With my Inkwell/Writing.ie hat on (and with my other name) one of the key points I highlight at every single publishing workshop is that a book needs to start with a hook. Your job as the author is to grab your reader and not let them go until they’ve finished. You want to do the same with an editor or agent. So how your book starts, where it starts, is very important. The other key piece of advice that any author will tell you is that writing is re-writing. The minute the last full-stop goes down on your manuscript, that’s when the work really begins.
So what do these two elements mean for your book? When I filmed the Getting Published workshop with Writers Web TV, agent Carole Blake explained that a huge percentage of the books that come into her office really get going in chapter three, that all writers should look seriously at their opening chapters to see if the three chapters they are submitting are really the opening chapters of the book. Good advice.
Your book needs to open right before the action begins, but often it takes a writer a few chapters to write themselves into the story. Those opening chapters need to be written, but they don’t need to be read, and therefore aren’t your first three chapters at all. You’ll only know this too, when you’ve finished the book, so writing half a book and submitting too soon is tempting rejection (and for your own sanity, reducing the chances of rejection is a sensible thing to do.)
Bearing in mind that writing is re-writing, and the fact that a book should start with a hook, I thought I’d share the before and after of the opening of Little Bones with you, so you can see how much something can change. When I first started writing Little Bones, it was called The Dressmaker and the key character was Zoë Grant, an artist. It was plotted on the back of an electricity bill envelope that I found in my bag – I was early for a Dubray Books Book Club Lunch and the idea for the story had been swirling around my head but I hadn’t written anything down. Cat Connolly hadn’t arrived on the scene at all at this stage – in fact she didn’t appear until after the break-in that brings her into the story. As the story arrived in my head, characters arrived almost in real time. Cathy was always the strongest, and once she had arrived on the page, she decided she was staying!
This is the very first draft of the opening chapter of The Dressmaker. It tempts you into the story, but it actually happens twelve hours before the story really begins, so technically it’s backstory…
The needle was sharp, its steel tip tinged red.
Damn. Zoë Grant drew a sharp intake of breath, sucking the side of her finger before her blood stained the fabric and its layers of paint. She couldn’t spoil it now, not after all this work. Her concentration broken, Zoë pushed a stray strand of hair behind her ear, catching sight of her face reflected in the window, pale, her grey eyes slits of exhaustion below thick dark eyebrows, cheek bones sharp in the shadows thrown up by the angle poise lamp on the drawing board. Zoë pulled a face at her reflection, she had to stay awake – there were only had a few more stitches to go.
It was after midnight. Beyond the long windows of the timber built studio, the garden was lit by the winter moon, naked trees in the neighbouring wood casting grotesque shadows on the grass. Zoë couldn’t see the trees from inside the studio – beyond the windows the garden was black, deep black. Mars Black. But she knew they were there. Could feel them watching her through the glass, making the hairs stand on the back of her neck. Better to ignore them – like she blanked out the roll of the waves crashing on the rocks beyond the end of the garden. Or tried to. Crashing, on and on, the sound magnified by the darkness, nagging at her like a school yard bully.
Zoë glanced up at the clock. She knew she should have gone to bed hours ago to be fresh for her meeting in the morning, but this piece would make the collection. It was one of her best, the layers of colour splashed across three panels, Cobalt and Phthalo Blue Green, Payne’s Grey and Iridescent White building to create power and movement, the pure intensity of the sea. And she was sure it would be perfect for Max Igoes’s flagship gallery In, a landmark in Dublin’s fashionable Temple Bar. As she thought about it, Zoë felt a surge of excitement. If Max liked the rest of the pieces, and she was praying that he would, this would be her first solo show, in one of the country’s most talked about galleries. Zoë shivered, chilled more with excitement than the November weather. Would she be good enough?
Only one more stitch.
Plunging the needle back through the fabric until it penetrated the linen backing, Zoë pulled the thread taut, a blue so dark it was almost black, its triple strand parting slightly as she knotted it off.
Standing, stretching her cramped body, Zoë laid the final section of the triptych beside its sisters, taking a moment to admire it. But her pleasure was tinged with a sadness that ached like an old wound. Whatever happened with her show, whoever came to see it, whatever the critics said, there was one person whose praise she needed above everyone else’s; the one person who would not be there to see her success….
All of the elements in this opening are vital to the story, and for me, the writer to understand. I had to write them to find out who Zoë was, to find out what was going on in her life. Art and colour were dominant themes – each chapter even had a colour as a subtitle – fun to do but a total waste of time, how does the reader know what colour the words cadmium yellow represent?!
When I had finished the book, and indeed, had discovered the reason why the bones that Cathy finds are in the hem of the wedding dress – I realised that the opening of the story needed to be at the beginning, logically enough. And my troublesome, in-trouble character, Cathy Connolly insisted on the starring role. This was the start of her story, and she wanted centre stage. So here is the actual opening of the story (it’s a bit longer, bear with me…)
The door to the back bedroom hung open.
Pausing at the top of the narrow wooden stairs, Garda Cathy Connolly could just see inside, could see what looked like the entire contents of the wardrobe flung over the polished floorboards, underwear scattered across the room like litter. The sun, winter weak, played through a window opposite the door, its light falling on something cream, illuminating it bright against the dark denim and jewel colours of the tumbled clothes on the floor.
Cathy’s stomach turned again and she closed her eyes, willing the sickness to pass. There was a riot of smells up here, beeswax, ghostly layers of stale perfume, something musty. She put her gloved hand to her mouth and the smell of the latex, like nails on a blackboard, set her teeth on edge.
Until thirty-six hours ago Cathy had been persuading herself that her incredibly heightened sense of smell and queasiness were the start of a bug. Some bug. But right now her problems were something she didn’t have the headspace to deal with. She had a job to do. Later, when she was on her own in the gym, when it was just her and a punchbag, that was when she’d be able to think. And boy did she have a lot to think about.
Pulling her hand away from her mouth, Cathy impatiently pushed a dark corkscrew curl that had escaped from her ponytail back behind her ear. Too thick to dry quickly, her hair was still damp from her early-morning training session in the pool, but that was the least of her worries. She folded her arms tightly across her chest and breathed deeply, slowly fighting her nausea. Inside her head, images of the bedroom whirled, slightly out of focus, blurred at the edges.
When the neighbour had called the station this morning, this had presented as a straightforward forced entry. That was until the lads had entered the address into the system and PULSE had thrown up a report from the same property made only the previous night. The householder, Zoë Grant, had seen a man lurking in the garden. Watching her. Cathy would put money on him doing a bit more than just watching. One of the Dún Laoghaire patrol cars had been close by, had arrived in minutes, blue strobes illuminating the lane. But the man had vanished. More than likely up the footpath that ran through the woods from the dead end of the cul-de-sac to the top of Killiney Hill.
And now someone had broken in.
It was just as well Zoë Grant hadn’t been at home.
Cathy thrust her hands into the pockets of her combats and fought to focus. Christ, she was so sick of feeling sick. The one thing that Niall McIntyre, her coach – ‘The Boss’ – drilled into her at every single training session was that winning was about staying in control. Staying in control of her training; her fitness; her diet.
Staying in control of her breakfast.
And she’d got to be the Women’s National Full-Contact Kickboxing champion three times in a row by following his advice.
Below in the hallway, Cathy could hear Thirsty, the scenes-ofcrime officer, bringing in his box of tricks, its steel shell reverberating off the black and white tiles as he called up to her.
‘If this one is Quinn, O’Rourke will be delighted. Have a look at her shoes; he’s got a thing about bloody shoes. Lines them up and does his thing . . .’ The disgust was loud in his voice.
Trying to steady herself, Cathy took a deep breath. DI Dawson O’Rourke might be dying to nail ‘Nifty’ Quinn, but she knew he wouldn’t be at all impressed if he could see her now. Dún Laoghaire was a new patch for him, but they went way back. And . . . Christ, this wasn’t the time to throw up.
Shoes. Look for the shoes.
‘The place is upside down, there’s . . .’ Her voice sounded hollow. But what could she say, there’s a bad smell? No question that would bring guffaws of laughter from Thirsty. And she was quite sure no one else would be able to smell it; it was like the kitchen back at her shared house. If Decko, their landlord, or one of the other lads she rented with had left the fridge open or the lid off the bin, she couldn’t even get in the door. Thank God they hadn’t noticed. Yet. Decko fancied himself as an impersonator and there was no way she was ready to be the butt of his jokes.
Taking a deep breath, Cathy edged through the door, the heels on her boots echoing on the wooden floorboards. Downstairs she heard another voice. The neighbour this time, calling from outside the front door.
‘How are you getting on?’
‘Grand, thanks. A member of the detective unit is examining upstairs.’ Cathy could tell from his response that Thirsty had his public smile in place. ‘Any sign of Miss Grant?’
‘Zoë? Not yet. I’ll try her again in a minute. It’s going to be an awful shock. He didn’t take that big painting, did he? The old one of the harbour? I’ve always loved that.’ The neighbor paused, then before Thirsty could comment continued: ‘Is there anything I can do? Can I get you a cup of tea?’
Listening to Thirsty making small talk, Cathy focused back on the room. She needed to pull herself together and get on with this. They couldn’t hold Nifty Quinn for ever. She could hear O’Rourke’s voice in her head.
What had he been looking for? Cash? Jewellery? Or some sort of trophy? This didn’t feel like a Nifty job to Cathy, and she’d seen enough that were. Whatever about him being picked up in the area this morning acting suspiciously, and his thing for single women, this felt different, more personal. But only Zoë Grant would know for sure if anything was missing. A lipstick? A pair of knickers?
Cathy had seen worse, but standing here in the ransacked bedroom, her six years on the force didn’t help make her feel any less unclean. How would the woman who lived here feel when she got home? Someone had been in her bedroom . . .
Cathy scanned the tumble of fabrics on the floor. The cream silk was a misfit with the blacks, purples and embroidered blue denim. The colour of sour milk, it looked like a . . . wedding dress?
Bobbing down on her haunches, Cathy let the folds of milky fabric play through her fingers. The disturbance released more of the ancient perfume, the scent jangling like a set of keys. The silk had torn where it had caught on a nail in the wardrobe door, minute stitches unravelling along the hem, opening a deep cleft in the fabric. Tugging gently, Cathy tried to lift it from the pin. The seam widened and she caught a glimpse of something dark inside.
What the feck was that?
Whatever it was had fallen in deeper as she moved the silk. Leaning forward, Cathy teased the two edges apart with her fingertips, trying to get a better look.
She needed more light.
‘Thirsty, have you got a torch down there?’ Cathy’s voice was too loud in the stillness of the room. Then she heard Thirsty’s footsteps on the stairs and a moment later his greying head appeared in the doorway, a heavy rubber torch in his hand.
‘Not sure.’ Frowning, she stood up to take the torch. ‘There’s –’ A voice calling from downstairs interrupted her.
Thirsty rolled his eyes. ‘Jesus, it’s the bloody neighbour back. Call me if you need me.’
Cathy flashed him a grin and, crouching down again beside the pile of clothes, played the torch over them, double-checking before she went back to the dress. Looking for what? She wasn’t sure. Fibres? Blood? She shook her head half to herself.
This was something different. She could feel it in the pit of her stomach, could feel the hairs rising on the back of her neck.
What was she expecting to find? Had the guy who had been here left some sort of gift? Like Nifty? Christ, she hoped not. Normally she could take all of that in her stride, but today she wasn’t so sure.
Cathy suddenly realised she was feeling nervous – which was stupid. What could possibly be in an old dress, in a room like this, that was making her heart pound? She’d been in the force too long, had seen too much for this to spook her. But for some reason it was, and spooking her badly. Cathy could feel her palms sweating, absorbing the talc on the inside of her blue latex gloves. Were her hormones making her supersensitive? This was crazy.
Clearing her throat, she swung the beam of the torch onto the gap she had made in the creamy silk. There was definitely something there. Cathy eased back the seam, opening the fabric to the torchlight.
Pale grey shards. Hidden deep within the folds.
Shards of what? Something old. The rhyme took off like a kite inside her head. Something old, something new . . . Shaking it away, she lifted the weight of the silk and, holding the torch up, slipped her fingers into the seam, prising it apart. The stitches were minute, little more than a whisper along the hemmed edge.
Then she saw them. More shards. Tiny, twig-like, tumbling as the fabric moved. And in a moment of absolute clarity she realised what they were.
And the nausea came like a tidal wave.
Bones. Tiny bones. The unmistakable slant of a jaw, the curve of a rib.
‘Thirsty, I need you up here now!’
This was going to make O’Rourke’s day. First the FBI – and now this…
I hope it hooks you into Cathy’s world…
(c) Sam Blake
Little Bones is in bookshops now, or you can pick up your copy online here!
For fans of Alex Barclay and Niamh O’Connor, Little Bones introduces Cathy Connolly, a bright young heroine set to take the world of crime fiction by storm.
Attending what seems to be a routine break-in, troubled Detective Garda Cathy Connolly makes a grisly discovery: an old wedding dress – and, concealed in its hem, a baby’s bones.
And then the dress’s original owner, Lavinia Grant, is found dead in a Dublin suburb.
Searching for answers, Cathy is drawn deep into a complex web of secrets and lies spun by three generations of women.
Meanwhile, a fugitive killer has already left two dead in execution style killings across the Atlantic – and now he’s in Dublin with old scores to settle. Will the team track him down before he kills again?
Struggling with her own secrets, Cathy doesn’t know dangerous – and personal – this case is about to become…
‘Instantly gripping, perfectly paced, and filled with a brilliant cast of characters, led by the utterly likeable and relatable Detective Cathy Connolly . . . from the murky depths of these buried secrets comes an ending that truly shines.’ – Alex Barclay
Sam Blake is a pseudonym for Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin, the founder of The Inkwell Group publishing consultancy and the national writing resources website Writing.ie. She is Ireland’s leading literary scout who has assisted many award winning and bestselling authors to publication. Vanessa has been writing fiction since her husband set sail across the Atlantic for eight weeks and she had an idea for a book.