What’s on the opening page of your novel? – A first page check list…

Check listers – the life-saving nerds

A check list. Not the most flamboyantly creative solution to a writer’s journey, but a pretty useful base camp. Masters of a craft of course have an auto-checklist – just as any experienced traveller subconsciously cycles through the daily requirements and quickly senses when something is missing.  Such is craft.

If you’re not yet on auto-pilot, though, a list can push some useful questions at you. It needs to be your own check list – you can’t engage with some other anal-retentive’s bullet-pointing habits. That’s not to say you can’t take a few looks at what others are doing – others’ lists of essentials are part of that hive-mind development to which centuries of literature are testament. But make it your own. It’s your writing it has to work with.

Against the grain – I’m not the most natural list-maker – I’m trying to evolve a check list of what to put on the first page of a novel or, what to look for on the first page of a novel – gradually it’s seemed more like a wish list – sometimes it seems like it could work for any fiction – sometimes it seems to offer just some possibilities to think back over.

First pages of novels – the welcome mat on which the hasty traveller wipes her feet

Why a first page check list? There are plenty of blog posts about not getting trapped in the minutiae of first lines and first paragraphs – and they’re right. There’s no point blowing your valuable time titivating a primary page if everything else is sliding into oblivion.

When everything’s looking good, though, when you’ve got your magnificent work in place – and it is magnificent, trust me, you can’t put years of work into  something and it not be magnificent in one way or another – at that point give the first page of the novel a last rigorous check against a robust set of known non-variables. This is, after all, the calling card, the best foot forward, the tice and tempter – this might be all anyone ever sees.

And at the backs of our minds, however much we try to ignore it, we can’t help pondering what those fiends in the publishing business will think as their gattling-gun fingers rattle our offerings from in-box to trash. That submission of yours is one of thousands they’ll be skimming and binning between the breakfast pastries and the first triple espresso. Maybe – just maybe – they may snag on something of what you’ve spent your hours on, they may feel the feelings you’re trying to express, wake up to your USP – but then, who knows if they have human feelings anyway, such is business.

Forget publishing biz.  If nothing else you can reflect on whether you’ve produced your best work and whether there’s an easy-to-open doorway into that best work, or whether you’ve accidentally laid a minefield of savage and inhospitable material and a wasteland of dullness at the entrance.

What a reader should get from the opening page of the novel

There’s plenty of advice on opening a novel – any favourites?  It’s clearly useless and irritatingly vague to simply command – Interest me!

It’s equally obvious that a rewarding first page of fiction can come in thousands of possible forms from a set of jarring words or series of punctuation marks through to something that’s actually worth reading and those novels whose first pages have gone down in literary history.  “Tom!” “It was the best of times…” “It is a truth universally…” “and the clocks were striking thirteen”. There are many ways to flay this feline.

This then is some basics that I felt I wanted or needed when I looked at a first page – a list I came up with as I culled from here and there and added my own learning from favourite first 500 word blocks, opening paragraphs and so on, particularly when venturing near unknown authors’ works.

As a reader I want to believe :

  • It is clear who or what I need to focus my attention on here

  • This prose has made me engage emotionally and/or intellectually

  • I could trust this author. They know how to write for me

  • I have a strong sense of setting through salient detail that I’m hoping will expand

  • I have a strong sense of character through salient detail that I’m hoping will expand

  • I feel my emotions shifting around what is written here

  • I admire / pity / fear / am amused by this character

  • I sense a threat and want to know what the character’s response will be

  • I sense conflict and want to follow the counter response

  • I’m predicting the immediate next step for this character in terms of a clear problem or opportunity

  • I would want to know what happens to this character longer term

  • I would be sorry not to find out what this page leads to.

This seems to get a little bit further than just hopeful ‘give it your best shot’ advice. It speaks to mechanics and fundamentals rather than prescribing a type or style or formula. It allows for all but the most ‘experimental’ of openings, and might even give the experimenter some consciousness of what aspects they’re experimenting with. What it doesn’t give is the ‘how’ and that’s where personal inspiration and industry can be allowed near the list.

That’s my current list. It might change next week. Good luck with your own.

When do you throw the books away?

Three things happened recently, all of which conspired to remind me – not that I needed reminding – of an old story my father enjoys telling.

The three things were: my youngest son’s book exchange day at school; managing the house shelving around some long-mooted building work; and getting increasingly joyful about the practicalities of Kindle.

Worn spines on old books next to ipad showing online version of Book of KellsMy father’s story, one of many that have given good service over the years, hinges on his sense of early poverty. It’s in some ways a proud sense of early poverty as it gives plenty of scope for the making-good bits of the life story that can come after. It’s not only financial poverty either. He’s particularly conscious at the lack of intellectual stimulation given to youngsters  in the Yorkshire mining communities of the thirties, of which he has rather astringent memories.

His story has plenty to interest anyone who likes a proto-Dickensian vision of such troubled environments. His story revolves around The Book. They only had one – or at most three, the story can be adapted to suit the credulity of the latest audience. If they were lucky, the eldest two children, having finished their Sunday bread and dripping tea and having scoured their hands with carbolic, would be allowed to take a seat and look at The Book. It was placed on their knees. They could only turn the pages under supervision. The Book was a handsome Wonderbook of Wholesome Knowledge for Pre-war Boys and Girls, at least in the version I tell my own children now. It must have seemed a marvel.

There came a time though when the book disappeared. It was given away to some passing junk collector. My father, bereft, asked where The Book had gone. His mother replied, ‘well, you’d read it.’

This story has come in various ways over the years and the one here is my own edit, one that serves the purpose of some other thoughts at the moment. My own children have hundreds of books. We’re proud to be the sort of family that has books and has them out and visible. Not in a neat display either, but in double-stacked shelves and piles of things that are being read or meant to be being read or just nice reminders that they’re there. We have books with multi-cracked spines and sunlotion stained pages, others that spent months in a rucksack, some that are pristine, one or two that are signed and were expensive. The kids have books from childhoods that weren’t their own, preserved and handed down whether they want it or not, Ladybirds, Blytons and all. They’re all precious. We can’t throw a single one away.

I’ve tried. I’ve made a pile of things I haven’t read or won’t read again or didn’t like in the first place and had the whole lot ready for the Heart Foundation deposit. Then I remember how I came by this book or that, or I see a scrawl in the cover, or know that I own it because of a promise to read, or a longed-for connectivity, or a memory of whens and what-ifs. They’re impossible to get rid of, even the paperback 1950s versions of obscure Restoration dramas I’ve not mustered an interest in for twenty years – the fact is I own them because of a promise to engage and I don’t feel I can back out of the deal so uncouthly.

Back to my son’s book exchange day. He was told they could bring books into school to swap. He very cheerily pops upstairs and comes down with the full set of David Walliams novels which he got at Christmas and simply loved. As parents we entered a state halfway between anger and disbelief. These are new books – by which we mean bought within the last two years. You can’t give those away.

‘Yes, but I’ve read them.’ Says my son.

Ah, so what we’ve got is a clash of values. The youth of today perhaps have new systems of possession, gifting, storing, keeping and disposing that are entirely at odds with even my own upbringing, let alone that of my father. Books are now to be read, enjoyed as texts and then their physical husks to be parted with. This is something alien to me and my cherishing, hoarding sense of the holistic literary experience, one which has its bibliophile clutter of firsts and proofs and trade-editions, where a book once loved is soon to be re-read, where each dog-ear and underlining is a friend, where a stain on a page from some once-upon-a-time coffee will usher a memory of when and where and can bring an explosion in the mind of sensations otherwise inaccessible through age.

Yes it’s all different now. I am deeply enamoured of my Kindle which, bought in 2014 after a bit of tentative deliberation, has never failed to amaze me. Dozens of books in one handheld pack. Online shares of quotes and favourite passages. Dictionaries and vocab-builders – particularly useful in French so that I can instantly forget new vocabulary and feel guilty. Page memory across different devices. What’s not to like, as the saying goes. Even the constant hectoring by Amazon’s tag-based marketing has a sort of desperate charm, like sitting with a permanent personal Willy Loman or Gill off the Simpsons.

But can Kindle provide the necessary therapy for my generation of bibliophiles and its indigestible clutter? Can it ease that belief that material goods are something to cling to, at least for those of us whose parents had nothing. Is an aversion to patina something the next generation will grow up with, happy with only those fine editions that they chose to have on shelves, unread because all reading is done on screen? Perhaps there will be no books on shelves for the future-home’s white-cube rooms. Perhaps blocks of bound paper will be saved only to refurb Olde Worlde pubs. Or, perhaps, there’ll be one or two people that feel some deeper atavistic need, and who choose to find and preserve their grandfather’s Wonderbook.