Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Don't Open Your Novel With the Weather?

Haven't you heard that advice a few times--Don't open your novel with the weather?

I have a lot of books around my house, and I knew there would be some with opening sentences about the weather, so I did a little search. I didn't bother with first-time authors, but went for the big guys, the ones who had been writing a long time and could pretty much write what they want the way they wanted to write it. Here's what I found:

"The first week after Labor Day, after a summer of hot wind and drought that left the cane fields dust blown and spiderwebbed with cracks, rain showers once more danced across the wetlands, the temperature dropped twenty degrees, and the sky turned the hard flawless blue of an inverted ceramic bowl."
.....James Lee Burke, Last Car to Elysian Fields: A Dave Robicheaux novel (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

Whew, long sentence, Mr. Burke. But nice. Very nice.

"The morning air off the Mohave in late winter is as clean and crisp as you'll ever breathe in Los Angeles County."
.....Michael Connelly, The Lincoln Lawyer (Warner Books, 2005)

Personally, I've never experienced that in LA County, but I'll take Mr. Connelly's word for it.

"It was sullen and gusty and snowing like hell when I went to see Grace."
.....Robert B. Parker, All Our Yesterdays (Delacorte Press, 1994)

I'm already wondering why seeing Grace was so important that the character had to go out in that kind of weather.

"A nasty squall had blown across Pitts Bay earlier in the day, the wind tossing sheets of water against the landmark pink facade of the famed Hamilton Princess Hotel."
.....Margaret Truman, Murder at Union Station: A Capital Crimes Novel (Ballentine Books, 2004)

Hmmm. I haven't read Margaret Truman lately. Maybe I'll move that one up on my list.

So what does this tell you? First, if you're observant, you'll notice I'm way behind in my reading, because these are older book.

More on the topic, however, you'll see that weather can provide a convenient way to identify the story's setting and set the first scene. I know some agents and editors don't like manuscripts that open with weather. I don't understand why. Any thoughts on that?

~~Pat Stoltey


Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Oh, thanks for mentioning Michael Connelly; he's one of my all-time favourites. I, too, have heard that "rule" about the weather, but the fact is, weather can add a real layer to a story and if it's done well, why not start with that context?

irishoma said...

Interesting post and great examples.
I had heard the rule about the weather; maybe it's to avoid openings like "it was a dark and stormy night."
Donna V.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Of course, choosing examples by these most excellent authors makes a difference, too. We need to learn all the "rules" and pay our dues before we can break them.

GutsyWriter said...

Yes, that weather comment comes from every agent's mouth. I'm so happy you gave us some recent examples where weather is mentioned. Thanks for proving that we can take a Gutsy approach and break the rules.

Mary Vaughn said...

If junior high English is any indication it's because a world of literature took place on that "It was a dark and stormy night." Very over used and not much of a hook.

j. a. kazimer said...

Hi Pat,

Very interesting. I was just reading Pimp My Novel's blog, and he was listing what agents don't like in a first chapter, and a couple of them declared the weather to be one of those things that dooms you to the rejection pile. But, you're right, many novels, by great writers start with a comment about the weather.

My thought is, since we're not these big writers, why push our luck with a weather hating agent?

Besides, why do we like the weather so much? It's sort of like someone telling us about a dream they had ~ boring (unless said dream is filled with Brad Pitt look-alikes). Well just a thought.

Great blog, got me thinking so early in the morning!

Anonymous said...

My book originally opened with the weather, but then I added the mini stand alone adventure to start things off. And the character is inside so the weather at this point is a bit irrelevent.

N. R. Williams said...

Patricia, those are all excellent examples and you didn't even have to refer to the one that starts out, "It was a dark..." you know it. I agree with you. Weather when well written can add an element like nothing else.
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Anonymous said...

I don't understand why not, either. These beginnings set a mood, set the scene: roughly the time of year and sometimes the place as in Pitts Bay. I agree that they're very good. They encourage me to keep reading.

Kay Theodoratus said...

If the weather is integral to the starting action and indicates the setting ... why not?

Patricia Stoltey said...

You've all made great points. I keep going back to a novel idea where the action begins during a hurricane (or other bad storm). It would be pretty sad to have a book rejected on page one because the first paragraph set the stage with howling winds and pouring rain. :)

Lynda Young said...

I think many agents/editors/publishers don't like weather openers is because it's been done to death. But then, like you say, there are those authors who just do it right. And they do it well.

W.I.P. It: A Writer's Journey

Holly Ruggiero said...

I think when done right like in your examples it's wonderful. Just better make sure I do it right if I do it!

hearwritenow said...

Those are great examples, Pat. I think it's a case that you have to know the rules before you can break them effectively. These are, as you put it on Facebook, "seasoned" authors; they know exactly what they're doing here.

HearWriteNow & Blood-Red Pencil

Kenney Mencher said...

Some of my favorite books have some great descriptions of environment and I think that if it's handled well it really is a great way to open.

Patricia Stoltey said...

I guess one thing we'd need to avoid these days is the John Michener environmental opening, although I have to admit that I always read and enjoyed them (in the old days).

Anonymous said...

These are well-written. I remember in my earlier writings I went overboard with description. No one would have wanted to read about my take on the sky or temperature.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Oh, I think if the writer can write weather effectively (like the great authors in your examples), then why not? :)

William M. Brock said...

This became a popular because it is one of Elmore Leonard's Ten Rules for Writing. (His 11th rule? "Unless it makes a better story.")

If you have a bad habit, it sometimes helps to ban it from your writing, at least for a little while. I cut out all adverbs for a while, and now use them sparingly(Ha!) One of my favorite writers, Mario Puzo, sprinkled in adverbs everywhere. Go figure.

BTW: I hate putting weather in a story. I hate placing my stories in a definite place and time. I also hate naming characters. But many readers demand these little touches.

Margaret Yang said...

Mystery writer Richard A. Thompson (Fiddle Game, Frag Box) opens all of his books with weather. Even his very first one. I guess he's the exception that proves the rule.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Thanks to everyone who stopped by to check on the weather and left excellent comments.

Kerrie said...

I agree with Elizabeth, if you can write it well, then go for it!

Ron at CM said...

Yeah... much better to start with a dream, or driving in a car, or having a cup of coffee... B^)

Royce said...

We were taught to open descriptively, including weather diatribes, back in the writing/composition classes of the early 70s.
Times change as do audiences, however … so, write … whatever sells to an agent/publisher (to pay the bills) and what you ’feel’ to express yourself.