Monday, October 1, 2012

On Beginnings

I've started writing a lot of novels (and I've even finished three of them), and as editor of Upper Rubber Boot Books I read the starts of a lot of submitted novels (many more than I read the endings of), and spend a lot of time thinking about beginnings. Editors are famously supposed to read the first paragraph or first page of a manuscript and decide whether or not to keep reading; many editors I know tell me they routinely reject novels on the basis of the first sentence.

The received wisdom, if you read a lot of writing advice (and, alas, I do), is that you need to have a killer first sentence, something that will grab the fickle reader, something that raises a life-or-death

question or creates tension right away, like-

Or, "Manfred's on the road again, making strangers rich." ~Accelerando by Charles Stross

(When we say "reader" above, what we really mean is "editor." Something that will grab the editor. The distracted, overworked, insomniac editor.)

Now, I love those first lines. I laughed out loud in delight and envy at Feed's first sentence. But I don't want every book to start with a bang like that. Sometimes I want a little foreplay.

One of the most celebrated books of the year, which was just rightfully shortlisted for the Booker, has this first sentence: "Futh stands on the ferry deck, holding on to the cold railings with his soft hands." ~The Lighthouse by Alison Moore

It's not a terrible beginning: it sets the scene and gives us some expectations for the style of the rest of the book; but it's not exactly gripping, is it? You didn't read it and say to yourself, "but what could possibly happen next?!" You might have some questions (where is he going? why doesn't he put on some gloves?) but they don't have any particular urgency. The Lighthouse takes a good couple of paragraphs to get into the swing of things (it's the third paragraph that pulled me into the story: "She had been gone for almost a year by then, by the time Futh and his father took this holiday together. Mostly, she was not mentioned, and Futh longed for his father or anybody to say, 'Your mother...' so that his heart would life. But then, when she was spoken about, she would invariably be spoiled in some way and he would wish that nothing had been said after all.") I didn't need a killer sentence to draw me in to this book, or to books like that take their time to establish an understanding with me.

The first page does need to shine in some way, either with the bright light of a killer line, or with the soft early-morning sunshine of a book like The Lighthouse. I'm probably not going to continue reading a book that begins with a long preface explaining the history of the world the main story is set in, or with the main character waking up (especially if the first thing they do is admire themselves
in the mirror), or with a description of the weather, because I've already read loads of other books that start like that which were limp and ham-handed and I don't want to read more, unless (there's always an exception) it's done in really a perfect way. Jane Eyre, for example, starts with the weather:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.  We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs. Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further outdoor exercise was now out of the question.

I was glad of it; I never liked long walks, especially on chilly afternoons: dreadful to me was the coming home in the raw twilight, with nipped fingers and toes, and a heart saddened by the chidings of Bessie, the nurse, and humbled by the consciousness of my physical inferiority to Eliza, John, and Georgiana Reed.

But really there's very little about the weather there; it's all about the family's reaction to the weather, and to inaction, and to each other.

A really great beginning doesn't have to shout or shock. Beginnings should have a distinctive voice, and some hints at characterization and conflict and setting, unless there's a compelling reason to postpone those things.

Probably the best book I've read this year, China Mieville's The City & The City, starts, "I could not see the street or much of the estate." This is a science fiction murder mystery, a combination of genres which both tend toward the killer first sentence paradigm of writing, but it isn't until the fourth paragraph that we get a truly killer sentence, no pun intended: "Nothing is still like the dead are still." Strictly speaking, we didn't need the rambling paragraphs about the people watching out their windows or the weedy grass and wheel tracks and gulls, before we got to the dead body, but they gave us a sense of the setting and the sort of person the point of view character is before we started thinking about where that corpse could have come from.

Strictly speaking, of course, we don't need fiction at all. The essence of the story of The City & The City could be told in a few paragraphs; The Lighthouse could be told in a few sentences. There's no prize for efficiency, and we don't have to kill with the first sentence. We can ease in, poke around the world we're establishing, and if we're artful about it the reader will come along for the stroll.

Photo by Peter Merriam

Joanne Merriam is a Nova Scotian living in Nashville. She is the author of the poetry collection The Glaze from Breaking, several short stories, and several unpublished novels, and is the editor Upper Rubber Boot Books.


  1. I've been a sucker for first lines, "Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge." ~The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.

    And I do mean sucker in some cases, drawn in by excellent portent a first line, paragraph, page, and then sometimes after the first couple three chapters I find out the novel's a big tease. The author doesn't maintain it. Not that the whole novel has to be written that way, but sometimes it feels as though a different writer writes the beginning and someone else does the rest...

  2. Was wondering if you've read Katherine Mansfield "At the Bay." It takes so long to get to any real point, and the POV is constantly changing (or simply doesn't exist) but I love that story, and worry that stories like this will never be published again. Think Margaret Wise Brown's "The Little Island" but much longer and for adults.