Patricia Duncker taught a workshop at the Geneva Writers’ Conference called Beginnings. Here’s what I picked up.
Patricia Duncker is the prize-winning author of five novels. Miss Webster and Chérif was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize 2007, and The Strange Case of the Composer and his Judge for the CWA Gold Dagger Award 2012. She is Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of Manchester.
What kind of book are you writing and how does that relate to you as a reader? Are you writing the kind of book you absolutely adore and would love to read? If you’re writing crime, but don’t read in that genre, you’ll find yourself limited. Read widely to increase your resources, but write for yourself as a reader.
1. What does the opening of a piece of fiction have to do? Intrigue. Captivate and lure the reader into turning the page. How? Ask yourself what you, the writer, want the reader to absorb and remember? Voice, identity, setting? Work on making that as powerful and compelling as you can.
2. And also, the beginning must signal what kind of story this is. The reader already has a strong idea from the cover and jacket blurb, but the first few pages should reinforce that identity.
3. Think about pace. How fast do you want the reader to get through the first chapter? Description takes longer to read than dialogue, so think carefully about the impression you give at the outset.
4. This may be the first book you’ve written, but it’s unlikely it’s the first book your reader has ever read. Use your reader as a resource. Use their expectations – meet them or subvert them. Use their imaginations by describing sensory, sensual experiences.
5. Set questions for your reader. Make them want to read on to find out more. See the opening chapter of Jane Gardam’s The Man in the Wooden Hat.
6. What are your priorities as a writer? It is important to move the story along via action, conflict, mystery, and make it relevant. Gatherings are often a good way to begin, and funerals are better than weddings or parties because you cannot control who turns up.
7. Choose your voice with care. First person certainly has an immediacy, but telling is more of a temptation and there is a danger of appearing self-absorbed. However, it has an element of soliloquy and confession, which can engender more tolerance from the reader. See the opening chapter of Carol Shields’s Unless.
8. Third person, being outside what it describes, allows flexibility of movement between characters and can give information to the reader that the characters may not know, allowing for dramatic irony.
9. Double narratives are an extremely risky strategy, especially when one is past, one present. Readers always have a preference (usually for the past) and resent being jerked out of that world. Similarly, when beginning with a strong and appealing voice, don’t frustrate the reader by making that character disappear. See Pauline Melville’s The Ventriloquist’s Dummy.
10. Because your beginning is absolutely essential, know what happens in the end. You don’t need to know how you’ll get there, but do know where you’re going. Not only will it save you digressions and dead ends, but it makes your beginning better informed.