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.


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.