The opening I have rewritten so many times I am not sure I know up from down. Help me orient myself? ----------------
The seaside alehouse reverberated with voices vying to be heard above one another. Able Houser squinted as though that would help tune them out so he could focus on the four young men he’d seated himself with. “What, imaginary lines?” scoffed the largest of them. This greenhorn deckhand had been explaining how to find one’s latitude to the others around the table before Able had failed to resist informing him that, no, he really wasn’t. Now he rolled his shoulders back to make himself look bigger as he tossed a knowing glance to his fellows. “He’s saying we find our way on imaginary lines.” “We navigate ourselves along all sorts of lines that only exist in our imaginations,” Able tried with a mild shrug. “All the time. In all situations.”
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It's hard to tell with such a small sample, but I think I see the problem. And if I'm right, it's not a matter of rewriting, or changing the opening. It's that like so many hopeful writers, you're trying to use the techniques of verbal storytelling, and the writing skills we're given in school, in a medium that doesn't support them. You, the narrator, are explaining the story to the reader.
This opening is typical of a verbal storyteller setting the scene, visually. You're telling the reader what they would see were they on the scene, or watching the film version. What that means is that instead of being with the protagonist as he experiences the scene, we're with you, the narrator, hearing about it. And that approach carries some substantial problems with it—problems that the author cannot see because as the author, before you read the first word you know the scene. It lives in your mind. You know the character's background, his mood, and what your objective is for this scene.
Moreover, you can hear the emotion in your own voice as you perform the story for the audience. Your voice is rich with emotion. You whisper and shout. You change intensity and cadence, and use the tricks of verbal storytelling. To that you add in the visual punctuation of gestures, changes in expression, and even meaningful eye movement. And, you amplify or moderate all that with body language. So for you the story is exactly what you want it to be. But how much of that makes it to the page? Have your computer read it aloud to hear what the reader gets. Not only does none of your performance make it to the page, the reader has no access to your intent for how a given line should be taken. So, they make do with what your words suggest to them, based on their background and experience, which won't match yours.
And as if all that isn't enough, because you know the story and the scene, things that are obvious to you, but not to the reader, won't be clarified because you see no need to do so. It's inherent in the "outside-in" presentation method you're using.
quote:Able Houser squinted as though that would help tune them out so he could focus on the four young men he’d seated himself with.
But these aren't just four young men, to him. They're sailors. And one of them has been talking on the subject of navigation, which led to the statement you quote. You know that. Able knows it. The men at the table do, too. But the reader—the one you write this for—has not a clue. All they know is that it's a noisy alehouse. So the question about imaginary lines has no antecedents, and so, no context for the reader, and therefore, makes no sense as read. But as you read it, knowing the situation, it makes perfect sense.
That's one of the reasons why it's best to present the story through the viewpoint of the protagonist, and be certain that the reader has an understanding of the situation that the protagonist does.
You see them as young men, because you're outside, looking in, and providing a script the characters have no say in. But had you written from Able's viewpoint the man would be what they are to him in that moment. Does he know their names? Are they from his ship or another? Are they known or strangers? These things influence what he does and says—his perceptions of the mood and intent of the others at the table. All that, combined with his personal desires and needs influence what he says and does...if he has his say. But does he? Or do you dictate his actions to him according to the needs of the plot?
The matters a great deal, because if you're in charge of what he says and does, he'll be smart when you need that, and dumb when that's on the agenda. If he's in charge, and reacting as his personality, needs, and situation, dictate, you'll have to change the plot and situation as necessary to make him want to do what you need him to do. That will seem reasonable and real to a reader. Having him do what you need him to do won't.
Okay, this is a lot, and I'm certainly going out on a limb. But if I'm right, you have a lot of company, because of a mistake we pretty much all make. When we sit down to write our stories most hopeful writers look at the skill called writing that we're given in school and assume that because the name is the same as the name of the profession, the two are related. So, off we go. But it's not.
We spend the twelve years of our primary education learning how to write essays and reports, which are fact-based, author-centric, and designed to inform the reader clearly. And somehow, we never realize that we don't read fiction to be informed. We want the story to excite us, terrify us, fill us with romantic thoughts, and all the other emotions. So fiction's goal is emotional. And that takes a very different approach, one that's emotion-based and character-centric.
When reading fiction, we want to feel as if we're on the scene, as the protagonist, living moment-to-moment, not hearing a summation from someone who's not there. When you tell the reader a story on the page, the inability to hear and see the storyteller makes the narrator's voice inherently dispassionate. So we need to limit the narrator's role to that of support, and focus on what matters to the protagonist in the moment he calls now.
Is he having trouble hearing the conversation? Let him shake his head in frustration at the noise level and ask for the question to be repeated. It is, after all, his story, right? And you're going to make life hell for him. So let him live it center stage, as himself, making his own decisions, while you retire to the prompter's booth and play God, tossing challenges at him at a rate just a bit faster then he can handle. He'll hate you for it but the reader will smile.
So how do you do that? You add a few of the tricks of the pros to your toolbox. Here's one way of placing the reader into the persona of the protagonist. Used well, if someone in that pub tosses a tankard at your protagonist the reader will duck. Chew on it for a time, till it makes sense, then try the five step technique out to see if it helps. It'll feel awkward at first, like learning a dance step. But stay with it till it becomes natural.
These days I'm recommending James Scott Bell's, Elements of Fiction Writing, as a good way to pick up on the nuts-and-bolts issues. For an overview of some of them, I think my articles on Wordpress give a good overview, but site rules say I can't link to them.
So...this was a lot, from just a few lines. A bit like trying to take a sip from a fire-hose I'm afraid. But the presentation methodology of your opening is one I've seen often, and flows, in part, from something we forget, which is that all professions are learned in addition to the three R's we're given in school. And ours is a profession, and not an easy one to learn, at that.
So if what I've said makes sense, have at it. With your toolbox filled with shiny new technique that can give your words wings, who knows where you'll fly to?
So hang in there, and keep on writing. It keeps us off the streets at night.
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Hm, so the thing is I am fully in tune with Able's POV, not composing a scene "outside-in". Which doesn't matter if it looks like I am not. This is a new opening in that I used to start later in the scene but a professional editor told me I should back up to whatever Able was doing before that moment and give the reader more time to orient themselves in the setting (and unfortunately he never looked at my revisions, but given it was pro bono, not gonna complain). But you're right that I assume certain things are obvious. For example, of course these guys are strangers to Able, otherwise they'd have names. Also, I assumed that "failed to resist" conveys Able's opinion of this situation--the way this guy is taking his correction has him wishing he hadn't invited himself over. And he's annoyed with himself because this was an obvious possibile outcome. And also he insists he didn't say anything strange by, uh, saying something strange. But I didn't convey any of this? And this isn't something I can easily fix by changing "young men" to "young deckhands" (another point, as they are not sailors, but if they want to be, they would need to learn to navigate, so they _could_ have found Able's knowledge welcome) and switching the back-story sentence to prior to his line?
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quote:Hm, so the thing is I am fully in tune with Able's POV, not composing a scene "outside-in".
Of course you are "in tune." But as presented. this is the narrator talking to the reader, explaining the situation as that person views it, not as the protagonist does. So we know the scene as you explain it, in summation, not as the protagonist lives it.
There's a name for the narrator doing that. It's called "telling." Another name for presenting the scene in the viewpoint of the protagonist is showing. In the words of E. L. Doctorow, “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader, not the fact that it’s raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.”
quote:For example, of course these guys are strangers to Able, otherwise they'd have names.
They probably do. And if he's been in in discussion with them he's been introduced. So he knows their names, but you don't? Again, it's his story. Why talk about his life when he could be living it as the reader's avatar?
At the moment, you, the narrator, are explaining what's happening. He's not actually on the scene because the reader is with the narrator, not him.
quote:Also, I assumed that "failed to resist informing" conveys Able's opinion of this situation
"Able had failed to resist," is awkward, and that "had" again sets the viewpoint as yours, the dipassionate outside observer. In his viewpoint, it would be more like:
"... had been explaining how to find one’s latitude to the others around the table before Able shook his head and said, 'No, you're not.'
I'll defer to Mark Twain, who said, “Don't say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
In Able's world events happen within the moment he calls now, and he reacts to them in the same way. Any time you, someone not on the scene, talk about him in overview the scene clock is stilled, all momentum the scene may have generated vanishes, and the acquiring editor reaches for the rejection slip.
You are not in the story or on stage. So the moment you appear among the actors, talking about them to invisible people, if the characters don't ask you who you are, what you're doing there, and who you're talking to, they can no longer appear to be real people.
quote:And he's annoyed with himself because this was an obvious possible outcome.
That's your intent, of course. But you already know the story, and his attitude. By the text he's said, thought, or done nothing that would give the reader that idea.
quote:And this isn't something I can easily fix by changing "young men" to "young deckhands"
The problems run a great deal deeper than that, because most of what I mentioned is a symptom, not the cause.
You mentioned having an editor look at this. Was that editor experienced in fiction, in your genre, that was published by a royalty paying publisher? Unless that editor is experienced in fiction, they will be using a very different criteria for editing. Nonfiction is fact-based and author centric, with the goal of informing the reader.
Fiction, on the other hand, has as its goal involving the reader emotionally as a form of entertaining them. As such, the techniques used are emotion-based and character centric—an approach to writing that is literally not mentioned during our school days.
Bottom line: our reader isn't looking to know what happened. That's detail. History books are filled with betrayal, intrigue, romance, and all the things that make a story great. So why don't we read history books? Because the facts are presented in overview. There's no uncertainty, nothing to worry about, or to care about. History is immutable. But fiction is not. In fiction. we place the reader into the protagonist's moment of "now." We make the reader know the scene as the protagonist does, taking into account their perceptions, their interpretation of what has their attention, their needs and desires, and their analysis. That calibrates the reader's perceptions to that of the protagonist, places them in that moment of now, and makes the future uncertain, and therefore interesting. Without that it's just a report.
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I don't know where you are taking this; I won't like if the next paragraph moves back in time. Having caveated that:
I love this start. The last line is the centerpiece, before that is the setup. And the setup works, and the last line comes off as natural and in character. It shows your intelligence and depth and suggests a lot of potential.
reverberate is probably the wrong word. Wouldn't that need metal walls? I think I need more careful description of what's happening and who is talking to who. As if in a real book it didn't have to all fit in 13 lines.
In addition to the final line, I like that it starts with things happening in time. I like that it starts establishing character and setting.
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But you're right that I assume certain things are obvious. For example, of course these guys are strangers to Able, otherwise they'd have names. Also, I assumed that "failed to resist" conveys Able's opinion of this situation--the way this guy is taking his correction has him wishing he hadn't invited himself over. And he's annoyed with himself because this was an obvious possible outcome. And also he insists he didn't say anything strange by, uh, saying something strange.
But I didn't convey any of this?
Nope, you didn’t.
One thing about the start of a story: The reader knows nothing while you know everything. NEVER assume the reader knows what you do, or can read what’s in your mind or what you intend. You have assumed far too much and instead of clarity in your prose you have, in my opinion, sown nothing but confusion.
As a reader I am not engaged with this opening because, quite frankly, I'm confused. A sailor walks into a bar???!!! Really? He then ‘intrudes’ on a group of people and starts to explain navigation, badly. I guess the real question I have is: What does any of this have to do with your story? I can't see any outcome worth the ink.
Naomi, one of the best places to start a story is where the protagonist becomes involved in whatever situation gets the story rolling.
What you have started with appears to me to be a character picking a fight with four strangers, and you give no reason for the character doing that.
Why would I as a reader care about someone that arrogant or stupid? And what does picking a fight with four strangers have to do with the story you are telling?
What is the story? And why is Able the protagonist in the story? What does Able want and what is he willing to do to achieve his objective?
I really don't see any of that (or even a hint of it) in the fragment you've posted, so I'm inclined to think that this is not the true beginning of your story.
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