Getting off on the right foot, first impressions count, start as you mean to go on… all good advice for many situations, but with writing when all the author is offering is words – no winning smile, no polished shoes or smart attire, then it is more true than ever.
Here, Lois Elsden has a personal reflection on the opening lines of different novels:
Endings are vital… satisfactory endings are compulsory but beginnings have to leap off the page and grab your reader. The words have to mesmerise them and pull them in under your spell.
My favourite book:
“The truth is, if old Major Dover hadn’t dropped dead at Taunton races Jim would never have come to Thursgood’s at all.”
The book I’m reading at the moment:
“I came into aviation the hard way.”
A favourite book by a favourite author:
“The day they drowned Dendale I were seven years old.”
My favourite children’s book:
“The Old Sea-dog at the Admiral Benbow, Squire Trelawney, Dr Livesey, and the rest of the gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure island from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is treasure still not lifted, I take my pen in the year of grace 17_ and go back to the time when my father kept the Admiral Benbow Inn and the brown old seaman with the sabre cut first took up his lodgings under our roof.”
Did you recognise them? – John le Carré, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”; Neville Shute, “Round the Bend”; Reginald Hill, “On Beulah Heights” ; Robert Louis Stevenson, “Treasure Island”.
These are all established authors with a following who will read the latest book and may be willing to give a dull beginning a chance; a writer who is a complete new comer to the world of books has to do everything possible to lasso the reader – they can’t rely on loyalty, publicity or promotion.
John le Carré wrote “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” my all time favourite book and it was published in 1974, his seventh novel since 1961 so I guess he already had quite a following and his hero George Smiley had already featured in his other novels. Five years later it was made into an acclaimed TV series.
I am reading Neville Shute at the moment. “Round the Bend” was published over sixty years ago in 1951 and he was already a well established author.
Reginald Hill wrote many books under a variety of names; “On Beulah Heights” is one of my favourite of his Pascoe and Dalziel novels and no doubt many people did as I did when it was first published, dash straight to the bookshop to get a copy!
Robert Louis Stevenson’s children’s story of “Treasure island” was his first major success as a writer; it is now a classic.
As a self-published author with none of the support or resources or promotion from a publishing house, an editor or an agent, I really do try to make my first lines count. I write and rewrite the opening paragraphs and even when I think I’m finished I still worry about those valuable few sentences. In FARHOLM, the story first began with Deke on the ferry looking across to the island and trying not to be sick. However, I wanted to draw my readers in and hint at something which would be a major part of the plot so this is what the beginning is now
FARHOLM: “She was beneath the water looking up and there was someone between her and the sun, holding her down, holding her down.”
In my next novel, THE STALKING OF ‘ROSA’ CZEKOV: The first person to arrive at the cemetery stepped cautiously through the gates just after five in the morning.
Here are the beginnings of some of my other novels:
- THE DOUBLE ACT: “What happened?” he asked quietly. The flush on his tanned skin was dying but his body gleamed with sweat. The only clothed part of him was his arm, still in the sleeve of his shirt, lying across his eyes.
- NIGHT VISION: When something terrible has happened, childhood seems safe, and to reclaim a happy childhood it sometimes seems a good idea to do childish things, innocent childish things… So Beulah climbed a tree.
- LOVING JUDAH: They sat at the kitchen table, the flame from the candle flickering slightly in the draught; it was a round, fat creamy coloured candle set in a saucer between them.
- FLIPSIDE: I woke and he was sitting upright in bed and I could see in the light from the street lamp that his eyes were wide open and that his face was shiny with sweat; he was terrified
Exactly a week ago today, I published my latest novel, and here are the opening lines:
There was a severed dog’s head stuck on the gatepost.
There’d been a few seconds pause in the driving snow and in those few seconds, lit by their headlights, Ismène glimpsed the wolf-like creature, maw gaping, tongue lolling, teeth bared in one final gory snarl. Then the blizzard obliterated the stone beast and everything else in a seething maelstrom.
“Oh my god, James, I thought for a moment it was a real dog’s head -”
But he was saying something else about the road, about nearly being there and then they were sliding sideways down a steep incline. He was fighting to keep control and Ismène was shouting ‘jesusohjesusohjesus,’ bracing herself against the seat.
The car stalled and stopped and there was only the sound of the CD playing.
“There’s a pond,” and James pointed down the slope into a dizzying maze of swirling clumps of snow dancing in the headlights.
©Lois Elsden 2016
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