On first sentences:
“The great grey beast February had eaten Harvey Swick alive.”
So begins Clive Barker’s The Thief of Always. It’s one of my favourite opening sentences. Both lyrical and menacing it perfectly encapsulates the dark fairytale tone of the book. This is what an opening sentence should do.
Here is my first attempt at matching Barker’s eloquence.
“A tree stood on a small hill overlooking the football fields of St Josephs Secondary School. It was an old tree with knotted grey bark and thick twisting branches and on the lowest branch of this tree there sat a boy.”
Not quite right. The main problem is ‘Lune’ doesn’t appear in the first sentence. It feels like he should – like Thief’s Harvey. He is our protagonist. It seems almost rude to hold off introducing him.
This is my second attempt:
“Of all the hiding place in St Agnes High School, the one Howard Lune favoured the most was the fig tree which overlooked the soccer fields.”
It’s better, though still a little unwieldy. I like the drama that ‘hiding place’ conjures. I’m not sure about including the school’s name but I can live with it. Another option will inevitably occur to me later on. I must have re-written the opening line of Winter’s Shadow a hundred times.
Originally, I had the opening scene begin with Howard sitting in his room on a rain February afternoon drawing monsters. I scrapped this when I realised I was emulating Barker’s Thief too closely. I want to write a book as good as Thief but not simply mimic it. There’s a particular timeless feel to Barker’s language I find particularly attractive. Thief could have been published fifty years or five days ago. Lune should be an easy read for a twelve year-old but no less enchanting for an adult. However, if I write too simply then I’ll risk alienating sophisticated readers; pop into too many flowery adjectives then younger readers will be turned off.
It’s a tightrope act.
So much of this is instinctual. Or feels instinctual at the time. It’s only in the re-write that any miscalculations reveal themselves. At the moment I should just push on ahead, get the story down and trust that the tone will work itself out. It usually does. I guess that’s the magic part.
I do not want to give the impression that The Thief of Always is the primary influence on Lune. It is one of many. Some of the others are: Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone, A Wizard of Earthsea, His Dark Materials, The Magician’s Nephew, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and The Graveyard Book. Enid Blyton will probably work her way in there as well, though I promise never to write the phrase ‘lashings of ginger beer’.
Re-reading A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin I was struck by its greatness. This is an important fantasy novel. Curiously, I remember being bored senseless when I first read it as a teenager. I can only imagine this was because the novel’s action is predominantly of a philosophical nature – Ged’s greatest battles are with himself rather than some external force. This is a much more exhilarating concept to me as a man, than it was as a boy. Le Guin’s poetic prose is frustratingly beautiful. I will never have her facility with words. Her description of Earthsea is evocative, the archipelagos easily imagined (I wonder if this was an influence on Barker’s Abarat series?) and I love the rich ethnic diversity of her characters. Earthsea is a benchmark of world-building. When I create my own fantasy world I will endeavour to do so with the same level of care and detail.
On Cultural Cringe:
Lune’s school is in London, though its name is taken from the one I attended in Port Macquarie. Why aren’t I setting the book in Australia? Moreover, why isn’t Lune Australian? Is this some kind of fundamental cultural cringe on my part or a sensible stylistic choice? I don’t know? I plan on writing stories set in Australia in the future. It’s just that this country has such a strong cultural voice. I feel like it would clash with the classic form of storytelling I’m attempting. Clive Barker, J. M. Barrie, Enid Blyton, Lewis Carrol, Neil Gaiman and C.S. Lewis are all English writers and their stories (for the most part) have a distinctly English feel. They are the the forebears of Lune so it follows that Lune should be an English story. Maybe I should worry less about my cultural heritage and just concentrate on the story. Let it be what it wants to be.
Back to the words.