Who knew that the summer I went all DIY at home (the crafting and home improvement gods have possessed me) that the first guest post of fall would be about dismantling a story and putting it back together? There is something very satisfying in doing a project yourself, figuring it out, making sense of it all. And that’s just what Rona Simmons shares with us below—and she’s doing it with works of women’s fiction. Lucky us!
As for me, it’s time to paint another piece of furniture or maybe get back to my list of fifty things to make with pumpkin…or, oh right, there’s a WIP I’m writing as I wait for my second round of edits on novel two! (It’s busy here in the empty nest, I tell you.)
Please welcome Rona to Women’s Fiction Writers and share your thoughts in the comments!
Taking Apart Stories—And Putting Them Back Together
by Rona Simmons
I take things apart. I always have. Once, I took a clock apart to see how it worked and later, a vacuum cleaner to fix what was broken. I failed on both accounts, but my drive to see the inner workings of objects persisted. Today, I apply it to the world of writing. I want to understand how the magic happens: how an author hooks a reader on the very first page.
So, with a pliers in one hand and a screwdriver in the other, I selected five works of general or women’s fiction from the top of the 2013 New York Times bestseller list. I bypassed cover art, book blurbs, and introductory quotes, to focus on the authors’ own words, ones that would snare a reader from the start and keep them reading for the next several hundred pages.
My small sample included what I’ll call a “beach read”, a “hot topic” book on drug addiction, a “page-lingerer” chock full of lush writing and internal musings, a tale “based on true events”, and a story that explores relationships and secrets.
I read only the first sentences and paragraphs–up to 150 words, skipping prologues just as some readers might.
The opening sentences of the five novels were as different as night and day:
- The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”
- The Husband’s Secret, Lianne Moriarity: “It was all because of the Berlin Wall.”
- The Orphan Train, Christina Baker Kline: “Through her bedroom wall Molly can hear her foster parents talking about her in the living room, just beyond her door.”
- The Girls of August, Anne Rivers Siddons: “The girls of August had decided, given our long hiatus and the introduction of a new person–Baby Gaillard nee LucyAnne Gaillard, to be exact–that we best meet ahead of time at my house to map out our strategy and make sure we all felt OK about Tiger Island.”
- All Fall Down, Jennifer Weiner: “Do you generally use alcohol or drugs more than once a week?”
The authors’ writing styles were equally diverse. The openings ranged from dense, descriptive exposition (49 words per sentence and a reading level of 15) to short staccato sentences filled with internal dialogue (14 words per sentence and a reading level of 6). Three were in third person and two in first.
On the other hand, the openings occurred in remarkably similar situations: a woman alone, worrying. In fact, a lot of worrying took place in those first sentences. The women faced threats of unknown origin and specificity and, presumably, would confront their demons in the pages ahead.
- The Goldfinch: A woman alone in her hotel room dreams of her dead mother. There are fearful sounds outside her hotel room. She is afraid.
- The Husband’s Secret: A woman alone at her kitchen table stares at a sealed envelope, addressed in a familiar hand. And then there’s the elephant in the room, the Berlin Wall.
- The Orphan Train: A young woman alone in her bedroom eavesdrops on her foster parents who discuss their worries and their suspicions about their foster child.
- The Girls of August: A woman will meet a group of friends after a long hiatus. She worries about the upcoming event and worries about worrying.
- All Fall Down: A woman reads about alcohol abuse and wonders if her own addiction is worse than she admits and could wreak havoc on her family and young daughter.
All five authors exposed the reader to the narrator’s inner thoughts and feelings, their “sixth sense” for lack of a better term. The Goldfinch was the best example: with “innocent” noises outside the door, the reader looks for threatening noises nearby, a bell “tolling” the hour with “a dark edge to the clangor”. I was surprised to find little discussion of the other five senses in the early passages.
Though not snared by the first sentence, after I’d read 150 words or so, I committed to read at least one of the books. Why? And, why would so many other readers invest in these stories?
The answer, I believe, is the presence of strong emotions, the sixth sense, in a tension-packed situation, the details of which are reserved for the later pages.
Will this finding change my writing?
The answer, of course, is maybe. I write my way. I write what I like to read and I hope that it has broad enough appeal to be enjoyed by others, many others–New York Times bestseller list or not. But I will seek more opportunities for my protagonists to express their fears and hopes in my own first pages.
Now, excuse me, I need to sit at my kitchen table, take something else apart, and worry.
Rona Simmons was born in Santa Monica, California. She’s the daughter of a WWII fighter pilot and later career military officer and moved with her family from state to state and country to country, living in 25 different places by the time she graduated from high school. So she’s still astonished that she’s spent the last twenty years in any one place.
Three years ago, she launched her second career using the writing, analysis, and research skills she’d acquired during her thirty-year career in corporate America. Since then she has written several articles for magazines, a novel, and a collection of short stories and was the ghostwriter for the biography of a prominent Atlanta businessman.
Rona’s latest novel, The Quiet Room, was published by Deeds Publishing, an Atlanta-based publishing company. Though this novel is set in the Midwest, and the one she’s working on now in New England, she considers herself a southern writer, drawing inspiration from the wooded acres where she lives with her husband and (she swears) the last member of a passel of cats.
Rona’s books are available through her website or: Amazon, Deeds Publishing, Barnes & Noble, and other book retailers