A couple of weeks have gone by, and I'd love to say I've made a great deal of progress on the manuscript. In fact, I have, but it doesn't LOOK like I have. I added exactly 750 words to the manuscript over the course of a two-week period. However, I spent a lot of time cutting and reshaping.
As I mentioned last time, I fully expect this draft to be longer than the first. I'm trying to build some more interiority for some of my characters, and I can get a little word vomit-y until I find the right balance of interior and exterior. This balance creates a sense of flow in the text: essential for fiction. There's a tension here.
But we'll get into all of that...
In this issue of (Re:)write, I'm going to discuss openings: what makes for a great opening and what am I trying to achieve? We'll look at the opening of Jeanette Walls's The Glass Castle for a little inspiration. Then, I'll share some timely advice from George Saunders and how I used it to tackle the opening of my novel.
You Need a Hook
I'm teaching The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls in one of my courses right now. If you haven't read it, it's worth your time. (I'll be honest: I'm not typically into memoirs, but this one is a banquet.) Here's Walls's opening:
I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.
This, in my view, is one of the great opening sentences in all of literature. No, it's not quite "Call Me Ishmael," but it's got a lot going for it. We have two characters — mother and daughter — juxtaposed. Daughter is in a taxicab. Mother is in a Dumpster (appropriately capitalized because Dumpster is a proper noun). Immediately, we are wondering: what the blankety-blank has happened? Why is this woman in a dumpster? Why is her daughter in a taxicab? How did we get to this point?
A great opening does a couple of things:
- A great opening sets the scene.
- A great opening creates good, dramatic questions for your reader.
From the get-go, we know this is a story about family. The questions we're asking are all about family. We are, after all, geared toward a blood-is-thicker-than-water mentality in this country, but we're also triggered by the idea of such disparities in social class within a family. We are used to thinking that families occupy the same social class. Why is this (potentially) "overdressed" daughter observing her mother in the act of Dumpster diving? It's incredibly off-putting, but in just the right way!
Immediately, we are faced with these questions, and we want to reconcile them. How did we get here? That's the drama.
Well, you'll have to read The Glass Castle to find out.
This combination of setting the scene and forcing us into dramatic questions is a great hook. That's the lesson Jeanette Walls teaches us here: you need a hook.
What is that thing that's going to keep your reading coming back for more?
For my project, I've been thinking about two potential openings. One opening launches us right into the story, while another opening starts hundreds of years before the main story. Which one to use? Here they are:
At 9:09 p.m. on Saturday, December 31, 2016, a blood clot lodged itself in the left hemisphere of Lorraine Gilly’s brain.
We know from the current title, A Brief and Horrible Resurrection, that someone must die. Well, here we are: Lorraine dies, y'all! For me, the charm of this sentence is its specificity: "... 9:09 pm on Saturday, December 31, 2016…." The next couple of paragraphs describe what happened before we move back to the events of the same day that led to Lorraine's stroke.
Contrast that with this alternative opening:
Once upon a time — December 31, 1716, a chilly Monday afternoon in Brittany — John awoke in an unfamiliar bed under the unfamiliar gaze of an unfamiliar man.
We have a similar specificity, "December 31, 1716, a chilly Monday afternoon in Brittany," but we've got a few other things going on here.
- The "once upon a time" invokes the idea of a fairy tale.
- We are hundreds of years and thousands of miles away from the main action of the story.
- We have the repetition of "unfamiliar" — three times — which signals where the story is headed.
Where, then, to begin this novel?
Running into problems? Turn directly to them...
I've hit a snag. What to do?
Listen. There are a lot of writers out there. They all have their ideas for how we should go about solving problems. BUT, if you're going to read writers on writing, then you might as well go for the best. If you haven't subscribed to "Story Club" then stop what you're doing and get it in your inbox right now! George Saunders is an artists' artist and his thoughts on story are indispensable.
In a recent missive on "Story Club," Saunders wrote about worry.
The whole piece is worth a read, so go for it, BUT, if you want spoilers, here's the part that really got me working:
Here’s a trick I’ve found useful in my writing: when something is bothering me, I do my best to turn directly to it and admit it.
Say I’m feeling some unease about a story. I imagine turning to it and saying. “Hey, it’s me, George. Can you tell me what’s bothering us here?” And usually, the story knows. “My ending stinks,” it might say. Or: that beat right there is fake as hell. And then there’s a feeling of relief – the relief that comes with honesty.
At least now I know what I have to work on.
And if I push a little further (just lightly turning my mind in that direction) the story will sometimes tell me a little more about what’s wrong with it - not in words, but in the form of a feeling in my gut.
Or sometimes, something even weirder happens.
I really love a lot of what's going on here, but the big idea — "turn directly to it" — felt really important to me. My story has a problem. I've got a quandary. What to do?
Saunders' advice is to steer right into it and let the story tell you what to do.
I tried that.
It didn't work.
BUT, this didn't mean that I didn't continue turning toward it. I did something, instead, that many people would absolutely tell a writer not to do: I brought in another person to help.
We have an image of the writer as a solitary creature, whiling away the hours in quiet toil, transmuting genius into language. Some of this is true at least some of the time. But no one writes in isolation. We all have editors and readers who push us in certain directions. But, at least for me, bringing someone into the process this early on feels like a no-no. How could this person understand the story, understand the direction, when you're not even sure of that yet?
Here's the thing: I have an ideal reader and she lives with me.
Let's unpack the idea of an "ideal reader." My philosophy, here, might not jive with everyone else. As a writer, I'm writing for readers, right? However, I really only have one reader in mind: the ideal reader. I do not need to write a story that pleases everyone, that challenges everyone, that delights everyone. I need to write a story that pleases, challenges, and delights just one person: the ideal reader. If my ideal reader is convinced of the worthiness of the story, then, hopefully, others will be too.
What does this do for me?
- It takes the pressure off. I don't need to write the fabled "Great American Novel." I don't need to convince the universe of my talents. I need to convince ONE person.
- It gives me a target. What is this person likely to enjoy? What is this person likely to want to see happen? What will surprise this person?
There are 7 billion people on the planet. I do not need to write for all of them. If I write for this one, ideal reader, then it's very likely that others will also enjoy it. Let's say that 0.1% of people are like my ideal reader. Then I've written a story that will inspire/challenge/delight 7 million people!
That seems like a win...
My ideal reader, as I said, happens to live with me: her name is Natalie and we've been married for nearly 20 years. I've got some insight into what she might enjoy. At the end of the day, I want my story to win her over. If I win her over, then I'm happy with the outcome.
To go back to Saunders, my project hit a snag: where to begin? Got a problem? Turn directly to it. I gave Natalie the first 60-ish pages of the rewritten manuscript and asked her to weigh in...and weigh in she did! She took the task seriously and had a lot of positive comments. She also had some definite opinions and some helpful advice about how characters were moving through the space. Right now, I'm going through all of her feedback and making changes to these first 60 pages. It feels like it's working.
Based on her feedback, here is the opening paragraph of the novel (at last for now...):
At 9:09 p.m. on Saturday, December 31, 2016, a blood clot lodged itself in the left hemisphere of Lorraine Gilly’s brain. Over the course of several hours, the obstruction blocked the flow of blood to several key regions, beginning with the neocortex and expanding out from there. The blockage caused by the embolism eventually led to cerebral infarction. Thus, at the age of fifty-eight, in the comfort of the tattered recliner she’d kept in her living room for more than a decade, Lorraine Gilly slipped into a coma and died.
It feels good to me. It feels right. Is it working? Not yet. But it's getting there. Now, we have to figure out what led to her death and how to resurrect her!
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