26 Fruits


First and last

First words matter. I’ve always been fascinated by this particular aspect of writing. How do writers draw their readers in from the very first words? As a writer in the business world originally, I knew the importance of gaining attention with a headline. Copywriters are not given many words to get their messages across.

So I collected my own favourites. LP Hartley’s “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” remains my favourite first line from a novel (The Go-Between). Others will have their own favourites but the reflective, elegiac tone of  that line has been an inspiration to me in my own novel-writing.

I’ve no doubt that it was there in my head when I wrote down “Ophelia Street is” on a scrap of paper many years ago. That first line of Leaves eventually became “Ophelia Street was”, even more reflective in tone, looking back at that foreign country, the past, represented by this north London street that followed the fortunes (and decay) of a community over the course of a year.

My second novel Spanish Crossings also started with a first line. For the first, and only, time in my writing career I dreamt words that I wrote down in my bedside notebook: “Mother declared herself happy.” There seemed something magical in the arrival of these fully-formed words. I was staying overnight in Seville at the time, before running a writing course, so I spent the next day wandering through Seville, sitting on park benches, stopping for coffee in cafes, writing the words that followed naturally from that first line. The prologue that I wrote that day contained everything needed to set up the story of Spanish Crossings.

Of course endings matter too. It’s an emotional experience as a writer coming to the end of your own novel. You’re aware of all the words you’ve written, you are desperate not to let everything down at the last moment and you want the reader to close the book with a sense of satisfaction, that they will be saying goodbye to friendships forged with characters in the previous pages. When I wrote the ending of The Good Messenger I was conscious of the example of Milton’s Paradise Lost with its beautiful, cathartic ending.

But the ending I always keep in my head is that of The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s words, where the narrator stands alone on the edge of water with a green light in the distance and the awareness of the rolling plains of the republic beyond, set the literary standard for final pages. I reread them frequently and they retain their power to move me. It’s the feeling, the depth of individual emotion connected to the universal, that I tried to reach in the ending of all my novels.

But here’s the thing – it’s the thought that drives Dark Angels. The same principles, the same inspirations, that you apply to fictional writing hold true for writing of all kinds. This is what makes Dark Angels unique, because it unites the worlds of business writing and fictional writing, and enables each to be inspired by the other.

3 Responses

  1. Lovely post, John, and all so very true. Speaking of Paradise Lost, did you see the repeat of the Imagine documentary on Philip Pullman, following episode one of His Dark Materials, last night? Readings of both the opening and closing passages of the trilogy. Magical stuff!

  2. John Simmons says:

    I did see it, Jamie. It was a Pullman evening, and certainly reminded me of the power of that ending – the depth of individual emotion connected to the universal’ that makes it such a great work. Not absolutely convinced by the TV version but I generally prefer a loved book to a film adaptation – you live with the book longer, it goes deeper

  3. Bigbrandjohn says:

    The power of words simply stated. One of the many things you taught me.

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