Writing

  • Famous first lines… or how to start your novel

    Famous first lines... or how to start your novel
    How important is the first line of your novel?

    Novels with famous first lines. You’ve seen them, even read some of them, or pored over their opening pages. Famous first lines you can repeat from memory.

    Ursula Le Guin says in her essay, The Fisherwoman’s Daughter, that:

    First sentences are doors to worlds.

    She’s right. A great first sentence can hook the reader and reel them in.

    Of course, you can’t build the success or fate of a novel on a first sentence alone. If you have a great first sentence or first paragraph, and the writing that follows doesn’t live up to its promise, the reader will bail.

    In another blog post, I’ll deal with the conversion sequence that starts with the cover art and that moves through to the opening of the book.

    But to summarise, there’s a sequence of hooks that are meant to draw a reader in. The cover image might help a book stand out in a bookshop against the competition. The cover can be seen from across a store. You can’t see a blurb from that far, and you won’t get anywhere near the opening lines until you are tempted to pick the book up in the first place.

    The power of the opening sentence hook comes at the end of a sequence of hooks that lead up to it.

    Getting a potential reader or book buyer to check out the book in the first place is a challenge. The book market is already saturated and it’s easy to get depressed when you walk into a large bookshop and check out the sheer wealth of competition.

    You need all the help you can get – which is why great and genre-appropriate cover art is so important.

    A decent blurb is also important.

    But readers browse the opening pages of far more books than they’ll ever buy or read. They are engaging in a filtering process – filtering out what doesn’t appeal fast as they search for something that hooks their attention, and makes them curious to read more.

    That’s why the opening lines and pages of your book matter.

    Your opening lines need to draw a reader in. They can do this in different ways. Sometimes it’s dropping the reader straight into some action – there are Hollywood films that also use this type of hook.

    There are also opening lines that raise a question in the reader’s mind – leading to a curiosity to find the answer(s). Some opening lines cast a spell over the reader, urging them to read on.

    One of the things readers remember most about a book is how it made them feel. They won’t necessarily remember all the plot details years down the line, but they will likely remember the impact a book had on them, the mood of the book, its atmosphere, and how it made them feel.

    Sometimes this is also related to the writer’s voice, and voice is something that can show up in the very first line.

    In a 2013 interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King was asked about his favourite lines, and they turned out to be his opening lines. According to King:

    An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

    Among his own books, his favourite opening line is from Needful Things. Four simple words printed in 20-point on a page: You’ve been here before. King sees this as an invitation to keep reading and that it suggests a familiar story.

    King works on his openings while he lies in bed before going to sleep. He composes them in his head and will rework them over the coming days, weeks, and even years. Once he’s happy with the opening, he knows he can write the book.

    There are many famous opening lines in fiction:

    Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. 

    Daphne du Maurier – Rebecca

    The opening sentence of Rebecca is a particularly famous example. Perhaps one of the most famous – in part thanks to the Hitchcock adaptation where Joan Fontaine narrates the opening sentences of the novel.

    But many people know it from the book alone. It’s a line that throws up questions in the mind of a new reader. Who is the narrator – we never find out her true name. She is simply the second Mrs. de Winter. And what is Manderley?

    The sentences that follow the first line fill in some of the details. Rebecca opens on a mystery – the mystery of Manderley, abandoned, ruined, and overgrown, and why the narrator can never go back.

    Here’s another famous example:

    The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.

    LP Hartley – The Go-Between

    The Go-Between is a classic English novel set against the backdrop of the end of the Victorian era. Specifically, the summer of 1900. It is a novel in which an older man is reflecting on the time he spent as a young boy at a school friend’s estate – a period he has blanked out from his memory until he finds his old diary and pieces things together.

    In an interview Hartley said:

    I wanted to evoke the feeling of that summer [in 1900], the long stretch of fine weather, and also the confidence in life, the belief that all’s well with the world, which everyone seemed to enjoy before the First World War…

    The first line of the book links to the changes the character has seen in the world since 1900. He’s remembering the past from the 1950s. Two world wars have passed, with what in 1900 would have been unimaginable casualties and horrors. The aristocratic late Victorian society that young Leo samples in his visit to the estate has long passed away. The past is indeed a foreign country and things were different then.

    Speaking of long summers in 1900, there is also Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which I wrote about in another blog post. Here is the opening sentence:

    Everyone agreed that the day was just right for the picnic to Hanging Rock – a shimmering summer morning warm and still, with cicadas shrilling all through breakfast from the loquat trees outside the dining-room windows and bees murmuring above the pansies bordering the drive.

    Lindsay wrote the novel after a series of dreams about a picnic at the Rock. She wrote it in winter, but when she woke from the dreams she could still feel the summer heat. The novel’s opening sentences capture the mood and season of the dreams. But the central event of the novel, the picnic at Hanging Rock, is also referenced from the very first line.

    Staying on the theme of summer there is this opening line:

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

    Sylvia Plath – The Bell Jar

    In a few short words, the novel’s opening sets the season, the talking point of the time (the Rosenbergs, which also anchors the opening in a particular year), and the location.

    Or how about the opening to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History:

    The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.

    The opening line of the prologue gets to the heart of the story, yet a new reader will only have questions rather than answers at this point. Who is Bunny? Why is he dead? And why does the narrator mean by the gravity of our situation?

    Of course, if you’ve read the book, you’ll know the answer. The first half of the novel leads up to the events that cause Bunny’s death. The second half deals with the fallout. The opening sentence doesn’t deal with the lead-up to the death – but it shows that there will likely be consequences. And that the novel deals with this in some way.

    The opening of 1984 immediately indicates that there is something not quite right about the society in this book. The clocks are striking thirteen. This famous novel deals with a dystopian society and acts as a political warning.

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

    George Orwell – 1984

    Zora Neale Hurston was part of the Harlem Renaissance but she never really got the recognition she deserved during her lifetime. Her fame really came after her death. The opening line of her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a standout line. It’s more than just an opening hook that draws the reader into her story. It’s a handy saying too.

    Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.

    Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

    William Gibson’s Neuromancer has a particularly striking image in the opening sentence:

    The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.

    Meanwhile, the opening sentence to JG Ballard’s High-Rise raises all sorts of questions in the reader’s mind:

    Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.

    The opening of Andy Weir’s The Martian gets straight to the seriousness of the narrator’s situation:

    I’m pretty much fucked.

    And he is. Well and truly. The rest of the novel follows him as he figures out how to survive on Mars when the rest of his crew have left him for dead. Nobody on Earth or even his old crew know yet that he is still alive. So, help isn’t arriving anytime soon.

    Or how about Iain Banks’ unforgettable first line in his contemporary Scots novel, The Crow Road:

    It was the day my grandmother exploded.

    Apart from the unexpected image, there are all sorts of questions like why and how she exploded.

    The novel isn’t actually about the whys of her eventful cremation, but the mystery of why the narrator’s Uncle Rory went missing. This is woven around a story about family and growing up.

    But that first line is a hook that gets the reader to read on. Hooks that raise questions in the reader’s mind can be answered early in the book providing there are bigger questions being raised that pull the reader on to finish the story.

    Earlier in this post, I mentioned Stephen King’s approach to first lines – he really tries to nail the first line before tackling the rest of the book. However, if you spend too much time trying to nail that first line, you can lose your confidence and motivation when it comes to the rest of the book.

    It’s far more important to get your early drafts down so that you have a story to work with, and characters to flesh out.

    It’s not unusual for writers to start the earlier drafts of their novel with a different scene or at a different stage in the narrative. And this is perfectly fine. A lot of writers need some warmup prose to get them into their story. Much of this can be discarded later.

    Once you have at least one full draft down, you can start to think about the right starting point. But even that isn’t about exactly the right first line.

    You can actually leave your opening line or lines until the very end of your writing process. During the earlier drafts and rewrites, you can note down ideas for opening lines. But this fine-tuning of the opening can be something you can postpone until later.

    After all, you don’t want to waste your burst of enthusiasm for your story on working and reworking the same lines over and over. Plunge into your story. Worry about the details later.

    You might be someone who often has a good first line in mind – if so, that’s great. But it’s not necessary when you’re first sitting down to write. Especially if you want a line that will really hook the reader.

    Of course, it’s not just your opening line that matters, but your opening paragraphs, pages, chapters etc.

    If you want feedback on your opening chapters, I offer an opening chapters developmental edit. The relevant service page mentions 15,000 words, but I also do custom word counts for those who want a shorter opening assessed.

    The edit looks at opening hooks, characterisation, point of view, and much more. You get an editorial letter and a copy of your manuscript with track commenting in the margins.

    More posts from the IndieCat blog

    Should you dust off that old novel?

    How to establish a writing routine

    So indie authors aren’t real authors?

    Researching your novel’s locations online

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique

    Why writers benefit from a 365 photo project

  • Historical fiction as a time machine

    Historical fiction as a time machine - Vanderbilt mansion, Fifth Avenue, 1910
    Fifth Avenue, Vanderbilt mansion and Plaza Hotel, 1910

    Historical fiction as a time machine

    What is the appeal of historical fiction – does it function as a time machine?

    If you’ve ever pored over an old photograph like the one above, it might be the mystery and appeal of a lost world.

    There’s something romantic about vanished buildings like the Vanderbilt mansion – the largest private residence ever built in New York City.

    No one will ever walk up those steps to the entrance ever again. No one will ever walk the hallways. No one will ever pull aside the curtains and look out onto Fifth Avenue.

    It is a ghost house that recently drew my attention when a coloured version was posted on a Twitter account.

    The family who lived there are all dead. The maids who dusted and cleaned are long gone. The street looks very different today.

    The only way to visit this world is to study photographs. Or to read accounts of the area and the vanished house itself.

    Of course, with fiction, we can not only visit the past but use it as inspiration for new stories.

    What if there was a similar mansion belonging to a fictional family? Who might this family be? How did they build their fortune?

    And what dramatic events might take place in the house? What mysteries and secrets? Not just among the family, but also among those who worked there.

    Lost houses and mysterious houses are a common theme in fiction.

    Cornelius II Vanderbilt Mansion

    The real house was built in 1883, along the west side of Fifth Avenue to West 58th Street. It was a product of the Gilded Age and possessed 130 rooms.

    The owner, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was the eldest grandchild of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the family fortune.

    It wasn’t the only house Cornelius II owned, and 13 years after moving in, he suffered a stroke. His last three years were spent in a wheelchair.

    The house was six stories tall, not including the basement. On the first floor, there was a two-story ballroom and a two-story dining room, plus a salon, a smoking room, a den, an office, a library, a breakfast room, and much more.

    His wife’s bedroom, boudoir, bath, closet and dressing room were on the second floor. Cornelius’s bedroom was also there, along with his bathroom, dressing room, closet, and private study.

    In addition to the 130 rooms, there was a stable and private garden next door.

    After Cornelius’s death, his wife Alice lived on at the mansion with the 37 servants required to run the house. But she no longer entertained guests. Eventually she sold the house in 1926. Since the developers were only interested in the land, and not the house itself, it was demolished and replaced by the Bergdorf Goodman department store.

    Vanderbilt mansion, 1908

    The Gilded Era

    In The Age of Innocence (1920), which is set in the 1870s, Edith Wharton describes a house of this type early on. I’ve bolded anything relating to the description of the Beaufort house:

    The Beauforts’ house was one of the few in New York that possessed a ball-room (it antedated even Mrs. Manson Mingott’s and the Headly Chiverses’); and at a time when it was beginning to be thought “provincial” to put a “crash” over the drawing-room floor and move the furniture upstairs, the possession of a ball-room that was used for no other purpose, and left for three-hundred-and-sixty-four days of the year to shuttered darkness, with its gilt chairs stacked in a corner and its chandelier in a bag; this undoubted superiority was felt to compensate for whatever was regrettable in the Beaufort past.

    To be able to shut up a ballroom for 364 days of the year is a sign of pure luxury… and pure waste. Further down the page, Wharton says:

    … and two years after young Mrs. Beaufort’s marriage it was admitted that she had the most distinguished house in New York. No one knew exactly how the miracle was accomplished. She was indolent, passive, the caustic even called her dull; but dressed like an idol, hung with pearls, growing younger and blonder and more beautiful each year, she throned in Mr. Beaufort’s heavy brown-stone palace, and drew all the world there without lifting her jewelled little finger. The knowing people said it was Beaufort himself who trained the servants, taught the chef new dishes, told the gardeners what hot-house flowers to grow for the dinner-table and the drawing-rooms, selected the guests, brewed the after-dinner punch and dictated the little notes his wife wrote to her friends. If he did, these domestic activities were privately performed, and he presented to the world the appearance of a careless and hospitable millionaire strolling into his own drawing-room with the detachment of an invited guest, and saying: “My wife’s gloxinias are a marvel, aren’t they? I believe she gets them out from Kew.”

    And further down still:

    The Beaufort house was one that New Yorkers were proud to show to foreigners, especially on the night of the annual ball. The Beauforts had been among the first people in New York to own their own red velvet carpet and have it rolled down the steps by their own footmen, under their own awning, instead of hiring it with the supper and the ball-room chairs. They had also inaugurated the custom of letting the ladies take their cloaks off in the hall, instead of shuffling up to the hostess’s bedroom and recurling their hair with the aid of the gas-burner; Beaufort was understood to have said that he supposed all his wife’s friends had maids who saw to it that they were properly coiffees when they left home.

    Then the house had been boldly planned with a ball-room, so that, instead of squeezing through a narrow passage to get to it (as at the Chiverses’) one marched solemnly down a vista of enfiladed drawing-rooms (the sea-green, the crimson and the bouton d’or), seeing from afar the many-candled lustres reflected in the polished parquetry, and beyond that the depths of a conservatory where camellias and tree-ferns arched their costly foliage over seats of black and gold bamboo.

    Newland Archer, as became a young man of his position, strolled in somewhat late. He had left his overcoat with the silk-stockinged footmen (the stockings were one of Beaufort’s few fatuities), had dawdled a while in the library hung with Spanish leather and furnished with Buhl and malachite, where a few men were chatting and putting on their dancing-gloves, and had finally joined the line of guests whom Mrs. Beaufort was receiving on the threshold of the crimson drawing-room.

    Edith Wharton’s book was written long after the 1870s, but it still acts as a time machine. Wharton herself described it as “a momentary escape in going back to my childish memories of a long-vanished America… it was growing more and more evident that the world I had grown up in and been formed by had been destroyed in 1914.”

    In an article in 2020, Hillary Kelly wrote that Wharton’s “status made her story more than believable—it made the story real … Novelists before Wharton understood that storytelling was an act of exposure, but she built it into the architecture of The Age of Innocence and weaponized it.”

    The Age of Innocence is available on Project Gutenberg for anyone who wants to read it. The excerpts above are from Chapter three.

    Wikipedia article on the house.

  • #NaNoWriMo Burnout

    #NaNoWriMo Burnout

    Are you currently engaged in National Novel Writing Month? Have you been furiously writing away and watching your word count build as the days go on? With the middle of the month approaching, maybe you’re already suffering from #NaNoWriMo Burnout?

    Maybe you’ve even fallen behind or dropped out. Due to that one or two days when you couldn’t get any writing done… You felt like you’d failed and you dropped out.

    Or maybe you picked up your thread again, but those missing days still bug the hell out of you.

    Don’t heap unnecessary pressure on yourself

    The truth is, with everything else that’s going on – Covid, lockdowns, restrictions, job worries – you don’t need the added stress of writing obligations.

    Or a feeling that you’ve somehow failed.

    #NaNoWriMo is great for getting people engaged in an activity for a fixed period of time, where you can also talk to other participants.

    But if you find it’s all getting too much, it’s perfectly okay to drop out.

    Your health is more important than a word count

    First of all, your health and wellbeing come first. Secondly, your writing won’t necessarily benefit from you feeling stressed out and under some kind of obligation to produce.

    If you feel that NaNoWriMo is the boot up the backside you need to get you motivated, there are others ways to get the same results. And they don’t involve the same short-term pressures.

    If you can find a writing group – including an online writing group – that would certainly help motivate you.

    You could also try and find some accountability partners. It can be one or two and then check in with them periodically. Set reasonable goals for the next check-in.

    Never set unreasonable goals. You’re just setting yourself up to fail and feel bad about it.

    And that can keep you trapped in a negative downward cycle of ‘what’s the point’ and ‘I can’t do this’.

    One technique I found helpful in the past

    One thing I’ve found helpful in the past is writing down a word count for each day. Even if it was just 30 words. Tiny word counts were fine because there were other days when the count would be in the thousands.

    Momentum was the key.

    I could count up the words at the end of each month, each quarter, each half-year, and each year.

    Over the years, the overall word count went up dramatically.

    At first, there was novelty and enthusiasm. Then there was the sense of obligation and the grind of having to do it. This is why even allowing small word counts can help. After a while, I had to write and if I didn’t there was a feeling of dissatisfaction. I didn’t associate it with a sense of failure or duty either. It had more to do with the feeling that writing was such a part of my daily life that I missed it and didn’t feel right when it wasn’t there.

    Nevertheless, we’re all allowed breaks.

    If you feel that a month of writing isn’t for you, it’s fine to take a step back. Never mind what other people are doing. Writing is not a competition – though it might feel like it is sometimes when you’re on social media.

    Still intent on finishing #NaNoWriMo?

    If you’re feeling a bit burned out, but you still want to continue, remember to take breaks. Go for a walk. Listen to music.

    If you need help concentrating, you can use a social media blocker like Cold Turkey.

    You can also use a Pomodoro timer to pace yourself.

    Whatever you write this month is just a jumping-off point, not the end goal. You can rework it later. Or even run off with a side character and live happily ever after in a new plot/novel!

    More posts from the blog

    You need author photos but you’re camera shy

    Social media blockers

    Is dialogue ruining your scenes?

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro technique

  • Too much period language in a historical novel?

    Too much period language in a historical novel?
    Too much period language in a historical novel?

    Too much period language in a historical novel?

    I was recently in the mood to read some historical fiction and decided to pick an indie novel. The blurb sounded fun and I looked forward to spending hours and hours in another period. As per usual, I started with a Kindle sample.

    And that’s as far as I got.

    In fact, I didn’t even get to the end of the sample.

    I gave up.

    So, what was the problem? To be honest, there were numerous problems. Some are simply related to the lack of a good editor – or any editor. Because I suspect this book never saw an editor.

    But that was not the biggest issue.

    No, the biggest issue was the language. Or rather, the saturated archaic language meant to evoke the period.

    The problems with syntax, grammar, and shifting tenses only added to the difficult prose.

    So, let’s talk about using period language in historical fiction. What can possibly go wrong? And should you use it? And is there such a thing as too much period language in a historical novel?

    An unfamiliar language

    The biggest issue is that modern readers are simply not familiar with this language. A writer might feel impatient at the unwillingness of modern readers to wade through overtly archaic language. But bear with me…

    For people of a particular period – say, Shakespeare’s time – the language used back then would be clear and transparent. It would not be confusing. It would be their own way of speaking – depending on class and education obviously.

    They would not notice anything strange or elaborate about their way of writing and speaking. It would be the norm.

    It would be as clear and transparent as a pane of glass.

    But, to our modern ears, it sounds like a different form of English… With a higher number of obsolete or strange words. Some words would be recognisable but possibly spelled differently. Or they might now appear in a slightly different form.

    If people from Shakespeare’s time were to teleport to the present and listen to us talk, we too would be hard to understand. Yes, people can acclimatise to speech and new words. But it’s hard work.

    And a novel isn’t meant to be hard work. At least, not when it’s a genre novel.

    But the point I was making above about period language being normal and easily understood within its time is important. When you use modern language, you might think it doesn’t sound right. But using the reader’s language, with some period words sprinkled here and there, is the easiest way to convey the period. (Along with actual descriptions of locations, events, mores, and so on.)

    Because to the people of Shakespeare’s time, their language was normal. It wasn’t a novelty or colourful or rich.

    Therefore, it doesn’t work to replicate the language of that time. Because we can never experience it as anything other than outsiders. Readers are like time travellers. They travel back and they immerse themselves in the period. But if they don’t have the natural language of the period, it’s going to be difficult. They will always be that modern person trying to fit in and never quite succeeding.

    To experience the period more accurately, it’s best to remove as many linguistic barriers as possible.

    Other ways to convey period language

    You don’t need to drop all period language. It’s a matter of density. Overuse makes the story harder to read and a modern writer is never going to write as fluently as a writer from the original period.

    In fact, a modern writer can make a big old mess of period language precisely because they are not and never will be fluent in the language. They don’t use it every day, speak it to their family, think in it, write in it, and hear it from their neighbours.

    A modern writer can unwittingly fall into pastiche or parody.

    It’s far better to read a lot of material from the period and listen to the rhythm of the language. Choose some words to use, but try to make your prose as transparent as possible. You should aim to give a flavour of the period.

    To go beyond that means alienating readers who might otherwise have bought your work.

    The language is the medium through which a story is delivered. So, the question is this – what should the writer’s priority be? Telling the story and introducing the reader to the characters? Or injecting a strong sense of the period through the language? You might try both and do a good job, but it’s a difficult balance.

    Get a good line editor

    If you’re going to attempt to write in the language of the period, you cannot skimp on a good line editor.

    Why?

    Because if you set up one difficult hurdle for the reader – obscure language – you can’t afford to have additional problems with grammar, punctuation, tenses, etc.

    All books will have some errors in them. The fewer the better. However, the more errors there are, the more times readers trip up.

    Here are just some of the problems you don’t want to be mixing in with overtly archaic language:

    • One long and convoluted sentence after another – this not only drags the pace, but it taxes the modern attention span
    • Grammatically incorrect sentences that force the reader to back up and read them again as they try to unpick the meaning (made worse by too much archaic language)
    • Meandering tenses

    I would also suggest being careful with overly long paragraphs. Especially if you have rather a lot of them. They can drag the pace down. They can also be more taxing on the eye, requiring visual scanning across one long line after another. Again, throw in too many strange words on top of this and a modern reader might balk.

    Having said all that, some readers do like a lot of period language – especially if they have some knowledge of the period to start with. But it’s worth considering the downsides and offset some of the cons by ensuring your book is edited well.

    Do you have a historical novel in need of a critique?

    One of my developmental editing services is an opening chapters edit. Contact me for a quote since you can opt for a custom word count. This developmental edit is detailed. It includes an editorial letter, plus track commenting in the margins of your manuscript. I read your manuscript several times, which allows me to dig deeper into the writing, characterisation, and plot. I’m also available for follow-up email feedback. You can email me at karen@indiecateditorial.com.

    Other IndieCat Blog posts

    Historical fiction as a time machine

    Review of historical epic, A Place of Greater Safety

    Social media blockers

    Don’t make this mistake on your author website

    Boost your writing with the Pomodoro Technique

    How to order the stories in a collection

    Why your book cover design matters