We're so excited to welcome Bill Konigsberg to the blog today. Bill is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author, and he's written an awesome post for us on how to start your novel with a bang. Thanks for being here, Bill!
Speed Dating Books, or What Not to Say on a First Date
by Bill Konigsberg
I once went out on a blind date with someone who, in the first five minutes of our time together, said, “When I’m sad I like to clean my bathroom.”
Now there’s nothing wrong with being sad. And there’s certainly nothing wrong with cleaning one’s bathroom. This is a good practice, in fact. But here’s what I was left thinking: this person knows we’ve never met before, and that this is a first impression. He was aware that I’d be paying close attention to his first words, as they’d be the first opportunity to glean whether I would like to spend more time with him. Do I really want to spend more time with someone who thought this was a worthy opener?
Going to a bookstore is very much like speed dating, isn’t it? For me it is, because I love to thumb through prospective books and read first lines. And while there may be some people out there who are looking for a date who will take them on a crazy joyride of an adventure regardless of the date’s personality, I’m much more interested in finding out who this date is through their voice.
I am focused on deciding whether or not I want to spend a few days with this character, or this voice. Even when I want a good,exciting plot, I’m still looking at these initial questions: who is taking me there? Do I want to listen to them? Could I fall in love with them?
So it is for me as a writer. When I’m writing a first page, I am painfully aware that I’m on a blind date. How do I want to come off to my reader? How will I hook them into reading beyond page one?
There are some writers who want their first lines to describe outrageous actions we’ve never seen before. Who want to begin with a bang plot-wise. I have nothing against this, per se. One of the most memorable opening lines of a book, to me, is Toni Morrison’s Paradise: “They kill the white girl first.” Bang.
But what’s so great about that isn’t just the information; it’s the way it’s said. Staccato. It’s a powerful, spare, multiple-shots-fired quickly kind of sentence. Less good, “First, they killed the white girl.” Also less good: “The first thing we do is kill the white girl.” Words are delicate. Placement matters.
I’m slightly off track. What I want to say is that it’s fine if you focus on plot in those first lines, but I
am far more interested in meeting a person I haven’t met before, a character with a slightly or wildly left-or-right-of-center perspective. That’s what intrigues me as a reader. Someone who makes me laugh, or makes me think, or simply intrigues me.
Simply being around the industry for a while has allowed me to see how crucial this is. My agent gets up to 100 submissions a week sometimes. You think she’s going to go on a second date with the guy who cleans his bathroom when he’s sad? I think that guy might have a better chance if he cleans his bathroom in a way no one has ever seen before. With a spatula and a toothpick. While wearing roller skates. Bad example, as that feels really contrived. But my point is, intrigue me! Show me a person who I want to spend a few days getting to know well, and who knows? Maybe we’ll spend some quality (reading) time together.
I had this image with which I really wanted to open my current novel, Openly Straight. It’s a tofu pig on a spit, and it’s such a great image for the book, which is about authenticity and is about a character who comes from Boulder, Colorado, where he is both authentic (comfortably out of the closet as a gay kid) and inauthentic (he’s allowed that to overshadow his other personality traits).
But I couldn’t figure out how to open the book with that scene. It didn’t make sense to start the book at a going-away party for Rafe, who travels to an all-boys boarding school on the east coast for his junior year. So instead, I decided to open with him arriving at the school.
This is a dangerous thing to do. Some teachers will say, “Start with the action.” Arriving at school is not action, exactly.
The way I got around that was to put the focus squarely on voice. Who is this kid, Rafe? What is he up against? Where is he coming from, what is he escaping from, and what does he want?
I’m pleased with how it came out.
If it were up to my dad, my entire life would be on video.
Anything I do, he grabs his phone. “Opal,” he’ll yell to my mother. “Rafe is eating corn flakes. We gotta get this on film.”
He calls it film, like instead of an iPhone, he has an entire movie crew there, filming me.
To me, this is a successful open because his voice flies off the page. Also, as it turns out, the feeling like he’s always on camera thing is a crucial theme in the book, so I like that it starts out in a concrete way, and becomes more thematic as the book goes on.
One of my all-time favorite openers is to a short story rather than a novel. It comes from Randall Kenan, in his excellent collection, “Let the Dead Bury Their Dead.” The story is called “The Strange and Tragic Ballad of Mabel Pearsall.”
Mabel going down the road. Mabel in her car. Mabel’s mind a flurry. Mabel’s mind like Mabel’s car. Racing. Down the road. Down, down, down. Mabel. Mabel.
How do you not read further? I love the rhythm of the words, but more importantly, the rhythm describes the character of Mabel. It’s brilliant.
I am also a fan of young adult author Andrew Smith. I always love the openings to his books. I’d say the one that sticks in my mind the most is the opening to “The Marbury Lens.”
I guess in the old days, in other places, boys like me usually ended up twisting and kicking in the empty air beneath the gallows.
It’s no wonder I became a monster, too.
And I all the guys I know – all the guys I ever knew – can look at their lives and point to the one defining moment that made them who they were, no question about it. Usually those moments involved things like hitting baseballs, or their dads showing them how to gap spark plugs or bait a hook. Stuff like that.
My defining moment came last summer, when I was sixteen.
That’s when I got kidnapped.
Takes your breath away, doesn’t it? So spare with words, and I know who this kid is immediately. And I want to know whether he really is a monster.
About the Author
Bill lives just outside of Phoenix with his longtime partner, Chuck. They have an Australian Labradoodle named Mabel, who completes them. She also can jump very high and head a ball like a champion soccer player.
Bill is now a full-time writer of fiction, which is his dream job. Except when it makes him crazy and impossible to live with, which is about 36 percent of the time.
Before Bill was a fiction writer (and long before he ever referred to himself in the third person), he was a sports writer. As a sports writer and editor for The Associated Press from 2005-08, he covered the New York Mets and his weekly fantasy baseball column appeared in newspapers across the country, from the New York Daily News to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In May of 2001, while working for ESPN.com, he came out on the front page of the website in an article entitled “Sports World Still a Struggle for Gays.” That article won him a GLAAD Media Award the following year.
Since then, he has spoken at numerous venues across the country on what it’s like to be a gay person in the world of sports. He has written for The New York Times, New York Daily News, North Jersey Herald and News and Denver Post, to name a few. His work has also appeared in Out Magazine. In 2011, his coming out was named the #64 moment in gay sports history by the website Outsports.com. His story was included as a chapter in the book “Jocks 2: Coming Out to Play” by Dan Woog.
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About the Book
A funny, honest novel about being out, being proud . . . and being ready for something else.
Rafe is a normal teenager from Boulder, Colorado. He plays soccer. He's won skiing prizes. He likes to write.
And, oh yeah, he's gay. He's been out since 8th grade, and he isn't teased, and he goes to other high schools and talks about tolerance and stuff. And while that's important, all Rafe really wants is to just be a regular guy. Not that GAY guy. To have it be a part of who he is, but not the headline, every single time.
So when he transfers to an all-boys' boarding school in New England, he decides to keep his sexuality a secret -- not so much going back in the closet as starting over with a clean slate. But then he sees a classmate breaking down. He meets a teacher who challenges him to write his story. And most of all, he falls in love with Ben . . . who doesn't even know that love is possible.
This witty, smart, coming-out-again story will appeal to gay and straight kids alike as they watch Rafe navigate being different, fitting in, and what it means to be himself.
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