It begins…

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‘Nothing ever begins.’
Clive Barker, Weaveworld

In fiction an arresting opening line seems de rigueur:

It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me. (1)

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. (2)

It was the day my grandmother exploded. (3)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (4)

Here are some more:

The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. (5)

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. (6)

Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen. (7)

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. (8)

Increasingly I view any sort of creative writing as a series of problems to solve. One of the first will occur as you embark on a new piece of fiction (we’ll ignore all that prefatory plotting, freighted as it is with its own peculiar difficulties). The problem for me is that I want to draw readers in, I want to hook them, but I don’t want it to look like a hook. I don’t want it to look like a starting point. More and more I prefer novels that begin without reading like they’re beginning, if you see what I mean. As an example I give you the opening line of my second novel, London Revenant:

It was so late, it was early.

It’s too writerly, I think. It’s too beginny. It waddles under the weight of author intrusion. It tells you something in an over-complicated way. Part of the magic of reading, for me, is becoming lost to a text to the extent that hours go by without my realising. There’s nothing worse than being yanked out of that delirious fugue by something that reminds you that what you’re reading has come from someone else’s imagination. And here it happens on line one. Shoot me now.

Not that I’m saying that Burgess, Plath, Banks and Orwell should be tarred with the same brush. There’s a balance to be had, I suppose. and what those first four examples show is how to hook brilliantly while being very obvious first lines. I prefer the second set of examples, however. They inject you into the narrative; they have an in media res quality about them, a feeling of the writer having settled into his story already, despite this being page one, line one.

One of the best pieces of advice I ever received (I can’t for the life of me remember where I first heard it, but I urge writers to try it whenever I take a class) was to start work on a piece of writing and then, after you’ve written a couple of pages, dump your opening paragraph. It’s worth a try. Sometimes you can see a join between where the piece has started and where you’ve found the voice – more relaxed, more fluent – to tell the rest of it. Losing a paragraph or two at the start can give you a more natural opening and reduce the risk of looking as if you’re trying too hard for that killer first line. You’re suddenly deep into it, awash with story.

Don’t let your incipit be insipid. But don’t let it be too beginny either. Actually, thinking about it, if you want to avoid that starting feeling it would seem prudent to avoid any sentence that begins ‘It was…’.

1. Earthly Powers, Anthony Burgess
2. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
3. The Crow Road, Iain Banks
4. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
5. Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
6. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
7. Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
8. The Road, Cormac McCarthy

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