Original Detail

I’ve been reading  a lot of books on the craft of writing lately, perhaps as a way to inspire myself to become a better writer.  Throughout this journey, I have discovered a few authors who amaze me.  Natalie Goldberg is one of them.  Her book, Writing Down the Bones has such good advice and encouragement for all writers, not just beginners.  Here is a snippet about original detail.  It was too good to summarize, so I thought I’d share it with you:

Life is so rich, if you can write down the real details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.  Even if you transplant the beveled windows, slow-rotating Rheingold sign, Wise potato chip rack, and tall red stools from the Aero Tavern that you drank in in New York into a bar in a story in another state and time, the story will have authenticity and groundedness.  “Oh, no, that bar was on Long Island, I can’t put it in New Jersey” – yes, you can.  You don’t have to be rigid about original detail.  The imagination is capable of detail transplants, but using the details you actually know and have seen will give your writing believability and truthfulness.  It creates a good solid foundation from which you can build…  Be awake to the details around you, but don’t be self-conscious.  “Okay, I’m at a wedding.  The bride has on blue.  The groom is wearing a red carnation.  They are serving chopped liver on doilies.”  Relax, enjoy the wedding, be present with an open heart.  You will naturally take in your environment, and later, sitting at your desk, you will be able to recall just how it was dancing with the bride’s redhead mother, seeing the bit of red lipstick smeared on her front tooth when she smiled, and smelling her perfume mixed with perspiration.

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First Sentences

I know we’re way past this, but today I started thinking about first sentences in novels.  They’re what pull you in to the story.  They set the tone for the entire book.  They’re like the entryway of a house.  They greet you, they give you a brief feeling of what the rest of the house is going to be like, and they let you know whether you should be taking your shoes off or not.

While the logical thing would  be to begin at the beginning, first sentences seem to have the most appeal when they begin in the middle of things.  While “once upon a time” works for fairytales, it doesn’t always have the draw that we look for in a novel.  Some of the best books I’ve read begin where the action starts, and makes it impossible for me to put it down.

Let’s take for example Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.  Her novel begins with: “I wish Giovanni would kiss me.”  The reader’s immediate response is to read on.  Who is Giovanni?  Is he going to kiss her?  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think her opening line would have been nearly as effective if it had begun with her living a normal suburban life with her husband, telling the story in chronological order.  Bringing Giovanni in right away gives it an edge of sexiness – a little bit of excitement.  It’s brilliant.  Fortunately for her, the rest of the story follows suit.

Another great example: My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult.  “When I was little, the great mystery to me wasn’t how babies were made, but why.”  Doesn’t this instantly make you wonder why she is wondering about babies?  If this story had begun from the beginning, it would have started before her birth, and wouldn’t have created such a sense of mystery.  This opening creates questions in our minds and urges us to read on.

Here are some other great openings.  Hopefully some of them will inspire you.

The Lady with the Dog by Anton Chekhov

They were saying a new face had been seen on the esplanade: a lady with a pet dog.

The Blue Men by Joyce Williams

Bomber Boyd, age thirteen, told his new acquaintances that summer that his father had been executed by the state of Florida for the murder of a Sheriff’s deputy and his drug-sniffing German shepherd.

Gesturing by John Updike

She told him with a little gesture he had never seen her use before.

Covering Home by Joseph Maiolo

Coach discovered Danny’s arm when Danny’s parents were splitting up at the beginning of the season.

Exchange Value by Charles Johnson

Me and my brother Loftis came in by the old lady’s window.

Judgment by Kate Wheeler

When Mayland Thompson dies he wants to be buried with the body of a twelve-year-old girl.

The Remission by Mavis Gallant

When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera.

Inventing the Abbots by Sue Miller

Lloyd Abbot wasn’t the richest man in our town, but he had, in his daughters, a vehicle for displaying his wealth that some of the richer men didn’t have.

The Lost Cottage by Davide Leavitt

The Dempson family had spent the last half of June in a little rented cottage called “Under the Weather,” near Hyannis, every summer for twenty-six years, and this year, Lydia Dempson told her son, Mark, was to be no exception.

Nickel a Throw by W.D. Wetherell

These are the things Gooden sees from his perch eight feet above the dunking tub at the Dixford Congregational Church’s Charity bazaar.

Medley by Toni Cade Bambara

I could tell the minute I got in the door and dropped my bag, I wasn’t staying.

The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The first children who saw the dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea let themselves think it was an enemy ship.

The Winter Father by Andre Dubus

The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.

Appaloosa by Sharon Sheehe Stark

My father’s girl friend’s name was Delores and my mother went by Dusie because she was one.

A School Story by William Trevor

Every night after lights out in the dormitory there was a ceremonial story-telling.

Forgiveness in Families by Alice Munro

I’ve often thought, suppose I had to go to a psychiatrist, and he would want to know about my family background, naturally, so I would have to start telling him about my brother, and he wouldn’t even wait until I was finished, would he, the psychiatrist, he’d commit me.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.

Some of these examples are borrowed from What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.