Wednesday, December 8, 2010

In the Beginning . . .

Given the difficulties inherent in creating a great book opening, you can see how the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest draws out so many entrants each year.

The classic opening sentence Bulwer-Lytton used in his 1830 book, Paul Cifford, is the icon of bad openings. “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” is so endemic that it became the ridiculed opening of Snoopy’s opus---over and over and over. People who don’t know a thing about Bulwer-Lytton’s florid and over-wrought writing may well have heard the phrase. Aren’t Shakespeare, the Bible, or Ben Franklin the source for everything we quote anyway??? (Okay, I know there are a lot of contenders for this category. Write your own blog on it and invite me over to read.)

But, you know, I have some sympathy for the Bulwer-Lytton. In case you only know the opening of the opening, here it is in toto:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.

Whew! Does that sound at all familiar to you who have struggled, as have I, with the exigencies of creating, in the quest in which we seek agented representation, the perfect, engaging opening to a novel which may not countenance a grand entrance, but for which we nevertheless strive?

At writing conferences, they tell us to dump the first 50 pages if that’s where the action is, where the book really begins. Are you kidding me? If I knew how to open in the middle of the action rather than giving you all the nitty gritty you’re going to need to understand my book, I would have done that in the first place. That’s why I’m at your session (my 17th session) on writing an engaging opening.

So here’s what I’ve done to build my awareness of openings, in media res, where the action is blah blah blah. I have deconstructed several book beginnings in the genre of my current WIP. I ask myself, “What question(s) does this raise? Do I want to know more? How does this propel the story forward?”

I also play the “First Lines” game (taught to me by my daughter-in-law and described in a blog last February). The game let’s me practice some first lines and compare them with the actual author’s first lines. An interesting intellectual task. Because of the distance, it’s easy. You don’t necessarily know the book characters or plot lines, so there is no pressure to “set up” the book. Distance is good for an academic exercise.

But being able to deconstruct or construct for someone else’s work doesn’t necessarily transfer to the original problem: my book. I can appreciate the beauty of a great opening in others’ works. I can see the problem soooo clearly in someone else’s work. Why not mine?

Or as is more often the case, I can tell easily that my opening isn’t up to snuff. But how can I make it better? I didn’t set out to write mediocre. Honest. I am open to comments here. Please write about your struggles. Share successes in writing great openings, and tell us all how you got there.


  1. I'm right with you, sister. I sometimes have to write a few pages before the place I wind up starting just to figure out in my own head what's going on.

  2. And sometimes more than "a few pages," eh? Thanks for stopping by to comment. Hope you'll be back! Sharon