'The last thing one discovers in composing a work is what to put first.'
Blaise Pascal, Pensees
As I've been struggling a little with the opening of my new novel and because openings are so important, I've decided to do another post on first pages. This set me wondering why we choose to buy one book and not another. There are a number of factors for me: the author's name, the title, the cover design, the back cover blurb and the opening paragraph. I take all these things into account but in the end, it is the opening paragraph that is usually the deciding factor for me, and recently I surprised myself by buying Anna Funder's new novel, All That I Am, simply because of its intriguing opening line, 'When Hitler came to power I was in the bath.' The opening lines that go down in history are ones that arrest the reader in some way, or tell us something universal about life. Anna Funder's opening line is is already famous and deservedly so, as it is an arresting one, providing a startling contrast between the warm comfort of a bath and the cold shock of the associations we now have about Hitler. Then there's Jane Austen's famous line from Pride and Prejudice, 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.' This humorously asserts a 'so called' universal truth and in doing so, beautifully establishes the narrative voice of the novel. Although the opening line for my novel, Flight is not profound or particularly startling it does raise a question or two and build an element of suspense, so in that sense it has worked. Initially Flight opened with 'It had been days, possibly weeks, since Fern had ventured out of her attic.' However, about halfway through the novel I went back and wrote a prologue which begins with, 'I came early, slithering into the outside world and into safety, or so I hoped.' The prologue and Chapter One are clearly distinct in tone and voice so in a sense these are both opening lines (more on the functions of prologue in a future post).
Every writer wants a great opening line but it isn't always possible to achieve, sometimes we have to settle for a great opening paragraph or chapter or just a great novel overall! Openings need to be intriguing, they need to seduce us, startle us, make our spirits lift with anticipation or make us sigh with the beauty of their description. In short, they need to draw us into the story, in whatever way they can. We can start with a narrative description, as in Arundhati Roy's, The God of Small Things, or with a shocking action scene, as in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code, or with a profound philosophical statement, as in Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities. We might start with a strong character voice in the form of a monologue, as in J D Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, or with a narrative summary as in The Shipping News by E Annie Proulx. Regardless of our individual taste as readers and writers, these are all superb examples (in their respective genres), of opening pages that raise questions and draw the reader in.
Strong openings have always been important but they are becoming even more necessary as publishers and agents are inundated with manuscripts and in response are quicker to reject a book just on its opening page/s. And there's no point asking a publisher to skip the early pages and just read from Chapter Five on. A few weeks ago, in 'Reading BetweenThe Lines', I wrote with regret about the way society has sped up and with it, the way we read. However, there's little point resisting an established trend and denying the fact that most of us have become more impatient readers than we once were. We have also become more story savvy and need less explanation than in the past. So whether we like it or not, there is little room in today's market for novels that start slowly. A weak first page or first chapter means that an agent or a publisher might not bother to read on. Even when a book is published, the opening plays an important role in its success.
Although in the case of Flight, I found my opening lines early in the writing process, it was only after six or seven drafts that I was able to get the opening pages right. This is a common problem for a number of reasons. When we start a novel we tend not to know where we're going, so it is only in retrospect that we can go back and see what it is we were trying to achieve. In the opening pages we haven't yet found our voice or the style and tone of the piece, or even got to know our characters, so the writing is often more wooden than later pages. There are so many elements that need fine tuning in the early pages: pace, style, establishment of character, setting, plot, motives. . . We often give too much away, or conversely, say too little. We might meander towards the story or plunge in without giving the reader time to commit to the story. And finally, for some reason we usually become most sentimentally attached to our early pages – probably because it feels so miraculous just to have started! It's always hardest to 'kill your darlings'.
When my publisher at HarperCollins first read Flight, she loved it but she also knew that she couldn't successfully pitch it to her colleagues because the opening was too slow and by that she meant the first quarter of the novel. I was lucky that she gave me a chance to solve the problem, though at the time I didn't believe there was anything more to do as I had already cut it back by 20,000 words and was certain that every remaining word was necessary. Reluctantly (and a little impatiently), I went back to my desk, where to my surprise I quickly discovered that much of the early material was superfluous because I had written it as an exploration, a kind of getting to know my story, while I was still 'finding a way in' (see earlier post). In the end I reduced the first four chapters to a single chapter and cut a further 20,000 words from the first third of the novel. It felt surprisingly good doing it, like a particularly satisfying spring clean. In the process no thematic depth was lost, nor was the richness of setting or the credibility of the characters reduced. In fact, the novel was far better for being pruned in this way. Instead of slowly meandering towards the beginning of action it began at the point where action was imminent, which increased the pace and made the story more compelling. My publisher took my new draft to an acquisitions meeting where it was approved and a year later Flight was published. Hopefully I have learned enough from this experience to be more ruthless with the early pages of my new novel. I've certainly learned enough to know that I should stop worrying about the problematic opening and just get on with writing it because there's no doubt I'll have to come back to these pages in the end. For as John Irving once said, 'half my life is an act of revision'.