The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Nail That Opening

by Craig Terlson

Since embarking on this foolish, somewhat Quixotian, quest of becoming a writer, I have developed an addiction to trade magazines and craft books. Just can't get enough of them – even the bad ones, the ones that seem to be about the craft but are really just vanity-press propaganda.

I religiously read the latest Poet and Writer's mag, scanning the articles for any little tidbit or hidden treasure of knowledge that I could apply to my own work. Maybe a secret verb, the ultimate simile or some tricky adverb that you are actually allowed to use and that doesn't even end in "ly".
I also go through the winners of writing contests at the back. Through a mathematical formula (too complex to get into right now) I determine why people with certain last names win awards. I will tell you this, there seems to be something about the letter "M".

I can spend endless hours, days and weeks reading articles in craft books on the art of fiction. It quite pleasantly makes me avoid the task of writing, which is damn hard, to be frank. You want to know the reason Eats, Shoots and Leaves was a bestseller? Who wants to read 200+ pages about punctuation? Thousands of writers trying to avoid their eighth re-write of 2000 worder, that's who.

I digress. I always digress.

Here at the Collective I would like to share, condense rather, some of the gems I've uncovered in my self-study.
Now, I don't want to give you too much at once, you really need to savour these, internalize them as you would a good ripened cheese.

Part One: The importance of the opener.

A ton of trees have given their lives for all the essays written on the subject of how to grab that editor with your opening sentence. Editors are a busy and easily distracted lot (I have heard that all shiny objects are removed from their offices). If they don't absolutely love that first sentence your work gets the big red "X" faster than James Frey backpedals in an interview. Some editors only make it to the first word; others are put off by certain letter combinations and pre-fixes.

My first simplification of these complicated treatises on the opening sentence follows.
1. You can go big; start with a high level of dramatic tension:

As Bob leaned over to tie his shoe, New York City blew up.

(For Canuck content you can substitute Toronto, Vancouver, Regina, or Whitehorse. Best to shy away from Calgary.)

2. If you don't want to be quite as dramatic, you can choose a slower, thoughtful opening; start with a lower level of dramatic tension, but still pose a question to the reader.

Jim sipped his soup; he really liked soup.

Hope that helps. Next time I will offer a gem or two around the writing of dialogue.

I see this series as a community service to other writers, though I'm guessing a lot of you will want to peruse these books on your own. If so, I suggest a large cup of dark roast coffee (Arabica beans, please), a hot bath with some of that yummy orange oil (guys steal it from your wives/girlfriends/significant other fragrance lovers), and a stack of said craft books piled on the floor in easy reach.
Dry hands in between reads.


Blogger Patricia said...

Aren't you just so funny!!!?? You are hilarious, I am so happy to read your work, what a lovely gift, thank you Craig, I'm going to look for more of your work.

Sun Apr 30, 03:49:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

and you sound English. Are you English? I must investigate. I love it.

Sun Apr 30, 03:51:00 am GMT-4  

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