Bill Bucko

Editing the first page of a novel

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I've found that the opening page of a novel usually gives me more problems than any other 20 pages combined. That's been the case with my first two novels.

I'm not talking about writing the first page (that would be a different problem). I'm talking about editing it, afterwards, to make it as effective as possible.

I think there's a reason for this:

Unlike any other page of your novel, the opening page has no prior context. Even more than elsewhere, every word counts, every shade or nuance of meaning, every detail of sentence structure, every rhythm. And you're building from scratch. If there's to be a picture in the reader's mind--if there is to be any verisimilitude--here is where you have to paint that picture, and establish that verisimilitude.

After a great deal of conscious effort (as well as giving my subconscious lots of time to work on it), I've finally got most of the opening page of my novel The Outcasts to a point where I'm satisfied. But I have lingering doubts about the first 3 paragraphs, as though something is still a little "off"

I've worked on this book so many years (off and on), that sometimes I'm too "close" to it to see problems.

Does anyone have any suggestions on those opening paragraphs?

Prologue — March 1400

He was made to wear chains in his illness and delirium, though the weight of the castle pressed against his eyelids with the five years he had been here, the years that were meant to crush him, and his hands reached nothing in the darkness but the bed of straw and a few rough stones of the wall.

He struggled to his knees.

Spasms racked his body, as visions swarmed through his tortured mind. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought with what was left of his strength. Finally he gave a shudder and lay still at last, exhausted. The links of iron held him in an embrace more intimate than a lover’s, cold metal against burning flesh, as fire raged through his limbs.

He shook his head.

Is it the fever? Is that why she haunts me?

He reached out, as a shape loomed closer ... he did it against his will, knowing she couldn’t be real.

“Whore!” he cried into the darkness, as his fingers closed on empty air. “You’ve betrayed me! ... Haven’t you?”

She turned away in silence, like the wraith she was ... but not before he saw what was in her eyes.

“I need you,” he whispered. “I wouldn’t admit it, but ... I need you ...”

He fell back, in despair.

Sometimes the fire died down and ice began to swell like a wintry flood through his veins. Then the fever retreated, to lurk smoldering in the dark space behind his eyes, where the visions came from. He writhed on the bed ... not seeing her any more ... till cold sweat beaded his forehead and matted the hair around his bald crown.

“God, I pray to Thee—”

His beard was a tangle of gray, and pain had etched rivulets around the narrow eyes and petulant mouth.

“Is there no one to hear me?”

He raised his hands, to show heaven the manacles on his wrists. But the burning in his lungs was like a load of rocks on his chest.

He stared into the night. He had found no help for all the pain of his life, and few answers.

Answers?

He shook his head.

There was nothing left, in the darkness that stretched on all sides—only that innermost kernel of strength that was life itself—taunting him, reminding him of his own stubborn defiance that had brought him here. He buried his fists in his eyes ... till somewhere between waking and sleep the dream came to trouble him again, against his will. At least it seemed like a dream ... the images blurred, the voices distant, as though they had nothing to do with him and came throbbing and unreal from the fever that burned inside his skull …

Copyright © 2005 by Bill Bucko

Thanks!

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In terms of prior context. If I were to buy this book and start reading those paragraphs, I'd look to the inside covers to see if I hadn't accidently bought the 2nd or 3rd book in a series. That being my own impression at least, I'd say you'd have me drawn into the story.

Only one worry. And this is said without knowing anything more than what you have given here. The pace is really quick. How does this relate to the pace further on? To go from this, which is a page turning pace, to lumbering, staggering paragraphs in a wink or even a page would be very cumbersome to have to ingest.

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Some very interesting writing Bill. The scene you set definitely makes one wonder where you are going to go with the rest of the book. So this first page definitely serves its purpose as a 'hook' to draw the reader deeper into the writing.

Making suggestions about this page is a bit difficult, since one needs to know the full context of the story and its theme in order to truly evaluate its effectiveness. Obviously (unless this is some sort of a sequel) your intent is to keep the identity of the individual a mystery - at least for the moment. Thus we do not know if this is the main protagonist (or antagonist for that matter), or an important main character who will come into play later, or simply a character who sets the stage for the plot (since this is identified as a prologue, as opposed to the first chapter of the actual story) but whom we never actually meet again - etc etc. Furthermore, without context, it is difficult to say whether the mysterious and foreboding tone you are setting with this page is in accord with the rest of the book or is set as a specific contrast. Nor do we know how long you intend the mystery of the man's identity to continue (let alone why it is supposed to be a mystery). We do not know if you are creating a mystery (of identity and situation) just to the end of the prologue - or if it is a mystery which might not be solved for many chapters yet - or may even be held unresolved until the very climax.

Given this lack of context, specific suggestions here may not be all that helpful.

That said, though, there appear to be at least four things one can identify which you are trying to establish with this page:

The unidentified individual is subject to some form of oppressive imprisonment, for reasons yet to be established.

The unidentified individual is feverish from illness.

The unidentified individual is haunted by the memory of some woman - likely someone who had been close to him at one time.

The unidentified individual is religious to some degree - or was - but (at least currently) finds no relief nor guidance from his faith.

Of course, again, without greater context, it is difficult to establish at this point which is the most important of these ideas - and thus which requires the greatest emphasis and focus. My first inclination is to suggest starting with the man's fevered thoughts - really deepen the mystery right off the bat. Have an unidentified individual wondering if an unidentified woman is haunting his mind because of his fever or her importance to him. In other words, start with his question to himself: Is it the fever? Is that why she haunts me? Then follow essentially with the first sentence, though possibly reversing the order somewhat. And then build from there.

Naturally, I do not know if these suggestions are the most appropriate - because they assume the woman to ultimately be the more important of the elements presented. Of course, given that you begin by describing the mystery man's captive environment, that may be what you consider to be the most important element instead. If that is the case, then I would focus upon his restriction and isolation first - the darkness or the chains etc.

No matter what element is the most important, though, since you apparently do not wish to specifically identify this individual to begin with, I don't think the first word of the book should be 'he'. Instead, since you don't wish to identify his name yet, I would identify his physical state or his state of mind instead. That way, while we don't learn his name immediately, we do learn about his mental or physical condition immediately. As such, I personally would probably start talking about the imprisoning darkness which taunts him, then the imprisoning castle which weighs upon him, and then finally the imprisoning chains which now restrict him even further because of his fevered mind. Having established the totality of his imprisonment and its physical and mental effect upon him, I would then begin to reference the mysterious woman who can provide him no physical nor emotional comfort. And finally I would reference the god who apparently provides him with no spiritual comfort. With such a progression, one will have painted a very bleak picture indeed of the man and his condition of abandonment and isolation.

And in fact you are essentially there already. As I say, it may simply be a matter of shifting the order of things slightly - placing a little more emphasis on one thing in order to build progressively to the others. Such a progression of oppressiveness may ultimately be what satisfies you on this first page.

--

There is also one other, somewhat more specific, change I would suggest making to the existing page. When you have the mystery man begin to pray to God, I would suggest that his words be swallowed by the darkness, or the echo of his plea die stillborn in this prison, or some such similar thing, thus indicating that his prayer goes nowhere - and therefore gives rise to his question "Is there no one to hear me?" In other words, you need something in the writing to cause him to ask the question. As it stands, you only have a one line physical description of his face, something completely unrelated to the two utterances, separating them. Thus the three lines do not flow with complete smoothness because there is no logical connection between them. (You could even keep a similar physical description there, but include an action of his face - his eyes or whatever - which indicates some disappointment at the lack of response - again logically leading to his question).

--

I hope I haven't been too presumptuous in my suggestions. I always hesitate when offering specific advice on someone else's work - especially when so little context is available. Such suggestions can be totally off the mark or, worse, misconstrued. Therefore I hope you take them in the spirit they are offered (and in which you requested them).

No matter what, good luck with the novel. :)

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Bill, a few comments from the reader's perspective:

1. I had to re-read the first sentence several times to figure out what it said.

2. My initial response is one of confusion. What's going on? Who is this guy? Where is he? What does he look like?

3. The phrase "the weight of the castle pressed against his eyelids" brought to mind a castle literally sitting on this guy's face. I don't think that's the image you wanted.

4. I get the impression you're trying to convey way too much too quickly.

5. It's not immediately clear which descriptions are intended as metaphor and which are to be taken literally. I had to read some phrases 2 or 3 times to make out which was which.

6. The whole scene is like a floating abstraction. More concretes would make clear what was going on.

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[...] the opening page of a novel usually gives me more problems than any other 20 pages combined.  [...]

My experience is that the same problem can occur in a nonfiction book. In general, introductory paragraphs or pages are a special challenge.

I'm not talking about writing the first page (that would be a different problem).  I'm talking about editing it, afterwards, to make it as effective as possible.

I think you already understand the points I would like to make. Sometimes, however, it helps to hear them stated again by someone else. One suggestion I can offer is this: Use the very criteria you used for writing as the criteria for editing. These criteria should cover both what you want to say and how you want to say it. The first is more important than the second. The reader must get the "what" straight, no matter how it is conveyed.

I would ask: What were your one, two, or possibly three main purposes in writing the prologue in general and the first three paragraphs in particular? Did you accomplish them? Does your Prologue do anything else in addition to those purposes -- that is, anything that couldn't be dropped?

I have found that if I have more than a couple of main purposes -- the only ones worth taking seriously -- for an introductory section, then I am trying to do too much. That was also my experience, unfortunately, with my first practice novel. The prologue was so loaded with information and implications that my readers couldn't figure out what I was talking about even though I had labored over the wording.

After that, my advice to myself was: Keep it simple.

An even more ruthless approach, in the editing stage, is to ask oneself: What would happen to my story if I deleted this section altogether? Many times as a writer I have been (initially) distressed to see that the reader would miss little or nothing of importance. And what he would miss, I could put elsewhere -- from example, in the first chapter rather than in the Prologue.

Unlike any other page of your novel, the opening page has no prior context.

Actually, the reader of your final, published novel will have more context than you, as a severe editor, will have looking only at your manuscript. The reader has the cover -- both the front-cover graphics and the back-cover descriptions -- as well as possible word-of-mouth recommendations from friends. The reader also will have the table of contents (if any) for the novel. All those pieces may give the reader clues about the circumstances of the novel: the time, the place, the level of society.

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Prologue  —  March 1400

He was made to wear chains in his illness and delirium, though the weight of the castle pressed against his eyelids with the five years he had been here, the years that were meant to crush him, and his hands reached nothing in the darkness but the bed of straw and a few rough stones of the wall.

He struggled to his knees.

Spasms racked his body, as visions swarmed through his tortured mind. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought with what was left of his strength. Finally he gave a shudder and lay still at last, exhausted. The links of iron held him in an embrace more intimate than a lover’s, cold metal against burning flesh, as fire raged through his limbs.

You asked specifically about the first three paragraphs. Here are my comments.

First, you are trying to do too much -- and in a mixed way -- with the first paragraph. As a reader, I know the year is 1400. You told me so in the title. (I like that -- it's direct and clear.) I don't at first know where the scene is. I would want physical descriptions first and presented together:

The cell is dark, the stone wall is rough, the straw is moldy, the chains on his body are cold, the weight of the castle above seemingly presses down on him.

Then tell me the devastating time element:

This misery has gone on for five years.

Then tell me that now things are even worse because Mr. X is sick:

Shuddering, exhausted, feverish.

Then, and only then, tell me what he sees in a vision and his struggle to distinguish memory from vision from reality.

This approach -- describing one bead at a time on the "rosary" of this crucial scene would allow the reader to absorb time, place, circumstance in an orderly, crow-friendly way.

Additional points: (1) What is your reason for not naming the character? The passage might be easier to read if I had a particular name.

(2) Could you use some word -- from the language of the time -- to indirectly tell the reader where in Europe this is happening? This approach would help locate -- that is, concretize -- the story. Another approach is to simply add a place word to the title: March 1440, Florence (or whatever).

(3) You mentioned "his tortured mind," but you have not yet laid the groundwork that would explain "tortured." Is his mind tortured by guilt or conflict or desire? Clearly his body is tortured by the agony he endures in his dungeon cell, but why is his mind tortured? Show me first, and then tell me.

You have all the elements of an intriguing story here. I look forward to reading the final story.

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In terms of prior context. If I were to buy this book and start reading those paragraphs, I'd look to the inside covers to see if I hadn't accidently bought the 2nd or 3rd book in a series.

Why do you say that?

The pace is really quick.

Are you sure "pace" is the right word? Very little happens: an old man writhes in a dungeon, and hallucinates. I would say the paragraphs flow pretty smoothly (and hence allow the reader to read swiftly, if he chooses). I've worked a long time on honing the manuscript, eliminating every word I could identify as unnecessary.

Thanks for your comments.

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Obviously (unless this is some sort of a sequel) your intent is to keep the identity of the individual a mystery - at least for the moment.  Thus we do not know if this is the main protagonist (or antagonist for that matter), or an important main character who will come into play later, or simply a character who sets the stage for the plot (since this is identified as a prologue, as opposed to the first chapter of the actual story) but whom we never actually meet again - etc etc.  Furthermore, without context, it is difficult to say whether the mysterious and foreboding tone you are setting with this page is in accord with the rest of the book or is set as a specific contrast.

Actually, there's no mystery. On the very next page you learn the man is Agostino Tramontano, ambassador from Florence, imprisoned by the duke of Milan for talking back to him. He is indeed one of the main characters. The hero of the novel is his 14 year old son, Marco.

There's plenty in the novel to be "foreboding" about. In a later chapter, Messer Agostino (now freed, under rather unusual circumstances) holds up his wrists and says: "I've left my chains behind." But has he? ...

Parts of the novel are about as sunny as The Scarlet Letter (I hope!). My theme is the conflict between religious and secular worldviews. I deal with stark moral contrasts, and wrenching events. Some of the characters, however, manage to live richly fulfulling lives, and end up deeply happy.

As for your other comments, I'll need to spend more time thinking about them.

Thanks!

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Bill, a few comments from the reader's perspective:

1. I had to re-read the first sentence several times to figure out what it said. 

2. My initial response is one of confusion.  What's going on?  Who is this guy?  Where is he?  What does he look like?

3. The phrase "the weight of the castle pressed against his eyelids" brought to mind a castle literally sitting on this guy's face.  I don't think that's the image you wanted.

4. I get the impression you're trying to convey way too much too quickly.

5. It's not immediately clear which descriptions are intended as metaphor and which are to be taken literally.  I had to read some phrases 2 or 3 times to make out which was which.

6. The whole scene is like a floating abstraction.  More concretes would make clear what was going on.

Actually, I'm pretty happy with my opening sentence. I like the metaphor of the castle pressing against the prisoner's eyelids--I think it helps the reader feel as though he's in his place.

Point 4: Burgess Laughlin (in another post) also says "you are trying to do too much" in the first paragraph. I did want to jump in quickly!

The psychology of reading is quite complex. Especially when the passage is a complex one, as this is. Other than some tantalizing hints in Miss Rand's courses on Fiction and Non-Fiction Writing, the only other person I can recall who talks about the psychology of reading is Edgar Allen Poe. In "The Philosophy of Composition" he talks about the mental fatigue that comes from reading longer works of poetry. (As a sidelight: the reader's attitude and expectations are especially critical when reading poetry! I find I'm extremely finicky, and have little patience with some poets whose works don't seem to fit what my mind would like to read--whether in style, or content.) If the rhythm, or the manner in which the writer conveys the information, doesn't fit with the way your mind wants to take it in--a feeling of dissonance results. Looks like that's what has happened, here.

Your point 6, I strongly disagree with. "... the bed of straw and a few rough stones of the wall," "cold metal against burning flesh," "ice began to swell like a wintry flood through his veins," "cold sweat beaded his forehead and matted the hair around his bald crown," "His beard was a tangle of gray, and pain had etched rivulets around the narrow eyes and petulant mouth," "the burning in his lungs was like a load of rocks on his chest," "the fever that burned inside his skull" -- aren't those pretty concrete?

I'll spend some more time thinking about your comments.

Thanks!

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If there is no mystery, why do you withhold the identity of the individual who is the subject of such torment for the whole first page? You don't necessarily have to tell us everything in the first sentence, but since suspense concerning his identity is not your intent, then what is the rationale for not identifying him to some degree in the first paragraph or so?

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That was also my experience, unfortunately, with my first practice novel. The prologue was so loaded with information and implications that my readers couldn't figure out what I was talking about even though I had labored over the wording.

Odd; I had no problem whatever, reading the prologue of your novel The Silent Trade. A boy, in a violence-plagued coastal area of the Middle East, sails his toy boat, dreaming of the colorful lives of ancient traders. Later, while he's in hiding, there's a firefight, and the toy boat gets shot up. I found it all very straightforward.

I'll need to think some more about the various interesting issues you raise in this post, before replying.

Actually, the reader of your final, published novel will have more context than you, as a severe editor, will have looking only at your manuscript. The reader has the cover -- both the front-cover graphics and the back-cover descriptions -- as well as possible word-of-mouth recommendations from friends. The reader also will have the table of contents (if any) for the novel. All those pieces may give the reader clues about the circumstances of the novel: the time, the place, the level of society.

If I had my way, the cover would show Florence's distinctive Palazzo Signoria

http://www.morrisville.edu/intranet/librar...IO_FLORENCE.JPG

outlined against the sky, in the distance; while in the foreground, a 14 year old boy watches a ragged Tartar slave girl being led by in chains!

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If there is no mystery, why do you withhold the identity of the individual who is the subject of such torment for the whole first page?  You don't necessarily have to tell us everything in the first sentence, but since suspense concerning his identity is not your intent, then what is the rationale for not identifying him to some degree in the first paragraph or so?

Because you can't do everything at once! :)

In addition, there's probably some value, at times, in not being overly particular: there's a little more emphasis on the universal.

Off the top of my head: look at the opening sentence of Ian Fleming's Casino Real: "There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent," (quoting from memory), not: "There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent, such as James Bond."

Getting inside Messer Agostino's head, on page 1, and revealing something about his values, his psychological strength, and his weaknesses, seemed far more important to me than naming him.

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... First, you are trying to do too much -- and in a mixed way -- with the first paragraph. As a reader, I know the year is 1400. You told me so in the title. (I like that -- it's direct and clear.) I don't at first know where the scene is. I would want physical descriptions first and presented together:

... ...

This approach -- describing one bead at a time on the "rosary" of this crucial scene would allow the reader to absorb time, place, circumstance in an orderly, crow-friendly way ...

If Shakespeare were to read what you wrote, he'd undoubtedly say: "There's a pregnant post!"

Again, I'll need to spend several days thinking about the various points you raise.

What you're advocating is, perhaps, a more analytically-minded approach to the opening paragraphs than I favor. (Which is not surprising: you're the most analytical person I've ever known!)

Not to directly address the point you raised, but I'll get back to it: is there a pattern in the way Miss Rand started her 4 novels? Yes:

"Petrograd smelled of carbolic acid."

"It is a sin to write this."

"Howard Roark laughed."

"Who is John Galt?"

In each instance, a short sentence, amplified upon in the following paragaraphs.

Did she have a policy of starting every novel that way? No, I'm sure she didn't! Every novel is different. You don't force your material into a cookie cutter (unless you're a hack writer). You write the way this novel seems to require.

Notice, though, that Atlas is different in one way. It starts with a short question, not a short statement. Unlike the other 3 novels, it's a mystery. Aren't I following a similar pattern (as far as disclosing only a little information at a time) as in Atlas Shrugged? (On a lower level of ability, of course!) Not presenting information in an analytical sequence, but doling it out bit by bit?

If you dole it out skilfully enough, you can: (1) keep the reader interested, as he grasps answers to previous questions and confronts newer ones; and (2) keep him actively collaborating, as he attempts to integrate the pieces and reach conclusions inductively. (Cf. the passage on Terence Rattigan's technique, in The Objectivist, March 1971 -- an important observation, that's stayed in my mind these many years.) Of course, sometimes the reader may fail to arrive at the intended conclusion. The first time I read Atlas, at mention of the crack in the skyscraper and peeling dome, I thought it was a post-apocalypse novel.

As my Prologue continues, I do answer the reader's questions pretty quickly: on the next few pages, the reader learns what led to Messer Agostino's imprisonment, the identity of the woman he's obsesses with about (his wife), etc.

And I'm also establishing what Ayn Rand called a "worry line." What's going to happen when Messer Agostino returns home, to the unloving wife whom he feels has been unfaithful? Plenty!

I'll certainly spend some more time thinking about your comments, even though I feel sure I'm going to retain my current piecemeal approach (though perhaps refining it a bit).

I'll also keep considering your comment about trying to do too much at once.

Happily, this is the only page of my novel I feel unsure about!

Thanks again!

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Why do you say that?

Are you sure "pace" is the right word?  Very little happens: an old man writhes in a dungeon, and hallucinates.  I would say the paragraphs flow pretty smoothly (and hence allow the reader to read swiftly, if he chooses). I've worked a long time on honing the manuscript, eliminating every word I could identify as unnecessary.

Thanks for your comments.

The first part may have only been my interpretation. I have never encountered a book where a character starts off in that position. I would think it was the beginning or end of the second act, so to speak. No worry, however, once I checked and found that this is indeed the beginning of the story, I'd wonder: "Well, how in the hell did he get in this position?" You'd still have me.

In addition, I read a lot of science fiction (god, some of the writing is awful in that genre!), and so it is automatic for me to make sure I am not buying something that is in the middle as 3 is a magic number in SF.

Yes, flow is the better word for it. Although my original perspective for the use of pace was the pace of reading. Some of the old masters would do this (Hugo, Dostoyevsky). The opening part would start at a brisk pace, and then, like starting off on a smooth grade at the base of a steep mountain, hit up against these mammoth blocks of multi-page paragraphs.

I like the flow you have established here. I this this piece is executed very well.

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"It is a sin to write this."

... Unlike the other 3 novels, [Atlas is] a mystery.

Say, isn't Anthem also a bit of a mystery, at the beginning? You don't know the name of the character; you don't know where he is; and you don't know why he calls his writing a sin. Again, the clues are doled out piecemeal. (With greater literary mastery than I do, of course!)

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Actually, I'm pretty happy with my opening sentence.  I like the metaphor of the castle pressing against the prisoner's eyelids--I think it helps the reader feel as though he's in his place.

Well, as a reader, your opening sentence left me confused. There is simply so much information presented that my crow was overloaded: A man is imprisoned; he is (or was) delirious; he's been locked in a castle for five years; he was locked up for the purpose of breaking his spirit; he's in a dark, empty cell.

If I wanted to convey that information to the reader, I would spread it out over several sentences (or even paragraphs) so that the reader had the time to take in each fact with the perspective I want him to have. Rather than condense all of that into one sentence, I would expand it so that the reader could essentialize from the information I give him just those points I want him to take with him to the next page.

Your point 6, I strongly disagree with. "... the bed of straw and a few rough stones of the wall," "cold metal against burning flesh," "ice began to swell like a wintry flood through his veins," "cold sweat beaded his forehead and matted the hair around his bald crown," "His beard was a tangle of gray, and pain had etched rivulets around the narrow eyes and petulant mouth," "the burning in his lungs was like a load of rocks on his chest," "the fever that burned inside his skull" -- aren't those pretty concrete?

Let me put it this way: what came across to me were disconnected bits of information that required me to pause and think and re-read, slowly, several sentences to put together what was being put across. I found it hard to follow the action from one paragraph to the next:

The first sentence lists several facts.

Then he struggles to his knees.

Then he sees visions (of what?) before he collapses.

Then you mention, again, the fact that he is in chains and is ill.

Then he questions... something. Is he frustrated? Confused? Delirious?

Again he sees a vision, but this time we see it is of some woman who in some way may have betrayed him.

etc.

It all comes across as a jumble: dear reader, look at this... now at this... now this ... now back to this...

By the last sentence, it's still not clear to me what he was being defiant about, what the visions were, and so on. That's why I described it as "floating." I'm told that he's been put in this position as punishment for something, but is he an innocent man? Or are we getting an inside look at the rationalizations of a criminal? Or the ravings of a lunatic? Is he justified in describing himself as having "stubborn defiance" that led him here?

If I'm going to be really convinced of this character's defiance, I need to be shown, not told. Perhaps a guard comes in and offers him a deal: confess to some crime he didn't commit and go free. Cliche perhaps, but it is specific. I can watch him behave in a specific manner and draw my own conclusions about his character.

Also, several of the metaphors stopped me short. What is a "wintry flood?" Is that a flood of really cold water? A snowstorm? The first mental image that came along when I read "ice began to swell like a wintry flood through his veins" was of ice literally forming on his arms. Are you speaking of hot and cold flashes associated with his illness?

"The burning in his lungs was like a load of rocks on his chest" is actually two metaphors: his lungs are not literally on fire. Either metaphor is fine by itself: "The air in the cell burned his lungs" or "His chest constricted as if large rocks lay on top of him." But note the compression one would feel from a load of rocks would not be a burning sensation. If he feels both, then both can be described, but separately.

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Off the top of my head:  look at the opening sentence of Ian Fleming's Casino Real:  "There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent," (quoting from memory), not: "There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent, such as James Bond."

Ian Fleming's Casino Royale has no prologue. The first chapter begins thus:

"1 The Secret Agent

THE SCENT and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning. Then the soul-erosion produced by gambling -- a compost of greed and fear and nervous tension -- becomes unbearable, and the senses awake and revolt from it.

James Bond suddenly knew that he was tired. He always knew when his body or his mind had had enough, and he always acted on the knowledge. This helped him to avoid staleness and the sensual bluntness that breeds mistakes."

Getting inside Messer Agostino's head, on page 1, and revealing something about his values, his psychological strength, and his weaknesses, seemed far more important to me than naming him.

Might that be a false dichotomy?

I agree that there is no need to name a featured character in the first sentence (as Ayn Rand does in The Fountainhead) or first page. In fact, an inductive approach might be better in some situations: Describe, then name at the end of that description, wherever it is.

There may also be situations in which the author -- of a fiction or nonfiction story -- rightly chooses to not name a character at all, for special effects. One pop novelist, Bill Pronzini, even made a 30-year detective series out of what originally was simply an experiment in writing: never naming the detective who is the (semi-) hero of the story. The series is called "The Nameless Detective" series.

However, in general, I would say that describing a character without naming him is akin to forming a concept in all steps except giving it a name. As a reader, generally speaking, I want to be able to label a character for unit economy.

BTW, a fascinating exercise -- which our local Objectivist Storyteller's group performed -- is to assemble a stack of one's favorite stories, and compare the first page of each to the others. The variety is intriguing.

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Ian Fleming's Casino Royale has no prologue. The first chapter begins thus:

"1 The Secret Agent

THE SCENT and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.

Yeep!

I compose most of my posts while away from my library, and thus frequently end up quoting from memory. I just did a Google search. The sentence I quote is actually the opening line of Fleming's Live and Let Die !

No license to quote, for me! :D

... In fact, an inductive approach might be better in some situations: Describe, then name at the end of that description, wherever it is.

... BTW, a fascinating exercise -- which our local Objectivist Storyteller's group performed -- is to assemble a stack of one's favorite stories, and compare the first page of each to the others. The variety is intriguing.

A related issue: early versus late point of attack.

This is a distinction I came across many years ago, in William Archer's Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship (1912), a book I really should hunt up again. Many of its ideas can be applied to novel writing. Archer was an early defender of Ibsen, in England; and he pointed out that the great playwright frequently opened his works at a late point in the story, when many important events have already happened. The reader or audience is required to piece the facts together. This is also the case with Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov (the 1958 movie version put the events back into chronological sequence), and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. (Somewhere Miss Rand praises a 1926 silent movie version of the latter, pointing out that it shows the antecedent events that lead up to the crisis. For my part, though, I want the late point of attack of the original!)

There are on-line versions of Archer's book! Here's a quote from chapter 6:

"But the dramatist, as we have seen, deals, not with protracted sequences of events, but with short, sharp crises. The question for him, therefore, is: at what moment of the crisis, or of its antecedents, he had better ring up his curtain? At this point he is like the photographer studying his "finder" in order to determine how much of a given prospect he can "get in."

"The answer to the question depends on many things, but chiefly on the nature of the crisis and the nature of the impression which the playwright desires to make upon his audience. If his play be a comedy, and if his object be gently and quietly to interest and entertain, the chances are that he begins by showing us his personages in their normal state, concisely indicates their characters, circumstances and relations, and then lets the crisis develop from the outset before our eyes. If, on the other hand, his play be of a more stirring description, and he wants to seize the spectator's attention firmly from the start, he will probably go straight at his crisis, plunging, perhaps, into the very middle of it, even at the cost of having afterwards to go back in order to put the audience in possession of the antecedent circumstances."

from: http://www.harvestfields.ca/etextLinks/033/00.htm

and the book can be dowloaded from Project Gutenberg:

http://pge.rastko.net/etext/10865

I'll reply to more of your points later, after I've had more time to think about them. Thanks!

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You asked specifically about the first three paragraphs. Here are my comments.

First, you are trying to do too much -- and in a mixed way -- with the first paragraph. As a reader, I know the year is 1400. You told me so in the title. (I like that -- it's direct and clear.) I don't at first know where the scene is. I would want physical descriptions first and presented together ...

I'm now certain that I want to keep the opening as it stands.

I want it to start quicky; and I want to keep the immediacy of focusing on the man's inner state, with the reader actively involved in trying to figure him out, piecing the clues together.

I would ask: What were your one, two, or possibly three main purposes in writing the prologue in general and the first three paragraphs in particular?

My purpose, in the Prologue, is to reveal Messer Agostino's values, strengths, and weaknesses. (Why he's imprisoned--and where, near Milan--is clearly established in the next 2 pages; it's a direct result of his stubborn, uncompromising bluntness.) I must portray him as very strong (though with fatal flaws) right from the beginning--to make it more dramatic when my hero, his 14 year old son Marco, rebels against him.

An even more ruthless approach, in the editing stage, is to ask oneself: What would happen to my story if I deleted this section altogether?

Chapter 1--and most of the novel--center around Marco, a budding free-thinker who challenges the religious ideas that are destroying his family. The Prologue is the best place to get inside his father's head. That is its indispensable function.

You mentioned "his tortured mind," but you have not yet laid the groundwork that would explain "tortured." Is his mind tortured by guilt or conflict or desire?

I start working on that almost immediately, as he sees a vision of the woman (his wife). This is explored pretty thoroughly later in the Prologue.

What is your reason for not naming the character? The passage might be easier to read if I had a particular name.

Of course it would be fine to name him on the first page (how about: "Call me Ishmael" !); but in this case there seems no clear place in which to do it unobtrusively. The passage centers around his thoughts and emotions; it wouldn't be natural for him to think of himself by name, would it? Nor is it necessary to name him yet, since he's the only person on stage. On page 2, as he recalls how he came to be imprisoned, he is immediately addressed by name (in his flashback).

Thanks again! Your questions have helped me see what I'm doing, and why, more clearly.

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Well, as a reader, your opening sentence left me confused.  There is simply so much information presented that my crow was overloaded: A man is imprisoned; he is (or was) delirious; he's been locked in a castle for five years; he was locked up for the purpose of breaking his spirit; he's in a dark, empty cell.

If I wanted to convey that information to the reader, I would spread it out over several sentences (or even paragraphs) so that the reader had the time to take in each fact with the perspective I want him to have.

As I said in a previous post, the psychology of reading is complex. I think the cause of the dissonance and confusion you're experiencing lies in your own expectations, which clash with the inductive way I'm trying to do things. You're not in tune with what I'm trying to do.

And remember, you're seeing just the first page. You apparently want the prisoner's name, whether he's innocent or guilty, the circumstances of his defiance, the significance of his visions of the woman--all on the first page! In fact, I present all that information over the next several pages--maintaining the perspective I want: exploring Messer Agostino's psychology, giving the reader the experience of plumbing his mind, learning his strengths and weaknesses.

When my 14 year old hero rebels against him--I want you to know who he's rebelling against.

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Without having read the whole thread, and no meta context beyond your initial excerpt (which is what I would get as a reader or editor), my comments are thus:

You start in media res, which is perfect. I don't know the context, but I *want* to know the context. The first few paragraphs should tantalize the reader into reading more. You don't want exposition, you don't want to establish the full context, you want something that is going to grab the reader's attention. I think you have been successful in this. I am trying to guess at what is going on and I want to read on to find out.

However, I do think this could use some polishing -- clean up your sentence strucuture in spots, pare down the descriptions and fix a minor punctuation error or two. Your prose is good overall, but occasionally takes on a lavender tinge. I think a little tweaking and tightening would make it evocative rather than ever so slightly purple.

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Your prose is good overall, but occasionally takes on a lavender tinge. I think a little tweaking and tightening would make it evocative rather than ever so slightly purple.

Would you explain what you mean by "lavender" and "purple"?

My assumption is that "purple prose" is wording that tries to tell the reader what to feel. By contrast, an objective writer tries to use wording that provides the concretes that enable the appropriate reader to react emotionally. Is that what you mean?

And is "lavender [prose]" simply a weakened form of "purple prose"?

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For those who are interested:

I've posted the final version of my Prologue at: http://forums.4aynrandfans.com/index.php?showtopic=7583

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.... The psychology of reading is quite complex. Especially when the passage is a complex one, as this is. Other than some tantalizing hints in Miss Rand's courses on Fiction and Non-Fiction Writing, the only other person I can recall who talks about the psychology of reading is Edgar Allen Poe. In "The Philosophy of Composition" he talks about the mental fatigue that comes from reading longer works of poetry. (As a sidelight: the reader's attitude and expectations are especially critical when reading poetry! I find I'm extremely finicky, and have little patience with some poets whose works don't seem to fit what my mind would like to read--whether in style, or content.) If the rhythm, or the manner in which the writer conveys the information, doesn't fit with the way your mind wants to take it in--a feeling of dissonance results. ...

Actually, I should have said Poe's "Poetic Principle." Near the beginning of that essay, he says:

There are, no doubt, many who have found difficulty in reconciling the

critical dictum that the "Paradise Lost" is to be devoutly admired

throughout, with the absolute impossibility of maintaining for it,

during perusal, the amount of enthusiasm which that critical dictum

would demand. This great work, in fact, is to be regarded as poetical

only when, losing sight of that vital requisite in all works of Art,

Unity, we view it merely as a series of minor poems. If, to preserve its

Unity--its totality of effect or impression--we read it (as would be

necessary) at a single sitting, the result is but a constant alternation

of excitement and depression. After a passage of what we feel to be true

poetry, there follows, inevitably, a passage of platitude which no

critical prejudgment can force us to admire; but if, upon completing the

work, we read it again; omitting the first book--that is to say,

commencing with the second--we shall be surprised at now finding that

admirable which we before condemned--that damnable which we had

previously so much admired....

This essay may be found at Project Gutenberg, at the end of the volume of Poe's Complete Poetical Works.

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