Last Friday’s email from Harry of Jericho Writers was about writing that first page of a book.
“The start of your book is a delicate, beautiful thing.
It has a joyous quality for sure. Something like cracking open an egg, the peep of new sun, climbing on board a train, feeling the flap of a sail, a rope straining at its mooring. You only get that feeling once per book, and it’s worth relishing.
You can go big, if you want to. You can start in the middle of a bar-room brawl, with bottles flying and chairs thwacking. Or you can start with something apparently small, except that the wriggle of a little story-worm catches the reader’s attention and, dammit, they find they’re hooked.
But, of course, there’s another issue with beginnings, a bothersome one. Because agents, blast them, start books from the beginning too and they are very unusual readers indeed. Partly, yes, they’re unusual in that they’re professionals looking for work they can sell. But also, they start reading literally thousands of novels a year. How many first pages does an average agent read? Maybe two thousand. How many actual books does an average agent read? Well, probably roughly as many as you do – or a few more, because they’re pros.
Because agents read so many opening pages, they are deeply – horribly – familiar with the clichés of the genre. That means, they are exquisitely sensitive to badness in openings.
What’s worse is this: the opening of your novel may well be the first thing you’ve ever written. It’s where you’re at your least experienced, not your most. That’s true in general, but it’s also true of this particular story. Midway through your book, you’ll know your characters better, your story better, your themes better, your voice better – everything better.
Which means that when an agent picks up your book it’s effectively an encounter between a Story Opening Super-Analyser and a scarily undercooked Story Writer. Not fair, right?
And look: nothing I go on to say in this email is absolute. You could pick some horrible cliché to open your novel with but, if you deliver that opening in a confident and well-written way, then any sane agent will read on, with interest. For everything I say below, you should bear in mind that there’s almost certainly a classic of world literature that takes the cliché and rebuilds it into something wonderful.
At the same time, clichés feel wrong for a reason. If you can avoid them, you probably should. And with that said …
There’s something horribly schoolchildish about any story that starts with a dream, before, two or three paragraphs later, admitting, “Then I woke up.” It feels cool, but cool in much the same way that my kids think that making pots of green goo out of ordinary kitchen ingredients is cool. Once your age hits double-digits, it’s time to move on a bit.
I think there are also two more specific reasons for concern. One is that dreams are totally unboundaried. Not rule-governed. And that doesn’t just break the laws of life, but of stories too. Even kids’ fantasy fiction has rules that govern its fictional world. Opening without rules feels disappointing – the difference between a park kickabout and a World Cup tie.
The other is that, once you get two or three paragraphs in, you play that limp trick on the reader: ha, ha, fooled you, it was only a dream. That yields a feeling akin to disappointment. “You made me read this, on the premise that it mattered, but it didn’t matter. Oh.” I’d gently suggest that this is not a feeling you want anyone – still less an agent – to encounter on the first page of your novel.
More generally, one agent once told me that a stunning proportion of all manuscripts she read – she reckoned well over ten per cent – opened with a character in bed. She reckoned she’d almost never, perhaps literally never, offered representation for such a book.
There’s nothing obviously wrong with that. You could imagine some Beckettian novel that opens with a character in bed and keeps that character in pyjamas for most of the story. But … again, I think there are two specific issues here.
One is that you don’t want to bracket yourself with the ten per cent of novels that an agent is most inclined to reject. The other is this: why is it that so many authors start with a character in bed and (usually) waking up?
I think it’s that the writer themselves are warming up. They are aware of embarking on something new. Of introducing a new character to the world. So they start at the beginning: the opening of the day. As they move their character through toilet / shower / coffee / conflakes, they limber up, like your pre-gym warm-up.
And: don’t warm up. Or, if you do, don’t do it on page. Don’t do it anywhere that the reader is going to see it.
Poetry & prologues
The fantasy manuscripts we see start with a snatch of poetry by way of prologue. Or if not poetry, then myth, or incantation, or something similar.
And again, you’re going to tell me that Tolkein did this all the time, and maybe he did. But poetry (and myth and the rest of it) is, almost by definition, harder to penetrate than prose. An opening needs to gently lift the reader into your story vehicle and get them drifting away from the bank, the train gliding away from the platform.
Forcing the reader to wade through a couple of pages of (often quite dodgy) poetry is the opposite of that gently lifting model. It’s like you’ve built a low wall in between the reader and the railway carriage you want them to get into.
Too much, too soon
My least-favoured story opener is with highly extreme emotion of any sort. Often some horrible situation (a prisoner under torture), but really any sort of extreme emotion, conveyed with a plethora of emotional superlatives.
The reason why this doesn’t work is that stories have the quality of new social situations. You’re meeting characters for the first time. If your best friend had a terrible heartbreak sob story, you’d be prepared to listen to the whole thing, dishing out biscuits and tissues as needed. But if you had just for the very first time met a new parent at the school gate and you got the same excessively tearful download, you’d just want to pull away.
A reader doesn’t care about an emotional drama for its own sake. They care because they care about a character. And that means learning them, building them, creating the knowledge that will generate sympathy.
That’s the ‘too much’ error, and it’s a particular bogeyman of mine. But there’s a ‘too soon’ error as well.
That error is giving away your punchline much too early. You have a world where gravity can be rubbed away via a smartphone app? Or memory works only for twenty-four hours? Or your character, a woman, is working, disguised as a man, on board an old three-master?
Then great! I love it! What great ideas!
But don’t tell me about them. Not on the first page, nor even the third, nor anywhere in the first chapter. Yes, of course, you scatter tantalising clues. A coffee machine that has to be pulled down from the ceiling. Reminder post-its on the mirror. Some odd piece of behaviour by a ‘seaman’ apparently remembering a husband.
The clues are what tantalise. They’re what drag a reader through the story. Once you deliver your punchline (“An anti-gravity app! 24 hour memory!”), that particular sequence of clues carries no more force. For sure, other things will come along – you’ll start introducing the full Technicolor complexity of your story – but we’re talking about openings. If you want to get the reader into your story-vessel and pulling happily away from shore, then those tantalising clues are a brilliant way to maintain engagement. In time, as the reader bonds with your character, you won’t need the clues any more. But during this first chapter, don’t give the game away too early. Use the clues, delay the punchline.”
For me, on the first page – in fact in the first paragraph – I try to stick to these rules:
- A character is introduced
- An important theme of the book is revealed (what the book is about), and
- An uncertain, but important issue or event is presented
Here, for example, is the opening of Seeking Father Khaliq:
“May I ask you, honoured Professor al-Busiri, if you will go to meet Princess Basheera?”
I looked up reluctantly from the student essay I was reading, and considered the bearing of the woman who had entered my office unannounced. She was tall and slender, graceful; she was motionless, but there was a suggestion of incipient mobility. She was dressed in a black naqib and a jilbab so that I could see only her dark eyes. Her voice, however, had an optimistic lilt to it. She must be about thirty, I thought.
Deliberately, I pushed the essay to one side. “Who, may I ask, is Princess Basheera?”
“She is my employer, sir.”
“And what does this Princess Basheera want with me?”
“She has an assignment that only you can fulfil, Professor.”