A Right and Good Way to Think About One’s Writing

The magnificently named Augustus John Cuthbert Hare opened the preface of his 1887 guidebook Paris with the following statement:

A better book than this might easily have been published, but no one else has tried to write anything of the kind, and I have done my best.

I don’t know if I have ever read a better summary of how to think about one’s writing efforts than Hale’s three sentiments: the humility that comes from recognizing there will always be writers with more talent, the confidence that one has found a unique story to tell or a unique way to tell a story, and the calming truth of having given one’s best effort.

Echoing Hale’s third point, Richard Ford said something in a 2011 interview that has stuck with me:

I’ve muddled through a lot of things, but I have not muddled through my writing life. I work absolutely flat out, giving it my all. If the books aren’t good enough, it’s because I’m not good enough.

I don’t hear in either writer’s statement a resigned “well, I did my best” but rather a simple, confident declaration of “this is my best.” And as with all simply expressed ideas, it’s easy to look past the profound message offered within.

In addition to respecting the bond we hope to form with readers, this attitude might help squelch the self-doubt crazy-making that seems to be the writer’s special art form. Work to the very limit of our capabilities—and then be at peace with the results.

Catching the Reader with Multiple Hooks: Learning from Barry Unsworth

The opening sentences and paragraphs of a novel have soooo much work to do: establishing the narrative voice and giving it some purpose, igniting a glimmer of interest in at least one character, painting in enough of the setting to help the reader get oriented, and proposing a contract with the reader regarding the laws of the universe he or she is about to enter.

But more than anything else, of course, the opening lines need to give readers some reason, any reason, to keep reading. Even if it’s just the tiniest sliver of bait, the quick flash of a lure, the first sentence has to draw them in and deliver them to the second sentence, and the second to third, and so on until they’re caught, captivated, and committed.

The greats have demonstrated a variety of tactics to capture readers in the first few lines and paragraphs and pages, from a narrative voice that refuses to be ignored to a thought-provoking insight about human behavior that promises some satisfying hours ahead to a quick ramp-up of tension.

With all the available tactics at hand, the two basic strategies seem to be go deep or go wide—to set a limited number of hooks and work them in securely while slowly expanding the scope of the story, or to set a large array of hooks in quick succession. (I was tempted to modify the metaphor to make it fishing with a line and hook versus fishing with a net, but the net implies a lack of precision and that’s not what I have in mind.)

Going Deep: Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice, with its celebrated first sentence, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” captures readers with a wry narrative voice and a satirical observation about human behavior that says a lot about the characters we are about to meet. The paragraphs that follow in the first chapter illuminate this opening line, start to sketch out the characters (including the contrasting natures of several of the daughters and perhaps some hint of the social implications thereof), and outline the lovingly combative nature of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet’s relationship. But they do so while staying within the narrow scope of the challenge of getting one’s daughters married off at a time when marriage was the most appealing career option for many women (“the only provision for well-educated women of small fortune,” as the book later puts it).

In Jane Austen’s capable hands, this go-deep strategy pays off handsomely, or at least it has for the several hundred zillion readers charmed by this book.

The risk of this deep-but-narrow strategy, obviously, is that if the one or two hooks don’t catch the reader, the book is back on the shelf and the reader has moved on. If Mrs. Bennet’s quest to connect with the eligible new bachelor in the neighborhood had been presented by a sterile narrator or without Mr. Bennet’s lighthearted accommodation of his wife’s rather grating personality, I suspect I’m not the only reader who would not have lasted through the first chapter. For me, anyway, Austen’s narrative voice is a lot more interesting than the admittedly serious marrying campaign that serves as the story’s dramatic engine. (Of course, it must be emphasized that I am not a worried parent in Regency-era England.)

Going Wide: The Ruby in Her Navel

In marked contrast to the pair of hooks Austen used in the first 800 or so words (the first chapter, that is) of Pride and Prejudice, in the first 500 words of The Ruby in Her Navel, Barry Unsworth sets no fewer than eight hooks.

I first read this book several years ago, but I keep a vivid memory of reading the opening chapter. I was walking along a calm street in Key West, early in the morning, and as I read I felt both my pace and my pulse quicken. (OK, I did have a large coffee in one hand and the book in the other.)

After a few blocks, I had to stop and figure out why I was so caught up in this story.* I sat myself down on the low retaining wall in front of the Monroe County Court House, pulled pen and notebook out of my shoulder bag, and got to work.

One: A rapid-fire reading of layered tensions, from sexual intrigue to murder plots

The opening paragraph tosses us right into a cauldron of sexual, social, and political tensions as the narrator races through a catalog of possible explanations for the ruby that glowed in the navel of Nesrin the dancer, whose fame spanned the courts of Europe. A lover might’ve stolen it for her from King Roger of Sicily; it might’ve been payoff from Roger’s chief enemy to assist in a plot to kill him; it might’ve been compensation for sharing that enemy’s bed. As time went on, people began to say the ruby was a gift from the Caliph of Bagdad, an enticement from the Great Khan of the Mongols, or wages from the Devil himself.

Two: The narrator abruptly tells us all these possible explanations are wrong

After spinning all these threads and more, the narrator introduces himself (“I, Thurstan”) at the end of the paragraph and claims that all these stories are false—and that only he knows the whole truth. We’re only one paragraph in, and we already have enough tension to fuel an entire saga, in the company of a narrator who knows the dazzling Nesrin’s secrets and seems to live deep in this world he describes but somehow stands alone and apart.

Three: Thurstan shares a thought-provoking observation about life, tinted with ominous color

I’m hooked and on board by this point, but Unsworth is just getting started. Starting the second paragraph, he lets us catch our breath with the observation that “Any human life lies in the future as well as in the past, of however short duration that future may prove to be; the two are hinged together like a door that swings, and that swinging is the present moment.” With this single sentence, we feel all those loose-woven threads from the previous paragraph snapping taut as that web of sexual intrigues and geopolitics is gathered into the tight, immediate moment of now. Plus, with his characteristically quiet power, Unsworth slips in that ominous note about however short duration that future may prove to be. Sounds like somebody is in for a bit of dying here, and sooner rather than later.

This was my first Unsworth, and for whatever reason, that image of the present moment being a door that swings to open the future as it slams shut the past really grabbed me. It announced, without calling attention to itself, that I was in the company of not just a writer who could say things well, but a writer who had something to say.

At a more mechanical level, the passage also sets up a nifty solution to a minor but not always trivial challenge that every novel has at its beginning, which is finding a smooth way to establish time and place. Continuing with the door simile, Thurstan says that to tell a story one must choose a moment when that door is swinging wide, and the moment he has chosen is a day late in April of 1149 when his boss Yusuf had asked him to remain after one of the regular meetings of officials in the royal palace at Palermo.

In a two-sentence paragraph, Unsworth has focused our attention on a specific moment after that broad sweep of possibilities laid out in the first paragraph, got us thinking about the finite span of our own lives, identified the setting, introduced a second major character, and set out several other important details we need to move forward.

Four: Thurstan explains the best way to keep secrets in a dangerous environment

Thurstan says that Yusuf made his request “quite openly, rather carelessly, as if it was an afterthought,” then reasons “What better way of disarming suspicion than to speak in the hearing of all?” After giving a few details about their employment in the royal bureaucracy, he shares one of the most important lessons Yusuf has taught him over the years, that “secrecy is best served by an appearance of openness.”

Thurstan hasn’t encountered any actual dangers or risks yet, no knock on his door in the dead of night or threats in some unsigned message, but clearly he is navigating treacherous waters. Without saying our just-met hero is in danger, Unsworth makes us feel it.

And not only are we about to tumble into a snake pit of palace intrigue, but the writer and his narrator have also alerted us that all will not be as it seems in the coming story.

Five: Thurstan relates a recent failure on his part to secure a gift for King Roger

Thurstan says this particular meeting stuck in his memory because it was “enlivened by a quarrel,” but he doesn’t elaborate yet. Instead, he relates how just prior to the meeting he had failed in his attempt to bribe a jester to leave his post in Naples and come to Palermo so that Thurstan could present him as a gift to the king, although he didn’t say anything about this at the meeting. (His job title is the Purveyor of Pleasures and Shows, a fluffy label in delicious contrast to the gritty reality of his work—the jester refused to come because he was afraid his current boss, the Count of Naples, would track him down and strangle him in retribution.)

More tension, then; he failed in his quest to please the king, and he is keeping that failure a secret from the other palace officials.

Six: Thurstan portrays himself as a man alone, a palace insider but one distrusted by all as an outsider

After mentioning that he didn’t say anything about his failure during the meeting, he explains that “I was distrusted as a man who belonged nowhere.” His boss Yusuf is Arab, and King Roger is Norman French, but Thurstan is from northern England.

The classic me-against-the-world angle nearly always hooks me. In fact, starting the book with “I was distrusted . . .” would’ve been enough on its own.

Seven: Thurstan starts to tell us about his father but then abruptly stops himself

As he goes on to relate some history of how his northern family had made its way to Italy in the hope that his father might find opportunity in the Norman-ruled kingdom of Sicily and that his mother had later died in childbirth, Thurstan ends with “My father . . . But more of my father later.”

This line struck me as quite in keeping with the all-is-not-as-it-seems spin we have going on, that maybe Thurstan isn’t entirely alone as I have built him up in my mind. Is his father still alive, and if so, what role is he going to play?

I suppose there is a risk that this interrupted line about his father could come across as a gimmick, as the author announcing that he had some important information but then refusing to provide it. However, it didn’t strike me that way at all. Rereading it now, I get the same feeling I had originally. Thurstan has taken me into his confidence and has a lot to tell me, but just as someone would in regular conversation, he first needs to get back to another topic he raised but hasn’t yet resolved. (And he goes on to do this, describing the quarrel that had “enlivened” the meeting, then using that as a springboard to outline the larger cultural conflicts at play in a besieged Italian kingdom led by a French monarch ruling an unsettled mélange of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish subjects.)

Eight: So what of this Nesrin, and how does Thurstan have sole possession of the whole truth about her?

We’re about 500 words in at this point (right before he goes on to describe the quarrel at the meeting), but Nesrin the dancer remains as mysterious as we when we left her in the first paragraph. Is she alive, does she play any role in the story to come, is Thurstan—and not all those kings and potentates—her lover? Tell me more about the connection between this culturally isolated, low-level palace functionary and a woman whose appeal was apparently strong enough to rock the lives of courts and kings.

The Rewards and Risks of Going Wide

All these hooks have been laid out for the reader, and we’re still less than two full pages into the story. The political intrigues both grand and quotidian, cultural clashes, dangers just out of sight, the mystery of Nesrin and just how good or how bad she was, the stranger in a strange land plight of a sympathetic narrator—there’s a hook here to catch any reader.

By comparison, at roughly the same point, Mr. and Mrs. Bennet are still squabbling about whether or not he is adequately sensitive to her nervous condition. Equally valid strategies and equally effective in sure hands, but what profoundly different ways to begin a novel.

With Unsworth at the controls, the going-wide strategy works extremely well, but it’s easy to imagine it failing miserably. If the multiple hooks are not seamlessly integrated, if each doesn’t sprout naturally from the one it follows, the result would feel choppy, disjointed, and possibly even desperate (“I’m not sure how to capture the reader, so I’m going to try every trick I’ve ever seen.”) And even if they are connected parts of a whole, multiple hooks could overload the reader with too much information too quickly.

Of course, the number of opening hooks also has to be related to the scope and complexity of the story to come. A hook that doesn’t eventually pay off or that pays off in a way unrelated to the story is careless at best and manipulative at worst.

But when it works, the effect is magnificent.


*One might argue that the opening actually pushed me out of the story rather than pulled me in, if I was so conscious of it and so focused on the technique. However, I believe the right explanation for this is that writers don’t read like normal people. It’s a curse in a way, but particularly for beginners with only two or three decades of practice and much still to learn, whenever a story is at its most captivating we have to force ourselves to stop and analyze how the writer achieved that effect. We lose the pleasure of staying fully within the fictional dream, to borrow John Gardner’s term, but we gain the appreciation of learning how the masters of our chosen medium create their art.

Barry Unsworth, 1930–2012

Word comes today that Barry Unsworth died earlier this week at the age of 81. He leaves behind a catalog of work that inspires and humbles anyone who writes historical fiction and anyone who aspires to write humane fiction in general.

I had the great pleasure of hearing Mr. Unsworth speak and read from his work during the 2009 Key West Literary Seminar. I cannot claim any personal connection beyond spending several hours in rapt attention, but his work and his thoughts about the enterprise of historical fiction have been my daily companions ever since. And having heard him read, I have the gift of his voice narrating to me every time I pick up one of his novels.

This remembrance by Arlo Haskell offers links to an interview he conducted with Mr. Unsworth and several audio recordings from the 2009 Seminar.

To Haskell’s graceful words I can add only a sincere thank you.

[Posted 7 June 2012]