(Reed’s song of the day: Miss Jackson, by Panic! At the Disco)
It’s been a hell of a week this past week. My laptop charging cable broke last Wednesday and I had quite the rude awakening about my dependence on technology. I couldn’t write a single word on paper, nor study for my CBEST and CSET exams… which meant I had some very long days to fill with reading and video games.
But enough about me and my shitty problems – let’s talk about writing! Today I had the horror and privilege to sit down and work on the first few paragraphs of Sleeper again. (For context, I met a really nice indie author who gave me some feedback on them and encouraged me to edit and resend.)
I don’t have to tell you all how important your first paragraph is in catching a reader’s eye… but I’m going to. It’s everything. By the time you’re done editing and ready to send out to agents and publishers, it should be absolutely perfect – prose dripping with intrigue and excitement.
Well, even with my newest edits, my first paragraph hasn’t reached that point. But it is a lot better than it was before.
Let’s take a look at Version 1, from the link above:
A warm mist obscured the dreamscape in every direction. It blanketed the ground like a dirty silver snowfall, never rising above knee height, perpetually shifting and flowing. It seemed to have a sort of sentience in its movement as it wormed through the young woman’s legs like a stream between logs.
This isn’t bad, but it’s a far cry from good. The first sentence has a little bit of a hook – the use of the word dreamscape tells us something different is happening than your usual London fog. But even though we get an understanding of this mist through the next few sentences leading up to the protagonist’s reveal, it feels kinda flat.
Why? Well, we have a bit of telling instead of showing (“it seemed to have a sort of sentience in its movement”), some repeated uses of the word “it”, and an overall lack of interesting descriptive language.
Oh, yeah. That third one.
If you’re anything like me (and I pray you’re not), you have a lot of difficulties with descriptive language. The irony to me is that I have such a powerful imagination but such a poor mind’s eye. I can invent all these really fascinating worlds and settings and when it comes to describing them, the best I can do is “perpetually shifting and flowing”.
I used to see description as fluff – the kind of thing that goes into a story because we want to imagine what’s happening, but really it’s just a background for the action or the dialogue or the characters. What I’m now realizing, with the help of this indie author who shall (for now) remain nameless, is that description sets the tone of an entire passage.
I’m gonna say that again because it bears repeating. Description sets the tone of an entire passage.
That’s because descriptions often come at the beginning of each new passage. We have the ability just by describing the scene to give the reader the ominous undertones of doom, or the rowdy commotion at a tavern, or the dark and savory intrigue of a thief’s gossip, without a word of dialogue entering the passage yet. And even the best dialogue with the most emotionally charged language might fall flat if it’s not happening in an ideal setting.
I guess I’m kind of likening it to the moment in a movie when the score turns dark and brooding, even though things still seem to be going fine. That’s when we as consumers start to say, “Oh, shit, what’s about to happen?”
So if I have one piece of advice to other would-be good description writers out there (besides the usual like “follow your five senses” and other shit), it would be to consider the tone you’re going to try to establish during this description. This is a good thing to do before writing any passage, not just description, but it’s especially important for description. And especially especially important for the first paragraph of a book.
Okay, so with that in mind, I took another look at the first paragraph of Sleeper and asked myself, “What do I want to accomplish in this first scene?”
The answer was impotence. I want the protagonist to immediately feel overwhelmed by the mists, oppressed by them, maybe even controlled by them. That was a tone I had never really accomplished in the first version above.
Let’s now take a look at Version 2:
Warm mist blanketed the dreamscape like a silver snowfall. A sea of dense, smothering vapor drifted at knee height, its languorous movement just slightly too directed to be random. It crept over trickling streams and tufts of slick grass. It tangled briefly in the roots of withered trees before freeing itself and moving on. It encircled the wrists and legs of the girl who had collapsed to all fours on the sodden ground.
The girl’s falling tears cut paths through the mist and vanished.
Okay, so it was technically two paragraphs. But I couldn’t leave that last sentence out.
So, sentence by sentence. The first sentence I switched up a little bit, going for the poetic language (the silver snowfall) early – but I kept the word dreamscape in to keep arousing interest in readers.
In the second sentence, I removed the telling language about sentience and made it a little more showing and descriptive. Adding words like “sea” and “smothering” also gave the mist a lot more of an oppressive vibe.
Now, to those non-descriptive uses of “it”. It wasn’t until I tried rewriting (and sat for an hour at my computer just staring at the screen) that I realized what I was trying to do. I wanted to put the protagonist at the end, like an afterthought, to show how little she mattered in the context of the mist. And what I was originally subconsciously trying to do with multiple uses of the word “it” was to reinforce how much the mist dominated her.
So I made that even more apparent in this second edit. I made the last three sentences – short, evocative moments of the mist moving through and around things in the environment. Putting them in parallel structure makes the girl seem to come through much more as an afterthought, and the added detail of her being on all fours makes it possible for her to seem manacled or chained by the mists.
And what’s better, it totally conveys that ominous tone which is the source of the paragraph’s intrigue. Why has she collapsed like this? We read on and get only one sentence which continues to heighten the tension:
“The girl’s falling tears cut paths through the mist and vanished.”
It’s not the best it will be, but it’s better than before. It’s vivid and evocative, and better than most descriptive writing I’ve done. I’m really hoping I can continue to carry this kind of description into the rest of my book.
Although if it took me an hour to get down a single paragraph like this, I just might shoot myself first.
Well, anyway. Hopefully this helped! And good luck with your writing endeavors 😀
Yours, so stoked to be writing again,