Harsh on Beginnings

Lately, I have become a very harsh judge on the opening pages of a novel – for that matter, on the opening line. If it doesn’t grab me early, I’m out of there.

I blame some of this on the Kindle. I’m more than willing to check out a new author or novel on the Kindle simply by downloading the free sample. However, there is a fair amount of crap out there, and I can usually tell within the first few pages. Maybe that’s unfair of me, but I’m not alone. Another author once said, “It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.”

So if that opening doesn’t grab me, and the rest of the first page doesn’t do much to pull me in either, then I’m probably skimming by the second page. And if I’m still skimming by page 5, that’s it. I almost never press on to the end of the sample in that case. I already know. If your opening has turned me off, it’s not worth sticking around to hope you’re going to turn it around by chapter 2.

The other thing I blame it on is Jim Butcher. Okay, that’s an oversimplification, but it’s close. In the last five or ten years, I’ve been exposed to some absolutely fabulous openings, and a number of them were written by Mr. Butcher. Others include Lilith Saintcrow, O.M. Grey, and J.C. Hutchins. There have been others of course, but those are the ones springing to mind right now.

Just to tease you, here are some of the openings from their novels. They may not be exact, because I’m quoting them from memory. (That in itself should be a sign of how good they were.)

My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.

I was to be King.

The building was on fire, but this time it wasn’t my fault.

The president of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy.

These grab my attention. They immediately pull me in and also leave a lot of questions unanswered. Your “working relationship”? Why were you not the King? Ok, whose fault is it? And what kind of four-year-old are we dealing with? I want to keep going to find out what’s going on, and by then these authors have hooked me even more deeply. Forget about skimming to page five. I’ve lost track of time by page five.

So now books without strong openings leave me flat, and if it’s a new author – even one who is good in all things but openings – I often don’t give them a chance. And I feel bad about that. I know that strong openings are something of a niche skill, and it’s a style that has only recently become more common. I look back at the SF/F books from the 70’s and 80’s, and many of them began with long expositions describing the world around us, or heaven forbid… prologues! Any many of them were really good books, but their openings sucked by comparison to some of the eye-grabby stuff we see now.

And the other reason I feel bad about it is that I recognize that my openings probably aren’t up to my own standards. Yes, I’ve tried to use my snap-judgment criteria to pump it up, but I don’t think they’re in the same league as Jim Butcher. (As an aside, Jim Butcher is great for readers… but terrible for writers’ egos. He’s just that much better than the rest of us.) So while I want to give others the same slack I’m hoping for, I’m just not willing to waste my limited reading time on someone who doesn’t grab me by the eyeball and suck me in.

Still, I think there’s hope for me. My openings are getting stronger, and the fact that I am such a harsh judge of openings means that I’m less likely to plop out a turd and hope for the best.

“It was a dark and swirly…” Nope. Gonna stop right there.

What are some of your favorite openings?


Edits. Arg.

Right now I’m struggling through my own copy edit pass before handing it off to a fresh copy editor. Why am I struggling? It’s not the grammar rules or the spelling. Most of that is correct. Well, it looks correct. Maybe I’m actually a terrible copy editor, and I’m missing all manner of mistakes.

No, what I’m struggling with are errors in the next level up. That sentence is awkward. I have used this word too many times. No, he didn’t run quickly from the room. He bolted from the room. And ouch – that’s a point-of-view error. What am I doing in her head when this is clearly his scene? God, how many more pages left in this chapter… was it always this slow?

I don’t think it’s necessarily as bad as all that. Perhaps more than anything it’s that I’m reading the text slowly with a critical eye. Then add the fact that this is at least my fifth reading of the novel. There aren’t many surprises left for me. I’m not wondering if they’ll survive the attack. I’m wondering when, for the love of God, is this bloody attack going to finally be over? And enough with the fucking split infinitives already!

It also doesn’t help that I’ve got two more novels under my belt that my memory tells me are much better. That’s natural, of course. The more you write, the better you get. But at the moment this feels like a night and day difference. Then again, these other novels haven’t gone through the kind of scrutiny that this one is getting.

This is probably the point where a lot of writers trunk that first novel, except I don’t know if I can really even call this my first novel. I’ve already trunked two incomplete novels, plus the trilogy that never got off the ground (despite about 30,000 words of world-building) and the 250,000 words of short fiction that came before that.

Of course, I’m not alone in this. Every writer goes through this as some point in their career. Not all of those that persisted made it, but none of the ones who quit did.

And so I persist.

Wait, was that supposed to be in first person or not?

Writing to Music

A lot of writers write with music playing in the background. Rachel Caine even goes so far as to list the music she listened to as something akin to a soundtrack to the book. I like to write to music as well, but I’m very picky in my choice of music.

In general terms, I avoid music that has words. I find that an interesting comparison to the Rachel Caine music lists, because most of her writing music is modern pop. I don’t have anything against pop music. I like to listen to it when I drive or cook or clean house, but I cannot listen to it while I write. Or more accurately, I should say that I cannot write while listening to pop music.

Eh? What did you say?

I’ve got this little thing called Auditory Processing Disorder. You can look it up and read about all its different flavors, but the simplest explanation is that it’s like dyslexia for hearing. It makes it difficult for me to turn the sounds I hear into words. There’s nothing wrong with my physical hearing – far from it. No, this is all about the language center of my brain, and when hearing gets involved, it gets screwy.

One of the effects is that if someone else is talking or singing, then my brain latches onto that language and won’t consider anything else. I can’t hear someone else talking at the same time. I can’t read while they’re talking. I can barely even talk when they’re talking. And my specific problem here, I can’t write while they’re talking.

So, no words in my music. At least, no words I can recognize. I have no problem listening to a lot of Enya’s music, because even though she sings through much of it, I can’t make out a thing she’s saying. As far as my language center goes, it’s so far from language, her words simply become part of the instrumentation.

A bit of this, a bit of that…

So instead, I listen to instrumental music, and it tends to fall into three categories. First, I do listen to some of the classics. I’m a big fan of Beethoven, but Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, and Copland do it for me just as well. No Brahms!

I also listen to a lot of modern instrumental stuff. Back in the 70’s and 80’s this was called New Age. It’s evolved and morphed into a bunch of other non-vocal genre’s like ambiance, techno, electronica, and so on. I listen to everything from Oldfield’s Tubular Bells to E.S. Posthumous’ latest work.

And Soundtracks!

But for writing fiction, my favorite category of music is movie soundtracks. I’ve told people this, and they look at me funny. “But don’t they just make you think of the movie?” is a common question. Well, yes, no, and yes.

So, yes, they do make me think of the movie, at least a little. Particularly recognizable sections will sometimes trigger a bit of imagery in my head, i.e. flying through the canyon on the Death Star or running through the halls of Moria in Middle Earth. Fortunately, these are trivial distractions that rarely take my mind away from the work at hand.
But no, they don’t really make me think of the movie much at all, but that has more to do with them being good soundtracks than my Chihuahua-like focus. In my opinion, a good soundtrack is designed to complement the movie. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. It doesn’t do a cool guitar riff because that’s what we do in the third stanza. It is designed to be in the background of the main action, and its main contribution is to help carry the action forward towards its climax. Which leads me to…

So of course, yes, the music makes me think of the movie in that the soundtrack music carries so much of the emotional context of a scene in a movie. That is what makes soundtracks so great for writing. I’m writing something with a great sense of loss. Oooo, how about the soundtrack from Memoirs of a Geisha? Now I’m doing a wild action sequence. How about the music from Speed? Now it’s time for the epic scope… Gladiator? Braveheart?

In a way, I suppose I’m blending together all these great soundtrack composers to be the background track of the fiction I’m writing. God help me if I was ever asked to pick a composer to do a soundtrack for a movie adaptation. I want Williams for the opening, Silvestri for the build, Horner for the middle, Williams again for the climax, and Hans Zimmer for the denouement and credits… except, you know, they should agree on the common thematic elements, pacing, and instrumentation.

So do you have specific music for specific tasks? Beetles for the shower? Led Zepplin for the lawn?