The opening line of David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars quietly assures you that the man in the dock is not a common criminal – that this is an uncommon story told in an uncommon way. Even though this man stands (or sits, in this case) accused in a court of law, he is worthy of our curiosity, our understanding, and even our sympathy; we see that “guilty” is a layered word and we must be wary of rushing to judgement:
The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant’s table – the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.
As a child Trudi Montag thought everyone knew what went on inside others. That was before she understood the power of being different. The agony of being different. And the sin of ranting against an ineffective God. But before that – for years and years before that – she prayed to grow.
Trudi Montag is a Zwerg, a dwarf, ostracised and painfully aware of the fact that she’s different. Her spirit and courage illuminate the opening lines of Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi. Ultimately, she finds love as well as a calling as the town’s gossip, storyteller and informal historian.
Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941.
The opening of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye intimates infinite sadness, the agony of an eleven-year-old black girl, Pecola, who believes white skin is beautiful and that she is ugly. She prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will become beautiful and beloved.
The story of Lolita is encapsulated in the first paragraph. It also captures the lyrical voice, the sparkling virtuosity of this bold novel of obsessive love, perversion and transgression of acceptable social norms:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo Lee. Ta.
Then there are other novels which begin with images of death, with the end. However, death may also be a beginning. Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam begins with the line: “Two former lovers of Molly Lane stood waiting outside the crematorium chapel with their backs to the February chill.” And in The Light Between Oceans, ML Stedman begins with the following line: “On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending the small, newly made driftwood cross.”
Death as in murder features in the opening scene from The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.” And finally, at the risk of belabouring the point, here is another opening scene of death from Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Little Friend: “For the rest of her life, Charlotte Cleve would blame herself for her son’s death because she had decided to have the Mother’s Day dinner at six in the evening instead of noon, after church, which is when the Cleves usually had it.”
A first line that sings can be a gift from the Muse. But chances are that it’s not what you started out with. The first scratches in your first draft may not ultimately be the best first lines for the story.
How do you get started?
Robert Olen Butler, in From Where you Dream says, that’s it’s as simple as recording an event that sparked an emotion in you. Record it in a journal, “dreamstorm”, moment-to-moment through the senses. Don’t name the emotion, just record how your body responds to the event.
You have to do this exercise every day, for an hour or so, and at the end of a few weeks you can go back to it and tighten and intensify the previous passages, cutting out all the abstraction, summary, generalisation, analysis and interpretation – the five cardinal sins of effective writing. Such a journal entry will read like a passage in a novel, fully developed in the moment.
When you put all the whining voices, the self-conscious metavoices, in a jar and screw on the lid tightly, what you’re doing is silencing analytical and abstract language. The images come from your unconscious – the boy leaning against the fence, chewing on a blade of grass, or a rainy street and a cat under the eaves in a yoga asana – and voice is the embodiment in language of the contents of your unconscious.
You can prime the unconscious pump by using writing prompts and writing down whatever comes into your head. If it has come from your “white-hot centre” it is probably the truest thing you ever wrote. And if it doesn’t make sense at first, if a word or an emotion seems odd or incongruous, remember that it’s the dab of grit that seeps into an oyster shell that makes the pearl. When you’re listening to a song, the moment that gives you goose bumps is when the music cuts against the grain, such as in Stravinsky’s frenetic ballet, The Rite of Spring.
Try to think of what you are doing as dictation. Keep your editor and your self off your shoulder. Maxwell Perkins said it best when he said, “You have to throw yourself away when you write.” This brings to mind a Bengali phrase offered as advice to budding singers: “Leave your voice behind when you sing.”
Try these opening prompts.
K wasn’t sure if it was a wonderful sign or a sign of disaster but K knew…
Or: A nurse walks into a room to take care of a patient and abruptly discovers that he/she was her/his lover for a brief time, thirty years ago. In dialogue only, write the first few things they say to each other. Use no description, no “he said” or “she said,” just use straight lines of dialogue.
Or: Walking past a restaurant, you get a whiff of a certain kind of food, which brings back strong memories. What is the food? In a stream-of-consciousness way, write about the memories evoked.
Or: What were some totally inaccurate ideas or beliefs you had as a child? My friend believed that if she cupped her hand on her pillow at night she’d see god through the darkness in that little space between her cupped hand and the pillow.
Or: The man is not crying, but you know his heart is breaking. How do you know?
Or: Your father tells you for the first time about the day your older sister, whom you never knew, died. Write not only what he says, but also what he does with his teacup as he tells you.
Make up your own writing prompts.
Go through the door, climb the steps into the frigid darkness, don’t avert your eyes. Be prepared to be surprised by the richness of your material.
Picture Ernest Hemingway worried about not being able to get a new story going, throwing orange peels into the fire. As he watches their sputter of blue, he tells himself, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
Next week: Character – the heart of fiction.
A lifelong reader and writer, Debika Lahiri has written a novel. She conducts nature walks in Delhi's gardens and parks.