Masters of introductions

Are you looking for good ways to start novels?  If so, here are some great models.

If you want to foreshadow:

A crisis in a marriage caused by a man’s casual affair is how Leo Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina, a novel whose introduction is considered by many to be the best ever written.  Ultimately, the  couple reconcile, with their affair acting as a comparison to Anna’s affair later in the novel.  Because the comparison is not a direct, and because it involves Anna’s brother, it is all the more compelling.

If you want to highlight a first person point of view:

Start with a character who reveals his personality with a bang, such as Holden Caufield in The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”  From this first sentence we know this is a kid with an attitude, and we are hooked.

Or how about Huck Finn’s opening comment in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”  The poor English hints at Huck’s lack of education and perhaps backwoods roots.  So much is revealed about the protagonist in one sentence.

If you want to capture tone:

If the tone is satirical, start with a satirical statement, such as Jane Austen does in Pride and Prejudice. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  Must be?  Acknowledged by whom?  We can expect wit, comic characters and a happy ending–a marriage.  This introduction is considered a classic.

If the tone reveals the misery of life, layer it on as does Frank McCourt in the third paragraph of Angela’s Ashes. “People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version:  the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.”

If the tone is mystery, Edith Wharton in Ethan Frome nails it.  “I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.”  Not until the second last word of the sentence do we realize where the author is going, and we are hooked.

If you want to focus on an important symbol or motif:

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 immediately talks about fire, but with a twist.  “It was a pleasure to burn.”  This seems like a contradiction.  Is the narrator an  arsonist?

If you want to describe a character:

Joseph Conrad, in Lord Jim, starts with a powerful character sketch. “He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.”

If you want to rattle the reader:

See how L. P. Hartley does it in The Go-Between. “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”  Comparing the past with a foreign country provokes thoughtfulness, but then the writer compounds the mystery with the second clause.

Or see how Charles Johnson does it in Middle Passage. “Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.”  A woman is a disaster?  Even if you disagree, you want to find out why the narrator believes this is so.

Things you can learn from a narrative

Original cover of Huckleberry FinnGreat lives can be lived anywhere.  Hogwarts School. Macomb, Alabama.  On the Orient Express.  On a raft on the Mississippi River.

Life usually works out.  Elizabeth Bennett marries Fitzwilliam Darcy.  Brian Robeson gets rescued from the wilds of Canada.  Phileas Fogg wins his bet.

If not, wait for a sequel.  ScarlettLittle House on the PrairieDouble Fudge.

Odd names won’t hold you back.  Farley Drexel Hatcher.  Hercule Poirot.  Huckleberry Finn.  Jeeves.

It’s good to be odd, to be complex, to be eccentric.  Sherlock Holmes.  Junie B. Jones.  Huck Finn.  Anna Karenina.

Secondary characters can be fascinating.  Mercutio.  Mrs. Malaprop. Severus Snape.  Grover.

original cover of Sherlock HolmesThe best characters are not perfect.  Jay Gatsby.  Tom Jones.  Ebenezer Scrooge.  Lady Brett Ashley.  Scout.

When things go wrong, hang in there.  After all, tomorrow is just another day.

Unlocking the mystery of writing a good novel

I am not a fan of murder mysteries, but the books of a few murder mystery writers do attract me because their books are great literature.  One of those mystery writers is Raymond Chandler (1888-1959), the creator of Philip Marlow, the Los Angeles detective of the 1930’s and 1940’s, played by Humphrey Bogart in films.

Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep, was published in 1939.  It was followed by others including Farewell My Lovely in 1940, The Little Sister in 1949, and The Long Goodbye in 1953.  These books are noted as much for their style as for their mystery novel qualities.

Why are these books so good?  What can we, as writers, learn from them?

The protagonist, Philip Marlow, talks to the reader. A first person point of view gives us insight into the thoughts of the detective, why he acts the way he does.  Many great novels are in first person—Huck Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, for example.  A first person POV can allow us into the mind of a character naturally without a need for dialog.  “You could know Bay City a long time without knowing Idaho Street.  And you could know a lot of Idaho Street without knowing Number 449,” Marlow thinks.

Marlow, though highly intelligent, is an ordinary person whom readers can identify with. He needs to make money, so he needs to work, sometimes taking jobs which he later regrets.  He is not a stuffy patrician.  He lacks a college education, but he is street-wise.  He is a person from a middle class social strata.  “I put Orfamay Quest’s twenty hard-earned dollars in an envelope and wrote her name on it and dropped it in the desk drawer.  I didn’t like the idea of running around loose with that much currency on me.”

Marlow thinks in figures of speech, using metaphors and similes as easily as Shakespeare’s Mercutio uses puns. Some are outlandish and humorous but others are discreet and insightful.  “To say goodbye is to die a little.”

Marlow’s dialog is witty.  “And now, Mr. Marlowe?”  “You do remember me?”  “I believe so.”  “Do we take up where we left off–or have a new deal with a clean deck?”

Chandler’s prose is like Hemingway’s. “I laid [the pencil] down in the tray on the desk and dusted off my hands.  I had all the time in the world.  I looked out of the window.  I didn’t see anything.  I didn’t hear anything.”  Subject, verb, direct object.  Few adjectives.  Fewer adverbs.  Plain prose.

Marlow has a sense of humor, sometimes ironic, sometimes droll, and he makes us aware of it. Few paragraphs pass without drawing a smile to our faces.  “There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bar tender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream.”

Marlow is single and attracted to beautiful women. Today his thoughts and comments sound misogynistic, but he is typical of male characters from the 30’s and 40’s.  That mindset that women exist primarily to tempt men leads him to underestimate some female characters and to miss some clues, which he acknowledges.  “From 30 feet away she looked like a lot of class.  From 10 feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from 30 feet away.”

Chandler assumes readers are sophisticated, so he might  not explain every point. This can bring pleasure to a reader who can infer the causes for plot twists.

Marlow’s imperfect; he doesn’t always capture the murderer.  He eventually figures out the culprit, but sometimes he allows a justice outside of the law to triumph.  This kind of not-so-neat ending–a murky morality–gives readers something to think about long after the reading is done—and a reason to reread.

Chandler instills a sense of place in the Philip Marlow novels. Marlow knows LA as well as Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw knows New York.  LA with its environs almost serves as a character.  “I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home.  At LaBrea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino.”  Chandler’s attention to detail leads us to trust him about other things.

Chandler also instills a sense of time.  Marlow’s sexist thoughts, his chain smoking, his suits and ties, the kind of car he drives—all of these portray the 30s and 40’s.

Marlow is honorable, returning money if he hasn’t earned it and walking away from drunk women. “If you’re not tough it’s hard to survive in this world; and if you’re not kind then you don’t deserve to survive.”

Treat yourself to a master writer sometime and read Raymond Chandler.  Read for the pleasure of a great novel, and then go back and see how he does it.

Add details

Students write in generalities rather than with precise detail.  Yet it is detail that enhances writing.

Take, for example, this general sentence:  The dog barked at the cat.  See how it changes when we add details.

Adding numbers:  The dog barked at the single cat.

Adding dates, days, seasons:  Just as the sun was setting, the dog barked at the single cat.

Adding proper nouns, names:  Just as the sun was setting, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding places:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at the Fluffy.

Adding stories:  Just as the sun was setting in the back yard, Fang barked at  Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the garbage truck this morning.

Sensory information, figures of speech:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang barked at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost hit by the careening garbage truck this morning.

Specific verbs:  Just as the hazy sun was setting in the back yard, grey-muzzled Fang growled at puny, calico-coated Fluffy, the cat almost crushed by the careening garbage truck this morning.

What are details?

  • numbers, %, time
  • dates, days, seasons, eras
  • proper nouns
  • names
  • places
  • stories
  • direct quotes
  • thoughts
  • facts
  • for examples
  • sensory information
  • description
  • specific verbs
  • figures of speech

What states require cursive to be taught in schools?

In 2010 the Common Core State Standards dropped cursive handwriting as a subject to be taught in US schools.  Despite that, several states have either passed laws requiring cursive instruction, or have included cursive instruction and mastery in state standards.  Those states* are

Alabama—Lexi’s Law requires students to be able to write legibly in cursive by the end of third grade.

Arizona—Students begin to learn cursive in kindergarten and are expected to be proficient by the end of sixth grade.

Arkansas—Cursive must be taught in public schools by the end of third grade.

California—Cursive is taught in third grade.

Florida—Cursive is taught in third, fourth and fifth grades.

Georgia—Cursive is taught in third and fourth grade.

Louisiana—Public and charter schools must begin teaching cursive by third grade and must incorporate it in the curriculum through 12th grade.  The law was introduced when a surveyor told a Republican state legislator that he could not find young people who could read notes on old land documents.

Maryland—Cursive is taught in third, fourth and fifth grades.

Mississippi—cursive is taught in third through eighth grades.

Ohio—Kindergarteners must begin to write in cursive and be able to write legibly by the end of fifth grade.

North Carolina—Students must be able to write legibly in cursive by the end of fifth grade.

Oklahoma—Cursive is taught in third and fourth grades.

South Carolina—State law requires students write legibly in cursive by the end of fifth grade.

Tennessee—By state law, students are required to be able to write legibly in cursive.  The State Department of Education decides when students are instructed in cursive.

Texas—Second graders will learn how to write cursive letters; third graders will learn to write cursive words; and fourth graders will complete their assignments in cursive, beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.

Virginia—Cursive is taught in third, fourth and fifth grades.

West Virginia—Cursive is taught in second, third and fourth grades.

*according to the Southern Regional Education Board, October 2016, and other sources

How to better use prewriting organizers

Organizing writing before the first sentence is written is a sure way for students to improve their writing.  Yet many students (most students?) don’t do it.  Why?  Some kids are in a hurry and don’t want to take the time to create an organizer.  Some kids don’t know how to create useful organizers.  Some kids think skipping an organizer won’t harm their writing.

What can teachers do to encourage students to create organizers and to use them?

Teachers could insist students use a prewriting organizer before writing a single sentence, and grade it or include it as part of the writing assignment grade.  For a given assignment, the teacher could reproduce several student prewriting organizers (and the teacher’s own prewriting organizer) for the class to analyze.  What ones are effective?  Why?  The teacher could ask students to compare those to their own organizers.  Then the teacher could ask students to improve their organizers before they write their essays.

Teachers could insist that students follow their organizers, and grade the essay, in part, on whether the organizer was followed.  Teachers could ask students to exchange organizers and essays before they are turned in for grades.  Classmates could alert students who have not followed the organizer.  Teachers could give those students more time to align their essays with their organizers.

Teachers could limit the kinds of organizers students use to

  • Either mindwebs or semiformal organizers for most informational and persuasive essays,
  • Either Venn diagrams or charts for comparison or contrasting information, or
  • Modified time lines for narratives.

Teachers could spend more time teaching how to use organizers without requiring the resulting essays.  Not every organizer needs to lead to an essay.

Teachers could provide exercises using poor organizers for students to analyze.  Students would need to identify why those organizers are poor and how they could be improved.

Ten ways to know if a “thesis” is really a thesis?

A thesis is a declarative sentence, never a question.  “Who was the best US President?” is not a thesis because it is a question.  “Washington was the best US President” is a thesis providing the word “best” is precisely defined.  If “best” is not precisely defined, then this is not a thesis because “best” is vague.

Detective with a magnifying glass inspecting a newspaper.A thesis states an opinion which can be defended or countered. “Laws should prevent children younger than 18 from marrying.”  This is a thesis.  It is an opinion which can be supported by evidence.  It can be objected to with other evidence.

A thesis is not a statement of facts which can be verified.  “Washington is the only President to be elected unanimously” is not a thesis because research shows this is a factual statement.

A thesis is not an opinion of personal taste.  “I need to attend college” is not a thesis.  It cannot be researched scientifically.

A thesis is stated positively, not negatively.  “Washington was not the best US President” is not a thesis.

A thesis does not use biased or untruthful language.  “Dangerous hand guns should not be sold” is not a thesis.  “Dangerous” is a biased word.

A thesis uses precise language.  “Some amphibians should be put on the endangered species list” is not a thesis.  “Some” is not precise.

A thesis is about one idea, but that one idea can be subdivided.  “The US Civil War had two causes:  slavery and states’ rights” is a thesis.  This thesis is about the causes of the Civil War (one idea).  “Roses are easier to grow than irises but harder to grow than day lilies” is not a thesis.  It contains two separate ideas.

A thesis is researchable using scientific evidence or the scientific method. “Nothing escapes black holes” is not a thesis.  Scientific research has proven this statement to be false.  “More two-year-olds today are fat than in Boston in 1776” is not a thesis because it is impossible to research how many two-year-olds were fat in Boston in 1776.

A thesis deals with real, not conditional or hypothetical information. “If Elvis were alive today he would be a billionaire” is not a thesis because Elvis is not alive today.