I’m in several Facebook writers’ groups. There tend to be vast scrawls of graffiti assailing others for idiocy or deeper crimes, and one wonders if masterpieces might emerge if only the writers applied their creativity to something other than converting a serious discussion into a video game. And yet there are those seriously pursuing the art.
As one of those, I’m unusual, maybe, in having earned my living with words for 48 years after leaving college teaching. But that was writing plays, and learning the art of prose fiction is a challenge at the age of 77. Yes, it’s all writing, but it’s rare for a classical violinist to play in a punk band (though I know one who does).
It’s a steep learning curve when there’s limited time to wind through the curvature, and it forces a reassessment of what you thought you knew. Someone posts the first paragraph of a novel, asks for response. That takes guts. It reminds me of our first duo show SONG STORIES, October 1969, Chicago, stepping onstage without the foggiest notion if it’d score or bomb. The last thing anyone deserves, taking that risk, is to be the butt of others’ wisecracks. But what can you say about a first paragraph that you don’t really like?
In fact, in how-to’s about writing best-selling fiction, you pick up the notion of the instant hook: if the reader isn’t grabbed by the first chapter, the first paragraph, the first sentence, you won’t interest an agent, a publisher, or any reader under the age of 90. Do I really need a murder or planetary apocalypse before our hero has breakfast
The first thing, I guess, that I’m moved to say—though I feel like a cardiologist called on to treat scabies—is to stop looking for a formula. This isn’t a glamorous profession. If fame is what you’re after, you’d have better odds of success training for the NBA or as a roofing contractor. But I realize that’s no help.
The best I can offer, from five decades of theatre work, is to hone a strong notion of the present moment. The actor leads the audience moment by moment: one line, one response, one action leads to the next, and if it jumps the groove everyone knows it. Granted, there’s endless fakery: Hamlet’s soliloquy has been delivered thousands, perhaps millions of times, and often it’s just like receiving a package in the mail. It becomes electric, living, only when the thought, the rhythm, and those exact words flow in real time from the actor’s heart. Shakespeare starts one play with three witches storming onto stage, another with a courteous courtiers’ dialogue, another with lovesick poetry: all work.
Beyond that: The opening of a story is an invitation to a journey, and in its language style—the blunt prose of Cormac McCarthy or the rolling phrases of Proust—it lets you know the vehicle you’re riding on. Is this going to be a skateboard or an elephant? Either can work, depending on the reader you want, but if the latter, it’d better be a prizewinning elephant. And where are you going with this? Surprise parties can work fine, or sudden shifts in the story from gentle comedy to vicious assault, but with any surprise you’re putting high stakes on the table. Risky to issue a birthday party invitation to a sex orgy.
The best advice, perhaps, is to suggest going to the public library, taking novels off the shelf, one at a time, reading a dozen first pages. What draws you forward? What mires you hip-deep? What makes you hit a speed bump? And how does this all relate to what you want to do?
I guess that’s what I’ve always done in theatre, and though it’s looking at other work it’s the opposite to searching for a formula. It’s just looking at craftsmanship—at the commonalities and differences between the sculptures of Michelangelo and Donatello, even if your work resembles Giocometti. What in the plays of Neil Simon is applicable to the weird stuff I write? What are the glitches in the work of those I most admire? How do I tell this story, holding the reader or listener moment by moment?
I can’t quite define how any of this relates to the larger issues of living life, but I leave that to others involved with those issues.