Caro talks us through the invitation to your reader – the opening lines…
Like a desperate young man who knows he’s only got one shot at the attractive blonde at the bar, a good writer knows how much an opening line matters. This week’s Year of the Novel homework is to write our opening lines and it’s a task that I’ve been spectacularly proactive in avoiding.
I’ve cleaned almost every inch of my house, alphabetised my DVDs, watched more episodes of dodgy late-night reality television than I care to admit and whipped up a delicious array of banana breads, potato bakes and hand-cut pasta. My house looks very nice, and smells a bit like a cafe, but the frenzy of activity hasn’t resulted in any actual words.
I’ve also scoured my own collection for inspiration from other writers. Sitting by my bookshelf and delighting in the first lines of my favourites, I fell in love with J.D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield all over again, and remembered the shame and excitement of Humbert’s meeting with Lolita: “Light of my life fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, Daphne du Maurier, Orwell, Jane Austin, Vonnegut and so many others all wrote masterful first lines. They set up scenes I know as well as my own memories and introduced me to characters I would instantly love, or hate, or pity – but the great writers also introduced themselves to me and set up their unique voice, style and tone.
All this in a few sentences. Sometimes less.
The more opening lines I read, the harder the task seemed. I’ve done plenty of writing for this project already, but the sense of expectation that hangs over those first lines really did me in.
Kim Wilkins has advised us to use the opening lines to “invite” the reader into the novel, but as someone who once wore an elaborate cactus costume to a Mexican party that turned out not to be fancy dress, I know how careful people need to be with the clarity of invites. Part of the reason I’m having so much trouble “inviting” people into my story, is that I’m still trying work out the kind of event it’s going to be. Out of respect for my readers, I don’t want to ask them over for a light-hearted fiesta if they’re going to be stuck in the corner all evening talking to Aunt Irma while I quietly kill off all the good characters.
I was moaning to a friend about this very problem when they said something very simple, and very wise: “So what? It can change.” It can change. It’s a liberating idea – and I think it’s going to be my new motto to write by. My words are not a contract and they’re not etched in stone. They can be re-worked, revised, deleted altogether. I’m going to stop being neurotic and do what I should have done a week ago – write. Wish me luck!

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