To be slow is to sin. It's like some Eleventh Commandment:
(Cue James Earl Jonesesque voice)
Thou shalt not commit a slow opening.
Generally, Kelly and I buy into this. Our books tend more toward suspense than the traditional mystery, so we are very aware of this need to get out of the gate fast. Our editors in the past have packaged us as "thriller" writers. We even teach this gospel in our workshops and our manuscript critiques. But lately, I've been thinking maybe we writers sometimes give this one commandment a little too much credence. Maybe our concerns about pacing are being skewed too much by the current trend toward thrillers dominating the bestseller lists. Maybe we are too worried that today's reader is too torqued up by TV, Tom Cruise movies and video games to tolerate a more measured entry into a story.
This thing is weighing heavily on me this week because our editor has asked that we ratchet up the action in our new book a tad. Kelly and I immediately understood his reasoning; we had already chewed on this issue between ourselves before he brought it up. Although there is plenty of low-burn suspense in the beginning of our story, there are no corpses, no murders, no high octane action until well into the story. Then things explode. But it is too late?
So we wrote a new opening and sent it on its way last night for our editor to consider.
Then today, I got a fan letter from Mike Bienkowski, a college professor up in Albany. Mike had just finished our book "An Unquiet Grave" and wrote to say: "The first paragraph was one of the best I've read a long while and it kept me reading. Congrats on breaking through all the booky noise out there. A very impressive performance."
"Booky noise." What a great phrase. But what did it mean?
So I wrote Mike back and asked. He replied: "By 'booky noise' I was referring to the standard, paperback writer opening page that I read (like the typical opening scene of a movie). I get so tired of explosions, muggings, love-fests, et al, that it was refreshing to read and see Christmas lights bouncing on branches in the breeze. The rest is all booky noise to me."
To which I could only think: Well, shoot...
Here is the opening of "An Unquiet Grave" that Mike is talking about:
The Christmas lights were already up. He had the top down on the Mustang and he could see them as he drove up, a cluster of small white lights that someone had strung on the coconut palm in his yard. A stiff breeze was blowing in from the gulf, moving the fronds and sending the lights bobbing and dancing like fire-flies on a hot summer night."
When I wrote that opening, I knew I wanted something quiet and evocative, something that spoke to the itchy out-of-kilter feeling a northerner transplanted to the tropics feels every time December comes around. It was slow but I knew it. And it was intended to portend something bad to come.
The next couple paragraphs are just as slow:
Louis Kincaid turned off the engine and just sat there, looking at the lights.
Fireflies. July Fourth. Michigan.
But there were no fireflies here. It was November, not July. And he was in South Florida.
His mind was playing tricks on him.
That last line is important. Because this book, on its surface, was about a murder in an abandoned insane asylum. But the underground railroad theme was about how even the mind of a healthy person can play tricks and cause a sane person to wonder where the line marking insanity starts.
So yes, the story started slow. And Kelly and I let it, trusting that we could create tension without carnage, trusting we had the ability to pull the reader through the story without tricks. And most important, trusting the reader to have the patience to let a story find its legs and rhythm.
But this newest book? Did we do the right thing by rewriting our opening and opting for a grabber? I wish I knew. The stakes are so high these days in our genre, the pressures so heavy to keep pace. The temptation to sin is great.
Maybe I just need to listen to my heart and tune out its own version of "booky noise." Until I work up that courage, I leave this blog entry without a clue, closure or any neat little summary. But thanks for listening.