It’s all about TONE!

IT all started a year ago.

As you can read in other posts, the idea to create this blog originated while I interned at Tin House Books in Portland. It was terrifically rewarding to assist at the afternoon lectures of the TIN HOUSE SUMMER WRITER’S WORKSHOP and  listen to some especially delicious commentary from the visiting faculty.

Yesterday, “Beginnings, a panel with Ann Hood, Joy Williams, and J.C. Hallman, moderated by Michelle Wildgen” didn’t focus on anything I’ve previously commented on – not directly, anyway.

TONE.  Yesterday, it was all about tone!

The prevailing comment put forward by all three authors as the most important element to establish at the opening of a story, is tone. A story must create a uniform tone that in the microcosmic first sentences (or paragraphs or pages) represents the story as a whole. Ann Hood suggested that the very opening (but not necessarily the first sentence)should represent the entire story. I believe, in previous blogs, I’ve used the analogy of the acorn’s DNA holding the same DNA as the oak. Ms. Hood also used the seed into fully grown plant analogy.

It was interesting to hear J.C. Hallman and Joy Williams quote first sentences as ambassador to the story. Joy Williams quoted, Pat Conroy’s THE PRINCE OF TIDES: “My wound is geography,” while J.C. Hallman commented on the “modest” tone of HOWARD’S END: “One may as well begin with Helen’s letter to her sister.” Both openings employ different strategies to alert the reader to the upcoming prospect. Each member of the panel agreed that at the beginning, the author has limitless possibility, however, very quickly, and once the story’s tone is established, the reader expects that story to stay within boundaries established by the author.

I wonder, and I wish I’d asked this during the panel Q&A, how does one write “tone” or even put one’s finger on it? It seems much easier for a student writer to indicate setting, character, choice – all of which contribute to create plot, but how does an emerging (or emerged) writer dissect tone from these other technical elements?

Your turn! Comments please….

But first, I must give a shout out to Karen Russell’s lecture presentation of Monday afternoon where she referred to story writing as a TECHNOLOGY. As what?? Not in the sense of nuts, bolts, gears or www, but each element of a story’s reality having technical energies of say, fantasy, familiarity, structure and desire (like in outcome or intention). You must track her down and find out more! Start with her story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.

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FIRST10PAGES LECTURE OUTLINE

The following is the outline I used to give a lecture on what I discovered from writing this blog on the FIRST TEN PAGES. It was for my graduate lecture  in creative writing, on a analytical topic of my choice. I chose to discover common elements that occur within the first ten pages of a novel and what an emerging writer can learn to apply it to their own work. If you are one of my classmates and would like a PDF copy, or if you have any questions, send me an email at: bryanburch99@me.com.

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Bryan Burch - First Ten Pages – Lecture Outline - June 6, 2010

1 Good Morning

2    The title of my lecture is: First Ten Pages: (It is) A Discovery of the Novel’s First Ten Pages from Dickens to DiLillo, The Good Earth to The Bad Seed and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to The Picture of Dorian Gray

3   History – Why this topic?

  1. Tin House internship
  2. TH submissions not better or worse than most student work
    1. i.     Usually lacking specificity and direction and support of overall theme
  3. In reading successful (published) work…aware of what DIDN’T WORK as well as WHAT DID
  4. created first10pages.com blog – to hold reading discoveries and make analysis

4    What I looked for: (REFER TO WEBSITE ON SCREEN)

  1. What happens in the first sentence – where am I? who am I with? what’s wrong?
  2. What happens in the first ten pages – how support opening? how intentionally narrow?
  3. Narrative Voice –
    1. i.     POV
      1. 1st, 2nd, 3rd
      2. Distance / how close – how far?
    2. ii.     Perspective: WHO is telling the story – (how close is this entity?)
    3. iii.     Is narrator neutral? Is narrator a character? Is narrator reliable?
      1. Hairstyles of the Damned = awkward first person narrator, but sure of his role in his world (immediate)
      2. Twilight – Bella’s diary (distant)
      3. Lord Jim – the distant Arab storyteller who slowly moves forward
      4. Picture of Dorian Gray / Unknown Ubiquitous – like a stage manager

FIVE MINUTE MARK

From Susan Bell, The Artful Edit

  1. Language – suitable to events, agreeable, high falutin, too many adjectives, active verbs
  2. Setting!!! – how quickly am I grounded in location? what is wrong with this picture?
  3. Character – Who are they in relation to setting? Do they belong? right place, wrong time?
  4. Structure (Rhythm, Tension supporting plot)
  5. Prologue, Thematic Preamble or other freakish elements (trying to divert my attention)
  6. Foreshadowing & Plot expectations beyond page ten
  7. Random Comments –
    1. i.     Cover Art – Picture – Author / Title – blurbs
    2. ii.     Have I seen the movie,
    3. iii.     Wiki facts
    4. iv.     What percent of book did 10 pages equal

5   What didn’t work (from reading Tin House submissions)

  1. Postponing vital (or conflict causing) information in lieu of a lengthy description
    1. i.     (establishing something provocative, then saying: “but I’ll get to that later”)
  2. Front loading facts over action
    1. i.     (description of car when more important to relate the person she just ran over)
  3. Action for the sake of description
    1. i.     (step by step process when simple jump cut will do) (hallway image)
  4. Attention to detail above all else
    1. i.     (instead of tension and interference between character and environment)
    2. ii.     (say more with implication than with description!!)
  5. Action for description’s sake as result of tension between characters
    1. i.     “She shook her head until it wobbled like a toy. She wiggled back and forth in front of him like one of those spring loaded Slinky dogs.”
    2. ii.     OR: “There was nothing he could say to make her stop. She shook her head so hard he wanted to slap her. She would deserve it.”
  6. Unattributed dialogue / attributed late in the sentence @ a new character entrance

6      Setting, Character, Action… Example of classic beginning in first 3 paragraphs –

  1. Song of the Loon by Richard Amory [show book]
  2. first paragraph describes a brilliant river-forest setting
  3. second paragraph describes a muscular, copper-headed man paddling against the current
  4. third paragraph unfolds as the canoeing man is drawn to shore by the sound of a wooden flute and into the, sinewy arms of Singing Heron
  5. One. Two. Three. Setting is presented, character is produced, and the influence of setting upon character creates tension via choice. Woods + man in woods + unusual sound of flute in woods = tension and discovery unfolding into plot
  6. Can I get an Amen!

10 MINUTES

7    Setting

  1. Where are we? (only need enough information to initiate reader’s imagination)
  2. If I don’t know where I am, the story is poop!
  3. [show book] Richard Russo – EMPIRE FALLS: The Empire Grill was long and low-slung, with windows that ran its entire length, and since the building next door, a Rexall drugstore, had been condemned and razed, it was now possible to sit at the lunch counter and see straight down Empire Avenue all the way to the old textile mill and its adjacent shirt factory.
    1. i.     Strong sense of Narrative authority: This narrator knows what he’s talking about, is familiar with town, has affection for people, is unbiased but forgiving, has seen everyone in their underwear

8     85% = establish setting within the first sentence

  1. Setting is the grounding aspect from which all elements can grow toward or away from

9    Character

  1. Socio-economic status
  2. Does character belong in setting? Or not? (the less they belong the more tension created)
  3. Notice how characters exist in his perfect world: Captain Ahab on a ship (not stagecoach), Scarlett O’Hara = rural Georgia, Dorothy Gale in OZ, not Riviera Hotel
  4. [show book] Cormac McCarthy THE ROAD: When he awoke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray / each one than what had gone before.
  5. Notice how location and character are woven together
  6. Notice how different these two sentences are! [repeat key words]

TRANSITION / RECAP: Setting + character = tension (via choice), creates action

Stories that fail, describe setting, character & action

Stories that succeed, smash setting against character until they are so uncomfortable somebody must… CHOOSE. (Example: Pick your favorite food… now go get it — in 10 min or less)

FIFTEEN MINUTES

10    Action

  1. What is the Immediate perspective of a character in a particular location
  2. Does it seem natural and appropriate?
  3. Do I understand what is going on?
  4. [show book] Don Dillo – FALLING MAN: It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads.
  5. Not Pink Elephant! (not a street)

11   15% remainder: 5% = character only, 10% = hybrid

  1. 10% = hybrid where narrator/char perception or conflicted mental state puts character over setting (but clearly within a setting of some type)
  2. Falling Man = the negative space of “not a street”
  3. Living Dead Girl = midst of vague, haunting memory where the narrator recalls “…the last time I was home…” which ultimately cues up an anti-home setting in a home-less construct that resonates throughout the story

12   5% = character only

  1. character is so absorbed in himself that setting is a non-existent feature
  2. Haruki Murakami, A Wild Sheep Chase – no setting, no landmarks…
    1. i.     Narrator = uninvolved with own story
    2. ii.     Narrating from his past without referring to himself
    3. iii.     Events exist as random mental notations and emotional reminiscences
    4. iv.     reader stays on the outside…(like a bank statement, not $$$)
  3. A well drawn character must relate to place they inhabit whether they enjoy it or not
  4. Even the most self-centered or megalomaniacal personalities, who view themselves as the center of the universe, require a universe in which to be the center of

13   85 / 10/ 5

  1. Kinsey and Masters & Johnson breakdown of social collectiveness in humans and animals
  2. 85% = hetero, 10% = cross over, 5% = homo
  3. Race track, casino: 85% = losers, 10% = breakeven, 5% = winners
  4. Why? As early people lived close to earth. Socio integration = vital to survival. Must know tribal affinity. MUST KNOW PLACE IN WORLD!!
  5. As people migrate to city… leave ID of “clan”… assume ID of Cleveland, London, Beijing
  6. the 15% = character as defining feature – focus on inner complexity of solitary individual

TWENTY MINUTES

14    DISCOVERIES

  1. most stories have 10 page beginning section (chapter, segment, whatever)
  2. One does not have to be gifted to write a good story – one must be consistent and true to the world they create
  3. Everything must eventually relate back to the larger theme of story (power, control, indiscretion)
  4. Narrow and specific
  5. Thematic Preamble – like overture to musical or operetta
    1. i.      echoes overall theme of book
    2. ii.     The Cider House Rules naming fable: handed down from generation to generation, the preamble illuminates the naming process at St. Cloud’s orphanage where Homer Wells will be born later in the first chapter.
    3. iii.     Heart is a Lonely Hunter – two deaf/mute roommates
  6. Consistency: constant refinement for consistency
    1. i.     Good stories move toward a good ending
    2. ii.     Good stories don’t reveal the ending
    3. iii.     Good storytelling keeps narrow bandwidth, otherwise fall apart due to searching for new material
    4. iv.     Surprise and discovery are good… but without consistent thread story spins out beyond the scope of a story’s reality
      1. Gone With Wind = “I want what I want because I deserve it!”
  7. My blood pressure changes as Authorial Voice settles into my ear –
    1. i.     authority, confidence, intimacy
    2. ii.     TRIANGLE: reliability between the reader, the narrator and the story
      1. (Agatha Christie or Dick Francis story)
  8. Intimacy passing between the reader and narrator/character
    1. i.     (first person narrators are big on this – Twilight, Mrs. Dalloway, Lolita,
    2. ii.     but also Margaret Atwood or F. Scott Fitzgerald in Tender is Night or Last Tycoon
  9. elusive plasticity through which the reader passes in and out of the story
    1. i.     (Saturday – Ian McEwan. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Stuart Little)

TWENTY-FIVE MINUTES – 5 min warning

15  WHAT did Bryan learn?… HOW DOES BRYAN WRITE PERFECT FIRST 10 PAGES?

  1. novels are about character (even if character is kitchen sink), but they are about PLACE first
  2. Make inconsistencies facts (it will create future tension)
  3. Start narrow, stay narrow to maximize credibility
    1. i.     Bandwidth of believability:
    2. ii.     Catcher/Rye: “I’m not going to tell you anything I don’t want to…”
    3. iii.     100 Years Solitude: “facing the firing squad” (entire country is facing destruction and yet miraculously continues living)
  4. Implication… With how few words can I create place/character using as much implication as possible?
  5. Be specific over descriptive (broadens reader’s ability to co-create story with narrator)
  6. Break it down! How does each sentence support the whole
    1. i.     Microcosm / Macrocosm … Acorn to Oak
    2. ii.     Beginning = microcosm of entire book’s DNA
  7. Ignore what I think the reader needs to know…instead, enmesh & entangle… force character to choose
  8. Co-creation of environment – narrator with reader
    1. i.     “in the woods” conjures “woods” experience “in the dark and cold of the night”
    2. ii.     Use of common elements: shopping cart example  – different from our experience
    3. iii.     Falling Man: 9/11 media representations of twin towers events – etched in reader’s mind
    4. iv.     Empire Grill: Feels like an ordinary description, but calculated to induce feeling of normal & OK. Makes “condemned and razed” sound convenient and cozy…

16    THANK YOU and GOOD BYE

  1. Consider a story you like… how does it begin? How does the ending reflect the beginning?
  2. Take books
  3. Questions

STATS:

Stories Blogged 19/33

Stories Read not blogged 5/23

total 24/56

EXAMPLE FIRST SENTENCES:

Love Story: “What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?”

The Inheritance of Loss: “All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths.”

Mrs, Dalloway: “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Ragtime: “In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York.”

All’s Quiet on the Western Front: “We are at rest five miles behind the front.”

Bad Seed: “Later that summer, when Mrs. Penmark looked back and remembered, when she was caught up in despair so deep that she knew there was no way out, no solution whatever for the circumstances that encompassed her, it seemed to her that June seventh, the day of the Fern Grammar School picnic, was the last time had she known contentment or felt peace.”

Await Your Reply “We are on our way to the hospital, Ryan’s father says. Listen to me, Son: You are not going to bleed to death.”

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FIRST 10 PAGES

TITLE / Author   year published  (# pgs)

First Ten Pages =  x% of total book

First Sentence or two:  “italicized”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  (POV & Perspective/”who”)

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  (blah, blah, blah)

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  (blah, blah times ten)

Language: (suitable to events, agreeable, high-falutin, too many adjectives, active verbs?)

Setting:  (How soon is reader grounded in location? What is wrong with this picture?)

Character: (Who is it in relation to setting? Do they belong? Right place, wrong time?)

Structure: (Rhythm, Tension, Support the Plot)

Prologue / Thematic Preamble / Freakish elements:

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:

Random Comments:  (Cover art, blurbs? The movie? Wiki facts?)

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THINGS CHANGE

When I started this project last October I thought that I’d wrap it up as soon as my thesis was written. It’s written. In fact I finished it in March and got thumbs up from my committee. In June I make a thirty-minute oral defense of my work. My discoveries from writing this blog will be a huge part of my commentary.

I’m so glad I did this! It has made a huge difference in my understanding of what goes on in the opening of a novel and it focused my attention on what I was reading and how it motivated me forward.

So what has changed?

The format, mostly. I must recognize Susan Bell and her wonderful book THE ARTFUL EDIT. From her insightful work I have added several categories to my postings, including language, structure and foreshadowing. Ms. Bell offers excellent advise to writers on how to view their work for the purpose of editing – not over editing, but self editing. I recommend it highly.

Another format addition. I’ve added a category called THEMATIC PREAMBLE. Most significant works offer a three or four page cycle at the very beginning of the story that parallels the main story. An excellent example of this is John Irving’s CIDER HOUSE RULES where the book opens with a generic tale that segues into the story of Homer Wells and the orphanage. Often times a prologue will serve as a thematic preamble.

The thing that hasn’t changed is that I love writing these reviews. Even though I’ve finished my thesis assignment and am scheduled for September graduation I enjoy these close readings and commenting on what will happen after the first ten pages are over.

So for now, I’ll continue to write reviews every now and then, in between the collection of short stories that are due in August for me to graduate.

Thanks for reading.

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TWILIGHT / Stephanie Meyer

TWILIGHT / Stephanie Meyer. 2005 (498 pgs)  First Ten Pages = 2.01% of total book

First (& Last) Sentence-Preface:  “I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this.” [had to include the last sentence of the preface] “The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me.”

First Paragraph-Chapter One: “My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue. I was wearing my favorite shirt – sleeveless, white eyelet lace; I was wearing it as a farewell gesture. My carry-on item was a parka.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  The voice is consistently that of the first person adolescent girl narrator who is the story’s main character. The story is from her point of view and from her perspective. Tension is heightened by placement in the relatively recent past tense. The sauntering stalker in the short preface is particularly creepy.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Much effort is made by the narrator to show the huge environmental differences between the warm and sunny home she is leaving (mom) to the cold, rainy and sunless climate of Forks, Washington where she will live with Charlie, her father who is police chief of this very small town.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  Isabella “Bella” Swan, the narrator, who her father calls “Bells”, has voluntarily agreed to live with her dad so her mom can travel with her new husband. Bella has great reservations about her new arrangement, and since she is familiar with Forks from previous visits, she understands the sacrifice she is making for her mother; sacrifice – human, ritualistic and self – being prevailing thematic aspects of this story’s plot and premise. The story begins leisurely with the main events being Bella’s departure form Phoenix and arrival in Forks, where her dad gives her a cool, old truck he acquired from a buddy on the nearby Indian reservation. The early pages of this book cue the reader to settle in for a story of an unassuming girl who dreads the prospect of being bored out of her mind in small town USA. For anyone remotely familiar with the movie and the four sequel books, they know boredom will not be Bella’s problem. The Preface indicates this, but Prefaces are often out of context, as this one is, so they don’t seem to have a bearing on the simple realities presented in the subsequent chapter. I imagine that as the book goes on the reader understands how Bella recognizes her killer and is oddly resigned in the face of this danger.

Language: The language is clear, unadorned and personal as if taken from a sophisticated diary. These are the episodes of a young woman who offers her story without fanfare or hesitation. In these early pages the events – actual plot and her considerations regarding her actions – move steadily forward without recapitulation. In a simple statement to herself in front of the bathroom mirror Bella says, “…if I couldn’t find a niche in a school with three thousand people, what were my chances here?” Bella seems to have a clear picture of herself and in so gives the reader the benefit of narration that is easy to negotiate.

Setting: Having seen the film adaptation of this book it is fair that Bella concentrates on the differences between where she has lived in Phoenix with her mom and the rainy and dank atmosphere of the Pacific Northwest. Over these several pages her anticipation gives way to ambivalence, which becomes a running theme.  Her environmental change and acceptance of her circumstances represent the vast psychological differences in the light and dry world of the mother and the wet and fertile rainforest of the father. It is an unusual twist in the portrayal of male and female concept.

Character:  All characters are projected via Bella’s perspective. Other people in the story take on aspects of stock characters as viewed through the lens of Bella’s youth. Bella and her voice is the constant through which all other perceptions must pass. Bella’s narration and thereby the projection of the unfolding story becomes somewhat tedious in the first ten pages. If the narrator isn’t having a good time, how can the reader expect to have one? Of course, if you’ve heard the buzz about the story, Bella will be running with a different crowd very quickly, and the company she keeps will be challenging to keep up with.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension): Bella is working hard to mitigate the huge life change she is undergoing at the beginning of the story and so the structure is highly controlled and awkwardly nonchalant. Bella is making a great sacrifice for her mother’s benefit. In this seemingly small amount of pages we are given a significant insight to her character, which reflects in the early story’s intentional lack of dramatic roll and pitch. If not for the mysterious and threatening preface, Bella’s story would be much more of an uphill climb for the reader. The risk of losing the reader in the early pages would be far greater.

Thematic Preamble: The preface serves as somewhat of a thematic preamble, mostly in the way that it makes a provocative statement and then abruptly ends at a high point of anticipation. The fact that Bella has a somewhat casual, or at least non-hysterical relationship to her potential murderer, recurs throughout this series of novels.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: It is unfair for me to indicate the intention of the story from these first ten pages as if I had no idea where they are going. I’ve seen the movie. However, knowing what I do (in the same way I had seen the movie of GONE WITH THE WIND prior to reviewing it on this blog) I must say that the preface does a great job of preparing the reader for Bella’s odd upcoming circumstance. I must also comment on the cover art – a pair of translucently pale forearms offering a vividly red apple with both hands. The combination of the nestled apple, its luscious juiciness reverently protected, parallels the loaded meaning of Bella as offered and offering.

Random Comments:  Wikepedia says: After multiple publishing rejections the novel was the biggest selling book of 2008 and, to date, has sold 17 million copies worldwide, spent over 91 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and been translated into 37 different languages. It is the first book of the Twilight series, and introduces seventeen-year-old Isabella “Bella” Swan, who moves from Phoenix, Arizona to Forks, Washington and finds her life in danger when she falls in love with a vampire, Edward Cullen. The novel is followed by New Moon, Eclipse, and Breaking Dawn. A film adaptation of Twilight was released in 2008. It was a commercial success, grossing more than $382 million worldwide and an additional $157 million from North American DVD sales, as of July 2009.

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HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED / Joe Meno

HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED / Joe Meno. 2004 (270 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  3.7% of total book

First Sentence:  “The other problem I had was that I was falling in love with my best friend, Gretchen, who I thought the rest of the world considered fat.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: First person narrative of main character. Past tense.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: It is interesting that the author places the reader immediately into the first person narrator’s mind by announcing “the other problem,” before we learn the narrator’s description or gender. The reader learns more about Gretchen, who is driving the “crappy car” than we learn about the narrator. Gender remains obscured. It is only by process of assumption in the first several paragraphs that one gradually gathers that the narrator is a dude. It is very clear he is in love with Gretchen. It is also pathetic that he is so concerned about how big she is.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: The second chapter takes an interesting deviation from narrative story. Not only does the style shift to a diary entry / mix tape list, it is written by Gretchen. As it is not narration per se (it could be something that the narrator has appropriated), it is an indicator of the multiple styles and mirroring of erratic adolescent actions that are to come. In the third chapter the reader is brought more specifically into the plot through the narrator’s observations of Gretchen’s behavior toward another girl who has been flirting with a guy she is hot for.

Language: The narrator, who is also the main character, Brian Oswald, prepares lists of dream mix tapes and punk band names in separately standing chapters with short editorial comments like “awesome” and  “bad-ass.” From the self-deprecating disclosure, which is first person, it is fairly obvious Brian is a high school student and self-described band geek. His language indicates that he would like to view himself as a slacker, behavior his mom will not allow, counter indicates that he has much room to slack off.

Setting: In the opening we are placed in the immediacy of Gretchen’s “crappy” white Ford Escort, which provides a very close proximity for us to observe Brian’s attitude toward Gretchen and his conflicting physical desire and disgust. In the car, the reader is prepped for Anyplace, High School, USA, but as the action opens up, the novel places the reader in the south side of Chicago. It is interesting to note that the reader only hears the extreme vocal and dialectical style of Chicago’s south side in the minor and secondary characters. If Brian narrated the story with a noticeable regionalism it would detract from the emotional impact of his story.

Character: All the characters are young. Even the adults are immature and adolescent. Brian, and all the boys to some degree, is highly focused on sex and how to acquire it. When the story doesn’t focus on sex, it focuses on music, bands, punk culture, clothing, and if there is time remaining, schoolwork. It is fairly clear from the opening pages that Brian’s major conflict will occur because of his admiration for Gretchen and his distain for her physical appearance. As a self professed “secondary character,” Brian provides the reader with a vantage to observe the actions of his friends and fellow students and their interactions.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension): An exciting immediacy peppers the opening (and I suspect the entire) of this story. Right from the first the reader is plunked into Brian’s running dialogue with himself and those around him. At times he is character. At other times he is observer. As in a Broadway musical, when the pressure of any particular situation, albeit the relatively immature pressures of high school, and words no longer suffice, music takes over. The author includes many references to music from the eighties and earliest nineties that both indicate period and emotional state of mind.

Thematic Preamble: The narrative eye is extremely close to the action of the story. Unlike with a more distant narrative character or a third person narrator, HAIRSTYLES OF THE DAMNED does not provide a clear thematic preamble in the way that something like CIDER HOUSE RULES does. Brian’s emotional immediacy and the fact that adolescents are more prone to display their emotions close to the surface, the reader does not get a sense of depth or thematic maturity at first. I suspect that the course of the book will offer much more in the way of journey toward emotional maturity, supporting what I see as a major theme of this work, which is simply adjusting to growing up and becoming responsible to one’s self.

Intention: Regardless of any maturity deficit, there is strong indication that Brian and Gretchen’s friendship will be put to a test. That Brian begins the story in the middle of a series of problems (see first sentence) indicates that there will be plenty of problems to replace any that might be solved over the course of the story. I suggest that regardless of the “slacker” tone there are significant hormonal variables as play. At quick glance through the book, it seems that the action covers about one year – from junior to senior year – an incredibly (in)formative period of one’s life. The opening pages reflect both the arrogance and idiocy of minor adolescent life, as well as the limitless possibility, even on the south side of Chi-town.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: He is seventeen at the opening. He will be eighteen by the end of the story.

Random Comments: The fourth chapter (which starts on the eleventh page, but I had to read it anyway) is a very funny punk-nerd list called “Causes of the Revolutionary War were many,” which gradually deviates into “Bad-ass names for a metal band….” Totally awesome beginning.

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RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE / Donald McCaig

RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE / Donald McCaig. 2007 (495 pgs)

First Ten Pages = 2% of total book

RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE is the companion piece to GONE WITH THE WIND posted a couple of days ago.

First Sentence:  “One hour before sunrise, twelve years before the war, a closed carriage hurried through the Carolina Low Country. The Ashley River road was pitch-black except for the coach’s sidelights, and fog swirled through the open windows, moistening the passengers’ cheeks and the backs of their hands.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Distant third person narrative voice. Past tense told chronologically with brief back-flashes to acquaint the reader with past events, ironically, the same as in GONE WITH THE WIND. In RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE the reader has the huge advantage, most likely, of having read Margaret Mitchell’s classic.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: A young Rhett Butler and his close friend, John Haynes, are hurrying through the marshes in a carriage. The reader, via too much dialogue, learns that the driver is the long time servant and accomplished horseman to the Butler family. The reader also learns that John Haynes is very agitated, while Rhett is his classic, carefree self. The book is set in past tense, and the first paragraphs often refer to a time even farther back in the past. It is confusing to trace the present tense of dialogue, the past tense of the narration, and the farther back past tense that the narrator refers to.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  After waxing poetic over the beauty of his rice fields in the predawn light, we learn that Rhett, and John as his second, are on their way to a duel with Belle Watley’s brother. You remember Belle from the movie, the Madame with a heart of gold who shields Rhett and whom Melanie visits in her gaudy carriage? Apparently the brother claims that Rhett has knocked up his sister and now both boys have honor to defend. It is rather like the beginning of GWTW where the two Tarleton twins have been kicked out of another college so all the Tarleton boys quit in fraternal unity. The main thing the reader learns, aside from the logistics of the cow pasture where the duel will take place, is that John Haynes is at wit’s end over the duel and Rhett is the already the calm, cool gentleman he will be thirteen years hence.

Language: Donald McCaig attempts to counteract Rhett’s casual tone with the thundering of horse’s hooves and jostling carriage straps and other such environmental effects. Much of the scene is told in dialogue, which lends an awkward sense of eavesdropping on unfamiliar people. There is something false in the language that mimics that of Mitchell’s work from seventy years earlier.

Character:  More focus is placed on the other characters than on Rhett, or perhaps the author intends for the reader to view Rhett via reflections from the others. The characters that successfully spring to life are those of Rhett and Belle, as they are well represented in GWTW. The others are difficult to visualize.

Setting: “We wouldn’t want to shoot a cow.” Rhett stretched. “My father would be furious if we shot one of his cows.” I suppose the irony of Rhett Butler standing in cow patties against a superior opponent is intended to be, well, ironic. I found myself confused by the opening action, as I found it difficult to visualize. In this case, too much is left to the reader’s imagination because not enough factual narrative informs the opening several pages. At about the sixth page, the story back tracks to an anecdote of his opponent shooting the head off of a whippoorwill at sixty paces, which gives the reader a clear understanding of the gravity of John Haynes point of view, not to mention Rhett Butler’s position as a dueling partner.

Plot & Expectations beyond the tenth page:  McCaig, on the twelfth page brings the opening duel to it’s climactic conclusion seconds after ending the scene. No, we don’t know the outcome of the duel, as the action ends at: “Shad Watling fired first, an explosion of white smoke at the muzzle when the hammer struck home.” This is immediately followed by: “Nine years earlier”. I’m not concerned about whether Rhett survives the duel. I’m more curious about how the author is going to fill up the remaining 480 pages. It seems to me that what makes Rhett Butler so fulfilling in GWTW is that he remains enigmatic.

Random Comments:  RHETT BUTLER’S PEOPLE has not been made into a movie.

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