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Author Topic: Superior—opening paragraph  (Read 1712 times)
Waterfall
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« on: May 06, 2017, 07:27:50 PM »

I started this story twenty three years ago. I came back to it last week.
__________

It was the straightest road in the world, as straight as the telephone wires above and the five-foot tall snow banks piled along both shoulders. As straight as the abandoned Soo Line fifteen feet north, and the plow-cleared edge of the Hiawatha National Forest fifty feet south. A landscape that could only be drawn in one-point perspective. Matt occasionally glanced off to the side, seeing only one wall of snow or the other, but was always trapped by one of the long converging lines and guided back to the middle. He found himself looking frequently at the speedometer to break his eyes loose from their constant, infinite-distance lock.
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jcwrites
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« Reply #1 on: May 07, 2017, 11:10:09 AM »

Does anything happen to your boy Matt?... If so, start there. If not, start over.
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Waterfall
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« Reply #2 on: May 07, 2017, 08:18:06 PM »

jcwrites, thanks for this. Your response spurred me to do something I should have done ages ago, which is to type for myself the opening paragraphs of the last few books I've given four- and five-star reviews on Goodreads. I teach myself a lot about writing by typing favorite passages from others—having their words come through my hands teaches me how they fit together. We learn music by playing music that others have composed.

Anyway, as you might imagine, these nine openers are about as varied as it's possible to get. Dick Francis, in Reflex, starts us off with the jockey considering what might be broken as he lay on the ground after a steeplechase fall. But Sarah Waters, in Tipping the Velvet, gives us 124 words on the culinary desirability of the Whitstable oyster, without any implication for actions of any kind by anybody (and trust me, this is NOT a book about oysters  embarrassed2). Walter Tevis opens The Queen's Gambit with an external POV of Beth Harmon learning at age 8 that she'd been orphaned, and the text from the newspaper story about the accident, a story that she herself would never have seen. And Alice Hoffman leads us into The Marriage of Opposites like this: "I always left my window open at night, despite the warnings I'd been given. I rarely did as I was told. According to my mother, this had been my response to life ever since my birth, for it took three days for me to arrive in the world. As a child I did not sleep through the night, and I certainly didn’t follow any rules. But I was a girl who knew what I wanted."

I wonder if we've trained ourselves to be impatient. And certainly agents and editors are paid to be impatient, to look for sparkly stuff in the gray of the slush. But if there's one commonality to at least eight of these nine examples (excluding oysters), from books from the 1970s to 2015, it's that we learn the protagonist's core characteristic and its context. She's an orphan in an uncaring bureaucracy. She's a stubborn, determined girl who's caused her mother endless grief. He's fallen off a lot of horses in his life, and that doesn't scare him. She didn't have a name because of the fear she wouldn't live. She's looked at a lot of faces, and a lot of scenery out the window, as a passive librarian. That, more than any sort of action, is what seems to open the books I love most. And that's the next revision for Superior.

Again, thanks for the impetus to actually do some serious work instead of just wishing it was right.
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samcantcook
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« Reply #3 on: May 08, 2017, 09:28:11 AM »

Waterfall, I think it's generally accurate to say that we have been conditioned for impatience. With that being said, I like your opening. I think it conveys a sense of character for Matt, but I'm not sure whether or not I came to this conclusion before or after your examples of other works. And that's what I'm worried about. That it's lacking clarity.

Jcrwrites may be on to something: We should feel like something is going to happen--it doesn't necessarily have to invoke action. A lot of books with "slow beginnings" still open with lines that are unmistakably intriguing.

Take Stephen King's Carrie for instance:
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Nobody was really surprised when it happened, not really, not on the subconscious level where savage things grow.

Is that action? Not really. It simply plants the seed of darkness that will eventually take over the pages. We know something bad will happen, and so we are propelled to continue reading to find out what the bad thing is.

And even your own example from The Marriage of Opposites:
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I always left my window open at night, despite the warnings I'd been given.

Immediately I'm drawn in because I want to know what's going to happen to the protagonist for her choice to ignore these warnings? Are there monsters outside? Rogue lovers waiting to climb ropes made of a fair maiden's hair? Or is she simply in danger of catching cold from the chilly night air? Who knows! Guess I'll have to read further to find out.

All I'm saying is, yes, I agree that we don't need to start with gun chases and Hollywood movie cliched openings. I do find your first sentence to be intriguing, but I think--in addition to establishing Matt's character--that, if not in the first sentence (as I'm particularly fond of it as is), then somewhere in the sentences that follow, we should feel as if something is going to unfold.
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Thanksgiving400
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« Reply #4 on: June 19, 2017, 12:24:40 PM »

Waterfall- I ran into similar issues with a start to my manuscript. I wanted to paint a great scene and let people know what colonial America was like, however it didn't introduce conflict, or hint of it, until a few pages in. The forum I used for feedback introduced me to the bookstore test- if someone picks up your book and opens to the first page, what will they think? If something doesn't hook them, they'll move on. It was frustrating, but makes sense.
I had reviewed some of my library, and found examples that contradicted that. Then I realized, these authors can get away with that. People know them, they are willing to give them their reading time (and money).  As an unknown, I had to rope them in from the beginning.

A long way of saying that we- and agents, reviewers, critiquers, etc.- are very impatient, unfortunately.

That being said, as the other commenter pointed out, it doesn't have to be a page one gun battle. Looming danger, the MCs reaction to something that promises some major conflict for him later, etc. would fit that bill.

I realized I put more work into my first chapter, particularly the beginning, than the remaining 19 combined.
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