Some words about opening lines …

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.

Thus begins John Irving’s, A Prayer for Owen Meany. In his introduction to the novel, Irving acknowledges the power of his opening line: ‘I may one day write a better first sentence to a novel than that of A Prayer for Owen Meany, but I doubt it.’ He goes on: ‘What makes the first sentence […] such a good one is that the whole novel is contained in it.’ Maybe that’s why that line has stayed with me. Certainly it’s one of the very few opening lines to a novel that I actually remember.

Writing a good opening sentence is something of a preoccupation for writers but opening lines don’t have to be memorable. Opening lines are barbed hooks. Launchpads! The function of that first sentence is to get the reader past itself and into the story. Even so, I do love a good opening line, and I love it even more if it stays with me. Here are three that have:

Book stack,

‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,’ grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.’

From Louisa M. Alcott’s, Little Women, this opener has probably stuck because Little Women was my mother’s favourite book from childhood, and because we’ve jokingly quoted this line to each other over the years when we’ve been doing the Christmas shopping. But looking at it again, I can see that whilst this line might not contain the whole novel, it does a lot of work. We immediately know that this Christmas is unusual, that in previous years there have been presents, so we can infer that for some reason Jo’s family has fallen on hard times. Not so hard that the floorboards are bare (she’s lying on a rug) but hard enough to make her grumble. The fact that Jo’s grumbling (not weeping), and the fact that she’s lying on the rug gives the reader the impression that Jo is a tomboy, and that despite the absence of Christmas presents, she’s at liberty to grumble and be herself. Immediately the reader senses that Jo is with her family, at home.

‘Mrs Dalloway said she’d buy the flowers herself.’

From Virginia Woolf’s, Mrs Dalloway. The first time I tried to read this novel, I failed miserably but I did remember that opening line. Ten years later, I attempted the novel again and whipped through it, basking in the glow of a newfound admiration for and appreciation of Virginia Woolf’s writing. The line is short but weighty. It’s emphatic. It kindles curiosity about Mrs Dalloway. Would she usually leave the purchasing of flowers to someone else, and why, on this occasion, is she taking charge? Why is she buying flowers at all? And who is telling the story? The concise opening statement is a seed ready to burst into life. It’s kinetic. Maybe that’s why it’s memorable.

‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

From Dodie Smith’s, I Capture the Castle, a brilliant opening line, the kind of opener that makes you stop and re-read, just to check you got it right. Writing while sitting in the kitchen sink? Why would anyone do that? It’s a short, sharp, rap on the knuckles. Straight away you’re invested. You want to know everything! When I was little, and we had a proper big sink – not one of the half-bowl affairs that everyone has now – I’d sometimes be bathed in it. Maybe that’s why this opening line has stayed with me; the image it provokes blends with my own sense of nostalgia.

Do you have a favourite opening line of your own?

In the Still of the Night …

illegible writing in a notebook

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m awake.

I realise that I’ve been awake for a long time, running a dialogue in my head. It goes something like this:

“You might as well get up …”

“Nah … it’s warm and cosy under the duvet.”

“But you’re awake, thinking about your plot/characters/structure … You might as well get up and write it down.”

Tugging duvet tighter. “But it’ll be cold downstairs. And won’t it be weird, getting up to write at this unholy hour?”

“Err … no! This is exactly when you should be writing; when the ideas are coming. And you know how you always say you’ll remember it all in the morning but never do—”

“But I will remember this time.”

“You won’t.”

“Will.”

“Won’t!”

“Will!”

WON’T!

Sound familiar?

It’s not that I never sleep, but I’ve come to the conclusion that writing and sleeping are fundamentally incompatible. The thing about writing is that it fires up the synapses, gets the brain cogs turning, and once that engine’s running, it’s very difficult—I’d go so far as to say it’s impossible—to switch it off again. Yes, you can dampen things down for a while with worthy distractions like a great movie or any kind of cake, but the minute you switch off the light and snuggle down, that engine starts to rattle and hum. And I’m not even talking about eureka moments, the nocturnal epiphanies and ingenious plot twists that no writer minds being woken up for. It can be the darnedest little details that prod you awake, nag you until you find yourself having that familiar, merry-go-round conversation with yourself.

Sensible writers keep a notebook and pen on the bedside table. I’ve tried that because I’m all for sensible solutions, but deciphering my handwriting is tricky at the best of times so trying to make sense of my nocturnal scribblings come breakfast time is generally a fruitless exercise … I mean, do the words “chin breaking, fave, mns blloomnsinds” make any sense to you? You can see my problem!

At three a.m. this morning, I might have been scribbling this note to myself: “You’ve got her leaving from the wrong place you idiot!! She wasn’t living in the flat then; she was staying with her Mum and Dad!”

Needless to say, I didn’t reach for my notebook and pen. For once I gave in to my know-it-all alter ego. I got up, put on my dressing gown and creaked down the stairs. In the kitchen I filled a tall glass with warm water and a squeeze of lemon then tiptoed into my office and fired up my computer. I added an edit note to my manuscript, and then bizarrely, I had the notion to write a blog post about sleep and writing because I’m up anyway, and it’s kind of peaceful in the still of the night.

Writing or Drowning?

I have spent the last six weeks completing the first draft of my second romance novel for Mills and Boon. I had a tight deadline which I was determined to keep, so I had to write even when I didn’t feel like it; even when writing felt like drowning.

Prior to this experience, I would have said that I’m a writer who likes to be immersed in a single project. Now I’m not so sure. The problem with working on one thing exclusively – and to a deadline – is that if things are not progressing well or fast enough, your heart rate climbs, your palms get sweaty. You panic.

When I spoke to a writer friend about how I was feeling, she advised me to keep working on other projects alongside the romance. Even an hour a day working on something else would be refreshing, she said, and would make me feel like I was making progress in other areas.

Initially I was sceptical, not because it didn’t make sense―it did. It was just that the thought of peeling myself off a project with a pressing deadline in order to spend time on a speculative novel filled me with anxiety. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a try.

I picked up my “big” work-in-progress, read a little of the manuscript and suddenly had some ideas about how to flesh out one of my secondary characters. I made some notes, and in turn, those notes suggested a couple of other ideas. After an hour, I had material which I know is going to help me take that project forward.

When I went back to the romance story, I felt calmer. I wrote 1500 words in an afternoon!

A few days later I remembered something I had read a few years ago―Jess Walter talking about his novel, Beautiful Ruins.

He said that Beautiful Ruins had been “written and rewritten and rewritten over parts of fifteen years; it was something of a puzzle to put together.” He went on: “I write until I’m stuck, then I move on to something else, and when I go back to it, I start at the very beginning to make it feel like a smooth, seamless surface.”[1]

It’s clear that Walter was not writing Beautiful Ruins to a deadline, but the methodology mirrors what my friend had suggested. We all write until we’re stuck, but it’s what you do when you’re stuck that matters. You might go for a coffee, or a run and find that it’s enough to get you past your sticking point, but there is another option— work on something else.

As I make my journey as a writer, I am learning that there is no correct way to write. Even if you think you know what works for you, there’s value in trying a different approach. Going forward, I intend to devote some time each day to working on side projects, projects which might otherwise fall by the wayside. “Working” may simply amount to thinking about my characters or ironing out a wrinkle in the plot. Who knows? Perhaps I will find that allowing my thoughts to run freely between two or even three projects at the same time is a more natural way for me to work.



[1] Interview with Weston Cutter. (Kenyon Review, July 2012)