Friday, 12 December 2008

The Writer's Holy Grail - Lucy Coats



“Can I captivate and keep my reader till the last page?” This, surely, is the Holy Grail of the writer’s art—what we all want to achieve. Every reader reacts to a book differently, and experiences it in their own way. (That, among many other reasons, is why age-ranging is such a contentious subject. Every child reader is unique and cannot be conveniently boxed up in shelving segments. But that’s a whole other blog.) Going back to the question, you have only to look at any series of reviews on internet book sites such as Goodreads to see that where one reader will award five stars, another will award three, or even none.

So where do I, as a writer, start to create this state of Nirvana, this paradise where my readers are held in thrall to my every utterance? Why, with the very first paragraph, of course. There are, apparently (or so I have been told by no less a writer than a Costa Book Award winner), six criteria for a first paragraph, which are, in brief: snare, style, imagination, pace, narrative voice and theme. Personally I reckon that if you can get all these in, you are well on your way to perfection. I’ve never achieved it yet, but hey, whoever said reaching Nirvana was easy? I try to make a first paragraph the place where I set hooks (otherwise known as the aforementioned snares) to rouse interest and anticipation and expectation in my reader’s mind. ‘Why?’ they must ask, and ‘Who?’ and ‘What?’. It is the place where I endeavour to create a style signature which says ‘This is me. If you stay, I will take you on a journey of deep feeling and imagination during which your mind can be drop kicked into a different world. You will like it, I promise.’ (Here I imagine a hypnotic chant--'you willll, you willl!'. This may not be terribly realistic of me. I know this.) I always think of that first paragraph as a moving train, taking my reader to amazing places they really want to be, and travelling at a pace which makes them want to jump on and join in till the end of the journey, with interesting people for them to meet and get to know at the stops along the way. It’s the thing I work hardest on—my shop window, if you like—where I set out my wares in an effort to tempt and entice with hints of what is inside.

The problem is though, that I quite often change my mind as to where I want to start the book—or my Dear Editor changes it for me in a tactful and considering sort of way which, annoyingly, almost always makes sense. When I am working on a novel, I tend to see it as a huge and complicated jigsaw, spread out all over my mind. I try to get all those outside edges done first, to make a neat box within which I can place the pieces of my story. But sometimes a piece, or several pieces, won’t or don’t fit right, and I have to move them around, effing and blinding, till they slot in correctly. If a first paragraph I have worked very hard on does that, it is a nightmare akin to dropping the whole jigsaw on the floor and having to pick it all up and start again. That’s how important I think it is to get it right. The novel I am currently writing starts like this (or at least it does for now):

She heard the tree first. Its slow song seeped into her bones, telling a long tale of tiny white rootlets reaching into darkness, of branches stretching past uncountable stars. It was singing, and she was aware that that was odd, somehow, as she drifted in a place that both was and was not. Trees didn’t sing where she came from. That was one of the things she remembered, and that was odd too, because Magret Bickerspike knew she was dead; knew it with a certainty that was absolute. She’d been kneeling by the river, watching her ripple reflection in the light of a full moon. And then it had happened. A dragon had reared up behind her and speared her—yes, speared her right through the torso—on its curved talon. She felt her heart beat faster in remembered fear and shock and anger and pain at the knowledge that this was it. This was the end of her life. A fleeting thought floated, feather light, through her mind, brushing it gently. That’s all wrong. Dead hearts don’t beat. Dead bodies don’t feel. Dead brains don’t think. Then the tree song took her over again and a healing sort of humming filled her head murmuring to her of fairytales and endings, blocking out everything else. All she had time for was one last burst of inspiration before she faded back into nothingness. I’m alive. I’M ALIVE! she thought. And that surprised her very much indeed.

The question is; will my readers want to read on? Answers on a postcard (or comment form), please!

7 comments:

Anne Rooney said...

I'm not really a fantasy reader at all, but I'd read on, Lucy! Just hope this stays the first para. We could start a new game - spotting 'first paras' that have been elsewhere in a novel :-) Though I suppose they are mostly just chucked. Maybe a collection of orphaned first paras...

Susan Price said...

I want to read it, Lucy!

Susan Price said...

And is the tree Yggdrasil?

Nick Green said...

Great opening. 'Killing' your protagonist straight away - impressive!

I wasn't so keen on the advice you quoted: 'there are six criteria for a first paragraph, which are, in brief: snare, style, imagination, pace, narrative voice and theme.' This was always the kind of advice, in books about writing, that used to put me right off! Perhaps it's useful for assessing work after the event, but I think it would be unwise to attempt to craft an opening to those specifications. 'Get their attention' should be the whole of the law!

Lucy Coats said...

Thank you, Anne--I think it will!

Yes, Susan--the tree is Yggdrasil in another guise. He's quite a character. Glad you want to read on....

I agree about the first para rules, Nick--they put me off too, rather, so their inclusion was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek. Getting the reader's attention is indeed, the law, the whole law, and nothing but the law.

Nick Green said...

'I agree about the first para rules, Nick--they put me off too, rather, so their inclusion was meant to be a bit tongue in cheek.'

Ah! That explains it. I didn't think they sounded like your cup of tea, somehow...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Brilliant Lucy... I want to read it as well! It had everything I need for an opening and more! And found your jig-saw concept a great one because that's how it is.
Have just opened up the A A B B Adventure (perhaps AABBA but we don't want to be confused with ABBA)to discover I've missed about 5 days of blogging (was frantically trying to finish a manuscript to get to my Agent before everyone closes down for Christmas)and now feel like I've been in trapped in Sleeping Beauty's castle for a hundred years... so much has happened.