The Curtain Rises

Reading a few of the little essays in Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit got me off the dime. Last night and today I sent an even dozen queries to literary agents to try to find someone who would like to take on my Rome mystery novel While Caesar Sang of Hercules.

But Block’s pep talk about commercial fiction had a downside. I started worrying about the opening of my book.

Like many of today’s novelists, and especially crime novelists, Block is a staunch advocate of starting the story in the middle of the action. Start with a bang!

This is certainly fine advice if one’s primary goal is to sell books. In today’s overheated book market, where readers are (at least in theory) far too eager for thrills and far too easily distracted, keeping them glued to the page — and, perhaps just as important, impressing an agent and a publisher with your firm intent to keep them glued — is important.

Putting the hook of a crime novel in the very first paragraph is almost a sine qua non. The mysteries of P. D. James pretty much define the “leisurely exposition” category, but James has a habit of mentioning on page 1 that there is going to be a murder. After that, she meanders quite shamelessly, but by golly there’s a hook.

In my Rome book, the hook is at the end of Chapter 2, about 7,000 words into the manuscript. Oh, dear. Surely no agent will rise to the bait. I’ve made a terrible mistake! I need to reorganize the opening.

The reality is more complex. In reality, my book begins at the point where it must begin. If the reader hadn’t seen Licinia’s husband warn her sternly about proper behavior at the banquet they’re about to attend, her bizarre behavior when her husband is poisoned and dies at her feet would make no sense at all.

I did try to give some hints of urgency in the opening paragraph. Here it is:

Fingertips groping, confused, at the clasp of an earring. She had worn this pair before, they had never fought with her, but today the clasp twisted away like a snake. They were too large, too elaborate, a dangling confection of garnets and gold beads that would drag her ears down. She would have preferred the pearls — so much simpler — but today was not a day for simplicity.

That seems not entirely bland. We have “groping,” “confused,” “fought,” “twisted,” “snake,” “drag her ears down,” a suggestion that Licinia is not in control of what’s about to happen, and a hint that today will be a special day. Later in the first chapter, well before the murder, there’s an evil omen. The Romans were big on omens, but the savvy reader should have no trouble seeing that this one functions as foreshadowing.

After reading part of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel to wash the Block out of my brain, it seems to me that every novel needs to begin where it needs to begin. The novel itself defines the conditions under which it will need to operate. The opening is important, certainly. One wants to choose the right opening. One wants to set the tone and create a sort of frame that will be filled in by the subsequent action. But an action-packed opening is not always the right choice.

The first book of Balzac’s Lost Illusions was published in 1837. His opening paragraphs describe a type of printing press that was already obsolete in 1790, when his first character, Séchard, took over the print shop. Printing technology is not, I think, a riveting topic for the hook of a novel, nor would it have been in 1837, but this novel had been in print for more than 130 years at the time when the paperback edition on my shelf was released. Clearly, Balzac knew what he was about. His opening was not ill-chosen.

Dostoevsky’s The Double begins with an absolutely classic example of how today’s writers are sternly instructed not to begin a novel. In the first long paragraph, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin wakes up at eight o’clock in the morning. In the second long paragraph he gets out of bed and looks at himself in the mirror. And this is Dostoevsky!

The lesson in this is not, “Hey, if Dostoevsky could do it, so can I.” Nor, conversely, is the lesson, “Well, that was the 19th century. There was less competition then.” What I’m suggesting is that if you truly understand your story, you’ll know where it needs to begin — and that won’t necessarily be at the spot where an agent or editor thinks, by reflex, it ought to begin.

In a week or two I’ll have another mystery (this one a YA with magic) to start submitting to agents. This time the opening chapter starts with a huge bang — a gruesome murder and a young woman who flees the scene before the police can question her. After which, there are 19 full chapters of flashback, more than half the book, in which we learn how she got herself into this desperate predicament. Now, any pundit on writing would readily assure you that 19 chapters of flashback are absolutely deadly. But if the novel were told in chronological order, there would be no hook! What’s worse, the opening would be seriously misleading as to the type of book it is. And in fact the opening chapter has more hook than appears on the surface. It’s by way of being a card trick, which I won’t spoil by explaining it to you.

Here again, the nature of the book itself dictates its structure.

I don’t claim to be a fine writer. Sometimes I think I’m probably okay. But if given a choice between following Block and following Forster, my inclination is to steer closer to Forster. Block is a successful novelist, and that’s a fine thing to be, but at the start of his career he was a hack. As a young man he wrote soft-core pornography for a living, cranking out a novel every month that was published under one pseudonym or another. It would be wonderful to imagine that a hack writer can mature into a fine novelist, that an author of greeting-card verse can become a serious poet, or that an illustrator whose career starts with comic books can become a great painter. I’m not sure how that would happen. But that’s a topic for another time.

I flatter myself that Forster would agree with me about the first paragraph, the first page, the opening scene. A novel needs to begin where it needs to begin. The serious writer ought not to derange it by hewing to the artificial dictates of the market.

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