Thursday, January 15, 2015

The Do's and Don'ts of The Hook

Earlier this week, my writing group invited literary agents from Greene & Heaton to talk to us about first paragraphs, the do's and don'ts. Before the event, we were able to submit our opening paragraphs for feedback. I submitted the first page of Beverly and arrived for the evening, assuming mine would not be one of the examples chosen for discussion. There's nothing remarkable about the start of Beverly after all, except it turns out there is a remark that can be made - don't do it! I was sitting at the back of the room and strained to listen, taking notes as the comments started out encouragingly - nothing wrong with the writing per se - while a big BUT was clearly looming...

So here's the sample and the feedback:

      Beverly woke up as if arriving from another world. The image from her dream came with her, and for a moment, before moving, she imagined her bed was in a playground. It was a memory, that she had been reliving in her sleep, of being on a roundabout and trying to say stop to the children pushing it – lightly tapping the bars that whizzed around – but only being able to say the ‘S’ and the ‘T’, while the rest of the word was snapped away by the wind. The spinning settled and Beverly shifted to let air in under the covers. Her lungs billowed and a headache began. She was properly awake now and the childhood memory was replaced with memories from the night before. Singing in the taxi – taxi drivers had a hard job – they opened a bottle of wine when they got back – who came home with them? She jerked, reaching a hand out to the cold side of the bed. There was no one there. She retracted her arm with relief.
      Other things came into existence: coffee, a clean tracksuit. She dressed herself with a heavy, detached feeling and then opened her bedroom door. No noise. The T.V. wasn’t on so Ella wasn’t up yet. And no voices from Ella’s bedroom. Beverly moved to the bathroom and then the office. She sat at her desk and shook the mouse to waken her computer. The fan started humming. Beverly checked her email, which was already open on the screen, and then clicked over to Facebook – a shoe ad; a baby picture from Dave; A cat with a human expression from Lucy.
      She knocked on Ella’s bedroom door. The voice was muffled but strong: ‘It’s your turn to go.’
      ‘Shit.’ Beverly whispered, shrinking slightly.

First of all, apparently a lot of us start our stories with a person waking up. This being an irritation for these particular agents - and possibly others - because it's hard to make it interesting if it's going to be the usual mundane steps and we see it in a lot in movies so it has become a cliche. One of the agents was strongly against describing a character's dreams but I got the feeling this was a personal choice. After all, Margaret Atwood uses character dreams and interpretations so I think we can agree it has its place.

Secondly, the switch in the second paragraph left both agents confused. They couldn't see a link between the dream and the following action. This confusion was further deepened with the introduction of Ella. Who is Ella? A daughter? A friend? She is mentioned later with the knock on the door but this doesn't clarify the relationship. Then there's the casual mention of the office - Beverly moves from bedroom to office - does she work from home? Where is she?

They did like the last two lines though. These had a hook: what does Beverly have to do that seems to be habitual, but is something she clearly doesn't want to do? Their curiosity kept coming back to this question until they asked if the author was in the room. So I stood up and explained over audience heads what Beverly had to do that she didn't want to do: Go get the coffees, I said. This seemed like an anti-climax, so I added: See, she hates having to speak or interact with people. She has a stutter and tends to rely on Ella a lot. Ah... that made the whole piece clear. That's what the dream is about, I continued, encouraged. Even asleep, she's thinking about her speech. There was nodding at this. It's an emotive idea but it's not clear, one agent said. Gone-Girl-it, he concluded. Gone Girl had been one of the extracts read out before mine. Here it is:

      When I think of my wife, I always think of her head. The shape of it, to begin with. The very first time I saw her, it was the back of the head I saw, and there was something lovely about it, the angles of it. Like a shiny, hard corn kernel or a riverbed fossil. She had what the Victorians would call a finely shaped head. You could imagine the skull quite easily.
      I'd know her head anywhere.
      And what's inside it. I think of that, too: her mind. Her brain, all those coils, and her thoughts shuttling through those coils like fast, frantic centipedes. Like a child, I picture opening her skull, unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts. What are you thinking, Amy? The question I've asked most often during our marriage, if not out loud, if not to the person who could answer. I suppose these questions stormcloud over every marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? Who are you? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

I was grateful for the feedback but left feeling a bit unclear about what I was supposed to do. One reason being this: In the next scene of Beverly, which wasn't part of the extract, Beverly comes back from the shops with the coffees and she and Ella chat about the night before. Here it becomes clear that they are old friends, that Beverly relies on Ella introducing her at parties and that Beverly has a stutter. It is also the conversation where Ella admits that Beverly's ex, Roland, has asked her out. Before the workshop, I was thinking the story unfolds pretty fast. So how soon do I really need to get all the facts out? Do they need to be jammed into the first paragraph? That doesn't seem right... Also I was confused because I began to think: Didn't I Gone-Girl-it? The opening paragraphs are the husband thinking about his wife's head, with overtones of violence. In my story Beverly is thinking about her speech. So what's the difference?

It wasn't until I went to bed and was drifting off to sleep that the difference hit me: In Gone Girl, although nothing actually happens in those opening lines, the suggestion of action is there. As this man describes his wife's head we can imagine him hurting her. The passage is foreboding, threatening, creepy and that fires our imagination to think about what he might to do to her. I think when our brain starts to speculate like that, that's when we want to know more - maybe because we want to know if we are right. In the Beverly passage, that speculation doesn't start until the last two lines. So while the dream is representative and we understand its significance later, initially, the information is flat. The brain is taxed with understanding the scene but there's nothing to fire the imagination, make the reader project possibilities, speculate, in other words, get drawn in.

I slept well.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Violence Entertainment

I read this article by Will Self recently where he links Western passivity in the face of the Iraq crisis with a mindless consumption of entertainment violence. It's an old argument that violence on TV desensitises us, making us indifferent to the image of others suffering and it is invoked whenever something horrific happens and we want to explain how we let it happen. But I think it's one big red herring, brought on by a sense of Western guilt: A disgust with our appetite for violence and meaningless entertainment which might be causing plenty of problems but is not necessarily to blame for our attitude towards war. 

If we look at it, it seems violence is a natural component of society. Go back 1000 years, across Western countries, violence was commonplace: duels, tribal feuds, slavery, torture, capital punishment and disease made life cheap. Comparatively speaking, by now we live in sterile, orderly societies where we have swept up all that violence and put it on our TV for entertainment. We can't really imagine that going back to any time where we had more violence on our own streets and less on TV that we had more empathy for others on far away shores?

But let's suppose the argument is correct: violence on TV is impairing our ability to empathise. What is the solution? To ban certain types of violence in entertainment? But where do we draw the line? Entertainment is not our only source of TV violence. We also get it from the News. When I saw someone falling to their death from the Twin Towers I remember thinking that it wouldn't have been shown a few years before because it would have been considered disrespectful. Recently a reporter covering the downing of flight MH17 said they couldn't show some footage from the Ukraine crash sight because there were dismembered bodies. How long before it's okay for that to be shown? I guess the violence for entertainment argument is that if we didn't have violence dished up for fun, we would be suitably shocked by the violence dished up by the News. But wouldn't we also become desensitised to that? How do we expose people to shocking things and keep their sense of shock at the same level? You have to keep getting more shocking.

The most shocking thing I have seen on screen is a picture on Facebook, which I clicked on by accident, showing a scene in the wake of an ISIS massacre, including the image of a beheaded child. It seemed unreal to me, like I was looking at a large, discarded doll. I probably thought of a doll because that's the only way I can relate to such an image. There's a theory that all information we receive we automatically and can only understand in relation to what we already know. If this is the case then is it possible that unless we experience something shocking first-hand and have it thrust into our psyche, we can never muster a suitable reaction to shocking images, instead only relating them, inaccurately, to our own references? I think we have a built-in mechanism to block things out - it's probably necessary for our sanity - imagine if you could picture all the pain and suffering at any one moment in the world? Maybe it's that protective mechanism that makes some images too shocking to process and the viewer click away.

However, I did see some images recently that brought me to make changes in my life: those contained in food documentaries. Suffice to say I'm only buying organic meat from now on and I'm going to try to avoid makeup tested on animals. So why did these images have an affect? Well, I'm directly involved. I'm the consumer supporting how a product is made. Also, I know exactly how to help: I can stop buying those products. In contrast, when it comes to war, I think there is a sense here in the safe zone of helplessness. Not because we trust our Western governments' promise to "fight terror" on our behalf, but because we don't trust them. Hindsight shows over and over that the bodies charged with upholding our moral code are demonstrably corrupt - this inevitably becomes a factor in our reaction.

So I am surprised to hear the old TV violence argument being rolled out to explain our collective apathy when it comes to the Iraq crisis. It's over-simplifying the matter, a red herring and is a culprit in another argument.