Archive | February 2014

Reading a first good line is like falling in love…

A writer must hook her reader immediately. It will not matter if the pages beyond the first five or so are so compelling and so well written that it could compete with some of the top novels of all time. Capturing the reader and before that- the editor, is the only way to keep the book from never seeing the light of day.
In the words of Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl, “I think when you read a first good line, it’s like falling in love with somebody.”
Imagine sitting by a roaring fire while the snow falls continuously outside the large picture window at your house on the lake. A steaming cup of coffee or hot chocolate sits on the table by your side. You can not wait to open the first page of the book your neighbor recommended so highly. Ah- but as you read the first couple of lines you are instantly disappointed yet you continue on- hoping for redemption. By the end of the first five pages you are done. Its time to do the laundry anyway.
There is no falling in love there, only disappointment. And as “they” say- people make their first impressions within the first two minutes of meeting someone. After that a lot of hard work needs to be done to change that newly formed opinion.
In the case of a reader looking to “get into” a new book, there usually won’t be a second chance. First impressions are everything. The writer must do her best to create a dynamic opening or she will lose the chance to impress her reader forever.
According to Nancy Lamb in her book “The Art and Craft of Storytelling”, she says a survey conducted in Great Britain for Costa (which sponsors the prize formally known as the Whitebread Book Award for the most enjoyable book of the year) confirms Nancy Pearl’s theory of falling in love. The survey found that 43 percent of readers know by the end of the first chapter whether they will finish a book. One third of readers know by the time they have read the first fifty pages.
I have found that trying to write the first few pages of the book is one of the most difficult parts of writing. Because I am a perfectionist I would re-write it and re-write until I would become so sick of the whole thing that I’d rip it up and forget it completely. I would edit as I go and never be happy.
One way to overcome this is to keep writing and writing- letting the ideas flow from your mind to your paper, not paying attention to which line will actually end up as the actual opening hook. Keep going and later when you are ready to go back and edit, long after you first started, well into the rest of the book- perhaps even after you have finished the first draft, you can go back. Then as you read it with fresh eyes, as if you are the reader by the roaring fire, the real first line will pop out, staring at you like the first budding flower in your garden. You may find it hidden in a tangle of sentences on the second page or even in the beginning of the second chapter. It won’t matter if you place it first without any background information attached and in fact, that may grab your reader’s attention even more. The need to know what it means or what has happened before that will push him on through your story. And it is at that time that you- the writer, will cut and revise so that the first impression you give your reader will surely get him to fall immediately head over heals in love.

Identification with the protagonist

To heighten the reader’s identification with the protagonist of the story, the writer must create some kind of breakthrough for the protagonist by the story’s conclusion. Either the protagonist has succeeded at attaining his object of desire despite the opposing forces he encountered along the way or he has done the exact opposite- failed miserably, or perhaps his quest has even changed completely. But regardless, the writer must ensure that the protagonist has transformed in some way whether spiritually, emotionally or at least in some way he is a changed person. The transformation is what gives depth to the story and by relating it to a larger issue or theme that many can relate to, it elevates the story from the personal quest of one person to one that is more universal.
At some point of our lives, every one of us faces some kind of journey- from the pursuit of love, to facing the loss of a loved one to the need to know what the meaning of life is and many others in between. Therefore, each of our readers struggles with similar journeys faced by other readers, making the themes of their quests universal. And if we, as writers, are able to resolve some of their questions or perhaps even echo their concerns, validating them in our stories, we will have not only achieved the difficult task of fueling our readers’ curiosity and thereby leading them on to finish the story, but we will have gained our own new insight into what we have learned as writers. And so by our own desire to set out on a journey to transform as we move the protagonist forward, we beckon our readers to identify with our protagonist and we all become connected, transforming one by one, together.

The magic of Books

For many of us worlds unfold through the pages of books as we visit places that were once too far away; we meet new people who were once strangers and we learn how to understand who we are and how we should behave. In Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird”, we learn that books show us ” what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”

In life we tend to be so wrapped up in our own lives and in the difficulties we face that we overlook the details that comprise each day of our lives: the sky that looks so vivid and flawless in the morning, the overgrown grass at the sides of the road that sways in the breeze, the warmth of the sun on our arms. Through the magic of books we are forced to pay attention, to stop and take notice. The writer distracts us from our daily challenges and takes us on journeys away from our lives -allowing us to look around at the sights we pass along the way. Through the writer’s story we find magic and hope and we come alive.

Anne Lamott tells us it is a miracle that these “small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort, and quiet or excite you.” She tells us that books are “full of all the things that you don’t get in real life- wonderful, lyrical language right off the bat!” she tells us that her gratitude for good writing is unbounded.

I feel the same way; grateful for good writing and for the unbounded magic of books and of the talented writers who continuously find new stories to pull out of their hats, er , I mean “heads”!