Editing Workshop, 5: Lead Paragraphs

Every work, long or short, fiction or nonfiction, has to start somewhere, but lead paragraphs are a major cause of writerly angst and even writer’s block. No surprise there: every how-to-get-published book out there is telling you that if your lead paragraph doesn’t hook the agent or publisher of your dreams, your manuscript will wind up in the slush pile.

Perfectionista — the inner editor who insists that only perfection is good enough — thrives on situations like this: Your entire future is riding on your lead paragraph and you can’t even get the first sentence right.

Take a deep breath and keep going. It’s often not till you’re well into a second or third draft that you know where the story starts and what that lead paragraph has to do. Perfectionista isn’t doing you any favors by insisting you get the first paragraph right before you go on to the second.

Sooner or later you’ll have a lead paragraph that does want you want it to do: lead the reader into the story. That’s the time to refine it and then run it by your writers’ group, writer/reader friends, or other guinea pigs.

This is where Arvilla of the Alphabet Story blog is with her novel in progress. “Below is the first paragraph of my WIP,” she writes. “While I know not to start with the weather, it sets up the scene in which she has problems driving, including a stalled car. She does get rescued.”

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club. What a night, forced to drive her dad’s car. His cherished Nash, temperamental even in good weather, gave her problems. Taught to drive behind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to change a tire and replace spark plugs. Bought used in 1944, it was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s constant tinkering. That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

A lead paragraph’s #1 job is to whet the reader’s appetite for more, and this one whetted mine. I’ve just met Maggie, but already she’s got an immediate goal — getting to Bertie’s book and supper club on time — and two adversaries blocking her way: the weather and a cranky car. I’ve got a strong hunch that Maggie’s ambivalent relationship with the old Nash mirrors her relationship with her dad, and that this will be an important theme in the novel.

This lead also fixes the story in time: 1944 + 10 years = 1954. This sets me to speculating: Maggie’s dad taught his daughter basic car maintenance, but she didn’t inherit his passion for tinkering. Does she live alone? Who’s Bertie, and what role does the book and supper club play in Maggie’s life?

And yes, conventional wisdom warns against leading with descriptions of weather, or landscape for that matter, but when weather or landscape is an active participant in the scene, I say “Go for it!” I would suggest tweaking the lead sentence, however:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night.

It’s not April’s total accumulated rainfall that’s blocking Maggie’s way: it’s the weather that particular evening. Show it to me, what it looks like, how it sounds, then keep it front and center as the scene unfolds. How would she get to Bertie’s if it weren’t raining? How far does she have to go? Give me some hints about the location.

Try distilling the rest of the paragraph to its essence. What does the reader need to know right now? That the old Nash is cranky, that Maggie’s father was devoted to it, and that Maggie, though competent behind the wheel, drives it only when she has to. I’d like to see her in the car and turning the key by end of the paragraph, maybe watching rain pour down the windows and windshield. Work the rest in once she’s en route.

Here’s a suggestion:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. What a night, forced to drive Her dad’s car. His cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather., gave her problems. Taught She had learned to drive in it, evenbehind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to changed its a tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, andit was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?] That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

With the mess cleaned up, it looks like this:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. Her dad’s cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather. She had learned to drive in it, even changed its tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, and his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?]

Now you can have at it — tinker away! Often a reader’s suggestions will shake something loose and you’ll come up with a better alternative. Thanks so much for sharing your lead paragraph. Good luck with the novel. 🙂

Dear Write Through It readers: Do you have a question, a comment, a sentence that needs unsnarling? Send it along and we’ll see what we can come up with.

 

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Q Is for Question, Y Is for Yours

Write Through It has had a noticeable increase in both views and subscribers in the last week or so. This may be because my A–Z Challenge was just featured on WordPress’s Discover page. I’m honored.

However you heard about Write Through It, welcome aboard!

We writers and editors learn a lot from our colleagues, in one-on-one conversations, on e-lists, and in online forums and real-time conferences. I want Write Through It to be a place where this can happen. So if you’ve got a question or a suggestion for a future blog post, please use this form to send it along. I like answering questions, and I like finding colleagues who can answer the questions I can’t.

Writing in Second Person

One of the perks of using pen and ink is interesting ink blots. That plum color is for Glory’s POV sections, and green is for Shannon’s. I can’t remember what I last used the purple (“amethyst” it’s called) for.

Near  the end of April’s A–Z Challenge I blogged “Y Is for You,” which got me thinking about writing in second-person point of view. I’d never done it, but I wanted to give it a try.

Opportunity soon came knocking. Wolfie, the novel in progress, needed a brand-new scene. When I add a scene in a later draft — the current draft is 3, or maybe 3 1/2, because after I take a scene from draft 3 to my writers’ group, I usually end up at least tweaking it and maybe revising more heavily — I have a pretty strong idea of what it needs to accomplish.

In this case Perfectionista and my internal editor teamed up and swore I’d never be able to pull it off. Since I was busy with the A–Z Challenge, several editing jobs, and revising earlier scenes in the novel, I managed to not-hear their ragging for several weeks.

Finally I was staring down the empty place where the missing scene had to go. I knew where it took place, I knew who was involved, and I had a pretty good idea of what had to happen.

What I didn’t know was whose point of view I wanted. Wolfie has two point-of-view characters: Glory, a sixth-grader, whose sections are all in third-person present; and Shannon, her fifty-something mentor from up the road, whose sections are all in third-person past. Perfectionista was full of advice about why neither one would work. The result was that I couldn’t get started.

If you can’t get started, your writing can’t teach you what you need to know. Haven’t we been here before? Yes, we have.

The way out of these jams is usually through writing in longhand, which is how I do virtually all my first-drafting. It takes the pressure off. Aha, thought I. An opportunity to play around with second-person POV!

The pressure was off: since this wasn’t “for real,” I could write the scene from both Glory’s POV and Shannon’s. I picked up my green-ink pen — green is Shannon’s color; plum is Glory’s. What flowed out of it was Shannon’s second-person POV in the  present tense:

You’re apprehensive about this visit without knowing why. Foresight is notoriously unreliable — hindsight is always 20/20. What you’re seeing isn’t a red light, however. There’s no dread in the pit of your stomach warning that this is a really bad idea.

Glory has been looking forward to this all week. She’s got her portfolio tucked under her arm — she’s apprehensive too. “Do you think he’ll like them?” she asked in the car. “He’s a famous artist and I’m just a kid.”

It felt right. My hand kept moving across the page, and the next page, and the next — seven pages’ worth. When I got to the end, I had a scene that did all I wanted it to do, and more. It’s the “more” that tells me I was tapping into the heart of the story, reasonably free of my authorial expectations and inhibitions.

Why did it work? As Shannon says, “Foresight is notoriously unreliable. Hindsight is always 20/20.” Once I had my scene, I could see why Shannon’s was the right POV because the key interaction takes place between the other two characters, Glory, her young protegée; and Giles, her artist friend, whose studio they’re visiting.

And I could see why present was the right tense, even though all of Shannon’s sections are in past: In present tense Shannon watches the scene unfold and doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t try to steer Glory and Giles’s conversation away from possibly portentous revelations. In past tense, her penchant for mulling things over sometimes gets in the way. In present tense, it didn’t.

Where was I in all this? Right behind Shannon’s eyes. It was as if she were a camcorder and I were — not the operator, but the viewfinder. In third person I’m an invisible part of the scene. This was different.

I’ll almost certainly translate this scene into past tense for the actual manuscript. A sudden shift into second-person present for a character who’s otherwise in third-person past would be too jarring, too gimmicky. But the shift into second-person present made the scene happen. I’m not going to forget that lesson anytime soon.

Here’s what page 1 of the experiment looks like. Good luck if you can read it. 🙂

How to Revise a Draft Without Going Crazy

There’s enough good advice in this excerpt that I’m seriously thinking of buying the book. I love revising and find it satisfying, but I often don’t know how to explain what I’m doing, or what needs doing, or how I know what to do. Maybe this will help.

Nonfiction author Dinty Moore shares some tips and tricks on how to look through a draft and make important revisions painlessly.

Source: The Story Cure: How to Revise a Draft Without Going Crazy

Trust

Punctuation seems to me one of the few human inventions without bad side-effects, and I am so fond of all the little dots and curls that I once taught a whole writing course devoted to them.

— Ursula K. Le Guin

I was tempted to post that quote all by its own self because (1) I agree with it, and (2) Ursula K. Le Guin wrote it, but reading Le Guin reminds me continually to pay attention to context, and I’m continually railing at online memes that encourage us to do the opposite.

So, context: The quote comes in “Examples of Dignity: Thoughts on the Work of José Saramago,”  in her most recent nonfiction collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016).

Saramago, the 1998 Nobel laureate in literature, was not a big fan of punctuation. Writes Le Guin: “So a Saramago page, one dense thicket from top to bottom with only commas to indicate the path, was hard going for me, and I was inclined to resent it.”

After a couple of attempts, I bailed on Joyce’s Ulysses for similar reasons. Saramago had been commended to Le Guin not only by his reputation but by a friend whose opinion she trusted, so she didn’t stop with resentment. If she was going to persevere through this difficult book, Blindness, she had to trust the author, her guide, and “the only way to find out if he deserved such trust was to read his other books. So I did.”

This worked. “I returned to Blindness and began it again from the beginning,” she writes, “by now used to the thicket and confident that wherever Saramago took me, however hard the going, it would be worth it.”

She doesn’t learn to love Saramago’s ways with punctuation: she “learned to accept them, but without enthusiasm.” She also notes that she has little difficulty when she reads his work aloud, “probably because it slows me down.”

All of which reminds me of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s much-quoted (and -misquoted) lines:

You write with ease to show your breeding,
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.

It doesn’t seem that Saramago wrote with particular ease, and “breeding” in Sheridan’s sense he certainly did not have, but — point taken. At the same time there are editors out there who think any irregularity that slows the reader down is anathema, and readers who want to barrel through one book after another without engaging with any of them or remembering them later.

I like Le Guin’s approach. She’s willing to put out considerable effort if she trusts her guide.

Me too — but I did give up on Ulysses, although I’d liked some of Joyce’s other work. The trouble was that too many other guides were clamoring for my attention.