The Angel of Inspiration
The first word of the first sentence of your first chapter will make or break your entire life.
Forget what I said in the last issue, I’m going to—what? You already forgot? Fair enough, here’s a quick recap: I wrote a novel called Chokeville over the course of 10,000 years, tried to get a literary agent last year but didn’t, cried hot tears down my supple cheeks, then threatened to publish the thing myself.
Then I got a few responses to that newsletter that said: hey pallie maybe send out a few more hundred query letters before giving up, that’s how this game is played. So that’s what I’m going to do, and you—my best and only friend—will be joining me on this journey. I’m sorry!
I need to write a new pitch but that’s too hard so instead I’ll work on revising the first few chapters. That is also too hard, so I’ll just focus on the all-important first line, which is way too hard, so let’s just procrastinate by looking at how I started the previous drafts of this book and see what we can learn. OK? Take my hand as we gallivant, once again, into the stupid past. I said take my hand.
Hugo, weight equally distributed between his two legs, knees slightly bent, great wooden trunk at his feet, knocked four times on Hogwild’s screen door. It rattled against the paltry steel hook. The taxicab still squatting down at the curb, engine stricken with emphysema, the cabbie making his way through the two mayonnaise jars of spare change. The air was dead tired. Lawn mowers chewed up the cardinal directions.
I like starting in the middle of a scene, a pretty basic gimmick to juice the momentum. It can be disorienting to the reader, I suppose, but that’s not my problem! Figure it out yourself! I’m very busy over here writing important phrases like “chewed up the cardinal directions” (?) and “engine stricken with emphysema” (???). See, you’re already getting a taste of the try-hard prose that made me put the finished manuscript in a burlap sack and drown it in the crick.
The sky split along its seams. Great swathes of fabric bunching up and showing thigh. A silver light tumbling out of the heavens. This was 50, 60 years ago. Hail like pachinko balls. Swelling velvet curtains. The delivery man makes a break for it, fending off the elements with a gigantic box above his head. I sign for it with palsied fingers, then my manservant slices it open with a boning knife. Inside is the Angel of Inspiration, tiny and broken. She smiles wearily.
Oh my god. 2005 Josh just absolutely doubling down on the important phrases. Look at that little cowboy firing his little writer pistols, yeehaw looka me! “Swelling velvet curtains” squatting there like a taxicab, desperate for attention. Boy did I ever love piling on random impressionistic blather. This thing was titled “Convocation & Also Dedication” in case you weren’t already exhausted.
It was Little Vickers who found Hugo, washed up on the shore of Wood Beach, still chained to the sea. A week before her second birthday, left arm broken, struggling across the sand in her baby playtime walker.
This is the actual beginning of the second draft. Better! Tidier! “Still chained to the sea,” the hell does that mean? Hopefully more intriguing than confusing. Starting with a broken-armed baby? Sure, go for it, that’s always a crowd pleaser.
Allison Hull is in the lobby of the Broken Sky Hotel, smoking her first cigarette ever. The concierge spots her there by the stone fireplace, coughing through a little smile. Her arms are decorated with new tattoos, curved waves flowing from shoulder to wrist, sea monsters and flying fish, galleons and longships. To the concierge, who’d never seen the ocean, never been outside of Colorado, it looks alien and unsettling, much like the girl herself.
All righty, new protagonist who dis. RIP Hugo (literally killed off in this version). Everything’s in present tense from here on out. I don’t remember consciously making that decision but I guess I like the “this is happening right now, you guys!” feel of it.
This is the only one that doesn’t start in the middle of the action, and also takes place outside of the city, so it’s got a more serene vibe. This was the weird not-a-novel-but-a-website version, and Allison was meant to be a reader surrogate, i.e., an outsider who has no idea what’s going on…and doesn’t want to know!!
2014 LIQUID SMOKE
Three guys here in the hotel kitchen, two with adorable little guns and one with straight up old timey brass knuckles. Another fellow hiding in the walk-in freezer, teeth actually chattering. One gal right outside the northwest door, check, and one sneaking around up in the ducts. And then a big gent out in the restaurant, doing some warmup stretches.
This is what came out when I just started typing words into Wattpad. You can’t exactly tell but it’s in first person. I guess “OK, quickly” is our protagonist saying “uh I’m in the middle of something here but I’ll try to set the scene for you.” Present tense! Exciting! Anyway, pasting this here since it became the foundation for the opening scene in the latest draft.
OK, what do we know and not know.
We know Batya Hull just wrapped up a job at the Ballast Hotel on the northern docks. She got paid to look mean and make sure a deal went smooth and nobody got cute. The exchange was silver bullion for a new pill called oblivio, gives you this temporary amnesia, all the rage here in Fort Hook. Anyway, it’s not glamorous work but it pays the bills, some of the bills, and nobody got cute and now she’s cutting through the kitchen and—
She stops, her boot making a tiny squeak against the linoleum. She pockets the cash she was counting, listens, doesn’t like what she’s not hearing. Bat’s been in the hired goon business her whole life, not an extremely long time but long enough to know when a room is wrong. The dinner crew should be here washing dishes. The radio should be blasting something stupid. A knife is maybe missing from that block?
And, right on schedule, a couple thugs emerge from behind the kitchen island. They’re wearing cheap suits just like hers. One’s sporting brass knuckles and the other’s got a curvy dagger that makes her queasily excited.
Including more of this one since it’s what we’re currently dealing with. Back to third person but the narrator has his own chatty, casual thing going on.
“What do we know and not know” is a kind of mantra for the tough/goofy sisters, the thing you say when you’ve once again found yourself in a bad situation and need to come up with a plan. I thought it also worked as a good first line, but who knows! Also look at my perverse dedication to not ending it with a question mark.
I’m trying to do a lot with this opening, maybe too much. Introduce the main character, and her job, and hint at the world this takes place in, all while trying to minimize exposition and put you in the middle of a fight scene.
Does it make you want to read more, or would you perhaps prefer to read much less? I bet you liked one of the earlier versions better, you rogue!
Either way, this intro certainly did not whet the appetite of many dozens of literary agents. Which is, of course, out of my control, but that won’t stop me from sitting here and stewing endlessly on how to make it better. O Angel of Inspiration, won’t you rain down your ideas like great swathes of velvet pachinko balls or whatever.
This has been Chokemail by Fireland. Shipped every other Sunday from Chokeville.
You are a fun man. As one of the extremely few readers of the latest jam… I think it’s god damn perfect. Even reading the opening again just now, I’m like… yeah let’s go! It’s so good. Okay bye.
Love the presentation here.
For me, I think 2023 is the closest, but I think there are some tweaks to throw out:
The "what we know and don't know" is a strong frame to kick a story off with, I think. But I'd really like it if you applied the 'don't know' part to this paragraph. Also, I think the oblivio thing is dope but it might a bit too many balls in the air for the opening stanza? Wonder if that could be nestled after this opener? So I'd propose something like (leaving the oblivio line in though):
OK, what do we know and not know.
We know Batya Hull just wrapped up a job at the Ballast Hotel on the northern docks. She got paid to look mean and make sure a deal went smooth and nobody got cute.
We also know the exchange was silver bullion for a new pill called oblivio, gives you this temporary amnesia, all the rage here in Fort Hook. Anyway, it’s not glamorous work but it pays the bills, some of the bills, and nobody got cute.
We don’t know, as Bat’s cutting through the kitchen, why she doesn’t like what she’s not hearing. The dinner crew should be here washing dishes. The radio should be blasting something stupid.
We also don’t know why she felt the room was wrong, and that maybe a knife is missing from that block?