“Star Wars is the worst!” my student declared as he threw his hands up. This statement has stuck with me over the years for a few reasons. First, I’m not a fan of Star Wars, but I caught myself explaining it to him. Second, this conversation helped me figure out how to offer him books and movies he would enjoy. And third, I better understood the value of openings.
I spent a few years as a reader for regular and contest submissions for some literary journals, was Managing Editor and Editor in Chief of Barzakh Lit Mag, and now I’m in editorial roles with New American Pressand West Trade Review, and guess what matters when you’re reading through a ton of submissions. Openings! As a Developmental Editor, the first thing I look at is…the opening. Movies, books, short stories, and music, it’s all about setting up the tone and story for the viewer/reader/listener right from the start. It’s such a duh statement, but also, it’s wicked hard to do well. And not everyone agrees on what makes a good opening.
The student mentioned above, let’s call him M, was in one of the classes I taught in the jails. I’d set up a lending library for my students to encourage them to read and as a benefit for coming to school. Plus, if the students were reading, fingers crossed, they wouldn’t get into trouble back in the pod. M was a minor and behind in his reading level because he’d been bounced around a lot. I handed him Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, and he loved it. M took to reading with such force that I had to scramble to keep up. I offered book after book, and he returned either hating or loving them. The problem was, he couldn’t tell me why some spoke to him while others didn’t.
Along with books, I showed movies on traditional slack days in schools, like before Thanksgiving break. Or when it had been an especially bad week in the jail. My husband owns Star Wars, and I thought this group of students might like it. But M said he’d skip school if I showed it. I was curious about his intense reaction. He was a minor, and the rest of the class were full-grown men. Most of the time, he wanted so badly for them to think he was cool that he usually did what they did. Hence why he was there in the first place. But M felt strong enough to stand up to these men over Star Wars! I asked why.
“It’s so boring, Miss.” He even dropped his head down on the table. The other students started discussing at full volume why it wasn’t boring—the lightsabers, the fighting, Yoda, and Chewbacca. Again, I asked why.
“You gotta read all this junk just to start the movie. Then it takes forever for anything to happen. And I don’t give a fart.” We had a no-swearing policy in class. Fart was an acceptable substitute. I had to agree with his logic. It’s over a minute for three paragraphs at an odd angle to scroll up the screen. The most exciting thing about the opening is the music by John Williams. Mute it and watch. You’ll see what I mean. Anyway, I finally understood the secret of what he liked in books/movies and what he didn’t. I explained exposition to him.
When I’m reading/editing work to offer feedback, I look for where the story begins. We live in a time of limited bandwidth and focus, and there’s so much competition for attention that when most people read, they want to jump in at the beginning and not after 30 pages describing a bicycle in painful detail that’s ridden once and never brought up again in the entire novel. As a writer, you must build this place and events in your head and then translate them to the page, but not every detail nor all the backstory has to be right there at the beginning or even needs to make it to the final draft.
And boy, was he right. Boom, you’re there in the heart of it. In case you don’t remember, it’s from Charlotte’s Web. E.B. White was such a talented writer. I’ve written about him before. I attend lots of author talks because I love listening to them discuss their craft. So often, they reference Charlotte’s Web as their favorite book as a kid or a book that influenced them the most. I mean, how could it not? I read it every summer when visiting my grandmother in Maine. As an adult, I can appreciate those bits I didn’t notice because I was too busy being inside the book.
Genres that require more world-building, like fantasy and sci-fi, obviously need places to bring in the exposition and explanation. I’m not a big reader, writer, or editor of those genres. Which is fine. There are plenty out there who are. I’m not sure how they craft that balance, and maybe the readers are more tolerant and have an expectation of it. But for personal essays and other areas of fiction, including literature, openings a jump-in moment.
Readers for literary journals (the backbone of the literary publishing community) have huge slush piles to get through each week. They’re usually volunteers with limited time to decide if one piece or another is worth reading all the way through. Something has to get their attention, or they vote no and move on. Openings matter. This is where the value of fresh eyes comes in. Give the piece to someone else who will give you honest but kind feedback.
Getting back to M. Knowing what he didn’t like helped me offer way better books across all sorts of themes and genres. He devoured them and offered the class lively reports on why they all needed to read that book. He’d found some joy. Not just following what the men told him but discovering his preferences. M went on to prison from my class and wrote me letters letting me know about the good books he was reading. He marched in and told the prison librarian, “Give me a good book, not all that exposition junk.”
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