Footnote Joust

I’ve been reading a lot of Indie/Self-published books lately. Though the quality can vary, for the most part I don’t see a lot of terrible work. Most of the time if I’m left disappointed, it’s because it was a good story that needed just a little more work to be a great story. On the rare occasion when I do run into a really bad book, I’ve been very strict with myself enforcing my “do not finish the bad thing” rule. Life is too short, especially at my age, to read bad books.file000719730180

Recently, I was reading a book that was teetering on the edge of badness. It had lots of copy errors and some very strange and clunky grammar. The story beneath the writing issues was pretty good though, and I was determined to press on. Until I found the footnotes.

Footnotes are rare in fiction, though they can be delightful. See, for example Jonathon Stroud’s “Bartimaeus”. These footnotes were. . .not delightful, unless I am allowing the crueler side of my personality to come out. The author had evidently made edits based on customer reviews, and made footnotes to discuss these changes. In many cases, she hadn’t made changes; she’d simply argued that her text should stand as written. Most peculiar, especially since some of the changes she argued most fervently against were ones concerning the most basic rules of grammar, usage, mechanics & spelling.  Not exotic stuff like oxford commas. Basic stuff that no decent copy editor should let slip by.

We’ve all heard of authors arguing with reviews (not recommended!) but has anyone else come across critique rebuttal by footnote? Strange days indeed.

Your Opening Line

 and Other Things that Writers are Neurotic About

From JStor daily, I got a link to an article about grammar rules and the people who faked them. Dear Pedants: See Your Fave Grammar Rule is Probably Fake. It’s not a free license to ignore grammar completely. It talks about grammar rules that make no sense, being reconstructed from Latin, and about the privilege inherent in certain modes of speech. If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t get that sentence to work without the dreaded split infinitive, this little gem may provide an answer.

On to opening lines. Dan Alatorre has a great post about Cheesy Opening Lines. One of the classic opening lines he lists, among some surprising clunkers from books that I love, is the opening of Call of the WIld by Jack London.

Saturday Evening Post Call of the Wild

Call of the Wild’s 2nd publication in Saturday Evening Post

Buck did not read newspapers, or he would have known that trouble was brewing, not alone for himself, but for every tidewater dog, strong of muscle and with warm, long hair, from Puget Sound to San Diego.

I love this opening line. It introduces us to the main character, it plops us down right at the start of the action, and it sets the scene a little. We even have an idea of what kind of dog Buck is. It’s a little run-on, but literary conventions were different in 1902.  In these modern times of “Start with the Action!”, could we have a better opening for this story? Run on aside, I think this would be hard to improve on.

It’s the kind of opening line that makes other writers lie awake at night, fretting. What if I don’t find the perfect opening line? Why doesn’t my opening line do all that stuff? It’s an example seemingly created to throw us all in to deep despair, or at least momentary gloom and doom.

Dan’s post should cheer you up. Go look again. See how many truly great books have “meh” opening lines. It’s unlikely your book or story or article is going to sink just because your opening line isn’t up to Jack London’s. You don’t have to be perfect in one line, but neither do you dare squander too many opportunities to make the reader fall in love with your story. If you don’t have the mythical perfect opening line, make sure your opening pages shine.

Jack London was writing for the serial market when he produced “Call of the Wild.” Magazine stories of the day had to not only compete with whatever else was running in the same issue, but also with whatever was in other magazines. London’s opening isn’t perfect, but it does grab your attention and get the job of opening the story done.

It’s your turn. Go forth and hook some readers!