Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"I'm the King of Bad Dreams."

It's a hell of a thing, to open up a new book, crack the spine a bit, the front cover and assorted preliminary pages laying lightly in your left hand, and the entire bulk of the rest of the book supporting page one being borne by your right. You've only just begun and it will be some time before you've finished. What you hope for is a first line that propels you forward, onward, into the book. You need to build some momentum quickly and the first line will either make you hungry for the next or merely serve as that initial slow step you take before you've reached full speed.

Me, I like a first line that sparks the pilot light in my imagination, that instantly leaves me either excited or curious about what comes next. Now, some of the greatest novels in the English language have had first lines that do nothing for me, so a great first line isn't necessary for a successful book. But it helps. For example:

Call me Ishmael. - Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Great books, classic lines. But still idling in Neutral. I'm sorry, they just don't do much for me.

I like first lines that make you wonder, that instantly give you a feeling, maybe even a feeling of uneasiness. A feeling that you must go on, if only to learn what bad things might await. Some of my favorite first lines include:

124 was spiteful. - Toni Morrison, Beloved

Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo. - James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. – Italo Calvino, If on a winter’s night a traveler

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. – Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Mother died today. Or, maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure. – Albert Camus, The Stranger (OK, granted that's two lines, but they join to make one indelible start.)

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. - Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

So I've been thinking lately about my next novel, and not quite knowing what it's going to be about. But I've decided it should be told in the first person, unlike my first novel, The Grave and the Gay, still awaiting delivery to agents. That's a piece of historical fiction with an omniscient narrator telling the story in third person. And I think it works fine, but I want my next one to be more direct, more in your face. I want the narrator to talk to the reader, and I want it to begin with a first line that sets up a sense of an individual with issues to work out, yet those issues are ill-defined and much of the book, I think, will be spent trying to figure out just what's up with the guy. The remainder of the book will be his attempt to address those issues.

It's like therapy - especially if you read it in 50-minute chunks.

So anyway, I was thinking about what some of my issues are and I recalled a recurring dream I've had many, many times over the years. It's a dream where I've arrived somewhere - work, school, a party, some fun event - and for some reason had to leave it because I forgot something or had to drop someone off somewhere. And then I'm not able to find my way back. Either the streets don't look familiar or the place has moved or I no longer have a car, something prevents me from getting back to where I want to be. I get a taste, but never a meal.

There was one time about eight years ago when I had the dream - and actually made it back! It was an incredibly exhilarating feeling. I was on a high for days. A colleague gave me her interpretation as to why that night the dream ended differently. I had recently started this job, and I finally felt like I was in a work environment in which I belonged, in which I truly felt valued and respected. That was an interesting insight. Of course, the novelty has worn off some over the years, and I've since had the dream again, and again I was unable to get back.

And then, thinking about bad or annoying dreams, there are those times when you dream you've tripped and suddenly you're whole body jerks you awake, or you're being chased and your legs are like lead and it feels like you're running through Marshmallow Fluff. I've actually had two dreams in my life where I've gotten shot in the head and both times I felt the bullet enter my skull. So I know about bad dreams.

And that's why I know the first line of my next novel: "I'm the King of Bad Dreams." What happens next, aside from a description of some of them, as I just did above, I have no idea. But I'm hoping I get into a strong creative rhythm and am able to write the whole thing quickly. Because if I don't, if I have to stop or retreat, I'm worried I'll never find my way back.

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