Robert Lewis Stevenson: Breaking with Tradition

Monday, June 26, 2017


The photo shows the signal tower at Hynish on the Isle of Tiree. In the 1800s, it was the only way to communicate with the keepers at the offshore Skerryvore lighthouse. But these blog posts are supposed to be about literary connections, and where is the literary connection here?

The lighthouse was designed and built by Alan Stevenson, who was the uncle of Robert Lewis Stevenson. Robert Lewis Stevenson’s father and grandfather were also lighthouse engineers, and he originally planned to follow them into the business. But he wanted to write for a living, and the law was an easier fallback if he couldn’t make it as an author. So he qualified in law rather than in engineering.

Stevenson was always proud of his heritage, however. This quote is printed in the exhibit at Hynish:

Whenever I smell salt water, I know I am not far from the works of my ancestors. The Bell Rock stands monument for my grandfather, the Skerry Vhor for my Uncle Alan and when the lights come on at sundown along the shores of Scotland, I am proud to think they burn more brightly for the genius of my father.

He also paid special tribute to Skerryvore (or Skerry Vhor), calling it “the noblest of all extant deep-sea lights.”

When Robert Lewis Stevenson changed course and broke with tradition, he may have deprived the world of another great lighthouse engineer. We’ll never know. Still, the world is happy with his choice.

Sometimes writers have to break with tradition.

Reading Fuels Imagination

Monday, June 19, 2017


Roland and I just returned from a literary vacation to Scotland. Well, it wasn’t really a literary vacation, but it did have some literary connections, and I’m going to share them with you over the next few weeks.

The main motive behind the trip was to meet up with my brothers on the Isle of Tiree and have a sort of family reunion there. When I was ten years old, Daddy took a sabbatical, packed up the family, and moved to Edinburgh for the school year. Over the Christmas holidays, he took an assignment preaching at the Church of Scotland parish churches on the Isle of Tiree. We have all visited Edinburgh since then, but none of us had been back to Tiree.

Tiree is one of the more remote islands in the Inner Hebrides. It took a four-hour ferry ride to get there, all the roads are one-track with passing places, and we saw more sheep than people. Still, my brothers and I had a good time reviving old memories.

The cottage where we stayed before had been torn down and replaced with a more modern residence, but we booked the cottage across the street to the west.

Balephetrish Bay was across the street to the north, and I spent many hours there fifty plus years ago. I must have recently read Little Women, because back then the bay was a department store where Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy Marsh did their Christmas shopping. The photo above was taken when the tide was coming in, so it is harder to see how easily I could go from one stand of rock to another while “shopping.” But with the tide out, my imagination had free rein.

The other book I associate with Tiree is Princess Prunella by Katharine L. Oldmeadow. Miss Johnson, who was Deaconess for the Tiree parish, gave it to me for Christmas, and I still have the now well-read copy. Unfortunately, it and the rest of Katherine Oldmeadow’s books are out of print. I have managed to find and read a couple of her others and they aren’t as good as Princess Prunella. Even so, it’s too bad that they aren’t readily available.

That December on Tiree I had no TV and few playmates, but I kept myself entertained. Whether it’s a hard copy or an electronic version, there is nothing like a good book to spark a child’s imagination.

Next week I’ll tell you about Tiree’s connection with Robert Lewis Stevenson.

First Lines: Telling the Whole Story

Monday, June 12, 2017


It’s time to give the plot away. Well, not completely. But some effective first lines do summarize the story.

Here is the opening paragraph from Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

And what is the story about? Convincing rich single men that they want wives.

Or consider this paragraph that opens the story proper in From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg.*

Claudia knew that she could never pull off the old-fashioned kind of running away. That is, running away in the heat of anger with a knapsack on her back. She didn’t like discomfort; even picnics were untidy and inconvenient: all those insects and the sun melting the icing on the cupcakes. Therefore, she decided that her leaving home would not be just running from somewhere but would be running to somewhere. To a large place, a comfortable place, an indoor place, and preferably a beautiful place. And that’s why she decided upon the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Can you guess what this story is about? A girl runs away and hides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Telling the whole story can work for nonfiction as well. Here is the first paragraph of The Glass Castle, which is a memoir written by Jeannette Walls.

I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster. It was just after dark. A blustery March wind whipped the steam coming out of the manholes, and people hurried along the sidewalks with their collars turned up. I was stuck in traffic two blocks from the party where I was heading.

Here, you need only the first sentence to get the heart of the story. Jeannette grew up rooting through Dumpsters for her meals. She rose above that lifestyle, but her parents still embraced it.

So why do these openings work? They give the essence of the story without revealing the details. We know that Claudia is going to run away from home and hide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but we don’t know how long she can stay hidden or why she is running away in the first place. We read on because we want to know exactly what happened.

As with other types of openings, however, this one also has its pitfalls. You may even recognize them since they are similar to the ones for foreshadowing. The opening may give away too much, or it may make promises that it doesn’t keep. I think it is also the hardest type of opening to write.

There are other types of opening lines besides the ones discussed in this series, but these are the five that, as a reader, I have found to be the most effective. Now it’s your turn to find the one that works best for your story.

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*    Technically, this isn’t the beginning of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. The book starts with a cover letter from Mrs. Frankweiler to her lawyer. However, the quote begins the actual story.

First Lines: Raising Questions

Monday, June 5, 2017


Pick up ten of your favorite books and read their opening paragraphs. What do they use to capture your attention? I’m guessing that most of them ask questions that interest you enough to keep reading. Sometimes this approach stands alone, and at other times it is combined with one of the other types of opening. When we were talking about introducing intriguing characters, I used this first line from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Part of the reason Eustace is an intriguing character is because of the question this sentence causes us to ask—what kind of boy almost deserves to be called Eustace Clarence Scrubb?

So what are some other examples? My May 8, 2017 blog post quoted the opening paragraphs from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and noted that they raised a simple question: why is it so important that Marley was dead?

Then there is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which begins with this concise, one-sentence paragraph:

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

What family or families is he talking about, and how is its or their unhappiness unique? Those questions are the hook that keeps you reading.

Or here’s a third example, taken from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.

This opening raises two questions:

1.     What is a hobbit?

2.     How can a hole in the ground be comfortable?

Our interest is peaked, and we read on to find the answers.

Maybe the question-raising opening is the most common because it is the easiest to write. Or is it? It takes effort to avoid the natural pitfalls.

In my experience as a reader, openings that raise questions often ramble. That works if the tangents are both interesting and purposeful, as in A Christmas Carol. But many rambling openings are simply tedious and the questions get lost in the verbiage. I put those books down.

Openings that raise questions can also be vague. Most good openings identify characters and settings within the first page or two. When they don’t, readers may be discouraged from reading on.

Finally, some writers are so intent on raising questions that they set a tone that doesn’t match the rest of the novel. This is deceptive and unfair to the reader.

I’ll conclude this series next week by looking at the last type of opening line: telling the whole story.

First Lines: Foreshadowing

Monday, May 29, 2017


To foreshadow is to hint at what is to come. The hint can be either weak or strong, indirect or direct, veiled or obvious.

Consider these openings:

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold with such nonsense. (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling)

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. (One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez)

What does the first paragraph of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone tell the reader? That something strange and mysterious is about to happen. It doesn’t tell us what, though, so we keep reading to find out. This is a mild hint, but it is enough to intrigue us.

The first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude tells the reader exactly what is going to happen. No subtlety here. Unfortunately, the rest of the very long paragraph, while interesting, weakens the impact of the first sentence. But the opening is still strong enough to keep readers reading to discover what led to the firing squad.

Foreshadowing sounds easy, so why doesn’t everybody use it? It’s because of the pitfalls.

First, foreshadowing may give away too much. Take the classic puzzle mystery. In the spirit of fair play, the author gives the reader all the information he or she needs to figure out who did it. But the author also tries to outsmart the reader—often by hiding the clues in plain sight. Nobody wants it to be too easy, and the reader often prefers the surprise and pleasure of being outsmarted. So this is a bad first paragraph: “Karen smiled as she threw the gun into the pond. She had gotten away with it.” If you have a different kind of mystery and the question is why she did it, that opening may work fine. But for a puzzle mystery, it gives away too much.

The second pitfall is the danger of promising more than you deliver. The opening of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone works because the book is filled with strange and mysterious happenings. And the protagonist in One Hundred Years of Solitude does face a firing squad, or so I’m told. (I haven’t read the book.) But if you can’t deliver, try a different approach.

Next week we’ll talk about what I believe is the most common type of opening—the one that raises questions in the reader’s mind.

First Lines: Introducing an Intriguing Character

Monday, May 22, 2017


As I mentioned in an earlier post, I’m not captured by the first sentence in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, but the following sentences succeed where the first fails. Here is the entire beginning paragraph:

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 the 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 methodically 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. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; 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.

I can’t help wondering what a highly educated and apparently intelligent man is doing as an ordinary seaman. I’m intrigued, so I keep reading. That’s why this type of opening works.

Then there is Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The first paragraph is too long to quote in full, so here are the first two sentences.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.

Clearly, Holden has an “attitude,” and that attitude intrigues some readers. I’m not one of them, but that goes to a point in a previous post: no first line (or first paragraph) will appeal to everyone. In fact, no story will appeal to everyone. I can tell from the first paragraph that the book is filled with profanity, so I’ll pass. But for some readers, the opening has the opposite effect. And even though I choose not to read The Catcher in the Rye, maybe that’s also a function of a successful first line—to weed out the readers who won’t appreciate the book.

Like Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye, C.S. Lewis begins The Voyage of the Dawn Treader with the description of an intriguing youth and his parents.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. His parents called him Eustace Clarence and masters called him Scrubb. I can’t tell you how his friends spoke to him, for he had none. He didn’t call his Father and Mother “Father” and “Mother,” but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotalers and wore a special kind of underclothes. In their house there was very little furniture and very few clothes on the beds and the windows were always open.

What kind of boy almost deserves to be called Eustace Clarence Scrubb? Not a very likeable one, but intriguing none-the-less. And I have read and enjoyed this book. I originally bought it because I like the author, but I also appreciate the writing style.

As with any other opening, however, there are pitfalls to beginning a book by introducing an intriguing character. The first is self-evident: not making the character sufficiently intriguing to capture the reader’s attention. Just because I love my character doesn’t mean my readers will have the same feeling at the beginning of the book. By the time I finalize those opening paragraphs, I have been living with my protagonist for months and know both her quirks and her deepest secrets. When a new reader looks at the first pages to make a purchasing decision, he or she doesn’t know that character yet. The trick is to make the reader feel the same interest the author does but do it while the character is still a stranger to the reader. And that isn’t easy.

The other pitfall is maintaining the momentum. The character must fulfill the promise of the opening lines and remain intriguing throughout the story. If you empty your gun at the beginning and never reload, readers will cheer for you (as author) to die in the dust. And they won’t return for the next gunfight.

So if you want to begin with an intriguing character, make sure he or she fulfills that promise.

Next week we will move on to openings that foreshadow the story.

First Lines: Starting with a Bang

Monday, May 15, 2017


I stared at the gun in my hand before transferring my gaze to the dead author on the floor. She deserved to die. It was the only way to stop her from beginning her next romance with yet another car chase.

One approach to first lines is to begin with a bang—a startling event that captures a reader’s or viewer’s attention—such as an abduction or a car chase. Or it can be the literal bang of a gunshot. This type of opening is often used with action adventures, but it isn’t limited to that genre.

For an example from literary fiction, consider the opening paragraph from The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (as translated by David Wyllie).

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin. He lay on his armour-like back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see his brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections. The bedding was hardly able to cover it and seemed ready to slide off any moment. His many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.

If waking up to discover you’ve been changed into a giant insect isn’t a startling event, then nothing is. The bang in The Metamorphosis is both unexpected and gigantic.

But the bang doesn’t have to be big to work. Here is the beginning of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith.

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy. I can’t say that I am really comfortable, and there is a depressing smell of carbolic soap, but this is the only part of the kitchen where there is any daylight left. And I have found that sitting in a place where you have never sat before can be inspiring—I wrote my very best poem while sitting on the hen-house. Though even that isn’t a very good poem. I have decided my poetry is so bad that I mustn’t write any more of it.

In these two examples, the first line is the one that creates the bang. And fortunately for the reader, the rest of the paragraph keeps the interest going.

So why doesn’t every story start with a bang? Because it doesn’t always work. Like every other type of opening, this approach has its pitfalls.

First, it’s too easy to start with an event that has nothing to do with the story. I’ve read many manuscripts and even some published books that fall into this trap. Somebody told the writer to start with a thrilling adventure, so the writer forces a car chase or a murder into the opening of a gentle romance. Unfortunately, it doesn’t fit.

But, you may ask, what about Raiders of the Lost Ark? Doesn’t that start with an unrelated adventure? Yes and no. The action sequence that begins the movie is not part of the actual story line, but it is related. First, it tells us something about Indiana Jones’ character. Second, it is consistent with and sets the mood for what follows. For these reasons and possibly others, it works. The car chase or murder that begins the gentle romance can’t claim those connections.

The second pitfall of opening with a bang is the temptation to begin the story in the wrong place. I was writing a women’s fiction novel about a woman who idolized her father until she discovered that he was a swindler. She doesn’t forgive him until she thinks he was killed in a car crash. The accident was the most dramatic event in the story, so I tried to start there. Unfortunately, I would have had to tell most of the story as a flashback. A few writers can pull it off, but I’m not one of them.

If your story allows you to start with a bang naturally, then do it. But if not, there are plenty of other choices.

Next week we’ll talk about using the first lines to introduce an intriguing character.