On Opening Paragraphs

My friend Jackie recently reread The Witch of Blackbird Pond for the first time since she was in junior high. This is a middle-grade novel written by Elizabeth George Speare. It was originally published in 1958, and I haven’t read it since I was a kid. According to Jackie, it still holds up, so I decided to read it again too.

When I reread the opening paragraph, I was blown away. It made me think about a lecture my MFA advisor Tod Goldberg1 once gave about the opening paragraph of Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter. Between the two, I was inspired to write this post.

Here is the first paragraph of The Witch of Blackbird Pond:

On a morning in mid-April, 1687, the brigantine Dolphin left the open sea, sailed briskly across the Sound to the wide mouth of the Connecticut River and into Saybrook harbor. Kit Tyler had been on the forecastle deck since daybreak, standing close to the rail, staring hungrily at the first sight of land for five weeks.”

This paragraph consists of only two sentences. Two sentences. Reading it carefully, how many pieces of information does it give us? Here are some of the things I came up with:

    1. The story we are about to read begins “in mid-April”–it is springtime.
    2. The story begins in the morning.
    3. The story begins in 1687–it is the late seventeenth century.
    4. The story begins on a ship.
    5. The particular ship is a “brigantine,” a two-masted sailing vessel that navigated the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century.2
    6. The name of the ship is the “Dolphin.”
    7. “Dolphin” is an English word, so we know this is an English ship.
    8. The ship is fast–it sails “briskly.”
    9. The ship is no longer on “the open sea,” but is now sailing along the Connecticut River.
    10. The ship is entering a harbor, so we know it is about to dock.
    11. Based on the name of the river and the time period, we know where the ship is about to dock: in the New England Colonies.
    12. The ship has been sailing for five weeks, so we know the ship’s passengers have undergone a long journey from far away.
    13. This first paragraph introduces the protagonist, Kit Tyler.
    14. We can guess that “Kit” is a nickname, and therefore, even without reading the back cover, we can guess the protagonist is probably young.
    15. This first paragraph gives us the first glimpse inside the protagonist’s point of view–she is so anxious to see land that she has been hugging the ship’s rail since daybreak.
    16. Kit is on the forecastle deck–the uppermost deck and the most forward part of the ship, “standing close to the rail.” She is physically pressed forward, like Kate and Leo in Titanic; she is as close to the action and to land as she can possibly get.
    17. Kit is staring at the shoreline “hungrily”–she is not only anxious to see land, she is hungry for it; she is anxious to be off the ship and wants to be ashore.
    18. Kit is alone in this opening paragraph. Because our protagonist is a young woman traveling alone on a ship in the seventeenth century, we can assume some things about her personality and her character, e.g., that she is brave, independent, and adventurous.
    19. This first paragraph already raises some questions: why has Kit traveled to the Americas and why is she traveling alone?
    20. The first paragraph already arouses tension, too: what will happen to Kit in the New England colonies in the late seventeenth century? The book has the word “witch” in its title, and Kit is arriving in Connecticut about seventeen years after the Connecticut Witch Trials (which lasted twenty-five years) and only five years before the Salem Witch Trials began. I am already anxious!

Anything else?

This seems like such a simple paragraph. Two straightforward lines of prose written with uncomplicated language. It appears effortless, but based on my experience, I am guessing Ms. Speare worked over this opening paragraph many, many times. She used her words economically, made each word earn its keep, and crafted tight prose that gives the reader a great deal of information without resorting to flashbacks or information dumps.

Two sentences. Before the third sentence, Speare has grounded her reader completely in the story. She then takes her reader right into a scene. And not only is she in a scene, she opens that scene with dialogue–a conversation between Kit and the ship’s first mate, Nathaniel Eaton. The opening dialogue immediately propels the narrative of the story forward:

“‘There’s Connecticut Colony,’ a voice spoke in her ear. ‘You’ve come a long way to see it.'”

Again, so understated, but so packed with meaning.

Take a look at a few first paragraphs of classic novels:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. –Jane Austen, first paragraph of Pride and Prejudice

One sentence and we are already drawn in by Austen’s sarcastic sense of humor and have a good idea where the story is headed.

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” –Leo Tolstoy, first paragraph of Anna Karenina

Again, this opening paragraph consists of just one line, but it immediately provokes thought, ignites tension, and again, gives us a clue as to the kind of story we are about to read.

And perhaps my favorite opening paragraph of all time:

“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago–never mind how long precisely–having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodologically knocking people’s hats off–then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.” –Herman Melville, first paragraph of Moby Dick

By the time we’ve read this opening paragraph, we know more about Ishmael than we know about many of our own close friends. He’s broke, he’s depressed, he’s bored. He is over it. People annoy the hell out of him. He sees strangers walking down the street and wants to knock the hats off their heads! He’s alienated from society. He needs to get out of town before he loses his temper. He heads to sea because he finds the ocean calming and healing–the sea centers him. He tells us in the first line that the story he’s about to share happened many years in the past, so we know that, whatever happens on this journey, he will survive to tell the tale. Ishmael has invited us to call him by his first name–we are his friends and his confidantes. And we can relate. One hundred and seventy years after this novel was originally published, we can still relate to what Ishmael is feeling. Eight lines into this story, we are right there with him as he embarks on this epic journey. (Notice, too, the rhythm of Melville’s sentences, the way he alternates short and long sentences, like the ebb and flow of the sea.)

Reading good, well-written books is one of the best things writers can do to improve their own writing. I especially love to study the opening paragraphs of novels. A great writer squeezes a lot of information into a relatively short space in order to ground the reader in time and place, introduce one or more main characters, establish the plot, and create opening tension.

WRITER TIP: Reread the opening paragraphs and opening lines of some of your favorite books. Does the author give you the information you need to dive into the story without using an info dump? How does the author engage you and create tension? Does the author begin to characterize the protagonist within that first paragraph? How does the author make good use of each and every word? Think about ways you can do the same in the opening paragraph(s) of your own novel.

Writer, Interrupted

A writer’s day is filled with interruptions, and to be honest, most of them are welcome. I’m lured by social media and the pings that alert me to text messages from my squad (messages that always make me laugh). I daydream about what I’m going to do over the weekend. I suddenly realize I need to run to the post office or the grocery store. The interruptions can be constant and, let’s face it, way more alluring than the blank page that’s taunting me. (Excuse me while I check my email just one more time for that acceptance that is surely coming from The Paris Review today.)

When we’re interrupted, it’s not just the moment of the interruption that is at stake. Studies have shown that, after an interruption, it can take up to 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get our heads fully back into the game.1 Every time we stop writing to check email or social media, we lose not only the five minutes or so we spend browsing our Instagram feeds, but that additional 23:15 minutes. This is the time needed to remember where we were in our story, to pick up where we left off, to get our minds back to that magical place, and to be as deeply focused as we were before we took that break.

“I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.” –Henry David Thoreau, Walden

I write mostly in the early mornings, before most people are awake. Me and Walter Mosley. I imagine Mr. Mosley a few hours south of me typing away while it’s still dark outside, just like me. It’s comforting. Writing so early in the morning helps. There are less distractions, but in the modern tech era, distractions are always at my fingertips. When it’s light out and weather permits, I take my laptop out onto the deck in my backyard, away from the intoxicating lure of furniture that needs dusting and dishes that need doing. For someone who loves to write, I am so often tempted by anything but. Because writing is hard.

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” –Ernest Hemingway

So my suggestion today is to not only give yourself the first and the best part of your day, before you get caught up in your daily life, but to rid yourself of distractions. Close yourself off from the rest of the world, just for an hour or two, and give yourself the undivided attention you deserve. I find my writing time is much more satisfying when I turn on the Do Not Disturb feature on my cell phone, give social media a break, and let messages pile up in my inbox for just a bit. I sometimes use a kitchen timer for this purpose–no break until that timer goes off. When I’m fully in it, that’s when the magic happens and the words begin to flow.

WRITER TIP: Set aside a certain period every day for uninterrupted writing time, even if it’s only ten or fifteen minutes to start. Set the timer on your phone, block out the rest of the world, and write until the timer goes off. Better yet, turn your phone’s ringer off, put your phone away, and use an old-fashioned kitchen timer.

Plan A

About ten years ago, I asked myself, “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to give up, to create the life you’ve always dreamed for yourself?” The answer, in the past, appeared to have been, “Not much.”

I was a writer who never made time to write. I was a book lover who rarely found time to read. I was a vegetarian who didn’t eat many vegetables–I’d given up meat, but had devolved into much more of a carbohydrate-arian than anything else. I wasn’t happy.

Inside of me, there lurked an artist, but I didn’t create. I was too busy trying to set my life up perfectly so that I’d have the time and money to create. I worked full-time, and in my spare time, I went to school–always for things that didn’t float my boat, but that seemed practical. I started side businesses I didn’t much enjoy, but that I thought would eventually buy me the freedom to live the life of my dreams. Then I could write. I abandoned new projects as quickly as I started them, jumping from one thing to another, never taking anything all the way through to its completion.

Above all, I always had a Plan B. A plan for when I failed as a writer. I started law school three times, but not because I wanted to be an attorney. I didn’t. But I’d worked as a paralegal for many years, and the law was something I was good at. Although I suspected I would be miserable as an attorney, it seemed a good back-up career should I fail to make it as a writer. Once I was making a comfortable living as an attorney, then I could write.

I’d failed as an entrepreneur, failed as a music promoter, failed as a beerista–you name it, I’d tried it and given up on it. But in the back of my mind, there was this notion that, once I’d found and settled into a great Plan B, I’d have the freedom to proceed with Plan A and do what I really wanted to do.

The trouble is, as they say, life very easily becomes all the things that happen while you are making other plans. Everything I’d done in my life, all of my time, money, and effort, had been in support of having a back-up plan should my imagined writing career not work out. In the process, I not only lost myself, but my enthusiasm for living. Living a Plan B life is definitely not where it’s at.

And so I arrived at that place ten years ago when I asked myself, “Where would I be if I had instead put all that time and effort into writing?” And then I asked myself that next big question: “What would you be willing to do, what would you be willing to let go of, to have the life you were meant to live?”

The answer I came up with is this:  Anything and everything.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.” –J.K. Rowling

And so, ten years ago, I dropped out of law school for the third time. I deleted my Facebook account and temporarily left social media behind. I let go of a side business that wasn’t giving me joy. I canceled my daily DVR recordings of my favorite television shows.

I searched my mind and my day planner for all the things I did to waste time or to avoid living my dream life, and I ruthlessly and fearlessly ripped those things from my schedule. I was merciless and unrelenting. For this woman who felt like she never had time to write or to enjoy her life, a woman who routinely faced each weekend armed with a to-do list of 25-plus items, there was suddenly a vast amount of time stretching out in front of me. It felt freeing and frightening all at once. The truth was, I realized, I’d busied myself with everything else in order to avoid taking the chance that I would fail as a writer. Now, ten years later, that looms in front of me as a very real possibility. Because I’m writing, and I’m submitting my stories and my essays to journals, and I’m getting rejections. And the occasional acceptance. I’m polishing the manuscript on my first novel and working on a second. I’m putting myself out there.

When I fear I will fail as a writer and long for the old, cold comfort of my Plan B life, I remember these words spoken by J.K. Rowling:  “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all–in which case, you fail by default.”1 I don’t know about you, but I’m not going out like that. If I’m going to fail as a writer, it won’t be by default. It will be in a blaze of glory, in the wake of the best and most heroic effort I can make.

WRITER TIP: I spent many years living my life in the cracks–squeezing the things I loved into the tiny cracks of time and space left over after all the have-to’s and should’s. When I began living as if writing and the other things I love were just as important as anything else, my life began to change. The best advice I can give you is to give yourself the best part of your day: If you’re a morning person, give yourself the first hour of your day–get up early and write before the day gets away from you. If you’re a night person, give the best part of your night to yourself–the time when you feel most energetic and alive–and write. Whether you’re a night person or a morning person, don’t fill the best part of your day with chores or billpaying or working toward a Plan B you don’t even want. Your Plan A life is happening right now.

Time Is on My Side

People often ask me how I find time to write. The truth is, for most of my life, I didn’t. I’m a busy person who, like most writers, works a day job for a living. For most of my life, I looked at writing as dessert–a reward for finishing all the other things. It was something I tried to fit into the cracks of my life. It was the thing I most wanted to be doing, but it was my very last priority. I wrote in the little spare time I had leftover after I’d done everything else. I wrote with whatever remaining energy I had at the end of the day, assuming I had any energy left. I often didn’t. So, needless to say, I didn’t write much.

I used to spend a lot of time researching ways to squeeze writing into my life. (Time I could have spent writing, actually.) There never seemed to be enough hours in the day. During my research, I came across unhelpful adages, like reminders that I have just as many hours in the day as Beyoncé Knowles. No pressure.

In the end, some of the best advice I ever got was more about mindset than anything else: (1) give yourself the first and best hour of your day; and (2) stop making time to write–make your life a writing life, and put all the other stuff on the back burner.

I have found some helpful advice over the years, though, and I’d like to share my three favorite pieces of advice with you. These are the ones that actually worked for me.

Turn the Beat Around

The trick that has without a doubt increased my writing productivity the most came from my son, Robert, who is also a writer. After I began giving myself the first and best part of my day, my favorite time of day to write quickly became first thing in the morning. I often get up at 5 a.m. or even 4 a.m. to get some writing done before work. It used to be stressful time, though. I was mindful of the clock, and it seemed that just about the time I hit my stride, it was time to stop writing, make breakfast, and get ready for work. Sometimes I wrote beyond the time I should, and then I found myself skipping breakfast and racing out the door.

My son Robert’s tip: Get ready for work before you start writing. I can’t believe what a difference this has made. It’s been life-changing. I don’t write in the evenings–I’m an early riser, and I’m wiped out by the end of the day. If I save it for the evening, I generally won’t do it. But mindless tasks–those I can do in the evening. So I started doing a lot of my prep work for the next day at night. I shower, decide what I’ll wear the next day, pack a lunch, etc. The next morning, I still get up early, but I’ve reversed my routine. I get ready for work, make coffee, and then sit down at my keyboard without anything hanging over my head. I write until it’s time for work. I no longer feel rushed, because when I shut off my computer, all I have to do is pick up my bag and head out the front door. This advice alone has made an incredible difference.

Big, Big Plans

Believe it or not, I got this tip from a book I read in the ‘70s called The Total Woman by Marabel Morgan. It turned out to be a guide for wives on how to make your home a happy one by catering to and manipulating your husband and by suppressing your own opinions and emotions. Needless to say, if you know me, this book was not my cup of tea. (Ms. Morgan would probably point out that I’m sitting here single as I write this.) But I have long said I can find something useful in any book, and this was no exception.

In one chapter of her book, Ms. Morgan outlines a “Million-Dollar Plan” she got from some CEO of a big company–the best way to accomplish the most you can possibly accomplish in a day. Here is the basic plan: Make a list of the things you need to do that day, put them in order of priority, start working on the first task, and work your way down the list. Don’t move down the list to the second task until you’ve finished the first, and so on. Don’t allow distractions, just keep moving down the list in order. You may not finish everything on the list, but by the end of the day, you will have finished the most important tasks and will have accomplished as much as was possible in the time you had. It’s a simple idea, but it works like a charm. As a writer, this idea is helpful in a couple of ways: first, make sure writing is at the top of your list every day, and second, working this way will help free up more time in your life for writing and other pleasurable activities.

“Writer’s block is a phony, made up, BS excuse for not doing your work.” –Jerry Seinfeld

The Chain

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld uses the power of visualization to reach his goals. He hangs a big, year-at-a-glance calendar on his wall, sets a daily writing goal for himself, and marks off each day on the calendar with a big “X” when he reaches that day’s goal. The calendar becomes a chain, each “X” is a link in the chain, and his desire not to have a broken link keeps him going.1 I’ve started doing this, too. My daily goal is to write for a certain amount of time each morning. I mark the days off on my calendar with a red Sharpie, just like Jerry. What keeps me going is imagining Jerry yelling at me, “Don’t break the chain!” (You heard that in his voice, right?”)

WRITER TIP: Be like Jerry. Get yourself a big wall calendar where you can track your writing progress. Set a daily writing goal using whatever works for you. Some writers set a daily word-count goal, for example, 500-1,000 words a day. Others set a daily page-count goal, maybe two or three pages. I use a daily time goal: no matter what, I write for at least ten minutes every morning. I can always convince myself to write for ten minutes, and if I only write for ten minutes, that’s okay. But once I get going, I almost always write for much longer, usually two to four hours every morning. Whether it’s ten minutes or six hours, I mark the day off with a big “X” on my wall calendar. Seeing that unbroken chain of progress motivates me to keep going.

What Is a Book Coach?

If you’ve come to this post, you probably have some questions about what a “book coach” is. I know I was curious the first time I heard someone call herself a book coach. So I looked into it, and I found out that, although the term is a relatively new one, book coaches have been around for a long time. When I heard the term, I knew right away that a book coach is exactly what I’d been training to be all of my life, only I hadn’t known it before, because I didn’t know such a job existed, and I didn’t know it was something I could do.

So what is a book coach? A book coach is sort of like a life coach, only instead of helping a person with his/her/their entire life, a book coach’s job is to help a writer achieve the very specific goal of writing a book, from start to finish. A book coach has specific expertise that can be invaluable for establishing goals and defining the processes necessary to successfully plan a book, write a book, and query agents.

How Are Book Coaches Helpful to Writers?

Polls conducted over the past twenty years reveal that more than 80% of people living in the United States want to write a book someday. But of those people who want to write a book, only 3% ever finish writing a book. Why? If I had to guess, I’d say there are a couple of things at play.

First, we are a nation of hard workers, and artistic pursuits like writing are often considered fanciful and frivolous. We may be dreaming of writing a book in a vacuum, with no support or encouragement, embarrassed to share our dream even with our families or our closest friends.

Also, writing a book is hard, and it’s made much harder by the fact that writers usually have to work at day jobs and take care of families and wash their cars on the weekend. It’s hard enough to find the time to write, but it’s even more difficult to find the time to write consistently enough to hone the craft of writing and to write well. And because of the first thing, there’s probably no one in our corner encouraging us to keep at it.

A book coach can help writers beat those staggering odds by coaching them and encouraging them through planning and writing a complete manuscript, zeroing in on their particular craft issues, and pursuing their publishing goals.

What Does a Book Coach Do?

When you work with a book coach, you start wherever you’re at and go from there.

You may come to a book coach knowing you want to write a novel, but with only a vague idea for a story. A book coach can help you fine tune your idea, determine the structure for your book, flesh out the characters and plot, and make a plan for writing forward.

Or you may have a solid idea and a detailed outline and be ready to write your book. In that case, a book coach can help you find the strengths and weaknesses in your story plan before you start writing and coach you through the writing process one chapter at a time.

If you have a completed manuscript, a book coach can evaluate your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses so you go into revisions armed with the information you need to take your manuscript to the next level. A book coach can also coach you through those revisions so you make the best use of your time.

Once you have a polished manuscript, a book coach can help you research agents and develop a query or pitch plan, including drafting a query letter and a synopsis of your book, so you can start looking for an agent to represent your book.

WRITER TIP: If you don’t know how to get started, or you’re stuck, or you want or need professional guidance, accountability, and/or encouragement to reach your writing goals, you are not alone. Many people take advantage of professional book coaching and editing services to help them achieve their writing dreams. I am a book coach and editor with many years of experience writing, evaluating, and editing fiction and non-fiction. If you’re interested in working with me to write your first or your next novel, please get more information about me; get more information about the book coaching services I offer; and contact me to get started.