Back to a book I love. A book I have a sudden overwhelming desire to reread. For the millionth time. And that’s where I want to start. Love.
There are ingredients to writing. Some are of their time, some are of their genre, some are universal – these generally fall under the heading of grammar but I find that misleading. Instead I’d file them under love. Truth is we all bring a personal agenda to everything we read. Trying to parse that down is a life-long therapy session I’m not qualified to overcharge you for. But when you do come to this stage as a writer I think it’s really worth remembering. Even if we don’t fully understand why we love something knowing that we do, knowing that what we write is hitting that sweet spot for us, matters. Love will overlook, love will fill in the bits that are missing, skip the bits that don’t serve. And that includes grammar – how else does Joyce or Welsh or any others who play fast and loose with basic comprehension get published? Because love.
And that plays on both sides. Agents are only human. One hopes they’re humans who love to read and that’s why they got into this in the first place. An agent might seem more pragmatic and hardnosed than your average reader, but even if their passion parses down into ‘I love making a killing on the New York Times Bestseller lists’ it’s still love and it’s still colouring everything they choose. Or reject (Most of us are more familiar with this side). Everything they think is wrong or right. I see this all the time in writing circles. One writer is vilified another is idolized yet the actual writing is either almost identical or – and this I love – breaks all the rules the writers continually cite as sacrosanct. Why? Because love.
Take A Wrinkle in Time. Take the very first line.
It was a dark and stormy night.
If you asked a bunch of writers, agents, editors or bus drivers how not to start your novel this would probably be the number one answer. Probably, schmobably, this would be the number one answer by a landslide.
Its not that it’s an overused cliché – really . As far as I am aware only two books in the history of literature have actually used it. Not including Snoopy. Coined by the highly successful author Bulwer-Lytton whose style was very much of its day, back in the romantic 1800’s, it’s from a book which most would be hard put to name let alone have read. (Paul Clifford if you really want to know). Its reputation seems to have been sealed in 1982 when Professor Rice of San Jose State University launched the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. It aims to find ‘the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels’, one to rival even ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ and invites entrants to ‘inflict your entries’. The reach of mockery never ceases to fascinate me. Not least the lengths we will go to escape being its target.
Yet it had already achieved immortality in Snoopy by the 1970’s and Madeleine L’Engle apparently used the cliché deliberately in Wrinkle in Time published in the early 60’s.
With a wink to the reader, she chose for the opening line of A Wrinkle in Time, her most audaciously original work of fiction, that hoariest of cliches…L’Engle herself was certainly aware of old warhorse’s literary provenance as…Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s much maligned much parodied repository of Victorian purple prose, Paul Clifford
The power of that one little dreadful line to stick around is one many a writer might want to understand. Perhaps because it works?
One of those things writers aren’t ever supposed to admit: I like Dan Brown, I don’t know what a semi-colon does and I think ‘it was a dark and stormy night’ is a great opening line.
Madeleine L’Engle may claim it to be a wink to the reader, but her reader was ten years old. How many do you think chuckled wryly, shaking their head and thinking, ‘oh madeleine such rapier wit..’? Speaking for myself I barely noticed it. But I did remember the pictures her opening chapter painted in my head, that cosy feeling as I cuddled down under the blankets, right there with Meg.
In her attic bedroom Margaret Murry, wrapped in an old patchwork quilt, sat on the foot of her bed and watched the trees tossing in the frenzied lashing of the wind. Behind the trees clouds scudded frantically across the sky. Every few moments the moon ripped through them, creating wraithlike shadows that raced along the ground.
One of the words that repeatedly crops up in reference to the line, more so when actually taken in the context of Bulwer-Lytton’s original novel, is ‘atmospheric’. Language is always going to change with the fashions of the day – the Gothic romanticism of the 1800’s seems akin to giving kids beer today – but the basic principles behind them rarely do. Beer quenched thirst without giving you dysentery, water didn’t. People read to be wrapped in another world; you ignore atmosphere and emotion at your peril.
Often the case against this line is cited quite simply as ‘don’t open with the weather’. This might be the more common sin. Books which have opened with the sense of dark and stormy nights even if they managed to avoid the actual words, in witty irony or otherwise, include Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, The Children of Greenknowe by L.M Boston and A Little Princess By Frances Hodgson Burnett.
Once on a dark winters day when the yellow fog hung so thick and heavy in the streets of London that the lamps were lighted and the shop windows blazed with gas as they do at night.
Are Kids more forgiving? The unsophisticated reader who forgives what they shouldn’t? Or are they simply less pretentious, happy to admit what we all know – storms are deliciously scary, tempting the dark corners of our imagination, like the dark shadows under the bed. That weather can more accurately describe a mood than the most searing and erudite page of navel gazing. More importantly it doesn’t just describe a mood it drags the reader into it.
As Meg sits shivering amongst the rafters we get a peek inside her petulent head.
School. School was all wrong. She’d been dropped down to the lowest section in her grade.That morning one of her teachers had said crossly, “Really Meg I don’t understand how someone with parents as brilliant as yours are supposed to be can be such a poor student.”
Looking at our Worst Ways to start a kids book this is clearly the Family Showcase/School Showcase double whammy. And we’re not done yet. It’s a triple rolled catastrophe for this book that has never been out of print since its publication in 1962 – because it also hits the EVERYDAY LIFE button. Just another rotten day for poor Meg.
During lunch she’d roughhoused a little to try to make herself feel better and one of the girls had said scornfully, ‘After all Meg, we’re not grammar school kids anymore. Why do you always act like such a baby?”
Then we move to the kitchen, present time, where we meet the little brother, who is doing what he always does, knowing exactly what everyone else is doing. And the mother, who like Meg takes this in her stride; after all she has the business of being brilliant to be getting on with.
The reason L’Engle gets away with all these sins isn’t down to Mrs Whatsit turning up by the end of the first chapter. She’s just an old woman. The key is always in the smaller details.
Meg’s family aren’t much like my family. Charles Wallace isn’t like most little brothers.
Was it because people were a little afraid of him that they whispered about the youngest Murray child, who was rumoured to be not quite bright? ‘I’ve heard clever people often have subnormal children,’ Meg had once overhead. ‘The two boys seem to be nice, regular children but that unattractive girl and the baby boy certainly aren’t all there.’
And the perfect Mrs Murray with her calm appraisal of her daughter’s disagreement with her classmates fist, and her absent husband, aren’t much like my parents.
Only her mother could talk about him in a natural way, saying, “when your father gets back –“
Get back from where? And when? Surely her mother must know what people were saying, must be aware of the smugly vicious gossip… Nothing ruffled the serenity of her expression.
It isn’t even that you must write only about the odd and obscure, but rather it speaks to what you chose to show the reader, what you spend your words on. These small details are threaded through the generic set up, woven into the fabric of normality that set it apart, each one of them working on the reader to increase their curiosity and sense of attachment to the characters. It makes them distinct and in giving them this definition, regardless of what form that takes, makes them seem more real. We can’t parse down that last element the one that makes them care. Love. Someone will always hate your book. But someone will also always love it – if you get the rest right.
So to sum up my series on beginnings: Write the story you love, write it from your very first word. Because if it isn’t part of the story you love, if its just words you think you should write, or words to avoid what you think you shouldn’t write, its not your story. And you should always start with that.