The opening lines (and Happy Christmas)

One Christmas drink too many

One Christmas drink too many. (Thanks to savagechickens.com)

 Happy Christmas and a mellow new year from Belfast, which is where I am right now.

People sometimes ask me: If this blog is supposed to be at least partly about your book, where can I read some of it?

Fair question. The answer is here: Here. Now.

The most important lines in any story are the beginning. The stakes are high. Go wrong at the start, and that’s it. The reader has moved on before any emotional committment has formed. It’s easy to cut one’s losses before getting in too deep.

So – with trepidation – here are the opening lines of my book, Blackwatertown.

But first, here’s a little context to the story.  It’s set in rural Ireland, along the border,  in the mid 1950’s. The hero, Macken, is a police sergeant in the RUC, the then police force of Northern Ireland.

And so the story, Blackwatertown, begins – like this:

Sergeant Jolly Macken didn’t want to be a policeman anymore. He clenched his teeth, and sucked in through his nostrils the cool air of the Mourne foothills. The butt of his hand pressed down on the polished handle of the baton, not yet drawn. He hated his job. He hated the crowd pushing at his back and the string of men blocking the road ahead. All  of them waiting, impatient for his signal,  muttering his nickname. He  hated the verbal albatross that had been hung round his neck too. Jolly. Christ!

 The stoney slopes of fern and heather and gorse would usually lift his  heart. The open land a refuge from complication and regulation. He’d  feel the tension ebbing from his shoulders. The small smile that would  quietly creep over his face, unbidden and unwitnessed. If Macken believed in anything, it was that there was no better place, nor way, for a man to be at peace than by quiet water, with a rod and line.  Alone, but never lonely.

Today was different. Today he was only a hard-faced big man trapped inside a uniform. The Mourne mountain road he stood on was busy with intruders, eager for action. Stones bounced round his feet. The isolated serenity of this County Down emptiness had been shattered long before. But at this moment of decision, all the shouting and jeering, the drums and the flutes, seemed to fade to silence in Macken’s mind. The violence was about to begin – the striking out at head and body with stone and bar, baton and rifle butt. And he was going to be the one to start it.

That’s it. More to come in a while. But I would very much like your comments on the opening.

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36 Comments

Filed under My Writing

36 responses to “The opening lines (and Happy Christmas)

  1. james digby

    Brilliant work. There is a kind of tension that leaves me wanting to read more and I find that it’s easy to get right into it.

    I hope that you keep adding to this or better still get it published and sell me a copy, would gladly buy it.

  2. First paragraph eases me in but keeps the interest and curiosity.

    Second one gets me thinking whether I want to go fishing or not!

    Third is ‘hitch up your braces we’re off at speed…I’m in and hooked!

    Like the style for each- easy to read, which is a relief. Flows easily. Articulate and descriptive.

    Look forward to seeing the rest.

  3. prettyfascination

    Your opening paragraph sets up the story really well. The reader gets a feeling right away that something important is about to happen and that Jolly doesn’t want anything to do with it but is bound to his duty. I liked that.

    Honestly, although I liked the descriptive second paragraph, it totally took me from the point of the story. It was as though you teased me with the conflict, then decided to throw in a paragraph about fishing, and then went back to the conflict. You might want to consider just moving the second paragraph to a point later in the story, when the conflict is over. You really want to grab your reader and get right into the meat of the story in the first few paragraphs. No meandering, even if you think it gives a bit of backstory to your character. Really, would a police officer just about to enter into a big confrontation be thinking about fishing? Probably not.

    I thought the last sentence was great! That one alone made me want to read more! Keep that up and you’ve got something really good here.

    Thanks for posting. It takes nerve to do that and I admire your first attempt. Good going!

  4. Basil Dajani

    Great stuff Paul. I’m ready for the action! I did witness football violence in the 1980s (but I never inhaled) between opposing fans as well as against the Police. That’s my only real experience of the latent tension of violence about to explode and it seems to me you evoked it beautifully.

  5. blackwatertown

    Thanks for all the feedback.
    @ Basil Dajani – Glad you survived the 1980s & I’m glad you think I’ve conveyed some realism.
    @ prettyfascination – Thanks for the analysis & encouragement.
    @ Mike Stone – I appreciate the vote of confidence from a writer.
    @ christopher West – Delighted to have hitched up your braces.
    @ James Digby – Hey, one advance sale already. Excellent.

  6. I say that it has great potential, but I can’t really judge too much from a few lines. I’m definitely interested in reading more though!

  7. chen

    luv the line
    “The open land a refuge from complication and regulation”
    & the punchy twist
    “And he was going to be the one to start it.”
    It works for me -8 brief lines painting a picture of a complex man and a complex place, both of which are lying under seemingly simple exteriors

  8. I’ve got a problem with exclamation marks. “Jolly. Christ.” might be more effective.

    Apart from that, I really want to know more. Which is the whole point of openings. Job done, sir.

  9. blackwatertown

    Heather, Chen & Tim!!! More humble thanks to you all. (Chen, is your own life a bit bedevilled by complication and regulation at the moment, I wonder?)

  10. stan (A MAN)

    Your writing always excites me, the changes you have have made will pull in a wider audience. So well done.

    I would love to see this in print, and further given the opportunity to help you convert it into a script.

    Your literature deserves a place on the silver screen.

    KEEP IT UP.

  11. Helen

    Brilliant. I already have sympathy for Jolly Macken and can see how he is a quiet man in an often violent job. I want to read his story.

    In only 3 paragraphs you have conveyed the local scenery and set the reader firmly in the 50s.

    Please let me know when this is published as I will definitely be buying this book.

  12. JRCB

    I like it. The main character seems like a pessimistic person (something I can relate to). I’m pretty interested in seeing where this goes. Keep it up!

  13. Nigel

    This is great stuff, Paul – spare, brooding, full of dark menace, and yet containing the possibility of serenity. I don’t agree with the suggestion above about moving the second paragraph. The lyricism drew me in and juxtaposition is surely key: the conflict in Jolly’s interior world set against an exterior social conflict; the blessed peace of the pastoral scene set against the noise and threat of impending violence. You’ve managed to draw a multi-dimensional character within your first three paragraphs while creating a powerful sense of place and moment in history. This is no mean feat. I’m fascinated by the ambiguity in Jolly already and want to know more about his story, his time, about which I have to admit to being quite ignorant. In short, as “opening lines” go these work wonderfully well. I think you really have something here. You’ve certainly left us on the edge with that intriguing last line. Keep going and remember, never give up.

  14. Paul,

    I wanted to thank you for stopping by my site and posting your kind words about my writings there. I, of course, wanted to come and check out your work as well, and I must say I am not disappointed in the least – you have a singular style of writing that manages to say quite a lot with only a few words. I especially liked the mention of the “verbal albatross.”

    Is your novel completely written? Are you sending it to publishers? Have you thought about self-publishing?

    Keep fighting the good fight, my friend, from one fledgling writer to another!

    –Tony

    • blackwatertown

      Funny you should ask that Tony – if it’s written? Within the past hour the answer to that question may have changed from not yet, to yes.

  15. Andy

    Paul,

    Excellent I want more more more soon please.

  16. Chen

    Enjoyed the mix of laying out the tale, with almost elliptical nature (re: 2nd para). It had echoes of how I recall conversations with Irish friends, which has a different temper and flow to those I have with my English compatriots?
    Look forward to reading the whole book shortly!
    PS Great title…somewhat sinister yet homely at the same time

  17. Jake Kale

    Thanks very much for the comment on my site, now watch me try (and fail miserably) to do it justice!

    I very much enjoyed the first line (it’s always nice when you can relate to a character right off the bat!) and the romanticized vision of the Irish countryside offset by the sense of brooding anticipation worked for me. I can see where other commenters are coming from regarding the placement of the second paragraph, but I like that it gives Macken a very personal and relatable reason to lead the charge, as it were. “You’ve invaded my one sanctuary, and I’m not having that!” You can tell it’s gonna end badly, but at the same time it draws you in so you want to know how it turns out.

    I’d definitely be interested to read more of this.

  18. Hate me but I made a few edits to your opening that should fuel discussion because I also am working on a manuscript. I hope we may help each other a bit in presenting some alternatives for order of phrasing. Your phrases are strong and vivid. I arranged some of them to entice the reader into the scene – who hated his job? Why was there a crowd there?

    I will write up the first of my project and it will be in a tab on my blog for you to pick at. To me this is like solving a puzzle. I love editing but one CANNOT edit one’s own writing. So I will count on you because I respect your style so much.

    Again, don’t hate me.

    He hated his job. He hated the crowd pushing at his back and the string of men blocking the road ahead. All of them waiting, impatient for his signal, muttering his nickname. He hated the verbal albatross that had been hung round his neck too. Jolly. Christ!

    Sergeant Jolly Macken was a simple man with a heart easily lifted from the weight of this regimen and complication by the refuge of open land; by time spent sitting on the stony slope of fern and heather and gorse; in being alone but not lonely in the companionship of lake and fish. But not today. Today, he was only a hard-faced big man trapped inside a uniform.

    The Mourne mountain road he stood on was busy with intruders, eager for action. Stones bounced round his feet. The isolated serenity of this County Down emptiness had been shattered long before. But at this moment of decision, all the shouting and jeering, the drums and the flutes, seemed to fade to silence in Macken’s mind. The violence was about to begin – the striking out at head and body with stone and bar, baton and rifle butt. And he was going to be the one to start it.

  19. systematicweasel

    This is a great start, and I am interested in reading more! I like how it slowly builds the tension up in three paragraphs. Nicely done!

  20. So, Roo, is it over between us two?

  21. Roo – wish I knew how to contact you by e-mail but this will have to do. I have been torn about making what I am writing public just now because it is autobiographical and I don’t like to give a lot away on line.

    It also rips you apart in quite a different way than writing fiction. Autobiography is kind of an exercise in marking your territory – of peeing around the perimeter of your person. It is very close to the vest.

    I so admire your courage in putting your writing out there for people. I wish I could have sent you my thoughts in e-mail rather than in public. Regardless, it is all done with discussion in mind although now I will be retreating to “On My Watch” for a time to recoup from my excesses.

    Thank you for visiting my site and for your support of my research on behalf of news addicts. It is so good when people do speak up. And so good to hear from all of you so far away. Thank you for your gracious hospitality.

  22. So – this was a mirage and you and the book are no more? What a wonderful Roooose, Weasel.

  23. blackwatertown

    Thanks everyone for the encouragement, the analysis and suggestions for how the opening lines could be improved. Much appreciated by me.

  24. Hey, that’s sounding really good. When do you think it might be done?
    Danny

  25. Publishing…. a whole book in itself.

    Marketing…. you think you developed those writing muscles and fearlessness in the forest of publishing, well here’s to you; this is the biggest.

    but sincerest best wishes!

  26. cpshnell

    Wow, impressive opening! I agree with the other comments in that the mounting tension really draws one in to the story. I am curious to know what happens now to Sergeant Macken.

    By the way, what was your inspiration for this work?

    Also, you might want to try self-publishing to at least put your book out there. I don’t think it can hurt 🙂

    • blackwatertown

      Thanks sorrygnat & cpshnell.

      What was the inspiration? A relation who used to be in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and passed on some hair raising tales from one outbreak of conflict or another.

      As for self-publishing? I may put some short stories out there, but I haven’t given up on getting Blackwatertown published the traditional way.

  27. Kudos. Pulls the reader in with the first sentence; stirs emotion and curiosity; takes us there with descriptive scenes; connects us to the protagonist, and then…

    leaves us wanting more.

  28. 24 hours ago I didn’t know about you, now I’m ready to pre order the book- good going 🙂

  29. Good opening. Very well written. I like the last sentence a lot. I’m sure you’ll be able to publish this someday. Then, I must buy a copy.

    • blackwatertown

      Thanks Duck – just the fillip I needed. I’m just completing an edit. Perfect timing for a confidence booster.

  30. Hi Paul,
    Loved the opening paragraphs, they are both evocative and intriguing. I definitely want to read on. Incidentally, one of the comments earlier was that it was doubtful if a police officer facing that scenario would be thinking about fishing. The lady concerned has obviously never been in riot gear facing an angry missile-throwing mob for several hours. In truth neither have I, but one of my closest friends is a police officer who does just that… regularly. He has told me of his varied thoughts whilst waitng for the unadulterated violence about to be unleashed. I think ‘Jolly’ was made even more credible by that paragraph. Great opening!

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