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Dreams in the first few lines? Hmmm. This opening extract has a writer as a character. If he’d been writing the opening to his book, we could have reviewed that opening too. How meta would that have been? This opening is literary fiction. With literary fiction, there are even fewer rules, which is theoretically a good thing for authors. But there’s a downside, in that liking the piece becomes inherently more subjective, which is not necessarily a good thing. See if this floats your boat.
Title: Remembrances and Reconciliation
Genre: Literary Fiction
Language: US English
Synopsis: The stories of Joe, Joan, and Curt; Mike, Natalie, and Joe, Natalie’s ex-boyfriend, connect in an strange reality/fantasy confusion.
Text: Intending to kill and not because I’m angry but because someone is paying me to do it is kind of cool. There’s this mess, though. It has to look like a mugging, but easy enough to dump the bodies over the bridge into the river.
The bedside telephone startled Natalie from her dream, or the dream startled her awake to hear the ring. One or the other.
Natalie took the handset to her ear, flopped back onto her pillow, lay sideways, pulled up the duvet, and sighed. “What?”
“I need you to bail me out of jail.”
“What? What happened?”
“Are you going to get me out of jail or not?” Mike’s voice quivered between panic and frustration.
Natalie flipped herself over to her other side, bringing the handset onto the other side. “How much?”
“Fifteen hundred dollars.”
“What the hell did you do?”
“No, I’m guessing the ten percent is only $150 or something like … plus some for the time here … I guess a day. Will you let me explain later? I don’t have my wallet. That’s part of the problem. Come on.” Mike pleaded with a boyish charm. “You’ve done this for Joe. You’ve got the drill down.”
Natalie shifted onto her back. “Joe’s not here. Obviously, it has to wait till the morning… what‘s ’it? Four? Five hours. Can you survive that?”
One pathetic word from Mike, “Yeah.”
* * *
The couple died from a horrible and grisly murder by stabbing with a seven-inch butcher knife, the autopsy found. The bodies were found in the Monongahela River at the base of the Tenth Street Bridge. A witness, who later disappeared, described the perpetrator as a white man in his twenties with a tattoo on his right forearm depicting the Crucifixion. The killer was never apprehended.
Mike sat at the desk with the eraser-end of a pencil up his nose. He pondered his next paragraph. Mike had never published a book, nor even finished writing one, yet he considered himself a writer. Its screen staring back, the impossibly stupid computer had not thwarted his writing efforts. He wrapped his gold wire-rimmed glasses around his ears, ran his hand through his thinning dark blond hair, and left his hand at the top of his forehead. He had short, stubby, and hairy fingers to match his small hairy frame. No one considered Mike a handsome man; no one considered him an ugly man.
Natalie knocked on the front door. Mike anticipated the imminent moment of the plausible explanation to an imperturbable matron.
“Hi, Mike—haven’t seen you in so long! How’s life been treating you?”
“Come in,” Mike stepped aside to let her in. He shut the door and followed her into the living room. “Want a Coke or something?”
“Vodka and anything.” Natalie plopped down onto the leather couch.
“Vodka? Gosh, Natalie, what time is it? It’s not much past noon.”
“You’ve quit teaching and gone into preaching,” Natalie said in a sardonic style, not harsh but never kind.
“I did quit teaching.” Mike opened kitchen cabinets and looked for a bottle of Absolut. “I’ll get to the bail money in a bit. I don’t have any vodka. Want something else?”
“You’ve quit teaching? I can’t believe it! No vodka, huh? Then I’ll have tea.”
“Tea? Long Island?”
“No, iced tea.”
“There isn’t a drop of liquor in this apartment.”
“No, just plain iced tea. Unsweetened. In a glass.”
Mike handed Natalie a glass of iced tea and sat in the matching love seat at a right angle to the couch. “Last June was my last month at the Middle School. You see, my mother died of cancer.”
Natalie changed her voice from sarcastic to sympathetic. “Oh yes, sorry. Yes, her cancer. You told me of her illness, but you never told me…”
Mike interrupted, “Well, I guess, we haven’t been that close since you took up with Joe. Though we were never close from the beginning, right? We have different interests and lifestyles.” Mike paused then continued with an odd lilt. “So I came into an inheritance. Or it came to me. Therefore, as you can see, I have new furniture. I have wanted to write a novel—one that sells but has literary merit. Never had the time Not manic enough or whatever it takes to do several things at once, or working by coffee, loud music, speed, who knows? I loved teaching, especially younger kids. Teaching should be the ideal profession for a writer before he can make a living from his writing. I guess you can’t enjoy teaching too much at the same time. Of course, there were the summers taken up with dead-end romances.”
“Whatever happened to Baby?”
“I hope she’s locked up somewhere. That’s another long story. Anyway, Voila! I can now live a year without gainful employment, longer if I’m careful. ‘Mr. Hermit’ I’ll be. Back to being reclusive. No more molding little minds and no more thinking with my… umm… male apparatus.”
“Oh let’s be crude: your little petey.”
“Natalie, that’s what I like about you — to the point.”
“As a writer, shouldn’t you be?”
Natalie returned no comment.
“So! You’re looking good.” Mike paused. “You haven’t quit your job, too?”
“As of yesterday, I may have.”
“You’re being mysterious.”
Editorial comment: Is this ready to submit to an agent? Well, perhaps. But would I, as an agent, ask to see more of it? I don’t think so. The element of subjectivity is a hard one for authors to deal with and it applies to literary fiction more than other genres, but you have to be aware of it (don’t put all your hopes in one agent or publisher).
Why do I feel as I do? There’s that dream at the beginning. This is a pet peeve of mine, and maybe I’m unreasonable about it. Other agents might not be as dismissive, but here’s my take on it.
If it were genre fiction I’d not read any further, seriously. I would assume that if the writer didn’t know why this was a bad idea, there would be other more egregious problems with the MS. As an editor, my job is to help people understand why they need to think twice about starting with a dream sequence, but an agent is under no obligation to help, and the numerous ones I’ve talked to think the same. “This author has a lot to learn, and I’m an agent, not a writing coach. Next!”
But this is literary fiction, so even I know it wouldn’t be wise to just dismiss it out of hand. Perhaps it’s of huge significance? Perhaps dream sequences are a large part of the book? I have to say though, I very much doubt it (and if they are, the book probably has bigger problems). This particular passage is missing some punctuation that makes a complex sentence needlessly difficult to comprehend. Intending to kill and not because I’m angry but because someone is paying me to do it is kind of cool is a struggle. If you miss out punctuation, readers will supply their own. So the first time I read this I read it as: Intending to kill and not, because I’m angry … But upon reading the rest of the sentence this makes no sense, and I had to re-read it, then read the whole sentence and go back and try and work out where the punctuation should go. I decided that there probably should be parenthetical commas after kill and it, thus: Intending to kill, and not because I’m angry but because someone is paying me to do it, is kind of cool. But this is no good. You don’t want a reader having to try to interpret what you’re writing.
I’m also struggling to understand the context of this sentence (is this inner monologue; is this a novel written in first person PoV and the character is explaining their thoughts to the reader?) but I carry on struggling for the next few lines. Then the killer blow. Natalie wakes up. So everything that went before, that I’ve been struggling to understand, isn’t “real”. I’m sorry, but I just feel irritated.
So this is all a dream? For one thing, dreams aren’t that articulate or logical (or at least, mine aren’t). I had every right, as a reader, to believe that this was the conscious thought process of a character in the book, and therefore it was important. But it turns out it’s a dream. It might be of relevance, but it could equally well be completely inconsequential, and it’s the first few lines of your book. Why would you want to sow that kind of doubt (as to whether you can tell a good story) in your reader’s mind in the first few lines? What dramatic point could possibly be worth that gamble?
I strongly feel that when starting with a dream sequence you’re breaking your unwritten contract with the reader. You cannot lie when writing a novel. You can’t tell the reader one thing and then actually reveal, a bit later on, “Well actually, that wasn’t the truth. I made it all up. It was a dream. Fooled you!” By picking up your book the reader is willing to trust you enough to suspend their disbelief, and believe in the reality you are about to describe. If you break that contract and tell them that actually, what they thought was your reality isn’t, it was all some superior, fictional, dream within a dream, that’s too self-referential, too “meta”, for me.
Does that rule out dream sequences, or alternate reality within the construct of the novel, completely? No, not at all. Read any Bukowski lately? But you’ve got to ground the reader in “your” reality first, so that they are then able to take that metaphysical leap with your character. You can’t spring off a diving board if there is no diving board. If this dream sequence occurs later in the book (and is of some importance) when we have been grounded in Natalie’s character and know where she’s at, then recount her dreams all you like. (Personal opinion would be that the book will almost definitely be the weaker for it.)
All of which is a shame, because the rest of the piece shows some real talent. The dialogue is snappy and reads well. There are lots of rabbit holes that we trust we will find out more about later: who or what is Baby? What is Mike and Natalie’s relationship, exactly? Were they lovers? Now she’s with Joe, is there rancor? But there are other questions that I’m not sure you want your reader to be asking. I don’t really understand the timescale. Is the bail/phone-call incident before the vodka/iced tea home visit? Why do we need to know what Mike has written in his book (pretty awful prose, to be honest—he’ll win no awards with that, to be sure)? And the critical question, where does this story start? Does it start with Natalie’s dream? Is that dream life-changing? It doesn’t read like it. Is Mike’s late night appeal for bail life-changing? Perhaps. It’s certainly interesting, but it doesn’t feel like the path of Mike’s or Natalie’s life has been critically diverted. Too many problems for me, when looked at closely, no matter how good the writing.
Thanks for posting!