By Mark Alpert
While the so-called “Bomb Cyclone” pounds the East Coast with frigid winds and snow, let’s take a cold, hard-eyed look at a first-page submission from one of our anonymous TKZ contributors:
Checking his phone for the tenth time, Asad al-Mamun (“the Leader” as Asad preferred to be called) paced in his small office, beads of perspiration feeling cold against the light morning breeze.
The call was already nineteen hours late, and Asad festered as he waited. Unable to get any information, he tossed his phone on the table and stared out the open window. With a sigh of resignation, he sat down on his mat, folded his legs, closed his eyes, and tried to review his plan. Unable to concentrate, he made a quick phone call. A welcome “distraction” soon arrived at the door, her frightened expression stirring excitement in Asad’s lustful eyes as he grabbed her by the arm and pulled her inside.
Five hours later, Asad’s phone chirped, startling him out of his almost trance-like state as he pushed the spent woman aside and picked the phone off the floor. The message was simple: “Departed.” Caller ID made it appear the text came from the United States, but Asad knew it had come from a much different place. Replying to that number would be useless, and, even if he could trace it, Asad was sure the phone had already been destroyed.
Asad slipped a robe over his tall, slender frame, staring at his phone while he lit up. The pleasant taste from the cloves and the low crackle as they burned awakened his senses. He reviewed the next stages of the plan in his mind. Timing was tight, with many loose ends threatening to unravel, but Asad had no choice but to act now. Dissatisfaction with Indonesian President Joko Darmadi was at an all-time high, with frequent protests, clashes with police, and calls for his resignation. Striking before things could change would cement Asad’s position of power, even if the majority of Indonesians had never heard of him. Yet.
A low moan came from the woman on the bed—a gift from a client who couldn’t pay his bills. She had been useful for a few hours; Asad’s frustration and tension showed in the bruises forming on her body. She cowered when she saw him staring at her.
“Get out,” Asad ordered.
The title of this submission also serves as a useful one-word critique. As I read the piece, I felt adrift in its opening paragraphs, pushed this way and that by the author’s fleeting and conflicting impulses. I yearned for a stable foothold or handhold, something I could cling to in my confusion.
Think about it: a reader starting a novel is a lot like a swimmer thrown into the middle of the ocean. Unless the author provides a literary lighthouse or lifebuoy, the reader has no idea where she is or which island she should start swimming for. The reader needs specifics right away to get her bearings: Where and when is the story taking place? Who is the character we’re following? What is he thinking? What does he want? Where is he likely to take us?
The best way to learn how to do this is to study the opening paragraphs written by masters of the craft. Fortunately, I have a couple of handy examples. The first is from Smile, Roddy Doyle’s latest novel, which I finished reading earlier this week. Doyle is probably most famous for The Commitments, the 1987 novel about a bunch of scruffy, young Dubliners who start a soul band, but over the past three decades he’s continued to write fantastic books about Ireland, past and present, good and bad. Here’s the first paragraph of Smile:
I stayed up at the bar a few times but I didn’t want the barman thinking that I needed someone to talk to. I sat in a corner near a window but the barman kept coming over, casually walking past, looking for empty glasses, and asking me if I was alright for a drink or what I thought of Brazil getting hammered by the Germans or of Garth Brooks not coming to Croke Park. I tried to picture myself from where he’d been looking at me. I can’t have looked that bad – that lonely, or sad. Or neglected. It never occurred to me that he might be gay. I was fifty-four. I was too old to be gay back.
You can picture the scene, right? A depressed, lonely middle-aged guy sitting in the corner of a bar. You can guess the geographic location too — the use of the word “barman” instead of “bartender” indicates that it’s somewhere in the British Isles, and the mention of Croke Park puts it squarely inside Dublin. More important, you immediately get a good sense of the narrator. The man is so insecure, he’s worried about what the barman thinks of him. It’s funny and sad at the same time. And there’s also a hint of sexual insecurity, which definitely plays a big role in this book. By the end of the paragraph, the reader isn’t exactly sure where the novel is going, but it’s already getting interesting. And the pure, simple confidence of the writing reassures the reader that the journey will be worth it. With Doyle in charge, we’re in good hands.
Now here’s an example from the thriller genre: Joe Hill’s 2016 novel The Fireman, which I started reading as soon as I finished Smile. (I’m still a long way from finishing Hill’s book – it’s 750 pages long!)
Harper Grayson had seen lots of people burn on TV, everyone had, but the first person she saw burn for real was in the playground behind the school.
Schools were closed in Boston and some other parts of Massachusetts, but here in New Hampshire they were still open. There had been cases in New Hampshire, but only a few. Harper had heard that half a dozen patients were being held in a secure wing of Concord Hospital, looked after by a medical team outfitted in full-body protective gear, every nurse armed with a fire extinguisher.
That’s a brilliant opening. My favorite part is that brief parenthetical statement — “everyone had” — in the first sentence. The reader knows right from the beginning that something apocalyptic has started to happen, and it’s about to get much worse. Again, you can’t help but sense the confidence of the author. He’s like a lifeguard jumping into the water right next to the reader and saying, “Don’t worry, I won’t let you drown. I’m going to guide you to the most amazing places.”
Now that we’ve studied these examples, we can clearly see what today’s first-page submission is missing. Asad, the point-of-view character in this scene, is obviously villainous, but what exactly is he feeling at this moment? At first he’s nervous, sweating, “festering.” Then he sighs in resignation and tries to concentrate. Then he gives up on concentrating and enjoys some brutal sex. The rapid changes in his mood left me feeling whiplashed and unable to learn anything about this man, much less become interested in his predicament.
Then the action jumps ahead five hours – a long time for brutal sex, by the way – and we get the first hint of drama: a one-word text message. But that word, “Departed,” isn’t mysterious enough to pique my interest. The next paragraph provides a bit of explanation: we’re in Indonesia, and Asad reveals that he’s engaged in some kind of political scheme. But I don’t really care. The author hasn’t given me enough in the way of character or plot or writing style to make me want to keep reading.
But all is not lost. The author has the opportunity to rethink the opening scene. My recommendation is to choose a more dramatic moment to begin the novel. Instead of starting the story with a text message, how about a riot? I’d love to see a scene of furious Indonesians rampaging through the streets of Jakarta (see photo above), all of them guided by the devious Asad, who is secretly choreographing the downfall of the Indonesian president. Then the reader would get a chance to see Asad in action, doing his dirty work in the back alleys of the chaotic capital. He could still be just as much of a villain, but at least we’d admire his stone-cold competence and maybe yearn to see more of his cruel maneuvering, especially if he does outrageously evil things like plotting the slaughter of schoolteachers or police officers.
Now it’s time for me to get back to The Fireman.