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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Sunday, October 23, 2005

don't grab people

Last night I decided to push on with Kim Stanley Robinson's Forty Signs of Rain, but after 12 more pages I pulled the plug at the end of chapter 3. I had waded through a 12-page dinner-party scene which again had no discernible story purpose, except perhaps the communication by the character Charlie Quibler to his Tibetan dinner guests that they should contact a lobbyist friend of his about their flooding-island problem. Other than that, it was beers, pasta, and watching children's dinner antics. Enough already, I'm moving on. This book will be a candidate for the next shelf-clearing. And this is why I rarely sign novels, unlike my nonfiction book purchases, which I sign and date upon acquisition: they're probably headed for a used-book store.

My perennial dissatisfaction with fiction gets me thinking. My mind travels down many avenues as I try to sort out where the problem lies. Is it me? Am I just too fussy? Or is all fiction, published and unpublished, junk? If I am too fussy, how did I get that way? I never used to be. And if all fiction is junk, why is it all junk? Is the novel as a form simply used up?

My fussiness is certainly related to my literary education, which has consisted mainly of reading both fiction and all the other works which relate to the art of fiction, such as works on mythology, psychology, and religion. I'm looking for writers who can speak to me as an equal, who have something genuine to say. This is difficult to find. I'm easily put off by what appear to me to be cheap tricks.

For example, this morning while Kimmie was doing her hair I picked up a new book we'd bought for her at our last trip to the bookstore: Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison. I flipped it open to page 1. Here's what I found:

I stood in the shadows of a deserted shop front across from The Blood and Brew Pub, trying not to be obvious as I tugged my black leather pants back up where they belonged. This is pathetic, I thought, eyeing the rain-emptied street. I was way too good for this.

That's paragraph 1. Granted, it's a genre book about witches and such--a genre in which I have no interest. Nonetheless, I don't really care about genres; I'll read a book in any genre if it's good. My problem with the opening is just that it's symptomatic of the trend to have a "grabber" opener. The idea is to hit the road running, in the middle of the action, and preferably with an attention-getting opening sentence intended to pique the reader's curiosity and tempt him or her to keep going. It's intended to evoke a certain "Huh? What's going on?" response.

That "grabber" approach, advocated by agents and editors, tires me. It's formulaic and artificial. It stresses the ungenuineness of the writer's relationship to the reader. It's like those personal sidewalk encounters that begin with "Hi honey--need some company tonight?" The presumption is that the reader suffers from attention-deficit disorder. I do not like being treated with that presumption, so I give short shrift to novels that strain so hard to "grab" me. What do you do when people grab you in real life? Kick, scream, struggle, and try to get the hell away.

I like a consensual relationship in which neither party talks down to the other. The attention-deficit-disorder approach is condescending.

For contrast, let me show you the opening of the introduction to John Keegan's A History of Warfare. It's a work of nonfiction, which you might think would be a disadvantage in drawing in a would-be fiction reader. But imagine this as the opening of a novel:

I was not fated to be a warrior. A childhood illness left me lame for life in 1948 and I have limped now for forty-five years. When, in 1952, I reported for my medical examination for compulsory military service, the doctor who examined legs--he was, inevitably, the last doctor to examine me that morning--shook his head, wrote something on my form and told me that I was free to go. Some weeks later an official letter arrived to inform me that I had been classified permanently unfit for duty in any of the armed forces.

What do you think? I think it's very good. The opening sentence was even, I thought, when I first read it, suspiciously too "grabber"-ish, but the rest of the paragraph builds upon it nicely. This writer, and his work, do not suffer from low self-esteem. He is not trying to ingratiate himself with me. He has something to say. His awareness of having something to say, something worthwhile and important, makes his writing effective and interesting. The writing is unhurried, and yet portrays a whole life in just a few words. The narrator has a strong point of view, but does not need to shout it. Because he is genuine and self-assured about what he has to say, these qualities shine through his writing without his resorting to tricks.

In my opinion, this is the correct way to write. It's the correct way to open your novel (or nonfiction book), the correct way to continue it, the correct way to end it. If you do that, I'll read you, beginning to end.

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  • Paul, you are an articulate gem. I have some thoughts on this subject that parallel yours. Now I know what's been irritating me about recent novels I've tried to read or picked up in the bookstore and replaced promptly on the shelf after a look at the opening paragraph. Thank you! d:)

    By Blogger Debra Young, at October 24, 2005 10:09 AM  

  • Ouch, and mine start with action, except maybe, "Storm over Hadrian's Wall", and some of my short stories.

    But I won't say it's the correct way of starting a novel in a slower way, it is one way among others. It works for me sometimes, esp. with first person narrative, but I've come across "slow" beginnings that made me put the book back, and I've been hooked by action hooks - though not by just any action hook.

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at October 24, 2005 11:51 AM  

  • My thinking is that it's not so much whether the opening is fast or slow, but rather what the writer's intent is. An opening should of course be interesting and engaging. The question is whether the writer, fearing that the reader will abandon the work, writes from a place of worry rather than confidence in the value of what he or she is offering. I have nothing against action. But does a writer, out of fear that his or her work is run-of-the-mill, try distract the reader from thinking about that? This is mostly what I see when I pick up books.

    By Blogger paulv, at October 24, 2005 12:19 PM  

  • Just for the fun of running my beginnings by someone who does not subscribe to the action front. *grin* (BTW I thought the first beginning you quoted a clumsy way to deal with the 'action' thing, I didn't grasp me.)

    When I started my first novel, knowing nothing about writing yet, I instinctively started with action. It felt right to me. Here's the - slightly edited - version of the first paragraph of "Kings and Rebels":
    In the midst of the skirmish, surrounded by the metallic clash of weapons, crying men and squealing horses, the leaders beheld one another at the same instant: The Norseman Kjartan, his blond hair swelling from under the helmet stringy with sweat, his crimson cloak torn, and Roderic, the dark-haired Scot in a green surcoat over chain mail.

    "The Charioteer" is along those lines as well, "Endangered Frontiers" starts with less belligerous scene, but still with action:
    The shopkeeper laid his pudgy hands on the polished oakwood counter, shoving aside a partly unrolled parchment scroll in the process, and leaned forward. "I'm not selling you a book, filthy barbarian."

    "Storm over Hadrian's Wall" is slower, because it starts with a man walking over the field after a battle:
    Cailthearn stood amidst the carnage. His grip on the sword relaxed and the point slowly sank towards the ground; a few drops of blood splashing on the wet earth. He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and looked around. The battle was over.

    Quite different are my short stories, here's the beginning from "I Was King":
    I lie on the bed in my cell in the monastery of Icolmkill, covered with a thin blanket, too thin for a feverish man. But they have brought me a brazier this morning. The warmth emanating from it slowly fills the small room. I can hear the bell announcing vespers. Soon the monks will return from their work in the fields to dine in the large refectory. Until recently, I have shared the daily routine. The work is not heavy, not for a strong man like me. But there was a time when everything was different, a time I cannot forget. I am often punished for disobedience and pride, and I always take upon myself the extra vigils and prayers, the additional fastings.

    For I am a monk.

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at October 24, 2005 12:56 PM  

  • Hello Paul, this is my first visit to your site and I've really enjoyed reading your blogs. I agree mainly with your opinion on openings -- I think it depends a lot on what you are writing (genre). I like reading openings while I browse in book stores to see what really 'grabs' me so a very slow opening (too much description) will not be quite as appealing as something in media res or the example first person narrative you gave.
    I just spent the weekend at the Surrey Writer's Conference and noted some of the commentary in my own blog. I think if you're writing stuff like Michael Slade, for instance, you have to start with some heavy-duty action to grab the reader. But for us historical writers, sometimes you just have to set the scene first.
    By the way, I'm in Vancouver. And I write historical fiction and travel journalism.

    By Blogger Wynn Bexton, at October 25, 2005 2:45 PM  

  • Thanks for the comments--nice to meet you, Wynn.

    Gabriele, thanks for sharing your openers (quite a stack!). They are, over all, of the "grabber" type, I think. The one I like best is the short story opener in the cell. But even there I wonder, "Has the writer been in a monastery?". (Btw I have--although a modern Buddhist one.)I want to be convinced that the writer knows monasteries, and therefore deserves my attention. I want to learn!

    By Blogger paulv, at October 25, 2005 3:28 PM  

  • Lol, I didn't know Wynn and Paul had never met before. I've you both om my blogroll for some months now. :-)

    From your blogs, I have a feeling that your books will have a lot in common in some aspects, like the philosophy and the atmospheric density. As a reader I like that. I've very varied reading tastes from "Magic Mountain" to Bernard Cornwell. But as a writer, I have more fun writing action romps in a historical setting (more like Cornwell, that is). I couldn't write a book like the "Magic Mountain" even if I tried.

    Hehe, I guessed you would like the opening to "I Was King" best.

    Looking forward to more interesting discussions about the different ways to write Historical Fiction.

    By Blogger Gabriele C., at October 25, 2005 4:24 PM  

  • For the record: I love The Magic Mountain (which I can read only in English): one of the best novels ever written. And no, no one could write one like it!

    By Blogger paulv, at October 25, 2005 5:25 PM  

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