Where to begin? Of course, of all pages the first is the most thoroughly worked and reworked to the verge of insanity. In fact, it’s the most likely to fall victim to highlight and delete, or strangulation by tweaking. After all, with that blank screen there are so many options. But once it’s filled, so much is already determined. From the start, voice sets the tone and provides the perameters of plot and register. I’ve only used a first person narrative three times in over twenty novels, but I think that’s another blog post… So, the next question: character or setting? Because my characters drive the story, I usually start with whoever is at the helm – unless there’s a pressing reason to do otherwise: to establish time and place first and then zoom in on this figure in the midst of the scene, or to create an atmosphere defining genre.
In HUE AND CRY the first sentence saves the reader the trouble of processing clues: The year was 1540. But there’s a warning by the end of this paragraph: … for King Henry had found a new bride. But those who preferred to stay attached to their heads were not counting. The message is that by the end, lives will be taken. I rather like a short first sentence, especially when the rest of the book gives it a deep psychological significance, as in my primary-age fantasy, THE LINCOLN IMP: Jake had grown. Similarly, in the YA novel START, I begin with several layers of meaning in: Rory felt conspicuous. While the scene shows him set apart and vulnerable without a mask, it also makes him a rebel and acknowledges his leftover celebrity. But it’s not just about how he appears to others. He felt conspicuous. And as the paragraph suggests, with Rory the showman and scene-stealer, that’s double-edged. But beware! In school recently, not one Y10 student admitted to understanding my key adjective. I can only hope they appreciated my oh-so-cleverness by the end of the page!
By contrast there’s a very different opener in FLASHBACK AND PURPLE, an adult novel coming soon: Annie Capaldi had read somewhere that when we wake, our unique consciousness is only made possible by the particular physical body that houses it. What I was hoping to achieve here was a thematic taster of what’s to come: plenty of internal dialogue as Annie tries to make sense of an uncertain identity and what she wants and needs. It’s a book led by character, exploring ideas – and here’s the first. It’s a way of setting out my stall and the first paragraph in TRACES is an example of this option. An active reader will have inferred by the end of it who the central character will be, how old she will be when the action begins and what it will involve: ghostly encounters with her ancestors, revealing “terrible things” and overturning her “assumptions” that life will always be “normal”. But the vocabulary and tone make it clear that this is not a creepy horror but a thoughtful novel about the power of the past.
One other approach I have chosen, in THE JUDAS DEER and LAP OF THE GODS, is creating an air of mystery by raising questions the novel must go on, eventually, to answer. “To begin with, he went to an uncle, the only one he had, because that was what the note said to do. ‘Stay with Uncle Troy, Jeth. Sorry sorry xxx’.” I make that at least four questions. It’s a risky tactic, asking a lot of the reader. But I hope it fits because, as in my Ancient Greek twister, things are not as they appear to be.
And yes, I’m aware that on the subject of beginnings I’ve only just begun.