To Kill a Mockingbird – apart from being one of my favourite novels – is an enduring classic that is so beloved that the news that its author Harper Lee is publishing a sequel nearly sixty years later, has set the literary world abuzz. Even those (illiterate monsters!) who haven’t read it or seen the film, have likely felt its influence, as countless authors have drawn on its central themes and even attempted to recreate the uniquely powerful scenes that help shape our concept of race and justice. Although for me, at its heart its a story of childhood, not a sermon, but an adventure.
The very first thing that strikes anyone who picks it up is the beautiful writing. This is both overlooked as a reason an agent might choose to read on and conversely used as an excuse to explain everything else she ‘got away with’. In fact every time someone points out a classic or highly regarded writer did something that runs contrary to some popular don’t list, it is usually dismissed as the ultimate exception; of course Harper Lee can do it, she is Harper Lee. But why wouldn’t you aim to be Harper Lee? Does any writer start out thinking, I will be barely sufficient and hope that the world wants to pay to read my mediocrity? Do we sweat and toil and sit up night after night hoping to be a C minus? You might land in the mud but don’t aim there to make the landing softer.
‘To kill a mockingbird’s path to eventual publication is undoubtedly an intriguing one. It certainly seems as though it was a book even the fates were determined to see written. However, its not entirely helpful to compare the path to publication in the 1950’s with today. Is it equally foolish to compare its words? It might be foolish to compare any words but I think as long as a book is being picked up and read, it is relevant. Undoubtedly, it’s literary fiction and the category it would fall under should be factored in, however beyond that its just a story. And one whose influence continues. We all still speak the same language.
However beautiful writing is frustratingly vague. What precisely does it do right? This is where I sympathise with Chuck (he doesn’t mind me calling him Chuck, mostly as it’s his name and he doesn’t read this) Its really hard to pinpoint and not end up being all ‘I know it when I see it’ about it.
Easier always to start with where you are going wrong, or in these instances, looking at what others have done wrong, right. Get me?
In the list of don’ts one that comes up repeatedly is backstory. Even Chucks more positive spin begins with a warning about over front loading the donkey (story). Yet Lee frontloads the tale of eight year old Scout and one hot memorable summer, with the paddling of her distant ancestor up the creek just after the American Civil War.
“I said if he wanted to take a broad view of the thing, it really started with Andrew Jackson. If general Jackson hadn’t run the Creeks up the creek, Simon Finch would never have paddled up the Alabama..”
Some narration alienates, some narration invites. Some narration seeks to be authoritative, shutting down discussion and is more concerned with sounding good. Some just seems to want to get it all over and done with. Lee’s narration is in the voice of a child regaling you all what she did that day; the reader no more nor less than Atticus’ lap, as Scout recounts the circular arguments, her meandering train of thought, the curious interpretations and literal conclusions that bring your attention back and a smile to your lips.
Lee’s narration is voice. A storyteller’s voice in the truest sense. It isn’t about saying aren’t I clever its about saying curl up and listen.
However, in between her musing, remembering and historicising, Lee does, especially in her first page, manage to pique our curiosity. In agent speak she gives us a hook. In my speak, she has narrative drive. Narrative drive is principally about getting the reader wanting to know more. Once you do, the reader will keep going – even sometimes when they really don’t want to.
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow… when enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out. “
The opening line tells us Jem broke his arm. Plain and simple. Doing it this way naturally raises the readers interest – the inherent suggestion that there must be a story behind how. One that doesn’t get answered until the very end. So yeah one hell of a story.
Putting your ending in your beginning is a clever, though difficult, trick. You have to know specifically how much to reveal and how much to withhold. The key is how the information is presented. The result given – the broken arm – is perhaps for those who know the book, one of the least interesting parts of the story. Even if you haven’t read it, kids break bones all the time, its not an overly exciting incident. What Lee does, is she promises us there is a story with the simple phrase, ‘when enough years had gone by to enable us..’ This tells us that even years later they were still thinking about, talking about, the events but the real key is the word ‘enable’. With that one word she has suggested trauma, that perspective, healing, the kind provided only by time, was needed. She has implied a whole lot of drama is about to unfold, if we keep reading. This is echoed in one other word found smuggled unobtrusively in the very first line: ‘badly’. Aye, an adverb (no smug grins please.. oh wait that’s me). This one simple word adds a little shove to our curiosity, without knocking us over the head. This wasn’t your ordinary broken arm.
Moreover by choosing the plain adverb over the ‘power verb’ – sadly if you haven’t come across that term yet, you almost certainly will eventually – she maintains voice. Seconded by the other adverb in the first line – I know TWO! The slight awkwardness of the phrasing, ‘got his arm badly broken’ along with the specification of ‘nearly thirteen’ subtly enforce the idea of a child talking to us. When was the last time you heard someone say, ‘when I was nearly thirty four’? Age – thirteen and three quarters, nearly thirteen – is important when you’re young enough to think nearly thirteen is nearly ancient.
But she doesn’t stop there – it’s not a ‘do for the beginning’ approach. What you bring to your first lines should be exactly what you bring in every other line.
‘But Jem, who was four years my senior..’
Don’t those four years matter when you are eight? How much more than when you are forty?
‘when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.’
Slid neatly in and quickly moved on from, the reader still noticed. Who or what is a boo Radley and how did they make ‘it’ come out??
A beginning isn’t some convoluted technique distinct from the general practices of writing. One of the reasons agents and editors – the good ones – can use those first few lines to judge is precisely because they should be typical, not atypical, of your story and your ability to engross your reader. If you as a writer can’t understand this, it’s time to learn, for its almost guaranteed that if it isn’t working, the rest of your novel will be riddled with issues.