I’ve read a lot of writing books, tweets and blog posts saying how important the opening line to a story is. Writers must work hard to avoid cliches and grab the reader with it.
I know the first sentences are probably the most often changed in my own novels.
When I write a novel, my first draft usually contains too much backstory and character building as I develop an understanding of my characters and their stories. This means the first draft doesn’t open where the story begins and I’ll end up cutting my first chapter, weaving elements of it into later chapters as I edit. I’m sure I’m not alone in that.
No matter which draft I’m working on I keep going back to the initial lines, trying to hone them. I want to draw the reader in, get them interested in the setting, plot or characters (or better still all three) but it’s very difficult to achieve.
So, here are the latest versions of the opening paragraphs for The Glass House and for the rewrite of Twisted Truth (now Finding Us).
The Glass House:
Caitlin ground her teeth in rhythm with the ice machine in her sister’s oversized, glossy fridge-freezer. It whirred and cracked, spitting shards of ice into the glass Niamh held under it, before filling it with purified water.
‘Sure you don’t want one?’ Niamh turned, holding her glass up to Caitlin.
‘We live in the West of Ireland and it’s January. Freezing cold water isn’t going to warm my bones.’ Caitlin shuffled the gardening manuals spread across the island in her sister’s kitchen, wishing Niamh would have the sense to offer her a hot drink.
‘More fool you for choosing a career that leaves you outside most of the day.’
Caitlin rifled through the pages, marked with sticky notes, to find the next one she’d highlighted.
‘Look, just tell me what you think about these.’ She gestured towards the page. ‘What about the Clematis montana, this honeysuckle, maybe the winter flowering jasmine and an evergreen cistus?’
‘I’ve no idea what any of those are.’ Niamh flicked her hand backwards across the books. ‘You choose.’
‘Won’t you at least look at the pictures?’
‘As long as you get rid of what’s out there and plant something new I couldn’t care less what it is. Besides, I trust you.’
‘Sometimes I despair of you,’ Caitlin said, pushing a stray curl back into her pony-tail. ‘I’m never going to convince you gardening is good for the soul, am I?’
‘You inherited those genes,’ Niamh replied, holding up one hand, the sparkling, well-tended talons on display. ‘I much prefer nail extensions to green fingers, thank you very much.’ Setting the glass down on the gleaming surface, Niamh pushed the gardening manuals closer to her sister. Caitlin accepted them, revealing her stubby finger nails. The skin on her hands coarser than Niamh’s and stained from the green and brown of plants and soil, the tools of her trade.
‘Lucky you found a rich man to marry then.’ Caitlin tucked her hands between her jean clad, legs, shifting on the uncomfortable bar stool, watching her sister bristle as she grabbed the edge of the granite.
‘Ah for God’s sake, don’t get on your soap box again.’
‘My little sister marries some divorcee, with a daughter closer to her age than he is, and I’m just supposed to shut up and accept it.’
‘Honestly – yes. It’s my life, I’ve made my choices and it’s about time you learnt to respect that.’
‘Respect. That’s a laugh. Not a word I’d link with your husband and his finances.’
‘You can be such a judgemental cow,’ Niamh said, slapping the books laid out before her. ‘And don’t forget, it’s Tom’s generosity paying for your services.’
Caitlin opened her mouth to reply that he hadn’t paid for anything yet but the noise of the phone ringing stole Niamh’s attention.
This is what happens when your best friend disappears, your mother’s driving you loopy and work’s taking over your life. You go out with a group of crazy friends, drink far too much, especially when it’s only mid-week, and wake-up to find you aren’t in your own bed and all you’re wearing is yesterday’s make-up and some hairy arm.
Trying to peel the offending arm off her stomach and roll out off the bed undetected, Charlotte cursed Katie for lining up all those shots and herself for not making a 3 am flit.
Retrieving her dress and underwear she tip-toed from the bedroom, steadied herself against a sofa and dressed. Searching the combined kitchen and slob-out room she stumbled over her shoes, stabbing her toe with the spiky heel.
Charlotte tried pulling on the hem of the dress but couldn’t make it reach her mid-thigh, never mind the knee length suitable for work. Releasing the security chain and teasing the door handle downwards, she slipped out of the stranger’s flat. What to do now? Make the walk-of-shame into work wearing last night’s clothes or a mad dash home to change. Over-stuffed Tube or a taxi stuck in rush-hour traffic? Charlotte closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. Her choices all lead to one thing; she’d be be late, the last thing she needed.
The Glass House is women’s fiction and deals with the difficult relationship that has developed between two sisters, exploring how rumour and bad judgements can alter perceptions of people. Caitlin is the earthy type, preferring the sanctuary of her restored Victorian Glass House to the sparkling, modern home and material items Niamh adores. I hope the opening lines set the tone for the tension brewing between them, whilst showing they are everyday women, the reader can identify with.
Finding Us is also women’s fiction but has lighter elements of romance and chick-lit. Charlotte’s a workaholic solicitor with a phobia to commitment. Her best-friend’s pregnancy is a surprise but it brings a bigger shock into Charlotte’s life; Mark Porter, her first and only love. He disappeared, from their town in Northern Ireland, thirteen years ago and now he wants a second chance. Charlotte’s tempted but she has a secret to protect and finding each other could risk revealing it.
I’m still not sure whether I’ve cracked it with these beginnings and I think I could spend the rest of my life rejigging them because I know how important it is to get them right.
If you’d care to share, I’d love to hear some of your first lines and how you go about deciding the best way to open your stories.