Stephen King — yes, that one, the master of the creepy story — gave The Atlantic a lengthy interview recently in which he explained the process of starting a novel. And when I say “start,” I mean writing the first sentence. Just read the headline: “Why Stephen King Takes ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences.”
You can read the entire interview in The Atlantic here, but some of it just really jumped out at me (like a lot of the stuff in his novels).
For one, he talks about his two novels of 2013. Joyland was released in June by Hard Case Crime, and, while it might look like an old-fashioned pulp fiction novel, isn’t quite that. And it’s not quite a King-esque horror novel, either. His next novel, though, Doctor Sleep, is, according to him, a “return to balls-to-the-wall, keep-the-lights-on horror.” It’s also the long-time-coming sequel to The Shining.
But his discussion about writing a first sentence is what really grabbed my attention — and the fact that he gives a tip of the hat to one of the originators of the American pulp fiction genre, James Cain, who wrote one of King’s favorite opening lines:
“We’ve all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader’s interest. This is what we call a “hook,” and it’s true, to a point. This sentence from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:
‘They threw me off the hay truck about noon.’
“Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.
“The opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.
“When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.
“A book won’t stand or fall on the very first line of prose — the story has got to be there, and that’s the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice — it’s the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there’s incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.”
King’s discussion about a writer’s voice also is very interesting, at least to me. It’s something I spend a lot of time studying in other writers, like Elmore Leonard, the aforementioned Cain, Larry Brown, John D. MacDonald.
“So an intriguing context is important, and so is style. But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about “voice” a lot, when I think they really just mean “style.” Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But they don’t come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don’t come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.
“A novel’s voice is something like a singer’s — think of singers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan, who have no musical training but are instantly recognizable. When people pick up a Rolling Stones record, it’s because they want access to that distinctive quality. They know that voice, they love that voice, and something in them connects profoundly with it. Well, it’s the same way with books. Anyone who’s read a lot of John Sanford, for example, knows that wry, sarcastic amusing voice that’s his and his alone. Or Elmore Leonard — my god, his writing is like a fingerprint. You’d recognize him anywhere. An appealing voice achieves an intimate connection — a bond much stronger than the kind forged, intellectually, through crafted writing.”
And if all this book talk makes you want to read something, try Deep Blood, available in paperback or e-book right here.