I know, I know, but I can’t help it. It’s about the first chapter again. Or the first page. Or the first stanza.
I was helping out a young writer (like Fitzgerald, I guess), but didn’t have to let anybody down easily. All he needed was a little early insight. I had a couple of chapters to deal with and, sure enough, chapter one was unnecessary. There he was doing what we all do — packing for a long trip. Everything he might need was there. (And now I’m going to milk this metaphor until it groans and falls over.)
Every item of clothing, every camera and battery, every pill and potion, four kinds of shoes and some energy bars. When I do this it makes me feel secure and prepared. And, I have to admit, a little bored.
Traveling light and adding necessities as I go is a lot more exciting. (End of metaphor, I hope).
When I threw out the young writer’s first chapter, I still had characters-in-motion, a setting, and a conflict. But rather than being fed-by-hand, I was pretty much on my own — foraging, in a way.
About that time I heard from my editor about “Coaltown Jesus,” next year’s NIV. Guess what — it starts slow and over-burdened. A day later a magazine editor asked for a poem to add to his theme issue. I moused around in my poetry file, found something appropriate, looked at it, and promptly cut the first stanza.
I have to admit that having other eyes on your work really helps. I have a person or two I can ask. All of you in the program have classmates. Maybe try swapping 15 or so pages.
Let me know how that works out. And, by the way, can I get a little sympathy here? It’s 100 degrees in South Pasadena!
A prologue! I need a prologue. How else will I describe this important event that happened before my story? How about just a little bit of backstory in the beginning, just a little? Maybe I could open it with a dream? The dream will show what happened. I love dreams, who doesn't love dreams?
These were my thoughts as a young writer. I'm still a young writer, but I've learned a couple lessons. One has to earn a dream, or it will be cliche. Prologues should be avoided when possible. It seems that veteran writers are the only ones that get away with it. Maybe it's because they can execute it appropriately, where as a young writer should learn to put that information in the story. I'm still working out when snidbits of backstory should be plugged in. I've heard different opinions. I would love hear yours.
Nina's Pep talk to herself or anyone that might listen:
Take charge! Don't let the beginning of your piece be trite and boring. Pound the proverbial hammer, that dream sequence has not earned it's right to be there. Your story deserves so much more.
Chekhov said, “It seems to me that when you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter, to make it as short as possible.”
Though at the same time, I am guilty of falling into the prologue trap all the time. Part of my problem is not knowing where to begin … and not knowing how to end.
(100 degrees in Pasadena? Pish-posh, Missouri sat at 95-100 degrees all through July. Though, oddly, it's actually 75 degrees here now. Not sure what's up with that….)
But all the same, I'll send you a tall glass of lemonade because heat sucks.