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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » the first 13, and information left unexplained

   
Author Topic: the first 13, and information left unexplained
sojoyful
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In either Characters and Viewpoint or How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (forgive me for not remembering which), OSC praises Octavia Butler's novel Wild Seed for its opening paragraph - nay, its opening sentence, even. Here's the novel's first sentence:
quote:
Doro discovered the woman by accident when he went to see what was left of one of his seed villages.
The mention of "the woman" is central to the plot, which focuses on Doro's relationship with her. Yet I suddenly realized this: After only 43 lines in manuscript format (yes, I typed it out) Butler switches POV to a different character - without making a single additional mention of the woman or giving any information about who she is.

Yes, Doro feels pulled towards something he can't identify, and from the opening sentence we know it is the woman. But that feeling of his doesn't come up until after the first 13 lines. There is absolutely ZERO else said or inferred about the woman in the first 13. If that opening were posted here in F&F, everyone would clamor that we need to know something about that woman - the writer has brought her up, now the reader mustn't be left hanging; otherwise, the woman shouldn't have been mentioned yet. And we would all be dead wrong. Butler's opening is fantastic.

So I don't exactly have a question to ask of you, but I'm left puzzling over this, and the feedback we give on the first 13, and introducing key information without explanation (yet). What are your thoughts?

EDIT to remove a very naughty apostrophe from "its".

[This message has been edited by sojoyful (edited September 07, 2006).]


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wbriggs
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Methinks I see a thread worth keeping, already!

I was just thinking about this, because of something in "Fragments and Feedback" (maybe what made you think of it?). "Susanna Reiche wasn't thinking about the magic that ran through her land when she saw the fox..." And after that, at least for the first 13, nothing else about magic.

Others did say, if she wasn't thinking about it, why mention it? I thought this came under the guideline of "the first paragraph is free." Author is telling us, magic runs through the land, and it's going to be crucial to the story.

Thing is that's the *only* thing that author (or Butler in Wild Seed) left hanging. The action of Doro in Wild Seed after that point was completely comprehensible. We also understood, there's a woman that's going to matter in this book -- and that was true; she was the protagonist.

So, although you can break any rule (while paying the price), I don't even think Butler broke a rule. She told me exactly what was going on. Everything Doro knew, that was relevant to the scene, I knew -- plus that first free paragraph.

[This message has been edited by wbriggs (edited September 07, 2006).]


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oliverhouse
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I haven't read the story, but I'll give you my thoughts on the issue you raise. There are three perspectives I care about on Hatrack: a (theoretical) editor's, a reader's, and the writer's.

Unless I'm told otherwise, I'm assuming that I'm critiquing the work of a non-established writer: someone who doesn't have any/many editors who trust her yet. Since we can't count on trust, we need to ensure that there's nothing in our stories that flags us as rookies or poor writers -- nothing that would tempt an editor to slough us off the slush pile. In fact, we need things that compel them to keep reading. The first page -- those first 13 lines -- need to be the most professional and enticing in the story.

A dangling bit of unexplained information could be a lure cast by an excellent writer, but most most of the time, from an editor's perspective, it's a sign that the writer's a rookie. Therefore, unless there's a real need for it, we should avoid it.

Of course, I have my own perspective, too. If I trust _myself_, I'll be able to correctly reject a critiquer's comments. The first 13, after all, is a keyhole that they're peeking through, not a story. If I _know_ that there's a monster lurking behind the keyhole, and that they'll see it when they open the door, and that it's better if they _don't_ see the monster yet, I'll still keep the monster out of view. Even as an amateur, I get to trust myself.

From a reader's perspective, the first 13 might be used as a way for writers to ask me if I'm willing to read. If someone said, "I'm looking for readers, and I know there's a dangling bit of information in there but trust me", I'd trust him (or not) based on what I've seen in previous attempts at writing, or if they elucidate a bit on what they're going for. Right now there are people here for whom I'd read a story even if the first 13 seemed really confusing, but only a few.

It's a balance, and as a writer you have to make a call. But in general, I think the advice given on the first 13 is useful for what it is, and not for what it's not.

Regards,
Oliver


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Christine
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I don't think there is any missing or dangling information here at all. I believe you are misunderstanding the issue.

I have not read this book, but I did read Card's praise of it. Based on this first sentence along I can honestly tell you that I do not necessarily expect to hear more about the woman right away. In fact, this sentence has the feel of a certain type of valid opening sentence -- I'm not sure what to call it -- in which we dip a little ways into the future of the story to get the reader interested. It seems to me that Doro has not really met the woman yet, that he is GOING to meet the woman, and that as we continue through the first few paragraphs we will more than likely hear about his going to check on one of the seed villages (hopefully learning a little more about them).

This opening works especially well in first person:

The day I turned inside out began like any other.

On my sisteenth birthday, I discovered that Elvis really is alive.

...

In neither of these examples (please pardon the cheese factor) would you expect the next sentence to talk about the grabber -- we've been told a little bit about the story that hasn't happened yet and now we're going to go back to the beginning.

This is definitely part of the "free paragraph" idea. It is not the same as starting with a flashback, either. But it is setting the stage rather than beginning the action.

Withheld information in the first thirteen would be more along these lines...

Darla couldn't believe it. She had never seen anything so amazing in her life. She felt honored to be a part of it.

Already, I'm going, "What the hell is IT?" and I made it up!


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oliverhouse
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A comment on wbriggs's post (he hadn't posted when I started):

Although the first paragraph is free, _random_ information isn't helpful. There has to be a balance; the "magic" reference was okay for the reasons wbriggs mentions, but having our guard up about that kind of thing is still important. (It sounds to me like Doro broke a rule -- maybe several, if the unnamed and barely mentioned "woman" is the protagonist! -- but did it well.)

[This message has been edited by oliverhouse (edited September 07, 2006).]


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EricJamesStone
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quote:
Unless I'm told otherwise, I'm assuming that I'm critiquing the work of a non-established writer: someone who doesn't have any/many editors who trust her yet. Since we can't count on trust, we need to ensure that there's nothing in our stories that flags us as rookies or poor writers -- nothing that would tempt an editor to slough us off the slush pile. In fact, we need things that compel them to keep reading. The first page -- those first 13 lines -- need to be the most professional and enticing in the story.

This is an excellent point. In fact, it understates the case.

At WorldCon, Stan Schmidt (the editor of Analog, the highest-circulation SF magazine) said that, when going through the slush pile, he is not looking for reasons to reject a story. He can only accept a small portion of the stories he receives, so rejecting a story is the default. He is looking for reasons to accept the story. That means the story must be more than merely competent. It means, as Oliver said, it must be compelling enough that the editor will keep reading.


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pooka
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Keep in mind that this is a novel, and not a short story so the hook is not fully dependent on the first 13 lines (I believe.)
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I need a good user name
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I suppose this isn't adding any actual substance to this thread, but I haven't seen anyone mention it yet so I figure I'll go ahead and answer - it's in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy (I have the book with me right here )
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Robert Nowall
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quote:
At WorldCon, Stan Schmidt (the editor of Analog, the highest-circulation SF magazine) said that, when going through the slush pile, he is not looking for reasons to reject a story. He can only accept a small portion of the stories he receives, so rejecting a story is the default. He is looking for reasons to accept the story. That means the story must be more than merely competent. It means, as Oliver said, it must be compelling enough that the editor will keep reading.

Alas that he accepted some of the ones I've read in his Analog over the years. I still think it boils down to individual taste---and mine isn't theirs. (Schimdt's batting percentage with me is usually higher than in recent issues Asimov's---last month, I liked none of the stories that issue.)


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sojoyful
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Thanks to everyone who has commented on this.

It seems to me that you are free to introduce anything, as long as there is a strong promise to the reader that they are going to find out what it is, and as long as there aren't too many promises being made at once.

As Christine showed, the way Butler's opening is written guarantees to the reader that more will be said about the woman in the near future, after some other important stuff is out of the way.

As wbriggs mentions, this is the one and only piece of information left unexplained. It's like an algebraic equation: with one variable you can solve it, with two you can't.

Combine a lone unexplained bit with the promise made, and it's totally ok to leave that dangling. It's dangling by a strong cord, not a thread.

I also thought of this: "the woman" is something we can all understand. We all know what a woman is, and how (generally) it relates to a man (Doro). If Butler had said, "Doro discovered the flugleblark by accident..." we would have needed an explanation of what that was before progressing. So another rule of thumb is that the dangling bit has to be something about which the reader already has some basic, inherent understanding.

So it seems to me, even though the first paragraph is free, if it includes dangling information, that info must still follow the rules of thumb:
1) be inherently understandable on a basic level
2) come with a strong promise of upcoming explanation
3) be uncomplicated by other variables

oliverhouse, your comments about rookie vs. veteran writers in the eyes of an editor are well said. Practiced writers know better how to work with those rules of thumb (like any writing tool), where newer writers must still wrestle with them.

PS - Thank you to "I need a good user name" for correcting me on the book.


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oliverhouse
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quote:
oliverhouse, your comments about rookie vs. veteran writers in the eyes of an editor are well said. Practiced writers know better how to work with those rules of thumb (like any writing tool), where newer writers must still wrestle with them.

Actually, I wasn't discussing how new or well-practiced the writer is. What matters is how well-established a writer is.

Publishers will read _at least_ the first several chapters of Stephen King's books, or OSC's, or Hillary Clinton's, even if it's dreck. Heck, they might buy it sight unseen under the right circumstances.

They probably won't make it past my first _page_ if it isn't flawless and compelling. There can't be any hint that I'm a rookie, because I might be -- they don't know me from Adam. Even if my story is awesome and that bit of dangling information is explained if they'd just read through line 14, they won't read through line 14, so it's moot.

Somewhere in the middle are the writers who have established relationships with an editor or publisher. Their line 14 will get read, and maybe even farther, on faith -- on the trust that "Jane knows her way around a keyboard."

Unless I'm specifically told to do otherwise, I always assume that a first-13 crit should be written for someone like me: the one with no relationship with the editor or publisher.


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franc li
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In my MLM days, they talked about blind spots, or perceptual expectations that limit performance. Like if your sales goal for the month is $1,500, you sabotage yourself if by accident you sell more than that. Okay, well, maybe that's not quite applicable. I just thing there is a Freudian Epic level of anxiety surrounding the first 13 lines that prevents folks from writing well sometimes.
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