Read almost any craft book on writing and you’ll find the dictum that we start with action– set the hook, reel the reader in and net him, don’t let him up from his chair to use the bathroom. Well, for much of the time that works and I think we have all come to expect that sort of opening in fiction. So what am I to think when an author starts a debut novel with a long, long description of the main character?
The first sentence in The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin says, “His face was as pitted as the moon.” From this she continues for a long paragraph that tells us about his shoulders, his ears, his nose and lips, even his eyelashes. How lovely he was as a child. Then a short bit about his arms and how he combed his hair. The smell of his pomade. Whew! I was almost in a panic for her, wanted to warn her: “No, no, that’s not how we do it. You’ll lose the reader before he can turn the page.” But that’s a silly reaction when I’m sitting in my big easy chair with a hardcover novel published by Harper Collins. Someone let her get away with this daring opening. Who? What agent and editor had the patience to wade through this static opening? Well, I’ll probably never get an answer to that.
Equally interesting to me is my own willingness to trust that she has done the right thing for her novel. Maybe I was trusting the heft and attractive book design, but I’ve been known to toss away equally nice looking books within a few pages. Life’s short, many books, etc. I think I kept reading the way one looks at a traffic accident. Something’s wrong here and I want to know what’s going on.
But she’s not wrong; she’s good. I’ve developed an aversion to outrageous action in fiction, stuck in like a prize in a Cracker Jack box. Ah, here’s the expected scene with the car chase or the gun shots or the mad sex. She does none of that. What she does is patiently layer meaning into the character until the reader is so deep she can’t climb out, has to keep peeling away this patient book page by page, and never is the action so gory that I slam shut the book. That’s not to say that there is no harm in the book. There’s child slavery and sexual abuse, there’s poker and whiskey and wild horses. But there in the center is that man with the pocked face, a man we know so well that we trust him to do the right thing, even when he’s afraid. I admire this man and that’s not something I can say often about a protagonist. Don’t break rules if they involve driving a car or investing other people’s money, but in writing, take a chance. It’s only paper and you can always change your mind. I’m glad Coplin took a risk.