Ten Key Steps In Writing Your Novel #1


Opening Page and Paragraph

We are all familiar with famous opening lines and first pages of famous novels.

Well, lets see how many we do know.

What book begins…..

a. Call me Ishmael.

b. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

c. If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it.

d. Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton Twins were.

e. When he finished packing, he walked out on to the third-floor porch of the barracks brushing the dust from his hands, a very neat and deceptively slim young man in the summer khakis that were still early morning fresh.

f. I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal.

g. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a goof fortune must be in want of a wife.

h. The voice was a combination of Locust Valley lockjaw and Marge Schott, by way of the Albany Gardening Club and the Mary Lou Whitney Lounge at the airport Americana.

Shock and Awe

Television and computer games and instant messages and tweets, etc., has changed reading habits. The WSJ on August 14, 2015, carried a front page story in the Arena section entitled “Here Come The Ring Tomes” all about how it won’t be the e-reader driving future books sales, but it will be the phone. Publishers are1f4f4rethinking books for the small screen. Yes, I know there are still a few of us left who still enjoy curling up with a good book any given day of the week, but the truth is that today with a novel, the writer still has to grab the reader by the throat with the first sentence or forget about getting anyone to read the book.

If you look at any program on television, whether a drama or a situation comedy, the individual scenes last about 5-8 seconds.

It is interesting to flip from Turner Classic Movies to the movies made today and it so obvious that once—certainly in the days of black-and-white film where there were scenes with length, intelligent dialogue. That’s rare today. Today’s film are visual experiences, if not just car chases and explosions. Stock and Awe.

The #1 Key Step

So your first Key Step in Writing your novel is.

Grab the reader by the throat.

You not only need to get their interest immediately, you have to set the stage. You have to tell your reader: the place and atmosphere and start the action. The first few pages, or better yet, the first few paragraph, and better still, the first few sentences tells the reader the kind of novel they are about to read.

Here are two examples of what I mean from books I have written. This is from the novelization I did of the 1979 movie, The Legacy set in England and starring Katherine Ross and Sam Elliott. (Katharine Ross (enduringly known as the bride in The Graduate.) And Elliott, who is mostly typed as a cowboy and at 71 is referred to as a ‘male ingénue.sam-elliott

At dusk he became restless, for the night always troubled him. He would leave his rooms to roam the hallways of the old stone mansion, turning on lights as he walked through the empty estate. Occasionally travelers, lost on these ancient roads that ran down to the sea, would pass the manor house high on the hillside and see the lights blazing like a wildfire.

This second example is from the first novel I published. It came out at the height of horror/occult novels. (Stephen King’s Carrie has just been published). The novel opens this way

The land was called The Hand of God for it seemed as if God himself had grabbed that remote corner of the southern state and crushed the terrain in his palm and fingers, shaping the valleys, the hollows, and the far mountains with his Almighty strength.

In both of these examples, we are tossed directly into the story and the action.

Always remember what John le Carre said, The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the other cat’s mat is a story.

Famous First Lines

a. Moby Dick

b. The Great Gatsby

c. Catcher in the Rye

d. Gone With The Wind

e. From Here to Eternity

f. Fifty Shades of Gray

g. Pride and Prejudice

h. Shock To The System


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  • I have been looking again at Owen Barfield’s POETIC DICTION about the smoky fields of,meaningful utterance. Older poets such as George Oppen, Josephine Miles, Lawrence Fixel, Edouard Roditi,, and Ann Stanford pushed me at him. (He lived 1898-1997, and that doesn’t seem that long ago, and the book was published in England 1928. The copy I have has a foreward by Howard Nemerov in this 1973 Wesleyan press and prefaces by OW, first edition 1927, second edition 1951, and OW’s afterword 1972.) Part of a meandering for some time now. Now I have this and wonder what you poets I value might if anything have to say. It seems along the wonky lines I have been traveling. POETS CAN BE MORE THAN PENCIL MUSICIANS OF THEIR UTTERANCES Something other than logicians organizing psychologys for the new, beautiful, ugly, flailing, overthinking babelonyians.
    Stir the poet and walk the stick.
    Arguments usually miss the point.
    Is “writ on water” more accurate than “kleenex”? The latter ‘degrades’ but writing on water seems to hint of possible pollution. Apply this to literature – story, lyric, written word in any category.
    Yeats suggested going as far as you can, Auden declared poetry makes nothing happen, Stevens wanted something to happen, Lawrence, expiation. Marianne Moore, in “Marriage”, speaks of “This institution,/ perhaps one should say enterprise/ out of respect for which/ one says one need not change one’s mind/ about a thing one has believed in,/ requiring public promises; of one’s intention….” would have, if she could have just lived-on, a comedy routine about literalism but still finding somethings genuine in what doesn’t last. Since her time and Katherine Mansfield’s time there have been visual artists who have made paintings by erasing other painter’s paintings as if chalk on a slate. Reviewers can remind me how erasures of poems happen: through misreadings and this often not intentional and more often because they want to be the literary stars ignoring who’s bride.

  • I cannot resist adding some of my favorite opening lines:

    He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.

    That opens Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini (who, though born in Italy, became a British citizen and wrote in English).

  • “We drove past Tiny Polski’s mansion house to the main road, and then the five miles into Northampton, Father talking the whole way about savages and the awfulness of America–how it got turned into a dope-taking, door-locking, ulcerated danger zone of rabid scavengers and criminal millionaires and moral sneaks.”

    Paul Theroux begins “The Mosquito Coast.” I continue to claim that this is the real Peace Corps novel. Theroux, with incredible grace, autographed my dog eared (and dog eaten) paperback copy of The Mosquito Coast at a book signing for a new book of his. I, in my ignorance, did not know that one was supposed to buy the book being offered at the signing, and then get it autographed.

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