Opening shots

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.  –Jackie Collins

As those snooping on me on Twitter  may have twigged, I’ve started on my second draft. (Slow as it is progressing)

A problem has presented itself at the outset, is that my opening isn’t quite strong enough, so yes, I do need to rewrite the whole damn thing. This is at once both frustrating and fascinating. Opening sections are an artform all of their own. They set the tone, grab the reader and introduce your world (even if it’s a sleight of hand of some description, introduction is the end, etc). They also have to be tight, focused and engage the reader’s interest.

One bleak afternoon in the winter of 1893 a young man stood in the doorway of a shop in Jackson Street, Carringbush, a suburb of the city of Melbourne, in the Colony of Victoria. The shop was single-fronted and above its narrow door was the sign CUMMIN’S TEA SHOP. In a small window stood a tea chest with a price ticket leaning against it.

The man was of short, solid build and was neatly dressed in a dark-grey suit. His face was clean-shaven. He wore a celluloid collar and a dark tie. With his left hand he was spinning a coin. It was a shiny golden coin, a sovereign. Standing on the footpath facing him from a few feet away was a tall policeman in uniform, whose small, unintelligent eyes followed the flight of the coin as it spun up a few feet and fell into the palm of the young man’s hand, only to spin rhythmically upwards again and again. – Frank Hardy, Power Without Glory

Hardy’s opening two paragraphs set a scene, introduce the major character and give us some sense of the world he’s trying to create, one of corruption and opportunity. It provides a solid base for the rest of the opening chapter to build the reader’s entry into the world.

It also sets questions to the reader… who is this man? What is the tea shop? Why is he trying to bribe this policeman? Is he in control? What does the placement of this character time and place mean?

My previous opening chapter wasn’t necessarily bad, but it threw the reader into the middle of a situation, and didn’t provide them with enough reasons to stick around to read the rest. If the reader is not grabbed by the end of the first paragraph, you’re unlikely to get them to hang around for the rest of the chapter, let alone BUY THE BOOK.

The first bite of a novel needs to be brisk, nourishing and ephemeral all at once. So what have I done?

  1. Sharpen the Viewpoint
    I took the opening from the abstract to the specific. From a general, indirect opener where the reader observed events, I took it into a point-of-view scene where the reader is taken directly inside the world. This can be tricky if your world is particularly foreign, but in this case I hopefully created enough scaffolding for the readers to climb inside the superstructure and peer out through the darkened circles of glass that constitute my character’s perspective.
  2. Have something happen
    The previous opening contained a lot of arcane political byplay and (being honest) a lot of boring historical exposition about the world. There’s still some exposition here, but it’s presented in the context of my characters doing things. As both my opening section reviewers pointed out, I tend to describe how a character is feeling or what they’re thinking rather than show this through their actions. In the new opening, the characters (or groups of armed men, to be accurate) do things that express their characters, their cultural assumptions and sets up the central conflict of the book.
  3. Provide a sense of place
    The action has to happen somewhere, and hopefully one thing I’ve done is moor it firmly somewhere that isn’t a generic-space-for-characters-to-do-things-in, but a place on its own that where if a tree falls, it doesn’t really care whether any major characters are around to hear it fall.
  4. Provide obvious foreshadowing
    The opening sequence hopefully proves I can take my own advice and add an element which will be recalled later by the reader and give them a slight shiver of horror.

So I think it’s better, but it may need further work on subsequent drafts to refine. A novel can recover from a faltering start, but I’d prefer to be into full stride by the time my reader gets to meet any of my main characters.

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3 Responses to Opening shots

  1. John Harper says:

    Openings are never easy. Good luck 🙂

  2. John Harper says:

    Reblogged this on And Here The Wheel and commented:
    My good friend Ben Peake is re-doing the intro to his novel. Its a great book with a really interesting milieu. I’ve had the pleasure of reading it and giving feedback on drafts, rewrites etc. Ben is his biggest critic and he has some very good points on his latest blog post that will serve us all a reminder of what makes a good opening.

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