for writers and readers….

Opening Lines – A Writing Exercise

I’m going to post writing exercises at regular intervals because I’m convinced that writing can help if you’re worried and under stress….and right now that describes most of us.

The novelist Kate Mosse says writers should be like musicians and practice their craft every day. If you’re lucky magic happens. The exercise could turn out to be a seed that grows into a story or a poem…or set you thinking in new directions about something you’re already working on. And if it doesn’t, well you will have produced a passage of writing that you didn’t have before and maybe it will remind you why you enjoy playing with words and ideas.

Some of the exercises I have used many times in class or have already been published. This one is brand new.

I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice – not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God.

Use Irving’s commanding opening lines as a template. It sets the scene for what is to come by revealing a character’s two unusual characteristics, his voice and his height, and two things which happened because of him, one terrible and the other positive, all in a few words.
Here’s my attempt:

I can never forget the girl with the startling red hair who sat in front of me on the first day of term – not because of her hair, or because there was a hint of that red in her eyes, or even because a casual remark from her got me sacked from the best job I ever had, but because she’s the reason I now live in peaceful seclusion on a Welsh mountainside.

I have no idea where this story is going. It opens up many questions that demand to be answered: does the first day of term refer to school or university? What kind of casual remark could cost someone their job? Who is the ‘I’ character and what kind of relationship does s/he have with the red-haired girl. And what is going on with her eyes? Right now I haven’t got any answers, but I haven’t got a blank page either. The girl with red hair may be the main character or just the trigger for what is about to happen, but at least I can start writing even if I don’t know what kind of journey I’m on…

If you haven’t yet read Owen Meaney all I can say is now is the time. I’m told it works really well on audio because Owen’s distinctive voice is an important part of the story. Irving tried to convey that by putting everything he says in caps but, of course, that can be conveyed more effectively with sound.

Reading is part of a writer’s training. You can’t write unless you read and you can never say you’ve read enough. Read great books to discover what can be done and read bad ones to show what shouldn’t be done. And Owen Meaney is, without exaggeration, one of the best novels I’ve read.

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