Tuesday, February 04, 2014

CALLING ON THE MUSES: When Snow Gets in Your Fur

(NOTE: And they all play on the golf course/And drink their martinis dry/And they all have pretty children/And the children go to school,/And the children go to summer camp/And then to the university/Where they are put in boxes/And they come out all the same.)

Writers can be stuck on the first line, how to invent an opening sentence with enough sparkle and promise to pull the reader inside. Looking at the classics gives little relief: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead…” and “A screaming comes across the sky” and “Call me Ishmael.” Is your first line better than any of these? Poets & Writers magazine carries a regular feature of opening sentences from recently released books called, “Page One: Where New and Noteworthy Books Begin,” adding to the problem. Everyone can write a good opening sentence except you.
Rewrites and edits shaped your manuscript until the focus is on the elegance of the writing, the rhythms established by paragraph and chapter length. Writers can stumble at the opening sentence by letting worries of agents and editors intrude on the needs and integrity of the story. No amount of caffeinated beverages can help but the Muses wait for the right entreaty to give their aid.
In Greek myth, Zeus, the big boss of everything, and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory who remembered everything except basic human biology, had nine daughters known as the Muses. Writers and artists of several disciplines began by calling on the women to guide them, like Homer at the beginning of The Odyssey asking, “tell me of the man of many wiles/the man who wandered many paths of exile…” The Muses did the telling while Homer inked the words on papyrus.
Specialization is the rule when calling down the Muses. Clio is best for history and historical fiction, Urania is for stargazers and not much help unless used for a plot device, and Melpomene lets the tears flow in tragedy. Thalia is the goofy daughter who keeps the comedy laughing, Terpsichore dances for the balletomanes, Calliope answered Homer’s plea for an epic and useful for multi-generational sagas, and Erato is fifty shades of useful when contemplating a love poem, or erotic novel. Polyhymnia is the religious one and ready to assist with any paean to her parents, while Euterpe is eager to whisper in the shell-like ear of the lyric poet huddled against the cold in his or her garret.
Contacting the Muses is done without the usual animal sacrifice, or even burning pine boughs laden with incense. Simple, heart-felt, sub-vocal begging will do. The days on Mount Olympus are very long and dull without broadband access, and any distraction is much appreciated by these women.
A writer unhappy with his or her opening sentence makes for miserable company and has a tendency to profound sulks. Never let problems stop you. Tingle your fingertips on the keys or keyboard and write a paragraph that you promise to drop later; this is why the “Delete” key and erasers were invented. Many times a solution will present itself as the writing progresses. Tap out several approaches and let them sit while you attend to the characters, setting, and plot. The opening sentence is simpler than you think, also more complicated and exhausting. Every writer goes through a similar process as they search for a solution. Whether it has the greatness of a classic is subjective. Only through writing will the appropriate opening sentence appear. Worry instead of action rarely produces anything worth reading.
Making books is tough, and only the tough keep going. The toughest book on writing and the workings of the ever-changing, occasionally crushing world of publishing is The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). Already a bargain with its wealth of information and advice, the cover also matches the color of any spring outfit you may be contemplating. Buy several copies for yourself and fashion-conscious friends by logging on to www.indiebound.com for the independent bookstore near you, where friendly staff can also assist in the choice between taffeta and tulle. The hidden better stay there.

NEXT: Running After the Sparrows

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