Ahead of her appearance at our How to Get Published conference at York Literature Festival, Claire North takes us through the beginning of a book...
There are more ways to begin a book than there are stars in the sky. Welcome, beautiful friend, welcome. Take my hand, follow my voice, I will show you wonder, mystery, charming yet unreliable narrators, and a hint of genre through use of ellipses as so... come... come....
The first paragraph of a book flies the flag for the voice and heart that will keep you company through a story. If the heart does not speak to you, the story most definitely will not. It is heart, not plot, that puts the taste of worlds on your tongue, the whisper of strangers in your ears, paints a colour unique and alive. And that first page is a declaration of confidence and intent, promising to keep the reader enthralled no matter what happens.
That said, there are a few well-trod paths into a story. Here are a few of them.
A classic opening, beloved of thrillers and crimes alike, is the Excerpt of Dire Things Yet To Come.
“Biff crawled beneath the thundering sky towards the plane. As the blood pooled around his feet and the gun slipped finally from his hand, he reached for the detonator....”
Turn the page, and there’s the words we’re waiting for: Three Months Earlier.
Cue: scenes of domestic bliss. We sit back and munch our popcorn, accepting that the next twenty pages of making key lime pie in Tampa exist purely to make us care about Biff and his pet puppy, establishing all that will be threatened, valued and lost. We shuffle through in the happy knowledge that soon there’ll be detonators and damnation, hurrah! How, we wonder, did he get from here to there? What will happen when the weather turns bad, and he finds himself crawling beneath that thundering sky? Tell us all....
A similar technique is often deployed for crime novels to show the Bad Cause of the Thing, turning it into an emotional human experience rather than just a reported mcguffin. Arguably this has sometimes dubious effect given the frequent emphasis on female victims we never really get to know, but hey....
“As the last of her life drained from her, she thought of her sister, and wished she’d had a chance to say goodbye.”
Cut to: alcoholic cop with unhappy love affair tormented by the case he never cracked.
The Dire Excerpt can be a double-edged sword, as often justifying a hundred and fifty pages in which not much happens as it is setting us up for an emotional rollercoaster. But like every other well-fingered construction tool, it can also be subverted to beautiful effect.
“This is where the dragons go. They lie, not dead, not asleep... but waiting.” In the first few paragraphs of Guards Guards Terry Pratchett pulls off a beautiful variation: he shows us the smoking gun. This gun will be fired. There will be dragons and detonators and disaster. But not yet. Again, we are waiting, knowing that things must get much, much worse, before a hero can make it better.
But Pratchett’s smoking gun does more; he also gives us a world (here be dragons) and offers us a narrative voice that revels in subversion and the rhythms of language. “No matter how fast light travels, it finds the darkness has always got there first, and is waiting for it.” - Reaper Man. This isn’t just telling a story. This is a voice, spinning a yarn with absolute confidence, and we are happy to be spun by someone so gleefully, beautiful confident with their words.
Raymond Chandler is often cited as the master of voice, using it to catch a reader’s ear. "Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food... it wasn’t any of my business. So I pushed them open and looked in.”
Within a few paragraphs we have character (curious/cocky), beginning of a story and a voice which is going to keep us company for what will be, let’s face it, a largely unintelligible plot. We are invited to trust in the absolute wholeness of our narrator, and understand that what we are seeing is not just a world, but one seen through a unique pair of eyes which might change our own.
The first line of Roger Zelazny’s Trumps of Doom achieves a huge amount in sixteen words.“It was a pain in the ass waiting around for someone to try to kill you.” Here is everything you’ve ever hoped for: unfolding plot, tension, questions about a past yet to be revealed and a sense of a character for whom assassination attempts are on the same emotional level as ordering ketchup and getting mayonnaise.
These options throw us headlong into a story, but there are gentler ways in. Perhaps the heart of your work is in character. Character is story. To convey character is to set up the values and beliefs that your plot will challenge, as Ian McEwan did in Atonement. “The play – for which Briony had designed the posters, programmes and tickets, constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen... was written by her in a two-day tempest of composition, causing her to miss breakfast and a lunch.”
Character might also frame the events in a certain way, looking back or seeking redemption for the errors which shall now be revealed.“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” Dickens’ David Copperfield gives you the opposite of Chandler’s Marlowe; a character who isn’t sure where he stands, and whose voice will explore frailty, rather than declare any truths. Things which may seem triumphant could not be; we can’t trust in what we read until it’s finally concluded, because even our narrator doesn’t know whether he is reporting something wonderful, or something dire.
Maybe the heart of your writing is a world or society – a big thing to be prodded, poked and challenged.“It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen,” wrote Orwell in 1984. Here is the familiar – a day in April – and the corruption of familiarity – the clocks striking thirteen. Bad omens and a shift in the meaning of ‘normal’ lies just a breath away.
In the opening of The Dispossessed, Ursula le Guin both shows us the world, and gives us a sense of how it will be challenged.“There was a wall. It did not look important. It was built of uncut rocks roughly mortared... what was inside and what was outside depended upon which side of it you were on.”
This wall is a place. It is also an idea. Like the smoking gun, the sleeping dragon, the character full of confidence or regrets, it is a thing which will somehow be altered, changed, oppressed or set free. We are shown a thing which matters; we are shown the heart of the story, without ever being told what the story is.
Claire North is a pseudonym for the Carnegie award-nominated British author Catherine Webb. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August was her first novel published under the Claire North name, and was one of the fastest-selling new SFF titles of the last ten years. It was selected for the Richard and Judy Book Club, the Radio 2 Book Club and the Waterstones Book Club. Catherine currently works as a theatre lighting designer and is a fan of big cities, urban magic, Thai food and graffiti-spotting. She lives in London. In 2017, Cat was shortlisted for the Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer of the Year award and also won the World Fantasy Award for The Sudden Appearance Of Hope. Find her on Twitter as @ClaireNorth42.