It is often said that the opening lines of a book are the most important. If the author gets them right, they're the ones that will grab the reader and suck them straight into a story. Get them wrong, and the book will be returned to the shelf and never read. No matter now well structured the following 99,900 words are in your masterpiece, get the first 100 wrong and you've had it.
When re-structuring The Cypress Branches into a trilogy, I was faced with the problem of how to start each of the three books. But unlike an author who is in full control and can let their imaginations run wild, as an editor, and an editor who can't communicate with the author, I had to find the opening lines of Pegasus Falling from within the existing text.
Indeed, it was the importance of the opening passage which lead me to decide to cut two scenes from the book.
The Cypress Branches, in its original format, starts with a prologue. Because of the way I have restructured the novel, that prologue will not appear until book three. (This decision alone was something I agonised over for a long long time, but hopefully when you get to read it, you'll see why I made the decision!) The prologue starts with a very powerful image. Here are the opening lines...
Williamson, reflecting upon the events following her father’s death, had become
withdrawn, suppressing a sort of vague rage. A cold, furious incomprehension at
such a calamity. She threw herself into an orgy of frantic, almost hysterical
activity. Dismissing her sister’s entreaties, she stripped her father’s room of
everything which connected it to him: his clothes, his books, his toiletries,
his pictures, his bric-a-brac. When she had finished, she locked the room. She
then turned her attention to the rest of the house: polishing, cleaning,
clearing cupboards and shelves, shampooing carpets, re-arranging furniture,
changing curtains. By this aberrant behaviour, it seemed she was determined to
so expunge the familiar that she could not be reminded of the past. She
restored all the packages finally into the now gleaming kitchen cabinets and
closed the doors upon her labours. She climbed down from the kick stool and,
crossing to the sink, filled the kettle and flicked the switch. She sat at the
table, gazing out, motionless, drained by her efforts. Suddenly she began to
cry like a small child. ‘Oh, Daddy, why did you do this to us? Why, Daddy, why?’
I don't know about you, but that really makes me want to read on! Who is Joyce? What happened to her father? Why is she reacting in this particular way? In less than 200 words, we're hooked. We want to know more, and find out what the situation is.
It's a great opening...and was the perfect way to open The Cypress Branches in its original form. But it would have made no sense to open Pegasus Falling with that prologue. Why? Well, for a start, Joyce and her father don't feature in it! They do feature, heavily, in what will be the second and third instalments.
I was therefore left with a bit of a headache-inducing predicament. Although I knew I had a good book on my hands with Pegasus Falling, for a while I didn't feel like I had the right opening. It has to grab you, suck you in and make sure you want to read on, so I had a big decision to make.
And now I'm facing the same dilemma with It Never Was You, part two of the trilogy. Part three is sorted - it will open with those lines you see above. But I can't use them in part two. And I can hardly open with a doctor throwing his bicycle to the ground and running feverishly up the steps again, can I?!
One thing is for sure, though - the opening lines will be William's. What opens It Never Was You will have formed part of the original manuscript. This is William's writing, not mine. I'm close to a decision, but I may have to make more sacrifices just as I had to with part one. But those sacrifices will be for the greater good.
Labels: dilemma, editing, hooking the reader in, opening lines to a novel, Pegasus Falling, The Cypress Branches, William E. Thomas