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A new fondness for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has sprung up this year due to the Tim Burton movie adaption (more of a continuation).  New editions of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have lined the shelves of bookstores since the movie’s release in March.   It seems like the story will always have a following in each new generation, but who would think there would be an even darker and more disturbing story behind the little blonde girl.  Alice I Have Been is a historical novel by Melanie Benjamin that blends fiction with known facts about Lewis Carroll, whose real name is Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and a little girl he knew at Oxford named Alice Liddell.  Benjamin takes you through three stages of Alice’s life and the profound effects that a much older man has on her soul as a child, a young woman in her 20s, and a wife and mother of three boys. This tale of Alice Liddell’s life is haunting and unsettling, which is prominent in a scene where Dodgson photographs seven year old Alice in rags as a gypsy girl and watches her frolic in the grass.  Benjamin upholds the mystery and strangeness of the beloved Wonderland tales, but the story she weaves may disturb some Lewis Carroll fans. Although, it should be a fascinating read for those who can separate Carroll’s Alice from Dodgson’s Alice, a task that Alice Liddell had struggled with throughout her life.

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Description is necessary to establish setting and characters, but it can sometimes be boring.  One of the ways to shake description up is to use metaphor or similes.  Describe a character’s physical appearance by using as many metaphors or similes as you can.

What did you come up with?  Were two similes too much?  How about three? Four?

When I pick up a new book, I first look at the title, cover, and the back synopsis.  Then, I always flip to the first page and read the first sentence.  Why do I do this?  If that first line doesn’t capture me, I put the book back on the shelf.  Harsh?  Well, sure it is, but if I can’t make it past that first page, I assume the rest of the book will be just as boring.  A writer’s job is to capture a reader and pull him or her into the story, and the writer should start with the first sentence.  Below I have a list of good examples and bad examples.

What to do:

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Why: Feel the sarcasm ooze.

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie: “All Children, except one, grow up.” Why: Hmm, which child? Leaving the first sentence slightly vague makes the reader ask questions.

Fight Club by Chuck Palanhiuk:  “Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.” Why:  Again makes the reader ask questions.  What made them go from friends to one placing a gun in the other’s mouth?  Plus, it has immediate conflict.

Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst: “Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 42, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.” Why: First, we ask who can’t speak to tell the story, and then we ask why did she fall to her death?  A sudden death seems to be an instant hook especially if it’s in an interesting way. Morbid? Yes, but true.

Feed by M.T. Anderson: “We went to the moon to have fun, but the moon turned out to completely suck.”

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier: “My mother did not tell me they were coming.” Why:  This first sentence is mediocre.  It may not be as creative as the others, but it still makes the reader continue to find out who “they” are.  It also creates conflict between the mother and child.

The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien: In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Why: We all know what a hobbit is now.  So, maybe to the new generation it wouldn’t be as interesting, but imagine when it first appeared.  The question would obviously be…What’s a Hobbit?  Just one word in that simple sentence opens up an entire world.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling:  “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”  Why: This sentence is more average than good, but the last few words “thank you very much” is conversational.

Carrie by Stephen King: “Rain of Stones Reported.” Why:  It’s a title of a news article that has mystery.

Little Women by Lousia May Alcott: “‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo lying on the rug.”  Why: Starting with dialogue immediately brings the reader into the moment. Dialogue has a natural flow that a reader continues to follow even if what the character is saying isn’t immediately interesting.

What not to do:

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler: “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”  Why: Opening with setting and description is boring.  I always felt Chandler should have opened with the last line of the first paragraph:  “I was calling on four million dollars.”  Then, he could fall into the description. Plus, who doesn’t know rain is wet?

The Gunslinger by Stephen King:  “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” Why: I like it because it plays out like a spaghetti western, but I don’t like it for the same reason.  It’s a cliché image that doesn’t hook right away. Then, it’s followed by description of the desert.

Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt: “The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of a Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning.” Why: Interesting simile, but no characters and no real setting.  We just have a time.

Dragon Wing by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman: “The crudely built cart lurched and bounced over the rough coralite terrain, its iron wheels hitting every bump and pit in what passed for a road.” 

The Magician’s Nephew by C.S Lewis: “This is a story about something that happened long ago when your grandfather was a child.”  Why:  A lot of stuff happened back then.  What do I care?

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis: “Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.”

I admit that most of the books on the bad list are some of my favorites, so they may be an exception to the boring rule.  They still are good examples of what not to do with yours.

Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Can you think of any other examples of good or bad first sentences?

Write a scene filled with conflict that takes place in present day.  Then, write the same scene but in a different time period like in the Victorian age, the 50s or the future.

What time period did you choose?  What did you discover?  How do the two scenes differ?

Remember being swept away by the worlds of Narnia, Wonderland, and Hogwarts.  All your real world problems would just go away, if you could only reach that land. Quentin Coldwater, the main character of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, escapes his boring life in Brooklyn by reading the books of Fillory, a magical land the Chatwin siblings discovered.  Unlike us, Quentin actually is whisked away and finds himself on the grounds of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy.  He begins an extensive study into magic and gains all the normal social knowledge attained in college, but he still doesn’t find total happiness.  After graduation, Quentin and friends spend drunken nights living in New York City. There they finally discover an adventure that will fulfill Quentin’s truest wish, a trip to Fillory, but his dream is shattered by the harsh reality of the dangerous journey.  Glory comes with a price. Grossman has combined Harry Potter and the Chronicles of Narnia into one brilliant dark fantasy that comments on how fiction differs from reality and that we should be happy with what we have.  The Magicians is a melancholy tale that drags you into the dreary life of real magic but still manages to enchant readers like the fantasy novels it honors.

Enchanting Rating: 4 out of 5

Prompt: Borrowing

Grab a random book and borrow the first sentance.  Use that sentance in a story or as a line in a poem.

How’d it turn out?

Edit January 1, 2010:

I used the first line from Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Louise Engdahl (amazing young adult novel!), which is “The planet shines below us, cloud-flicked, dazzling against the dark backdrop of space.”  I’m not going to share exactly what I wrote, because I might develop the idea further.  When I was writing, I found it very hard to stay in present tense, because I usally write in past tense.  Present or Past? What do you use?

Patricia C. Wrede takes us back to the early 1800’s on the United States’ western frontier in Thirteenth Child (April 2009; Scholastic; $16.95), but adds a twist.  Steam dragons, woolly mammoths and other magical creatures threaten western settlers, and each settlement has their own magician to conjure protection spells against the wild beasts, while everyone east stays protected by a wall of magic, the Great Barrier.  Thirteenth Child is the first book in a planned trilogy featuring the narrator, Eff Rothmer, who is the thirteenth child of a seventh son, and her twin, Lan, who is a seventh son of a seventh son.  Magic lore and superstitions say that Lan will have enormous power and do great deeds, but Eff will bring disaster to her entire family and eventually “go bad.”  Their parents, disgusted by the misconception, decide to move out west to give the twins a fresh start.  What magical adventures and challenges await Eff and Lan?  Well, many adventures await, but you’ll have to shift through a lot of summary to get to them.

Wrede is no stranger to young adult fantasy novels.  She wrote the Enchanted Forest Chronicles which includes the fun filled Dealing with Dragons.  So, why so much summary in Thirteenth Child?  The book does span 13 years of Eff’s life from 5 years old to 18 years old, which would be hard to do without some summary, but the amount Wrede uses bogs down the first 3/4s of the book.  Also, Eff acts more as an observer than an active heroine, which is an accurate image of women during the 1800s but becomes frustrating and boring.  The real action doesn’t start till page 229 in Chapter 21 when Eff finally starts off on an adventure past the Great Barrier, and that’s when the reader will fly through the last nine chapters.

The next two books in the Frontier Magic trilogy should be full of scenes and less summary, because Wrede has already extensively built the world and provided full backgrounds on the characters in Thirteenth Child.  Plus, Wrede presented an exciting magic filled ending that hooks the reader into wanting more.

Enchanting Rating: 2 out of 5