11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 1

Oh hi! How have you been? Crikey, what sort of weather have we been having? And the traffic on the way here? Absolute nightmare. Especially with these petrol prices, don’t even get me started. Still, that’s a lovely cardigan you’re wearing. Did you happen to catch the game last night?

There’s nothing wrong with small talk, is there? It fills the silences, it gets us acquainted with what everyone else does for a living and it would be a horrible thing if all our lovely cardigans were to go uncomplimented. But at the same time it’s hard to be really dazzled by small talk, isn’t it?

Because small talk isn’t meant to be exceptional. It’s meant to be safe.

However, the opening to your novel is not like the beginning of a conversation. If you are trying to grab a reader’s attention you don’t want to ease them in with something familiar, especially if this reader is a literary agent who probably spends much of their time reading familiar opening lines.

You want your opening line to stand out, to be exceptional (for the right reasons, of course). You want your opening line to dazzle your reader, to make them sit up and think, ‘this one’s interesting.’ You want to do something really special with it. The first page of your first novel is, after all, probably the most important one you’ll ever write.

The funny thing is there is definitely an equivalent to small talk when it comes to opening lines in novels. As someone who reads an awful lot of unedited opening lines it often surprises me that when given the opportunity to say anything we want so many of us say the same sort of thing.

Maybe it’s something in the zeitgeist, maybe it’s something in the water. I have no tested theories myself.

But I can give you the inside scoop, if you’d like? Just a few little pointers of what to avoid if you really want to impress your chosen agent with your stunning individuality?

Between me and you here are 11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel.

No. 1 – By Talking About the Weather (incidentally)

Rain, drizzle, hail, snow, fog, wind, sunshine, scorching sunshine, general mugginess, grey skies, blues skies, dark stormy skies, a thick cloud covering, a spattering of fluffy white clouds, a strange formation of tufty clouds, not a cloud in the sky; I’m pretty sure I’ve read about every weather condition there is in the first line of a novel by now. It has been a long time since I have gone, ‘oh that’s a new one,’ anyway.

I suppose it makes sense as one of the most famous opening lines in the English language does go right in talking about the weather:

It was a dark and stormy night…

My good friend Wikipedia tells me that we have Edward Bulwer-Lytton to blame for this and old Wiki is really quite nasty about this innocent piece of purple prose. I don’t think it’s all that bad myself but maybe that’s because it makes me think of a little rhyme my Auntie Cathy used to say to me when I was exceptionally small which ended with someone falling in a toilet. The nice memory may be making me biased but I always assumed that whoever had created it had their tongue at least edging into their cheek.

Even so, if I’m entirely honest I have to admit that one of my favourite opening lines ever concerns the weather:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

In fairness to Charlotte Bronte, the weather really is firmly in the subtext here and there is a lot more going on about disappointed hopes and creating a general feeling of confinement and things being out of your control. Oh Charlotte, I loved the beginning of Jane Eyre. Why did you have to go and ruin it all by trying to make me like Mr Rochester? He locked his wife in the attic! I mean come on.

If you are doing something exceptionally clever like Charlotte was and you don’t actually mention the weather you might get away with it. But, at this juncture in English literature I would still recommend avoiding any mention of the weather in your opening line, whatever the particular conditions may be. Neither is your opening line the time to have a little fun at the expense of literary conventions so no describing the weather ironically either.

Just like using a discussion of the weather as an icebreaker there’s nothing strictly wrong with choosing to do this. But I can assure you that literary agents will all be so familiar with opening lines that describe the weather that no matter how cleverly or ironically or even beautifully you conjure up the image of a pastoral field fresh from a recent spattering of rain with delicate wisps of a new fog drifting across it and burying the short green blades under its misty embrace your first sentence could well elicit a tired sigh or a barely stifled groan or, if it’s just one of those days, a cry of, ‘why always the bloody weather?’

Have you ever had to spend a lot of time meeting new people soon after a particularly notable spot of weather has happened? Then you understand a literary agent’s pain.
Don’t start by describing the weather. Don’t let your innocent opening line elicit that sigh, groan or angry diatribe. Do something that draws gasps, approving nods or the thing any writer is ultimately aiming for – rapt silence.

Now I better dash, it looks like it’s going to start snowing again and I’m wearing foolishly unsuitable shoes. Call this spring do you? Tsk.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

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10 Responses to 11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 1

  1. James Carol says:

    One of my fave opening lines comes from The Crow Road by Iain Banks…

    It was the day my grandmother exploded.

    That one always makes me smile – and not a weather reference in sight!

  2. Annecdotist says:

    Ha, wouldn’t catch me kicking off a short story or a novel with a piece about the weather, but I couldn’t resist finding an excuse to put a picture of my (not terribly proficient) snowman on my blog! I wonder how many other writing bloggers have succumbed this week?

  3. T. S. Eliot gets away with it, opening The Waste Land: “April is the cruelest month…” but much more than the weather is implied. (And, yeah, it’s not a novel.) Could have been written this year!

  4. This is my favourite: “You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning.” (from Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City).

    Sure, it creates an amusing atmosphere, but it also raises interesting questions: 1. Who, me? 2. What kind of guy am I? And especially: 3. What place and 4. What time of the morning? You know the answer to those last two is not going to be 9.30 am at a cozy tearoom with a biological pine nut smoothie.

    I was also thrilled by Toni Morrison’s opening line to Jazz:
    “Shhhh, I know that woman.”

    Now for the DIY-part… 🙂

  5. I love all of these opening lines! You guys have great taste. ‘It was the day my Grandmother exploded’ is a special kind of genius I always thought. I hadn’t discovered ‘You are not the kind of guy…’ yet though. Bright Lights, Big City you say? Adding it to the reading list.

  6. p.s. I’m pretty sure the internet was made for us to share photos of snowmen. Free access to information and faster communication are all well and good but being able to show off our snowmen is really what it’s all about.

  7. The weather, as with anything else, can be used if the line is really, really good. For example, “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” Brilliant.

  8. Vicki says:

    Good old Gibson. I do love that opening line. It’s so great he might even get away with it under the ‘doing something exceptionally clever’ clause if he were submitting to agents today.

  9. Pingback: Whether the weather… | Mrs Holder's Legacy

  10. Julia Lund says:

    Reblogged this on Julia Lund and commented:
    This reblog is the first in a series of posts from The Darley Anderson Literary Agency’s blog. I’ll reblog the others in the series over the coming weeks, as they not only give writerly food for thought and inward digestion, but also, should anyone be contemplating going down the getting-an-agent’s-attention-route, they offer an insight into what may (or may not) capture that illusive interest.

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