Hitting the Tarmac

I found a question in my inbox over the weekend from a writer working on her first book: she had just shown the beginning of her manuscript to "an experienced writer and teacher" who had told her the first chapter had broken one of the cardinal rules of the novel: "it cannot begin with someone just sitting and thinking."  Concerned, she sent an open email out into the writing world, asking if it was indeed true that it was impossible to begin a book with a woman sitting and thinking in an airplane as it circled to land.  By the time I joined the conversation, the answers she'd received, all of them composed and sincere, were each about rule-making . . . either pointing out that there are no rules in writing . . . or that there are rules and that only a very experienced writer should think of breaking them . . . or that rules are made to be broken, after all . . . or that there might be rules but that this wasn't one of them . . . etc., etc. . . .

What not a single respondent had done, up to that point, was answer the question: Is it possible to begin a book with a woman sitting and thinking in an airplane as it circles to land?

Is it?

(Before I go any further, I need to confess the following: my eyes glaze over when people start talking about rules and writing, whether pro or con.  Seriously now, friends.  My eyes turn to gumballs.  Our job is not to bandy.  The job is difficult enough.  It is in fact too difficult  to waste time contemplating the theory behind a choice.  The job is to make the choice, see the choice, and then see if it can work.  There.  I feel so much better.)

So.  I wrote back.  My answer was long, but it boiled down to this: that what the teacher was worried about was the dreaded "sitting in the bathtub" opening.  That the s.i.t.b. opening can be problematic, but was not necessarily impossible (I've done it).  That it is, in fact, possible to infuse almost any moment with dynamic action.  Maybe the woman is doing something, perhaps something quite telling, as she sits in her seat while the plane lands.  Or maybe, as we turn to page one, she's just gotten off the plane, and is flashing back to her very recent experience sitting on the plane and thinking, all the while moving through the airport and making active, telling choices.  Or maybe whatever she was thinking about is so powerful it is narrative itself, filled with action and choice all its own.  That, finally, the number of possibilities range in the thousands, and that those possibilities always include the seeds of both failure and success, and that the challenge of the opening of any story is always, always, always figuring out how to land your plane and have it take off at the same time.

It's not that there are rules or not.  It is that there are a thousand runways, and all of them, all of them require a clear head and a steady hand.

Within minutes the writer replied, excitedly: "Okay, what if the woman on the airplane is a high-powered CEO typing on a laptop frantically trying to get work done before her plane lands, all the while thinking about the funeral she's arriving for?"

What if.  Exactly.  Exactly.

--MD

Comments

Melissa said…
Sounds to me like, no matter which way she does it, the opening scene is an excuse for an infodump of backstory.

I don't think the opening of a book has to have physical action. I think it has to be compelling. There are lots of ways to achieve that, some harder than others.

For the story proposed -- woman on the way to a funeral -- start it with the woman getting off the plane, in the chaos of getting her luggage. Someone is there to meet her -- someone who is also attending the funeral, but who has a diferent emotional reaction to the situation. That causes tension on top of the external tension. Then have her cell phone ring -- it's someone she doesn't want to talk to who doesn't know about the death, but who NEEDS to know about the death. All those elements together give you action, tension, and ample opportunity to reveal character, establish setting, AND drop in critical pieces of backstory.
jeanna Thornton said…
This is *exactly* what i needed to hear today as I struggle with the first chapter with my firstborn. I am rapping it up this week for an editor to critique but I know what your friend is feeling. Ouch, ouch! Your advice is wonderful, and offers options. LOVE this post! jink
Joni Rodgers said…
Excellent suggestions, Melissa. All good, workable ideas...for YOUR story. Not knowing where the proposed story is heading -- or the genre, length, tone, POV, etc etc -- it's impossible to say one approach is better than another. I think an important issue raised in Dr. Em's post is the value of "what if" as opposed to prescriptive "do it like this" advice -- which applies to writing and life.

All that said, my second novel begins with a woman sitting in the bathroom thinking. On the toilet. No joke. The phone is ringing downstairs, and she can't answer it. The reader is immediately with her at her most unguarded and unglamorous -- and her most human.

That's where the story began in my head, and if I'd asked any writing "expert" on the planet, they'd have said "What? Ack! You can't start a book with a woman sitting on the can." What can I say? I wrote it. It worked. Because what works is what works. I pretend no other wisdom than that.
Mylène said…
Ah, how nice to come home at the end of the day and see ya'll have jumped in. I read these comments and it occurred to me: The question is not, "Can it be done?" The question is, "Can YOU do it?"
Terrific post. It really does all boil down to can you make it work? Can you emotionally engage the reader?

Everything else is negotiable.
Joni Rodgers said…
Another case in point: Mylène's poetic dog pee...
http://www.boxocto.com/2010/07/story-interrupted.html

The whole story is poignant, but it's the description of the dog pee that brought tears to my eyes. I'm not sure you can teach anyone how to do that. (And if you can, teach me!)

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