‘Have you heard that the easiest way to get into print is..............’
Ridiculous isn’t it? We would never begin a sentence without knowing the ending. Have you ever heard a bad joke-teller, who leaves out bits and has to stop in the middle to insert the parts he has forgotten? He knows how it ends and indeed he knows all the component parts, but he has no structure. These are the things we need to examine before we can even think about writing a novel.
Over the next few months I would like to help anybody who is interested, to enter the rewarding world of writing. I must stress here that mine is not THE way to write; it is merely A way. Whether you are tasked with writing an essay at school, are writing to a loved one or simply feel compelled to write something, but have difficulty knowing where to begin, I hope these blogs will help you.
So where do we begin with our novel? How do you eat an elephant? – One bite at a time! This is the way forward. We begin with the sentence, which has a beginning, a middle and an end. Every sentence is important; every one tells a story.
OK then, let’s have some fun with sentences. Let’s say we want to describe he/she/it travelling down a hill. We might begin with:
John went down the hill.
Not really very interesting, is it? How about:
John walked confidently down the hill, showing off his new clothes.
This tells us a little more about John. He is confident and he has new clothes. Let’s try again:
John swaggered down the hill, his gleaming new duds telling everyone that he was the man.
Is this the same John who ‘went down the hill?’ Now let’s try Jane.
Jane went down the hill.
Again not very interesting. Let’s try:
Jane staggered down the hill through remains of burnt-out buildings, holding together her torn dress, peppered red by the crimson droplets spraying through her broken lips.
You can’t actually ‘break’ lips, but it doesn’t seem to matter here. Think of a picture in all its detail before trying to describe it.
I’m sure you can think of countless scenario’s that could be told in a sentence and it is something I often practice in my head when out walking or engaged in something about which I don’t have to concentrate. It is extremely useful and also helps me to keep the general theme of the story close at hand. Here are a few more examples just for fun:
He flew down the hill faster than anyone or anything had ever done, wings rigid, talons outstretched, ready to pluck up the rabbit that would never see him coming.
Notice the fast pace of the writing.
He stood rigid with fear as the ghost floated towards him, moonlight making the path she took look like silk.
No, that’s a bit stumbly (please don’t try looking up the word; you know what I mean). Let’s use metaphor:
His face was ashen as the moon painted a silken path, leading the ghostly apparition right to him, to steal his very soul.
Yes, that’s a bit better. Now do you see what fun you can have choosing the best words to describe an event?
The first few sentences of a book or short story can be all it takes to cause a potential reader to either continue reading or put it down, never to pick it up again. We have to capture readers immediately or risk losing them forever. Consider the following:
With winter over, spring had arrived. The snow had gone but there were still traces of frost around. The air was cold and the sun reflected off the lake.
This tells you everything you need to know, but it doesn’t paint a picture. How about:
Winter was over. The snow had gone but the sun had not yet chased away the frost that froze time in the grassy shadows under the bushes. The air was crisp with chill and anticipation as glints of sunlight flashed across the top of the lake, energising the water and promising the World its annual rebirth.
This tells the same story but it also paints a picture in the reader’s mind. Incidentally, this is the preface to my YA book Beyond Dark Waters. A book or a story might be interesting to the writer, but he/she knows that the interesting bits are balanced by necessary introductions and explanations. The reader doesn’t and if the less interesting part is at the beginning, that is how it will be judged.
So what is the solution? Why do we have to begin at the beginning? Why not jump to an exciting time and then backtrack? My first book The Diary of an Innocent began at the end because the actual beginning was me catching a tube to work. Here is the start:
I have never thought of myself as a bad person. I still don’t. I have led an ordinary life with my wife and our two children. I still lead that life. I am not a religious person, only attending church at christenings, weddings and funerals, although I was raised as a Catholic.
The difference now is that I understand where I fit into the whole scheme of things. I used to admire people who die for their faith, from the saints of old who were persecuted, to the latter-day martyrs who use explosives and die by their own hands, or by the hands of others.
I said the beginning was simply me going to work, but still I worked at it. I wasn’t trudging to work. In fact I was happy and wanted to reflect the fact in my description. Did I succeed? You tell me:
The day began like any other warm August morning in London. I was swept along by the crowds of commuters, down steps and escalators and onto the platform, finally squeezing myself into one of the silver tubes that streak around under the busy city streets. I stood there, bodies pressed against mine, people with lifeless eyes and blank expressions, trying to detach themselves from this unnatural place.
I think I gave it a fair shot. Now let’s try a story we all know: Cinderella. We could start at the beginning:
“Haven’t you lit that fire yet?” screamed Matilda, causing me to spin round on my already grazed knees.
That would work. Now let’s try the middle:
I would not have believed that putting on one slipper could have been so life-changing, as the hushed crowd gazed in my direction, each girl wishing she was me. Who could have foreseen this change in my life from my humble beginnings as the servant to my three horrid sisters?
Then of course we could revert to the beginning of the story. Now let’s try the end:
Their fate was in my hands. Should I forgive and forget, or should I think of a fitting punishment for the three who made my life so miserable?
A story can begin at any exciting place, so if we want to tempt people to read our works, we should really think long and hard about our beginnings, and try to give them a taste of some excitement.
I hope this has given you some food for thought. Writing, even short descriptions, can be a lot of fun, as well as being the starting point for going on to greater things. Practice is the greatest thing that will make us better writers and the amount we put in is far outweighed by the pleasure we can take out.
I’d love to hear from you whatever stage you’re at in your writing. In my next blog we’ll delve a little further into this fascinating world.