Novel Writing

The Promise of the Book

book giftThe more I read first passages in books, the more I see this first part as “The Promise of the Book.” It’s really where the author needs to say, “Here’s is what you will get if you read the book,” rather than, “Here’s where the story starts.” I think the  honesty of the opening is only realized after you’ve finished the book. But you need to want to read the book first to see if the author follows through on the promise.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I cannot seem to get the start of my novel right. And it’s pissing me off. Over the three-plus years I’ve been working on this book, the beginning has gone through three basic iterations with dozens of minor variations on each.

The first iteration was a scene I pictured clearly in my head when I first started the book. I loved that scene. I hung onto it until just a few months ago. People who have been kind enough to critique my book have had lots of good things to say about everything except for the beginning. So I tweaked it to hell. Nothing really worked, but I refused to believe that. Finally, once I started getting feedback from professional readers and editors, I realized it was all wrong. So I ditched it. Which was kind of liberating, but that’s another story.

The second iteration followed the prevailing dictum: Start the story at the beginning. So, I thought, that was the problem! I reworked the novel to start the story at the beginning and thought I had it nailed. Then I started querying agents. I received form rejections, which meant my writing wasn’t even good enough to warrant a comment. More than anything, that told me my novel lacked “voice,” that indefinable something that makes an agent, and any reader, want more. The novel has plenty of voice further on. I just couldn’t figure out how to work it into the start of the story.

To make matters worse, I recently read this passage in “The Short Fuse Guide to Plotting Your Novel” by Connor Goldsmith, literary agent at Fuse Literary:

There is a particular opening sentence format that I personally detest, and that I would like to never, ever see again. It goes like this: [PROFESSION] [CHARACTER NAME] [VERB] [PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE]. Here are three examples:

1. Fashion designer Cordelia Perkins walked toward the stage where her models were preparing.

2. Detective Hank Molloy crushed a cigarette under his boot as he peered into the dark alley.

3. Starship captain Marisol Ruiz frowned at the strange readings on her radiation scanner.”

My first reaction was, “Fuck you, Connor Goldsmith,” because my then-current latest greatest freshest first line was “John Laughlin rode his bike through the early morning fog, a stream of water whispering off his tires.” That is exactly where the fucking story begins. John is the main character; the story revolves around cycling (no pun); the fog is integral to the inciting incident. It’s a perfect fucking first sentence because it is exactly where the story begins.

After I calmed down, I thought more seriously about Mr. Goldsmith’s rant. I realize that he and probably every agent sees that identical opening sentence structure multiple times a day, every day, by every author who is trying to start the story at the beginning. I am certain the quotidian structure of my first sentence wasn’t the sole reason for my form rejections. But it was obvious I wasn’t doing myself any favors.

I decided to canvas the books here in our house. I spent hours reading first sentences, first paragraphs, first passages, trying to find a common thread, the thing these authors got right. What I realized is that openings to books I like have a quintessential element, in the sense of a fifth element that exists separate from the basic elements.

After reading all of those passages, it struck me that the real problem with the sentence structure cited above, despite being technically perfect, is that it lacks soul. Anyone can tell a story. It is a lot more work to tell one well. A hell of a lot more work. So, while my opening sentence starts the story, it does not start it well. It is functional, declarative, straightforward. But it doesn’t promise anything. It just states, “I’m going to tell you a story.” That’s not enough.

It strikes me further that this is one reason so many agents tell writers not to use a prologue. Agents state different reasons, but underlying all the reasoning, I think, is that a prologue is an easy way out of the hard work of actually crafting the start of the novel. A way out of putting in the work in to tell the story really well. It’s a shortcut.

So what I am doing these days is figuring out how to combine these two critical elements, voice and the start of the story, in less than a hundred or so words. I am trying to figure out how to tell my readers that this is what’s happening, what’s going to happen, and how it will happen, all without saying so directly, and in such a way that they feel they are being promised a gift they want and that they will feel they’ve received by the end of the book.



Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Novel Writing, 0 comments

Free Gratis: Al Swarengen and John Gardner

Recently, I came across some awkward language I had written. It wasn’t Latin, per se, but it was stilted. It reminded me of John Gardner’s dictum not to use Latinate forms when plain Anglo-Saxon would do. (Wondering, do new writers even read John Gardner anymore?)

The use of Latin can be deliberate (like that totally appropriate use of Latin I just slipped into the last paragraph). It always adds an air of formality, which may or not be intentional on the writer’s part. Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum videtur: That which is said in Latin sounds profound.  The TV Tropes website has a page dedicated to this trope.

Thinking about using English instead of Latin reminded me of a scene in Deadwood. If you recognize the phrase “free gratis,” you already know what I’m talking about. If not, below is a clip (actually two clips spliced together). Swearengen’s observation at the end of the clip pretty much sums up the issue. (I also like the scene for its portrayal of the group editing process. I imagine that anyone who has had to create by committee can relate to Merrick’s frustration.)

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Novel Writing, 0 comments

Thoughts on “Will Kill for Food”

Why I Wrote the Story

Trouble at Rindo's Station

1953 magazine in which “Trouble at Rindo’s Station” was first published

For some time, I have been planning to write a novel about the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles Riots (also known as the Rodney King Riots, the South Central Riots, the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Disturbance, and the 1992 Los Angeles Civil Unrest, and, in the Korean American community as  Sa-I-Gu). In fact, I got about a third of the way through writing it before I abandoned the project back in the mid-90s.

A couple of years ago I decided to restart the novel. In preparation, I thought I would write a few stories, one for each of the main characters. The purpose of each story was to focus on some aspect of the character’s personality that is key to their role in the novel, and further, show some event that helps form that aspect of their character.

In Dean’s case, the aspect of character I wanted to show was how he became more active politically. Because Dean is the main character, the story should probably be titled “Young Man Blues.” But “Will Kill for Food” is so much more interesting, at least to me. I think it also expresses a certain desperation that most of the characters in the story experience, which is an undercurrent of the story.

I finished writing this story in May 2011. The original was in eight sections. I edited the story in places to meet the word-length requirements for JukePop, and to suit the serial format better. I think the changes improved the story.


How I Wrote the Story

Once I knew the basic experience Dean would have in the story (defending Uncle Jun’s store), I needed a plot. The  plot I settled on came from two sources.

First, I knew we had to meet Dean before the verdict in the Rodney King case was announced (Wednesday), and that we had to stay with him until he decides to join the Koreatown peace march (which takes place Saturday, the day after the story ends). I also knew I needed quiet time in the series of events to get some background in on Dean, Jun, and Ron. Dean’s friend John appears in the beginning and end of the story as a constant by which to measure Dean’s emotional change.

Second, the more I thought about and researched the setting of the L.A. Riots, the more it resembled a Western. In a Western, the threat of violence is present in a far more natural way than in any other genre (except maybe prison or war stories). I mean, every man on the street in a Western is openly armed for one thing. And the idea of taking care of yourself – through violence if necessary – rather than relying on the law, is taken for granted.

I intentionally threw in some references to Westerns (“Holding down the fort,” “Calvary is on their way”) to make the point clearer.

I borrowed the structure from an Elmore Leonard Western short story. In that sense, “Will Kill for Food” can be read as an updated version of Leonard’s “Trouble at Rindo’s Station.” (It’s a great story, and is reprinted in a couple of his anthologies if you care to read it.) In the original, a renegade warrior takes over control of a tribe from a peaceful chief, arguing that strength, not tradition, determines leaders. The renegade warrior gathers a group of others and jumps the reservation to attack Rindo’s Station. In the end, a reservation agent trapped inside the station (who’s actually a good guy for a change) subdues the renegade in a fist fight.

In my remake, one gang that takes over another’s turf by moving beyond their neighborhood (“jumping the reservation”) and subduing the leader of the gang by force. Also, while Leonard’s protagonist was a normal Western hero, in the sense that he’s brave and accustomed to violence, Dean has to overcome his fear in order to fight off the threat of Willy Dobson and his gang.


Limitations of My Approach

An interesting aspect of looking at this story as an updated Western is that it freed me from feeling a need to get into the reality of the L.A. Riots from different points of view. In “Rindo’s Station,” there is no discussion of the morality or fairness of having Native Americans confined to reservations. They simply are, and when they leave the reservation, it often means trouble for the white population nearby. Similarly, in my story, there is no discussion of the causes of the civil unrest. I did not want to create a historical novella. The aspects of the riots Dean saw on TV were representative of what the media chose to show and what he chose to focus on. As a non-political individual, I think that makes sense in the context of the story. A better piece of work (a truer Historical or Literary fiction) might go into greater depth on how wrenching an experience the riots were to different communities, even without the threat of a gang at your front door. That just wasn’t my aim here.

Another interesting thing about the story is that by accomplishing what I set out to do, I had something of a failure on my hands. After months of research, writing, and editing, I came to the end only to find that I didn’t think this was viable as a publishable story exactly because I did what I set out to do; that is, create a character study based on a Western. Also, by focusing on including what I thought I needed to make the story complete, it ran well beyond short story length (of which there are many places to publish) and into novella length (which has few outlets). By chance, I stumbled on the publisher (Black Hill Press), the contest (Summer Reading Project), and the serial-form website (JukePop). Otherwise, this story would probably never been read by anyone.

Finally, there is a fair amount of information I intentionally left out of the story. Some people commented on them: How did John and Dean meet? What happened to Tanya’s mom (Jun’s wife)? All of this information and more besides actually resides in other stories I’ve written or intend to write. Rather than repeat the information in every piece, I thought I would only repeat it as necessary. It may be a bad decision, but that’s where things stand now.

Posted by Scott Alumbaugh in Criticism, Novel Writing, Will Kill for Food, 7 comments