Writing Excuses 10.16 was, as is often the case, a really good episode. Talking about the importance of the first few lines of a book in drawing readers in, they provided the usual mix of top advice and interesting points to consider. If you’re not a regular listener (which if you write you should be) I particularly recommend this one.
This week’s exercise was:
Write your first thirteen lines, and see how much you can fit into that space—character attitude, point-of-view, mood, genre, conflict, setting, and more.
In keeping with the advice from the show, I’ve taken one of the beginnings I wrote two exercises ago and adapted that. Based on useful feedback in the comments from Ben and Sheila, I’m using my third beginning, which gets quickly into the characters and plot. You can look at the previous exercise to see the original version. Now for the new one…
My New Beginning
Night was falling as the hot air balloon crossed the Prussian siege lines and reached the walls of the Red Castle. Two teenagers in livery gawped at the steam motor as they took the ropes from Dirk Dynamo and secured the balloon to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt down onto the stonework and assessed his surroundings by the light of burning torches. One hand lay on his holster, ready for whatever trap Isabelle had prepared.
Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled excitedly out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.
An elderly servant in a tailcoat held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.
“You catch that?” Dirk asked.
“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.
“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English.
“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”
“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”
What I’ve Done
The most obvious thing is in the first line. A big part of the plot and atmosphere of this book revolves around the castle being besieged by a Prussian army. I’ve added that in the very first line, and in future revisions I might also use that to tease out hints at Dirk’s military background.
I’ve added a motor to the balloon to hint at the steampunk genre that’s part of these books – together with the already present rattling gears and gadgets, I hope that sets the right tone.
Speaking of tone, I’ve tried to build up the action and suspense side of both the story and Dirk’s character through the way he behaves coming off the balloon. He’s not just looking, he’s assessing for danger. His hand is on his gun. This is an action hero expecting trouble.
The same lines let me introduce the conflict with Isabelle McNair, who Dirk was previously working with. The story’s other main plotline, and the main one for character development, is there straight away.
Some of the character attitudes and setting were already present. The servant’s formality and disdain for Americans, which creates instant conflict with Dirk. The castle setting. Dirk leading the way as Blaze-Simms bumbles along behind him. I’m pleased with what I’ve added. In some ways I’d like to get more in there, but I was concerned about things getting bogged down. I’ve even trimmed down some of the prose to avoid that.
What do you think? How does this work as an opening? And if you’ve read the previous version, is it an improvement or have I just made a mess – these things do happen. Leave a comment, let me know, and if you’ve done this exercise then please share how you got on.