Search This Blog

Monday, 12 January 2015

Writing - Beginnings

How to start that novel is one of several perennial questions posed to writers – and even asked of writers by themselves!  It’s particularly relevant to genre writers.

There is no right or wrong way, though certainly experience suggests there are good ways to start.  Books published in the past were aimed at readers with perhaps more leisure time, so the authors could indulge themselves and ease the reader in gently, with description or even some philosophising.

Bloomsbury is publishing Dennis Wheatley’s many books in digital format (though controversially edited for the ‘modern reader and improved pace’…) Wheatley was a massive best-seller for about forty years. A good number of his books began like this:

The Duke de Richleau and Rex Van Ryn had gone into dinner at eight o’clock, but coffee was not served till after ten.

This doesn’t pull the reader in at all; but its familiarity seems somehow comforting: the heroes of so many adventures since The Forbidden Territory can still find time for a convivial evening – before the next adventure begins!

Nowadays, however, most experienced writers advocate not beginning a genre book with mundane events – a meal, for example, or the weather. Get into the action.

With short stories, that’s good advice too; where word-count is limited, there’s little room for atmosphere-building. I’ve tried to do that with my novels as well; here, for example, are the beginnings of four recent books:

Catalyst – 1st in ‘The Avenging Cat’ series

Rock climbing was much easier than this, Cat Vibrissae thought. She did that for a hobby – though never at night – and enjoyed it. But climbing the outside of a modern building was something else. How those people could do it for fun was beyond her. What were they called? Stegophilists. Oxford and Cambridge undergraduates started it when they scaled the college buildings in the late 1800s – always at night. She was used to the adrenaline rush of climbing with bare hands and feet on cliffs above rugged rocks and aggressive waves. But this was very different. Tonight the effects seemed more pronounced: she was sure that she could feel the increased heart rate and her gut constricting. And her mouth was very dry. Still, if she was going to fulfil her vow to her father, she had no choice. This was the only way to penetrate the seventeenth floor office of Rick Barnes.

Catacomb- 2nd in ‘The Avenging Cat’ series- due for e-book/paperback release 24 April

Despite the drizzle, due to the residual heat of the day the roof sent steam spiralling. A light breeze from the sea spat rain against Cat as she swung over the lip of the roof’s guttering. Suspended at full stretch, she landed with both feet on the narrow ledge. Her Nike soles provided sufficient purchase on the marble surface. She turned and straightened; her backpack pressed against the dark window. She was already drenched, her black jeans and cotton T-shirt clinging uncomfortably; tied in a ponytail, her dyed blonde hair would seem dark.
            June was the start of summer here and the forecast had been accurate enough: halfway through the month and this was the second day that it had rained. Now, she looked around. The evenings were not dark. Chuck Marston, her instructor had inculcated into her that if she had a choice: when at risk of being in full view, she should scale a building in wet weather. Her target apartment block qualified in that regard, as it was on the Promenade des Anglais, overlooking the beach and the sea, so on this occasion the rain, while dispiriting, was welcome. It averted the inquisitive eyes of any passing pedestrians.

The Prague Papers- 1st in the Tana Standish series

Six Soviet officers stood on the balcony overlooking St. Wenceslas Square and the definition through the sniper-scope was so good that Tana Standish could detect the blackheads round their noses and the blood-shot eyes that testified to late-night celebrating with alcohol. She had ten 7.5mm rounds, more than enough to kill all of them.
      Tana had a steady grip but there was no risk of weapon-shake anyway as the new Giat F1 rifle rested on its bipod on the windowsill. As this weapon was fresh from the French production line, it could not be traced back to England.
      Dressed in his brown-grey greatcoat with bright red lapel flashes, General of the Army Ivan Pavlovsky cocked his head to the left while he listened attentively to his commanders. He was thickset, with small dark eyes and a pug nose whose nostrils bristled with hair.
      Try as she might, she could not detect any thoughts from the officers. But she was able to lip-read. They were in a self-congratulatory mood, since the invasion had gone well, with only a few Czech and Slovak deaths. Vodka had indeed flowed last night.

The Tehran Text- 2nd in the Tana Standish series – due for e-book release 6 Feb

Dressed in sinister black, SAVAK Captain Hassan Mokhtarian looked every inch the evil man he was. A man who deserved to die.
       Tana Standish could see him quite clearly through the telescopic sight, even making allowances for the poor light as dusk descended over Tehran and the city’s surrounding mountains, turning the overshadowing snow-capped cone of Mount Damavand a delicate shade of mauve. At least today the city smog didn’t obscure the peak of the volcano, which still belched out sulphurous fumes from time to time and killed the odd stray sheep.
        Hassan exuded an air of danger with his pitted complexion and deep-set ebony eyes under a prominent forehead ridge.
        Standing in the open doorway of his villa, he exhaled smoke through his nostrils and dropped the Marlboro cigarette to the lightly coloured marble-tiled step, grinding it under the toe of his boot. His eyes glinted, as if he took pleasure in the destruction of even small things.

You might also detect a few similarities running through each particular series – the climbing motif in the Cat books, and the gun-sight in the Tana books. A variation on the theme; echoes, if you will.

The Tana book beginnings are exposed further in an earlier post:

So, my advice, for what it’s worth: begin with an event that grips the reader, poses questions, or conveys the tenor of the tale from the outset. Catalyst tells us immediately that Cat is on a dangerous mission, to fulfil a promise. Catacomb gives us more of the same, and highlights Cat’s expertise. Papers begins in 1968, Czechoslovakia, and shows us that Tana is a trained sniper and is capable of reading thoughts. Text emphasises Tana’s cold-blooded ability to target evildoers. I would hope that with a few words the reader is also placed in those tense scenes.

All of the above are/will be published by Crooked Cat Publishing, purchased from :

Amazon UK here

Amazon COM here


Jan Warburton said...

Great article, Nik. Some excellent examples of your written work to illustrate your points also.
I thouroughly enjoyed reading it all.

Nik said...

Thanks, Jan. Your comments are always appreciated.