For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work before purchasing it on the Kindle store; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.
Beginnings: Last time I discussed endings. Now, in this topsy-turvy thing which I call a blog, I will discuss beginnings.
I do not, by beginnings, mean the kernel of an idea which you develop into a Booker Prize winning novel. I have discussed where ideas come from in the various pages about my work. I have discussed the genesis of Briggs and Prenderghast, and so on.
But I haven’t really said that much about writing the first chapters of a novel or novella. The first chapter is very important, not because of what inspired you to write this piece of work in the first place, but because the first chapter should draw the reader in. If the first chapter doesn’t grab the intention of the reader then he (or she) might not bother with chapter two.
You could start with a murder; or at least a violent death. My novel He Sees His World In Red begins with the dead body of a young woman being found on the streets of London:
A vision in scarlet, a Jackson Pollock in blood: it was a scene to make grown men scream. A dirty alley tarnished even more: someone had been at play last night – his toys had been scalpels and his canvas, the girl. Now the latter lies broken on the ground, discarded when the batteries ran down.
In The Broken Glass Syndrome (so far unfinished, but I’m working on it) somebody goes violently out of a window:
Defenestrated, this bird could not fly. He fell like Lucifer Morningstar. He did not scream: no birdsong here, no angelic choir. Only a splat when he hit the pavement. And then no more. This Icarus had flown too high, all the way to the top of the company. And somebody had brought him back down to earth.
Hopefully the reader wants to discover just why that woman was murdered in an alleyway; or why that man went splat.
But not everything is a mystery, or a murder. So how do I try to catch a person’s attention then?
Well, it has to be the language. Try and have a unique sentence or paragraph, something which the world has never seen before. This is the opening from my novel / collection The Dead:
Empty/ empty no longer: a young couple moving in/ moving out. Removal vans blocking up the road, diesel hulks eliciting complaints and fine Anglo-Saxon from those who know that five years residence mean that they are superior to those coming/ those going. Sexuality debased into oaths, the C-word and F-word and the odd A-word, as well.
A desperately sunny day for the move, shirt armpits dyed black by the summer heat. Too lazy a day even for the clouds to move; yet humans do, proving old mad dog quotes. Temper(ature)s rise. Sweat droplets fall.
There I try to draw the reader in by a slightly strange use of words: empty / empty no longer, for example, as though a house can be both at the same time, its wave function not yet collapsed. The other bit which I hope may make people want to read on is when I use the trick: Temper(ature)s rise. That tells what is happening, but in a way which I hope has not been used before.
This next bit – the final example from my own work – is taken from my longest novel, Go Back To Start:
Chapter 1: The Last Chapter Of The Previous Book
My life had not flashed before my eyes. But I still suspected that I might be dead. It was the appearance of the scythe-equipped skeleton in the black robes which was a big giveaway. I think that you can take that as always being a sign of your imminent demise.
This was no Hollywood Death, all special effects and booming, evil voice. This was no droll, cocktail-sipping Pratchett death, with horse called Binky. No, this was ugly, medieval woodcut death, blocky and rough around the edges. Little in the way of details, but he still was never going to be mistaken for anything else. However badly the bones were etched it was still clearly death.
I pleaded. I begged. I did not want to die, or to be taken by Death to whatever place he wanted to take me. I was only eighty years old. That was no longer even an average age at which to die. I should have had at least another five years. I might have had more than another twenty.
That did not change the fact that I was in my bed – my death bed – and that I appeared to have died during the night. I knew that it had to happen eventually. But I’m not ready. I’m not ready yet.
I suspected that if death really did exist in anthropomorphic form then I might have to re-examine my own views on the existence of Hades. I did not like the possible answers to such a line of enquiry. If there was Death, then there might be the Devil.
I wanted my life back. It was only now, on the moment of my death, that I realised how I had wasted my entire life. If I had been able to go through my life with the knowledge which I had now… well, I think that I said that it would have been very different, that I wouldn’t have made all those stupid mistakes, that my life would not have ended up being wasted. I pleaded with death to let me have my life over, with the knowledge which I now possessed. And you know what? He granted me my wish.
That tells the reader what to expect in the novel ahead, and that it won’t be a bed of roses for the main protagonist. If they are interested then they will read on. If they won’t… Well, I have done my best to try to lure them in.
Of course there are many other authors who have had great opening sentences to their novels. I am not a fan of Charles Dickens, but I have to admit that this is one of the greatest beginnings to a novel ever:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
That was from A Tale Of Two Cities, of course. I wish that I had written it. Literature – and fantasy literature has some great, attention-seeking openings. It’s not just Charles Dickens. Think of this one:
It was a bright cold day in April, and all the clocks were striking thirteen.
That is, obviously, taken from the book 1984 by George Orwell. At once the reader is drawn to the fact that the clocks are striking thirteen, not twelve; at once the reader’s attention is captured, just by those few words, due to the fact that clocks, generally speaking, do not strike thirteen.
I’m sure that anybody reading this will have their own ideas of what makes a good opening to a novel, beyond the few which I have listed. But I think that I have warbled on enough for this post.
In my next post I will give my ideas on structuring novels.