“Never open a book with weather” is advice often given to novelists. I’m not sure where to attribute said quote, although it is the first of Elmore Leonard’s ten tips for writers. I’m not sure how seriously to take it either. I can name a few classic novels that open with weather (Jane Eyre, for instance).
At any rate, I thought I’d give you the opportunity to judge some of my novels by their opening lines as well as their covers (it’s a myth that people don’t judge books by their covers – they absolutely do, when choosing what to read).
Glancing back over these, I like some, and slightly cringe at others. For instance, I think the opening to Children of the Folded Valley – still by far my most popular novel – is a tiny bit literary fiction try-hard, and I’d probably opt for something more immediately gripping these days. Still, it establishes the melancholy tone, as protagonist James Harper looks back on his childhood growing up amid a mysterious cult.
“We spend our adult lives trying to regain what we lost in childhood.
I do not claim to be unique in that respect. Whilst it might be argued that I lost more than some, we all, I think, chase after what we once had or never had. What we lost cannot be replaced, but we chase after it nonetheless.
Some think of what they lost with romantic rose-tinted spectacles, whilst others are more pragmatic. Some deny it, others get angry about it, others still accept it and seek help from friends, family, lovers, therapists, priests, gurus or anyone else who will listen. But I cannot do that. I can never tell my friends, my colleagues, my wife or my children what happened to me in the Folded Valley.”
Onto something a bit more instantly gripping, here is the opening of The Thistlewood Curse. The reader is thrown headfirst into an investigation that has ended badly, which establishes the two main characters DS Laura Buchan, and paranormal consultant Lawrence Crane.
“In spite of the peculiar circumstances surrounding the death of Jacob Price, Detective Sergeant Laura Buchan had all but convinced herself there was no foul play. That he died as the result of a bizarre accident had become the accepted version of events for her and most of her colleagues. Only the senior investigating officer, Detective Inspector Ethan Roland, had any further inkling that Price’s demise was in any way suspicious.
Laura kept pinching the bridge of her nose in a nervous reflex. The questioning of her lifelong friend and occasional colleague Lawrence Crane should have been mere formality; an interview that would establish beyond all doubt that he had no involvement in Price’s death. But Roland kept treating him like a criminal. No doubt he considered his actions thoroughness, but Laura thought he was just being rude. Through the two-way mirror Laura watched as Roland continued to question Crane in the interview room.
‘Are you glad he’s dead?’”
Phantom Audition concerns a grieving actress whose actor husband committed suicide in mysterious circumstances. This opening goes for the emotional jugular, establishing the novel’s themes of grief and what it can do to the mind.
“What Mia noticed most was the silence.
She kept expecting to hear Steven’s voice, or the insistent thud of his feet, as he rehearsed his lines, pacing up and down. She expected to hear him on the phone to his agent, publicist, or to a director.
In the mornings, she no longer heard his absurd singing in the shower. His seat at the breakfast table stood empty. Mia would avert her eyes, unable to bear staring at the space he should occupy. He should be sipping his tea, scrolling through his phone, crunching his cereal… Silence chewed the room instead, like wind and rain gnawing an eroding landscape.
At nights, Mia would awaken and roll over, hoping to warm herself on his body. But Steven wasn’t there, and he wasn’t coming back. He had been replaced with the same terrible silence that screamed, clawed, and tore at her mind whenever she entered the rooms that still had his smell. The memory of her husband had stained the entire house.”
Onto some of my novels aimed at younger readers (and the young at heart). Here is the opening of Uncle Flynn. This treasure hunt adventure mystery concerns eleven-year old Max. His crippling panic attacks are established in the opening chapter, ahead of the introduction of his mysterious uncle, and the main narrative. Themes of overcoming fear and the dangers of mollycoddling ensue, and Max’s character arc develops in ways that are hinted at in this opening segment.
“Max Bradley didn’t like to climb trees.
It wasn’t that he didn’t want to climb trees. He longed to do as his friends did and climb high into the branches of the great horse chestnut that stood at the foot of Gavin Bainbridge’s large garden. But every time he tried, he became dizzy after ascending just a few feet, and the idea of climbing higher frightened him. This was a continual frustration, since all eleven-year old boys could usually climb trees.
Max, Gavin, and Gavin’s cousins Jenny, Paul, Mark, and Katie had been playing a game of football, but Mark had kicked the ball into the upper branches of the tree. No amount of hurling sticks or stones had dislodged it, and the only way to retrieve the ball was for someone to climb up and get it.
Ordinarily, Gavin would have nipped up and retrieved it, but he was in one of his awkward, showing-off moods. He knew of Max’s fear of climbing and began to tease him.
‘Why don’t you go up and get the ball?’”
Dr Gribbles and the Beast of Blackthorn Lodge is another action-packed children’s adventure story which well and truly throws the reader in at the deep end. Chapter one alone features a haunted house, a monster, and mad scientist.
“Being trapped inside a haunted house was turning out to be every bit as terrifying as Tim had feared. He sat on the moth-eaten hallway carpet leaning against the crumbling plaster walls, putting his hands over his ears to shut out the horrible muffled roars.
Tim desperately tried to think of a way out, but his options were limited. The front door was blocked shut, as was the back door. That left the downstairs windows, but they were boarded up; as were most of the upstairs windows, except the small bathroom window on the top floor. But getting to it would mean climbing the dusty wooden staircase and it didn’t look particularly stable…”
Finally, here’s the opening of Echo and the White Howl. My youngest son begged me for a story about wolves, so I wrote this novel about a wolf pack in Alaska. It’s a vivid, thrilling tale of betrayal, exile, and vengeance, with a touch of the supernatural. I am particularly pleased with this one, even though writing animal fiction is way out of my “comfort zone” (if you’ll forgive my use of an obscenity) and is something I’ll almost certainly never attempt again. We join protagonist Echo and the rest of his pack during an elk hunt, establishing the bleak, unforgiving landscapes, and the main characters.
Echo crouched in the snow behind a rock, a short distance above the elk, on a steep slope. He anticipated the imminent pounding thrill that would course through his veins when the attack signal came. He could practically smell the blood on the icy air. Every sense in his body tingled, and he longed to sink his teeth into the succulent flesh. But still he waited. Aatag, the Alpha and his father, would make his move soon.
The elk had spotted Aatag, some twenty yards away, lurking next to a large pine tree. Aatag no longer hid himself but stared down his prey, attempting to both intimidate and distract the elk from the danger at either side. To the right, Echo and his brothers Malakai and Puyak, both of whom lurked behind trees, waited high on the slope. To the left, Echo’s mother Kiana remained concealed in the undergrowth with Copper, Aatag’s fiercely dutiful second-in-command, as well as sly and clever Imalik.
Presently Puyak broke his cover and trotted across to Echo. Irritated at his brother’s impatience, Echo cocked his head, indicating for him to get back under cover. But Puyak disregarded this and eventually shuffled up next to Echo.
‘This is getting boring,’ said Puyak. ‘Why can’t we just attack?’”