Guess the movie

Here’s a game I’ve played with a few writing classes. These are the opening paragraphs to novels that were made into films. Do you recognize them?

For writers, this exercise offers the chance to study what makes these openers successful. As we write, with the very first words we make promises to the reader.

What do these first words tell you about the book? What kind of narrator is telling the story? How much do you know about the setting, characters, and likely conflict? What should the reader expect going forward?

The opening paragraphs:

1. [He] was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in “The Good Old Summer Time,” the waltz of the day.

2. An angry man — there is my story: the bitter rancor of the prince that brought a thousand disasters on the opposing army. Many a strong soul it sent to the underworld, and left the heroes prey to vultures and dogs, while the will of a god moved on to fulfillment.

3. Current-bourne, wave-flung, tugged hugely by the whole might of ocean, the jellyfish drifts in the tidal abyss. The light shines through it, and the dark enters it. Borne, flung, tugged from anywhere to anywhere, for in the deep sea there is no compass but nearer and farther, higher and lower, the jellyfish hangs and sways, pulses move slight and quick within it, as the vast diurnal pulses beat in the moondriven sea.

4. The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the men, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heel boots with pointed toes.

5. Your father is about to ask me the question. This is the most important moment of our lives, and I want to pay attention, note every detail. Your dad and I have just come back from an evening out, dinner and a show; it’s after midnight. We came out onto the patio to look at the full moon; then I told your dad I wanted to dance, so he humors me and now we’re slow-dancing, a pair of thirty-somethings swaying back and forth in the moonlight like kids. I don’t feel the night chill at all. And then your dad says, “Do you want to make a baby?”

6. I’m pretty much fucked. That’s my considered opinion. Fucked. Six days into what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned into a nightmare. I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now. For the record … I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say, “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”

1. Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis (1927), film in 1960. A confidence man and a female evangelist sell religion to small-town America. The opening paragraph tells us that the story takes place in the Midwest in the 1920s. It suggests a judgmental narrator and gives us a glimpse into the personality of the protagonist, an outgoing man of questionable character. The movie starred Burt Lancaster and won three Academy Awards.

2. The Illiad by Homer (8th century BCE), film Troy in 2002. Not exactly a novel, this is still a major work of fiction that defined a culture and continues to influence literature to this day. The opening words promise an exciting story about war and blood involving high-born men who must deal with divine intervention. The narrator is outside the story but actively participates in the telling.

3. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin (1971), TV movies in 1980 and 2002. A man’s dreams change reality, and the novel opens in a dream, followed by a terrifying dream, and then he wakes up in an impoverished, war-torn world. The opening promises an immersive, lyrical story with a narrator who reports the story but stays out of it.

4. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1965), films in 1967, 1996, and 1993. Not exactly a novel, instead this is a pioneer work of creative non-fiction, using all the resources of fiction to tell a story based on fact. Specifically, it recounts the 1959 savage murder of a family in Holcomb. At the time, the nation was shocked that such senseless bloodshed could take place in such a quiet little town, and opening with a description of the place reinforces the trauma of what eventually happens.

5. “Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang (1998), film Arrival in 2016. The novella, unlike the movie, focuses on a woman coming to terms with her daughter’s early death. The narrator is the mother, and she’s telling the story to her daughter as if the daughter were still alive, which becomes thematically important within the context of the story. The opening paragraph establishes the tone and frame of the narration.

6. The Martian by Andy Weir (2011), film in 2015. From the start, we know this is going to be a first-person narration, and that the narrator casually drops the F-bomb. He also maintains a pretty good sense of humor for a man who’s reasonably sure that he’s going to die. We know by the end of the opening exactly what the conflict is: man vs. nature, in this case Mark Watney vs. Mars.

The time I got beat up after school

I’ve never told anyone about this, and looking back, silence may have been the kindest response. One day, as I was walking home from junior high school, another student attacked me in a parking lot, punched me, and kept knocking me down into the frozen snowpiles, screaming at me the whole time.

I was in eighth grade, and I barely knew the girl. We moved in separate circles. She was skinny, wore cheap and unfashionable clothes, had a bad haircut, smoked cigarettes, and always seemed angry. Even at the time, I sort of knew why she jumped me. It wasn’t about me, except that as a chubby, bookish, short girl, I was an easy target. Probably, I represented something she didn’t like.

Since I wasn’t really hurt — winter wear can make good protective padding — I continued home as fast as I could, although my resentment was off the scale. I didn’t deserve what had happened. In fact, I’d never even talked to that girl. She was angry, and she just wanted to beat someone up.

I didn’t tell anyone for two reasons. First, as a general principle, I tried to keep adults out of my business because they only made things more complicated. Second, if I told adults or even merely my friends, they would make things more complicated for her. She had enough trouble. Something was wrong in her life, and I didn’t want to add to it.

Beyond angry and resentful, I felt sorry for her. She needed help, and the most helpful thing I could do was to do nothing. I simply made sure to avoid her more thoroughly from then on. She moved away not too long after that. I’ve forgotten her name. I hope she got whatever she needed, and looking back, I have some guesses about what might have been going on with her.

Then and now, adults say children should report bullying. I didn’t, and I still think I did the right thing. I forgave her, gave her what grace I could, and moved on.

Review: “A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking”

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive BakingA Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Your inner 12-year-old wants to read this novel. That child is still there, so don’t be put off by the fact that this is a middle-grade book. The hero, Mona, is 14 years old, and she has some magical sourdough starter. She also has a brave, magical gingerbread cookie, which you can see depicted on the cover art of the book holding a sword. Then things go very wrong (long story; it’s a novel, after all), and she has to save the city where she lives.

Mona is self-aware, a little snide, and more than a little resentful that such a heavy burden falls on her young shoulders. She gets wise advice and help along the way, and she winds up a hero.

The pacing is fast. The story is sometimes silly, sometimes serious, and sometimes even a bit dark, because kids — including your own inner child — want to grapple with life’s big challenges. The vocabulary might be simple, but the story explores complex themes. One of them: Is it actually good to become a hero?

View all my reviews

Convocatoria: “Todos los demás planetas”

Se abre el plazo para la convocatoria “Todos los demás planetas” desde el 12:00 a.m. del 30 de septiembre a las 11:59 p.m. del 31 de octubre de 2021, (hora de España).

Las escritoras españolas Sofía Rhei y Cristina Jurado y yo buscamos ficción especulativa con perspectiva sociopolítica de género, o sea, relatos que utilicen lenguaje de una manera creativa y no conformista respecto a los roles binarios de género. Se valorarán las formas de lenguaje neutro en todas sus variantes, femeninos genéricos, expresiones lingüísticas de sociedades con más de dos géneros, géneros originales y cualquier otra opción diferente a la normatividad del masculino plural por defecto. Las narraciones que aporten términos reales de culturas nativas en las que los roles de género se entiendan de manera diversa serán extraordinariamente bien recibidas.

Entre los relatos enviados se realizará una selección que será publicada en la revista SuperSonic. Asimismo, se elegirá un relato ganador que será traducido al inglés y enviado a diversas publicaciones internacionales.

Hasta 5.000 palabras, un relato por persona, textos inéditos y escritos en español.

El resultado se anunciará en la web de la convocatoria y en las RRSS de las convocantes el 1 de febrero de 2022.

Toda la información sobre esta iniciativa se puede consultar en la web https://todoslosdemasplanetas.com.

In the zone: What planet am I on?

Artist’s concept of how rocky, potentially habitable worlds might appear elsewhere in our galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt. https://exoplanets.nasa.gov/what-is-an-exoplanet/planet-types/terrestrial/

You may have heard about “writing in the zone.” It’s a creative state where the writer or artist becomes one with the work, in the flow, totally focused. Athletes can experience this, too.

Having been a writer for a while, I can say that this rarely happens. Most of us work distracted, even if we’re trying not to multitask. The computer advises you about a program update, the dog wants your attention, you’re out of coffee, and what’s that funny smell?

Still, it can happen. I remember one time vividly. Actually, what I remember is when it ended. I’d been working on the novel Interference, which takes place on a distant planet called Pax. I felt like I was there, living in the odd and wonderful sights, the cacophony of sounds, and the scents that carried meaning.

Then I looked up. Where was I? Not on Pax. So what planet was this? A blue sky, an oxygen atmosphere, and lots of clear signs of homo sapiens dominance. Yeah, this was Earth. In fact, pretty soon I recognized the city, the building, and the year, and remembered what I was doing there.

I still had one wisp of a question. Why was I on Earth? Why not somewhere else or some other time? The answer was obvious — but not entirely satisfying. Do I really have to be here?