Alchemy on the First Page

I‘m at Malice Domestic this weekend and so have begged one of our favorite Murderati regulars, Billie Hinton, to guest, today.   Billie is a Jungian therapist and is constantly amazing us here with her meta-comments.    I’m finding today’s topic particularly relevant as I mingle with so many dedicated readers here at Malice.   I’ll try to blog a little about it later in the day.

– Meanshile, enjoy!   – Alex

                                                ALCHEMY ON THE FIRST PAGE

      In Carl Gustav Jung’s field of work model, the therapist and client interact on a conscious level – what is said and done in the room. But they also interact on an unconscious level, and Jung felt that when the therapist and the client both drop into this deeper level of work, there is opportunity for transformation.

    He suggests that if the therapist holds her own conscious/unconscious material as well as the client’s, this “alehemical container” creates the space where transformation happens.

    I commented recently here that I’m a reader  “willing to be amazed.” I’m also a writer who wants to amaze. As an adjunct to both those things, I’m slightly obsessed by the writing process and recently seized on Jung’s field of work model as I venture/stumble into the bowels of a second novel ms that needs revision. The goal: to try and make sense of what exactly I need to do with this book. Actually, it’s more than that. I want to perform alchemy.

    I suspect something akin to Jung’s “alchemical container” happens when a masterful author writes a book that resonates with a huge number of readers, mixing insight and character, story and plot in a way that creates the space for readers to open the book and immediately sink deep – into action and narrative and dialogue and motivation. And when it works well, magic and transformation.

    A tall order!

    I think I’ve mastered creating some magic in my books – but I’m still struggling with how to get that alchemical container in place on page one and sustain it for the rest of the novel.

    I suspect in my case, I have to wrench myself out of therapist mode and move fully into the role of writer as alchemist – not writer protecting readers or characters or anybody else.  Not walking the reader in slowly, but inviting the bold jump into deep waters.

    As a writer, how do you go deep on that very first page and create the alchemy that carries through to transformation?

    And as a reader, what works for you? What alchemy happens on the first page of the book you aren’t willing to put down?

33 thoughts on “Alchemy on the First Page

  1. Marc Cooper

    For me, the transformation that happens is that I step quickly through the gateway door into another world prepared for me by the author.

    When it works well, it is almost like a jump from the cliff into the deep waters of a welcoming pool.

    Reply
  2. billie

    Marc, what a wonderful image. I get that same gateway feeling with books that take me over right away.

    With clients, I often do a visual meditation in the sessions of a huge container beneath the room, holding everything that’s happening in safety.

    I wonder if a similar thing would work as I revise those first crucial pages – but using your image of the gateway, the jump, and the deep welcoming pool. I think I’ll try that!

    Reply
  3. Karen Dionne

    “As a writer, how do you go deep on that very first page and create the alchemy that carries through to transformation?”

    I heard a talk by Jonathan Karp a couple of years ago at a writers conference where he tossed pithy bits of wisdom at the audience like confetti – he’s a marvelous speaker, a creative talent in his own right, and a wonderful editor. I hadn’t planned on taking notes, so I had no paper with me – I ended up scribbling the best of the best on the backs of my business cards, which I still refer to periodically as a reminder of what the writer’s pact with the reader is all about.

    One of my favorites I think applies to this discussion: “Novels should be novel.” Seems obvious, but if nothing in the opening paragraphs surprises the reader, or seems fresh or new or exciting, why should they continue reading?

    He also said: “Writing is an alchemy of inspiration and calculation.””Seductiveness” is essential, as are “clarity,” “originality,” and “wit” – elements which all go back to the idea of surprise.

    The story HAS to surprise the reader from the very beginning. When a reader is surprised, they’re entertained (or moved, or otherwise touched on both an intellectual and an emotional level). It could be a story event, or a character’s internal dialogue, or even just an evocative description, but a story that promises fresh perspectives from page one (and then delivers all the way to the last page) is the one that will resonate with readers. More important than every other tool in a writer’s kit is the element of surprise.

    Jonathan summed it up by saying that a novel needs to “hit hard, and grab me from the beginning. If you can’t do it from the start, why should I think you’ll do it later?”

    I like that.

    Reply
  4. billie

    Karen! What a treasure trove – thanks for sharing each of those gems. I started taking notes with Marc’s comment and I have a feeling I’ll be doing that on through the day.

    I especially love the “alchemy of inspiration and calculation.”

    Wow.

    Reply
  5. Louise Ure

    Hi Billie,

    Nice to see you with a full column space here!

    For me, the magic of the first page is easy. I write it fast — maybe fifteen minutes — and rarely change a word after that.

    But it’s maintaining that magic over the course of three hundred pages that’s more difficult. I feel rather like that miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin, unable to spin the expected gold from straw.

    Reply
  6. Karen Dionne

    I’m glad you found his gems inspiring! I sure did (and have been trying to get Jonathan to keynote at one of our Backspace conferences ever since. Perhaps in 2008 . . .)

    I was thinking about this subject a little more, and was reminded of what a friend of mine, Jon Clinch’s editor (Will Murphy at Random House) says in the preface to the ARC of Jon’s novel, FINN.

    FINN begins with the most beautiful description of a dead body floating down the river you’ll ever read. Partway through that first scene, the reader learns it’s the body of a woman, then that the body has been skinned. (surprise!)

    In the second scene, we see the book’s central character, Pap Finn, tossing strips of meat into a blind bootlegger’s cooking fire . . .

    Surprise again. Two scenes into the book, two unexpected turns, and I was SO in.

    Jon’s editor was too (enough that he hung on through a three-day auction to come out the top bidder):

    “As someone who loves Mark Twain, I was skeptical at first that Jon Clinch could really deliver on this novel’s startling premise. A few pages in, I lost all sense of self and surroundings. I was gone for days. He did it. FINN is powerful. It moves with steamboat force and crackles with meaning. It lifts up Twain’s world to expose the dark universe beneath it. It’s fearless.

    “I can’t stop talking about FINN. I’ve even started talking *like* Finn, which is causing concern among my colleagues. I urge you to read it. This is a novel that takes a classic American vision, and creates from it something fearsome, brilliant, and new.”

    “startling” “fearless” “new.” I really think that assuming all other elements are present, surprise is the key.

    Reply
  7. billie

    Louise – thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here, and an honor! The thought of you writing that first page out of a space that captures the magic so purely intrigues me. As I read your comment I had the thought that at least some of this task as a writer has to do with finding the magic ourselves before we sit down to put it on the page. I know this will sit with me as I get back to my own first pages.

    Karen – Finn is on my list but not yet in my pile. From everything I hear about it, I feel sure it’s going to be a fine read. The editor’s preface certainly puts out there what it is we need to do, doesn’t it?

    Reply
  8. billie

    Oh, and as I hit the post key another thought hit me:

    startling.. fearless.. new..

    Those words are key but I think also sometimes ..scary.

    As a writer, it isn’t always easy to put it out there, right off the bat, if at all. I think some of the alchemy involves boldness and the willingness to be vulnerable. I’m sure that’s true for not only the writer, but the characters we write about.

    Reply
  9. Torrey

    I suppose I boil my alchemy down to a more crude, simplistic process. Because I am but a simple man.

    While writing if it makes me stop and think, “No one will want to read this. It’s too offensive/horrifying/realistic on all the wrong subjects,” then I pause a minute, debate deleting the whole thing, and then make the executive decision to go in the opposite direction of my first impulse.

    I take that fear as a sign that I’m doing something right, and drive the writing to greater extremes.

    If it scares you–for whatever reason, not necessarily due to suspense, but because the way the characters are behaving or interacting or any number of things that happen in a story–then you’re on the right track.

    I would say good writing reads as if it was written fearlessly, but a great deal of trepidation goes into constructing something fearless.

    Reply
  10. Karen Dionne

    A big yes to what Torrey said. If we’re intimidated by our writing, thinking the subject matter or the characters are too dark/hard/complex/foreign or whatever, then we’re on the right track, because we’ve come out of the safe, comfortable zone to a place where our writing has the chance to really shine.

    If we won’t go there, how can the reader?

    Reply
  11. JT Ellison

    Welcome, Billie! Knew a column from you would be inspiring.Fear is the writer’s greatest enemy. You have to be willing to take chances, to fail, if you have any hope of doing it right. I’m like Louise, I don’t agonize over my beginnings. They know what they have to be to capture the readers interest and kick start the story. Keeping that pace, that level of intoxication, is the challenge I enjoy.

    Reply
  12. Elaine Flinn

    I agree with Louise (I usually do!) that a writers greatest fear is not the first page, but – the subsequent pages. And once they are done – the next biggest fear arises; paralysis by analysis.

    Terrific subject, Billie. Hope you’ll be back again.

    Reply
  13. Joseph Gallo

    I find that continuously striving to be “a writer willing to be amazed” works best. At least for what I seek to do.

    We all subsume and submerge to whatever depths we are willing to sound and these depths are not always known to us. I rather like it that way.

    Whether the first page or the first sentence, I can’t really speak to that. I know that supernovae neither require darkness, lighting, or exploding on the first page and do not even require mentioning.

    But it helps to have one somewhere along the way and enough smaller heavenly bodies leading the eye towards that sudden brilliance.

    Yes—“Writing is an alchemy of inspiration and calculation.”

    But it is also a symphony of accident and unexpected surprise. Calculation comes in rewrite and editing; creation comes in losing oneself in fealess territories.

    But what do I know? This won’t help at all, but I do love the fervor of your inquiry.

    Reply
  14. Joseph Gallo

    I find that continuously striving to be “a writer willing to be amazed” works best. At least for what I seek to do.

    We all subsume and submerge to whatever depths we are willing to sound and these depths are not always known to us. I rather like it that way.

    Whether the first page or the first sentence, I can’t really speak to that. I know that supernovae neither require darkness, lighting, or exploding on the first page and do not even require mentioning.

    But it helps to have one somewhere along the way and enough smaller heavenly bodies leading the eye towards that sudden brilliance.

    Yes—“Writing is an alchemy of inspiration and calculation.”

    But it is also a symphony of accident and unexpected surprise. Calculation comes in rewrite and editing; creation comes in losing oneself in fearless territories.

    But what do I know? This won’t help at all, but I do love the fervor of your inquiry.

    Reply
  15. jason evans

    Perhaps there is a bit of the alchemical process to be savored before the first words are typed. Your novel is a kind of entity, separate and apart from you. Some of the Jungian unconscious connection can happen there too. That soul the two of you create (you with your life experiences and your novel with nothing more than expectant potential) is like the moment of cosmic silence before the big bang. I think if you step back, then let the detonation occur on the first page, both you and the reader will be swept away.

    To feel the power side by side with the reader requires a certain surrender.

    Reply
  16. billie

    Thanks, Joseph and Jason, for adding such lovely thoughts to the thread here. I really did take notes, and will now pull my black notebook out again. 🙂

    Reply

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