Chapter One: how to begin a novel
There are so many confusing lists of things to do and avoid in opening chapters. I was lucky enough to workshop the opening of my novel recently, and I’d love to share the results with you. I like to think it encapsulates current thinking: a “show not tell” version of these contradictory lists.
I opened my eyes sleepily on that first morning of my holiday with bated breath. It has been so long – had it? – since I’d had any time off from the boring office job I had in an office, and I had been so tired, and yearning. Yearning for a break. A beach. A romance. A boyfriend!
I had just been dreaming of a beach with a romantic boyfriend. Today was the day when that dream could become a reality in real life. My life. That I was about to live for the first time that day.
Swinging my legs out of bed, I tripped lightly into the bathroom, cursing that unexpected step about which my mother had warned me about all those years ago. Before she had mysteriously disappeared on that night with all the lights and engine noise. Before those sepia-tinted orphanage years where I had lost contact with my deaf brother nobody else could communicate with until four years after this episode. But more of that later.
After getting to my feet again, I walked determinedly to the sink to brush my teeth because one should always brush and floss before breakfast irrespective of the fact that it makes the tea taste like a mint-infused Mint Imperial. There, in the mirror in the bathroom in my house/flat/apartment/come back later and decide this one, was my face, staring out at my face like a trapped Alice. My hair was awry, almost looking as if it had just got out of bed. I angrily pulled a harsh hairbrush through my long thick blonde honey-highlighted hair and it sprang sheenily under my hand like an alert otter. There were wrinkles of tiredness around my nose. I blinked, and it seemed for a moment as if the whole world went dark, and I clutched the edge of the basin, feeling momentarily giddy for a moment. Then it passed. I breathed again, and vowed never to hold my breath for the hundred strokes of the hairbrush again, whatever Cosmo said.
“You done in there?” came a mysterious shout from the other side of the closed but not locked white bathroom door.
I heard a shout. That’s mysterious, I thought to myself silently in my head.
The door opened, and the partial face of my flatmate appeared in my vision, with the other part – the part that had the disfiguring birthmark she had got from birth and was shy about showing to anyone, even me though we had shared this flat for nearly two and a half years – hidden behind the door to the bathroom.
“Oh, hello and good morning, Wisteria!” I trilled. I was so excited about my holiday which is starting this very morning.
“Gosh,” exclaims Wisteria. “That is why you must be up and awake so very early!” she continues. “I remember you telling me all about this during our previous evening’s meal that you cooked so deliciously!”
She removes her partial head from my line of sight and leaves me to my reverie with the mirror. I realise I don’t need to do anything else and pull open the bathroom door, trudge out, push it closed it behind me, put on my dressing gown and prepare to descend the many stairs to the kitchen for breakfast.
There, on the door mat, underneath the letterbox in the front door, and a bit to the right, lies a letter. It is white and flat, and as rectangular as a snowflake designed by a robot in a flat world of right-angles, devoid of the glorious curves of our multifarious and manifold complicated human emotional lives. Could this be the letter for which I am waiting for? I turn it over and read the name.
It is for Wisteria.
“Wisteria!” I trill (trying to fight down the nausea that holding this letter is causing on account of it being so similar to another letter that was significant to me before my mother disappeared) brightly.
“Yes?” answers the unseen fluting voice of my disfigured flatmate from the kitchen, although perhaps it is more of a question. She sounds a little overweight this morning.
“I am holding a letter for you!” I respond, and gently bear my burden into the kitchen, where Wisteria awaits who knows what fate lying therein, gently frying bacon.