Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

First Sentence Impressions

In my idle time, I've set upon the daunting task of revising my novel. The section that cries out most for rewriting is the very beginning, which was thrown together slapdash to meet the NaNoWriMo wordcounts before I discovered the muse of bourbon. My problems begin with the very first sentence:
In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, it was decided that I should become the companion to my Great-Aunt Emma. 
I feel a great mortification upon contemplating this line, not because my conception of the character become far less passive as the story progressed, but because the grammar doesn't match up. Who was "fresh from college?" It? How could I have made such a bizarre error?

One thing that has become clear to me, in retrospect, is that perhaps it was inadvisable for someone who'd never written fiction to jump in for the first time by writing a novel in thirty days. It's too late to change that now, but I'm trying to educate myself by reading up on the craft of writing fiction. One thing everyone seems to agree upon is that a first sentence should serve several purposes: to pull the reader into the story; to set the tone; to capture the attention of the editor or agent or whoever is going to buy your manuscript.

Here are a few first sentences of works I've pulled off my bookshelf.
Alexey Fyodorovitch Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovitch Karamazov,a land owner well know in our district in his own day, and still remembered among us owing to his gloomy and tragic death, which happened thirteen years ago, and which I shall describe in its proper place. -- The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky 
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderly again. -- Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier 
"They made a silly mistake, though," the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory. -- Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis (a much funnier novel than the first sentence suggests) 
When I reached "C" Company lines, which were at the top of the hill, I paused and looked back at the camp, just coming into full view below me through the grey mist of early morning. -- Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. 
So. -- Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
Two things strike me about this list. First, that many of these lines are (naturally) meant to be directly followed by other sentences, so that the first sentence need not stand on its own as a summation of the story. Second, that much of the literature on my shelf is at least fifty years old. For contrast, here are three opening sentences from novels I enjoyed, all published last year.
I have never much liked Shakespeare. -- The Tragedy of Arthur, by Arthur Phillips. 
It was the last night of 1937. -- Rules of Civility, by Amor Towles 
Today I'm five. -- Room, by Emma Donoghue
These are short, but informative: Arthur is chatty and informal; the narrator of Rules of Civility is reserved and is writing about her past; the child who narrates Room speaks in the present tense.

I have struggled in recent evenings with my first sentence. What information do I want to convey? What tone do I want to set? Since the narrative is in the first person, what do I want the reader to know about her at the outset?

The character had grown more assertive as I wrote, so I wanted to change the passive voice of the original. I liked the structure of the sentence (and so did Darwin). The first part carried crucial information about the character -- she's a recent graduate with no imminent job prospects -- so what needed to be rewritten was the second half. Oddly enough, though I found that while writing the draft I did better work when I typed, the best way for me to revise this sentence was to write by hand over and over again.
In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, I was elected to become companion to my Great-Aunt Emma. (still too passive) 
In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, I turned my back to the career path and became caregiver to my Great-Aunt Emma.  
...I detoured from the accepted career path... 
...I rejected the career path...  
In the summer of my twenty-second year, glowing with academic success if not with career enlightenment, I forsook that path to become caregiver to my Great-Aunt Emma. (at this point I was growing weary of the path image, which wasn't going anywhere) 
In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, I laid down any career ambitions and took on the role of caregiver to my Great-Aunt Emma. (closer, but too wordy)
Finally I found a formulation I liked well enough, which propelled me into what I would consider not a revision, but a new first draft.

In the summer of my twenty-second year, fresh from college with an elegant diploma in one hand and no job offers in the other, I laid aside career ambitions to become caregiver to my Great-Aunt Emma. Perhaps “ambitions” is too strong a word — I was neither lazy nor incapable, but I suffered no delusions that studying literature had prepared me for much other than the tired trifecta of writing, teaching, and applying to grad school. These held no interest for me. For that matter, neither did geriatrics, but the fact remained that Great-Aunt Emma could no longer live unaccompanied, and I was the most eligible companion by virtue of being the least employed member of the family. 
I was also Emma’s namesake, which was a veritable sign that my stewardship had been preordained. Various relatives made this point to me at the packing party my parents were throwing on the eve of their early retirement to Florida. My older sister Stacy was particularly pleased.  
“I’m glad Mom and Dad didn’t name me Emma,” she said, as she sat in the living room and stuffed newspaper into boxes. “You were always her favorite anyway, maybe because you liked being around all those stupid books. Any time I tried to touch one of them, I thought she’d kill me.” 
“Perhaps she likes me because I don’t call her books stupid.” 


JackieD said...

I actually like the original passivity of your opening sentence. Since Emma becomes more active over the course of the story, I think it's appropriate to have a tone of passivity at the beginning. It was one of the things that immediately caught my attention (or maybe it was the off-kilter grammar, which I didn't consciously notice).

Sorry I never commented while you were writing, I really enjoyed it!

mrsdarwin said...

JackieD, glad you enjoyed the story.

The character of Emma at the end of novel was not the same character I started out writing. Since I made it up as I was going along, my conceptions of characters changed throughout the course of composition. The more passive Emma that I tossed off on Day 1 isn't actually the Emma that developed as I wrote. So I felt that the passive voice wasn't really apt for her anymore.

JMB said...

What are your thoughts on "Room"? I read that a few months ago with my book group. I think it would make an interesting movie.

Melanie B said...

I had thought that Emma's move from passivity to more active was a part of her character arc. It will be interesting to see a less passive Emma from the beginning of the story.

I like the formulation "tired trifecta of writing, teaching, and applying to grad school" (Ouch!) I think the exchange with her sister that you've added is a nice bit of action to happen right off the bat.

MrsDarwin said...

JMB, I liked Room much more than I thought I would. I really shied away from it when I first heard it mentioned because the subject sounded too horrible, but the author was very sensitive and authentic in her child narrator. It would make an excellent movie, but you'd need a very talented little boy (or a terrific acting coach -- remember that shooting a movie means that the child doesn't necessarily have to ever interact with Old Nick except for the one or two occasions in which they come face to face). I think the whole thing would need to be shot from a child's perspective, which would mean some clever camera work.

Darwin said...

Thanks, Melanie. And now that I've posted this, I'm restructuring again and changing the opening scene (though not the opening paragraph).

I do think that Emma becomes more active through the story, but the particular passivity of the first sections was more a function of my not knowing where the story was going, and not a character choice.

MrsDarwin said...

And of course, the above was me.

Jennifer Fitz said...

Mrs. D, I think it's pretty normal for your first draft to open with a scene that doesn't even end up being the opening scene in the final version. You have to start somewhere, just to get words on paper.

mandamum said...

I agree with those who saw Emma moving from passive to active. It made a lot of sense to me that she should be sort of elected to care for Aunt Emma and have it thrust upon her almost without consulting her--I thought it made a good background/counterpoint for the wake at Aunt Emma's house where no one seems to consider Emma's needs and grief. And the learning-to-be-assertive seemed almost a coming-of-age in itself. Like one has to learn to advocate for one's children upon reaching parenthood....

As to how to fix the grammar, that's your baby :)

Anonymous said...

I am here to tell you that I feel your pain. I can barely look at my first page anymore. I find myself being so self-conscious about every word that I don't trust anything I revise.

Loved that you took the first lines from some of the oldies compared to the newbies. Besides The Brothers Karamazov, most of the classics don't pull me in at page one. Brideshead (pretty much my all time fav )took some time to win me, but I knew it was worth the effort.

Oh well, it is what it is, so I better get that first page ship-shape. Best of luck to you!

PS--I really like Emma, by the way. Spunky.