I recently learned about a competition being held by a literary agent named Nathan Bransford. Writers were to send him the opening paragraph of their work in progress, and the best one would receive a free critique of the writer's work or query letter. It seemed like a low-risk venture, so I entered. But I didn't send the opening paragraph of my completed manuscript, The Grave and the Gay. The reason is that I had already sent a query letter and sample chapters of the work to Bransford and he had rejected it. And even though I had since adjusted the opening (and did so again as recently as 48 hours ago), I felt that a fresh start was required.
I looked at the opening paragraph of my other work in progress, which is a single sentence: "I am the King of Bad Dreams." Nah, that won't work. Not much of a paragraph, is it? I could bring up the next two sentences and pretend I intended the three to form an opening paragraph, but it still wasn't compelling enough to stand up to competition. The fact is, the opening is the hardest part of writing a novel. I'm not sure I'd be happy with my current openings if I spent the next 30 years revising them.
Ultimately, I sent the opening paragraph of the essay I wrote about spreading my friend's ashes, which I shared in an earlier post. Even though it's not a work in progress, it's my favorite opening paragraph:
The last time I saw my friend Marc, he was tumbling down from a bridge onto the ground approximately sixty feet below. I had a good view because I was the one who caused his descent. I didn’t necessarily want to do it, but he insisted. And he wasn’t hurt by the fall, because he was already dead. You see, I was spreading his ashes.
Suffice to say, I didn't win. Well, so what? As my hero Abraham Lincoln once said, "I have been too familiar with disappointments to be very much chagrined." Besides, I'm plenty busy shopping around The Grave and the Gay and working on my other work in progress (which is still untitled; the file name is NEW NOVEL.doc). So I dropped it from my mind. Until today.
I was looking through my "Writings" folder on my computer, where a number of files of varying vintages are stored. Many of these are fragments: beginnings of stories, snatches of dialogue, plays on words, observations, etc. I've saved them because I'd once read that Stephen Stills saves all of his musical and lyrical scraps until he finds a place to fit them in. Maybe it could work for me, as well.
One of the files had the cryptic title, "Fifteen.doc." I didn't recall its contents so I opened it. There was just a single short paragraph:
Fifteen. When I was 15 it seemed like I’d be 15 forever. The summer that I was 15 was a memorable one. I had my first beer, my first joint, and my first kiss. Days lasted years. Nights lasted decades. And then one morning, I woke up and I was 45.
I liked it! I must have written it some time last year, when I was 45. It felt real to me, and yet it was also something I felt I could build on. The first question, of course, was "What's next?" And it came to me very quickly. I appended the following to the paragraph:
And I had a 15-year-old of my own. And I had to tell him that I was leaving his mother.
So now I had a brand new opening paragraph that I wish I had found in time for the competition:
Fifteen. When I was 15 it seemed like I’d be 15 forever. The summer that I was 15 was a memorable one. I had my first beer, my first joint, and my first kiss. Days lasted years. Nights lasted decades. And then one morning, I woke up and I was 45. And I had a 15-year-old of my own. And I had to tell him that I was leaving his mother.
No matter. It was an exciting new beginning and I went with it. Within half an hour, I had five paragraphs and something more: yet another work in progress. In need of a title and, one day I hope, an agent and publisher.