This post is a sort of continuation of Davin's post from yesterday, about First Chapter Blues. I don't know if I have any sort of advice or wisdom to impart with what I'm going to say today, but it might be interesting to other writers. Might not; time will tell.
When I first began my book, I thought I would ease my way into the story the way a good 19th-century author would, starting at some distance from my protagonist and his tale, and gradually bringing the reader closer. This, then, is the way the first draft of the book began:
The Elbe River rises in the Giant Mountains, east of Prague in the land of the Czechs, on the frontiers of the Holy Roman Empire. The Czech realm is a barbarous place of infidels, pagans and mislaid Christians forever at war, battling to the death over land of little value to any. Here the Elbe rushes down mountain-sides and through steep valleys, past savage villages of straw and mud, under the eyes of savage villagers who cannot imagine the seven hundred miles this river courses, arcing across Europe through lands of civilized men, running beneath bridges of ancient stone, her waters reflecting here and there the spires of great palaces and cathedrals, her currents washing everything lost in her out to the cold North Sea on Germany’s coast.
The Elbe is fed at first by the lesser waters of the Labe and the Sazaba, then by the Ohre between Prague and Dresden; the Mulde joins her at Desau, the Saale near Schoenebeck, the Havel a hundred miles north of Magdeburg, and the Elde a hunded miles further on, before the great river forces her way through the canals of Hamburg and rushes home to the ocean.
Midway along her journey, between the savage Czech headwaters and the chaos of the North Sea, the river runs for a time directly westward through Saxony, a land of civilized men; there the course of the Elbe cuts the Duchy in half, north and south. On the north bank of the river, in a region of low forested hills which rise to a plateau further north near Berlin, sits Wittenberg. Named for the white sand found in the soil of those hills, this is the city where I would have remained forever had not I become involved in the history I will unfold.
I like the writing here and I like the image of the river cutting across time and geography, but this doesn't work as an opening to the story. There is too much emphasis on the river, and the river does not return as a setting of any importance in the novel. Gunter Grass could make the river into a character, a personality of its own that interacts with the story, but that's not what I did with my book. So I decided that the river as focal point was out, and I wanted instead to begin with the protagonist himself, his social and historical situation, and some conflict. Here is how the second, third and fourth drafts all began (notice that I still begin at the river):
When I was a lad, I would sometimes steal away from my father's house and follow the sandy banks of the Elbe to a small backwater a mile east of town, there to settle among mounds of wildflowers in the shade under the many trees growing along the water’s edge, and watch a man fish for eels in the shallows. I do not know the man's name, nor did I ever; all I did know was that he was one of the royal fishers in the employ of the Duke. The Duke had an insatiable taste for the shimmering green eels: boiled into soups, soused in brine and served with lemons, breaded and fried, smoked, jellied, grilled over open flames, or diced and baked inside game birds; there were few ways to prepare them that did not please the Duke's palate.
During the cold months, the eels would burrow into the mud and the fisher would use a long, barbed spear to bring them up, knocking them off the tines into a wooden box where they wriggled and fought in sawdust and salt. In the spring a net was used, thrown out into the water near the strong river current, then hauled back to check the catch. On hot summer days, when the fisher was too lazy to work for the eels, he would open a filthy oilskin sack he'd brought from town and pull out the head of a horse which he'd gotten from a stableman or butcher, knot a rope through the horse's mouth and throat, then weight the head down with an iron bar. This he'd throw out into the river, tying the other end of the rope to a tree on the bank. The fisher settled down to wait then, eating his breakfast, drinking the wine he'd brought along, often sleeping for an hour or so. When he'd grown impatient enough, or if the day was too hot for him, the horse’s head would be dragged back to shore, filled with dozens of voracious eels, writhing in the air, their sinuous bodies glistening green. The fisher pulled the eels from the head on which they'd been feeding, dropped them into his wooden box, and after untying his rope and setting aside the iron weight, cast the bit of horse back into the river for the other eels.
The eel man and I did not speak much. He didn't mind my company, and sometimes when he drank more than he was used to, he would tell me stories of taking his eels back to the ducal residence, rubbing their bodies with salt to clean off the slime, cutting long slits in their backs to pull out guts and spines. He did never once give me any eels to take home, as all the eels coming from that particular spot along the Elbe belonged to the Duke, who was a powerful man, jealous of his property. Nor did afternoons spent in his company fill me with any desire to fish for eels myself. Though they have beautiful skins, fine shirts crafted of a million flecks of emerald, eels have wicked faces and eyes like snakes, and I did not like to touch them.
“Wherefrom have you taken the horse?” I asked him once.
“This fellow,” he answered, looping his rope through the mouth and throat of the immense brown head, “Were the proud mount of a noble. Broke his leg two days past; the gentleman shot a pistol ball in its brain--see this hole, right here by the eye? Sold the horse to a butcher, an' he sold me the head. A fine head, too. Marry, I'll have twoscore eels eating his brains in an hour or two, lad.”
I must have looked greatly sad, as the fisher eyed me with some kindness. “Mourn not for this dead horse,” he said. “He served his master well enough, I warrant, and now his head does service for the Duke and the great ones the Duke will feast with the eels I'll bring home. We all serve our masters, lad. This horse yet does honorable duty.”
“I'd sooner be the Duke than the horse,” I said.
The fisher cuffed me hard, on the ear. “Watch your tongue, that I don't use it for bait,” he said. “Your lot is to obey your masters. Learn a trade, and mind your place in the world. Remember you this: you are the horse, not the rider. If the Duke cuts off your head and feed it to the fishes, that's his godly right.”
I was quite pleased with this opening gambit, and the beginning of the book stayed this way for some time. This is how the narrative began when I found an agent; these are the first pages he read. But my agent asked me if I could do anything to deepen the protagonist's character, to sharpen the conflict. He didn't specifically ask that I do anything with the opening, but I wanted to somehow have conflict in every scene so I took the passages I had above and forced some conflict into it:
On the day that my wife Astrid gave birth to our daughter, I carried our son Justus, who was but a year old, down to the banks of the Elbe. We followed the river to a small backwater a mile east of town and I found the very spot where, when I was a lad, I had often settled among mounds of wildflowers under the trees along the water’s edge. Many a day had I spent there, watching a man fish for eels in the shallows. I do not know the man’s name, nor did I ever. All I did know was that he was one of the royal fishers in the employ of the Duke, who had an insatiable taste for eels.
As the eel fisher so wisely noted, I was of no importance; the poor never are. I sat on the river’s north bank and held my young boy to my breast, promising him that I would not let our little family live and die in poverty. Justus smiled to hear me speak but understood nothing of my promise. He knew nothing yet of poverty, neither of despair nor fear. I had long since passed such innocence, and I knew that after I carried Justus home and fed him his gruel, after I kissed his mother and newborn sister as they slept, I would commit an act that would change the fortunes of many men, for both good and ill. My name is Horatio Johannes Andersmann, and I was born on December 27 in the year of our Lord 1571 in the city of Wittenberg, in Saxony. I would have remained in Wittenberg forever had I not done terrible things to protect my Astrid and our children. I shall reveal everything.
This does not work. It's a cheat, announcing to the reader that there is drama to come if you'll just bear with me. It's the same sort of cheap trick a lot of prologues play, and I never did like it. It says, "I don't so much have compelling characters or a great premise to draw you in, so here's a bit of a mystery that will remain unresolved for a couple hundred pages." Like I say, that's just cheating the reader. Which is why it's been cut, all of it. My current rewrite begins with the action of the story itself, my character in the situation lamely hinted at above, in real conflict in the "story present." I am opening, this time around, in medias res, with the action already underway. My plan is to take all the backstory I have cut and, if I think I really need it (and likely I don't need most of it), work it back in around page 100 or 150 or so.
My agent, by the way, likes the eels. But he's wrong, and I'm no longer starting with them.
While I feel confident that I am right in changing the way my book begins, I make no claims that a book shouldn't begin with back-story. I have read (and continue to read) a lot of classic literature which does not obey the currently popular ideas of structure and story-telling, and these classics have aged well. This is just the choice I have made, and I thought it might be fun to share the evolution of my book's opening.