Beginnings – how to make a start

Last night I went to my second session with Kerry McPhail’s writer’s group. Scribbling away in the new Innovation Space in Portsmouth with cups of tea and chocolate swiss rolls, the wonderful plethora of stories and writing styles once again fascinated me.

Although I’d only been with this group on one previous occasion, it already felt like rediscovering old friends. There’s a lovely sense of camaraderie among writers when you get a group of us together to share our work. Whether a profession or simply a pastime, writing can be a very solitary thing, so I think we all feel a bit of light relief to come out of the magical writer’s cave and be in the company of our kind.

The writer's group in action
The writer’s group in action

We looked at the beginning of our novel or whatever we’re working on. Kerry reiterated an important and often surprising point from the previous session – that writers often don’t start writing their novel at the actual start. You may open up a book to the first page and presume that’s where the author started writing, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

Regardless of whereabouts in your story you start writing, the main thing is to start. To help us do this, Kerry gave us an exercise. She asked us to write our first paragraph, starting with the words ‘It is’. This is what I came up with:

It is funny, the things that come back to you in your final hours. You would expect it to be the big things, the momentous events, loves lost, life-altering moments; the landmarks from your life. Not the time you got a parking ticket when you were 17, or the imprint of lipstick your mother always left on her drinking glass. Certainly not the strange clicking sound your grandad’s knees would make as he tackled the stairs. But those were the things that came into Emily’s mind as she lay there slowly dying.

After reading our paragraphs aloud to the group with positive feedback, Kerry asked us to cover the same material but start this time with dialogue. As my protagonist Emily is alone when we first meet her, I found this one a real struggle. After a fair bit of umming and aaahing and false starts, I managed the following:

“I can see mum’s lipstick smudged on the glass,” I said to the haggard old woman in the mirror. Her lips curled up into a faint smile as she remembered the way mum would hold her glass with her pinky finger stretched out, just to make Emily laugh. A solitary tear rolled its way down my cheek and the smile turned into a silent sobbing. Even remembering grandad’s clicky knees didn’t cheer me up. I missed his soft knees poking out below his shorts in summer. I looked down at my own knees, now soft with age too. Death came and took him all those years ago, and now it was nearly my turn.

Fellow newbie to the group Sally made an interesting remark – with the first version, she had pictured a young woman who had been attacked and was lying dying, whereas in the second she said it was clear that it was an old lady who was dying. I’ve also just realised that adding the dialogue resulted in me moving from the third into the first person, something I didn’t actually intend to do.

I do much prefer the first version, but the exercise just goes to show that there are a number of ways you can start, and a number of perspectives you can give your writing, still covering the same situation or events. Next week: endings…

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