Category Archives: opening lines to a novel

Opening Lines

It is often said that the opening lines of a book are the most important. If the author gets them right, they’re the ones that will grab the reader and suck them straight into a story. Get them wrong, and the book will be returned to the shelf and never read. No matter now well structured the following 99,900 words are in your masterpiece, get the first 100 wrong and you’ve had it.

When re-structuring The Cypress Branches into a trilogy, I was faced with the problem of how to start each of the three books. But unlike an author who is in full control and can let their imaginations run wild, as an editor, and an editor who can’t communicate with the author, I had to find the opening lines of Pegasus Falling from within the existing text.

Indeed, it was the importance of the opening passage which lead me to decide to cut two scenes from the book.

The Cypress Branches, in its original format, starts with a prologue. Because of the way I have restructured the novel, that prologue will not appear until book three. (This decision alone was something I agonised over for a long long time, but hopefully when you get to read it, you’ll see why I made the decision!) The prologue starts with a very powerful image. Here are the opening lines…

Joyce Williamson, reflecting upon the events following her father’s death, had become withdrawn, suppressing a sort of vague rage. A cold, furious incomprehension at such a calamity. She threw herself into an orgy of frantic, almost hysterical activity. Dismissing her sister’s entreaties, she stripped her father’s room of everything which connected it to him: his clothes, his books, his toiletries, his pictures, his bric-a-brac. When she had finished, she locked the room. She then turned her attention to the rest of the house: polishing, cleaning, clearing cupboards and shelves, shampooing carpets, re-arranging furniture, changing curtains. By this aberrant behaviour, it seemed she was determined to so expunge the familiar that she could not be reminded of the past. She restored all the packages finally into the now gleaming kitchen cabinets and closed the doors upon her labours. She climbed down from the kick stool and, crossing to the sink, filled the kettle and flicked the switch. She sat at the table, gazing out, motionless, drained by her efforts. Suddenly she began to cry like a small child. ‘Oh, Daddy, why did you do this to us? Why, Daddy, why?’

I don’t know about you, but that really makes me want to read on! Who is Joyce? What happened to her father? Why is she reacting in this particular way? In less than 200 words, we’re hooked. We want to know more, and find out what the situation is.

It’s a great opening…and was the perfect way to open The Cypress Branches in its original form. But it would have made no sense to open Pegasus Falling with that prologue. Why? Well, for a start, Joyce and her father don’t feature in it! They do feature, heavily, in what will be the second and third instalments.

I was therefore left with a bit of a headache-inducing predicament. Although I knew I had a good book on my hands with Pegasus Falling, for a while I didn’t feel like I had the right opening. It has to grab you, suck you in and make sure you want to read on, so I had a big decision to make.

And now I’m facing the same dilemma with It Never Was You, part two of the trilogy. Part three is sorted – it will open with those lines you see above. But I can’t use them in part two. And I can hardly open with a doctor throwing his bicycle to the ground and running feverishly up the steps again, can I?!

One thing is for sure, though – the opening lines will be William’s. What opens It Never Was You will have formed part of the original manuscript. This is William’s writing, not mine. I’m close to a decision, but I may have to make more sacrifices just as I had to with part one. But those sacrifices will be for the greater good.

Advertisements

Deleted Scenes

In Here We Go Again, I talked briefly about the necessary sacrifices that have to be made when editing a larger book into a trilogy. One of those sacrifices is the occasional scene which has to be cut in order to make the book work better in its new format.

Thankfully, I didn’t have to cut many scenes at all from Pegasus Falling. True, entire chapters were excised, but they will appear in book two, so all is not lost. But there were one or two scenes which ended up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. As their absence is intended to improve the book rather than detract, that’s not to say that they were no good. Indeed, in some cases it was a bit of a wrench making the decision to pull them. One passage in particular springs to mind.
Any author / editor / reader will tell you that the opening passages of a book are hugely important in getting the reader on board. First impressions, and all that. The opening chapter of Pegasus Falling is actually chapter six of The Cypress Branches. I was very aware that this chapter was never written with the intention of opening a book and in my opinion, the opening couple of scenes didn’t have the snappiness needed to hook the reader straight away. 
The opening scene is, of itself, not a bad scene. Set in the Ops room during the operation briefing just before Sammy’s battalion is deployed to Arnhem, it sets the scene well for the coming action. It was our first glimpse of Sammy, who, being the awkward bugger he is, asks some pertinent questions. It also opens with some army badinage and boyish humour which was undoubtedly fun for William to write. But as I read through the manuscript, it was clear that it just didn’t have the flair needed to get the reader’s pulse going.
So, the difficult decision was made to delete it from the final draft. Also deleted was a short introduction to the Doorns, the family whose house is commandeered by the paratroopers with such devastating effect. Again, well written, nice to have, but not a great way in to a novel. There was no information in there absolutely necessary for the reader to understand the novel. So, that too went.
Am I comfortable with that decision? Yes. Because I’m certain that if William had been involved in the decision, he would have come to a similar, if not the same conclusion as me. He may well have gone away and re-written it to make it more of an opening scene. But under the circumstances, that just wasn’t an option.
Here are the scenes, as originally written with just a light copy-edit and proofing. These scenes were immediately followed by what has now become the opening to Pegasus Falling. Have a look at the new opening (you can use Amazon’s Look Inside feature or download the ebook preview at Goodreads) and I think you’ll agree it was a good decision.
The battalion assembled in the ops room for the operation briefing. A long trestle table stood upon a dais behind which sat a group of officers; the battalion commander, a major from army intelligence, a RAF meteorologist and a captain from the Pathfinder Company. The wall backstage was concealed behind curtains. Captain Stan Parker, Sammy to his men, sat among the babbling paratroopers, forearms on knees, staring at the floor. He was already bored by the whole affair. He looked up as the voice cut through his musing. ‘Right! Come to order and pay attention, the sooner we get through here, the sooner we can get away…’ He wondered why intelligence officers appeared to have a gift for making the crassly obvious sound like intuition. ‘Curtains please!’ The drapes covering the wall were drawn back to reveal a large map. ‘Right!’ The officer approached the map and tapped it with a long wooden cue. ‘Operation Market Garden!’ He looked around at the sea of faces. ‘Now, why do you think this operation has been given such a name?’
‘The NAAFI’s run out of water cress?’
‘No, Jerry’s developed a new pilotless cucumber to attack Londonwith.’
‘Doodlecumbers, they call ‘em…deadly.’
‘They ain’t cucumbers really, they’re dildos. They want to attack the moral fibre of our women.’
‘Why? Are we falling down on the job?’
‘Fallin’ down, that’s a good’n.’
‘Alright, alright!’ He waited for the laughter to subside. ‘It is because it will take place in Holland, a country famous for market gardening.’
‘‘Olland’s more famous for gin, why didn’t they call it Operation Mother’s Ruin?’
‘SHUT…UP!’ The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel John ‘Jack’ Frost, gave them one of his iciest looks. ‘Right, Major, get on with it, and stop asking silly bloody questions.’
‘Right, Sir. Now, Operation Market Garden is a plan devised by the high command to speed up the Allied advance into Germanyby forcing a crossing of the Rhine. As you will see from this map, the main front is very broad, stretching from here…all the way up to…here. The plan is a bold one. British XXXth Corps, under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks, will smash through Holland up to…here, crossing into Germanyproper…here. Any questions so far?’
‘Where do we come in?’
‘HERE!’ someone shouted.
‘Yeah, why are all the towns in Holland called “Here”?’
‘Now come on, lads.’ The troops settled. ‘OK. Crucial to this plan is the capture, intact, of three bridges. The first across the Meuse, or Maas as the Dutch prefer to call it…’
‘They don’t prefer it, they just can’t bloody say it, it’s double Dutch to them.’
‘…the second across the Queen Wilhelmine canal near Eindhoven…’
‘HERE!’ they chorused.
‘…and the last across the lower Rhine at Arnhem…’
‘HERE!’
The officers on stage could barely contain their laughter as the hapless major pressed on. ‘The first two bridges have been assigned to our American comrades-in-arms, the Eighty Second Airborne. The last, and most crucial, the bridge at Arnhem, is assigned to First Airborne. The American One Hundred and First Airborne division will be dropped er…here, to take Eindhoven, secure the road to Grave and contain any German counter attack.’ The major placed his pointer on the table and sat down.
The colonel rose and looked at his men. ‘Right, lads, you’ve heard the plan, are there any questions before the major goes on to detail our part in this?’
‘Where’s the DZ?’
‘We are coming to that now…Major.’
‘Right Sir, next map please…OK, here is your objective, the bridge over the Lower Rhineat Arnhem. The main assault is by First Brigade, reinforced on days two and three by the Poles and the Gliders. It will establish a salient on the north bank of the river against enemy counter attack whilst you, Two Para, take and hold the bridge until the tanks of the Guards Armoured Division reach you. Divisional HQ will be established in the village of Oosterbeek, here. As you can see, once XXXth Corps is over the bridge, they have a straight run across open flat terrain into the industrial heart of Germany, driving down…here, into the Rühr, thus encircling the enemy in a giant pincer movement.’
‘Yeah, but where’s the poxy DZ?’
‘The three brigades will drop…’ He hesitated then tapped the map rapidly with his pointer, indicating the three dropping zones. ‘Second Battalion will muster just west of Oosterbeek.’ He tapped the map again.
‘That looks miles from that bridge, what’s the scale?’
‘It’s twelve kilometres, eight miles, give or take.’
‘Eight miles? Give or take what? We’ve got a route march just to reach our objective?’
‘Yeah right, what’s the point being a para? We might just as well have stayed in the poxy infantry.’
‘What’s stopping us getting closer to that bridge then, mountains?’
‘The planners considered the possibility of the Division being scattered on both sides of the river. It is imperative that we secure a bridgehead on the north bank. So they deliberately chose a site a little inland of the river.’
‘A little inland? Eight miles?’
‘It’s a good job they didn’t go over the top yanto, mate or we’d be taking fucking Berlin.’
Sammy raised his hand. ‘Yes, Captain.’ The major sounded relieved. ‘You have a question?’
‘Intelligence report.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Intelligence report. This is the third of these junkets I’ve attended and we always have an intelligence report, you know, enemy dispositions, local hazards, anything which may be of use to a bunch of blokes dropping in on a place they have never seen in their lives. What opposition can we expect?’ The major looked at the colonel, uncertain how to proceed.
The colonel stood. ‘British Intelligence reports nothing unusual for an operation of this nature. Arnhem is somewhat off the beaten track. There is a small garrison here, at Elst, and a larger one here, at Apeldoorn. The Germans will not expect such an audacious assault and we do, of course, have the element of surprise.’
Sammy nodded. Surprise, after an air armada of hundreds of planes has spent three days crossing the north sea and most of Holland and thirty thousand paratroops and gliders have drifted gracefully to earth in broad daylight, ten thousand of them a full two hours march from their target, he thought. ‘It had occurred to me, Sir, that if we can see the strategic advantage of crossing the Rhine at Arnhem, it may just have occurred to Jerry. But then again…’ He hesitated as he silently considered the prospect. “Nothing unusual for an operation of this nature”, probably means they will kick the shit out of us. ‘…you mentioned only British intelligence, Sir, how about reports from Dutch resistance?’
‘I am not aware of any reports from that quarter, Captain Parker.’ Sammy nodded and returned his gaze to the floor. ‘Right, we have just to hear from the pathfinders and the Met boys, then you can get a good night’s rest before we kick Jerry’s arse this one last time. Good luck, lads.’ The colonel raised his fist. ‘Geronimo!’
‘GERONIMO!’ they chorused exultantly.
Jan Doorn lived with his wife Marie and daughter Druschke in a large house close to the bridge which carried the road across the Nieder Rijn from the village of Oosterbeek to the city of Arnhem and onward across open country to the German border. He came to the village when his father, a doctor, opened a general practice and surgery there. As a child he played by the river, fishing and rafting often following it to its confluence with the river Ijsel. He met his wife, a student of Fine Arts, at the university of Utrecht where, like his father, he studied medicine. The couple fell in love and after graduating, married and came to live in the house of Jan’s parents. He assisted in the practice and when his father died, the couple assumed the mantle of village doctor and wife. The invasion of the Low Countriesin 1940, the air onslaught upon Rotterdamand the brutal persecution and deportation of Dutch Jews and forced labourers made Jan Doorn implacably bitter toward the Germans. His outspoken criticism caused his wife much concern and she was grateful there was no German garrison in Oosterbeek.
‘You should be more careful, Jan, you know how touchy they are, especially now that the second front has opened.’
He looked at his wife, waving his hand defiantly. ‘That’s where they belong, over there in Germany, those swine. They have no place here and the sooner they go home the better. If they had any sense they would leave now before the Allies get here.’
‘Geography was never your strong point, Jan, was it?’ She laughed as she spoke. ‘This country is crisscrossed by rivers and dikes and most of it is below sea level, the Bosche can inundate us any time they choose. There are only three bridges of any size between here and the Flemish border and all can be blown. Why else would the Bosche have chosen to build that huge rest and refit depot over at Elst? No, my love, the Allies won’t come this way. We will be liberated only after they are beaten and a good thing too.’
He stared at her aghast. ‘Marie! How can you say such a thing? Do you like having them here?’
She smiled patiently. ‘You are such a sentimental fool, my darling. We are a tiny country with an ocean of water to the west and an ocean of Teutons to the east and we shall always be at the mercy of both, for our survival depends on them. What difference does it make if they stay a few more months if it means sparing our country the devastation which has already befallen France and Belgium?’
He shook his head in bewilderment. ‘I shall never understand you, Marie.’ He smiled at her tenderly. ‘Perhaps that’s why I love you so much…Now, I have to make a few calls. With luck I shall be back in time for dinner.’
‘But Jan, it is Sunday, for God’s sake.’
‘It is always Sunday, for God’s sake, my love.’
He was still laughing at his own joke as he rode off on his bicycle.

Pegasus Falling is available to buy now in paperback and for Kindle from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com