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The Small Boys Came Early to the Hanging

Karl Giberson

Writer’s Log, Stardate 12-1-2

I am hunkering down on Creating Adam today. For over a month I have been struggling with how best to start that book. It’s a secular book, with a secular press, on a religious topic.  My target audience includes both secular and religious readers and I want to make sure I open the book as strongly as possible.

Careful attention to the writing process is essential for good books. Too many books, especially written by people with academic pedigrees like mine, assume that the primary ingredient in a good book is good information.  The reader is treated like a “student who has to read this book,” rather a “reader who has many choices about what to read.” 

Good books have openings that work—that tell the reader on the first page that this is going to be an engaging book that they will enjoy. Key over-arching themes and big questions are established early and the text remains faithful to these early promises of what the book will do.

My favorite story about openings involves Ken Follet’s sprawling thousand-page novel, The Pillars of the Earth. A close friend was raving about this book and wanted me to read it. “What is it about?” I asked—a natural question. “The construction of a medieval cathedral,” was the hardly promising response.  So I told my friend I would read the first sentence and, if I liked it, the first page; and if I liked that, the first chapter; and if I liked that I would keep on going.

I can still recall the first sentence 20 years later: “The small boys came early to the hanging.”  Who can stop reading there?

By the bottom of the first page, it was clear that something was remiss about this hanging. I needed to know what it was.

The first chapter ended a few pages later with a strange woman leaping onto the scaffolding with a live chicken. She tore the head off the chicken and sprayed the executioners with blood, pronouncing a curse on them.

Pillars of the Earth turned out to be the best novel I have ever read but I would not have read it if Ken Follet—who had a cameo role in the mini-series based on the book—had not crafted his opening so carefully.

Works of non-fiction need to have equally crafted openings. I began an essay about revisiting my home town, years after I had moved away, like this: “’The wind is not right’ said the man who could fly.” This short essay was one of my most popular pieces and was reprinted three times. One of the books I am using for Creating Adam is New Worlds, Ancient Texts by Anthony Grafton. It begins: “Between 1550 and 1650 Western thinkers ceased to believe that they could find all important truths in ancient books.”  This is a great opening and the book does not disappoint. On the other hand, another book I am using is Adam’s Ancestors by David Livingstone.  It opens with a dense half page of text from the beginning of the Bible followed by this sentence: “Ever since 1611, when the King James Bible first appeared, these words have introduced Bible readers to Adam, the father of the human race.” The book contains absolutely fascinating information, presented competently and authoritatively, but with little excitement.

I want Creating Adam to have an opening that pulls in the reader.  Hopefully by the end of the week I will have found one.

Writer’s Log Supplemental:  I just got word from Brazos that they are giving me enough copies of Peter Enns’ just published Evolving Adam for everyone in my class at Gordon College. The students have to read it and do reviews on Amazon and one other place but that is a good assignment for a writing workshop, even if the book is not free.