Recent posts have briefly discussed beginnings and endings, and adverbs, adjectives and gerunds. This post is the first in a series that looks at the opening paragraphs of published books, and presents possible ways they could have been tightened, and thus made stronger or more active. Of course, the suggestions are from one person's perspective -- mine -- but I welcome discussion.
Note: I own copies of the books I will discuss, and enjoyed reading each one. That needs to be said, lest this series seem to smack of anything snarky. I have learned much from this exercise, a study in the craft of writing, and hope others will, too.
First, a version of the Robin Hood legend from the point of view of the Sheriff of Nottingham, In a Dark Wood by Michael Cadnum, begins thus:
The forest was quiet. Everything that was about to happen was far away, through the trees.Okay, so what's weak about this beginning? It mingles description with action, and it's intriguing -- excellent -- but is also has eleven uses of was and one use of were, passive verbs in an otherwise tense scene. Passive verbs have their place, and can be poetic, as evidenced in the above passage, but they should be used sparingly.
Geoffrey stood still, staring straight ahead, although he could see nothing but trembling patches of sunlight on the fallen leaves. A forest was like night. It was a different world, and everything a man was afraid of lived there, afraid of nothing.
The boar spear was a long, heavy weapon, and this particular spear had never been used before. Its head was slender and very sharp, and the cross-piece midway down the shaft was gleaming black. Geoffrey found a new grip on the spear, the iron cold where he had not touched it, and the horns of the beaters, and their cries, filtered through the trees, bright curls of sounds, like shavings on a goldsmith's bench.
Between them and where he stood was the most dangerous kind of beast. It could feel no pain. Its eyes were fire pricks. It weighed more than three men.
And it was coming his way.
Filtered is a cliched, too-modern word in this usage, and coming is weak. Very could be eliminated, as could this particular spear, if the sentence were reconstructed. Perhaps this is too spare, too direct, compared to the structure above, but it's my take on the same information:
New-forged, the boar spear -- a long, heavy weapon, its head slender and sharp -- had never been used, and the cross-piece gleamed black midway down the shaft.I would have replaced filtered with echoed or drifted or rang, or something in keeping with "bright curls of sound" or the image of gold.
As for coming, what stronger word(s) might take its place, and thus evoke the image of a wild boar about to have its way with a mere human silly enough to hunt it down: running, charging, snorting, pawing, grunting, leaping, hurtling, et cetera?
Next post: a look at the opening paragraphs of a popular science fiction novel, a finalist for the Hugo. I'll catch sacrilege for that one, but I can take it!