THE OPENING PARAGRAPH
On her blog last week, Julie Cohen addressed the importance of the opening paragraph, forensically dissecting one of her own and inviting authors and those hoping to be published to join in.
I wrote a fairly long piece on this subject a few years ago and talked about it at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference in Leicester. You can read the article on my website, but the books quoted are old and – with thirty more books under my belt since I wrote this piece – my writing style has evolved a little since then.
But like it says in the song, the fundamentals “still apply” so here’s the opening page of A FAMILY OF HIS OWN, which won the RNA Romance Prize last year.
I may not always use the “feet first” approach these days, confrontation on the first line to grab the reader by the throat and drag her into my book, but I do have to engage her, enchant her, make her want to read on. And for that I need a character who she can empathise with, who she’ll want to spend time with. So it’s still down to that first paragraph, whether it’s face-to-face fireworks with the hero, or something slightly less dramatic. Whatever I write, I won’t be indulging myself in a couple of hundred words of lyrical prose – not without burying tantalising chunks of information about the heroine at its heart.
It was hot for the end of September. A cloudless, still day with only the glistening fruit of the huge blackberries to warn that summer was almost over.
Huge blackberries that were infuriatingly out of reach.
I’d like to tell you that I used those blackberries as a metaphor for the unattainable. I wish I was that deep. I write what I see, what I’ve done myself, presenting a reality that I hope my reader will recognise. Been there. Done that. “...out of reach.” of whom?
Kay rubbed the sweat from her forehead, fanned herself with her tattered straw gardening hat and walked slowly back along the hedge, seeking out any fruit that she’d missed, trying to ignore the long brambles lolling over the high wall that skirted the far side of the lane. Brambles weighed down by berries, but which still just evaded the reach of her walking stick.
Kay. Instant answer. Enough with the “cloudless” stuff. Get the character on the page. No description, but that gardening hat tells you a lot about her. It’s “tattered”. It’s had a lot of hard use. This heroine isn’t a lady of leisure, she’s out there getting her hands dirty. And she’s blackberrying, which suggests she lives in the country.
‘Come on, Polly, this will have to do,’ she said, after scanning the hedge one last time.
‘Have you got enough?’ her daughter asked, looking doubtfully at the pitiful quantity they’d gathered.
And she has a little girl.
‘There aren’t any more. I’m afraid the harvest supper pies will have to be more apple than blackberry this year.’
And she’s putting herself through this, not for her own pleasure, but for the community.
Polly’s little face wrinkled up in a frown. ‘But there are loads up there,’ she said, pointing at the top of the wall.
‘I know, poppet, but I can’t reach them.’
‘You could get them down from the other side. Why don’t you go through the gate? No one lives there. Someone’s put up a For Sale sign,’ she added, as if that settled the matter.
How simple life was when you were six years old! But Polly was right about one thing. Linden Lodge had been empty for as long as she’d lived in Upper Haughton.
Okay, now we know her daughter’s six years old. And that there’s mystery surrounding Linden Lodge. And Kay is tempted.
From her bedroom window she had tantalising glimpses of the wilderness hidden behind the high walls. The roof of an ornamental summer house collapsing beneath the unrestrained vigour of a clematis montana. Roses running wild. Blossom on trees where, year after year, the ripened fruit was left to fall and rot in the grass. It was like a secret garden from a fairy tale, locked away, hidden, sleeping. Just waiting for the right person to venture inside, bring it back to life.
It would take more than a kiss, she thought.
And now the reader now knows what kind of story she’s bought into. Sleeping Beauty. But who is “Beauty”?
When she didn’t answer, Polly, with all the persistence of a six-year-old on a mission, said, ‘They’re for the harvest supper.’
Kay is distracted by the garden. She longs to open the gate, go inside.
Polly gave huge sigh. ‘The blackberries of course. Everyone in the village is supposed to give something.’
‘Oh, yes.’ That was the plan. Everyone contributed to the harvest supper that brought the whole village together in a celebration of the year; a tradition linking them back to the agricultural past of the village.
Her reluctance to try to the gate, a certainty that it would yield to pressure, was ridiculous, she knew. If she didn’t pick it the fruit would just shrivel up. Which would be a wicked waste.
‘You could put a note through the door to say thank you,’ Polly said.
What a nicely brought up little girl!
Kay found herself smiling. ‘A thank you note? Who to?’
And there you have it. Whose house? Whose garden? And is she going to open the gate and find out? What do you think?