Sunday, 4 July 2010

How Not to Start Writing A Novel

Every year there is a marvellous competition for the worst opening to a novel. It's called the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, in honour of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton who wrote the famous opening:

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." (from Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton 1830.)

The winning paragraph was written by Molly Ringle (who has written about it on her blog):

"For the first month of Ricardo and Felicity's affair, they greeted one another at every stolen rendezvous with a kiss - a lengthy, ravenous kiss, Ricardo lapping and sucking at Felicity's mouth as if she were a giant cage-mounted water bottle and he were the world's thirstiest gerbil."

The runner up was Tom Wallace with:

"Through the verdant plains of North Umbria walked Waylon Ogglethorpe and, as he walked, the clouds whispered his name, the birds of the air sang his praises, and the beasts of the fields from smallest to greatest said, 'There goes the most noble among men' - in other words, a typical stroll for a schizophrenic ventriloquist with delusions of grandeur."

So, three dire opening paras, one unintentional, two written on purpose. What makes them dreadful? In the Bulwer-Lytton, I think it's the pedantic "except at occasional interval" that makes the heart sink, followed by the "for it is in London" phrase: even in 1830 it was a cliche. If you take the pedantry and the cliche out, it's a vivid piece of writing.

With the prize winning para, it's the whole gerbil thing. The association of a rodent with kissing is always going to be wrong, and the whole water bottle thing - well, it's not a sexy image in any shape or form. Metaphor gone wrong, would sum this one up.

The final one nearly works. It's the self consciousness, the voice that's busy saying "I'm so clever" that makes it a winner here. And who would want to read a book about a character called Waylon Ogglethorpe in the first place? Having said that, I think it would have worked even better if the name hadn't so clearly signalled that the piece was a joke. Ricardo and Felicity are well chosen for the purpose, not completely over the top, but neither entirely normal.

So what makes a good opening para? It's got to have something that hooks the reader - a promise of plot, a promise of style, a promise of interesting characters and it's very hard to do well.

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