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.


Mugs and mooches

I’ve just finished reading Lionel Shriver’s novel ‘So Much For That’. It was a bit of a slow burner, but the ending was, in true Shriver style, totally rewarding.

One of the themes that runs through this book is that of ‘mugs and mooches’, or rather, people who play by the rules (mugs) and those who don’t (mooches). For example, there are people who fill in their tax returns as honestly as they can, and those who think it’s only natural to fiddle the system. I related to the protagonist Shep Knacker: I’m a mug. I’m not very good at breaking the rules, partly because of my conscience, but mainly because whenever I do, I get caught.

When I was sixteen I was nearly expelled from school. I and a group of friends had decided to bunk off Spanish, which was a ‘general study’ and therefore a lesson we didn’t feel obliged to attend. We sneaked off after registration to a local café where we sat slurping coffee and chain-smoking cigarettes. Not daring to be late for history, I headed back to school ten minutes earlier than my friends and bided my time in the toilets until the bell rang for the next lesson.

While hiding in the toilets, I heard sobbing. It was a first year kid, distraught because she’d just been told off by the headmistress. As I tried to console her, the headmistress herself walked in, ordered the girl back to class and swiftly walked out again. I breathed a sigh of relief just a second too soon: she returned in an instant. ‘Shouldn’t you be in Spanish?’ she barked. ‘I just needed the loo,’ I mumbled. Later that day, after she’d conferred with the Spanish teacher, I was summoned to her office and threatened with expulsion if I made any more poor choices about my attendance.

How I kicked myself for being mug enough to return to school earlier than I needed to! Had I been a proper mooch, I would have hung out in the café for the full duration of my Spanish lesson, and not got caught.

Nearly 25 years later, my mug’s curse is as present as ever. When my eldest daughter started in reception a few years ago, she liked riding her scooter to school. Abiding by the rules, I would take it off her at the school gates, as you weren’t supposed to ride scooters in the playground.

My daughter would always whine, ‘But everyone else is riding their scooter, why can’t I?’ Eventually I got sick of telling her, ‘Because you’re not supposed to,’ as we were pretty much the only mugs obeying the rules. So, as I didn’t want my daughter to grow up being a total goody-two-shoes – or supergrass for that matter – one day I relented and handed it back to her. Two minutes later, she scooted straight into the headmistress, who politely, but firmly, reminded me of the school policy on playground safety.

Naturally we went back to carrying the scooter at the school gates. As for the other rule-breakers? Those kids continued to sail skillfully past the headmistress’s back while she stood there chatting and joking with their parents.

So if you’re a mug like me, I recommend ‘So Much For That’. For deep down in every mug, a mooch lurks waiting…