First Impressions: What I’ve Learned from Linda Gunther’s Finding Sandy Stonemeyer

Personal Update: Tackling Camp Nanowrimo

Over the past month, I’ve been working on my current project, Their Sharpest Thorns.  I set out a goal for 20,000 words over the span of May.  That may not seem like a lot when you consider that the goal for NaNoWriMo (every November) is 50,000, and I typically surpass that goal with about a week to go.  This time, things were different.  As I mentioned in my previous post, the demands of the blog would often get in the way of my progress on the work.

That being said, I surpassed the goal on April 30th, and ended up with more than 22,000 words for the month, and more than 87,000 words for the project.  In terms of word count, that’s the equivalent of coming around the home turn, three laps into a mile race.  In terms of project completion, meeting word count goals does not equate a finished project.  In project completion terms, word count is just a guideline.  It is more important to get to those closing words, whatever they may be and whenever they may occur.

The next steps are when things begin to get difficult.  From the completed first draft, I go through my completed draft several times.  In the first pass-through, I look for plot.  I try to identify places where I skipped connections, or where some item, whether in terms of narrative arc or in terms of character development, needs more buildup in support.  The next several passes look for areas where I can improve the language.

At this point in my writing career, having completed two manuscripts to date, I’ve found that there is one specific section that doesn’t begin to crystallize until I’ve been through the novel a few times: the beginning.  The first couple of lines set the tone for the rest of the book, and are typically among the most memorable lines in a work.  The framing of these first lines, as well as how you might deem these first lines as successful or not, depends on the genre.  In literary fiction, in particular, it is important to create a sense of importance in the overall text.  In action and adventure, an author might want to throw the reader directly into the plot or describe the stakes.  In high fantasy or science fiction, an author will want to establish the rules of their world as soon as possible.  These are not hard-and-fast rules; an author may abide by these rules and successfully immerse the reader in one book, and then take a completely different approach in the next book, and still provide a memorable first line.

Like anything, the first impression is important, and the first sentence, paragraph, or page is the first impression with which you leave your reader about your work.  Speaking of first impressions, I had a very positive first impression following an interaction that I had last week.

Mini-Critique / Review: Linda S. Gunther – Finding Sandy Stonemeyer

On Friday, I spoke with a published writer about her experience in getting published.  She is a self-published writer, with books that span several genres, including thriller, romance, children’s fiction, and (a current work-in-progress) non-fiction.  Toward the end of our meeting, she asked me to take a look at one of her books, Finding Sandy Stonemeyer: A Romantic Thriller Set in Northern California’s Santa Cruz Mountains.  I left this for myself as a treat, promising myself that I would not read it until my 20,000 for the month of April was set.  On Sunday, I began her novel, and the first several sentences struck me right away:

“Never think for one minute that your life is one-directional, still, or steady.  Change hovers on the fringes of our existence, ready to strike at any given moment.  My name is Sandy Stonemeyer, mother of two forever feuding children: Luke, a curious four-year-old, and Jenny, a rambunctious nine-year-old.” (Finding Sandy Stonemeyer, (c) Linda S. Gunther, 2016).

Without having read beyond the first chapter, I can already tell you that this is the cornerstone for the rest of the novel.  It is the cornerstone of this novel because it needs to be.  Linda approaches her opening using several techniques that I don’t use myself.  It doesn’t mean that she’s right, and it doesn’t mean that I’m right, it’s just a different approach.  These are characteristics of our respective literary voices.  Notice the juxtaposition between the first two sentences and the third sentence.  Not once in the first two sentences does Linda give the narrator a gender or have the narrator refer to herself.  Instead, she starts with a “universal truth.”  This is the same technique Jane Austen used in Pride & Prejudice, Graham Greene used in The End of the Affair, and Charles Dickens used (albeit to a slightly lesser extent) in A Tale of Two Cities.  This style of opening sentence tries to appeal to the audience’s greater moral sense.  It distances itself from the action, in a way that Nick Carraway does not as the narrator in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and hints at a lesson to be learned – either by the reader or by the protagonist – as an outcome of this tale.

There are moments in this first couple of sentences that border on cliché, but only in the sense that they are expressions that enter common use (i.e., “never think for one minute” and “strike at any given moment”).  Some would be repulsed by claiming something is a cliché, but a cliché is not a bad thing.  A cliché, a common aphorism, and a common turn of phrase are all made common for one reason: they work.  Furthermore, these two sentences redeem themselves from having more-or-less common sayings by what they attempt to tell the reader.  In addition, by using these common words, by turning these common phrases, the narrator allows the reader to drop in on familiar terms.  If you look at that second sentence, it is a reasonably long sentence (fifteen words), but it doesn’t waste any space.  The personification of change as an animal, presumably a snake, that is ready to strike leaves an impression.

The third sentence uses a technique that you can see in the beginning of innumerable novels, from Austen and James Joyce to the novels at the rack at your local supermarket.  It describes the players, and what you can expect from them.  Again, Linda wastes no space here, describing the narrator and her two children in twenty words.  We get a descriptive word to identify each child, as well as his or her age.  This is a technique that is particularly relevant upon first-person narratives, and authors often use this to get all of the introduction down as quickly as possible before moving on to the rest of the story.  It is not a technique that I particularly ascribe to, as I like to leave readers hanging for a little while as they form their own opinions of the character.  I’m still early in my current draft, so I don’t have anything to illustrate my most recent approach, but I’ve started my first novel Absconded by Sin without any concrete description of the main character in that scene:

“She took off her shoes and felt her bare feet against the tile floor.” (Absconded by Sin, First North American Serial Rights (c) 2017, Jim Owen)

Within my first paragraphs, the character’s name doesn’t appear.  This is by design.  Whether the character is named Jennifer or Theresa, the reader is divorced from any preconception that comes with the name.  I should note that I do not always follow this formula.  My past several incomplete drafts, including my current work in progress, all mention at least one character by name in the first sentence, and several do so in the first five words.  That being said, I use no adjectives to describe their disposition, except (perhaps) to discuss their emotional state.  In using adjectives or adjective phrases, such as “forever feuding,” “curious,” and “rambunctious,” the narrator of Finding Sandy Stonemeyer has already provided us with first impressions of the characters, and these adjectives should provide markers of what we will need to know, and what we can expect, moving forward.  As mentioned, without having read much further (I’m about 12 pages in as I write this), I don’t know if the story makes good on this promise. I’d imagine it does, because that is what the narrator has already taught us to expect.

Ultimately, there are several aspects of Linda S. Gunther’s first paragraph that bring me to some key points about good writing.

First and foremost, the narrative tries to reach us with an evocation.  Writers often use a “universal truth” to elicit some form of emotional or intellectual response from the reader.  Why can’t we think our life is one-directional?  What do we do when change strikes us unexpectedly?  These are questions that speak to a much bigger picture.  These “universal truths” also allow the reader to “tune in” intellectually, as everybody has their own thoughts about life and life changes, and these are not necessarily congruous with what the narrator has to say.

The second is that she establishes a sense of direction for the story.  This isn’t as obvious, but it is there.  We now know that the story is about a narrator who is the mother of two children.  We don’t necessarily know what will happen to them, but we know that there will be a change.  This isn’t always something that writers address in the first few paragraphs (I surely don’t), but it is important for the reader to understand what is at stake.

Beyond this, the narrative provides a slight emotional tie.  Through both the use of aphorism and the description of her kids, the narrator shows that she’s “been there,” and the use of the terms curious and rambunctious to describe kids are two examples of details that appeal to readers who have “been there,” too.

Finally, there’s one detail that appeals to the modern reader more than it appeals to readers of years past.  She’s brief. The beginning is the rhetorical equivalent of opening a presentation with a welcome: it does its job, and then you move on.  Many literary examples build up a short argument (note: not the literary definition of an argument), wherein the narrator lays out all of their stakes, goes into detail about the tapestries, or gives a detailed account of the hero’s pedigree. The narrator gives us all of the pedigree we need in the third sentence: she’s a mother of two.

If you are interested in Linda S. Gunther’s Finding Sandy Stonemeyer or any of her other work, please click here.

Author’s Note: I’ve missed my usual Monday update yet again.  I will look to update at once more during the course of the week.  Considering that this is going out on a Tuesday, please expect a bit of a delay as I gather my thoughts on other topics.

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