First Sentences

A lot of the fuss about the first sentence of a novel is born of a fixation for marketing and catchy phrases. Not surprising, you might say, at a time when the market is flooded with all manner of books vying for our attention. Do we have to be ruled by the diktats of those people who earn a living by punching people between the eyes or in the groin? My apologies to those who use more subtle methods to grab our attention. Are their methods the only way to get read as an author? Probably not! All the same, the first sentence is like the greeting handshake or the initial smile when you meet someone new. It inevitably colours what comes afterwards.

Unconvinced by examples given to us the other day during a seminar at the Geneva Writers Group, I decided to have a quick check using a few, widely different books from my own library. Here is the result.

Stephenie Meyer must have delighted those marketeers with the beginning of her first sentence to Twilight: “I have never given much thought to how I would die …” Even if you are one of those people that gets pleasure out of knocking the Twilight saga, you have to admit that first fragment of a sentence is really good. The sentence ends almost as well with: “…but even if I had I would not have imagined it like this.

There are modern authors you’d expect to play the initial “punch” line to the full, like Dan Brown. Here’s the first sentence from Angels and Demons: “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and he knew it was his own.” At least this is consistent with what follows. His books, with the possible exception of the Da Vinci Code, are nearly all punch and little else.

But the quest for impact can go too far, especially when it is divorced from the rest of the book. Just look at the damage it did to Scott Westerfeld’s novel Uglies which begins: “The early summer sky was the colour of cat vomit.” If anything, the reader might well put down the book in disgust. That would be a shame because it goes on to tell a good tale.

Of course, you can wax mystical and rave about “The sun had not yet risen” which is how Virginia Woolf began The Waves, but, if you set aside your expectations due to the fact that the author is famous, the sentence is somewhat banal. It is an opening, though, one that promises more and which encourages to read on.

Some first sentences skillfully set the scene with apparent limited effort. Take: “Once there four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy“, CS Lewis’s beginning to the Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe. Nothing like a firm handshake to start with, so you know where you are. It’s also a delightful nod at the traditional “Once upon a time…” beginning.

I personally rather like Maria V. Snyder’s beginning to Outside In, which opens with the sentence: “A vibration rippled through my body.” The books goes on to tell a gripping tale that is firmly anchored in bodily feelings, in particular touch and smell. But that beginning only really appears appropriate once you have read on.

There are, of course, first sentences that are absolutely masterly: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” I can imagine the glee James Joyce must have had in writing that first sentence to Ulysses. But I doubt if it would get the marketing prize for the best first sentence.

In a quite different register, there are those beginnings that become iconic like the following: “Far out beyond the unchartered backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.” Shame Douglas Adams didn’t have time to write more.

Conclusion? Well, yes! The first sentence does appear to be important both for the book that follows and getting the attention of people you want to read it. But not necessarily as a punch line, rather as a key building block in a story to come.

Uglies

Uglies

Scott Westerfeld, Uglies, Simon and Schuster, 2006
ISBN: 978-1-84738-906-0

When I read the words ‘cat vomit‘ in the first sentence of Westerfeld’s book, as he described the colour of the sky, I remember thinking: I hope this is not a taste of what is to come. But nothing came to merit those words, lest it be the opposition of ugliness to a standardised notion of beauty that underlies the book. I wonder why the author used them, especially in his opening sentence.

Writing Uglies must have been a challenge for Scott Westerfeld. Challenge? The difficulty is inherent in the central theme of the  book: the glorification of a standarised canon of beauty imposed by surgical intervention. All teenagers, who are universally called uglies, have come to despise their appearance and yearn for the beauty they will have once they are sixteen and are operated on to make them “pretty”. It is not easy to write a story in which most of the population’s appearance and behaviour have been normalised such that there are few distinguishing features. There’s a sort of faceless grin or grimace to the world. Even the baddies, when they finally erupt on the stage, look alike. No wonder the main character, Tally, and her new-found ugly friend, swim in a sea of faceless people at the beginning of the book. This narrowness of perspective and the flippancy of the two girls makes holding the reader’s attention more difficult.

The story did however hold my attention from the beginning, although I did wonder what it was that gave it more rounded edges than many a dystopian novel. I suspect this is partly because the threats and dangers are only hinted at but are not personified or made present in the first part of the story. It is as if the girls can get away with anything without being caught (despite narrow scrapes). Nothing matters. They’ll all be pretty soon.

The situation changes radically when Tally is forced to leave her shallow world and has to deal with people who have depth to their personalities and meaning to their lives, despite their ‘ugly’ faces. Even the baddies take on a tangible form and their threat becomes real. From that turning point onwards the story picks up speed and breadth and the reader is carried away by its intensity. The contrast between these two parts of the book is its key articulation and therein lies the difficulty: how do you portray shallowness and flippancy at the outset, without leaving the impression that the story itself is superficial and discouraging the reader from continuing. Westerfeld took the risk and it paid off. A story well worth reading.

Annie on My Mind

Annie on My Mind

Nancy Garden, Annie on My Mind, FSG, New York, 1982
978-0-374-40011-8

The beginning of Nancy Garden’s book, Annie on My Mind, as it describes the first hesitant contact between the two girls, is a real enchantment. It is not easy to portray those initial feelings and the fluttering uncertainty that goes with them as the two girls get to know each other. The author’s delicate touch enables her to depict sensitive events that a more heavy-handed approach could so easily render course or vulgar or trite. Her approach reminds me of something Marc-Alain Ouaknin (1) wrote about knowledge. The Rabbi said knowledge cannot be grasped, for doing so crushes the life out of it. Instead, knowledge can only be known by caressing it. Metaphorically then, Nancy Garden caresses her story till it communicates its essence.

It is well known that it is the trials and tribulations of its characters that drive a story forward and hold the reader in its grip. Even when love is centre stage, as here, it is the threat to that love that gives the story its poignance. Would a story that dwelt on the unfolding of love and the deepening of a relationship be so boring that it required adversity to hold its reader? I kept wishing that Annie on My Mind wouldn’t end the way the initial flash-forward seemed to indicate it might. No doubt, I was hankering after the lost paradise from that far off time before the awareness of self as separate from all the rest! Fortunately, although Nancy Garden tests her characters in circumstances that would break many, there’s an ongoing thread of tenderness and consideration for them throughout the book, that leaves room for hope and optimism.

(1) Lire aux Eclats, éloge de la caressse, Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Seuil, Paris, 1994, ISBN: 978-2-020-19553-9 

Ender’s Game

Ender's Game

Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, Orbit, London, 2001
978-1-857-23720-7

How much ‘confusion’ can a reader put up with at the beginning of a novel? How long can the reader maintain interest until sufficient pieces fall into place setting up some semblance of order or direction to the tale? Much of Orson Scot Card’s own game in Ender’s Game, is concealing what is to come. This is only a problem for the reader in the first chapters, making it difficult, for me at least, to get into the story. Once I was ‘in’ however, the story was gripping.

One of the major challenges of Ender’s Game is Ender himself. It is difficult to portray a convincing character who is both child and, in many ways, adult: a child, whose thoughts and emotions are mostly those of a genius whose perspective readily sizes up the adult world but who invariably has the body and the emotions of a child. I personally tended to forget that Ender was so young, despite frequent reminders by the author. Maybe that was my way of dealing with the difficulty.

I was particularly interested that the story dealt with both learning and leadership although I couldn’t adhere to the ruthless military approach that was an essential ingredient of the story. As the book went on, learning gave way to increased manipulation. Those in power manipulate Ender, engendering exasperation and frustration in the reader and thus drive the story forward. Only towards the end of the book does Orson Scot Card make it blatantly obvious what the real theme is. And it was only when I went back and re-read the first pages of the novel that I realized that the author actually hinted at that theme from the outset.

The Order of Odd Fish

James Kennedy, The Order of Odd Fish, Laurel Leaf Library, 2010
978-0-4402-4065-5

You’ve got to hand it to James Kennedy, he certainly wields a mighty vocabulary and knows how to describe the most incongruous, downtrodden places and people in a way that can be endearing. Out of that chaos springs the unexpected with the potential to be refreshing, but Kennedy has chosen to write about a group of people whose sole goal is to undertake useless and pointless activities. As a result, the surprising ruptures and raptures of the plot serve mainly for derision or momentary dramatic effect. Story threads surge unbidden and then disappear abruptly into oblivion. Characters are carried away in long self-indulgent tirades much to the annoyance of other characters and readers alike.

At moments the story can be gripping, as it plunges forward at breakneck speed ablaze with the pyrotechnics of the weird and wonderful. But the orgy of words and the author’s delight at toying with them – he particularly favours alliterations – gets between the tale and the reader, derailing the narrative, paradoxically slowing the pace of the story and testing the reader’s patience. Constantly mocking your characters and yourself as author at the same time, comes at a price. Kennedy’s book may survive thanks to the laughter it provokes and the absurdity of its constructions, but his characters are, for the most part, shallow and superficial.

Judging from a mother’s comment on Goodreads, the book is apparently popular with younger readers. It could be that I am no longer young enough to appreciate it. But all the same, I can’t help having doubts about the book. Rather like the young girl who is the book’s hero, so the book itself could be dangerous. Unbeknown to her, she is dangerous because she embodies the all-devouring mother whose sole aim is to swallow up the world. Likewise, the book is dangerous because it threatens to unravel the tissue of the world seen as an enormous constellation of structured stories. How so? The Odd Fish saga portrays a world in which the absurd triumphs, where human activities are reduced to nonsense, but also, and above all, where unfettered imaginative power, harnessed to short-term effects and derision, rides roughshod over narrative structure. Significance no longer resides in a character’s role and actions in the overall structure of the story, but in the contribution the various happenings make to the surfeit of the spectacular and the absurd. Could it be that the attraction of that apparently boundless freedom, planted like a malignant seed in the human mind, particularly that of the young, favours a growing intolerance towards the restraint that structure implies in narration and as such bring us closer to the end of story-telling as we know it.

Dirty Little Secrets

Omololu C.J.  (2010), Dirty Little Secrets, Walker & Co.
ISBN: 978-0802786609

I didn’t read C.J. Omolou’s novel, Dirty Little Secrets, I listened to it in an audio version read by the writer, actress, Jessica Almasy. It is often difficult to adapt to a new narrator, but I quickly felt she had the perfect voice for this disturbing story of a young girl fighting an uphill battle against filth, shame and, above all, folly. I particularly liked the way the narrator frequently had the word at the end of the sentence hang a moment in mid-air only to come down with all the force of humour and self-derision that was part and parcel of the author’s character.

The Amazon description of the book begins: Everyone has a secret. But Lucy’s is bigger and dirtier than most. It’s one she’s been hiding for years–that her mom’s out-of-control hoarding has turned their lives into a world of garbage and shame.  When circumstances force Lucy to try to rid herself of this legacy, her rummaging through the piles of junk offers an ideal narrative structure on which to hang the poignant souvenirs, the devastating discoveries, the disappointments and the betrayals that make up her relationship with her mother.

Beginning as it did with Lucy’s teenage crush for Josh, I wondered why on earth I was reading such a book. Then as the story developed and the piles of rubbish took their toll, I was to witness the unfolding of a tale of insidious madness that was profoundly troubling. Insidious? The slow accumulation of things, that at first was almost imperceptible, and the web woven to justify keeping those things cast an alarming light on otherwise innocuous daily pursuits. As a reader, I was exasperated to witness the way both Lucy’s mother and her elder sister shifted blame for their own growing folly on Lucy, making her feel it was all her fault. It left me wanting to scream. And at the end, I emerged a little shaky and somewhat wary of that which had hitherto appeared mundane and inconsequential.

The Magicians

the magicians

Lev Grossman, The Magicians, Arrow Books, London, 2009
978-0-0995-3444-0

Grossman’s novel begins full of promise. The story is gripping as it follows the archetype of the boy who discovers he really is the magician he dreamed he was.  There’s a magic in stories that carry their readers off to other worlds. Then the story flatten’s out. Behind what turns out to be a cardboard facade there is nothing and, with that discovery, the magic of the story seeps sadly away. This lack of depth and the failure to engage the reader is clearly due to the choices made by the author.

A large part of Grossman’s narrative construction is built around a poor mash-up of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories. The author has the main character longing to enter that world and once he makes it there, he and his colleagues are constantly stepping out of the story, asking themselves what they should do in it. This is also the case at many other moments in Grossman’s book. The theme of being unable to remain within a story or life itself would certainly make for interesting social critique. This may not have been Grossman’s intention, but he constantly has his characters wondering about how they will be perceived in the story and whether they are up to scratch. This leads the reader to be constantly pulled out of the story. The result is not only frustrating but casts doubts on the credibility of story. Deliberately ejecting the reader is a risky business, for, once outside, he or she begins to notice the flaws and there are many of them.

It doesn’t help that Grossman seems to intensely dislike magic. He makes every effort to leech all the magic and excitement and pleasure out of magic, reducing it to tedium and repetition. Some magicians pursue noble social causes but most either undertake futile, pseudoscientific quests or are disabused and indulge in drink and drugs unable to cope with the pointlessness of their lives. The main character, Quentin, is portrayed as a misguided believer in the excitement and joy of magic, in the quest and in the battle of good against evil, but then veers into disbelief and skepticism. The dismantling of magic begins in the school of magic Quentin attends: from the hilarious pointlessness of the entrance exam to the isolation of the school, that leaves future magicians totally unprepared for what happens when they graduate. No wonder so many magicians end up completely lost in life, not knowing what to do.

About three-quarters through the book, Alice, one of the characters says: “Wake up. This isn’t a story? It’s just one fucking thing after another!” The author may well have meant Alice to incite her fellow characters to stop wondering about whether or not they were in a story and just live it. But with the constant succession of disconnected events that burst inexplicably from the pages with little relationship to what went before or comes after, the reader begins to wonder if Alice isn’t talking about the book itself. This impression is strengthened by the fact that the characters are barely etched out, and the weakness of the relationships between people, even when they are built on passion.

So what went wrong? My guess is that the author lost the feeling for the story after the initial chapters and was forced to pile unrelated effect on effect to try to fill the resulting void until, unexpectedly, he rediscovered his lost thread towards the end of the book, and with it rekindled the story magic, if only temporarily.

Dreams Unleashed

Dreams Unleashed

Linda Hawley, Dreams Unleashed, Book 1 of The Prophecies Trilogy, Nouveau Publishing Company, 2011
978-1463517915

I saw Linda Hawley’s book mentioned on Twitter and was intrigued by the title, so I downloaded the Kindle version. It was the first time I had read a full length book on my iPhone. I found the story well written and gripping. I would willingly advise people to read it and I will certainly read the next book in the trilogy. Having said that, a couple of things troubled me in the book and in my relationship to it, so I will try to explore them in what follows.

The story moves backwards and forwards from a future present to several recent pasts. At first I was troubled by this shifting in time. It wasn’t too difficult, however, to ignore the confusion it caused in me because the story was sufficiently engrossing that I quickly forgot about my momentary feelings of being lost. Later I noticed that the author had put clear markers in the chapter titles to let the reader know what time the chapter took place in. It was then that I realised that I had not been reading the titles as, at a cursory glance, I mistakenly took them for being similar. If I had been reading the print version, I might well have glanced back over the contents page to compare chapter titles, but as this was my first experience reading an ebook I was concerned I might lose my place in the book.

The more I read of the book, the more I had a niggling feeling that the story was yet to begin. Great care was taken in describing the main character and her relationships to those around her: her colleagues at work, her family, her friends where she used to live and her dog. From time to time, I wondered why certain episodes of her life were described in such detail, but that they were didn’t disturb me so much as they were well crafted and brought the character and her surroundings alive. There were moments when the story accelerated brusquely, carrying the reader away in a whirlwind of breath-taking action. Then things settled back to a more sedate rhythm. As a dystopian novel, Dreams Unleashed, bears the tell-tale marks of deep-seated anxiety that has its roots in the ever-growing threat of the nameless, faceless authorities to its citizens. In many such novels, the Hunger Games, for example, that anxiety chases the reader forward through the story. In Dreams Unleashed, we are periodically reminded of this tension but it tends to fade from view when relationships and dinner and the character’s dog get the upper hand.

When the book abruptly came to an end with a screaming cliffhanger, the underlying feeling of coming up short finally took on a tangible form. It was as if the book had ended before it had really got underway. To say so is unfair on the author. As I have described above, the book is full of all manner of things and the story is gripping. The only explanation I can find for this mismatch lies in the balance between story telling that is static, that builds on description and memories from the past, and breathtaking action that drives the story forward helter-skelter to the catastrophe everyone is expecting yet earnestly wishes to avoid.

The Watchers – tale of a launch

Jon Steele, The Watchers, Batham Press, London, June 2011
ISBN: 978-0593067512

The Watchers by Jon Steele has just been published in the UK. I haven’t yet read the book, but what interests me here is the way the author announces his book. The book is set in the French speaking part of Switzerland and the author has chosen to make a series of short videos describing the places his book is set in. Part of my enthusiasm for these videos springs from the fact that I know the places mentioned and I had already heard the story of the “guet”, the watcher. His nightly activities atop the tower of the Cathedral in Lausanne certainly fire the imagination and it doesn’t surprise me that someone should want to plant a story there.

Hosted by Fantasy Book Critic, each video is announced with a brief summary dispensing those readers with little time from necessarily watching the video. It is interesting to note that despite the competition for a giveaway copy given to the lucky person picked at random from those writing a comment on one of the videos, few people did actually comment. The videos are not slick, glossy productions, but rather informal travelogs telling a tale, showing a place, capturing an atmosphere but also linking the place to the story and including the reading of very short extracts from the book. It’s always a difficult exercise to talk about your forthcoming book: to convey the excitement and enthusiasm for the story without giving too much away. The tone of his telling and the choice of the camera angles, designed to be mysterious, intimate and confiding are sometimes overdone but the overall effect is intriguing and had me wanting to read the book.

Link to the first of the videos. They are also available on YouTube. http://fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com/2011/06/watchers-video-giveaway-part-one.html

Love, Stargirl

Love, Stargirl

Jerry Spinelli, Love, Stargirl, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2007
978-0-375-85644-0

It’s been one of those long weekends with everyone off somewhere, so I spent the time with Stargirl, reading her long diary-like letter between feeding the cat and doing the cleaning … and writing, of course. Stargirl is so endearing, it is difficult to imagine anyone not wanting to spend time with her even if that might be challenging. And when you do spend time in her company some of her stardust inevitably rubs off on you. And hers is a special brand of magic. It’s hard to put a name to it. She’s different. Being a homeschooler could well have relegated her to the fringes of society, but she has in no way opted out. She is no angry renegade. On the contrary, she is constantly at the very heart of life in her encounters with the people around her. Many of those she befriends are people who are stuck at the limits of society because they are different or because they find living in society difficult. They might greet her with anger or indifference at first, but she persists, coming to appreciate their special brand of being. And in making them feel they are appreciated for what they are, she helps ease them back into the fold. Such a role might make some bigheaded. Not Stargirl. She’s a natural, a solid mixture of self-assurance and self-questioning. Of course she makes mistakes, but through her courage in going out of her way to encounter people who are authentic, however strange they might seem, she learns from every single encounter.

Jerry Spinelli adopts a different point of view in this follow-up to his successful Stargirl book. The entire narration is seen from the perspective of Stargirl as if she were writing an on-going dialogue with Leo, her one-time boyfriend now left behind in another State. Dialogue? Well mostly monologue. But there are moments when she fills in for Leo and converses with him about what is happening to her. Now such inner dialogues can lead astray and she does get it wrong sometimes, but with a little help from her friends she always ends up finding the right way. And as the end of the book reveals, those conversations do not go unheard.