Monday, March 7, 2011

Opening lines


I've done the research, gone through my notebooks, filled out piles of index cards, read the first page of Marquez's General in his Labyrinth, (an odd habit I have of reading the opening page before beginning any book - an authorial version of a lucky rabbit's foot) and today I sat down to start my next novel.

I even opened the word document, and saved it into the file that I had created.

But I didn't have that opening line. Which has got me thinking of where opening lines come from.

The last one, for Shieldwall, which wont be out until May, begins: Christ did not come again that year.

I had that, and the second line fixed in my head long before the beginning.

Christ did not come again that year. The Lord kept to His churches and the pages of his book, and Wulfnoth sat in the half timbered hall as the peat fire smoked and rain dripped from the roof-thatch.

Passing Under Heaven begins,

On the day Minister Li retired from office, he lay on his bed and felt a great sense of release, as if the values and morals that had controlled him through his life were as frail as the morning dew.

And it's hard to say where that came from. It might have, at one time, begun the book, but I know that that particular section was only moved to the beginning of the book a week or so before the deadline.

It was a case of jigsaw pieces finally making a new and more brilliant pattern.

Ciao Asmara, i think was more of a process than a flash of inspiration, and A Bend in the Yellow River began the same was as the one thousand word article I had published in the Guardian Weekly, because I did not want to change something that someone had paid me money for, and because getting published there was a token to myself that perhaps I could be a writer.

The Drink and Dream Teahouse. I sat down with my toshiba satellite, and began to type.

I never changed a word of that opening paragraph, and in a strange way I seemed to predict the themes that would tie up the lives of the characters in the novel.

For two weeks exploding firecrackers shredded the winter gloom at Shaoyang’s Number Two Space Rocket Factory. The fourteenth and last night was the Lantern Festival: hopeful lovers carried their hearts in moth-skin lanterns, bobbing like hooked fish on the ends of long canes. A river of stars flowed through the night, the candles burned steadily down, and after midnight solitary spirits wandered the streets with increasing desperation - searching for their perfect match, who might never come.

So what should a opening line do? Well, after all this, there's something of an over emphasis on opening lines. Not that it shouldn't grab the reader, but that the next line, the first paragraph and so on should grab and surprise the reader as well. Some of the best openings have their knock out line at the end of the first paragraph

Nobody could sleep. When morning came, assault craft would be lowered and a first wave of troops would ride through the surf and the charge ashore on the beach at Anopopei. All over the ship, all through the convoy, there was a knowledge that in a few hours some of them were going to be dead.
Norman Mailer, The Naked and the Dead

Or this one from Penelope Lively in Perfect Happiness

The fifth Brandenburg. Somewhere, some place, every moment, an orchestra is playing the fifth Brandenburg concerto. Violins are tucked under chins, bows rise and fall; in recording studios and concert rooms, and here in the dining-hall of a Cambridge college where a hundred and fifty people are gathered together for no reason except circumstance which is perhaps the reason for everything. They are together for one hour fifty minutes and for the most part will never see one another again.
Some, of course, will.

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