And Suddenly I’m a Genius
September 29, 2007 | Written by admin
I had no idea the buzz my "MacGregor’s Equation" would create. Suddenly I have become a genius in the minds of some. (Please don’t bother correcting them.) I’ve been fielding all sorts of emails and questions about it. For those not in the know, in my last post, I offered a mathematical formula for determining when an author should consider moving from part-time to full-time. It looks like this:
24m(n) + 4b(r) = RJ
The short version is that you need to have four books earning you royalties and 24 months of book contracts paying you a livable wage. (Feel free to scroll down to my previous post for more detail.) Just for clarity’s sake, there’s one thing I want to be sure you understand: The starting place is to figure out what you think a real job is. Or, to put it another way, how much money do you think you need to make in a year in order to justify this writing gig? You have to make that decision for yourself — nobody can make it for you. Start with that personal decision, then move forward.
On to questions. Sally wrote and asked me if I’d be willing to share some of my favorite first lines from books. Happy to!
"As clowns yearn to play Hamlet, so I have wanted to write a treatise on God." -J.I. Packer, Knowing God. A brilliant opening line. Strikes a balance between digging into something deep, while at the same time recognizing the author’s own limitations. Love this one.
"I daydream all sorts of unwieldy Arkansas fantasies. My fantasies are mostly about watching him sleep and finding a church with both incense and pariahs, about carving out a life in Arkansas amid all the chicken plants and political scandals, about converting that side room he never really uses into a place where I could have a desk and a bookshelf and yellow curtains on the windows." From Lauren Winner’s Girl Meets God, it gives you a taste of her talent. The unexpected word choice, the various images, and the fun that is inherent in all her writing that makes me such a fan.
Thomas Pynchon starts his amazing novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, with the words, "A screaming comes across the sky." It’s about living in England during the blitz. But it’s his second paragraph, describing what it was like to sit in a bomb shelter during that time, that really grabs me: "Inside the carriage, which is built on several levels, he sits in veleveteen darkness, with nothing to smoke, feeling metal nearer and farther rub and connect, steam escaping in puffs, a vibration in the carriage’s frame, a poising, an uneasiness, all the others pressed in around, feeble ones, second sheep, all out of luck and time; drunks, old veterans, still in shock from ordinance twenty years obsolete, husbands in city clothes, derelicts, exhausted women with more children than it seems could belong to anyone, stacked about with the rest of things to be carried out to salvation." It’s the imagery, the fine description, the recognition of others that grabs me. There is foreshadowing, a sense of awkwardness, and things not yet understood in that sentence. Pynchon is a genius.
And one more: "One of the Falcon’s crew must have wedged himself against a bunk in the fo’c'sle and written furiously beneath the heaving light of a storm lantern. This was the end, and everyone on the boat would have known it. How do men act on a sinking ship? Do they hold each other? Do they pass around the whiskey? Do they cry? This man wrote; he put down on a scrap of paper the last moments of twenty men in this world. Then he corked the bottle and threw it overboard. There’s not a chance in hell, he must have thought. And then he went below again. He breathed in deep. He tried to calm himself. He readied himself for the first shock of the sea." This is from Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. A strong piece of writing — it has longing and sorrow and the obvious sense of foreboding. There is a univesality to the experience he describes, since he is asking questions all of us who grew up by water wonder about. He had the good sense to start with the end, since we already had heard this was going to be "a book about a fishing vessel that sank in a storm." The fact that Junger can add mystery to it is remarkable.
Well…there are a few examples. Feel free to send in your own favorite first lines.
Along a similar vein, Deanna wrote to ask for who some of my favorite writers are. It’s a long list, but it would certainly include Mark Twain (his writing still feels contemporary), Tom Pynchon, Ross Thomas, William Shakespeare (really!), Saul Bellow, Sebastian Junger, Brennan Manning. I still think Nostromo is the best novel I ever read. Sorry…I’m a bit of a classicist when it comes to favorites, I guess.
And Ashley wrote to ask, "As an agent, do you suggest a writer follow principles and formulas, or write purely from the heart? I find that when I follow formulas for ‘good’ fiction writing, I wind up with a dead end."
I have two answers for you to consider… First, keep in mind "the myth of spontaneity." The myth claims that true genius happens spontaneously — a musician simply sits down at a keyboard and creates something beautiful. It doesn’t happen that way. A pianist has practiced her scales and arpeggios repeatedly, and understands how music works, how notes flow together, how to create beauty. Any spontaneous craftsmanship she displays is built on the discipline of practicing the basics over and over again. In fact, it is her ability to master the basics that allows her to spontaneously create great music. So it is with the writer. Sitting down and creating great words requires understanding the basics of writing — how to craft a strong sentence, what makes a good paragraph, what is the difference between the right word and the almost-right word, how to build a story arc. So in this sense, great writing comes from following the basic principles of writing.
However, I find many novelists relying on formulas and creating dull, predictive fiction. So there is a second principle to hold in balance: that little great fiction has grown out of formula. I don’t believe Dickens or Twain or Austen ever created an outline before they began writing. In fact, I could argue that we have a tendency to over-edit writers these days, in order to create a "sameness" to many novels. While I love writers’ conferences, I fear one of the weaknesses they foster is the notion that there is ONE way to craft a novel, and it always begins with a master outline. That may work well, but I still go back to history and find that most truly great fiction sprung not from some overall masterplanning document.
So it’s both. I love the training that goes on at conferences, but I don’t want to see author creativity stifled by the belief there is a right way and a wrong way to do fiction. My friend Randy Ingermanson has created the "Snowflake" method for writing a novel, which is a very good system to help novelists create an overall plan for their books. I’m a big fan of his thinking…but I don’t want writers coming away with the belief that ALL fiction is to be crafted that way. It’s not. Does that make sense?
If you’ve got a question about publishing, send it my way.