Sunday, September 30, 2007

True Beginnings

The mid-semester break is allowing me to wade my way through the pile of books I've been saving, and I'm getting down to some that have been sitting there for several months. I bought quite a few books in Tucson because, well, they were cheap! Something that I'd pay $18 for here in Australia, I could buy in the US for half that price, or less. Writing books are particularly expensive here, and not just because many of them are hardbacks. T and I were looking at one the other day that was $49.95, and many paperbacks are $35-45.

At the moment, I'm writing material for a new unit called Story Structure, and was attempting to create some intelligent, clear thoughts on how to write a good beginning. I remembered a Tucson purchase that I'd skimmed, but hadn't got around to reading properly. Hooked by Les Edgerton, which is all about beginnings. You might ask, how do you write a whole book on beginnings? But Les E. makes a very good point: a story with a great beginning very often signals that the rest of it will be worth reading. If someone doesn't understand how to start a story effectively, then the rest of it hasn't got much hope.

This may sound harsh. I've heard many writers complain about editors who admit they only read the first 2-3 pages. How can you possibly judge how good the novel will be if you only read 3 pages? You can. Totally and absolutely, you can. You may not be able to judge how the character will change and grow, if the plot will work (that's what the synopsis is for) or if the ending pans out, but 3 pages is enough to gauge if a writer has what it takes to write a terrific novel. A competent, pretty good novel doesn't cut it these days.

Les E. also talks about writing courses that teach students how to write in bits (character, setting, dialogue, etc) and yes, we do this. But we also do Story Structure - how to put the whole thing together. How to plot and outline. I make students write an outline or synopsis. It's the most hated assignment in a novel writing class, and the one that I get the most feedback on (in terms of "I didn't want to do it but I am so glad you made me because ...").

But back to beginnings. Les E. says, "A good quality story beginning is a microcosm of the work entire. If you capture the right beginning, you've written a small version of the whole." I'm not sure I agree with that 100%, but I have to say that in two semesters of a novel writing class, 97% of students don't end up writing more than 4-5 chapters. There are many reasons why, including workload in other subjects, and discovering the novel they started isn't the novel they want to spend 3 or more years on. So to approach those first chapters, or even Chapter One, in terms of it being a microcosm for the whole novel ... that's worth thinking more about.

What I won't think any further on, because it was so pathetic, was England's performance in the Rugby World Cup against Tonga. If all they can do is rely on JW's field goals and sneaky tries ... I'll be quiet now.

1 comment:

Snail said...

Rugby aside:
Don't get me started. This weekend was an embarrassment. Australia lumbered against Canada. And as for Wales vs Fiji ...

RSS aside
Good stuff!