Wednesday, April 22, 2009

First Impressions, and the Importance Thereof

Minutes after the shootings, everybody's cell phone rang. We weren't supposed to have cell phones unless we had a note from our parents explaining why they had to be able to reach us in a hurry.

But most of us had them anyway, and, as it turned out, most of the parents (for all their complaining about how much TV kids watched) were close enough to a radio or television so that they found out immediately, and all the phones went off at once. The annoying rings and the stupid songs sang out, only slightly muffled, from inside everyone's backpacks.

So begins After, by Francine Prose. (And may I just say, what an awesome name for a writer!) This is one of the best books I have read in a very long time. It's about a fictional high school, which is a short distance away from Pleasant Valley, where a Columbine-type shooting has just happened. The day after the shootings, things start to change. The next day a grief counsellor is brought in, and after that little freedoms start to disappear, all with the most reasonable of intentions.

Then the freedoms that are being lost get bigger.

Then people (students and teachers who speak out in any way) start to disappear.

The book is terrific; the suspense kept me reading far, far past my bedtime, and although the book belongs to the school library and they know a) my name; b) where I work; c) what kind of car I drive and where I park it; and d) my boss; I am seriously considering not returning it.

"Prose, you say? Cool name. Never heard of her."

Sadly, I think my students would rat me out, since I read this opening to several classes as an example of how the first lines of a story can hook you.

Two of my ESL classes are writing story anthologies right now, and when we're done the hard work of first drafts and first revisions, we're going to have an opening line contest - I can hardly wait. With other classes (that is, classes of students who are all proficient English language speakers) I have shown the Bullwer-Lytton Fiction contest (go here, you won't regret it), which is a contest run every year for the worst opening line of an imaginary novel. I might do that with this group, but some of those sentences are mighty complicated, and some are not (ahem) quite age appropriate.

If I ever write a novel, I will make sure it has a kicking first line.

(Speaking of first impressions, I observed my eccentric neighbour last weekend, walking up the road at quarter to eight on Saturday morning carrying a rice cooker. Cool.)

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