[Note: This is a novel being presented in installments, one chapter per week, every Friday, from May 4 to August 24, 2012. The full novel will be published in its entirety in September 2012.]
After ending strong with the opening chapter, it’s sometimes good to lead with something exciting to grab the reader’s attention. Jonathan sits frustrated at his computer. He has several interesting stories from his past that he wants to put in his novel.
-How do I grab and keep their attention?
There are two ways I believe you can grab the reader’s attention early on in a book. The first is to continue along a linear path. The reader has already invested time in the first chapter getting to know the character a little and has hopefully a bit of a piqued curiosity of where it might go next.
Jonathan is having a hard time trying to connect the next scene from the last. He had ended the first chapter with the imagined eulogy by the protagonist, an overtly cynical version of himself, sitting at his university graduation. It made sense that the next chapter should be that cynical character continuing and elaborating on his thoughts.
No one could hear a word of Jonathan’s eulogy. Thoughts danced through his mind as he continued to sit through the funeral masquerading as a university graduation. It was refreshing to Jon how honest he could be when no one hears him. He imagined that was the origin of speaking behind someone’s back. He didn’t plan to speak behind anyone’s back. It just happened in his head. He felt crushed watching his classmates all buried together with him, an ensemble macabre. He wanted time to roll backwards. There was still so much to do. There was so much they had done.
‘“When you arrive at university they take you to your residence hall and introduce you to the room where eighty percent of your best memories from that year are going to happen, and one hundred percent of your worst. They take you from checking in at the office and walk you down the path, asking illuminating questions about your hometown, what you plan to study, and if you will be on their team on trivia night. The correct answer to these questions are: random town, because you will forget it after meeting five hundred other new students this week and ask me again in a week; biochemistry, because that usually involves zero follow up questions; and yes, certainly. You will find that by trivia night they will have found other teammates and you are off the hook. After this wonderful introduction of useless, and possibly untrue, truths about yourself, the dutiful staff member walks you up the stairs of your residence hall and opens the door to your new home. Inside you will find four walls, a desk, a lamp, a chair, a window, and, of course, the bed. Try not to think of the bed before you arrived. Seriously, don’t let your mind think a single thought about it. It will drive you mad when you do. Don’t think about the bed.
“So, would you say the room is in excellent, good, fair, or poor condition?”
“For the agreement, we need to ensure that when you move out, it will be in the same condition as the day you arrived.”
What had the previous owner done to the room? Don’t think about the bed!
“Oh, I don’t know. I can’t see anything wrong with it.”
“You seem nice, and I don’t want to make it difficult for you at the end of the year, so let’s put it as in good condition.”
She winks with that assuredness that tells you that every room on campus is really in excellent condition but she’s doing you a solid. You are special. Don’t think about the bed.
She leaves you to the room, where you start to unpack your bag in to the dresser and the closet. There is a stack of linen on the bed. Don’t think about the bed. You make the bed, but try really hard not to think about it. This room, and specifically this bed, didn’t exist until the moment that woman from the accommodations office walked you in. There is a magic machine that spontaneously creates accommodations from the moment a key enters a door. This building was built in 1965, but this room is brand new. Don’t think about the bed.
And then, out of nowhere, you think about the bed. You are usually sitting on the bed at that moment. All that random assurance you had given yourself on your trip to university, that this would be when you are finally free to experience life, that this was the time to try new and exciting things. Every person who has lived in this room since 1965 has thought those very same thoughts. It’s too late not to think about the bed. You start to wonder how often they replace mattresses. At this point, no answer will suffice. It could be every thirty, twenty, ten, or two years and you will not be happy. Once you get over those thoughts, usually when in the company of someone else, it gets easier.
It was at that moment of general uneasiness sitting on my new bed that I began to explore the accommodations. When I said that the room was four walls that was a bit of an understatement. There were, in fact, five walls. There was a half wall that separated the front of my room, the part with the door and front closet and the back half, where the desk, windows, and, yes, the bed, lived. In that front part of the room there was also a closet, a sink, and another door. This second door appeared to go in to the neighbouring room, like in a hotel. I examined the door, looking for any signs that it would open in to another dimension, possibly one with a fresh mattress. I noticed at about eye level there was a small, sliding security lock. It was barely longer than an inch and when it was engaged at work, as it presumably was then, it remained precariously unassured. I reached out and slid the lock back. Drawing as much air as possible in to my lungs I turned the doorknob and opened the other dimension door. Inside was not another world, or barely even another room. It was what was optimistically described as a bog. It was nothing more than a small square room with a toilet and a shower. Across from my opened door was an identical, closed, door. I took a step closer to see whether there might be that second dimension hidden behind. What was there was far more interesting, and frightening, than I could have imagined.
Gio opened his door to the bog and we were six inches apart in a tiny square washroom. A wild mane of dark brown hair covered his head. I didn’t know it for sure, but my suspicions began, that this was the lanky illegitimate lovechild of Tommy Lee and Stevie Ray Vaughn, conceived in one frantic night of acid and blues based guitar jams.
“Hi, I’m Jonathan. I guess we’re neighbours.”
“Where you from?”
Of course, I had moved across the country to attend some small university with the hope of meeting interesting people and fate would deliver me the Walloon offspring of Def Leppard and Hendrix. I suppose it couldn’t get more interesting.
“Oh, that’s cool. That’s in Europe, right?”
Thank you memory for stepping up at that crucial moment. I knew where Belgium was. I was well aware that Brussels was its capital. I knew it had a king. I had learned that bastard dialects of French and Dutch were their national languages. All of those facts seemed to resist any relay from my brain to my mouth.
“I’m from B.C.”
This was the first person I had met that honestly didn’t care about a single detail of my existence. He didn’t question me about what town I was from, whether I skied, what I was going to study, or if I would be on his trivia team. I knew I would like Gio.
“I think we’re supposed to head outside at three for some sort of rez orientation.”
And that really was it. Gio was just this Belgian enigma who disappeared behind the bog door until three. Muffled ZZ Top permeated our common wall.
I went in to the hallway and saw the other floormates moving in to their rooms. There were eight of us to the floor. Gio was in the corner on our side of the hallway. Then myself. Next to me was Midge, a modern languages student who despite her white small town upbringing was likely to study Ebonics as her major. She at least had Bob Marley on one wall and 50 Cent on another. Next to Midge was Whatsherface. Her name does not matter, and indeed none of them do as I’m handing out aliases, but hers especially didn’t matter, as after years of knowing her none of us were ever entirely certain about the truth behind any of her statements. Rumours swirled that her dad was connected with the Russian mob. Or maybe he lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for some sheikh. Or was in prison somewhere in Quebec. It does not really matter, as I can’t really say anything about her. If university is a time period built for making superficial human connections ours would be on the poster. How do you know someone for years and not actually know a thing? Across from Whatsherface was Nick. Nick was the first Nova Scotian I had ever met and I continue to use him as the benchmark for what good Maritimers should be. He was a tall guy, broad at that time, with a terrible fashion sense and a bawdy laugh. Every moment was his. You know the type? The type of person who could enter a room and own it, even when he just didn’t care. When we gathered, Nick set the pace. Next to Nick was his bog mate, Mark. I don’t really know how to describe Mark. He was the artistic, musical type. We once caught him coming back in to the residence at five in the morning and had assumed he was off with some girl. Mark assured us he had actually been playing his sax in the woods, as it felt like the right kind of night to do that. Next to Mark, and across from me, was Melissa. There was a constant haze around her, though you wouldn’t guess it from when she moved in. What do you say about people raised conservative who discover themselves at college? I guess I’d include myself in that column. If you have an answer let me know. Melissa’s bog mate was Sally, a flighty acting major who spoke with great “brahvahdoh”. You’d never guess that she and Nick came from the same planet, let alone province.”’
As Jonathan sat there, drinking unhealthy amounts of coffee, he read his second chapter and thought it was okay. Not great, but okay.
These were hardly inspiring words of confidence from the writer, just two chapters in to his own novel. That’s the beautiful thing about writers; they are all manic depressives. Maybe not all writers, though certainly a large number of them. They are the first to fly to the heavens at a whiff of their own genius and the first to come crashing down, not just to earth, but right through its crust, at the first instance of failure. They really are an excitable bunch.
Jonathan’s miserable despair at his words lashed at him viciously. What a fool he was. How could he have believed that his words had any value? He was going to lose any reader’s interest with a pedestrian recollection of his youth.
This happened. Then another thing happened. After that, a third thing happened.
This is when Jonathan thought of the second way to grab the reader’s attention early. It’s a bit of a gambit, but when it works, it really works. You shock them.
Jonathan decided to set aside “First Meetings” for later and took a stab at the shock gambit.
The lieutenant couldn’t believe his eyes. These men, these heroes, were men. And they wanted to see ladies. It had to be tonight. Of all the nights for him to be on sober duty. Sure, why not, he thought, when he was scheduled. He never really enjoyed the mess hall dinners. Sure, he got drunk. Everyone did. But there was not some form of lingering need within his bowels to be at those dinners. If anything, the dinners were just a start to the evening. The dinners were the appetizers. These young men could create any sort of havoc on their own afterwards and that was what made these nights special. Or what the lieutenant thought was special. After tonight the bar was to be raised by men who had won a war. This was not the same as a bunch of part timers, those weekenders, with their cushy university lives going out carousing on a Thursday night. These were men. These men had needs, and damn you if you get in their way.
Gio floored the Mercedes down the highway, periodically gazing at the backseat through his rear view mirror. Not his, this was Tommy’s car, a beautiful boat of a 1980s Mercedes Benz, the kind of car lesser African dictators would own. Tommy was squeezed in the back seat, as he was quite a large man himself, with two Second World War veterans, neither of whom was looking all that frail for their age, or their state. On top of the three men lay a stripper; still in her kit; with a fur coat worn over like a blanket for good measure, it was February. The bottle of Jack was being passed between the four of them as Tommy giggled and the war vets laughed riotously. The stripper didn’t seem to give a damn about humour and every fourth pass of the bottle went down without ceremony. Barely keeping Gio company in the front seat was a second stripper who alternated between lying back, letting her head rest between the seat and the door, and hunching over the front console, snorting lines of cocaine. Every attempt by Gio to grab her attention was met with indifference or over exuberance. The bitch just wouldn’t converse.
The car drove around the night swept city prowling for any sort of action the kids could show the vets. It was hopeless. Gio was beginning to fatigue. He was surprised by the stamina of the two vets, who surely had to be at least eighty years old. The silent, morose stripper in the back had been persuaded to give a “private” dance for one of the old men, while the other watched. Tommy alternated between sneaking a look and curling over to the side with glee. The girl in the front had passed out, with her head diagonally resting between the seat and the door. Gio kept looking over and tried to admire her naked legs. This close, and at this hour, with sober eyes, she really was not so beautiful. It was a wonder she could make enough money to support her coke habit. How many generous generals must she know? But this was not the time to reflect as Tommy began to bark in the back.
“Gio! They want to see my guns.”
“They want me to show them my collection of guns.”
“Are you nuts, Tommy? You are pretty wasted.”
“Come on, Gio. We will go to my house and pick up a gun or two.”
At that point one of the old guys joined the conversation.
“Lieutenant, I want a gun in my hand.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but I really can’t let you do that, now.”
It was five in the morning and Gio was chauffeuring three drunken soldiers and two coked out strippers to no particular end in sight. He didn’t want to pick that end.
“Fine, forget it.”
Tommy looked disappointed. His fat, stupid face had really got its hopes up to show the old men his collection, his pride. He would have even taken them out in to a field and let them shoot at targets, maybe the JD bottle on the floor of the car, whatever they wanted. He just wanted their admiration. Growing up, he wanted nothing more than to serve his country.
Gio just wanted to go home. It was one thing to take them out for a few drinks, but things had got out of hand. How did this all start? He was sober, but tired. If he tried he could piece together some version of what happened that led to that moment. They had been at the mess hall for their dinner on a Thursday night. Gio was on duty. That night, several veterans visited the reservists. Two of them took a shining to Tommy. Tommy invited them out for drinks after the mess hall. The drinks took place at the strip club. The uniforms, and the money flowing from them, caught the attention of two strippers. The club closed at three. Tommy, the two veterans, the two strippers and Gio all piled in to the car and drove around town. The story was a jumble. Where did the Jack come from? Was it the mess hall? Did Tommy have it before? Was that really how it happened? Gio hadn’t seen everything. There was a period where he was socializing with other reservists at the hall. Did they come to the club too? What happened to the other veterans? Gio could have sworn he saw at least four or five of them go in to the ‘rippers. When did the commanding officer leave? He was at the club; Gio knew that.
This had been a test of patience for Gio as he tried to be the same devil may care person he was when he was drunk. But he was not drunk, and he did, somehow, care. Consoling him through the night had been two packs of cigarettes. A limp one hung from his lips as he and Tommy dropped their guests off at the hotel.
Gio got to bed at six. He pulled the blanket over his head and disappeared. The whole night flew through his mind, a thousand times, each one slightly different than the first. He didn’t know what direction was up or down. He just closed his eyes.
Jonathan liked that bit. He thought he was back on track with his book. Nothing was a better story about how far off they had gone as young men at university. It was one of his favourite stories from the real Gio. It was dangerous and absurd.
He didn’t know where to put the next part, so he just wrote it down and put it to the side for now.
‘“Later that morning, after four, maybe five hours sleep; Gio stumbled out of his room and greeted us with a grin.
“You will never believe what happened last night.”
I don’t. But a part of me wants to buy the mythology. A part of me wants to believe that anything is possible when Gio is there. He rarely seemed to be the catalyst for anything, but everything happened to him in those days. As for today, I look around at the crowd of awkwardly smiling faces and don’t see his. He is supposed to be at basic training right now, but I’m never sure with Gio. His mom had wanted him to come to the convocation ceremony; I know that. Maybe she has the same lingering doubts about everything he says. Maybe she needs to physically see him walk across a stage to believe that he had spent four years enrolled in study. Come to think of it, I have the same doubt and I lived with Gio for four years.”’
Somehow, somewhere in the book he’d let that cynical eulogist connect the dots. Linear progression is for squares.