In a moment, I’m going to share the opening bit from the book I’m currently re-drafting, called Witless Ned and the Speaking Stones. But first I want to talk a bit about book beginnings – that first rush of words that snatches us, binds us, pulls us, body and soul, into the beating, fleshy heart of an imaginary individual.
What makes us keep reading? What happens in those first few sentences to establish and identify the nature of the journey in which we are about to embark? What makes us engaged, arrested, invested and irrevocably tied to lives and choices of characters that we’ve never met – and never will meet?
Beginnings fascinate me.
I think I spend more time on my opening passages than I do on any other part of a story. It’s the section that I fuss over, reading out loud over and over again until I not only have it memorized, but I start whispering it in my sleep.
The thing about the beginning – and I’m speaking now more as a reader than as a writer – that the language needs to be constructed as a delight for both eye and ear. I’m attracted to books that astonish me in the first paragraph, books that establish the language environment in which I’ll be living for the next few days – and what’s more books that make me want to stay in that world of words. I like books with voices I can hear, language that is crisp and bright and sharp. I like books with language that makes me squint, bleed, wince, weep. I like books with language that feels like a whisper on my skin, a breath in my ear, a bit of tart sweetness in my mouth.
Well, every year or so, I re-read The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by Thorton Wilder, and his use of the word “precipitated” in describing five travelers falling to their deaths after a rope bridge over an Andean ravine snaps and breaks, gets me every time. There’s a lot to love in that novel – and for a story as slim and spare as that one, it is dense as hell. Each page contains universes upon universes, and every time I read that book, my experience is remarkably different. Still. What he does in that first page in terms of the establishment of that cadence, incongruence and verisimilitude, is simply awesome.
And Pynchon’s brilliant opening to the even more brilliant Gravity’s Rainbow – “A screaming comes across the sky,” leaves me gasping every time. It took me about twelve tries to finally finish that book, but some things are absolutely worth the effort.
And then there’s Julia Glass and her gorgeous novel Three Junes: “Paul chose Greece for it’s predictable whiteness: the blanching heat by day, the rush of stars at night, the glint of lime-washed houses crowding its coast. Blinding, searing, somnolent, fossilized Greece.”
I mean, really, that’s just ridiculously pretty. Julia! You’re killing me with the pretties!
And then there’s Louise Erdrich’s s0-awesome-it-made-me-start-writing-again-after-years-of-not-writing novel, Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse: “The grass was white with frost on the shadowed sides of the reservation hills and ditches, but the morning air was almost warm, sweetened by a southern wind. Father Damien’s best hours were late at night, and just after rising, when all he’d had to break his fast was a cup of hot water. He was old, very old, but alert until he had to eat.” Louise Erdrich – for those of you who don’t know this – is my writing mom. This book arrived in my life at EXACTLY the right time, and my eyes and my ears and my heart haven’t been the same since.
I’ll never be able to write like any of these people. I can only write like me. But it’s important that I read what I can and learn what I can, and try my best.
As I re-draft (I’ve drafted this book twice longhand, and now am transcribing and rebuilding as I feed it into my computer) I’ll probably fuss at my beginning every day. That’s usually how I start my work day – I fuss at the beginning, then return to where I left off and continue the journey. It’s probably not the most efficient method, but it’s mine, so I’ll keep it. My kids are so sick of hearing me read it out loud, they now take off their stinky socks and throw them at me while I sit at my desk. I ignore them. I’ll get the language right eventually.
This section will probably change a thousand times before it ever returns to paper (assuming I ever sell it, which is obviously an open question), but I thought I’d share the current version with you now. The language environment in which I want this story to live isn’t where I want it to be. Not yet. But it’s on the right track. And one day, I’ll be happy with it.
Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection. They had the same eyes, the same hands, the same voice, the same insatiable curiosity. And though it was generally agreed that one was slightly quicker, slightly cleverer, slightly more wonderful than the other, no one could tell the boys apart. So which one was the quick one, the clever one, the wonderful one, was always a subject of some debate.
The boys were never apart. Where one went, the other was always nearby, which meant that with the combination of their intelligence, creativity, and willingness to annoy their elders, they were often in trouble.
One day, when the boys were still very small, they attempted to build a raft out of bits of rope and cast off pieces of broken furniture and sticks. They worked at it over the course of several days, hiding it well from their mother. Once they felt the vessel was seaworthy, the slid it into the Great River and climbed aboard, hoping to make it to the Sea.
They were mistaken.
The vessel was not seaworthy. Very quickly, the rushing currents pulled the raft apart, and the boys were thrown into the water, fighting for their lives.
Their father dove into the water – though he could barely swim – and struggled through the current towards his children.
A crowd gathered at the edge of the water. They were afraid of the river – afraid of drowning, afraid of the spirits that lived in the water who might snatch a man if he wasn’t careful, pull him towards a watery grave – and did not dive in to assist the man or his struggling children. Instead, they called out helpful comments to the terrified father.
“Mind you keep their heads above the water when you drag them back,” one woman yelled.
“And if you can only save one, make sure you save the right one,” a man added.
The current separated the boys. The father couldn’t save them both. He struggled and swore, but as he reached one boy – the closer boy – his twin had been swept far down the length of the river and out of sight. His body washed ashore later that day, swollen and aghast. The people gathered around the small, dead child and shook their heads.
“I knew he’d bungle it,” they said.
“He saved the wrong one. The wrong boy lived.”