Beginnings Part Three: A Wrinkle in Time

a wrinkle in time

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.

Awww..

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.

dark and stormy night

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.

wrinkle

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.

wrink in time

Beginnings Part Two: A Game of Thrones

Game-Of-Thrones-Quotes-House-Lannister-House-Stark-1920x1080 I decided it might be considered too easy to dismiss what is technically wrong when considering only novels you love, so I have chosen one I abandoned, and abandoned early on. High fantasy is a genre that rarely interests me, add to that my deep dislike of violence, unpleasant characters and abhorrence of misery used as titillation and its pretty clear this was never going to hold my attention. However, I know those who are sworn fantasy avoiders who have had their heads turned by GRR Martin’s series and I have, for all I tossed it aside, never agreed with the naysayers: Martin can spin a yarn.

And maybe out of all the books I don’t like that I could have picked, I picked this one because it commits the ultimate Sin of Beginnings. And I do love those who really fuck the rules… 😀

Mr GRR Martin wrote a prologue..

Prologues. What does the world have to say about prologues? ‘Don’t’ would sum it up fairly effectively (warning: there may be an even greater proliferation of adverbs in here than usual. I can’t help myself. Once I blaspheme I just keep on blaspheming..) But we’ll take a tour of the articles..

I’m not a fan of prologues, preferring to find myself in the midst of a moving plot on page one rather than being kept outside of it, or eased into it.” 

“Most agents hate prologues. Just make the first chapter relevant and well written.” 

“Prologues are usually a lazy way to give back-story chunks to the reader and can be handled with more finesse throughout the story. Damn the prologue, full speed ahead!”  

Like I said, don’t.

Martin paid no attention. He not only commits the ultimate sin, he does it in the ultimate way. (I may have to set up an altar for him, alongside Leonard and Parker) How? He kills the character he has just so carefully introduced. And what is the very first sin listed in Worst Ways?

I don’t like it when the main character dies at the end of Chapter One. Why did I just spend all this time with this character? I feel cheated.”

Listed under the subheading –  False Beginning – its usually cited as the reason why you should never open with a dream sequence. I not only know a recently traditionally published author whose book opens with a dream/vision, I could list on ten hands the number that have done this in the last decade and not been punished by industry or reader. Which is actually the reason I would caution against using it.

Dream sequences are in the odd position of being both common and specific. A slightly contradictory situation that works against them. Many of the other common beginnings are generic. They can seem worlds apart yet still be essentially doing the same thing. Take for example the Family Showcase. This can be anything from an abusive aunt and uncle with comic overtones, as in Harry Potter, to a couple of kids squabbling in To Kill A Mockingbird. After all there is no greater showcase than taking us back to your ancestors in the civil war.

Dream sequences, however, tend to have several pivotal points which mark them as distinctly alike, not least that they have become a genre staple in the newly arisen Paranormal Romance. There are the key markers that tell you this is not ‘real’ – the character out of their own setting, place and even body, the other people who shouldn’t be familiar but are and of course the waking up. Even if you manage – as few do – to avoid your character being in mortal danger, waking up sweating and thankful to be alive, those markers will still render it overly familiar. And they are considered the reason the opening is false, asking the reader to invest in something that is essentially not only unreal but is introducing a world that we aren’t in.

Investment is light at this stage and the biggest investment is always in the story and voice, neither of which are false simply because of a dream. However, Martin does sidestep this pitfall. This after all is the man who has every viewer taking bets on who will be killed next. He tells you straight up front not to get too attached. Death is the one true constant and if you aren’t comfortable with it then do as I did and bail. Bail now.

Game-of-Thrones-game-of-thrones-23883770-1920-1200

He opens with three men, apparently together yet each clearly agin the other, the antagonism apparent in the first exchange of dialogue.

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The Wildlings are dead.”

“Do the dead frighten you?” Ser Waymar Royce asked with just a hint of a smile.

We get a taste of the Game, a battle for power, and its callous nature as they one up the other over what seems to be a family, dead and abandoned in the snow. It pervades every adjective chosen, ‘iron certainty’, ever small detail included, ‘where Maester Aemon had cut the ears away’. The only one remotely likable character, a put upon thief, our guide through this, who just wants to get out of the cold, shown only the mercy of dying last.

To reiterate the most important point from the first part: its not a matter of do for the beginning. What you bring to your first lines should be exactly what you bring in every other line. And that’s what every good opening, including Game of Thrones, does. There is no false start. He brings death, brutality, unrelenting hardship; this is as grittily real as fantasy will ever get. If you don’t like it, you’re not going to like anything that comes after.

tyrion

The other main reason prologues tend to be so reviled is that they are often not truly story, but rather an ill-disguised info dump of backstory, which in fantasy means explaining the way the world is set up and a glossary of odd terms. All of which aren’t just reviled in prologue form but get their own entries in the list of worst openings.

“One of the biggest problems is the ‘information dump’ in the first few pages, where the author is trying to tell us everything we supposedly need to know to understand the story”

“A sci-fi novel that spends the first two pages describing the strange landscape”

Again Martin sins here. We not only learn of Ser Royce’s position and unfortunate reputation amongst the rest of the Night Watch, we get his length of service and a detailed description of his moleskin gloves. But what we really get in spades is the Wall. The ice, the politics, the barren wildness, the immensity. Every character there is nothing more than an illustration of this hard brutal place.

“Everyone talks about snows forty foot deep and how the ice wind comes howling out of the north, but the real enemy is the cold. … It burns it does. Nothing burns like the cold. But only for a while. Then it gets inside you and starts to fill you up, and after a while you don’t have the strength to fight it… They say you don’t feel any pain towards the end.”

And that defines the entire Song of Ice and Fire, not merely the Game of Thrones. It is the world that is the hero, everything and everyone else pawns on this epic board.

Of course as always in writing it comes down to how you do things. He could have simply told us. Narrated the history of the 8000 year old monstrosity, its dimensions, the magic that fortifies it, the Giants that built it, the men who live and die for it. Wiki will if you prefer the text book approach. It sounds cool. But I wonder if it does so mostly because first we read a scene which hinted at such a marvel.

“And how did you find the Wall?”

“Weeping,” Will said, frowning. He saw it clear enough, now the Lordling had pointed it out.

They couldn’t have froze. Not if the wall was weeping.”

Martin chose to show us, with a brutal, nasty little story of arrogance, ice and death. We see the characters interact, we hear the harsh orders and ego prodding of the Lordling, the stifled fury of the old soldier and we see it all through the eyes of a man who is all but helpless, duty bound to obey, to his death.

And then he does the best thing you can ever do. He leaves us wanting more.

Will closed his eyes to pray. Long elegant hands brushed his cheek then tightened around his throat. They were clothed in the finest moleskin and sticky with blood, yet the touch was icy cold.

Game of throne Snow

Beginnings Part One: To Kill A Mockingbird

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.

its a sin to kill a mockingbird

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.

tokillamockingbirdscout

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.

Lets start at the very beginning: the most important words you’ll ever write

Let's start at the very beginning

I have noticed more and more an emphasis within writing circles; one that perhaps more than any other part of writing – barring adverbs obviously – seems to arise across the different platforms – from novice to expert to agent to editor, and even, now and again, it troubles that rare voice, the reader. It’s hard to quantify as a ‘rule’ since it doesn’t offer any specific admonishments, less of a to-do than a make sure when you do, you do it right. Or as is increasingly the case, an ever growing list of to-don’t’s. Really how many of our common rules haven’t been a don’t? Put simply everybody seems to be talking about getting those first words – pages – right and the unerring consensus is that whatever you do or don’t do, will make or break you.

I read three articles within the space of a day all of which talked about the beginning and its importance.  In The Write Life literary agents give us a list of the worst ways to open your novel while a Writers Digest articles sums up its list of common openings in kids books with ‘they’re almost always a rejection’. Um, aren’t all books almost always a rejection? Or did the ‘only-1%-of-the-slushpile-get-published statistic’ change recently? Of course its so much easier to sound off about what you don’t like. Which made the final article by Chuck Wendig an unexpected pleasure to read. Sort of. While I agree with the general advice and deeply appreciate missing out on the list of don’s, it’s all a bit vague, adding up to if you fuck this bit up, then you’re really fucked.

If we take Chuck’s pov and all those agents pov’s and editors pov’s then we might have to accept that the beginning is that important and if we accept that then doesn’t that make the advice given just – more? – as important? And if you take on all of those editors’ advice and agents’ advice and Chuck’s advice, you might be left wondering what the **** can I write?

Instead of saying write whatever the fuck you want (much as I would like to) I’ve decided to take a sort of Russian doll approach with this. A series within a series. I could address every don’t on the list, (cause I have that much spare time) but I can’t help but feel that what we really need here is some do’s. More specifically we need to start looking at what makes a beginning work. I’ve decided to take three books, of different styles, genres, and times; I’ll look at what worked, why it worked and how it might break the rules. As if there were actually rules..

I hope it might be helpful (normally I’m just sounding off 😀 ) because I do agree there is so much we can learn as writers from those opening lines and for those of us seeking publication, traditional or indie, it really can make all the difference in the world.

music head