Monday, November 22, 2010

The beginning

I’ve been giving some thought to the opening section of my novel The Qualities of Wood.  The book is, as I like to call it, a slow simmer, and in the opening section what we have is a sort of panoramic view of the setting, the main characters, and the situation in which they find themselves.  I have received hundreds of comments on this opening section and once in a while, readers complain that nothing much happens right away.  Some people like a fast pace, with a clearly defined problem right from the start.  In my opinion, Qualities does present a problem, right from the start, but it’s of the interior sort.  At any rate, I’ve been thinking about changing up the first section because sadly, this is all anyone will read, if you can get them to read it at all, and thus far, my opening hasn’t gained much attention from anyone in the publishing world.

The other day, I read one of the best openings I’ve ever seen.  It’s the beginning of Ian McEwan’s 1997 book Enduring Love:

The beginning is simple to mark.  We were in sunlight under a turkey oak, partly protected from a strong, gusty wind.  I was kneeling on the grass with a corkscrew in my hand, and Clarissa was passing me the bottle—a 1987 Daumas Gassac.  This was the moment, this was the pinprick on the time map:  I was stretching out my hand and as the cool neck and the black foil touched my palm, we heard a man’s shout.  We turned to look across the field and saw the danger.  Next thing, I was running toward it.

So…what really happens in this opening?  A man and woman prepare to open wine.  True, there is an allusion to danger, the promise of a pending event, but really, nothing much happens.  In fact, McEwan spends many, many more pages dancing around this event, exploring every possible aspect leading up to it, and analyzing every stimulus, every moment.  And yet, because the writing is beautiful, I was dialed in.

A favorite book of mine is Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson.  In my mind, it truly is a book where not much of anything happens.  The initial chapter describes an old man in a cabin alone.  Nothing happens, and yet I was on the edge of my seat.  In thinking about beginnings, I decided to pull it off the shelf and see how Petterson began.  The first paragraph:

Early November.  It’s nine o’clock.  The titmice are banging against the window.  Sometimes they fly dizzily off after the impact, other times they fall and lie struggling in the new snow until they can take off again.  I don’t know what they want that I have.  I look out the window at the forest.  There is a reddish light over the trees by the lake.  It is starting to blow.  I can see the shape of the wind on the water.

There is something so assured in his spare prose, something so rhythmic in his writing, that I think he could describe, well, titmice banging against a window, and I would be riveted.  Nothing much happens here, although there is the mention of the reddish light.

Change the beginning, leave the beginning.  What do you think?  My book The Qualities of Wood is online at  Click on the cover to the right and give me your thoughts on the opening.  Does it enthrall, interest, bore you?


  1. At first glance I'd say leave it. I'll let you know what I think when I've read more! I think you have a beautiful style, and while many in the biz are looking for fast-paced suspense and violence, there are places for what you write. And those people are always looking for the next beautiful voice. Write what you feel, what you believe in, and damn the critics. Write for you, not them.

  2. Thanks, Genevieve. I agree, and you've written a wonderful post on voice on your own blog :-).


"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka