Sunday, 15 December 2013

25 Great First Lines from Novels

It's often difficult to a writer to come up with a compelling first line. I thought it might be interesting to compile a long "buzzfeed" of some of my favourite openings from novels. Here goes:
  1. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984
  2. A screaming comes across the sky. —Thomas Pynchon, Gravity's Rainbow 
  3. Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. —Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude 
  4. Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. —Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita 
  5. Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. —Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina 
  6. The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard. —Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts 
  7. You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 
  8. Someone must have slandered Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested. —Franz Kafka, The Trial 
  9. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. —Samuel Beckett, Murphy 
  10. 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, if you want to know the truth. —J D Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye 
  11. Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. —James Joyce, Ulysses 
  12. It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. —Paul Auster, City of Glass 
  13. Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing. —Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote 
  14. Mother died today. —Albert Camus, The Stranger 
  15. All this happened, more or less. —Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five 
  16. They shoot the white girl first. —Toni Morrison, Paradise 
  17. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea 
  18. We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall. —Louise Erdrich, Tracks 
  19. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. —F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 
  20. You better not never tell nobody but God. —Alice Walker, The Color Purple 
  21. Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World. —Robert Coover, The Origin of the Brunists 
  22. In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together. —Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter 
  23. Call me Ishmael. —Herman Melville, Moby-Dick 
  24. He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. —Virginia Woolf, Orlando 
  25. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York. —Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar 
If you're working on a manuscript, set yourself the task of making the reader's first introduction to your narrative as enticing the first sentence of your own favourite opening of a novel.

Stay tuned . . . 

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

JFK: The TV President

On June 4, 1963, JFK signed Executive Order 11110. This little-known presidential decree effectively stripped the Federal Reserve Bank of its power to loan money, at interest, to the US Federal Government. With the stroke of a pen, President Kennedy declared that the privately-owned FRB would soon be out of business.

More than $4 billion in United States notes were brought into circulation in $2 and $5 denominations. $10 and $20 US bills were never circulated, but were being printed by the Treasury Department when Kennedy was assassinated. The US notes he had issued were immediately taken out of circulation and Federal Reserve notes continued to serve as the legal currency of the nation. So who did kill Kennedy: the Soviets, the Mafia? Or perhaps a hit man paid by the Federal Reserve Bank?

In Jay Busbee's article, "Ten Facts You Don't Know about the JFK Assassination", he says:
November 22, 2013, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, one of the most momentous and scrutinized moments in American history. Even half a century later, questions persist: Who really shot Kennedy? Was there a conspiracy to kill the president? Why are there still so many loose ends and secrets? 
With the benefit of both distance and technology, we know far more about the events that fateful day in Dallas than Americans did at the time. But facts rarely get in the way of a good story, and the JFK assassination is a story tailor-made for a novelist.
Busbee is correct in saying that this is a story best told by a novelist and, five years ago, I read an excellent one by Elise Valmorbida, The TV President. From the first page, I was hooked by its fresh, original voice and black humour. Page by page, chapter by chapter, I couldn’t wait to read what happened next.

Literary satire has a long and distinguished history: from Gulliver’s Travels and Huckleberry Finn to Orwell’s prophetic 1984. Valmorbida’s book focuses on something that is very much part of the zeitgeist: the desire for fame and the manipulation of public opinion by the mass media. To give you a teaser, The TV President is about a US reality show which faithfully re-enacts the three months leading up to the 1963 Dallas motorcade. Two JFK lookalikes, who have been voted to participate by the public, compete to win the big jackpot while the viewing public vote on how well the contestants perform. In exchange for fame and the promise of big bucks, the JFKs sell their souls to Reall Life, the production company who have created the show. The two lookalikes agree to everything Reall Life tells them to do, including rumpy pumpy with the lookalike “Marilyn Monroe”, sex that is televised live to the nation to those viewers willing to pay for it by credit card.

Spoiler alert. Things take a darker turn when people on the show REALLY start dying, first “Marilyn” in mysterious circumstances, then one of the JFKs. Which president has been fatally wounded during the motorcade and who's done it? Was it a member of the viewing public or has the production company arranged the murders to boost ratings? Who deserves to win: the dead JFK or the wounded one who is televised 24-hours a day from his hospital bed? Under constant surveillance and afraid of being killed themselves, Jackie, the real wife of the assassinated contestant, and the wounded lookalike go on the run. They disguise themselves in burqahs while the viewing public chillingly continue the game, voting for the “best” JFK and betting on the possible assassin (or assassins).

Valmorbida made three separate trips to the States to research material for this book: first to Dallas, then to Detroit, then a road trip covering the drive her characters make in the novel. Her sharp eye and Annie Proulx-like attention to detail is why The TV President feels so eerily true.

I realized how prophetic her vision was when, after the book's 2008 publication, I started to see newspaper accounts of bank robbers disguising themselves in burqahs and that there was even a Dutch website where bets were then being taken when Jade Goody would die from her recently-diagnosed cancer. Seeing that this was happening, some of the fictional events described in The TV President have already proved, sadly, not so far off the mark.

In a society where people are willing to change their face or select their spouse in the public eye, Valmorbida gives us a glimpse of how far we might be willing to go in the pursuit of fame and entertainment. It shows us, not only how much we can be manipulated by the media, but also our willingness to feed on it.

This novel is full of dazzlingly good writing, plot twists and a surprising ending. As far as I’m concerned, The TV President deserves to be a cult hit.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

One writer's notebook(s)

I'm a member of 26, a great organisation for writers, copywriters and other creatives. It publishes a monthly newsletter on (guess what?) the 26th of every month. They have topics and ask for members' contribution. A few months ago one of the themes were what kind of notebooks writers used. I submitted this. 

I'm a Ryman's girl. Habit started on May 1979. First line in writer's notebook No 1: "If you are afraid of loneliness, don't marry" Anton Chekhov as quoted by Stephen Sondheim.

The 15 notebooks are lined up in my cupboard as my portable ideas' file and novel fodder. They are battered, soup stained, coffee stained, full of pictures and newspaper cuttings. They are beloved. I lost one when mugged in Balham many years ago. The bag it was in was dumped and I got it back. Huge sigh of relief. Last line of current notebook: "They passed a dead dog on the road and wondered what it all meant."

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Classic cover mistakes (2)

In my May post of this year I wrote about 2 book covers that were definitely marketing mistakes. I wanted to add two more.

The first is The Turn of the Screw, a strange, sinister tale about a governess and her orphaned charges, Miles and Flora. It is a dark tale with ghosts that hints at madness and sexual molestation. The novel inspired the opera by Benjamin Britten, television plays and films. But if you saw this edition in a book shop, and didn't know who Henry James was, you might think this was a motorcycle repair manual.

I find this Spanish language edition of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment a classically bad cover. Yes, it depicts the pivotal event of the novel, the murder of the elderly pawn-broker, Alyona Ivanovna, with an axe. But more than the strange perspective is disturbing.

Rodion Raskolnikov looks quite dapper in his clean felt hat; he does not seem like a starving ex-student who avoids his landlady because he can't come up with the rent for his St Petersburg rat-hole. In fact, he looks like someone in a Bellini painting or a member of an 80s rock band.

So the next time you see a bad cover, please don't blame the poor writer who  has little, or no say, in the packaging of their words. Book covers shouldn't be a crime and should never be a punishment for those who have put in the blood, sweat and tears to write them.

Stay tuned . . .

Saturday, 24 August 2013

The birth of flash fiction?

We tend to think of flash fiction as something relatively new, but it's my guess that one of its first appearances in print was in 1924 in Paris in a little book by the then unknown Ernest Hemingway.

This slim volume on homemade paper was published by Three Mountains Press and edited by Ezra Pound. Three Mountains was a small press set up in Paris the Twenties that showcased, in limited editions, hot and upcoming authors of the time. They included famous names such as Pound, James Joyce and newcomers to the literary scene, including the unpublished Hemingway.

in our time was only 32 pages and contained some of Hemingway's first short stories, among them "Indian Camp", "The End of Something" and "Big Two-Hearted River". Interspersed between the stories were inter-chapter vignettes.

These 15 numbered vignettes were untitled, some of them only a paragraph long. They have three main themes: war, bullfighting and crime, all themes that Hemingway returned to again and again throughout his career.

I sometimes use these numbered "chapters" as exercises as they generate excellent writing by my students. Here is in our time's Chapter XIV in its entirety. It can be found in The Complete Stories of Ernest Hemingway:
Maera lay still his head on his arms, his face in the sand. He felt warm and sticky from the bleeding. Each time he felt the horn coming. Some times the bull only bumped him with his head. Once the horn went all the way through him and he felt it go into the sand. Some one had the bull by the tail. They were swearing at him and flopping the cape in his face. Then the bull was gone. Some men picked Maera up and started to run with him toward the barriers through the gate out the passageway around under the grandstand to the infirmary. They laid Maera down on a cot and one of the men went out for the doctor. The others stood around. The doctor came running from the corral stop where he had been sewing up picador horses. He had to stop and wash his hands. There was a great shouting going on in the grandstand overhead. Maera felt everything getting larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. Then it go larger and larger and larger and then smaller and smaller. Then everything commenced to run faster and faster as when they speed up a cinematograph film. Then he was dead.
Hemingway described the stories and vignettes in a letter to Pound before their publication: "When they are read together, they all hook up . . . The bulls start, then reappear, then finish off. The war starts clear and noble just like it did . . . gets close and blurred and finished with the feller who goes home and gets clap."

One of the preminent critics of the day, Edmund Wilson said of in our time that the writing was "of the first distinction" and that the young writer from Oak Park, Illinois had "almost invented a form of his own". Yes, I'd say. Flash fiction.

Stay tuned . . .

PS: The Bridport Prize is one of the largest, most prestigious creative writing competitions and has an annual competition for the best short story, poem and flash fiction. I was lucky enough to have been shortlisted a few years ago for my story "The Speed of Dark". The 2013 date for submissions has passed, but there is always next year. The prize for flash fiction is £1000, much more than Hemingway would have received for in our time.

Thursday, 11 July 2013


I recently went to an exhibition of a talented young artist, Daniel Jacobs. His exhibition at the Kachette Gallery on Old Street is called "Graphite 2013". As its name suggests, all the drawings are executed in the medium of pencil: a churning sea, a willow fence, shattered glass. Each of the drawings on display took up to three months to create, labour necessary to build up each stroke, fleck, mark and smudge. This is what the Exhibition Curator, Rita Says, had to say about it:

Drawing is not an easy process. It’s tough on the eye and mind; it’s a continual act of appraisal - making and matching, re-matching and unmaking each mark altering the next. The paradox of the realist project is an attempt to describe the every day thorough a process of suggestion, to create a form of documentary realism using non-realistic means. How little is a black scratch on paper really like the edge of a shadow or the branch of a tree? The mark remains obstinately itself, yet as part of a whole it depicts a precise thing: we should find this combination between depiction and suggestion a lot more magical than we do.
It made me think how similar the choice of words and the placing of a pencil stroke on a page are similar acts. How each mark influences another, giving it meaning, shade, tone, darkness, light.

In writing, too, the insertion or deletion of a word can alter perception. The novelist Jim Crace once advised a young writer to use vigorous images in her work. To show how a warring couple couldn't stand each other, she described how the husband would always find an excuse to escape into the garden:

In the last months of their marriage, there was always a bonfire at the bottom of the garden, emitting smoke. 

Crace challenged her to use a more testing metaphor. She changed only one word, but that small change transformed the sentence. She rewrote it to read, "In the last months of their marriage, there was always a bonfire at the bottom of the garden, knitting smoke," a more testing metaphor, making us see the blackened sticks and branches crossed like thick needles and the long, grey scarf of smoke.

Daniel Jacobs has applied the same, meticulous care to his art. To look at it is to see both magic and mastery.

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

In Diamond Square

                                     Photos: Anne Aylor
Books come into your life in different ways. Some are recommended, some are discovered, some are foisted upon you by passionate devotees. I can't remember how In Diamond Square came into my life this year. But ever since it joined my burgeoning Kindle library, I have been a fervent admirer of this powerful Catalan novel by Mercè Rodoreda.

In Diamond Square was written in 1960 in Geneva where Rodoreda was an exile from Franco's Spain. The book had an interesting genesis. As a result of failure.

In her prologue to the novel, Rodoreda said that she had submitted another book, Garden by the Sea, for the Joanot Martorelli Prize and it had been rejected by the jury. As a result of this failure, she started another book, 'driven by a surge of pride'. She said she created it in a fever, 'as if each day I worked on the novel were the last of my life.' She said she wanted the book to be 'Kafkaesque—with lots of pigeons'. She called her protagonist Pidgey.

When I was in Barcelona, I made a pilgrimage to Diamond Square in the quarter known as Gracìa and saw this statue there, uncredited and unnamed. I am sure that many people unfamiliar with the novel are bemused at the half-naked, howling woman about to launch herself into the air. Because I am such a fan of the book, of its pure, clean style, I sat at its base and wrote this in my journal:
In Plaça del Diamant Pidgey is screaming, her mouth open, hands held up as if to defend herself. Her nipples have been daubed with a touch of gold. It is so delicate that, at first, I think it is a part of the sculpture until I notice a splash of gilt on her thigh. Someone has stuffed wilting flowers in her mouth. 
I sit below Pidgey to reread the first page of In Diamond Square which is her story and the story of Spain before, during and after the Civil War, but which doesn't mention a single historical event. It is also a novel about love without one scrap of sentimentality. 
I look at the square where the fresh-faced Pidgey danced the lucky posey dance with Joe, the brutish young man who would become her first husband, wearing her 'starched dress and petticoat, shoes like splashes of milk'. Motherless Pidgey who had no one to give her advice, who had so many difficulties in her life and yet was so brave and uncomplaining. At the end of the book, she is triumphant because, as Rodoreda wrote in the closing pages, 'inside each puddle, however small, there would be a sky . . .'
Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Classic cover mistakes (1)

Cover art work broadcasts what a book is about. I've already written a post about the four book covers of my first novel, No Angel Hotel, and how different a feel they gave each edition.

For some spring silliness, I wanted to share 2 covers of classic books, both of which sit on my shelf, but thankfully in different editions.

Considering its first line, ('It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.'), it's surprising that the august publishing house of Faber & Faber let this doozy slip through for the 50th anniversary of the first publication of The Bell Jar.

When the novel was first published, Sylvia Plath used a pseudonym rather than her own name, calling the book a 'potboiler'. This cover makes it look like a bodice ripper. The female on the cover is hardly the face of an Ivy League co-ed, certainly not one in 50s New York.

Valdimir Nabokov would have been amused, I think, at this Japanese edition of Lolita. It gives a whole new interpretation to its first line: 'Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.' Seeing the cover he might alter it to read, 'Lolita, neon light of my life.'

Nabokov finished Lolita in December 1953, five years after he started it. In the same year, he was interviewed for Life Magazine and was asked which of his writings had most pleased him. This is what he said:

'I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow—perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived. I am probably responsible for the odd fact that people don't seem to name their daughter Lolita any more. I have heard of young female poodles being given that name since 1956, but of no human beings.'

Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Ivan Vasiliev: the new Nureyev

Before writing became my passion, from the time I could walk, my first love was dance. I was a professional dancer and a teacher of ballet for more than a quarter of a century.

Throughout my life, I have followed the careers of many incredible dancers and it is not often a true star arrives, one that burns so brightly that they eclipse other dancers. Ivan Vasiliev is one such dancer.

Formerly with the Bolshoi Ballet, he and his ballerina wife, Natalia Osipova, make a formidable team on stage. I wanted to share this YouTube video of Vasilev in Basilio's solo from the ballet, Don Quixote.

Before deciding to post this, I tested it out on my brother who is no lover of ballet and he was gasping with awe. To see something a human shouldn't be able to do, spend a minute to watch.

Stay tuned . . .

PS: My second novel is about the struggles of a young dancer, The Double Happiness Company.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Do not annoy the writer

Writers are dangerous people. This little badge reminded me of what Annie Proulx once said, 'Characters have to bear the burden of the story so if I have a character that is dull or waltzing around into the background, I usually kill them. They're there to work and earn their keep and if they don't, they go.'

That, however, was not the motive behind the death of one of her most famous characters, Jack Twist, in "Brokeback Mountain". He featured in her 1997 short story collection, Close Range. The story was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 2005 starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

In 2009, Proulx was interviewed by Christopher Cox in The Paris Review who asked if people objected to the fact that gay characters featured in a story set in Wyoming. This was Proulx's reply:
Oh, yeah. In Wyoming they won’t read it. A large section of the population is still outraged . . .  So many people have completely misunderstood the story. I think it’s important to leave spaces in a story for readers to fill in from their own experience, but unfortunately the audience that “Brokeback” reached most strongly have powerful fantasy lives. And . . . a lot of men have decided that the story should have had a happy ending. They can’t bear the way it ends—they just can’t stand it. So they rewrite the story, including all kinds of boyfriends and new lovers and so forth after Jack is killed. And it just drives me wild. They can’t understand that the story isn’t about Jack and Ennis. It’s about homophobia; it’s about a social situation; it’s about a place and a particular mindset and morality. They just don’t get it . . . And they all begin the same way—I’m not gay, but . . . The implication is that because they’re men they understand much better than I how these people would have behaved. And maybe they do. But that’s not the story I wrote. Those are not their characters. The characters belong to me by law. 
Yes, the pen is mightier than the sword and the writer is the one who has the last word. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Pablo Neruda's horse

I've been rereading a book from my god sister that was given to me on the morning of my father's funeral. Debra Wechter had known him her whole life and he was like a second father. When she was told of his death, she went to a bookshop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and asked the sales assistant what might be suitable to give comfort to a grieving daughter. To "two" grieving daughters.

And it was this book, Pablo Neruda: Absence And Presence, which contains a selection of Neruda's poems in Spanish and English, essays and memories by and about him and Luis Poirot's haunting photographs of Neruda's home in Isla Negra.

Debra immediately bought the book, jumped in her car and drove 240 miles to attend the funeral. Over 20 years later, I can still see her in my bedroom, handing me this most special of presents that contained a poem so fitting and beautiful that I asked her brother to read at the service because Debra didn't think she could get through it. But that is not what this post is really about; that is back story. What this post is about is how something else arrived in someone's possession. How Pablo Neruda came to own this horse.

In his Isla Negra house overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Neruda collected many wonderful, whimsical things. One of them was this wooden beast. This is what Pablo's widow, Matilde Urrutia, had to say how it came into her husband's possession:

That horse was in a hardware store in Temuco. When Pablo went to school, he had to walk down that street, and he always noticed the horse and stroked its nose. He grew up seeing that horse every day, and thought of it as his. Each time we went to Temuco he begged the owner to sell it to him, but never with any result. Nor did his friends get anywhere with the owner. But one day the hardware store caught fire. The firemen arrived and, naturally, many people, among them friends of Pablo. Afterward they told us that there you could hear the single cry: "Save Pablo's horse! Don't let the horse burn!" And so it was savedit was the first thing the firemen took out. Soon after, everything saved from the fire was auctioned off. The owner, who knew Pablo's passion for the horse, planted his own people to send the price up. He knew that Pablo would not let his horse get away, however high the price.

And it didn't. Here is Pablo Neruda's beloved childhood caballo. Stay tuned . . .

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A horse in the street (1)

This incident happened when I was practising as an acupuncturist in the West End of London. It is the first of two blogs about horses in the street.

13 January 2004. An injured horse isn’t something you expect to see at 9.30 in the morning in the city, but it is why police have cordoned off the road linking Judd to Marchmont Street. A murmuring crowd, four deep, have gathered. I overhear someone say one police horse has kicked another. I am grateful I can see nothing because there is obviously something to see. Shaken, I hurry to work, hoping the wounded horse is only injured and can be saved. I pray, too, that if the animal does not recover, it will be gone after my last patient of the morning.

I am greeting the first of my clients when a white POLICE HORSES van flashes past the window of the clinic. Relief. Nothing too bad.

When I go to lunch three hours later, Hastings Street is still cordoned off, a policeman at either end. Pedestrians, but not traffic, are being let through. I hurry past, refusing to look, thinking of what the Crow chief, Plenty Coups, said: ‘My horse fights with me and fasts with me . . . if he is to carry me in battle he must know my heart and I must know his or we shall never become brothers. I have been told that the white man who is almost a god, and yet a great fool, does not believe that the horse has a spirit. This cannot be true. I have many times seen my horse’s soul in his eyes.’

All through lunch I pray that, by the time I return, the horse will be gone. I walk slowly back to the clinic. Then for the first time I see it. Lying on its side is a huge black horse wearing a blanket: front legs running, its head covered in a white bag. I am shocked to see that it is not some makeshift covering, but a custom-made horse-head shroud.

On the opposite side of the pavement I feel the hovering, frightened spirit of this fallen animal and want to help send it on its way to run with its ghost horse ancestors. It is important, so important I do not care if the policemen on duty think I am a lunatic. I walk up to the uniformed officers and ask if they know the horse’s name. I ask if I might pray for its soul. Their eyebrows raise, but they tell me his name, motion me forward. They lift the yellow tape cordoning its body that makes a rectangular coffin in the air.

I duck under the police tape, kneel, stroke Eno’s still-warm neck as tears run down my face. On the bricks near the kerb, a pile of cold manure and liquid the colour of a pillarbox. This animal who had no thought of dying when it set out for work this morning, now lies in Hastings Street in its own shit and blood.

Stay tuned . . .