The First Paragraph

Last weekend a hundred stories lay piled on my desk, awaiting my assessment. Though I like writing critiques, grading stories is one of my least favorite things to do.

When I could ignore them no longer, I sat down at my desk and thought about how to approach the task. If I read each story carefully and rated it on the criteria I had established, I would have to spend about an hour on each one.

There are not so many hours in a weekend, even when Monday is a holiday.

I worked out a method that would allow me to eat and sleep. The first paragraph and the last paragraph would tell me what I needed to know:

Does the beginning grab me?

Has the writer introduced a character in a setting with a problem to solve?

Does the story have a resolution? (Just to make sure it was a complete story.)

Does the story have dialog, or it is primarily summary?

Did this student care enough about their work to clean up the spelling and punctuation?

And then I understood what an editor facing a huge slush pile must do. Reading the first five pages is a perfectly fair way to evaluate a novel. You really can find out all you need to know by reading the beginning. It doesn’t matter how good chapter 23 is if you aren’t grabbed by the first pages. And if you find a misspelling in the first paragraph, that is a sure sign that there will be many more.

Each story tells me a number of things that didn’t figure into the grade as well. Which students read books? It is obvious that many don’t read. It is just as obvious that the ones who do read understand that life is more than boyfriends and girlfriends, football and shopping. Everyone watches movies and television, but these don’t have the same effect as reading. Readers are more mature, more thoughtful, more realistic.

There are many ways to tell a story, but not all are equal. These days, books seem to be falling out of fashion. But reading is superior to television and movies. People who always have their ‘nose in a book,’ as the criticism goes, are actually learning more than those who see stories on the screen. They are using their more and developing thinking skills. Reading is active; the screen is passive. A book is a good friend, a teacher.

Writers, take your responsibility seriously.

Kicking the Print Habit

It’s five a.m., too early for the newspaper to be here. I used to wait for it anxiously every morning, unable to eat breakfast until it arrived. That was my ritual, to check out the editorials, scan the metro page for local news, and read the weather report before leaving for school.

Six-thirty is the promised delivery deadline; since I leave at six-fifteen, it doesn’t always arrive in time. For me, a creature of habit, this is annoying. It stands to reason that somebody must receive the paper before six-thirty; why can’t it be me? Looking out my door, I see no lights on besides my own. Those sleeping houses probably already have a newspaper on their porches, while I am still waiting.

Growing up in the metro-New York area, I learned to love newspapers. We subscribed to the local paper, the Times, and the Wall Street Journal. There was always news to read in our house.

Turning on the television in the morning to watch the news is not the same. It’s jarring to hear voices at that time of day. I enjoy my newspaper in silence. More

Who are you writing for?

book openThere are about half a million books (titles) published each year in the English speaking world. That may be a conservative figure. It’s hard to find numbers on how many books people actually buy. Why that should be a secret, I do not know. I think we can assume that it’s a big number.

Dax wonders, “How many of those books sold are actually read?”

It’s hard to get numbers on specific categories of books, but it appears that non-fiction titles sell better than fiction. The reason non-fiction books sell well is because they don’t make people feel guilty. If you buy a novel, it sits around waiting for a reading mood to strike you. Then you have to read it in order, from beginning to end. Why buy something that’s going to needle your conscious every time you see it?


Book Report

“It’s my favorite,” she said, handing him the battered paperback. She didn’t ask, but he knew he was supposed to read it.

“Thanks.” He didn’t know what to say. Books were things he rarely thought about. He didn’t have a favorite.

The book stayed on the kitchen table for a few days. Then he moved it to the top of his dresser. Every morning he looked at it and thought, I need to read this. It made him feel guilty.

book_stackFinally she asked.

“Amazing,” he replied. “Can’t stop thinking about it.”

She smiled. “Do you want to read the sequel?”

A Private Mania

diceUp until he died, Cally’s uncle lived in Campus View, a neighborhood just north of the university where rows of aging brownstones once brought top dollar. His parents moved there after the war when it was a working class neighborhood; after they died, the house became his. From the outside, Number 15392 was an ordinary building. Inside, it was filled with books from floor to ceiling.

There is an actual disorder called bibliomania – book hoarding. To Cally, having lots of books didn’t seem so strange. Her own house had book cases in every room, and sometimes books piled up next to her bed or on the coffee table. Eventually her mother would gather them all up and re-shelve each one.


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