period: “On the pleasant banks of the Garonne, in the province of Gascony, stood, in the year 1584, the chateau of Monsieur St. Aubert.” Boom: place, time, mood, our first character. The first time I read this sentence, it barely registered. Now, I love it so much, it’s on my Twitter profile. Udolpho is a novel that absolutely depends on hiding the ball, with a heroine who faints in dread at certain sights but doesn’t tell us what she saw for hundreds of pages. But it only gets away with this by first establishing a known world with a firm hand.
We do notice, however, when excellent writers don’t do this. Consider the first few paragraphs of, oh, say, Ulysses, to pick an easy example; or, more recently, Zadie Smith’s NW. Steve Almond might call this “unproductive bewilderment,” his phrase for that widespread opening gambit of leaving the reader in a fog of impressions and unmoored emotions, so that one is left filling in the gaps “like solving a language-based Sudoku puzzle.” But, to run with Zadie Smith for a while, she doesn’t start her first novel White Teeth in a prose fog—that one actually reads a lot like the first line of Udolpho. (“Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 0627 hours on January 1, 1975. Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy…”)
Most of us came to NW having built a relationship of trust with Zadie Smith over her three prior novels and delightful essays. If she wants to bewilder us now, we’ll allow it. At Lit Fest’s panel of literary review editors, Stephanie G’Schwind, editor of Colorado Review, compared a story to someone taking her down a street to show her something. If you’re a perfect stranger (i.e., if you’re speaking de profundis, from out of the slush pile), you need an opening that’s interesting and trustworthy, and maybe even gives the surprise away—after all, would you follow someone who didn’t have that? But with Zadie Smith, I know she probably has something pretty cool to show me and I’ll let her start messy. The rest of us poor saps, we still need to build that trust.
But let’s take the notion of “orientation” up one more notch: beginnings set the rules and contours of your story, by which the reader will judge the rest. To paraphrase Steve again, books teach us how they are meant to be read. The opening paragraphs establish narrative voice, point of view, and much more. In Robin Black’s short story “A County Where You Once Lived,” the first paragraph launches us into close third person, with a man named Jeremy as our free-indirect-discourser. But, in that first paragraph, she slips in a subtle tweak: “By around the halfway point the scenery has shaken off all evidence of the city, all evidence, really of the past century or two. Or so it seems to Jeremy as long as he blurs his eyes . . . ” (emphasis mine). This hint at a narrator beyond Jeremy’s discourse, Robin explained, cues us to take Jeremy with a grain of salt, to reserve judgment just slightly, as we read on.
In César Aira’s “The Musical Brain” (New Yorker, 12/5/2011), the great fun of this story lies in its gradual, dreamy shift from conventional realism to fantastical farce. Aira negotiates with his readers’ tolerances, inserting increasingly absurd elements into what starts, essentially, as a classic realist story of childhood memory. Or does it? In the second paragraph, after introducing a book fair in a hotel restaurant (?), our narrator pauses: “I don’t know who explained [the book fair] to me; maybe it was the product of my own speculations and fantasies. That would have been typical: I was always inventing stories and machinations to make sense of things I didn’t understand, and I understood almost nothing.” When Aira pulls the rug out from under us, then, we laugh instead of getting angry: because, even if unconsciously, we’ve been braced for it the whole time.
These are old, old ideas, but as writers were are endlessly finding new and crafty ways to refine them, surprise them—and more frequently, screw them up. But there is an older “rule” (Robin would not use this word) than these, which gives me comfort as we say goodbye to Lit Fest ’13. We have time to revise, and tweak and play and make mistakes, as much as we want, before we release our stories into the wild. Pride and Prejudice sat in Aunt Jane’s drawer for fifteen years. So the perfect beginning isn’t really where we need to start. Actually, it’s more of an ending.