January 21:  Novel First Lines Day

Today is the anniversary of the publication of the first novel in America, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature.  When the book was first released in 1789, it was published anonymously.  Later, however, William Hill Brown, a 24 year-old Bostonian, came forward to claim authorship.

Although the novel is not remembered today for its literary excellence, it is characteristic of it time.  Reflecting a popular 18th century literary device, the novel was epistolary, that is, its story is told via letters between characters.  The novel involves an illicit love triangle and is written as a cautionary tale.  Some speculate that Brown published his novel anonymously because the details of his plot were based on actual events in the lives of his Boston neighbors.

Although there are certainly examples of long fiction that might be called novels before the 1700s, it was the 18th century that launched the popularity of this “new form” of extended narrative, best exemplified by the works of English writers Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding.

Today’s Challenge:  Blackjack Sentences

How can you captivate a reader by writing a 21-word opening sentence of a short story or novel?  To celebrate America’s first novel, your task is to craft a novel first line for a story that is exactly 21 words.  Think about a narrative hook that will grab your reader.  

Here’s an example:

At 7:10 am that Monday morning, Bill awoke to the choking sound of his cat, Hamlet, vomiting violently on his pillow.

There is nothing magical about 21 words, but writing to an exact word count will force you to pay attention to the impact of each word you write. It will also force you to pay careful attention as you revise and edit.  When you write the first draft of your sentence, don’t worry about word count.  Get some ideas and details down on paper first.  Then go back and revise, making every word count — up to exactly 21 (no more, no fewer).

The sentences below are some examples of opening sentences from American novels.  They are not 21 words, but they will give you a flavor for the ways different novelists have opened their works:

You may now felicitate me — I have had an interview with the charmer I informed you of. -William Hill Brown, The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature.  (1789)

I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (1851)

I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story. —Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (1911)

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.  -Jane Austen

1-http://mentalfloss.com/article/74019/7-fascinating-facts-about-first-american-novel

 

 

December 17:  Page 99 Test Day

Today is the birthday of British novelist and critic Ford Madox Ford (1873-1939).

Fordmadoxford.jpgFord is best known for his 1915 novel The Good Soldier, a novel which routinely turns up on lists of the greatest novels ever written.  The novel chronicles the lives of two seemingly perfect couples, one American and one British, who become acquainted at a German spa.  

The novel’s famous opening line, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard” is a more accurate indicator of its plot than is its title.  As events unfold, the reader discovers that the lives of these couples are not as happy as they appear.  Ford’s original title was The Saddest Story, but Ford’s publisher John Lane thought the title was a bit too dour, especially since World War I was raging in Europe at the time.  Ford, who himself had enlisted in the army, was too preoccupied to concern himself with the title.  He  later recounted how his novel came to have a somewhat incongruous title:

One day, when I was on parade, I received a final wire of appeal from Mr Lane, and the telegraph being reply-paid I seized the reply form and wrote in hasty irony: ‘Dear Lane, Why not The Good Soldier?’

In addition to being a novelist, Ford was a well known critic, and he left us with a handy method for judging a book.  The method is not to judge the book by its cover or by its opening line; instead, Ford suggested to judge a book by the quality of its writing on one specific page:

Open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you (1).

Today’s Challenge:  Putting Ford’s Test to the Test

What are the qualities you look for when judging a book?  Select a book that you have not read, and open it to page 99.  Read the page carefully, and then write a Page 99 Review based on what you have read on that page.  What do you notice about the quality of the writing?  Based on what you see on page 99 explain your verdict as to whether or not you think the book is worth reading. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it. -P.J. O’Rourke

1-https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/30/good-soldier-ford-madox-ford-100-best-novels

 

December 3:  Words on Words Day

Today is the birthday of the Polish writer Joseph Conrad.  Born in 1857, Conrad did not learn to speak and write English until he was in his twenties.  Despite the fact that English was his second language, Conrad is considered one of the greatest novelists in the English language.  A master prose stylist, Conrad influenced numerous writers, including Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and D.H. Lawrence.

Head shot with moustache and beardIn his autobiography, published in 1912, Conrad talked about the importance of diction in writing.  In the following words on words, he reminds us that words make their strongest impression on a reader when they are selected not only for their sense, but also for their sound:

He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word. The power of sound has always been greater than the power of sense. I don’t say this by way of disparagement. It is better for mankind to be impressionable than reflective. Nothing humanely great—great, I mean, as affecting a whole mass of lives—has come from reflection. On the other hand, you cannot fail to see the power of mere words; such words as Glory, for instance, or Pity. I won’t mention any more. They are not far to seek. Shouted with perseverance, with ardor, with conviction, these two by their sound alone have set whole nations in motion and upheaved the dry, hard ground on which rests our whole social fabric . . . . Give me the right word and the right accent and I will move the world (1).

Today’s Challenge:  A Day to Be Dazed by Words

What is the best thing that anyone ever said about words?  What is an insightful quotation about words and language that you can use to inspire your writing?  Your task is to write about your favorite quotation about words.  Select from the examples below, or research your own.  Write out your quotation; then, explain why you find the quotation so insightful and how it inspires you to be a better writer. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.  Rudyard Kipling

Thanks to words, we have been able to rise above the brutes; and thanks to words, we have often sunk to the level of the demons. Aldous Huxley

Words are as recalcitrant as circus animals, and the unskilled trainer can crack his whip at them in vain.  –Gerald Brenan

Words are the legs of the mind; they bear it about, carry it from point to point, bed it down at night, and keep it off the ground and out of the marsh and mists. –Richard Eder

Quotation of the Day:  Some people have a way with words, and other people…oh, uh, not have way.Steve Martin

1-http://www.bartleby.com/237/8.html

12/3 TAGS: Conrad, Joseph, novel, autobiography, quotation, words on words