Open Strong: Learning from Effective Novel Openings

Andromeda Romano-Lax    by Andromeda Romano-Lax

If you want to mesmerize yourself into the state of self-hypnosis required to write fiction, if you want to go further and mesmerize your audience, if you want to get published and to be read,  then you will have to learn how to open strong.

I am not talking here about just a quotable first line, a flashy premise or an easy hook. We can’t all run around spouting clever generalities about happy families all being alike—I don’t think they are, actually—and getting things started with an explosion or a dead body is not necessarily the best way to a reader’s heart. (It may depend on what follows, of course.)

For me, a novel opening isn’t just about demonstrating a hyper-facility with words. It shouldn’t be about tricking the reader, either, by startling him with maximum action or unearned emotion. I’ve written and tossed away openings that grabbed readers but did not accurately foretell the style and themes of the book to follow. False advertising doesn’t work in the long run.

I’m more interested—and hope you are, too—in how first paragraphs and first pages set a pattern, plant seeds, develop or subvert genre expectations, build a world, and establish essential aesthetic priorities which will vary from author to author and novel to novel. I’m interested in the contract between writer and reader, and how it is worded, and when it is finally signed: generally earlier than we dare to realize. I’m interested in novel openings that appeal easily and openings that dare to challenge and complicate, because that can be a part of the contract, too.

Here are three strong openings from recent, award-winning literary novels which also happened to be commercially successful. These first lines show variety and decisiveness, and they model how even a single sentence can set the stage for all that is to follow.

  • The fat one, the radish Torez, he calls me Camel because I am Persian and because I can bear this August sun longer than the Chinese and the Panamanians and even the little Vietnamese Tran. (Andre Dubus III, House of Sand and Fog.)
  • THE PLAY—for which Briony had designed the posters, programs and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and lined the collection box in red crêpe paper—was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch. (Ian McEwan, Atonement.)
  • Small trees had attacked my parents’ house at the foundation. (Louise Erdrich, Round House.)

 

In the four-week class “Open Strong,” we’ll come at this issue from many angles and develop our own ideas through writing and revising works-in-progress. But in the little time we have here, let’s think about how the examples above make us sit up and take notice, in a way that not only readers but also agents and editors immediately recognize.

The first thing is voice. The bitter, ethnically conscious and grammatically distinct narrator in House of Sand and Fog speaks nothing like the breathlessly excited, detail-oriented narrator of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, or like the more measured yet still purposeful narrator of Louise Erdrich’s The Round House. We don’t know time periods or what characters look like or what precisely is happening—yet—and we don’t need to. The voices alone promise specificity, nuance, and humanity. To voice we can add other basic decisions about POV and even tense.

The second thing is conflict. And not just random conflict that will blow itself out as quickly and pointlessly as a bad Hollywood car chase, but an essential peek into the novel’s story and themes. There is a sense of sufficient novelistic scope in these lines, even the syntactically simplest of the three.

The third thing we might call narrative confidence. In each case, the author is clear about where we should focus our attention. We are not being overloaded, confused, or dazzled. We are being given just enough information and invited to participate in the significant moment that is unfolding. If we trust these authors, we will wager that every word matters and that there is significance beyond the surface details. Our cognitive facilities are on alert, ready for clues about how to interpret what follows.

By the way, titles of novels are sometimes delightfully ambiguous, but in this case, the titles are surprisingly clear, working alongside first sentences to tell us exactly what these novels are about.

House of Sand and Fog. A Persian man with a chip on his shoulder is determined to dish out everything he has been served. From the first sentence, we can guess that ethnic tensions, pride and desperation, will motivate his choices, bringing multiple characters into collision. (Title and spoiler in one: it’s about a house.)

Atonement. A girl, obsessed, will insist on the seeing the world as a play. We can imagine that her desire to control, direct, and even narrate her own particular vision of things will have terrible consequences. (Title and spoiler, example two: atonement will be pursued.)

Round House. Another person—a boy, as it turns out, though we can’t tell that yet—will tell us about the first moment when he noticed that his home (and his family) started crumbling. Symbolism will be called upon. Invaders will come in many forms. (Dare I mention the title gives us a hint where the main action will take place?)

To continue this conversation, please join me for the upcoming cl,” which will include reading, discussion, and workshopping of student’s first pages.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is the author of The Spanish Bow, published in 11 languages, as well as The Detour and a forthcoming novel, Behave. She teaches for I2P, 49 Writers, and in the University of Alaska Anchorage low-residency MFA program. Her website is www.aromanolax.com.

 

 

Short Story Writers and their Brands

Robert-Morgan-Fisher    by Robert Morgan Fisher

Every notable writer has a brand. Some brands are obvious and genre-driven, such as Stephen King’s and Danielle Steel’s. Novelists are relatively easy to brand: Alice Walker, Martin Amis, Junot Diaz—they all have unique markers in their fiction, things we expect to find in almost every book. Point of view, tone, recurring types of set pieces—even punctuation can define brand (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s dislike of quotation marks; Roddy Doyle’s adroit use of em-dash dialogue).

When I informed my agent my next novel would not seem out of place beside the new one I had just sent her, she breathed a sigh of relief : I wasn’t going to look as if I had a split-personality.

Memoirists, poets, songwriters—they all have a brand. But what about short story writers? You bet they do. In some ways, brand is even more important for a writer of short fiction. Many agents and publishers prefer “linked” short story collections. While “linked” might mean interlocking narratives featuring the same or recurring character(s) (e.g. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son; Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried; JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey), it can also refer to other components, like theme or setting. Andrea Barrett’s brand of science-infused, historical short fiction is so distinctive she was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2001. In addition to Annie Proulx’s highly-acclaimed novels, she has written three volumes of stories about Wyoming. The first book, Close Range, ended with a jaw-dropping gay-cowboy story called “Brokeback Mountain.”

I’m a short story addict. The shelves in my office are (mostly) floor-to-ceiling short story collections. In the picture below, you’ll notice some CDs on the top right shelf—these too are short stories, thousands of them. Mostly New Yorker Fiction Podcasts, some of which I’ve listened to hundreds of times

.Books on shelf

I admit I have a problem.

But it’s based on passion. I read/listen to short stories with an ear for brand. And by brand I don’t mean “formula.” Yes, genre fiction can sometimes seem a little formulaic—but in literary short fiction, “brand” is the word that best defines our expectations when we read, say, a Raymond Carver short story. You can bet there’s probably going to be some drinking, financial extremis, marital desperation. Here is Tobias Wolff’s eloquent articulation of his friend Ray’s brand:

“He never really thought of his characters, for example, as working class, particularly. In some of the stories that is the case. But that isn’t really the way he conceived of them. I think he thought of them as living, you know, at that kind of wilting technological edge of California society that you see behind the sound barriers on the freeway…”

Right there—that’s it: wilting technological edge of California society that you see behind the sound barriers on the freeway. Perfect. I hear that and I’m on the 101, driving through San Jose in 1974, just laid off, about to run out of gas and looking for a bar.

When I think of brand, I think of Aimee Bender’s concise, funny, often erotic short stories lashed together with a dollop of absurd-yet-somehow-plausible magic-realism.

I think of Stuart Dybek’s breathtaking, blue-collar, prose-poem acrobatics.

I think of Lorrie Moore’s alternately hilarious and heartbreaking humility.

In the class I teach for Antioch University’s online Inspiration to Publication (I2P) Program, Find Your Brand-Find Your Voice, we read and analyze a couple of Lorrie Moore stories. We also study ZZ Packer, TC Boyle and others. Then my students write a short story and attempt to articulate their own brand. It’s a lot of fun and very empowering.

I emphasize this: brand is something that constantly evolves. The stories one writes at the beginning of their career will be different than later ones. This can’t be helped and it’s a good thing; as writers we’re always discovering new books and authors to inform and influence our work. But early on, there are often certain qualities that constitute brand and will continue to serve the writer well throughout the arc of their career.

Thomas McGuane, one of my favorite short story writers, started out writing wacky, offbeat novels and short stories that caught the attention of men’s magazines like Playboy, Esquire and GQ in the early 1980s. His first collection, 1986’s To Skin a Cat, is very good—but it’s of a type. A brand to fit the times and appeal to a certain young macho mentality. One story tucked into the end of that collection, “Flight” (which originally appeared in Esquire in August of 1986), gives us a clue that his brand was getting ready to evolve. By the late 1990s, McGuane had perfected a unique meta-brand of literary fiction that made him a prolific contributor to The New Yorker and one of the most respected American authors of his time.

All the brand markers from McGuane’s early work: a sharp sense of tongue-in-cheek humor, self-deprecation, a love of the outdoors, a fascination with ranchers and the American West, the romantic/quixotic quest for honor—they’re all still there, but now fully-realized.

When I pick up a book by an author with a serviceable brand, it’s as if there’s a list of ingredients listed on the spine. My recommended daily dose of brain food.

My secret narcotic.

My nourishment.

Brand.

Robert Morgan Fisher’s four-week online I2P Course, Find Your Brand, Find Your Voice, begins May 2. Register here.

Robert Morgan Fisher’s fiction has appeared in 0-Dark-Thirty, The Huffington Post, Psychopomp, Golden Walkman Magazine, The Spry Literary Journal, 34th Parallel, Carnival, The Snake Nation Review, The Seattle Review, Spindrift, Bluerailroad and other publications. He’s written extensively for TV, radio and film. Robert holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University, where he now works as a Book Coach. He also develops courses and teaches for Antioch’s online I2P Program. He often writes companion songs to his short stories (Brand!). Both his music and fiction have won many awards. Robert also voices audiobooks. (www.robertmorganfisher.com)