The Reluctant Fundamentalist / Mohsin Hamid. 2008 (184 pgs softcvr, 224 pgs hardcvr)

First Ten Pages =  18.4% of total book

First Sentence:  “Excuse me, sir, but may I be of assistance?”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  First person, present tense, monologue. Oddly, the reader only hears the narrator’s side of the conversation as if the reader is eavesdropping on one side of a telephone conversation.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  The first paragraph, particularly the first few sentences, informs the reader that the story is taking place right now and in a foreign place – possibly India or the Middle East. The narrator and main character (the only character we hear from) seems to be pestering a foreigner who is American. The narrator – Changez – attempts to allay the American’s suspicions by admitting he is “…a lover of America,” saying “I am both a native of this city and a speaker of your language, I thought I might offer you my services.” Changez indentifies the man as American by his “bearing” not by his skin color, clothing, or military appearance. By the end of paragraph three Changez has convinced the American to join him in a cup of tea, something the neighborhood is famous for.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  I have to admit I have used all of chapter one – 15 pages – for the purpose of this paper. The print is large, there is lots of “air” between the lines and so these 15 pages would be approximately 5 pages of a Twilight book, Ragtime, or any Jane Austin. In these opening pages the American and thereby the reader is given a few reminiscences of Changez time in America as a Suma Cum Laude graduate of Princeton, a successful job interview with an extraordinarily prestigious valuation company, and an introduction to a man who will (doubtless) become a guide or mentor. Changez’s telling of these stories is focused, calm and dispassionate. He is not boasting. He is telling. More importantly, the reader must, in very few pages, reevaluate any assumptions or first impressions they have had of Changez even if the reader is unsure of his motives. By the end of chapter one, Changez is pouring their second cup of tea.

Language: At first the narrative style is jarring. It is awkward to hear only one side of a conversation and awkward that the narrator appears so aggressively persistent. The story is told in monologue. Even so the reader receives a satisfactory amount of information about the American, other characters who appear only in reminiscences, the setting, and Changez’s worldview. Changez responds to questions and comments from the American and occasionally the waiter, but we learn their content only from Changez’s responses. Changez appears to pause for the other speakers, but the printed monologue is continuous. The effect is that time is stilted. Real time becomes one-sided time.

Setting:  The narrator gives enough descriptive information and historical context of the café, the neighborhood, and eventually Lahore, and Pakistan for the reader to feel they are in real locations. It seems expository at first, but as Changez is answering questions from the American and introducing his guest to the homeland he is proud of, it becomes comfortably second nature. Through Changez’s recollections the setting easily shifts to and from America and the café as well as other places he has been over the past five years.

Character:  The reader learns key elements of Changez’s character during an intense job interview with Jim, his future employer. Jim accurately pegs him as an outsider who works hard to play the part of a princely and sophisticated foreigner who comfortably blends into an elite American collegiate society, when in truth his family can’t afford to send him to Princeton without significant financial aid. Jim’s unveiling Changez’s duplicity makes a deep impression and will obviously influence future events. Metaphorically, Changez has been forged in Pakistan and polished in the states. He cannot achieve in his homeland what he can possess in the United States. He has been seduced by status. Recounting his story to the American in a café in Pakistan implies that he will or has undergone a character change and presumably a status change that the reader will learn about as the story unfolds.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension): Some creative writing teachers advocate for their students to “show don’t tell.” Mohsin Hamid’s story is all telling. It’s an excellent example of successful exposition via narration. The story is narrative from page one to page 184. Why? (Now I will admit that I’ve read the entire story – an excellent 2.5 hour read.) The author has given Changez a distinctive voice, a distinctive foreign voice, a voice that remains consistent as the reader’s perception of the narrator shifts. When Changez speaks to the American, the lilt of his phrasing is Pakistani and “foreign.” As he narrates events from his past, such as his time at Princeton or the job interview with Jim, his lilt becomes more subdued. This effect is mirrored in the way stories that take place in the USA appear to be calm and attractive in the way that a film can depict commonplace events in settings that are uncharacteristically luxurious. He refers to locations from his past similarly to the way a tourist refers to visiting a famous church or a restaurant with an excellent soup. When the focus returns to his guest at the café the monologue becomes choppy and the sentences abbreviated in a way that is decidedly expository and unfamiliar to a “Western” ear.

Intention: This is the big mystery of the first chapter. What does the narrator want from the American? What is the author trying to convey to the reader? The book title implies both reluctance and fundamentalism, two concepts that in contemporary times – especially since 9/11 –take on larger meanings. Will there be an event? Is the American safe? Does fundamentalist mean terrorist? The narration starts the reader on a story – a seemingly harmless and simple one in this first chapter. While it is clear that Changez will be the only speaker from beginning to end, where the story will take the reader and the American is a complete mystery.

Thematic Preamble: None. The action starts with the first sentence and moves forward in time utilizing occasional flashbacks.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond chapter one:  From these first pages, I expect something ominous to occur. I suspect that the story, written by a Princeton and Harvard educated Pakistani ex-pat, is designed with a targeted effect on a Western reader. Although the narrative voice is a Pakistani’s and that he is inviting, articulate and intelligent I suspect the author relies on a post 9/11 Westerner’s bias of anything middle-eastern to inform a reader’s point of view. If the reader was on the other side of the middle-eastern fence I am confident they would also perceive upcoming events as ominous, but from a very different point of view.

(FYI: regardless of whether or not I read beyond the first ten pages, I always pause at the end of “page 10” to consider what I will write in these critiques and my imagination of the story’s outcome.)

Random Comments:  Hamid’s narrator is a devoted Pakistani citizen with a non-partisan relationship to his formerly adopted country – the potential land of milk and honey. (An odd comparison, I know, since Pakistan is much closer to the river Jordan than is the USA.) Changez believes in the good of men, but becomes disillusioned toward his adopted homeland when the good of men factors a high percentage of self-good. At the end of the day, and this may be a gross oversimplification, Changez’ monologue reflects, without actually saying it, that there is no place like home… even when one must create a new home by returning home.


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THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE / Thomas Hardy. 1895 (335 pgs)

First Ten Pages = 2.99% of total book

First Sentence:  “One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Distant third-person narrator. Omniscient – per the style of 19th century novels. Past tense, like a tale.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: A man and his wife with their sleeping child approach, from seemingly far away, a place they’ve not been, seeking shelter, on foot. If one hasn’t read a 19th century novel in a while one must reacquaint oneself with longer sentences that wind around a lot of information (like that previous sentence). In these first few paragraphs one learns quite a bit about the man – his dress, manner, swarthy look and hay cutting tools – and very little about the wife and child, as if they are an appendage. As they walk side by side, man and wife are in close proximity, but emotionally far off.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: Here is where the story takes off. Before the end of the first ten pages, this man – Henchard, the eventual Mayor of Casterbridge – gets drunk and sells his young wife and child to the highest bidder.

Language: The narrator is outside of the emotional of the story and does not add an opinion or judgment on the events of the story. His role is to present. Instead, the omniscient narrator uses other characters and the many village observers to lend bias and perspective to the actions within the story. Where the narrator is neutral, the several narrative voices create a variety of perspectives for the reader to judge character action.

Setting: Hardy creates detailed setting and ties various types of characters to the setting in which they attend. As Henchard and his wife approach the fair in Weydon-Priors they ask a citizen for lodgings. The unnamed citizen informs them that the people of Weydon-Priors would sooner tear down an abandon abode than have the wrong type of persons moving in. The once prosperous town seems to be in decline and the inhabitants are determined to keep it that way.

Character:  In these opening pages the majority of the narrative keeps Henchard in prime focus. The reader cannot foretell that Henchard is about to do something horrible – as Henchard is unaware of what he has done until the morning after. The primary evil is not Henchard. The primary evil is pride, and arrogance, and alcohol. There is much foreshadowing of Henchard as volcano brewing, but it all comes together at the end of the first act when the auction event concludes and he falls asleep with a drink in his hand.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  The first chapter is just over ten pages and contains the approach to the fair at Weydon-Priors, food and drink in the tent, and selling his wife to an unnamed sailor. It is deliberately paced and shocking at its conclusion. It feels as though the story has been told. What more can be said? For Henchard to sink further would not be impossible, but would become more than the story could bear. Instead, on the eleventh page, Henchard wakes, realizes his folly, searches for his wife and child and when he cannot find them, swears off alcohol for twenty-one years. (Without giving anything away that you can’t find out online, the story skips ahead many years to a woman walking down the approach to Weydon-Priors with her eighteen-year-old daughter looking for a long lost relation.) It is this drastic time-skip that affects the structure of the entire story without the reader having to take park in all the details of Henchard’s fight for sobriety and his rise in social position to that of Mayor of Casterbridge, a booming, if not distant seat of the corn and wheat trade.

Intention: Thank God the intention of Hardy’s story is NOT to moralize on the ill effects and ill judgments made under the influence of alcohol. Instead, due to Henchard’s absolute realization that his actions have landed him in this predicament, he is able to make some significant changes in his habits and attempt culpability – if not with his wife, at least with himself in the world. (What the reader learns as the story continues is that while one can change their habits, one’s basic character requires more stringent modulation.)

Thematic Preamble: None. This story (like the last couple of others reviewed on this blog) jumps directly into action. THE MAYOR OF CASTERBRIDGE jumps headlong with force and unveering calamity to the shocking end of the first chapter.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: Something’s Gotta Give. The reader (and several of the secondary characters who comment on Henchard and his actions) is clear that Henchard is out of control and the only one who can affect any positive change must be Henchard.

Random Comments: Read this book.

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ABOUT A BOY / Nick Hornby

ABOUT A BOY / Nick Hornby. 1998 (307 pgs)

First Ten Pages = 3.26% of total book

First Sentences: “So have you split up now?”

“Are you being funny?”

People quite often thought Marcus was being funny when he wasn’t.

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Close third person alternating by chapter between two main characters. Both characters closely interact with each other presenting different perspectives on one another. When the chapter is from Marcus’ POV the narrator has access to Marcus’ internal perspective. The same is true when the chapter is from Will’s POV.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: Marcus is an unusual twelve-year-old boy whose mother has just ordered delivery pizza and broken up with her boyfriend.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: It is 1993. After pizza and talk about the ex boyfriend in the first chapter, we meet Will in the second. He is self-defined as “totally cool” and exactly the type of guy that Marcus’ mother would go out with. Where Marcus is unclear of his preadolescent role in the world and with his “mum” and her boyfriend troubles, Will is thirty-something and the counter opposite of Marcus. It is clear these two will cross paths.

Basic plot from the book jacket or Wikipedia: The novel is about Will Freeman, a 36-year-old bachelor, and Marcus, an eccentric, introverted, bullied twelve-year-old who lives alone with his suicidal mother, Fiona. Will, who has never had to work thanks to the royalties from his father’s Christmas song hit entitled “Santa’s Super Sleigh”, has a lot of spare time. Most of this he spends smoking, watching TV, listening to albums and looking for female temporary companionship.

Language: In general the language is contemporary with a special focus on the hipness of the nineties. Many references to music and popular culture – of which Marcus, Will and the few other prominent characters seem to have wildly divergent tastes – propose a sense of involvement or non involvement in the current world.

Setting: London suburbs. Will has lived here all his life. Marcus is new to the big city and having difficulty adjusting from a slower Cambridge rhythm. Like with the pop culture references, London is used to fill in certain blanks in Will or Marcus’ understanding of life and living among other people.

Character: It seems, at first, that the story is progressing to describe two characters who will eventually become one, particularly because Marcus is a boy and Will acts like one. Because of their individual circumstances, neither has any real responsibilities nor has a mentor to model mature behavior. Marcus and Will move through the world as a twelve year old and a man who has not matured far beyond adolescence. As it turns out, each one develops beyond his initial capacity due to the other’s diligence and commitment.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension): The regular back and forth POV shift between chapters adds an ongoing sense of expectation. The chapters are short and dominated by action over contemplation. As a reader it is interesting to realize that even while receiving Will’s perspective in an even-numbered chapter, the next odd-numbered chapter will counter or redefine Will’s situation from Marcus’ perspective – both of which rarely run on the same track.

Intention: While the story is not exactly a feel-good tale, there are comfortable elements of cause and effect that remind the reader that every one who crosses through our lives makes an effect. We can’t survive alone.

Thematic Preamble: None. The story begins without preamble directly engaging the reader in Marcus’ difficult home situation and Will’s unremarkable life choices.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: My expectation from reading the first ten pages included wondering how these two males would eventually be thrown together. Their lives are so different and they seem unlikely to meet. The overriding question is HOW will these two protagonists come together as opposed to why.

Random Comments: ABOUT A BOY was made into a successful motion picture starring Hugh Grant in 2002. I have not seen the picture but I couldn’t help hearing Hugh Grant each time Will spoke. It made me wonder.

The title is a reference to the song “About a Girl” by Nirvana, a band that is featured in the book, and Patti Smith‘s tribute to Kurt Cobain, “About a Boy“.

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BEN, IN THE WORLD / Doris Lessing


Doris Lessing. 2000 (178 pgs)

The sequel to THE FIFTH CHILD

First Ten Pages =  5.62% of total book

First Sentence:  “ ‘How old are you?’ ”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Close third person. Shifting POV from various characters but always regarding Ben. There is the sense that when it isn’t from Ben’s POV, the others are attempting to see through his eyes or figure out how they can use him to their own advantage.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  Ben is an unusual man. He is from a different age (hence the irony of the first sentence). At the unemployment office, Ben has a difficult time convincing the clerk he is eighteen years old, in his strange clothing and appearing middle aged. He is extremely uncomfortable and the clerk mistakes Ben’s forced grin as some sort of mockery. Ben’s physical description is more animal than human, yet his voice and accent are “posh.”

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  Through various perspectives, including Ben, the unemployment clerk, a cat and Mrs Biggs, the kindly, elderly woman who has taken Ben in, the reader learns that Ben is an anomaly – human, yet a throwback to something ape or dog-like. With his broad facial features, squat body with huge chest, furry body and his propensity to experience the physical world through smell, sound and the warning sensations of fear and anxiety, Ben is incapable of getting along in the real world. His upper class family has abandoned him and he is constantly robbed or swindled. He prowls grocery market aisles for food stalking for meat and terrifying the shopkeepers. If not for Mrs Biggs (and her highly suspicious cat) Ben would steal. And yet Ben knows he is eighteen because every Christmas since he was fifteen, he has added another year to his age.

Language: BEN, IN THE WORLD is the sequel Doris Lessing’s THE FIFTH CHILD. Ben is a simple man, who uses simple thoughts and words. He constantly tries to negotiate his survival in the unnatural world of cars, offices, elevators, and machines. Lessing uses a direct and unadorned storytelling style, as if this is the type of story people will tell in small groups and around campfires, the reader not knowing how much is possible or true. Most sentences are declarative statements of fact or biased observation. The reader is conscious of a storyteller speaking very closely in their ear. While the shifting character POV relays the story from their own experience, judgment and sensitivity, the unifying effect that Ben seems to have is that he constantly elicits curiosity and wonder. The various voices contribute to a worldview about this strange “manimal,” and each character echoes their need to sympathize or capitalize on him.

Setting: This sequel covers a much larger territory than its predecessor, THE FIFTH CHILD. Ben’s journey takes him literally into the world, specifically deeper into London and then Marseille, Brazil and in the mountains of the Andes where he discovers where he comes from and who his people are. The world in general serves to be a scary and imposing place for Ben. The reader is familiar with the world to which Ben has no affinity or ease. Presented to the reader from Ben’s perspective, the world is oppressive and confusing, while from others, things like taxis, airplanes, grocery stores are every day occurrences.

Character:  Ben is handicapped. Not to a wheelchair or by mental illness, but by elements of the western world. He is the extreme in us and held up to the reader for an examination of self. Ben is the universal child of parents who cannot cope. Ben is part of every man who feels out of sorts in his environment. Ben is the natural world – the extinct world – calling for recognition.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  The rhythm is simple and short. Lessing often returns to short declarations of fact to tell the substantive aspects of the plot, which lend an air of impending unease. There is considerable tension caused by common occurrences in these first ten pages – that to the twentieth century reader would seem unusual. Lessing uses this confusion to indicate the mental state and incapability of her main character to cope with the most obvious situations. As the story progresses beyond the first ten pages it becomes more and more difficult for the reader to anticipate a happy ending. Metaphorically, Ben’s being in the world is a statement that there is very little room for the natural world in the world in which we have fashioned.

Intention: Perhaps Lessing is reminding us that we are animals regardless how sophisticated we seem. Ben is the hero. He is put upon and rescued by a number of people who take pity on him or see a way to profit from his differences. Even though he is robbed and set upon by petty thieves, it is Hollywood and “The Cages” of laboratory science that strike the most dissonant chords in Ben’s forced venture into the world.

Thematic Preamble: This story wears its theme on its sleeve. Its dark perception of human nature is made upfront and is not subtle. The author does not make the reader dig deeply beyond the events at hand to find subtle meanings. Even so, where Ben is handicapped by the world he lives in, he has the animal capability to kill a man by crushing him in his arms, a power he must put down in order to survive.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten:  This is my first time reading a Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing book and one of her last (Lessing died in 2010). With my initial reading I was not impressed by the simplicity of Ben’s story and how there seemed little room for the reader’s participation. I wondered if it was because I was reading part two without having read part one. I realized, however, that Lessing is telling Ben’s story from Ben’s core. The writing style explains the events. The reader can only observe characters trying to help Ben and failing, while others succeed at taking advantage of him. While the writing seems simple and childlike, the overall effect forces the reader to ask how one copes in this cynical world.


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PARIS TROUT / Pete Dexter

PARIS TROUT / Pete Dexter. 1988 (306 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  3.27% of total book

First Sentence:  “In the spring of that year an epidemic of rabies broke out in Ether County, Georgia.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  Third person. Past tense. No deviation.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs: The reader learns of a rabies epidemic “that spring,” but doesn’t learn which year. The reader is told that the setting is a county in rural Georgia that suggests it might put one to sleep. From the first six words the reader should conclude that the story is set in the significant past. Contemporary people don’t talk in terms of seasons. They delineate time in much smaller packets, like Facebook entries. The reader is then told that seventy foxes were killed, twelve were rabid, but nobody contracted the disease…except an old man named Woodrow and a fourteen-year-old girl named Rosie Sayers. Both from “The Bottoms.” Part one of the story features Rosie Sayers. This information is economically narrated in four brief paragraphs. Economy will be a guiding principal of the entire story.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The reader is offered a considerable amount of information in the first ten pages, most of it following the narrative of Rosie being sent into town by her mother to purchase bullets from Paris Trout’s store. The bullets are for her mother’s guest – a sportsman – but are lost when Rosie is bitten by a rabid fox. Without any money, she returns to Trout’s store to replace the bullets, introducing the misshapen concept that a white man will solve a black man’s dilemma, a theme that resonates tragically throughout the story. Paris Trout shows her no kindness, and none to the clerk in his store who insists on taking Rosie to the clinic for her wounds.

Language: The narrative voice is established with the opening sentence and carried faithfully through to the last line of the story. The story contains nine sections named after five of the major characters, yet no character is favored above another. The narrative voice remains equally detached. Dexter portrays social and class differences through the words his characters choose, but without minimizing the spoken dialogue into written slang. Privileged white characters communicate with educated ease and are represented by how they speak. Those who believe they have entitlement over another because of race or circumstances represent accordingly. The black characters living on the outskirts of town down by the saw mill speak a minimized English that speaks to the point and removes pretense. On the page each character uses words from the same vocabulary. How they are arranged sharply defines character and illuminates intent.

Dexter begins this story with a broad narrative event – a rabies situation – then focuses on a girl affected by this broad narrative event. When Dexter slows the broad telling of events to focus on a simple dialogue conversation it is a catalytic one that resonates throughout the remaining story.

He came out of the dark, it reminded her of a ghost. He glowed tall and white. “What is it?” he said.

“Bullets,” she said.

“Speak up, girl.”

“Twenty-two bullets,” she said.

Firearms and entitlement are crucial elements to Dexter’s story. The first conversation that occurs in real, spoken time is one about buying bullets and creates an echo the reader won’t hear until further along.

Setting: In the same way that familiar nuances cue a reader into a Western story or a New York City setting, the reader quickly understands they are the Deep South with ingrained social delineations. The Bottoms. The dusty, sunken road behind the sawmill. “The white people stores were empty.” A nurse who spends more time washing her own hands than cleaning Rosie’s wounds. These do not precisely represent locality, and yet these places and actions are standard clues to an obvious social setting. Where they live engrains how they live.

Character:  The reader learns of Paris Trout through his actions. Paris Trout never explains or defends. It is a leading characteristic of this story that even when people do unusual things, the narration offers very little in the way of defense as if action is its own defense.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  Huge waves of emotional and sexual tension are created and discharged in the course of this story. Each of the characters – except Paris Trout –believes they can separate themselves from injustice by following the accepted order – the way things are supposed to be done. This pretense is the undoing of each character, except Paris Trout. He is a man without guilt and there is only one way. Trout’s way.

Thematic Preamble: PARIS TROUT begins without preamble and places the reader immediately in the story. Nothing is said at the beginning to soften what will happen to these characters and demands that the reader draw difficult conclusions at each turn of events.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: This reader expected a hero to emerge. One doesn’t. What emerges alternatively is how we are a society based on association and agreement. The black citizens in particular understand and do their best not to step outside prescribed boundaries. It is generally ignorance – an affliction of all the characters regardless of social strata – that brings someone down.

Random Comments: This is a troubling story. The book jacket suggests that PARIS TROUT will “probably interfere with your sleep.” It didn’t. It interfered with my entire day.

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DOUBLE INDEMNITY / James M. Cain. 1936 (115 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  8.7% of total book

First Sentence:  “I drove out to Glendale to put three new truck drivers on a brewery company bond, and then I remembered this renewal over in Hollywoodland. (…) That was how I came to this House of Death, that you’ve been reading about in the papers.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice:  First person. Hard-boiled. Factual. Detective genre style. Narrating events from past tense. Not straying from essential facts.

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  A visit to a prospective client introduces insurance agent, Huff, to the House of Death. He is a hard-core and experienced salesman who is seasoned and proud of his ability to tender a sale. Huff narrates the first few paragraphs as if events are afterthoughts, including a touch and go exchange with the housekeeper who is bent on preventing his entry. He is polite, respectful (and calculating). Once he gets in the door he “…pitched my hat onto the sofa,” indicating an ongoing level of contempt for his client and the game he plays to “get in.”

What the reader learns in the first ten pages:  The reader receives details of The House of Death, including the “blood red drapes that run on iron spears” and furniture that seems to have been installed directly from a classy department store showroom floor. Huff sizes up the wife of his client as she enters in a suit of day-pajamas and as they cat and mouse around the topic of automobile insurance. When she makes the mistake of – a little too causally – asking about accident insurance, Huff knows she is onto something and that he’d best stay a couple of steps ahead.

Back at his office Huff is complimented by his superior for being a top-notch salesman while he keeps the company’s interest in mind. The reader is told in a fast dialogue scene that the boss is very satisfied with Huff’s ability to determine a scam “just by looking at the circumstances.” Huff’s diligence has saved the company the cost of a claim on a new truck. The reader is clued into the reality that this ability can go either way. By the end of the first chapter (7th page) Huff is alone in his office wondering what type of warning he’ll clip on the “accident policy” and what kind of “accident” his client’s wife will be.

Language: Classic detective genre first person straight-talking guy. Clipped and clear. Every word serves its purpose. All unessential description removed. The provocative image of “The House of Death,” which rings of a newspaper headline, is placed alongside a relatively commonplace explanation of public liability insurance, yet each has weight and importance to the plot of this story.

Setting: The Los Angeles environs are quickly established in the first few words, first by indicating that he drove to Glendale and then – and the period in history is also established – to Hollywoodland. In context of the L.A. basin he has moved from the working class suburbs to the playground of the elite. Los Angeles plays a significant background role as Huff peddles insurance from the coast to the foothills and every neighborhood in between.

Character:  While Huff is the main character and narrator of the story, Mrs. Nirdlinger provides a constant catalyst for the forward movement of the action. That the story is titled DOUBLE INDEMNITY clues this reader into the high likelihood of a double cross. As the story is told in the past tense, Huff directs the reader’s attention to events that place Mrs. Nirdlinger (and later her daughter) under suspicion from their first encounter.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  With it’s terse, immediately past tense style and frequent sections of present tense dialogue, the story seems to unfold in the moment that Huff tells it. It is easy to forget that the events he discloses (and some he neglects to disclose) have already happened and that the story is being unfolded at the narrator’s leisure. This rhythmic style puts the reader into the hands of a confident storyteller, even when the main character has trouble putting events together – or chooses to delay information that would make it easy for the reader to figure out the plot.

Intention: This is well written literature regardless of the fact that it relies heavily on clichés from the detective genre style. It is entertaining and moralistic, but within this well defined and familiar structure the reader is given an excellent  and entertaining read.

Thematic Preamble: Absolutely none. Action begins with the first line and does not pause until the story is over. Nothing is given away or foretold. The narrative is offered as factual even when portions are delayed for dramatic foreclosure.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten: OK. I will admit that I couldn’t stop at page ten, twenty or even after several chapters. Even thought I am unaccustomed to detective genre stories, I could not put it down. As I was reading this masterful work, I considered how the narrator’s confidence in his ability to make a sale was both his strength and his downfall. It is clear from their first encounter that Mrs. Nirdlinger is hugely attractive and is a gigantic draw on Huff’s ability to focus. Even as he adopts an “I told you so” POV, the overall message from the opening pages is “cheaters don’t prosper” or “the piper must be paid” – and both these adages are upheld at the story’s conclusion. What kept me reading is that I expected a well-plotted scam to go well or to go badly and to be told with confidence and strength.

Random Comments:  James M. Cain wrote THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1934) and then immediately after DOUBLE INDEMNITY. He wrote MILDRED PIERCE in 1941.

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BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY / Jay MacInerney. 1985 (182 pgs)

First Ten Pages =  5.49% of total book

First Sentence:  “You’re not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.”

Prevailing Narrative Voice: Here’s something different! Second person, present tense narrative voice. Yes, this is the story that every lecture on POV offers as the best second person example. And it is eerie. A second person voiced narrator in which “you” is a substitute for “I.” As is common when people are speaking of themselves, particularly regarding emotional issues or feelings, they substitute the first person with the second person. They use “you” in place of the more accurate, “I.”

What the reader learns in the first paragraphs:  This narrator is in a dance club, that he is having a difficult time remembering where he is and what time it is, because he is so coked up that he barely knows who he is. It turns out he is in Lizard Lounge or Heartbreak. The irony is not lost on him or the reader (because we are one, according to the tense usage.) He concludes, somehow, that he needs more blow in order to feel better. He confuses himself with reflections of himself in mirrors and in other people’s eyes – the reader’s in particular.

What the reader learns in the first ten pages: Interestingly, the first chapter is ten pages long. The reader rides along with the nameless narrator as he debates another line, another dance partner, or departing the club into the early morning where, like a vampire, he will disintegrate. He has a couple of frustrating exchanges with a couple of women that lead nowhere when they discover he is out of cocaine. He takes a convoluted walk through his old neighborhood, where the reader in introduced to the fact that he is brooding over the loss of his wife. He ends up on the lower west side docks of New York having met a mean lady with a vicious dog, belligerent cab drivers, homeless and hookers, all on the Lord’s day and without his sunglasses. The reader is on a ride with someone who has, somehow, not yet hit bottom.

Language: Clearly, the second person POV is a prominent feature of this narrator’s style. Even though this narrator is clearly out of his mind on cocaine, he is charming, self-effacing, funny and highly ironic about himself and his situation. He code-names his drug usage, the Bolivian Marching Powder. The tempo is rapid, no surprise for a coke addict, but with a focused, singularity of design – this narrator does not want to be found out, and yet his major topic of dissertation is himself. We also learn that this narrator has an excellent command of language, and is unafraid to use big words on unsuspecting girls from New Jersey or The Bronx.

Setting: Manhattan’s mid 1980’s dance club scene with lots of mirrors and drugs to line them out on. All the chapters are titled. Most of them are ironically funny. The first chapter is called, “It’s Six A.M. Do you know where you are?” Much of the observation and recall is from within the narrator’s mind and memory, and they often overlap. The reader may not be exactly clear where the narrator is, but that becomes secondary to the narrator’s (and the reader’s, I imagine) desire to continue moving forward.

Character:  The reader does not learn the narrator / character’s name in the first chapter, primarily because the narrator doesn’t come in contact with anyone who even cares what his name might be. This narrator follows a strong personal directive to keep moving. It is clear that he is of the walking wounded, but one who hasn’t assessed how badly off he really is. When he figures that out (and I suspect that will be the character’s journey) he will, mostly likely, fall apart.

Structure (Rhythm, Tension):  Within the arc of the first chapter that takes the reader from glossy dance club to black and fetid waters under the piers, there are several short sections that stair step the reader down from glossy to fetid. In the way that the narrator can only concentrate on any one topic for short periods of time, the forward progression of the story is delivered in short, colorful bursts. Manhattan, full of activity and motion, is the backdrop. The narrator’s quest for more and better drugs, against his desire for a safe, cozy environment offer a constant, unsettling tension.

Intention: I doubt it is the author’s intention to frighten or teach the reader, but there is a large morale looming over the direction of this first chapter. The narrator is helplessly stoned, and he is, the reader logically figures, going to get worse. That is a bummer!

Thematic Preamble: This story does not offer a prologue of any kind. The reader is launched, full bore, into the action of the story. this story is a clear example of in medias res, the Roman poet, Horace’s way of saying, to begin in the middle of affairs. The reader is not brought up to speed with descriptions or introductions. The story starts and the reader must keep up.

Foreshadowing, Plot & Expectations beyond page ten:  To this reader the foreshadow is ominous and hangs over the narrator like the Coke spoon of Damocles. At some point this guy will have to face facts and clean up his act. Until then, he will exercise every opportunity to get loaded, disappointing all who love him. How, when and where are the elements that give the story an exciting and tragic forward motion.

Random Comments:  Michael J. Fox and Kiefer Sutherland starred in the 1988 film of the same name. It will be remade, they say.

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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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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:


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 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


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!


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)


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



  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


  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…


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


Stories Blogged 19/33

Stories Read not blogged 5/23

total 24/56


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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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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