Thursday, January 12, 2012

The "great" opening paragraph

by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.
It was a delightful, cold, calm, Monday morning, and I had just finished showering after my 3-mile jog.  Relaxing music played in the background, and I was sitting at the dining-room table reading the Monday edition of The (Toledo) Blade.  Thomas Walton’s op-ed column, “In search of the Great Opening Paragraph,” caught my attention.  That’s not surprising since reading the editorial pages and op-ed columns is my favorite part of the newspaper.  I spend more time on that section than on any other.
In his op-ed column Walton invited readers to submit their “best opening paragraph for the novel that’s been kicking around in [their] head.”  Walton continues by explaining the parameters of his request: “The rules are simple.  Make sure your paragraph is truly your own unpublished work.  Hold it to 50 words or so.”  I love temptations like this, and being a writer this invitation was not just tempting, it was downright irresistible.
Using an advertising insert card for a subscription to USA Today which I regularly pull out of that newspaper and that was lying nearby, I quickly (without much thinking) jotted down the following:

        “Her scent lingered momentarily, then she disappeared as if a lighthouse beacon had passed over me.  Bathed in the flow of that beacon, I became suddenly alive and aware, then conscious of my past.  With that conscious awareness, I realized I was not to have her, and I was surprisingly pleased.”
Those 50 words came to me immediately without pause, investigation, or searching.  They just seemed to be there waiting for a breath of fresh air — for release from the literary prison that bound them.
When finished with breakfast and the newspapers, I sat down at the computer keyboard; however, before I stroked a single key, I remembered something my wife said to me twenty years ago — about five years after I began using a computer.  She said, “You write much better when you write your thoughts out long hand.  Perhaps it’s because it gives you more time to think about your ideas.”  I had taken to using the computer so quickly that I had stopped writing long hand and simply composed at the computer keyboard because it is faster and more efficient.  (I can write more!)
Remembering what my wife said, I stopped.  Using what I had written on the USA Today advertising card as a beginning point, I re-wrote my 50-word passage on a half-sheet of paper.  That iteration went as follows:

        “Her scent lingered momentarily, then dispersed as if a light breeze had massaged the fibers of my being. [I had written “leaves of a tree” but crossed it out for this more vivid, less cliche-ridden version.] When fully recovered, I became alive and aware, then conscious of my past.  With that mindful insight [I had written “conscious awareness,” but having just used the word “conscious” I made the change to “mindful insight.”], I realized I was not to have her, and I was surprisingly at peace.”
I have also discovered — on a regular basis — that if I write it out longhand then edit it as I type it into the computer, that re-write becomes significantly improved over the original.   I am always reminded of Strunk and White’s [The Elements of Style] fifth suggestion to beginning writers who are searching for a satisfactory style: “Revise and rewrite.”
The edited 50-word piece above is what I e-mailed to Walton.  I had no idea how long I would wait to see if my writing merited publication.  I knew, however, that he liked my writing, because he was the editor of the Blade who initiated the column, “Saturday Essay,” and published over the course of several years, sixteen of my essays.
On January 3, 2011, Walton’s follow-up op-ed column appeared.  It was titled “‘It was a dark and stormy night’ . . . or not.”  He began the column, “I’ll say this for readers of One of America’s Great Newspapers.  Give them a challenge and they embrace it.”  He followed this opening with a second paragraph, “A month ago, I asked you to compose your best opening paragraph for the novel that you wish you had time to write.  Several dozen of you responded — many with eloquence, all with earnestness and passion.  For a few, it was indeed a dark and stormy night.”
After openings written by Rani Marshall, and Phillip R. King, my opening was the third one printed, followed by eight more.  Then, the most surprising openings of all were included.  Walton printed two written by an eighth grade creative writing class at St. Rose School in Perrysburg.  Those two were absolutely outstanding, but time and space prohibits me from reproducing them here.  (They can be found online.)
On the very same Monday morning when the second Walton op-ed piece was published, my daughter called me from the parking lot of Toledo Eleven Television in downtown Toledo saying she had a flat tire.  Being an AAA (Automobile Association of America) member for many years, I drove to where she was parked, called AAA, and they appeared one hour later.  On the way out of my driveway, however, I stopped at our mailbox and picked up both of my morning newspapers, so I had them in the car, and I was reading them as we waited for AAA to arrive.
Seeing the column, surprised by the inclusion of my submission, I read what I wrote to my daughter.  Her response: “Wow!  That doesn’t even sound like you.”
I have never written fiction.  One of the problems with writing a best selling college textbook [Communicating Effectively, 10th ed., McGraw-Hill, 2012] is that it gives you little time for other pursuits.  I have written a number of other college textbooks as well [Understanding Interpersonal Communication went through seven editions.], and with all the academic articles, chapters in books, and speeches, there was no time left over.  Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to do it, but I have had no choice except to wait for the right time.  It is true, there may be no “right time”!
In addition to all of this, when I Googled myself (See my essay on “Egosurfing.”) for the purposes of writing an essay about it, I discovered a Chinese website where Walton’s column of January 3, 2011, appeared with a date just one day in advance of when it appeared in The (Toledo) Blade, and I now realize that the whole world is waiting (breathlessly, I’m sure!) for my “great” follow-up novel to my “great opening paragraph”!  I’m so excited I’m out of breath!
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At All About Manga  there is a cute, short essay written May 7, 2010,  titled “My Life as a (Rookie) Editor: The Joy of Being Published.”  The writer of the blog essay explains: “People instantly have more respect for you. I am not kidding. Tell them you’re a published writer/editor/artist/whatever, then somehow you get street cred. Even aspiring writers and artists admire people with actually published work. It’s a big accomplishment. And when you think about it, it really is, getting ANYTHING published takes a lot of time and money from somewhere. People admire scientists and other non-writerly types with major published studies in some related journal they’ve probably never heard of. YOU have something to show for yourself. You’re not so hackjob that no one’s heard of because obviously someone published YOUR thing.”

On his blog, (March 16, 2007) David Louis Edelman, discusses the topic, “Five Things That Ddelman <o Happen When You Become a Published Author.”  1) Strangers become deferential, 2) you become “the writing expert,” 3) you get “mixed feelings about what you’ve written,” 4) “self-published authors look to you for validation,” and 5) “You’ll have accomplished something that nobody can take away from you.”  I wonder if a 50-word “great opening paragraph” can accomplish the same thing?
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Copyright January, 2012, by And Then Some Publishing, L.L.C.

1 comment:

  1. Maximillion Ryan IIIJanuary 12, 2012 at 12:04 PM

    If we choose not to write creatively, we have effectively closed the door on the prison that holds many wonderful thoughts and ideas just waiting to break free!


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