Saturday, December 8, 2012

Guest Author: John Harrigan

Openings Condensed version

Starting a novel on the right track is tricky. If you muck up the first page, no one will go to the second. I like to start with a dramatic sentence or two that sets the mood of the story and suggests enough questions that you will want to know what comes next.     

My first novel, The Patron Saint of Desperate Situations, is a mystery built around the plane crash that killed progressive U. S. Senator Paul Wellstone. It starts with a simple, statement.  

"Until I met Sonia, I never questioned the plane crash that killed Paul Wellstone."

If it works, this sentence will trigger curiosity about Sonia, the narrator, and the mysterious Wellstone. Who is she and what is her involvement with the narrator? How does she get him or her to question the plane crash? Which one is the central character? Even before that, why is the mysterious Paul Wellstone  important to these two characters, and was there foul play in his death?  As the story goes on, all of these questions get addressed. It seems like a pretty straight forward start, but boiling it down to that one simple sentence took at least a couple dozen versions of the opening paragraphs.

For my current novel, The Jeeptown Sock Hop, the opening lines were even more difficult to come by, because it is a much more complicated story.  This is a coming-of-age story of two teens organizing a Sock Hop in hopes of bridging the racial and class gaps that splinter their gritty 1950s industrial town. Can they pull it off?

After several openings that never satisfied me, I decided to start the story with the two characters meeting today to reconcile themselves over something that drove them apart many years earlier. The bulk of the story is then told in a flashback by the narrator.
"When you drive cross country to relax for a few days with your sister, you don’t expect a blind date with an old friend. Certainly not with an old friend whose life you had once shattered."

If this opening works, it starts the story with a big question that needs an answer. What did he do that shattered the woman's life so many years earlier?  Of course, it takes the entire story to answer that question, but the balance of the first paragraph hints at several other questions that set the mood of the story. Were they a bi-racial couple? How would that have worked in the past? Have they been successful or unsuccessful in life? And do they still carry a torch for each other?  If this opening works, you will want to learn more and will keep reading until you're satisfied. It will be like having a handful of peanuts. You won't be able to stop until they're all gone.

So if you're in a mood for commenting, do these openings inspire you to want more?  If so, why?  And if not, why not? I would be very grateful for your comments, because they would help me on my next project in which I am currently at a loss for the opening.

About the Author:

I grew up in a city very much like Jeeptown, then served two years in the Army. Thanks to the GI Bill, I attended college and afterwards had the good fortune to serve a tour of duty as Cultural Affairs Officer in the U. S. Embassy in Brazil. I became fluent in the language, fell in love with the culture, and to this day am involved with Brazilian friends. Little bits of that experience work their way smoothly into both of my novels. In Patron Saint, Sonia is a single mom immigrant from Brazil, who, for reasons I don't understand, is liked better by female reviewers of the novel than by male reviewers. In Jeeptown, one of the most intriguing minor characters is Charlie's teacher, a nun who hails from Cape Verde and speaks English with a Portuguese accent. After three years in Rio, I became a professor of Political Science at a small liberal arts college. Currently at work on a third novel,  I live happily with my wife Sandy in St. Paul, MN.



Related Posts with Thumbnails