Start as you mean to go on

Several years ago I attended a talk given by a literary agent at a local literature festival. The agent was explaining what to do and what not to do when pitching to agents.

‘For example,’ she said, ‘if I had a pound for every opening chapter that started with a sentence about the weather…’ She rolled her eyes and we all laughed. As I made my way home after the talk, I thought about what she’d said. How unimaginative to start your novel with a description of the weather! At that time, I had just completed my novel Package Deal and sent it off to a number of agents. I couldn’t remember my opening line so I looked it up the minute I got home. And this is what I had written: Sun, sun, sun. Dazzling, beaming, glorious sun.

Oops.

Well, that’s me screwed then, I thought. As it turned out, I wasn’t screwed. But that’s another story.

More recently, I entered my current WIP, Blown-Away Man, into a competition. Before I printed it out and posted it off, I re-read the competition rules and tips one last time. One thing stood out: ‘Make sure your opening page is a strong one.’ I read my opening page again, then decided to look at the opening pages of some of my favourite novels. I thought I’d share what I found as it’s been a helpful exercise. As a result, I found myself adding in a line to my opening page that made all the difference.

The following lines are not necessarily the first line of the novel, but occur within the first two pages. They are lines that piqued my curiosity and lured me in.

I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6th 1973. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold

My name, in those days, was Susan Trinder. People called me Sue. I know the year I was born in, but for many years I did not know the date… Fingersmith, Sarah Waters

No one in this “community” shows any signs of forgetting, after a year and eight months–to the day. So I have to steel myself when provisions run low. We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver

He simply loved women. Young, old, those just starting to blossom and those beginning to fade. And sheepishly, almost embarrassed at his own vanity, he knew that women loved him. Women loved him. The Slap, Christos Tsiolkas

The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time, Mark Haddon

Mary Fisher lives in a High Tower on the edge of the sea: she writes a great deal about the nature of love. She tells lies. The Life And Loves Of A She Devil, Fay Weldon.

Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu. Together they had appeared at the courthouse in Wujia Town many times, but she had always changed her mind at the last momentWaiting, Ha Jin

And here’s the line I added into my humble beginning:

It’s an odd feeling, making polite conversation with the person you lost your virginity to nearly a quarter of a century ago. Luckily the subject didn’t come up, although I’m sure it’s as clear in her memory as it is in mine.

 

Paw Choices – a short story

Henry likes to think of himself as a free spirit. At the weekends he likes to get up and see where the day takes him. Once we bought a two-man tent on a whim, and were camping wild in the New Forest a few hours later. Sometimes we go to a nightclub, dance into the early hours, and then fall asleep on the beach. You wouldn’t know Henry was a 45-year-old vet with a penchant for humorous socks.

Henry says he doesn’t want to get tied down. He says I’m great, that we have something special, so why ruin it by getting all serious? As long as we’re honest with each other, he says, that’s what counts. I know it’s fear of getting hurt that keeps him from getting too close, and that’s why I’ve been patient. I’ve never pestered him to see me, or even to call me his girlfriend, and I’ve been happy enough to take things at his pace. But deep down I know he wants to be loved and cherished like everyone else. And I’m the woman to love and cherish him. I know that because fate brought us together.

We met at the cat rescue centre the day I adopted Monty. Henry was doing the rounds, giving injections and flea drops. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to go for Monty, a black and white male domestic short-hair, or Coco, a sleek female with shiny chocolate-coloured fur.

‘See which cat responds to you the most,’ said Henry, noticing that the helper I’d been talking to was now busy talking to someone else. His deep brown eyes twinkled at me as he opened the door to Coco’s run. Coco, who was fast asleep in a basket, twitched an ear periscope-style in my direction, but didn’t so much as lift an eyelid to check me out. ‘Don’t take it personally,’ smiled Henry. He ushered me over to Monty’s run and opened it. Monty immediately got up and came to investigate.

‘Hello moggie,’ I cooed, stroking his head. Monty nuzzled my leg and miaowed.

‘Looks like Monty’s your man,’ said Henry, flashing me a grin. ‘Coco might look like the perfect accessory to one’s sofa, but she’s clearly not the emotional type. Still it’s up to you.’ As I took in Henry’s tall stature, his broad shoulders and confident smile, I couldn’t help feeling that he would be the perfect accessory to my sofa and if only I could take him home I wouldn’t be needing a pet to keep me company.

‘I’m sold on Monty,’ I said, hoping my instant attraction to this man wasn’t written all over my face.

‘Good choice. This one clearly wants to be loved.’

After helping me get Monty into my portable cat basket, he fished a card out of his pocket and handed it to me.

‘He’ll need a flu-jab in twelve months’ time,’ he said. ‘But if you fancy going out for a drink a little sooner than that, give me a call.’

Now here were are, ten months’ later. We’ve coasted along and I’ve been cool, calm and collected. But there comes a time when a woman has to lay her cards on the table…if only I could get him to the bloody table to show him my cards.

You see, Henry’s been somewhat elusive lately. I mean, he’s impossible to pin down at the best of times, but recently he’s been rather slack at returning my calls. I forced myself to casually ask if everything was ok, but he said – somewhat irritably – that he was simply rushed off his feet at work.

For some reason I find myself phoning his practice and booking an appointment. I know this is not a cool thing to do, but I need to see him. And besides, I’ve noticed that Monty is looking a little porky these days. I can’t understand it as he never finishes his food. But I’m sure my eyes are not deceiving me: Monty has definitely gained weight. Could he have an overactive thyroid? Obviously I need a vet’s opinion.

 

I sit in the waiting room with Monty protesting loudly from within his basket. I stretch my back. It is aching from carrying Monty on foot. My house is only a short walk from Henry’s practice, but in hindsight it would have been better to drive. Carrying a big cat in a heavy basket could see me end up at the osteopath’s if I’m not careful. I look around – there are two other people, an old lady with a Westie and a younger woman with far too much make-up and an immaculately groomed poodle. It’s hardly the long queue I’d been expecting.

Henry greets me coolly and mumbles an apology for not getting round to calling me. He adjusts his glasses and scratches his stubble. I look down at his ankles. Yes, as usual he’s wearing a pair of ridiculous socks: fluorescent pink and orange stripes. I remember the first time I met him, he joked it was his trademark, that it “jazzed up” the obligatory white coat. So on Valentine’s Day this year, I sent him a pair of Cupid socks – anonymously, of course, in case the act of giving a Valentine’s present were to bring Henry out in a cold sweat.

‘It’s been like Piccadilly Circus in here,’ he says, lifting the basket onto his table and extracting Monty who was now reluctant to emerge.

‘Seems pretty quiet to me,’ I say.

‘Two people cancelled today,’ he says quickly.

‘I thought we could go for a drink this Friday?’ I say.

Henry clears his throat and strokes Monty. ‘Er, I can’t, I’m afraid. I’m visiting my parents this weekend.’

‘Well, how about lunch on Monday, then?’ I suggest, breaking the golden rule of always leaving the ball in his court.

‘Sorry, Kate. At best I’ll be scoffing a sandwich in the back yard here on Monday – we’re booked out next week. People going on holiday. They need flu-jab certificates for the catteries and kennels. Now what did you say was wrong with Minty?’

Monty,’ I say tersely. He ought to know my pet’s name by now. ‘He seems to have put on some weight.’

With his free hand, Henry points to the cat adoption papers I am holding and beckons impatiently. He spreads them on the table next to Monty and scans the illegible handwriting of the woman from the cat rescue centre. Then he picks Monty up and places him on a large set of scales on the floor. ‘Dear God!’ he exclaims. ‘What have you been feeding him? Cement?’

‘Sheba,’ I reply defensively. ‘And sometimes Iams.’

‘How much? A kilo a day?’

I do not appreciate his sarcasm. As his girlfriend, I deserve a little more respect.

‘How much does he weigh?’ I ask.

‘Nine kilos. Congratulations. That’s a new record at this practice.’

‘I don’t understand it,’ I say. ‘He never finishes his food.’

‘Probably because he’s so stuffed. You’re overfeeding him.’

‘I can’t be!’ I gasp.

Henry points to Monty’s papers. ‘Says here he was six kilos when you adopted him from the cat rescue centre. He’s gained three kilos in the ten months you’ve owned him, Kate. He’s overweight.’

I’m speechless. My eyes well up. ‘Someone else must be feeding him,’ I splutter. ‘A well-meaning neighbour perhaps.’

‘I’m afraid it’s more likely you are the culprit, Kate. It’s very common. People overfeed their pets out of love. Just cut down the portion sizes and only feed him twice a day. We sell Obesity Management biscuits here at the practice. They’re expensive, but they’re the best nutrition you can give him in these circumstances.’

Henry checks his watch and heaves Monty back into his basket.

‘Bring him back in a month’s time so we can check his weight,’ he instructs me as he shows me to the door.

‘So when will you be free?’ I ask, my voice rising an octave.

‘Um, I’ll call you when work’s calmed down a bit…next week.’ He almost shoves me back into the waiting room and calls cheerfully for a Mrs Whitely and Squiggles to come in. The heavily made-up woman with the poodle teeters past me on impossibly high stilettoes as I lug Monty’s basket towards the reception desk to pay the bill.

‘Rita, get one of those Obesity Management sacks down for Kate and add it to her bill, will you?’ The door slams behind him as the receptionist hauls a giant sack onto her desk.

‘That’ll be seventy-three pounds and eighty-five pence, please love,’ says Rita, tapping away at her keyboard. I inhale.

I look at the sack: 3.5 kilos. I look at Monty: nine kilos. I look at the basket: two kilos? I look at the receptionist. She smiles sympathetically. ‘Would you like me to call you a cab, love?’

 

One week later, and still no call from Henry. I can’t help feeling that something isn’t right. I try to reassure myself that this is normal behaviour for Henry, and that if he no longer wanted to be with me, he would say so, as he prides himself on his honesty. So that only leaves one credible theory: we are getting too close, and he is retreating. He is yanking up his draw-bridge as I must have accidentally lifted a toe over the marked boundary.

What a load of nonsense, I suddenly think. Sod Henry and his bloody boundaries. I’m going to call him today because for one thing, I am about to prove him wrong: there is someone else feeding Monty, I just know it. And with the help of a teeny-tiny spy-cam I’ve bought online, I shall soon be able to prove it.

I call to Monty who loyally trots over to me and nuzzles my leg. I kneel down, stroke him and attach the spy-cam to his collar. Then I usher him towards the catflap, and watch eagerly as he squeezes through. He trots up the steps into my tiny garden and leaps up onto the wall, disappearing into the garden next door.

When I hear the sound of the catflap clattering twenty minutes later, I jump up from the sofa. Monty brushes up against me and purrs. I remove the camera from his collar and plug it into my laptop.

‘Now for the moment of truth,’ I announce to Monty, who saunters over to his empty bowl and miaows.

I watch the laptop with wide eyes. A succession of grainy, wobbly images fill the screen as Monty goes walkabout. There’s my garden; the wall; my next-door neighbour’s garden; the alleyway, and so on. Monty doesn’t hang about. I’m no longer sure where he is – between some back gardens by the look of it – but he has ventured a lot further than expected.

Finally he stops by some railings. I hope to God he isn’t about to try and squeeze through them as they do not look wide enough to accommodate Monty’s girth. The next image I see is a bit of a blur – there is a figure, but then a dog appears, barking, and Monty does a u-turn and runs. I rewind and pause the footage. Yes, there is someone – in fact there are two people.

‘Cover your eyes, Monty!’ I gasp as I realise what I’m witnessing. I press play and pause it again. I can clearly make out a woman’s legs wrapped around a man’s hips. I ought to avert my eyes but I’m too intrigued. Are they actually doing it, I wonder? Outside, in their back garden? Good Lord! I will Monty to look up so that I can see their faces, but instead he looks down. Dismayed, I follow the man’s legs down to his ankles. My heart stops. For there, between his trousers and his shoes, are a pair of socks covered in little Cupids, pointing their arrows towards a pair of impossibly high heels.

Back on the shelf again

Getting a literary agent is a bit like getting a boyfriend. The very first time he rings you up and asks you out, you do a few cartwheels, followed by a mad dance, followed by several days of singing in the rain and holding doors open for strangers. Your world is a happy place full of cherry blossom and rainbows. You’ve made it. Your dreams of literary success are coming true. Or so you think…

At first things are going great. He digs you. He likes your style. He thinks you’re smart, funny, going places. He takes your hand and says he can see a bright happy future together. He’s really looking forward to seeing you again. You skip to the bus stop in the rain, hold your umbrella above a stranger’s head, offer the bus driver your last Rolo. Life is so beautiful you could cry with joy.

A publishing deal is just around the corner. You imagine your novel lining the shelves of Smith’s and Waterstone’s (in the number one spot of course). You picture your books being bigged up in Heat magazine. You daydream about being interviewed for the broadsheet culture supplements, appearing on BBC News 24’s Meet The Author, and The Big One: selling your film rights to Brad Pitt, who’s your biggest fan and can’t wait to meet you in person.

But as time goes by, the honeymoon buzz starts to fade. He’s not gushing about you any more. He doesn’t reply to your emails in a hurry. The friends he couldn’t wait to introduce you to have just been really, really busy. Then he says it’s impossible to see into the future. You get the sense he’s not as in love with you as he once was. So you try harder to make him happy, do everything he asks you to do, without coming across as too much of a doormat and without making contact too often in case he thinks you’re starting to reek of desperation. Which you are.

Then one day, the end comes. Times are just so hard right now, he says. Harder than ever. It’s not you, it’s just the way it is. The timing is all wrong. He knows you’ll be snapped up one day and it’ll be his loss. He wishes you the best of luck in everything. You walk home in a teary blur. As you pass the corner shop you contemplate buying a packet of fags even though you haven’t smoked in years. That night you drown your sorrows and wonder how you could have ever deluded yourself that you were smart/funny/pretty enough to attract the likes of him. You’re just not good enough. Life’s a bitch. 

A few weeks go by and you pick yourself up and dust yourself off. It’s not the end of the world. You are not dying, so enough with the moping. You are good enough, you just need to up your game, hone your skills, and listen to your writing voice. Stop trying to write what you think he/she/they will like. It’s what you wrote without anyone else’s input that attracted him in the first place. Get back to your true authentic voice – the one you talk to your cat in when no one else is around.

And there you are, back at the beginning, no worse off than you were before, but older and wiser. You do this because you love it, because you can’t not do it. You’re a writer. You just keep on truckin’. 

Smells like teen spirit

I have a confession to make: I thoroughly enjoyed Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Before you depart from this blog in disgust and banish me from your Twitter feed, you might like to find out why on earth a 40-year-old mother with a degree in French and a career as a copywriter would enjoy this mass-market novel supposedly aimed at teenagers.

I bought the book because – and I swear this is the truth – having seen the trailer for New Moon (the second book in the saga) on TV, I wanted to know how Stephenie Meyer could describe a boy’s transition from human to wolf in a credible and convincing way. As a writer, I often find myself stumbling over how to describe something so that the reader can visualise exactly what I’m visualising – such as a facial expression or a movement. So it was for this reason that I was keen to have a browse through one of her books. Not to mention that as an author who has become a global success, I was sure there was something I could learn from her.

So when I came across Twilight in a charity shop, I snatched it off the shelf and bought it. ‘For technical reasons,’ I told my husband when he took the book from me and raised his eyebrows.

I had not expected to finish Twilight – but I read it and got sucked (pardon the pun) right in. I forgot all about my technical reasons (she uses the word ‘phasing’ by the way) and just got swept along with the story. I hadn’t realised it was a love story – one with a good hint of Romeo and Juliet about it. And I also hadn’t realised how long it had been since I’d last read a love story.

Twilight took me right back to my teenage years when a holiday romance with a Greek guy turned my sixteen-year-old world upside down. I longed to live in Greece, be part of a Greek family and absorb Greek culture. (Of course it didn’t last, but years later, when I started writing, I imagined what my ex-boyfriend would be like now, and the character of Dimitri in my novel Package Deal was born.)

For a brief period, the Twilight saga enabled me to tap right back into my teenage self. I dug out my old diaries and read pages of angst-riddled mush about my love for ‘Dimitri’. It made me laugh out loud in places, cringe in others. I looked through old photos. (Dimitri had sported a dodgy mullet, but hey, it was the Eighties.) He was my fantasy world while my parents were splitting up, school was a load of old bollocks and there was nowhere to hang out and smoke apart from the bench around the corner.

My trip down memory lane was a strange experience. I was in a bit of a haze for a week or so – revisiting a time that felt like a lifetime ago, and realising I am a long, long way from sixteen. I felt like I was mourning my younger self.

‘Have we got over our mid-life crisis, now Mrs H?’ my husband asked me eventually, holding a charity bag in one hand and my Twilight DVD in the other.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked. The cheek.

‘Well, your 40th birthday is just around the corner and you’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with a pasty-looking 24-year-old actor.’

He had a point. It was time to get back to reality and embrace my forthcoming landmark birthday with courage and optimism.

As for the Twilight saga, I’ve stashed the books away for my daughters to read one day. (And as for the DVD, I sneaked that back out of the charity bag. I’m not quite done with it yet. Technical reasons, naturally.)