Opening paragraph: it has to be good!

hardback bookAlmost at the end of the writing and editing process on the new book now, and the last thing on the list of issues to deal with is the opening paragraph. The current version has been written and rewritten countless times over the past few months and before I’m done it’ll be started all over again. Not many lines, maybe half a dozen sentences, but I want to get it as good as I can.

It’s always a challenge. In a short space you have to give the reader a sense of place, time, character and the impending story, and every word counts, like poetry. It’ll be the first thing the curious potential reader will look at, and probably the first thing I read aloud when I’m presenting the book. I’ve read the first paragraph of ‘A Good Liar’ many times over the years since it was published and I’m still pleased with it, and I want to feel the same about the first paragraph of this book too. It’s almost there, but it’s still too clumsy. I’ve tinkered with it until the words start to blur. Now’s the time to start it all over again.

The other crucial section of course is the ending, the final few sentences. All the major plot points are sorted out by then, no more twists, just a ‘human interest’ scene and a shred of dialogue to leave the reader interested in what might come next. I think I’ve got that. So the first paragraph will keep calling to me until the deadline for sending it to the designer is upon me, or I just can’t bear to look at it any more. In either case, by the end of next week it’ll be done. Thank heaven.

The power of reading aloud

Following the kerfuffle (great word isn’t it?) about the typos in ‘Cruel Tide’ I decided to take more care with editing each chapter of the new book as I’m writing it, and leave fewer errors to picked up in proof reading later. I’ve found the best way to do that, if I can take the time, is to read the words out loud.

I guessed that this might help with the dialogue, giving it an air of authenticity as spoken rather than written words. But I’m finding that it helps all the text, not just the dialogue. Every sentence needs to have a shape and a flow, like poetry. Reading aloud brings better choices of words, and better decisions about the length of the sentence, and when, if and how to include subsidiary clauses. Sometimes a more complex sentence works, sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s reading aloud is really helpful.

With someone who writes as fast as I do, editing by reading aloud slows the process down, which I don’t always enjoy. But I’m sure that it’s my main contribution to the improvement of the quality of the text, and I must make myself do it. That’s a resolution to be returned to when I return home after a couple of weeks away in Sicily. While I’m here, I’m reading the Montelbano novels for the first time having seen most of the TV episodes. While I’m reading Camilleri’s rolling multi-clause sentences, Mick is reading Elmore Leonard. Both great story tellers but their styles couldn’t be more different: try them.