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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Nexus

          "A hack is on the constant hunt for 'ideas' for his plots, or 'new angles.'  The real writer is haunted by a plot which he must write out of inner necessity.  He is impervious to suggestions."
                    ~ EDMUND BERGLER
          I usually begin with the main part of the post, and put my writing update last, but I'm doing it differently for this post, because I'm as excited as a writer as I have been in a long time.  Last Monday morning, as I sat at this keyboard working on the Beyond the Rails edit (and more on that later), the idea for a story struck me with the physical impact of a Mike Tyson haymaker.  I should tell you right now that, accepting the sage advice of Vladimir Nabokov, Anne Tyler, and Norman Mailer,  I am not going into a great amount of detail, but this idea concerns the goings on in a mythical city.  Its ambition, and that is beyond any doubt the right word, is to tie together every myth and fable in human history.  The name of the city, and the working title, is Nexus, but had Star Trek not used the title for its Hugo Award-winning episode, it could easily have been called The City on the Edge of Forever.
          Tuesday, having slept on it, I woke up with the premise of the story fully formed, fleshed out some of the mechanics, and worked out most of the big-picture details of time and setting.  It may be difficult for me to stay within the confines of steampunk for this one, although I may be able to work some limited aspects in.  It will be traumatic, and feel like something of a betrayal, to leave it behind, but authors are supposed to grow, right?  By Wednesday, yesterday, I was fleshing out some characters and outlining the opening scene.  In the days ahead I have plans to begin a detailed map.
          The point is, this new project has taken over my head, and is working diligently to throw everything else out into the street.  Stingaree?  Never mind that, it wants me to abandon the Beyond the Rails edit.  So far, the discipline is in place to prevent that, but lots of notes are getting assembled in the notebook that accompanies me everywhere.  By next post, I may be wondering why I ever thought this was a good idea, but right now it's is the biggest event on my writing horizon.  Stay tuned for updates.
          On the subject of Beyond the Rails III, I have finished the second edit, and put the manuscript aside to cool off, in other words, to allow my love for my own prose to fade.  In the interim, and in preparation for its publication, I have completed a full edit of the first book, and over the next week to ten days, will be editing the second.  These edits involve morphing all of the apostrophes and quotation marks which were somehow transferred in different type face than the text, correcting a few typos and misspellings, and removing a bunch of hyphens that I was advised had appeared in the middle of a good many sentences.  Owners of the original editions should be advised that no substantive changes have been made, and you will not miss anything if you don't buy the updated version.  By the time I'm finished editing the second book, I'll be ready to start the final edit on the third, and there is an outside chance that it could be ready for purchase by Christmas, though not by much.  Anyway, that's the latest.  Now, on to the article I had planned...

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          A few posts back, I compared the structure of a novel to a street on a movie set, with all the facades looking fabulous as they hung on the scaffolding erected to support them.  This week, I'm going to compare them to an actual house, maybe like the one you live in.  If your book is a house, then, the cover must be the exterior, and obviously, a well-designed house with a nice paint job is going to be inviting, and a crummy one with decaying eaves and big paint blisters missing is going to put you into fight-or-flight mode, in the case of a reader, mostly flight.
          If the exterior, the cover, prompts you to knock on the door, someone will open it, and what you see over the resident's shoulder constitutes the first impression that you will never unsee.  Looking past the door frame, you'll see a well-ordered home, a loving family, or a mess, maybe even one of those hoarder houses from the National Geo Channel, and what you see in that first glimpse is what's going to make you decide to come in, or say "sorry, wrong address," and flee to your car to escape.
          The literary equivalent of that first glimpse is your opening sentence, and we are taught that if you want a modern reader with all the demands she has on her time to come in and make herself comfortable, that first sentence had better be a doozy!  Let's examine a few from books new and old, large and small, and see what the writer accomplished with the use of his first dozen words or so.  For starters, let's look at a few classics:

1. A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, 1864:
          On the 14th of May, 1863, my uncle, Professor Liedenbrock, rushed into his little house, No. 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the oldest portion of the city of Hamburg.
          As an opening sentence, this seems terribly weak to me.  Grant you, I am no fan of Verne, having finally read seven of his most acclaimed works, but this first sentence is in no way calculated to make me want to read the rest of it.

2. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883:
          Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the "Admiral Benbow" inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodgings under our roof.
          Here, at least, there is some substance for a reader to sink his teeth into, although it seems to promise a slog to rival any manual of tax codes that the Internal Revenue Service has ever produced.

3. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling, 1888:
          The Law, as quoted, lays down a fair conduct of life, and one not easy to follow.
          Again, a generation after Verne, is there anything here that makes you want to keep going?  There certainly isn't for me, and unlike Verne, Kipling is one of my favorite authors.  It seems that the early adventure books that boys cut their teeth and honed their dreams on tended to begin with a whimper rather than a bang.  Perhaps the 20th Century would fare better?

4. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, 1901:
          Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.
          Nope.  Apparently, readers in the latter half of the 19th Century held expectations so low that this sort of dull, uninteresting introductory fare that promised the reader an adventure in staying awake was not only acceptable, but so superior that these are among the books best remembered today.  And this despite the existence prior to them all of this invitation to come into the writer's parlor:

5. The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe, 1842:
          I was sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.
          Now, here were words to bring a reader in for the long journey, and penned by a crass American a generation before the great Jules Verne wrote uninspired prose about his uncle rushing into his house!  How could these masters have forgotten how it was done?  But let's move forward fifty years, and see how mid-Twentieth Century authors were snagging their readers.

6. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954:
          When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
          It is impossible, in the wake of Peter Jackson's magnificent films, to go back and pretend that we don't know what this book is going to become, but as an opening sentence, all I see to "bring me in," as it were, is that reference to an eleventy-first birthday.  This might engender some slight curiosity as to what exactly that might be, so it's clever enough, but hardly compelling.  Where are those opening lines that today's writing professors, agents, and publishers warn us have to get the reader by the throat with the opening statement, and never let go?  When did they begin?  Perhaps in war...

7. Mr. Lincoln's Army by Bruce Catton, 1951:
          The rowboat slid out on the Potomac in the hazy light of a hot August morning, dropped down past the line of black ships near the Alexandria wharves, and bumped to a stop with its nose against the wooden side of a transport.
          This is better.  In fairness, this is a non-fictional history being written in a narrative style, but it makes me at least wonder what the business of the people in that rowboat is, and want to read further to find out.  And honestly, if what is essentially a textbook can set the hook like this, what's the matter with these fiction authors?  Let's explore further.

8. Jirel Meets Magic by C.L. Moore, 1935:
          Over Guishard's fallen drawbridge thundered Joiry's warrior lady, sword swinging, voice shouting hoarsely inside her helmet.
          Now, here is an author who knows how to hook a reader, and it's obvious that the art hadn't been lost at all.  Of course, Moore wrote for the fantasy pulps, and as such, was considered beneath mention by the literary snobs who wrote books for smart people.  Naturally, as so often happens, Catherine Lucille Moore is given her due today, decades after her death.  Her series, Jirel of Joiry, is praised as being one of the first works to show the influence of Robert E. Howard (Conan), and the first to introduce a powerful leading female character to the fantasy genre.  But she was hardly mainstream.  Let's look at some late-in-the-Century powerhouses. 

9. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, 1977:
          The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent.
          His descent?  Now this is more like it.  What is he descending to?  From where?  Classic; a simple description of a simple scene that absolutely demands that you learn more.  This is promising.  Moving on, then, to a true modern powerhouse of literature and screen, we have:

10. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, 1990:
          The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering on the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent.
          Here is a passage that says nothing about its genre.  It might be adventure, romance, horror, or mystery, but it requires further reading.  Brilliant!  Now we're getting somewhere!  A few years further along, we are presented with:

11. Shock Wave by Clive Cussler, 1996:
          Of the four clipper ships built in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1854, one stood out from the others.
          Would you read on?  It seems optional.  If you enjoy a good yarn of the sea, as I do, then you probably would.  If not, this seems a little flat.  The rest of the paragraph goes on to describe dimensions, tonnage, and sailing characteristics; hardly the most exciting fare.  Moving on to one of my favorite authors:

12. The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore, 1988:
          The demon sat back on the seat it had carved in the stem of the giant mushroom.
          All right, my personal bias notwithstanding, who can read that introductory sentence from the first of 40 books, give or take, and toss it aside with a "meh?"   Salvatore has been on the NYT Best Sellers List for over two decades, with his stories of dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden and his small band of companions.  He should be as big as Tolkien, but much like C.L. Moore, he isn't taken seriously because he writes in the Dungeons & Dragons universe as dictated by that role-playing game system.  How much do our prejudices, and those of others, deprive us of?  Before I wrap this up, I want to look at three of the biggest blockbusters ever to seize the public's imagination:

13. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling, 1997:
          Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
          Yeah, curiosity is generated, I suppose, and this is the first sentence of the first book intended for children, and perhaps it works in that context, but I just have this nagging feeling that the Queen Mother of Fantasy missed a great opportunity to make a grand entrance.  *Sigh*  Moving on...

14. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, 2005:
          My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.
          Meh.  What are we looking at here?  Is this supposed to excite me to keep reading?  Well, it doesn't.  I have driven to the airport, or at least past it, many times with the windows down, and have yet to become romantically involved with a vampire.  So, let's wrap this up with the most infamous book and movie ever put before the American public:

15. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, 2011:
          I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.
          Has anyone else ever done this, or am I the only one?  Oh, you have?  As an opening line, this one makes closing the book seem like an inordinate amount of effort.  Just drop it where you are, and let the housekeeper deal with it.  This book, and Twilight, are so polarizing that the mere mention of them in a certain Facebook writers' group of which I am a member is grounds for dismissal.

          But I'm not here to discuss the literary merit of any of these works.  This is about the first sentence, and its ability to hold that reader as she stands before the bookstore shelf, several dozen books of her chosen genre laid out before her, and what is that author going to do to snag her right now?  Why shouldn't she put your book back on the shelf after that quick scan of the first page, and pick up someone else's?
          As authors, we are all told loudly and repeatedly that we have to snag the interest of the agent/publisher/reader from the opening line, and it makes sense to my logic center.  Deciding to look into this more closely, I chose the first dozen books more or less at random from my own shelf to cover a wide time span and several genres, then I added the last three, which I don't own, because they are huge!  I looked at a number of other well-known books and authors, from Fail Safe to The Killer Angels, from Asimov to Grisham, and what I found is that very few big, well-known authors adhere to this principle, regardless of the era, and the bigger they are, the less likely they are to do so.  This was the exact opposite of what I expected.
          So, what is to be my conclusion here?  I easily put more time and effort into this article than any other I have ever done, and I can honestly say that I am stunned by the results.  Fifteen books, plus another score considered and not included, is hardly a meaningful sample, but they are fifteen successful books by mostly major authors, and very few, 20% by my lights, adhere to the principle in question.  That doubles to 40% if you include the borderline entries, but that isn't much for a market as savagely competitive as publishing and marketing books.  Have we been mislead?  Is it unimportant?  What's a struggling indie to think?
          Here's what I think:  I will continue to make my opening sentence a mind-harpoon designed to spear the reader's curiosity and sense of adventure.  Why not?  I see nothing to lose by making that opening hook as compelling as possible.  If that is done well, maybe that browser in Barnes & Noble or on Amazon's website drops your book into his basket instead of back into obscurity, moving on to look for another opening that better meets his expectations.  Yes, that seems to fly in the face of my empirical data, but in a business where 5,000 new books are published every day, no advantage seems too small to seek out.
          This has been inspiring.  Maybe a few weeks down the road, I'll look at some of the indie books published by my friends and colleagues, and see what we can glean about them.  Maybe they'll find it helpful; maybe I'll find myself friendless.  Time will tell.  Until then, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider

6 comments:

  1. First off, that sounds great about the new idea. Sounds like you and the muse are on good terms again and I can't wait to see the results!

    Your analysis of first lines is fascinating and I've noticed that as well, though I've not done as systematic a study as you have. Certainly there are writers who are masters of the killer first line like Edgar Allan Poe and Harlan Ellison. However, most writers aren't and I've come to the conclusion that "hooking from the very first line" is either one of those stupid writing advice cliches that gets thrown out there and repeated so often people have decided it's true or, at best, it's an ideal that's arguably more important in a short story, where you have less time to engage your reader, than a novel.

    What seems more important than a killer first line is a first line that invites the reader to keep reading to the next line. In fact, what's more important is to hook the reader by the end of paragraph one, maybe paragraph two if they're short and otherwise engaging. Also, sometimes that hook is more a slow seduction than a fisherman's "pull and yank." By the end of the first full paragraph of a novel, a reader should be able to answer without thinking hard, what's going on and why do I care? If the opening is confusing or boring, you'll lose the reader.

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    1. Good evening, David, and thanks for taking the time. The new idea arrived the way new ideas are supposed to, I think, suddenly an undeniably. I'll be sharing more in the weeks to come, assuming it stays dominant. Right now, it's at that stage where I feel like it's the greatest idea that any writer ever had, and if I say anything at all, an army of unscrupulous hacks is going to try to rip it off. Ridiculous, I know, but a writer should have that level of belief in his projects, and the fact that I feel this way bodes well for the pre-production work.

      As to the study, you as a scientist are well aware of the fact that you aren't supposed to preform conclusions that then skew the way you use your findings, but I'm human, and not a trained scientist, and my expectation going in was that I was going to "prove" that A-list authors were masters of the hook. My surprise was and remains complete. Perhaps you are right, this might be a cliche that is repeated mindlessly until all the parrots are repeating it, or maybe the first page would be a better study than the first sentence, but that isn't the way it's been presented to me. It's always been that if your first line, your first two lines at least, aren't golden, then the reader is going to check out before the end of the page. I don't know at this point. I do like your questions, "What's going on and why do I care?" Maybe that's the standard every author should hold his first paragraph to. You can bet I'll be looking into this in more depth in the weeks and months to come. Should you have any more ideas, I'd be honored to add them to the mix!

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  2. Really enjoyed the article, very thought-provoking.

    But! ;-)
    First I have to say that I don't think it's fair to judge writers who wrote decades, if not centuries ago by today's standards. They had very diffferent standars back then, and by 'back then' sometimes I mean a few years ago. People had very different expectations and above all had very few distractions in comparison to today, so of course writing techniques were different.

    This said, I do think the great attention given to the hook is kind of a urban legend. I read an article a while back (unfortunately, I can't find it now) that analysed some 12 things readers take into consideration before buying a book, and they all came before they ever read the first line. Cover, title, price, blurb, reviews and so on. The point of the article was that a reader generally decides to buy a book or not far before she reads the first line... if she ever. And it struck me deep because that's exactly my process.

    I think the strenght of the first line is more designed for the industry then readers. I've read time and again that agents and publishers often decide whether reading the complete submission based on the first line. I used to be horrified by it, but now, with more experience n my shoulders, I understand it. An agent and a publisher, unlike readers, don't just go by gut feeling. They know the business, they know how a story is written, they know writing techniques and how they are most effectively done, and of course, they immediatelly know, by reading the first line, whether the author also know those things. If the author doesn't, then the agent or publisher knows that author is still not ready to work in that industry.
    I think it's more a case of professionals who recognise other professionals. Readers are less concerned with it, because what's important to them is very different to what it's importnat to professionals.

    This said, I think the same as you: why not having a good hook? It can't hurt ;-)

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    1. And yet, we see Poe, the earliest writer I looked at, setting the hook as deep and skillfully as anyone on today's best-seller lists. It wasn't that the art hadn't been invented, just that it was being ignored. But yes, my own research seems to support the points you make. But why not have a strong opening line? Even if you self-publish as I do, and there is no industry to impress, there are always those readers who will ideally become repeat customers. There's no reason not to offer them the read of their lives... Of course, the rest of it is that you have to deliver!

      Always great to hear from you, Sarah. I highly recommend your blog, and your writing to all my friends and followers. Just find The Old Shelter in the right sidebar, and follow the links to a wonderful reading experience!

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    2. You are always such a gentleman, Jack. You're spoiling me!

      Oh, and in case you may be interested, I've sound the article I was mentioning
      https://writingcooperative.com/how-people-really-decide-to-buy-your-book-2bea9b5531f3#.w6bc6ytxx

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    3. Good morning, Milady. There is no spoiling to it. I don't dabble in flattery and platitudes. If you were a hack, I would say so (more likely, I would ignore you; I'm not that mean!). I tell my friends to read you every chance I get, because it is a delightful experience that I want to share.

      That article is pretty discouraging. Basically, nothing I write in the text of the book matters, then? That can't be it! I'll have to think upon it for a bit longer...

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