Tuesday, December 28, 2010

first pages

This post is being written in an interval between Christmas and New Year's Day.  It has been raining off and on for weeks and so has been fine weather for writing, art, and reading.  Most of the writing has been on revisions to a work-in-progress, a YA novel tentatively entitled "The General's Daughter."  Perhaps some excerpts from the novel could be useful to discuss in a writer's group, but possibly not in a blog.  It may be just as much a useful exercise to experiment with an opening page or two on the short story concept introduced in last month's blog.  Or something evolved from it.

Fiction writers quickly learn how critical the first pages of any submittal are for moving a manuscript from an editor's slush pile toward serious consideration for publication.  If the first several pages, usually mentioned as less than five, do not grab the editor's interest, most likely the submittal will be lost.  That doesn't leave much slack for building the fictional dream, so eloquently described by John Gardner.  At the minimum, the writer must quickly produce a character(s) of interest; a tension or suspense that moves the action along; and a competent, narrative voice; all of which combine to capture a reader's commitment to finishing the story.

The driftwood shelter sketch above can set the scene.  Here's a first draft of a possible, related short story:

      The brown, sandy beach extended a mile south of their driftwood shelter, sweeping a gentle arc, cut off by a rocky peninsula stretched out into the ocean at the far end of the beach.  A tall, white lighthouse tower rose from the knobby end of the peninsula, where breaking waves threw up white plumes of spray.

     "You never even mentioned having an ocean-going kayak," Teresa said.  "How could you have just left it stashed out here in the dune grass.  Weren't you worried someone could steal it?"

     Tom leaned back against the latticework of ocean-polished driftwood.  They'd built the shelter two months ago and the storms still hadn't swept it away.  He took another toke from his joint.  Medical marijuana, to use the new compassionate, or evasive, term for illegal, old-fashioned pot.  In his case compassionate was accurate enough.  He'd be dead in six months.  He passed the joint to Teresa.

     "I didn't have the energy to drag it back and forth to the trailer park," Tom said.  "Anyhow, it's ready now for a maiden voyage."

     "Why don't you just take it out a little ways for your first day and come back in, so I can watch you.  If all goes well you can paddle down to see your son in Point Tucker tomorrow."

     "I'll be fine.  It'll just be getting through the surf might be tricky."

     "Did you tell Brad I'd be driving you to the city for your appointment Monday?" Teresa said.

     Tom nodded, took the joint from her and pulled a deep toke.  He hadn't told her  that he'd quit the experimental program.  He'd thought a lot about the remaining options: this, or enter a hospice program.  If he took this route, it wasn't really suicidal.  There was a theoretical chance he'd make it to Hawaii.  No sin involved.

      "I need to get started if I'm going," Tom said.  "Help me drag the kayak down to the beach."

     They climbed the bank and trudged through thick dune grass to where he had concealed the kayak.  The cockpit was covered with a tarp.  When they lifted from both ends, Teresa gasped.  "What have you got in here?  It weighs a ton," she said.

     "Well, you know, foul weather gear, radio set, GPS, all the stuff you need even for a forty mile jaunt.  Better to be safe."

Okay, that seems to sort of set the scene and the situation.  A couple more pages might do the job needed to invite a full reading by some hard working editor, but time to return to the novel already in-progress.  Happy New Year.
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