Monday, March 19, 2012

Hooked From the Start, Part Five: "Never open a book with weather."

One of my literary heroes is Elmore Leonard and in his ten rules for good writing, number one is "Never open a book with weather."

Say what? In the previous installment of this series of first lines by favorite authors, I talked about Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle, which indeed did begin with weather. Gripping, icy cold weather.

And other favorite novels also begin with weather:
"She was dead. What did it matter if icy needles of freezing rain flayed her skin raw . The young woman squinted into the wind pulling her wolverine hood closer. Violent gusts whipped her bearskin wrap against her legs." From The Valley of Horses by Jean Auel. As this was the second in Auel's Earth Children series, I knew I was going to read it before I ever read the first lines. It didn't matter to me how she started it. I was hooked from the first novel in the series--truly hooked from the start but not from the first lines. And after reading the subsequent books, this one remains my favorite of all of them.

From Tony Hillerman's Listening Woman:
"The Southwest wind picked up turbulence around the San Francisco Peaks, howled across the emptiness of the Moenkopi plateau, and made a thousand strange sounds in windows of the old Hopi villages at Shongopovi and Second Mesa." This was the first of Hillerman's novels that I read and I read it because I saw an interview with him on the Today Show. My interest was peaked because of the subject matter and his Navajo policemen. And after reading this book, I was determined to read every book by Hillerman. The first lines had nothing to do with my love of his books. On a side note, three years after reading Listening Woman and several of his other books, I found myself substitute teaching on a Ute reservation in SW Colorado. I remember one cold winter day when the students were quietly working, I looked out the window on the barren landscape and the mesas in the distance. A feeling of peace and tranquility came over me along with the realization that I was in Hillerman country. Incidentally, Hillerman's books were on the shelves of that classroom.

My first published novel The Pig Farm (by my alter ego Chancey Hernández) began with a reference to weather:
"The tropical night air lay heavy and dense as three men stumbled and shuffled over the stone pavement of the dark, narrow street." Whether or not those words would prevent someone from reading the novel, I have no idea. I hoped when I wrote them that they would entice readers to want to read the novel.

However, with my subsequent novels, I have not opened with weather references, heeding Leonard's advice. The Pool Lizards (the sequel to The Pig Farm) begins this way: "A body was floating in the pool Sunday morning but it was a while before I or anyone else noticed it." That first line was read at a meeting of romance authors and one lady raised her hand and said those lines made her want to read the novel. And The Pool Lizards is most definitely not a romance novel!

So, I try not to start with weather when I begin writing a novel but if weather is the subject of another author's first sentence, I will still read the novel. In fact, this leads me to the next topic in this series. Many times I am hooked from the start not with first lines but with the title such as Death in Zanzibar by M. M. Kaye.


Marilyn Levinson said...

I think so many authors start with the weather because it reflects a tone, a mood, a hint of what's to come. The rules regarding how to open a novel change with the times. Victorian novels often opened with pages rambling on about background, setting, etc. until they zoomed in on the book's characters. Today we're obliged to jump right into the action. To show how styles have changed: at one workshop, someone read the opening paragraphs of a book that described the setting and, I believe, the weather. It turned out that Hemingway was the author, a writer who prided himself on writing cleanly and simply. Just an example of how our writing styles have changed with the times.

Palmaltas said...

Fantastic post, Marilyn. You are so right in that writing styles have changed. And our culture has much to do with it--we live in a fast-paced, technological world with more competition than ever before.

marja said...

Oh, dear. I still love a dark and stormy night, and I have no problem with a story opening with the weather -- as long as it's relevent.

Palmaltas said...

Marja, I have never understood the prejudice against "a dark and stormy night'. It certainly sets the tone for whatever is going to happen next.

Shalanna said...

You're right--preferred openings have changed a lot over the years. Still, if you can make it WORK--the way the openings you cited do work--all bets are off. Look at J. K. Rowling and her adjectivial dialogue tags ("he said dully," "she said sadly"), and the backstory dumps that some big-name authors use after their Really Exciting opening scene. If they can make it work for readers, our rule goes out the window.

But we are not so anointed (YET), so we have to look at what's selling now, sigh. I have always felt I was born 40 years too late, but then if I had been born way back when, medical technology was not such that I would still BE KICKING NOW, so there's always a trade-off. And I couldn't meet all these lovely writers from across the country through our beloved 'net! And I wouldn't have my own blog to muse on various topics! So I guess I'm where I need to be, after all.

I love Snoopy's many variations on "It was a dark and stormy night. Lightning flashed! Thunder rolled! A shot rang out!" LOL I've even entered that Bulwer-Lytton contest before. Some of the winning entries are actually intriguing, and I wish I could read the ensuing stories.

Palmaltas said...

Shalanna, thank you so much for your comments and insights. I apologize for only discovering your comments today! I love your last sentence and wishing you "could read the ensuing stories" that resulted from the Bulwer-Lytton contest--not to mention Snoopy's "It was a dark and stormy night....!"