This is the first of a series of blogs on the crucial importance of first words in a fictional piece.
Attend any writers’ conference and one or more of the agents on the faculty will expound at length on how important the first page is. To the writers in the audience, this seems patently unfair. Of a 300-page novel, say, why should one page be so important, perhaps the make-or-break factor in a career, especially if the author has lavished years on those 300 pages?
Add, too, the demands on those initial 200 to 250 words to establish character, setting, viewpoint and tone. “Rewrite!” writing faculty exhort, in regard to that fictional initial public offering. ‘Not ten, not twenty, but a hundred times, if necessary!”
Unnecessarily cruel? Not when you consider your own process as a reader. Let me slip into the personal and describe what happens to me-as-reader –that convoluted amalgamation of trained literary critic (courtesy of advanced degrees in literature), of writer scanning for linguistic tricks of the trade, and, most importantly, of consumer of story who fell in love (back in grammar school) with the seemingly magical property of words to transport, educate, entertain and instill character.
What happens when I, personally, pick up a book? Trained as I am to honestly assess my own feelings that I may mine them for my fiction, I have to confess: I feel a kind of resistance. Even if the book comes highly recommended via reviews or friends’ reports, even if the book jacket copy excites, still something within me, like a fully-laden donkey, balks.
Let me describe an incident concerning the other end of a book. I was in Manila, in the business district of Makati, in an upscale hotel named the Mandarin, lying on the bed in my hotel room encased in icy air conditioning. (Read in Other Writing [link] my award-winning story “A Village Dog” which arose from that trip to the Philippines.) I had just finished Anna Karenina and I let the paperback sag on my chest. The emotion I felt then was sadness, regret that –and I remember the words that rose in my mind – I must “end this conversation with Tolstoy.”
I felt as if I had been immersed in the mind of this genius (and for quite some time, as the book, of course, is lengthy) and now, in a way, as I closed the book, I felt denied of that association.
Let’s reverse this in regard to the reader’s resistance to the new book, the untested author. Far from wanting to be engulfed in a stranger’s consciousness, my readerly self narrows her eyes suspiciously at the first words. Is the tone too flip or too smug, the writing too stale, the situation too blatant? Does the prose scream over-immersion in MFA workshops? If any of these traits prevail in those first few words, well, what does that say about the author? The author is flawed! my donkeyesque and resistant mind screams. I am not going to put my consciousness into the hands of this person who is (check one) mean-spirited, snotty or haughty, clumsy, boring, pedantic, small-minded, unaware of literary convention and/or stupider than me. I just won’t.
My resistance is well-grounded. I have read a number (thankfully, a small number) of praised best-selling novels to which my response, upon completion, has been to throw the book against the wall in disgust.
More optimistically, suppose things go well in that first, tentative dip into the author’s prose — to wit, the writing gives no hint of character flaw on the author’s part. Not only that, something in phrasing or situation intrigues me, leads me on. Yet still I hold back. I am the young woman at the party flattered by the interest of a handsome man who still hesitates to pursue the relationship. Why? Because it will change her life, this new interaction. It will take time, wring emotion, challenge her world-view. Perhaps it will lead to some drastic step, some outward manifestation of what this new relationship manifests within her. Thus, though seemingly, to one outside, it is a meaningless flirtation, a way to pass time, this immersion is a momentous step. Do I trust you to change me? both the woman at the party and the reader hefting a new book are saying.
Yet the initial recoil to the unfamiliar is real. I liken this process of resistance, then acquiescence and immersion, to a drop of water falling into a basin of water. The drop appears at the end of the faucet, swells as if denying physics. Then it falls, slowly, toward the unbroken surface of the water in the basin. If we could see this process in slow motion, would we not see a moment of hesitation when the drop meets the smooth skin of the water and dares to pierce it? The film on the surface of the basin resists, just as the reader resists, and then the drop plunges inward and the mind of the author, the world of the book, is within us, absorbed invisibly into our very substance. Only mild concentric circles radiating outward from the center indicate that something – something very momentous indeed, this absorption of one consciousness into another — has happened. Yes, something important has happened. We have overcome our resistance to those all-important first words and we are, indeed, reading a book.
Tips for Overcoming Reader Resistance
A Director’s Eye View
…and much more