Monday, June 15, 2009

Draw the circle, light candles nine...

Ach it's been a week that shouldn't happen to anyone. I'm sorry I haven't commented this last week but... well if you're curious, have a peer in my blog. I wrote about about half of it. There are worse things, many of them, but they'd not be something you'd be trying to write through either.
But, as if someone had been foolish enough to pull the stake out of where it lay among the old bones... I'm back. Want me or not, I'm back... (cue wicked laughter and eerie music).
Now, in the course of the week a friend posted a comment about something else that comes back: That manuscript you toiled so lovingly on. That you bled pieces of yourself into, that you agonised over and polished. Or didn't. Just wrote down as it poured white-hot from your febrile mind and onto the keyboard (the mess!) Whatever. It's back. Probably with the standard lines of spurned love "not suitable for our present needs." or some other pathetic bit of patronising drivel... sorry, good sensible advice. Now my standard recipe for dealing with these editors (or sub-editors) involves pins and.... well, perhaps TMI. But rigidly, after twenty-four hours of being really... sweetness and light (and carefully not posting a reply), I put it behind me and move on. Send out again if it is practical to do so. Make any changes IF there is sensible advice. Write something else. Something BETTER. I'll show them...
Anyway that said one of the things, before you post it out, that you need to do is take advange of the time and distance to look at the only bit 99.99% of editors see of your manuscript. It's time to see if you got the magic right. No, this does not involve pins... or circles or candles nine. Yet oddly it does involve some of the classic elements of magic. You think those charlatans got that successful that often by accident? No, there is much to be learned about writing from the theory of symbolic magic, and I don't just mean the bits about black cats even the dancing around in the altogether part (which have their reasons too). We humans are creatures of symbol -- where something means far more than itself. Where the the symbol carries a load of implication and other symbols. Where a flood of emotion and memory can be triggered by the use of a symbol in the right place. Where a very small thing can be so much more than just itself. Of course I am talking about words in this case. Sometimes they do indeed come out just right, but sometimes, especially with that most powerful part of the spell, the first line, those symbols need to used very carefully to call up far more than just a simple meaning. This is where you catch that demon of nether regions, the editor, and needs must the spell should be powerful, and binding... and fast about its work. Because they're slippery devils and they get away. And they are not easy to bespell, being resistant to many kinds of common magic, and not going to give you two chances. If you're lucky you have a page, or even a few paragraphs. But the must puissiant and powerful need to caught caught quicker than that. In that first line. And, the truth be told, if you can catch them, you can probably catch readers. And we too must have those or die the real death.
So, novices: You have entered the black cave. The first line of the spell to en-trance your reader, to suspend his disbelief needs to sneak past his defences, and to evoke the the magical world which is the story. To call it from the dry pages, to pull down fire from heaven... or up from the mind of the reader. You see, it's all down to those symbols again. The ones that carry so much more than just their own weight. Yes, there is magic in the cadences of it, but we humans look for more in words... even quite innocent seeming ones.
"Mama don't make me marry him," Miss Sophie Warrington said.
Innocuous eh. Ah, but the pictures in our minds. And not quite as innocent as this spell-binder seems. There are key triggers, symbols if you like, hidden in these words. I can spot four. There may be more. She's good at this. 'Miss' for example -in this day and age? You missed that one didn't you? It evokes a sense of historical setting. The name itself hints at a certain class, especially when tied to the Miss. Mama. - she's young - and deep ingrained sympathies and protective instincts are aroused. Marry - that carries baggage enough for the entire wagon train, especially when added in the right place to the rest. The author has, in one short, simple sentence implied the age of the protag, her helplessness, difficult position and historical setting. She's even pulled in a few sympathy symbols.
Did you think this happened by accident? Maybe it does, sometimes. We humans do this, and some of us have a natural gift for it. That doesn't mean we can't make it better. But we need to spot it first.
"Macon Fallon was a stranger to the town of Seven Pines and fortunately for him he was a stranger with a fast horse."
Another first line that does an excellent job with simple words of casting a powerful spell of place and character, and trouble.
"This is the story of the children of Adara - of Ayna and Ceri who both had gifts and of Gair, who thought he was ordinary."
Now there is a masterpiece of cadence, symbols and the powerful use of what isn't there. WHY isn't Gair ordinary....
Now it's your turn. Give me first lines. Either ones you wrote or ones which entrapped you. And if you spot them, the words of power. Oh and Í'll make a plan to get a copy of Dragon's Ring to first person who places all three first lines by author and book.


Amanda Green said...

Okay, okay, I know you're going to say I shouldn't do this but I am so quit blushing. The first line that came to me as I read your post was one of yours. From The Forlorn:

Port Tinarana was like an old, decaying tart, her face lined with a myriad of streets and alleys, inexpertly caked with a crude makeup of overhanging buildings.

My first thought is, "damn, why can't I write like that?" Then, quickly overriding that is, "I want to read more." I felt that way the first time I read that sentence, and the book. I feel that way now.

As for the power words, the first is "port". It lets the reader know the general location and setting.

"Old, decaying tart" speaks volumes. The town had once been showy, maybe not beautiful, but a town that had known how to make the most out of what it had.

"Crude makeup of overhanging buildings" brings to mind the image of a woman who has applied, badly, too much makeup, probably gaudy with red cheeks and lips and bright blue eye shadow. Translated into buildings, it brings to mind an image of buildings thrown up hastily, probably not well built and certainly not well cared for. They serve the purpose of enticing those passing by to come in and sample their wares, just be sure to check your wallet to make sure it's still there when you leave. Oh, and don't forget to visit the doctor to make sure the tart hasn't given you any unsuspected little "gifts".

Frankly, to me, the entire sentence is power and powerful. Next?

(And, as a member of MGC, I don't get to go for the book. Whimper and whine.)

Francis said...

"The man who was not Terrence O'Grady had come quietly"

(Agent of Change by Lee&Miller)

So who is he and why is he "not Terrence O'Grady"? why had he come quietly?

come quietly also indicates we're in some kind of police situation. Mr "not T O'G" has been arrested. Which leads us to wonder why? and whether this a fair cop or are the police bad?


regarding the books.

The first one sounds like either a Jane Austen (but i don't think it is) or a regency romance writer such as Georgette Heyer - but again I don't think it is Heyer. Unfortunately I don't read many romances so I'm going to pass.

But I know the other two. The middle one is Fallon by Loius L'Amour. The third one is Diana Wynne Jones' Power of Three

Dave Freer said...

Blush. Amanda, it's probably not an opening I'd use now (was like, uh uh) but I thought for some time on 'tart' or 'whore'. I chose the former because although it evokes a lot of the same things, it's not quite as derogatory.

But yes, there is a magic in 'ports', and a magic in the image of an old city.

Dave Freer said...

Francis (sigh) If you didn't know all three did you have to say two?

The Lee & Miller is a neat piece of suspense raising, and has the same 'suggestion'technique as the last of my egs.

louis robinson said...

I knew I knew that first one! Took me long enough, since I went haring off after Austen - for obvious reasons. But it came back to me eventually. The second is one of my most read Lamours, I admit I had to search for the 3rd

The 3 books are:

Soul of Fire - Sarah Hoyt
Fallon - Louis Lamour
Power of 3 - Diana Wynne Jones

Dave Freer said...

Louis -you'll have to send me your address at :-)

Oddly, it's my most read Lámour too.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Loved the quotes, Dave.

Maybe we could have a favourite opening line competition???

Anonymous said...

Eww! Looking through my files I find a lot of room for improvement in those first lines of all my brain children. It's better if I consider the first paragraph. But there's a couple that need the whole first chapter rethought. My personal favorite:

The neutrino alarm gave them a split second to dive for the most protected part of the station.

I must drag that story out and finish it one of these days.

Anonymous said...

One opening line that really caught my attention was from Spider Robinson's short "Copyright Violation."

I was singing along with John Lennon when she crowned me from behind: that's how the rape began.

You start processing "John Lennon", then "crowned", then you hit "rape" and the mind suddenly goes ZOMGWTF?! At that point, the hook is set, and now you need to find out just what he's talking about. Now you have a stake in the outcome which compels you keep reading. Or maybe you decided then and there "this is not my cup of tea" and read something else.

Either way, a strong opening line like that creates a decision point and pushes the reader off the fence. Hopefully, it pushes the reader onto the "I want to read this" side. But, if it pushes them to the other side, at least it does it right away so they don't come away from it feeling the author has wasted their time.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

"There is no doubt that, of all the tales, the first is the most difficult for the casual reader. Not only is its nomenclature trying, but its logic and its ideas seem, at first reading, to be entirely alien. This may be because in this story and the next, a DOG plays no part, is not even mentioned." Clifford Simak, City

"It was a pleasure to burn.// It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed." Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451

"It was cold on the rampart. I slapped my numbed hands together, then stopped hastily for fear of disturbing the Prophet." RAH, Revolt in 2100

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Rj Cruz -- I came across a book title 'Who's been raped and speaks English?' (Or something like that, this was 30 years ago). It was about rape during the Vietnam war being used as a weapon against the civilian population.

That was a book I just had to read.

Francis said...

That's embarrassing me missing number 1. I actually have that book on my bookshelf and I've read it.... gah. mutter. mutter. got myself stuck on the regency romance track and couldn't work back to the victorian fantasy romance track

KylieQ said...

Nefertiti knew she was dying and it bothered her greatly.

Nefertiti - instantly seduces you away to ancient Egypt and its legendarily beautiful queen.

Bothered - not a word you would expect if someone is dying. Distraught, yes, panicked, maybe, but not bothered. It implies there is much more to the story than you know and it also tells you something about her character.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam - that is a good first line. Neutrino - carries this is hardish sf to me straight off. Alarm and protected are both evocative words that carry a lot more than just information.

Dave Freer said...

Bob - the neat part of that is the 'take 2 effect' _she_ crowned me. Rape (very full of bagage that one) rape. she. repeat. Okay I'm quizzy now...

And I've said this a million and one times. Rather put a reader off than have them buy it and hate it. Hell hath no fury like a reader lured into paying over good money for their escape/entertainment just to find that actually it's anything but. For a comparible bit of ill-temper look for a bloke in a bar whose invested time and money in chatting up a nice woman... only to find there are 4 balls on those two bar stools.

Dave Freer said...

Rowena -how would we judge such a compo?

Dave Freer said...

Sarah you cheated. several of those are two sentences. :-)

Dave Freer said...

Francis... but the Austen part nearly had me bust a gut laughing. You picked up an aspect ofthe style anyway

Dave Freer said...

KylieQ - what's it from? (and I agree about the bothered part - clever use of 'odd' or ?inappropriate word to get the reader's attention.

KylieQ said...

Dave, it's my own (Gift of Isis). I've been getting mixed feedback on this line, particularly the "bothered".

Dave Freer said...

kylieQ... I'd say it depends on the second line. It's enough to get me to read on, but I want to know why the word choice quite quickly :-) 'Nefertiti' is one of those symbols I think you might have to be wary about - not that it isn't a powerful talisman, it's just that given the standard of history and classical education it's rather like Niobe (ie - to many readers 'who?'. I read too much. I read far too much history. I have to watch the assumption that 'because I know it, you must':-)

KylieQ said...

Dave, agreed re the assumption. It's hard to strike the right balance between not babying the reader who has an historical/ classical background while also giving enough to the reader who just thought the story looked interesting.
And yes, the second line does explain why she is bothered :)

Chris McMahon said...

Call me Ishmael.

The ultimate for economy from Moby Dick.

This always gives me the sense of excitement, of a wider story. The implication that Ishmael is not his real name implies there is something else concealed or perhaps dangerous.

The name Ishmael itself is exotic.

Dave Freer said...

Chris... that's actually a great example of what was a very very potent 'symbol' when melville wrote that (and now as we're much less biblically aware, merely exotic) Ishmael - the son of Abraham, the outcast, the lesser and rejected child. Oddly the melville use has made it a powerful symbol in THAT sense.

Kate said...

Heinlein, Friday (a book I bought on the strength of the first paragraph):

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels.

Power words here are Kenya - bringing Africa to mind, Beanstalk - capitalized, which suggests it's an important thing. The phrase "Kenya Beanstalk capsule" throws a jarring disconnect: our Kenya is hardly a tech center, but this one must be, because the narrator is traveling via an unknown method there. "As I left" indicates that the narrator is traveling and implies that there's been quite a lengthy journey, then before all that has sunk in Heinlein hits the implied threat "he was right on my heels".

A very different opening is from Rowling's first Harry Potter book:

Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

There's a kind of quintessential Britishness in the phrasing that immediately places the Dursleys as very image-conscious suburban middle class types - but why should it be so important to them that they be normal, much less perfectly normal. And why would their perfect normalness be a matter of pride? This immediately implies that the Dursley's aren't at all normal, or that they know about something not normal and would rather they didn't - which of course makes us want to know about it too.

John Lambshead said...

This one takes some beating:

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."

Anonymous said...

You do realize, John, that if Dickens had written this nowadays, the editor probably would have sent him an e-mail saying: "Chuck: You need to lose that opening line -- way too wordy. Also, you need to make the storyline edgier. Oh, and do you think you could change Jerry Cruncher into a vampire-slaying Asian female?"

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Right. I love it when I can do it in a line -- and actually Dave, weirdly, though my first lines are very carefully thought out, that one just "came." However, some of the best prose takes longer than that. Though I have to say if it hasn't grabbed me in a paragraph, unless I've read the writer before and love him, back on the shelf it goes.

However, for buried info, this is my favorite beginning paragraph of my favorite fantasy (Pol Anderson's operation Chaos.) I love the way the first paragraph lulls you into "war novel" and the third whomps you with "uh, not quite right" (I don't have it on hand -- damn boys -- but use google books or amazon look inside.)

I've found this juxtaposition -- something normal and something weird, or something that makes no sense at first blush, completely hooks the reader.

Arguably the best first line I ever read was in slush, and unfortunately the rest of the story made no sense with it. It was, "Marge, the stealth chickens are back."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

When I say I think through my first lines carefully -- these are short story first lines. In novels, I've found, I tend to go for paragraphs but in shorts, I know the attention span HAS to be grabbed. As a demonstration (and I'm sorry again to quote myself) a few short first lines. Title first, then line:

Trafalgar square: “Please, Mister.” The girl slid up to Yu Lin, as he entered the London Liberation hotel. “Please Mister. May I read your paper?”

Yearning to Breathe Free: It was raining horizontally again.

Superlamb Banana: John Lennon thought he was going to be mugged.

Something Worse Hereafter: Dying is easy. It's staying alive afterwards that's hard.

Those are the ones I worked for. Whether they were worth the trouble, I don't know. :) But I TRIED.

Dave Freer said...

John, that's a paragraph, even it it was a Dickens sentence! But he was clearly using word magic there, with those contrasts.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, do you know how badly I want to write a stealth chickens Simak-style story now ;-)

Dave Freer said...

Kate, phrasing and cadence are something I wish I had a better technical handle on as one of the areas I really need to work on myself. Tolkein used different cadence for different speakers...

Dave Freer said...

Something Worse Hereafter: Dying is easy. It's staying alive afterwards that's hard.

this was the one that worked for me.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Do it. make it sf and I bet analog would buy it!

I've tried for years.