It’s A Cheese Stick, Not A Nuke!

So there I was yesterday, desperate for a snack. And I do mean desperate – the clawing-at-the-refrigerator-door, wondering-if-linoleum-tasted-good, eat-my-own-hand kind of desperate. But no, I’m trying to be a good boy and eat right…

I’m pretty sure linoleum is high in calories, so that’s out…and I might need that hand (no, not for that you dirty-minded reader!), so that’s out as well.

Crap.

Out comes a cheese stick. A nonfat, pseudo “cheese” stick that I doubt very much is any more natural than the linoleum. Before I close the fridge the nice block of Edam cheese still in the drawer calls to me, as does the nice crusty baguette I bought for dinner…

A “cheese” stick it is. *sigh* I hate my life.

Then I start fumbling with the plastic “easy-open” wrapper. And fumbling and fumbling. Then fighting. Then cursing. This thing makes child-proof bottles seem like they were designed by arthritic old people!

The edam is still calling. It’s good – I know it’s good – and all it has to keep me out is a bit of cellophane and wax…

Jesus Christ, who wrapped this fucking cheese stick?! I will have them destroyed! Just open, for the love of all that’s holy!

In the end I got my snack.

A beer and a pile of edam the size of Connecticut.

What does that particular story have to do with writing? Nothing, I’m just hungry.

Okay, I lied. It has everything to do with writing.

Ever read a book that was just too damned hard to get into? Me too.

The opening of a book has to be inviting and easy to get into or the reader will skip the shitty plastic-encased-unknown and go for the familiar, comfy cellophane-wrapped goodness still sitting on the shelf…

If something is that hard to get into, is there any chance at all of things improving? Will it ever be worth the effort?

It’s possible, but so is me getting drafted by the NY Knicks.  This is not, to be clear, a terribly likely outcome. I can think of two books – out of the thousands upon thousands I’ve read – that actually rewarded me for putting up with the shit and powering through a bad opening. Two.

Understand, I’m not saying an opening should be all fluffy bunnies and rainbows, or that folks should fall instantly head-over-heels in love with your characters from word one. Nope, not at all. But you do have to entice your readers and make them want to keep going. Need to keep going, actually.

To me, that means a tight, personal focus on one of your characters…one, not all.  Two if they’re closely tied from the get-go. Yes, that one character will most likely be your protagonist, but you can do it for someone else if you work it right. What it does not mean is going “big” in your opening and trying to give some massive overview and flood of exposition and backstory.

I’ve tried that, and it almost always sucks donkey balls.

Just to offer a couple examples:

Arthur C. Clarke opened the novelization of 2001 with a guy on a commuter flight (to the moon).

Robert Jordan opened Wheel of Time with Rand and his dad walking into town.

Ken Follett opened Pillars of the Earth with a hanging and the wreck of the White Ship – okay, so that one’s an example of the complete opposite…

More and more frequently (it seems) I’ve picked up books where I just couldn’t get through the first ten or fifteen pages. Too much expo, too much backstory, too much effort at forced foreshadowing, too many names and characters thrown at me…and at least ten more examples to too much/many, just off the top of my head.

Less is more, I have come to believe.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Now I just need to listen to my own advice…

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