It is the best of things, it is the worst of things – the fact that you can start a novel any which way you like. Ever tried? Then you’ll know already what I’ve only just discovered: that the options are alarmingly endless.
Throw your readers into the thick of the action? Why not! Seduce them with purple prose? Go right ahead. Chat them up with a snatch of dialogue? Now you’re talking! Tempt them with a taste of the story to come? Perfect.
When it comes to pick-up lines, anything goes – or does it?
If you’re one of my two regular readers, you’ll remember that I’m writing a novel for kids. Narrated by Tam, a twelve-year-old girl who dreams of becoming a dancer, Dad’s Runway tells of a wheat farmer’s outlandish attempts to put a tiny country town back on the map.
Until a few months ago, I’d written the first four chapters. They’d come in a rush, drawn out by an approaching deadline: a meeting with a publisher at Penguin. The first chapter began with the following mix of action and explanation.
Everyone knew it was coming – everyone, that is, except Dad.
Mum had been pulling her hair out for months, working away the kitchen table with her accounts and her calculator.
‘It’s no good,’ she said, one night. ‘There just aren’t enough customers. I can’t keep running at a loss.’
Uncle Mick had no hair to pull out, so he just pursed his cracked lips and shook his sunburnt head.
‘No people, no houses to build. Time I started thinking about moving on.’
Even Jimmy and Joey, my twin younger brothers, knew something was up.
‘We heard Mrs Reynolds talking to Mr Collins,’ Jimmy said, excitedly. ‘They reckon there won’t be enough kids next year to keep the school open.’
‘Yeah,’ said Joey. ‘Then we’ll have to catch the bus to the city every day, and that’ll take hours and hours. There won’t be time to learn anything!’
My older sister, Beth, knew all about it, too, but she didn’t care.
‘This town sucks anyway,’ she sneered. ‘I’d rather go and work somewhere else, instead of being stuck out here like a loser.’
As for me, Tam, my dance teacher had just left Nanky – that’s what we call Nankervis, our town – so I knew something was definitely up. I want to be a famous dancer, you see, and always have. Think Ginger without the Fred. That’s Ginger Rogers, of course, just in case you haven’t watched as many old musicals as me.
If you haven’t, you should!
The editor liked my sample, but suggested I make some changes to the plot. In altering it, though, I went and rendered my first beginning pretty much obsolete. Which is a shame, because I like the pacy way it introduces the story, the characters and the narrator.
It was about now that the openness of openings began to get the better of me, and I made a few false moves, starting with this slow-burner:
‘Leave the gate open?’ Dad squawked. ‘Don’t even joke about it, Mrs Mac, or you’ll give me nightmares. I’m a farmer, remember.’
Mum grinned at him. ‘I’m just saying, Nev, that this meeting probably won’t go for long, so we’ll be back before your crops can escape.’ She peered in the side mirror. ‘It’d save the boys getting out again.’
‘They love swinging on the gate,’ Dad said. ‘Anyway, what makes you think the meeting’s going to be so short?’
Mum looked at him again, but this time she wasn’t smiling. ‘Not much,’ she said, ‘except just about everything.’
That stopped Dad in his tracks – that and the racket made by the twins as they tumbled back into the Land Cruiser.
‘I won,’ Joey yelled, scrambling over me to get to his seat.
‘Only ’cause I let you,’ cried Jimmy, close behind.
Col the kelpie greeted them with barks from the back.
‘All strapped in yet?’ Mum asked.
My sister, Beth, looked up from her book. ‘Belt up, you two,’ she told the twins, who were still arguing. They pretended not to hear her, and reached for their belts anyway.
‘All strapped in,’ I called.
‘About time,’ Mum said, letting out the handbrake. ‘Now, let’s make hay.’
‘I think you mean haste,’ Dad said, as we pulled out on to the highway. ‘Hay is what we’re leaving behind on the farm.’
It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon in the bush, and the Mackenzies from ‘Dalgleish’ – that’s us – were heading into town to attend an emergency meeting of the Show Society. Little did we know, though, that we were also setting out on the craziest adventure a farming family has probably ever had. Well, that’s what Gran reckons, and she’s been around since adventures were invented, so she should know.
Then came a turn away from action and explanation to description, albeit of a snappy yet possibly exasperating variety…
Not far from the middle of nowhere there’s a tiny country town called Nankervis. Not far from this town there’s a wheat and sheep farm called Dalgleish. And not far from this farm – just outside its front gate, in fact – there’s a dusty old Land Cruiser called Chelsea.
In the Land Cruiser there’s a family called the Mackenzies. In that family there’s a girl called Tam, and in that girl’s head – well, that’s where we are right now!
Which led me to the following exposition-fest.
It all started, I think, when the twins tumbled out and opened the farm gate for us to drive through. That’s when Mum said what she said and that’s when, a few seconds later, Dad suddenly began to get it – that our town, Nanky, was in trouble.
And when my dad finally gets it, things really start to happen. This time, though, the things that happened were pretty amazing, and they just kept on happening, until – well, until the whole crazy adventure came to an end. Back here at our farm gate again, actually, but with a closing rather than an opening.
Speaking of openings, I really wanted to start this story like this: ‘Once upon a Tam’, but I chickened out. My name’s Tam, you see. This is short for Tammy, which is short for Tamara, which is about the worst name ever. It’s even worse than Neville, my dad’s name.
Pretty awful, huh?
What makes beginnings so hard, I think, is that they ought to do two things at once: they should show and tell at the same time – even more clearly, quickly and compellingly than ‘normal’ text does.
As readers, we want to be lost in the action of a story, and yet we also need to know that the action has a purpose, that it is leading us somewhere special. In a paragraph or two, then, an opening has to both promise and perform, and therein lies the art of pick-up lines, whether they’re delivered on the page or in person.
It’s something I haven’t nailed for my novel just yet. My first attempt comes close, whereas the others don’t. That’s my conclusion, at least – what’s yours?
Don’t get me started on endings…