Friday, 31 July 2009

A Closer Look

I don't know where this week washed away too...I hope the sun shone on someone. It did here for a few brief glorious moments. This morning is damp but not wet. The sky is trying hard to become blue, but I am not sure it will make it.

As the week has been such a wet one, the dd and I made strawberry jam so please dig in to that with the fresh bread. Take the tea and coffee as required.

Sorry I haven't been back to comment on last week's coffee comments. Life is a bit too full - not enough sun and too much entertaining of kids has eaten away at my time. However I am pleased most of you found the exercise helpful.

Now I am going to call on another session I attended a few years ago at an RNA conference. This one was given by Katie Fforde and it was on first pages. It was not about what was written on the page so much as how it appeared to a browser in a bookshop. If you spend time watching people by books (which I have - and God knows what that says about me), you notice they pick a book up, look at the cover, turn it over, read the blurb - and many though not all then go to the first page.

Katie spoke about not putting the reader off at that point. Depending on mood and tiredness levels a potential reader may switch off if they are confronted by a wall of solid text. I found this an interesting idea. So in the past thanks to Julie Cohen I have done first page challenges. But this week I want to narrow the focus - not to the first line, but the first paragraph or say five lines...

What does it say about the book in hand? Does it set the whole novel up? What does it do? Tease? Hook? Draw in? So I am right now going to go and drag a few books off the shelves in the next room (warning here - this is the room that collects all random items in the house)

1. I was thirty-seven then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through the dense cloud cover on approach to the Hamburg airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth and lent everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in rain gear, a flag atop a squat airport building, a BMW billboard. So-German again.

2. The girl, giggling and over-excited, was running in the sunlit garden, running away from her stepfather, but not so fast that he could not catch her. Her stepmother, seated in an arbour with Rosamund roses in bud around her, caught sight of the fourteen-year-old girl and the handsome man chasing around the broad tree trunks on the smooth turf and smiled, determined to see only the best in both of them: the girl she was bringing up and the man she had adored for years.

3. One hot spring evening, just as the sun was going down, two men appeared at Patriarch's Ponds. One of them - fortyish, wearing a grey summer suit-was short, dark-haired, bald on top, paunchy, and held his proper fedora in his hand: black horn-rimmed glasses of supernatural proportions adorned his well-shaven face. The other one - a broad-shouldered, reddish-haired, shaggy young man with a checked cap cocked on the back of his head - was wearing a cowboy shirt, crumpled white trousers, and black sneakers.

4. There are some places where you might expect to bump into your boyfriend's ultra-posh mother. At a Buckingham Palace garden party perhaps, or Glyndebourne, or turning her nose up at a Ferrero Rochers at some foreign ambassador's cocktail party. And then there are other places you wouldn't expect to bump into her at all.

5. The window, bare of blind or curtain, was reflected in the long mirror of the wardrobe on the opposite side of the room, so that the bed lay between two barred oblongs of light, pale grey at first, then pinkish, deepening at last to the triumphant gold of the September morning. Rhoda opened her eyes. Slowly,as a boat rises on the water of a lock, she rose out of the warm sea of sleep that had engulfed her, and floated on the surface, holding the moment of tranquility, knowing already that it was threatened by the returning world. Her dreams, which had been pleasant, slipping back through her fingers into the water. She blinked, stirred, and was suddenly wide awake.

6. Roger sat down on a snowbank. At least he thought it was a snow bank.

As I typed these out several thoughts hit me - the first being that I was only in the mood to read one of them at the moment - which spoke not of the writing, but more of my state of mind and energy level. The second was - if someone tried to figure this family out by the books on the shelves they would walk away terribly confused. The other thing that became terribly clear was how writing has changed. The publication dates of these books begin in 1936 (and one written in the late 20s and 30s but not published until the 60s) and the most recent 2008.

So I want you to look at the opening paragraph of your current work. What does it say to a reader? What genre - is it obvious? What tone or mood does it set? What state does a reader need to be in to want to sit with the book right there and then? Does your reader want to be swept away to a new world and does this paragraph tell them that? Does he/she want to laugh and smile their way through? Does he/she want to swim through the beauty of your words enriched by the imagery? I could go on but I think you can follow the line of question and continue yourself.

So now I will offer up the shiny new opening paragraph of A CORNISH HOUSE for your scrutiny and tell you my thoughts....

The car coughed to a halt then lurched as the trailer pushed it further along the dark lane. The headlights' beam silhouetted the twisted trees against the moonless sky. Their tortured shapes merged with the hedges forming a tunnel which enclosed the car. Maddie’s chest tightened. She forced her breathing to slow, but it didn’t calm her rapid heart beat.

The original opening paragraph was just the first sentence. On review I felt it didn't set the scene enough. I wanted the reader to feel the location - Cornwall and to feel Maddie's state of mind - threatening with the world closing in. Looking at it now I realize it is totally dark with no hint of the light that will come. Do I need to add this in some way to give a clue that this not all dark and there will be a happy ending? I don't know. I'm still learning on this one. Maybe I need to troll through some more books on the shelves to see... But looking at the examples above I have some clue -

1. NORWEGIAN WOOD by Murakami (200). Now this one I haven't read but was left for me to read by our last house guest. So I can't comment
2. THE QUEEN'S FOOL by Philippa Gregory(2004). In this paragraph she sets up the intrigue and games that are played out through the whole book. Not all is as it seems and although the scene is bright the undercurrent is ripe. Yes, I would say the mood of the book although it is a few years ago that I read it.
3. THE MASTER AND THE MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov(written in 20s & 30s this translation pub 1995) This book for is so tied up in my time in Moscow that I can't separate the two so I won't comment
4. AN OFFER YOU CAN'T REFUSE by Jill Mansell (2008). This was the book I wanted to read now - it suited my mood- wanting to laugh and smile my way through. I do think the opening paragraph reflects the tone of the book
5. THE NEW HOUSE by Lettice Cooper (1936). This is one of the lovely old Penguin paperbacks that came with the house. I have not read the book but loved the imagery at the opening. I will now read it, but not when tired as I wan to be alert to the language.
6. ARCTIC & SAFARI ADVENTURES by Willard Price (1966 & 1988) Haven't read these either as I'm not the target market, but I thought the opening brilliant for an kids adventure story.

So how does your opening measure up? Does it do what you want it to? Now take just that paragraph and show it to a few people or if brave post it on your blog and invite (kind) comments to receive readers' honest reaction and then assess if it is the one you wanted them to have.

12 comments:

Flowerpot said...

Good post Liz, as ever. I'm in the throes of rewriting my first scene so this is good timing!

Leatherdykeuk said...

What an excellent post!

I love first pages, except my own.

Rowan Coleman said...

Gosh Liz, you like the challenge us! Great post. Opening paras are so important to me at least, all thought if they don't always grab you then read on. My aims for those first words - establish scene, character, sense of place and emotion and try to draw the reader into wanting to know more. But if a first para doesn't do that its not the end of the world. After all there is a certain amount of establishing to be done. You also have a first page and a first chapter to really get them hooked and I often the last paragraph of a first chapter is just as important as the first. For example this is the last para of the first chapter of my teen ghost hunting novel.

'All over the town, normal everyday Woodsville people were doing normal everyday things, just like Jay, Kelly, Emily, Bethan and Hashim. And yet soon, four of those five students would look back at recent events and struggle to make sense of it all.
And the fifth one?
The fifth one would be dead.'

Juliette M said...

Great post Liz. I've posted mine once before, so it's a bit 'cruelty to dumb animals' to do it again (I've been re reading Chalet School books this week, can you tell?!) but I like my first paragraphs usually - I try to put effort into them for this very reason. I especially like my first lines from the Ursula books 1 and 2:

1. I found out about the poem on the day my boss turned blue.

2. I'd never hit anyone in the face with a wok before, but this was going to call for something slightly more special than my usual levels of violence.

I've always tried to use gripping or slightly quirky first lines since I read The Crow Road by Iain M Banks, which begins "It was the day my grandmother exploded" and finishes the first paragraph with "it always seemed to be death that drew me back to Gallanach".

ChrisH said...

Good stuff, Liz, plenty of food for thought. I did screw up my courage a couple of weeks ago and stuck the first paragraph of the WIP on my blog and was really pleased with the response. However, I also noticed that there was a sentence doing nothing so I've now changed it to try to make it work harder.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Well, first paragraph of the book I finished earlier this year seems to have worked as that's the ms an agent asked for (still waiting to hear back, but the opening obviously hooked them).

As for the most recent... I have it open in front of me.

'If you asked me what my idea of a good Saturday night out was, standing in the rain watching the police look for a body in a river would not feature high on the list. I’d had to do it before and this time round was no improvement. Although I suppose at least it wasn’t Christmas Day.'

It needs a bit of smoothing, but the general tenor of the book is evident, I suppose.

Crystal Jigsaw said...

Yes, great post. I'd like to think I have set a scene in my first page where the reader should realise that the book is indeed paranormal. I guess I'm taking a chance and it will be probably be re-written at some stage. But for now I'm fairly happy with it.

CJ xx

Helena Halme said...

Excellent ideas here. Like you, Liz, I too found number 4 the most fetching. And I recognised Philippa Gregopry's opening chapter as one I'd admired when reading the book.

I was told long ago that an opening chapter represents the contract between reader and author; it's a sample of what's to come in the rest of the book. At the same time it obviously has to entice the reader. I wonder how a prologue works. Do they give the author an extended tool to tempt the reader, or are they a hindrance?

Debs said...

Great post, Liz and very useful too.

I recognized No 4 (loved the book) and am sure I'd enjoy reading book No 5 by that opening paragraph.

Off to look at my one once more now.

Lori x said...

Just found my way here, wonderful post Liz, great advice.

Here's my current wip for perusal...

With shaking hands Alice dialled 999. The calm voice that answered slowed her beating heart a little; help wouldn’t be long now. In hushed tones she said, ‘I need the police, someone’s breaking into my house.’
‘Can I have your address please?’ the operator asked. As she whispered her address Alice crawled across the living room floor to try and look out the window. Not an easy task when all you’re wearing is a bath towel, a face mask and some nourishing conditioner.

Captain Black said...

It looks like cold coffee and stale bread for me then. Oh well, perhaps I can salvage them into a frappé and some bread pudding.
Here are my thoughts on the opening paragraphs...

1. (Norwegian Wood) Dull and boring setting. Dull and boring prose. I wouldn't read on.

2. (The Queen's Fool) Suggests fun and laughter throughout the book. Good hook.

3. (The Master and the Margarita) Masses of unnecessary details and description. Really slows it down.

4. (An Offer You Can't Refuse) Intriguing...

5. (The New House) Verging on cliché. Certainly a clichéd theme of waking up. Snore.

6. (Arctic & Safari Adventures) Not much to go on but interesting.

I'm sure many writing guides and courses will tell us that we need to hook the reader with the first chapter and indeed the first paragraph. My recent experience at wh@c certainly supported this as an important technique.

Here is my opening paragraph from Blood on the Rooftops. See what you think.

Of all the crimes she dealt with, Susan Furlong hated rape cases the most. It was rare that they could be clearly solved on the physical evidence, which meant that you had to deal with suspects, witnesses (also rare) and character witnesses. Emotions were always highly charged, and that tended to slow down the process of justice as well. Her most recent case had been no exception, but at least now it was over and the animal responsible was in custody, awaiting sentence. He'd probably get five years and be out in three, she supposed. Nowhere near a harsh enough sentence, in her opinion. True justice would involve bastards like Farnsworth getting their balls cut off.

Personally, I hate it. For one thing it's far too long. There's tons more wrong with it too, as feedback from my tutor at wh@c has illustrated in no uncertain terms. Oh well, I'll get back to it once I've finished the book.

Lori, I like your opening paragraph. Introduces tension very quickly.

Good article, Liz.

Lori x said...

Thank you Captain Black :D

Lori x