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#17--A GREAT BEGINNING #2

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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#17--A GREAT BEGINNING #2

Postby glorybee » Sun Nov 07, 2010 9:44 am

(Note--I see now that I've already tackled this criterion--several months ago! A little bit of this material is repeated; my apologies. There's lots of new stuff, too...)

The 4th criterion that the Writing Challenge judges are asked to consider is the following: Does the entry start well? I actually did a presentation at the 2009 FW conference on writing good beginnings, so I’ll borrow a lot of this lesson from that presentation. I’ll write mostly about writing short fiction for the challenge, since that’s what typically does the best, but I’ll touch on non-fiction and poetry, too. And please keep in mind that the Challenge judging criteria have been designed to be pretty good measures of excellent non-Challenge writing, too.

This particular lesson (starting well) will probably be two or three sessions, so that I can keep them short-ish.

***

In the exposition of your story (in flash fiction, the first paragraph or two—not much more than that), you should familiarize your readers with either 1) the setting (both time and place) or 2) the main character…or both.

Which of these two passages do you think does this best?

It was November of 1861, and 89-year-old Wilma Clemson was feeling very cold. It was going to be a long winter in Vermont.

OR

Wilma Clemson struggled to light the kerosene lamp, her knobbed fingers trembling, aching with cold. Her threadbare quilt would not be sufficient this winter.

The passages have nearly the same number of words, but the second one is far better. You might argue that the first one gives more information: The month and year, the specific location, Wilma’s age…and you’d be right. However, that sort of specific information is rarely vital to the storyline, and if it is, it can be incorporated in some more interesting way.

The second passage, however, shows the reader that Wilma is old (her fingers are ‘knobbed’), that the story is set some time in the past (the kerosene lamp), and somewhere where the winters are quite cold. In addition, the reader is given a hint about Wilma’s circumstances: she’s probably not a wealthy woman (the ‘threadbare’ quilt).

***A SIDE NOTE: In Challenge entries, I rarely state the ages of my characters. With so few words to work with, I don't want to waste any words on people's ages, which are not particularly interesting writing. I'd far rather show my characters' ages by their actions, their clothing, their speech, their relationships...almost anything but the number of years they've lived. It's very rarely important to know someone's exact age, anyway.***

So I’d advise this for the first few paragraphs of your short fiction:

a. Introduce a character—preferably by name. Show your readers something about that character.

b. IF your story is set in any other time period but NOW, clue your readers in right away. Again, you don’t have to tell them—find a way to show them. If it’s set in the past, have your MC adjusting her hoop skirts, or dipping her quill in an inkwell (or something equally appropriate for your time period). If it’s set in the future, have a holographic robot fly by. You get the idea. There have been many times when I’ve had to do a mental realignment when halfway through a story, a horse-and-buggy trots by.

c. IF your story is set in some exotic setting, clue your readers in fairly quickly. You don’t necessarily have to give the city, state, and postal code—but if the MC is in Madagascar, or Saturn, or Lapland, it’d be great if you’d show us a bit of scenery. You don’t have to describe a 360-degree panorama—but I’ll feel disoriented if I start reading, assuming a familiar setting, and in paragraph 5, I find the MC walking down a water buffalo path to get to work.

Here’s the caveat: writing is an art, not a science, and all of these rules can be broken by good writers, and the story will still work. Some people like to be cagier about their setting, or to use pronouns all the way through, never naming their MCs or letting the readers know the setting, for literary effect. That’s fine, too. As with most of what I’ve included in these lessons, this is general, basic advice—once you’ve learned the rules, feel free to break them!

I’ll write more about good beginnings next week, with 5 or 6 tips for really great opening sentences. Poets, hang in there, I’ll get to you, too. In the meantime, here’s your homework:

1. Go through old Challenge entries and find one that you think has a great exposition. It might not have all 3 elements (character, place, time), but it should be an exposition that you think does a great job of showing readers something about at least one of those elements. Copy and paste the passage AND TELL WHY YOU THINK IT WORKS. (This could be yours, or someone else’s that you admire). No more than 100 words, please.

OR

2. Find a piece of published writing that you think has a great exposition (as in #1) Type it out for us, AND TELL WHY YOU THINK IT WORKS. No more than 100 words, please.

OR

3. Try writing a sample like I did, above: one passage that doesn’t work, and one that does. TELL WHY YOU THINK IT WORKS. No more than100 words, please.

OR

4. Comment, ask a question, respond to, disagree with, or elaborate on something that I’ve said in this post.

A few reminders:

1. Please tell others about this lesson, especially those in Levels 1 and 2, or those new to FW or the forums.
2. Please post a comment. Even if you’re too shy to do the homework, I’d love to hear from you.
3. Refer to this post for a discussion on all of the Judging Criteria.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby PottersClay » Sun Nov 07, 2010 12:14 pm

Hi Jan

I'm tackling Homework assignment 2:
One of my favourite author's, Daniel Silva's opening paragraphs are usually very "attention grabbing." This really short opening paragraph is from "The Defector":

Pyotr Luzhkov was about to be killed, and for that he was grateful.

I think this works because of: (a) the contradiction - why would anybody be glad they were about to be killed? (b) the element of action - the reader is thrust right into the centre of it, wondering what's going on; (c) it's short and "punchy."

Similarly, I like to create some "mystery" in my opening paragraph to "hook" the reader, which means I seldom state the character's name and setting up front. I guess there are many ways to tackle an opening paragraph.

Loved the thought-provoking lesson.

Joan
Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that will burn like fire.
Let me not sink to be a clod,
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.
Amy Carmichael

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Postby tammies00 » Sun Nov 07, 2010 2:42 pm

Hi

Here is my attempt at the homework assignment.

I have reworked the start of something I wrote a while back.

My last breathe was eleven months and two weeks ago, but in a few hours I will finally breathe. Pacing around the dimly lit room, I pull my sweater closer to my chilled body. I only hope that the snow stops long enough for the plane to land. My eyes fill with tears, and my heart screams for the phone to ring. My German cuckoo clock dancers twirl to the tune of midnight.


Tammie

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Postby glorybee » Sun Nov 07, 2010 3:40 pm

Joan, this is awesome, and it's why I love it when gifted writers like yourself chime in on the lessons.

Each of your points touches on something that I was planning to say--next week! I may incorporate your post into my lesson, with your permission.

Tell me more about Daniel Silva; sounds like a really intriguing writer.
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Sun Nov 07, 2010 4:12 pm

tammies00 wrote:My last breath was eleven months and two weeks ago, but in a few hours I will finally breathe. Pacing around the dimly lit room, I pull my sweater closer to my chilled body. I only hope that the snow stops long enough for the plane to land. My eyes fill with tears, and my heart screams for the phone to ring. My German cuckoo clock dancers twirl to the tune of midnight.


Tammie, you've got a lot going on here!

I'd love to see the original of this, so that I can compare them. I really like your use of present tense, which I think works quite well in 1st person pieces that are a bit moody and atmospheric. Well done!

As for the rest of it...let's see what I've learned about your character, and your setting (time and place)

1. The character is probably an adult female--her 'voice' is mature, and she's waiting for someone. The tears, the action with the sweater, and the cuckoo clock also suggest a female.

2. Time period--modern day (the plane, the phone). In addition, it's snowing, so it's almost certainly winter.

3. Place--harder to tell. She's in a room--probably her house. No clue as to location, though.

Did I make all the right inferences? And really, it's fine that not EVERYTHING is spelled out--as Joan said above, you don't have to give the reader the whole shebang in the first paragraph.

I do have a little problem with this passage, though--it's somewhat confusing. I don't understand the bit about the breathing in the first sentence, in particular. It may well be that it becomes clear in the rest of the story, but as a first sentence, it might need re-working. I re-read it several times before I gave up trying to figure it out and moved on.

Oh, watch out for cliches: "I only hope..." and "my eyes fill with tears" could be expressed in a fresher way, I think.

The rest of it? Great imagery. You appealed to several senses, and established the mood of the rest of the story, and introduced some conflict, and showed us some things about your character's personality and situation. That's a lot, in just a few words--very, very nice!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby PottersClay » Sun Nov 07, 2010 4:24 pm

Hi Jan

Daniel Silva is an American author, with a couple of New York Times Bestsellers. He writes spy thrillers. Most of his later books are about a character called Gabriel Allon, an Israeli intelligence agent. His writing style has been compared to that of John le Carre. It's intelligent, informed and fast faced, with great characters.

As you can see, I thoroughly enjoy his books!

Feel free to use any excerpt from my post.

Joan
Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that will burn like fire.
Let me not sink to be a clod,
Make me Thy fuel, Flame of God.
Amy Carmichael

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Postby tammies00 » Sun Nov 07, 2010 4:46 pm

The above is about me on the night my husband came home from Iraq the first time.

I was trying to be dramatic with the breathing. It would have been made clear later when the rest of the story is revealed.
I think the whole time hubby was deployed I held my breath. I was trying to relay that emotion.

Thanks for your comments.

Tammie

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Homework - Beginnings

Postby OldManRivers » Sun Nov 07, 2010 5:01 pm

The streets of Chicago are cold and mean in December. I should know. For you see my name is Sargeant Paddy O’Neill of the Chicago Police Department and I have walked this downtown beat for some twenty years. And through the course of that time, my bones have become old friends with that freezing wind that howls in off of frozen Lake Michigan. These streets and me, they’ve become one and the same – cold and mean.

or


The streets where I work are cold and mean especially in winter. I should know for I am a beat cop here in the windy city of Chicago. This city and me, we become nearly one and the same.
May God's gentle grace be with you.

Jim McWhinnie

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Re: Homework - Beginnings

Postby glorybee » Sun Nov 07, 2010 6:16 pm

OldManRivers wrote:The streets of Chicago are cold and mean in December. I should know. For you see my name is Sargeant Paddy O’Neill of the Chicago Police Department and I have walked this downtown beat for some twenty years. And through the course of that time, my bones have become old friends with that freezing wind that howls in off of frozen Lake Michigan. These streets and me, they’ve become one and the same – cold and mean.

or


The streets where I work are cold and mean especially in winter. I should know for I am a beat cop here in the windy city of Chicago. This city and me, we become nearly one and the same.


Jim, thanks for these!

I wonder--is there a middle ground? I love good, tight writing--but in your second example, I think you left out some of the really good stuff from the first one: the bit about your bones, for example, and the phrase 'cold and mean' was moved to the beginning from the end, where it had more impact.

However, even your 2nd, very tight version showed me a lot about your character and your setting (place AND time).

Glad to hear from you--do you have any additional comments on the content of this lesson?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby Ms. Barbie » Sun Nov 07, 2010 9:20 pm

This is a condensed version of the intro to the story I wrote this week for a challenge in my Aspiring Writer's Forum. We were to build tension.


She sang like an angel, and even had the flowing blonde tresses associated with angels, and he hated her. Anthony was blond, but heredity played cruel games with his long thick hair. Now his pale bald head appeared more like a misshaped bowling ball, than the sensually soft mane that women were wild about. Women. They always came into his hair salon, and commented about his hair. That attention was ruined when large tufts of his beautiful hair fell out. Now that he had lost his crowning glory, he no longer felt alive. That is, until he saw The Angel.


I cut out areas to meet the word count so not sure if the MC's emotion comes out.
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Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Nov 08, 2010 12:54 am

Jan,

It’s sooooo good to see your lessons back!

I wasn’t sure whether the 100 word limit was for the excerpt and the comments or just the comments. I sure hope it was the latter.

Excerpt:
____________________

“You know, I hate Christmas cards.”

“What! Are you a Communist?”

“Ha, ha, ha. I think that stopped being a witty response, oh, about the time the Berlin Wall fell.”

“OK, so what’s wrong with Christmas cards?”

“Well, either they have Santa Clause on them, which reminds me of my miserable childhood; or they have some stupid winter scene on them, which just reminds me of how miserable I am here in the ‘frozen north’; or they have an even stupider manger scene on them, which reminds me of all that religious garbage.”

“Well, excuuuuse me, Ebenezer!”

“You asked.”

Silence returned as Theresa thought about what Jack had said.
_________________

This is from the first entry I did for FaithWriters. Expositional elements:

1. Two characters’ names. 2. Time: Modern (post-Berlin Wall). 3. Location: relatively cold locale. 4. Character info without back story: bitter, miserable childhood, anti-religion.

Does this work or is it too artificial? Dialogue is a traditional vehicle for exposition, but would showing or something else have worked better?
Steve
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things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Postby glorybee » Mon Nov 08, 2010 6:15 pm

Ms. Barbie wrote:She sang like an angel, and even had the flowing blonde tresses associated with angels, and he hated her. Anthony was blond, but heredity played cruel games with his long thick hair. Now his pale bald head appeared more like a misshaped bowling ball, than the sensually soft mane that women were wild about. Women. They always came into his hair salon, and commented about his hair. That attention was ruined when large tufts of his beautiful hair fell out. Now that he had lost his crowning glory, he no longer felt alive. That is, until he saw The Angel.


Barb, this is really fine characterization. I learned quite a bit about this character, and also the setting (at least the time period, which I presume to be present-day). There's no real indication of place, but that's fine. It doesn't all have to be there.

Purely as a matter of preference, this is a bit wordy for me, but since the purpose was to build tension, you really needed all those words. I'd love to see you give a try at assignment #3 (the pair of passages, one that tells and one that shows). Mine were about 25 words each.

Intriguing passage...would love to know what happens next!
Jan Ackerson

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Postby glorybee » Mon Nov 08, 2010 6:23 pm

swfdoc1 wrote:“You know, I hate Christmas cards.”

“What! Are you a Communist?”

“Ha, ha, ha. I think that stopped being a witty response, oh, about the time the Berlin Wall fell.”

“OK, so what’s wrong with Christmas cards?”

“Well, either they have Santa Claus on them, which reminds me of my miserable childhood; or they have some stupid winter scene on them, which just reminds me of how miserable I am here in the ‘frozen north’; or they have an even stupider manger scene on them, which reminds me of all that religious garbage.”

“Well, excuuuuse me, Ebenezer!”

“You asked.”

Silence returned as Theresa thought about what Jack had said.


Thanks, Steven.

Couldn't let that 'Clause' slip by--it's a very common misspelling that spellcheckers won't pick up. Must be the lawyer in you, huh?

I love using dialogue in characterization, and you've done it well. Your two characters have natural, relaxed speech, and as you stated, the reader can tell a lot about them and their setting through what they say.

Stylistically, I'd have ended it like this:

Silence. Theresa thought about what Jack had said.

That's just me, though. I try to avoid 'as'. No particular reason, but I like the way the word 'Silence' in a deliberate sentence fragment re-creates that same silence in the reader's following of the narrative.

What do you think?
Jan Ackerson

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Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Nov 08, 2010 10:42 pm

Santa Clause! :oops:

Don’t get me started on lawyers and spell checkers. It’s summary judgment, not summery judgment; germaneness test, not germanness test; AND MOST IMPORTANTLY, public forum doctrine, not pubic forum doctrine. (And, no, I was not any of those lawyers!)

As for your suggestion on the ending, I like the effect created by your silence fragment, but the transition from the dialogue feels too abrupt to me that way. Maybe add a dialogue tag? And break the paragraph?

“You asked,” snapped Jack, shooting Theresa a scathing look.” [or “withering look.”]

Silence.

Theresa thought about what Jack had said.
Steve
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"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Postby CatLin » Mon Nov 08, 2010 11:38 pm

Hi Jan!

I'm choosing door #1, and entering the first paragraph from a challenge entry.

From "Embodiment of a Miracle", for the "Birth" challenge.


The preacher drifted from candle to candle extinguishing the flickering flames, keeping a watchful eye on the stranger lingering in the back pew. The worn military jacket he clutched to his thin frame bore dark V's where insignia were once sewn on the arms; his posture of submission had altered little throughout the service. Unkempt hair cast shadows his face, igniting the preacher's concern and curiosity.

"Merry Christmas, friend. Is there something I can pray about for you tonight?

The stranger lifted his head, revealing unfocused eyes and a furled brow. "Preacher, can I ask you something?" He rubbed his face with a dirty hand.


I thought I had some pretty good openings, but I used your criteria while skimming through my entries, and I can see I'm still lacking in that department. :)

This one works because, tho the characters aren't isn't named, from the first paragraph we know one is a preacher with a kind heart and normal "human" nosiness, and the other one is a parishioner unknown to the preacher, still sitting in the back pew after a church service that included candles. He is poor, possibly homeless, and beaten down by life. (Neither character is ever named, btw, the remain the preacher and the stranger throughout) We can assume that it's cold, because the stranger clutches his coat around him

Then, in the next line we learn it's Christmas time.

I can see how it doesn't work too - I switched from character to character and back in one paragraph. Pretty choppy. Could be one of the reasons this one came 200th. :lol:

PS edited so much because I want to get back to my writing and kept forgetting to say things. ;)
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