I’ve been thinking a great deal about this ‘first 13’ format and have come to the conclusion that a lot of people have missed the point – including me. Yes, in a properly formatted short story manuscript, you only have thirteen lines of prose with which to convince an editor that he needs to turn the page. In a novel manuscript you actually have twenty-six lines, less the chapter line, and possibly a blank line.
Nearly every response I’ve read to ‘first 13’s’ submitted by people, including me, have focused on action and movement, showing and not telling – and so on. As a corollary to that, as I read submitted ‘first 13’s’ I find I am being overwhelmed and drowned in fast action, suspense, intrigue, desperation, anguish, fear – well, I could keep going on and on and on.
Am I so out of touch with the world that the opening sentence of The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway is now an unpublishable opening to a story?
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
There’s no showing, it’s all telling. There’s no action, just narrative. But, if I were an editor I’d turn the page based on that sentence alone. I’ve never read any Hemingway, but I now intend to read this story because of that opening sentence. If the rest of the story is anything like as gripping and intense as that single sentence – I’m going to cry and pull out my hair until I understand how he did it.
So, having said all that, don’t expect my next ‘first 13’ to open with an atomic flash or a sobbing mother. It will open with the setting, mood and pace I want. I may move you; if I do then I’ve done something right. It may intrigue you, in which case you’ll want to turn the page to find out – whatever. Or it may just be some gentle and easy prose that draws you into a world other than your own – without blood curdling cries and the clash of armour.
I have come to the conclusion that this obsession with the ‘first 13’ is probably going to destroy more good stories than it helps publish.
I've studied The Old Man and the Sea for every erg of process and aesthetic I can glean. Over the years while my analytical process has advanced, I've returned to the novella time and again and other narratives on my test bench. I could give you some clues to what's going on in the novella's opening sentence, page, scene, section, but I would not deny you the joys that come from satisfying frustrations by one's self.
Okay. One clue. The opening sentence introduces a character, in a setting, with a dramatic complication, a problem wanting satisfaction, and the narrative voice of the piece. Openings are for introductions. No more; no less. The term exposition means introduction. That many writers avoid exposition because they take it to mean lengthy and dull backstory or other information blocks to be avoided is a tragic consequence of artless and vague use of the term and deployment of exposition. Think of an expo, like a World's Fair. That's the traditional and rigid denotative meaning of exposition.
There's several language features going on in the sentence, too. Use of the preterite was to express a state of present-time being and as a de re, of the thing, expression. "He was," meaning Santiago's not now? No, meaning Santiago is. The de re expression serves to close narrative distance. Narrator voice is predominant but character voice is not too far away. The conjunction also, it's a syndeton. Syndetons close narrative distance too. Artful language.
One aspect I think any reader should know about the novella: on the first page is the word salao. The word is a provincial Spanish idiom, a slurred word meaning salted or salty. From salado, silent or slurred D, from the verb salar, to salt, past participle verb used as an adjective. The idiomatic meaning is cursed or spoiled or ruined. A comparable English idiom is old salt with its attendant connotations of idiosyncracy and eccentricity and being cursed or spoiled or ruined.
The thirteen-line principle, like most if not all writing principles, serves both mechanical and aesthetic functions. First mechanical, that it is the first page content of a Standard Manuscript Formatted manuscript, regardless of length. SMF recommends a half-page sink so that a reader is not confronted with a full page text wall. A half page is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and not so daunting as a full page of wall-to-wall, margin-to-margin text. Second mechanical, that it limits potential loss of first publication rights. Third mechanical, that it is the container for a narrative's opening introductions, its exposition.
Thirteen lines aesthetic qualifications, I don't know, they are manifold. Perhaps foremost, engaging readers caring and curiosity about a character in a setting with a dramatic complication, they very purpose of an introduction, an exposition.
The first thirteen line concept is unfortunately misapplied very much here. The idea that it's a length that can be commented on and it's generally accepted that the number of words posted won't infringe upon your publishing rights is fine. The idea that you have to have a complete and killer hook in the first thirteen is misguided. All you really have to do is make the person want to read on. That can be done with action, yes, but it can also be done with voice, or by raising a question.
And obviously the idea that you need to get the editor to 'turn the page' is almost completely obsolete when all they have to do now is scroll down (with a few exceptions).
Posts: 1992 | Registered: Jul 2009
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rcmann, I so totally agree. I told a 'beta-reader' of my own poor prose that I'll never send him a first draft ever again.
extrinsic, thanks for the hint, and allowing me to come to my own understanding of The Old Man and the Sea. I understood the purpose of the opening line almost immediately. And such a powerful and all encompassing opening it is. An artful use of language is, I would suggest, an understatement. I could never pen such a line, I don't have the necessary understanding of my own language. Which in itself is a testament to our headlong rush toward mediocrity for the sake of brevity and excitement.
genevive, again I agree. I would suggest that, instead of 13 lines for a printed manuscript, it should be x number of lines for a screen-shot. except, for graphic design reasons, I have a square monitor. My other computer has a 'wide-screen' format and I'm not sure what the standard monitor format is any more. Damn the complications of modernity!
I agree with a lot of what's been said here. When I first decided to 'become a writer' I checked a bunch of books out of the library which all urged aspiring authors to make their first paragraph as exciting as possible, to hook the reader through their pulsating, moist little hearts. Consequently, everything I wrote for the next year started out with someone being stabbed, eaten, transformed, thrown out an airlock--you name it. Most of those stories didn't make it past the first page and they were all pretty terrible. Not that fun to write, much less read.
I've learned since then, from better sources, that 'action' isn't always the best hook and a healthy dose of one's natural voice goes a fair bit farther than contrived excitement. In fact, i find that writing the first line off of the cuff is sometimes the best indicator--if you're interested enough in the first line to keep going, the reader probably will be to. Of course I've not published a thing so it's just a theory;)
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lizluka, it's a good theory to my mind. You might not get very many islligonitists (made up name) reading it, but you'll get people who think as you do wondering. That's all you can hope to aim for, people who feel your writing 'speaks' to them. Heinlein, Azimov, Wells, they all spoke with different voices and they all had different aficionados. You can't be everything to everyone.
Write what you believe in, write what moves you. If it's honest and from the heart, people will follow.
Then again, what a load of sanctimonious and pious rubbish I sprout now and then.
That last phrase is me railing against the notion that putting your own heart and soul on the page is a bad ting. I write what moves me. I doubt anyone on this forum has seen much of my writing. Those who have keep commenting on how I have an uncanny knack of bringing them to tears. Tears of joy, and tears of regret. That's my aim, to evoke emotion in my readers. Not to manipulate, heaven's forbid. That would be an anathema to me. But to create a situation, and a mood and ambience, that as the dialogue unfolds, you the reader, feel trapped in an emotional storm you cannot escape. And then the scene evolves into a 'natural' conclusion and you feel that you have learned something (I hate this but I'll say it anyway) deep and meaningful about the characters involved.
Again, too much fermented grape juice has made me a fool of myself.
This is hardly a new topic. You may want to do a search because there have been some great discussions on this before.
I think different readers want different things, and the trick to the beginning of any story is to attract your intended audience to the story. The beginning is important to set the tone for the story and make promises to the reader so that they know that this is something that they want to read.
Some readers may want action right up front. Others may be intriqued by an interesting character or an interesting setting. Some may be drawn in by prose alone. There is no right or wrong answer here. You just need to find the right beginning for your story, that will attract your readers.
I for one don't like the first sentence of The Old Man and the Sea. It is dull IMO, but I've read the whole story, and I found it mind numbingly boring. So I guess the beginning worked in letting me know that It wasn't the story for me. I'm glad it worked for you.
I think the trick to making great beginnings is to find the stories that appeal to you, and study how they begin. Because people who like the stories that you like to read are probably the audience you are trying to capture. And the agents and editors who publish or represent your favorite authors are probably the agents and editors that will be interested in you.
No beginning or story, for that matter, works for everyone. You need to find your audience.