When you go to a bookstore without a particular title in mind you’ll likely thumb through a number of books, skimming thefirst few pages to get a sense of where the author might be taking you and how you’ll get there. Sometimes opening lines are the difference between finding a new favorite and going home empty-handed. Writer and DePaul University professor Rebecca Johns’ upcoming class Get Em’ Hooked: Perfecting the First Five Pages is all about harnessing the power of the opening to reel in the reader. The class will kick off September 12 and runs until October 3.
Rebecca has written two novels, Icebergs and The Countess, and her shorter works have appeared in the Harvard Review, the Mississippi Review, Ploughshares, Mademoiselle, and more.image We caught up with Rebecca to ask her a few questions about her own writing process and her vision for this class.
Do you read while (before/during/after) you’re writing? If so, what?
I want to remember what I’m striving for, be it story, character, or language—I want to remember what greatness looks like, and to attempt to reach it in my work. So yes, I do read quite a lot when I’m working on my own writing. I’ve started to realize I have more reading material in my house than I can read in a lifetime, but at the moment, besides the stack of unread New Yorkers and lit journals, I am in the middle of Bliss by Peter Carey, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, Bonnie Jo Campbell’s Once Upon a River, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections (the fourth time I’ve started it!), Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and Miss Peregrine’s School for Peculiar Children.
What’s the best writing advice you ever got?
The best advice I ever got I promptly ignored, and then I learned the hard way that it was right all along. Several of my writing teachers, and I’m thinking here specifically of Elizabeth McCracken and Ethan Canin, told me not to worry about the first draft of a novel, to just get it down on paper in whatever form and only afterward start to polish it. I thought, that’s fine for them, but for me it’s really important to write a polished first draft, to make it as perfect as possible the first time around. What a disaster. My first book took me three times as long as it should have because I spent so much time trying to perfect every line, every comma, and then most of it ended up being cut anyway.
So now I subscribe wholeheartedly to Anne Lamott’s adage to write “shitty first drafts.” Get it down in whatever form, get to the end, and only then stand back and see what you have. It’s a difficult thing to do when writing a long work like a novel, because the shitty first draft takes such a long time to write, and you know it’s shitty, and you feel awful about how bad it is the whole time. But you still need to get through the draft first and make it beautiful later, because there’s no point perfecting something that’s only half-formed. Polishing something unfinished is like putting lipstick on a werewolf—its real shape isn’t visible yet, so there’s no point in trying to make it pretty.
What are you working on now?
I’m hard at work on a new novel, something that in one way or another I’ve been trying to get to for the past fifteen years. It’s called The Resurrectionist, and it’s the story of a small town in Illinois where some peculiar things start to happen. I’m hoping to have a shitty first draft of it done by the end of the year.
Tell us about the class you’ll be teaching.
My first StoryStudio course is going to take a long hard look at the first five pages of novels to see what grabs a reader’s attention and what stops a reader from reading further. Specifically we’re going to look at character, point of view, and language, and see how they interact on the page to create greatness, or something less than great. You have only five pages or so to convince a reader to keep reading, so I think it’s worthwhile to take the time to make those five pages something unforgettable. The first day we’re going to take a look at the openings of several different novels and see what they do that works. Then we’ll move on to writing prompts and workshopping each others’ beginnings. Novel openings are a kind of pet project of mine. I’m always looking for the next great opening sentence, the next great scene. If you can grab me in a book’s opening, you’ve got me as a reader.
What have your students taught you?
That there are no rules that can’t be broken, and broken well.
What’s your workshop philosophy?
That writers need to know what they do well as much as what they do poorly. That a useful workshop is built on humility and vulnerability on the part of all its participants. And that only about 20 percent of what you hear in workshop is something you can use, but that 20 percent is usually worth its weight in gold.