Monday, July 28, 2008

Welcome Guest Blogger - Andy Meisenheimer

Zondervan acquired Andy Meisenheimer (pronounced "Jones") not so very long ago. He was selling newspapers on the street corner when he was noticed by publishing big wigs because of his loud voice, red hair (he would say "stunning good looks"), and because he correctly pronounced the words 'ostensibly' and 'verbiage' (You try. Not as easy as it looks, eh?)

Now that I think about it, that was a different Andy Meisenheimer. I think he sells pop cans now.

The Andy Meisenheimer WE are interested in has a different bio altogether. Here it is:
Andy Meisenheimer is an editor at Zondervan in Grand Rapids, MI, acquiring both fiction and non-fiction. He is in his fifth year at Zondervan, his ninth year of marriage, his second year of fatherhood, and, like most everybody else, the fourth season of LOST. You can find his name in the acknowledgements of books such as My Name Is Russell Fink and The Almost True Story of Ryan Fisher. (cue wild applause)
(Both covers shamelessly promoted here, and brazenly available at and the fine [real] bookstore near you).

If you get the impression I'm attempting to dispel the notion that editors are man-eating beasts who laugh in the face of first drafts and sleep curled up beside their furious red pens, you'd be right (and a heck of a mind reader too!). Andy informed me that the days of chewing up and spitting out authors has come and gone. He nibbled a big toe once, but he's put that behind him now.

On with the blog! Andy has slapped together a shoddy bit about opening scenes. Actually, it's quiet wonderful - made all the more so because I am nearly certain he jotted it down in about three minutes last night after cooking his lovely wife her dinner.
Alright. Lets all sit up straight - no slouching now! and read this primer about how to open a scene that everyone will want to read - and keep reading:
Opening scenes
by Andy Meisenheimer

Storytellers have a terrible burden. There’s just so much information to give—names, histories, relationships, emotions, bank records, genetics, ring sizes, hair color—and not enough space to give it in.

The problem is: the audience wants drama, not information. Does anyone remember that the entire first season of “Lost” gave us absolutely nothing? They did a whole season without ever opening the hatch! How did we survive? Because we had drama.

A man goes to confession and says “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.” The priest says “So, my friend, have I.”

But, the storyteller says, don’t they need to know that the man’s name is David, that he’s six-two and ruggedly handsome? That he needs forgiveness for the murder of his wife’s ex-husband? That his father missed every single ballgame? That he’s a public defender? That he’s independently wealthy?

But if any of those things are important, the audience responds, won’t you show them to us in dramatic format? Won’t he eventually get a call from a client? Won’t he go to his mother’s house and find her crying into her drink? Won’t the detective show up at his door with questions? Won’t he have to scrub out blood from his shirt? Won’t some pretty prosecutor turn her affections his way? Won’t he take her sailing? And if you don’t dramatize that information, then is it really essential?

What happens in those two sentences? A man wants something. Something keeps him from getting it. And the reader is hooked. As long as the protagonist wants something, the audience wants to know if he’ll get it. And they do not want to be exposed to the unessential—and that’s the unessential from their viewpoint, not the viewpoint of the storyteller.

Filmmaker David Mamet puts it in a way that I’m constantly quoting and rarely remembering to attribute to him: “How do we keep their attention? Certainly not by giving them more information, but by withholding all information except that, the absence of which, would make the progress of the story incomprehensible.”

This is why the idea that there should be no information or backstory in the first n pages is, as usual, a good idea gone awry. If there is information needed, make sure the reader enters a scene prepared. Dickens taught us early on to let the reader know important information before it’s necessary. “Marley was dead: to begin with.” We have to know Marley was dead as a doornail to begin with, or nothing wonderful can come of the story. (Otherwise, it’s: “Scrooge saw in the knocker Marley’s face, which was strange because Marley was dead as a doornail!”)

So my bottom-line advice is: make each scene, especially the first one, about drama. Instead of the scene being about a voodoo historian who lost her psychotic son to cancer having coffee with an old friend who makes a crack about “nutjobs”, make it a scene about two people having coffee.

Then, when one of whom ends up slamming her coffee down on the other’s hand, scalding her flesh, and despite her friend’s screams, whispers unintelligibly, you might have a story. The first setup sounds a bit desperate to get my attention. The second one, I have no idea what the heck is going to happen next. And that, as a reader, is exactly where I want to be.

Feel inspired? Ready to tear into your opening scene with vigor? Lets see it!
That's right, post your fab opening scene (could be your WIP, your recently published article - or one you hope will be published, or even a favorite you didn't write, but find inspiring!) Let's keep it to a few lines, or a paragraph at the most. I'll start by posting my opening lines from my two upcoming books - oh, man, I still haven't blogged about them, have I? Well, we can get to that another time - Talking to the Dead, and Talking to Angels.
Also, you can leave a comment for Andy, ask him a question, or just tell him how fab, fab, fab! you think he is. Don't be shy!
I bid you good writing


Bonnie Grove said...

As promised (in above fab blog) I'm a-posting my scene openers from my two (count 'em!) two upcoming books (which are not through Zondervan, least you be unsure - But Andy is fine with that. We had a cry, we went to therapy, we're fine now. Really.)

From Talking to the Dead:

"Kevin was dead and the people in my house wouldn't go home. It seemed they were certain I was incapable of grieving properly outside of their presence. They sat in my house, eating sandwiches, drinking tea, and watching me. I didn't feel grateful for their presence. I felt exactly nothing."

And, from Talking to Angels:

"Angel Swartz was laying face down on the grass. She wasn’t looking for weeds, or playing peek-a-boo, or praying. She wasn’t dead either. I checked. She was snoring; sleeping one off on my front lawn. A true fallen angel. But that wasn’t the biggest problem. The real issue was the fact that her one year old daughter, Willow, wasn’t with her. Wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The baby was missing."

Okay, I showed ya mine, now YOU show me yours!

Or, a favorite opening scene from a great book that you want to share with us.


heather said...

Alright! I'm ready! I'm opening a new Word document.
Or I'm going to take a nap. I'm still deciding which.
Seriously, thank you for this blog post.

jimkastkeat said...

Andy Meisenheimer - what a stud!

Michelle Pendergrass said...

Alrighty then. Here's mine from Whisky Lilacs (a ghost story):

"James Dean showed up in my garage, an unfiltered cigarette hanging from his lips, smoke swirling. But it was the cane that gave him away--the whittled hickory stick he saved my life with. It wasn't until he beat me with it that I realized it was my dead father. All things considered, it was an easy mistake. That's what set things in motion, not the argument with Beth before work, one I can’t remember the cause of now."

Michelle Pendergrass said...

Talking to the Dead sounds cool!

Bonnie Grove said...

Heather: Did you decide?

Jim: Chillax, dude :)

Michelle: Ooooo good stuff. I LOVE unreliable narrator stories. I have woven some of that into my novel Talking to the Dead, but the story can't sustain non-stop unreliable narrator (I don't think most novels can - unless you happen to be Daphne du Maurier). Nice job!

Mrs. C said...

I followed your lead from the WPMarket list to the blog. I love your sense of humor! Thanks for the interview with Andy. His advice was on target and much appreciated.

This is the hook to a WIP I'm working on. You've got to change mental gears first; it's a book for children. Well, some people won't have to change gears that much...

Gma's Pearl:

The salon door whooshed open. Buzzing hair dryers, chattering stylists and upbeat music hummed. Lacey followed her mother to the appointment desk.

“We’re here for Lacey’s haircut,” her mother said. She stood behind Lacey, finger-combing her waist length ponytail.

The receptionist checked her computer and smiled. “This is a special appointment, I see.” She looked at Lacey. “Have a seat, and I’ll let Mimi know you’re here.”

Lacey’s mother handed her a magazine to look at, and they settled into their seats. “I wish G-ma could be here,” Lacey said.

“She knows why you’re here though,” her mother answered, “and she’s proud of you.”

Lacey looked down at the glossy page of the hairstyle magazine. A silver haired woman stared back at her from the photograph. Lacey remembered when her G-ma had looked like that, before she started her fight with cancer.

Mary Ellen

Karen said...

Bonnie, you've got my attention.

This is from a short story, still a WIP (toying with the idea of a book):

The shaded gilt letters on the green sign read, “Scenic Dirt Road.” On its painted golden arrow beckoned two words: “Turn here.” I couldn’t slow enough to turn, so I did a 180 on the rural four-lane. Alabama dust kicked up as I steered the wheels of my Honda into the red-clay road just past the gravel entrance.

Bonnie Grove said...

Mrs. C. I have two young kiddos, so I read a ton of kids lit with them and to them. My son learned to read early (my sweet cheeked girl is working on it - she's five and has the mind and soul of an artist, such a girl, my girl).

I like the potential of your opening. If you like, e-mail me about your opening - I have an idea or two.

Karen, your opening scene is rich, lots of color going on. I like first person! You can e-mail me too, if you like!

Sheri B said...

Ok, I'll give it a try.

Shelby teetered on the bridge railing at her usual spot. In her left hand, which she waved in the air to maintain her balance, she gripped a bottle of Jack Daniels. In her right, she held a cigarette between her middle and forefinger. Reaching her favorite spot on the cold, steel railing, she sat and dangled her feet high above the rocky stream flowing beneath the bridge.

A train announced its presence at the nearby railroad crossing with a shrill horn. As it crept by, Shelby squinted her eyes to read the graffiti on one of the boxcars passing under the dim crossing lights. Bright red letters decorated the car, “God is with you.”

Rolling her eyes, she gulped another mouthful and turned away from the noisy train. After taking the last drag from her smoke, she flicked it to the river below, looked at the coal black sky, and raised her middle finger. “Yeah, sure you are. Where are you now, God? Where have you been?”

Serendipity said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Serendipity said...

Um, I already submitted my opening lines of my book, so in following much advice of your awesome 'guest bloggers', I've chosen a different chapter, opening scene.

“Oh for CRYING OUT LOUD!” A large, juicy fish hit the floor. A pike, in fact.
The little creature sat on the ladder’s rung and sighed, pushing her long wispy brown hair out of her face. She was so frustrated that she hadn’t even noticed the bits of stinky fish gunk in her hair.
Of course a fish wouldn’t open a locked door, how could she even think that? But what was she going to do now?