Thursday, September 24, 2015

A New Beginning—Times Four

Yesterday I wrote a new beginning for my work in progress.* This is the fourth beginning. I like it. Of course, I liked the three previous beginnings as well.

Beginning #1: In the middle of that cold, cold winter of 1917-1918, somewhere in the far reaches of western Kansas, Earnest Clinton received letter from the President of the United States. He had been called by his country do his bit and help defeat the Hun. So Earnest packed a change of underwear, and caught the train to Camp Funston, just outside of Junction City, Kansas, and took his place in the ranks of the U.S. Army.

I’d congratulate myself on my cleverness and merrily write on. Then, thirty or forty or one hundred pages on, I’d start to brood. Is my opening good enough?

Beginning #2: Men are sorry creatures. Oh, some are useful to have around. Loyal, protective, competent providers, like well-trained hunting dogs. But generally, men are a disputatious lot, prideful and easily roused to mischief. If a woman wants to avoid heartache, it will serve her well to stay far away from the world of men and tend to her own affairs.

I read an article by an editor who said that she gives a manuscript three pages before she decides whether or not it’s worth her time. I’ve heard this before. Conventional wisdom is that three pages all you have to capture a prospective reader.

Beginning #3: On the fine soft morning of September 1,1918, the congregation of the First Christian Church of Boynton, Oklahoma, prayed for a speedy end to the Great War in Europe. The new preacher, Mr. Huster, didn’t ask that the enemy be annihilated and crushed into dust, as did many of his flock in their private prayers, but that the better angels of human nature would prevail and peace and good will be restored between nations.

I think that if you are as popular an author as Steven King, the reader will give you the benefit of the doubt, because he knows that eventually you’re going to deliver.  But if nobody ever heard of you, you’d better be as interesting and exciting as you can as fast as you can.

Beginning #4: Wesley M. Cotton, prosecuting attorney for the District Court of Muskogee County, Oklahoma, looked up from the deposition to study the couple seated in the chairs in front of his desk. Mr. and Mrs. Shaw Tucker, currently residing on a farm located outside of Boynton, in the western part of the county.
“My wife has come into possession of some new information that we think you should hear.”
Shaw Tucker was doing the talking, but Cotton had no illusions that the reason was because Alafair Tucker was shy or demure. Ever since she had set foot in his office, Cotton was aware that she had been evaluating his every move, judging his every word. He resisted an urge to straighten his tie and adjust his waist coat. Instead he folded his hands on his desktop and leaned forward. “If that is the case, I would appreciate it if you could relate this new evidence to me in your own words, Mrs.Tucker.”
Her sharp, dark eyes gave him a final once-over. Cotton decided that he had passed inspection when she relaxed back into her chair and said, “Mr. Cotton, you have the wrong man, and I aim to tell you how I know.”

Readers used to be more patient, I think. One of my favorite books when I was young was Beau Geste, by Percival Wren, that swashbuckling tale of the French Foreign Legion.  I must have read that book half-a-dozen times.  And yet, I defy any modern to slog through the first 70 pages of set up before the action begins.

A proven technique for beginning a novel is to start in the middle of the action, off and running. The protagonist finds a body. Our hero is sitting in the middle of the road with a gunshot wound and doesn’t know how he got there. The heroine comes home from a trip to find her children are missing. Something intriguing and mysterious has happened before the reader comes in to the story, and now she desperately wants to find out what it is and how it happened.

That’s the idea, anyway.

What do you want to do with beginning? Catch the readers interest, make her wonder what is going to happen next.One may have written the most fabulous novel ever conceived of by any human being, but if you don’t get them by the first three pages, they will ever know how heartbreakingly beautiful your work is.

*I'll probably use some variation of all these beginnings somewhere in the book. But don't bet the farm that I use any of them as the actual beginning.


Anonymous said...

I like all four for different reasons, and the first got my interest immediately. But are you saying that it started the story too early? Been doing some critiques for colleagues, and the opening seems to be one of toughest things for us all. Even ended writing a casual post about first lines, but wish I'd been able to link to yours as you say some key things. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Are we voting? I like #1. There is a personal immediacy to it, and a jolt as well. One immediately assumes the Pres is writing to this guy becuase he's important, then.. he packs his underwear. Number 4 is also excellent, but I like the setting as the background of the war first.

Donis Casey said...

Thanks, guys, it helps to know which direction you find intriguing.

Lenita said...

Number 4 for me. Because I have read (and relished) all the books, I'm glad to have Alafair and Shaw in at the very beginning. Of course Alafair knows they have the wrong man. Now, who is the right man, and what did he do? I'm in!