Six of the best lessons for writers – as spied on just the opening pages of this year’s Booker short list

What follows is in no sense a plot breakdown or critique of any book. All six of the Booker short list remain unread by me at the time of writing. (That said, Christmas break looms). Instead I simply read the opening pages of each book on the short list for a useful finger-in-the-wind, litmus test of what happened to get recognised by this particular prize and this year’s panel). Here are six signposts for writer’s to note, spied on those opening pages…

1. Hooks

Let’s start with this year’s Booker Prize winner. Marlon James’ opening line sparked a shake-of-the-head, a double-take that confirmed I had read the line right: “Dead people never stop talking.” That has a scent of intrigue. Taken as it was meant, as a statement, the line begs me to read on – whether the book (which appears to be a dense web of different decades and a vast array of characters) sustains intrigue is another question.

The point being, in today’s super noisy world of 24-7 audiovisual mayhem and digital distraction, a writer ought to work hard at every line; to reveal character or drive storyline. It breeds confidence if your first lines –of books, of chapters, of paragraphs– are strong.

Marlon James, Booker Prize winner 2015
The opening of Marlon James’ book.


2. Mood is under-cooked

Sahota’s opening image of an old map, “a reminder of the outside world”, instantly sums up the narrator who seems, if not detached in his rented accommodation, at least in some kind of limbo: “The map had come with the flat”. He descends the staircase “step by nervous step” and “swallowing hard”. Having brought his guest back to the room he places her luggage down and “straightening right back up, knocked his head against the bald light bulb”. A man out of sorts. Is he muddled, or more concerned, or something else? Either way, for me, an uneasy tone purposefully smoked out this opening page.

These are deft touches, whether they are driven by rigorous character planning or the spit-and-polish of drafting. You have to rinse the mood of each scene in order to bathe in the story.

Sunjeev Sahota, Booker Prize 2015
The opening of Sunjeev Sahota’s book.


3. Mode is over-baked

One of the six books has a clear ‘first person’ author. Obioma’s opening page expresses palms-up honesty: private thought exposed; deep insight into one family; a nod to a specific national context; and the shared sense of a pivotal moment unfolding in the lives of several related characters.

Meanwhile two other books on the list appear ambiguous at first glance. While the remaining three books start in a classical third person, an all-seeing eye rather than an ‘I’.

Often I hear, or read, people talking up one storytelling mode and/or decrying others:  declaiming just what is ‘contemporary fiction’. Hmm. I say mode is variable, a changeling, malleable. Since the original concept, the drafting process, the protagonist, other characters, or something else entirely might prove pivotal, I would suggest this is the least of a writer’s concerns.

Chigozie Obioma, Booker Prize 2015
The opening of Chigozie Obioma’s book.


4. Resonance

Two of the stories start in the mid-1990s. A different two stories open at settings inside the singular confines of apartment buildings. Two other tales have characters smoking on the first page. Two opening pages invoke death (or three do if you sense death within McCarthy’s reference to the Turin Shroud, the inferred phantasm of the mid-13th Century person it had covered, and/or its supernatural convolution with Jesus).

The books can be offset too – a kind of negative resonance. To me, Tyler’s opening page feels outmoded, albeit suiting its elder protagonists who appear to be retired, well-off/middle-class caricature. Meanwhile the younger people placed centre stage by Yanagihara appear to be the archetypal echo in the early 21st Century: “two men in their twenties” who can’t get a foothold on the property ladder.

Hanya Yanagihara, Booker Prize 2015
The opening of Hanya Yanagihara’s book


5. The sense of an ending

Obioma’s book opens with a daughter recounting when her father had been transferred to work in a faraway town. The scene feels pregnant with un-fleshed storyline yet the mother is pictured “wearing an impenetrable gloom on her face” which feels like a terminal prognosis. Sahota’s opening scene re-joins two characters who clearly had a past, though what kind of past is unclear. It feels ambiguous: is this a brief reunion, a restart, an ending? Meanwhile Tyler is an elderly writer writing about what she knows: an elderly couple. Doubtless the story is flashback heavy and surely these are short stories pickled in a jar that is approaching its use by date.

I appreciate stories that use some of their opening to inform enough of the end – as Vonnegut has schooled many a writer: To hell with suspense.

Anne Tyler, Booker Prize 2015
The opening of Anne Tyler’s book


6. Visions of poesy

McCarthy’s opening page feels different, like a declaration of the writer-as-philosopher. It is a muscular flexing of rigorous thought writ large: a ‘macro critique’ of belief systems, political control, and cultural trances that are all so widely and internationally evident in the endless stream of news, social media, and homogenised pop-culture. As such the page ‘sung’ to me: woven somehow among the words is a sub-textual common sense: a stinging commentary on ‘false positive’ perception, the confirmation bias of the crowd viewpoint, and the enduring power of prejudice. All that, and visions of poesy…

This is contemporary fiction, not criticism. The prose may blur lines, twist expectation, and veer towards critical poetics yet only so as to help communicate abstract arguments in concrete (enough) terms: “like a fish approaching us through murky waters.”

Tom McCarthy, Booker Prize 2015
The opening of Tom McCarthy’s book

P.s. These are six of the best signposts from the Booker short list that I have spied so far. How about you?

Have you read any of this year’s short list?

Beyond the Booker, how about your favourite opening line or lines?



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