The First Line

First lines matter. Whether they are in a blog post, a newsletter or a novel, the first line is crucial.

Whilst you’re in the editing phase of your writing, it can be easily forgotten to revise your first line. The first line will have different purposes in various texts but there is one thing it needs to be. Good.

Your first line, if writing for a newsletter or a blog, must intrigue your reader and invite them to read more. Your purpose here is to keep them reading right until the very end. A great way to revise your first line is to read your writing as a reader. Would you be interested? Would it stop you scrolling? What could you add to the line to make it more gripping? If you’re still unsure, it could be worth letting someone read the first line to give you another point of view. They may even see something that you didn’t.

If however you are revising a first line of a novel, the aim and purpose of your writing may be different. Your goal, as a writer, is to lose your readers in your novel. Allow your readers to become invested in your characters and don’t settle for anything less. Although you still need to grip the reader with your opening lines, you have a variety of techniques open to you. Here are a few that you may wish to try:

Surprise the reader

This type of hook causes the reader to raise questions or surprises them by catching them off guard. A great example of this is from Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit: ‘It was a pleasure to burn’. The concept that some would like the feeling of burning seems very unusual. The sentence itself could also suggest that someone likes the action of burning something. As your mind begins to question alternatives, it has sparked the interest of the reader to keep reading. 

Begin with dialogue

This can also have a similar effect on the reader as it can catch the reader off guard. An example of this can be seen in the opening lines of Rose Macauley’s, The Towers of Trezibond: ‘”Take my camel dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass’. The animal itself may surprise the reader in this sentence, as well as Aunt Dot’s previous actions. Using dialogue in your first line brings your readers straight into the action and provides them with wanting to figure out what is happening and why.

Setting the Mood and Atmosphere

Although this technique may seem simple, it can be really effective when used correctly. Louise Erdrich does this beautifully in Tracks: ‘We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.’ In this first sentence Louise Erdrich has managed to set the sombre mood perfectly by using the setting to help set the tone and atmosphere. This technique can work really well with the show don’t tell principle, as the sentence has given its readers an insight to what is to come.

Another suggestion could also be to revise what you like to read yourself. If you love a particular author like Lee Child or John Grisham, look at how they start their first lines. How did they interest you? Why did you want to read on? This technique also works if you are wanting to write a blog post or newsletter. If you follow several blogs, which article did you really enjoy and how did it start?

Once you have tried a few of these techniques, reflect on your work and see if any of them work for you. Remember the best way to get your writing noticed is to make your writing the best it can possibly be.

Follow me on Instagram @cbarkerwriting for writing tips on a daily basis.

Before the Coffee gets Cold

Before the Coffee gets Cold by Toshikazu Kawaguchi, 213 pages, paperback, Picador, £7.49.

If you could go back, who would you want to meet?

Kawaguchi’s novel takes its readers on a journey through time and how a brief encounter can make a massive difference. 

Although this book was originally a play, the simple setting of the cafe doesn’t remind me of this fact. Instead I feel that the setting of this novel provides its readers with a sense of community. This is further evident in the structure of the novel.

Structure

Before the Coffee gets Cold is split into 4 sections. These could be perceived as chapters or they could be split into 4 short stories. Although I would normally prefer to see these as chapters, I found it much easier to see these sections as short stories as each section is over 50 pages. Interestingly, the way in which all of the stories are connected reminds me of Love Actually. Each have a different perspective of love and can be viewed as separate stories or as one. This is a similar structure to Kawaguchi’s novel. 

Time travel with a difference

The subject that ties his stories together is the element of time-travel. The rules are always the same, yet the reader is given a different experience, each time they follow someone into the past or future. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel as each person who uses the seat to transport them to wherever they like, are relatable and have different reasonings for using the seat. I also love how the same characters are used in each story, only with a different focus. This allows the readers to form an attachment with each character and really emphasise the feeling of belonging within a community. 

TV Adaptation

After reading this book, I might even try and track down the play as I’m intrigued to see what it would look like in the mode in which it was originally written. This book also has another in its series, Before the Coffee gets Cold: Tales from the Cafe. Although this book was originally written as a play, the trailer for the film can be watched here.

I strongly encourage you to read this. It may only be a small novel but it’s rich in dialogue, lyrical to read and will leave you feeling thankful for your own community that you surround yourself in. 

Why So Many Writers Struggle With Character Development

I used to think I knew how to develop my characters. Writing character profiles was the way to do it. Before I would begin writing, I knew what my characters looked like, their hobbies, where they lived – I even knew their favourite food. However after reflecting on these profiles, I cannot help but ask, how have these profiles helped me? In all honestly – they didn’t. Not only was I stuck with two-dimensional characters, I had also sucked all of the fun out of my writing.

E.L Doctorow describes writing as, ‘it’s like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ What struck me the most about this advice is how it appeals to character development. By completing character profiles in-depth, I knew the full route of my novel which in turn, made it seem boring. It has been suggested that to understand how your characters will react to certain events, they must be placed directly into them. How else would we know if our characters are truly brave? It is for this reason that I believe that only when we have finished writing a novel, that we gain a stronger understanding of our characters.

Sometimes when we really search deep for our characters, it can leave the writer vulnerable and open to criticism. It could therefore be argued that as a writer, we know how in-depth we need to be but scarcely do it out of fear of failure. Remember writers, ‘failure is the ingredient you have to have,’ argues Howard Jacobson and rightly so. How else would we know if our writing is good or bad? We need to be able to push past the failures in order to achieve success.

Judy Blume explains how significant a character is to a plot as they are inseparable. ‘Without a clear sense of who a character is […] the reader will be unable to appreciate the significance of your events, and your story will have no impact.’ With the understanding of how important characterisation is, it is no wonder that writers may struggle to leave themselves vulnerable on the page. It is however something that we all must do to develop our writing. So next time you find yourself feeling vulnerable within your writing, remind yourself that you’re growing as a writer.

One by One by Ruth Ware

One by One by Ruth Ware, Hardback (signed), 352 pages, Waterstones, £12.99

One by One is a cosy novel, perfect for those winter nights. The novel begins by following two characters and their journeys that bring them to the luxury cabin, in St. Antoine. After an avalanche cuts the guests off from the village below, it’s not soon after when guests keep disappearing one by one.

POV

Interestingly Ruth Ware uses several perspectives in One by One. Readers follow the perspective of Erin, the chalet host and Liz, a shareholder in a tech company. Having two perspectives is a new structure for Ware’s novels. However, these perspectives are vital to the plot and the development of her characters. Both perspectives are needed to demonstrate a staff’s point of view, as well as a guest in the lodge. As the novel unfolds and clues are given to the reader, he dual perspectives are used at times to compliment the plot twists. This is certainly a new technique that Ware has explored well within her writing of One by One.

Characterisation

Although Ware writes crime novels, I cannot help but acknowledge that my favourite characters hers are humorous. My favourite character in this novel was Danny. His passion and personality are clearly shown through his actions and dialogue. Danny adds a humorous touch to even the darkest of scenes. At times he can be relatable and sometimes acts like he is projecting the readers thoughts onto the page. Perhaps this is why his character is so amusing…

Location and Setting

A significant detail that continues to be shown in all of Ware’s novels, is her use of setting. Whether it’s Northumbrian forests, a stately home or the French Alps, Ware always uses her setting carefully and strategically. The Earth’s elements always seem to provide good ground for a crime novel and what better setting for One by One than the French Alps? Furthermore with the use of skiing jargon and a little bit of French sprinkled in, emphasises the research that has been taken to deliver such mesmerising landscapes and scenes.

As winter still settles amongst us and many of us are working from home, what could feel better than reading a novel with people stranded in one cabin that are beginning to get a little cabin fever.

Whether you find this read as escapism or as relatable is entirely up to you…

Papier Diary Review

Last week I was so pleased to see a smart stripy parcel slip through my letter box. The packaging itself looks as good as the designs for your stationery. As I began to open the parcel I could feel the enjoyment and anticipation of seeing my personalised design. The little note from Papier is also a nice touch and gives your parcel a more personal appeal.

Although there was no paperback option for my diary, I absolutely love my hardback diary. The matt finish allows the design to speak for itself. The perfect bound makes for a crisp book and allows for a ribbon bookmark to be placed in the diary.

As a writer who primarily uses lined paper, I was anxious at first to write on plain paper. However after really looking at the space given and the type of notes I wish to include within my diary, I don’t think that the blank pages will be a problem.

Each month begins with your goals for the month, a to-do list, important dates and a wish list. This is really handy if you need to see quickly whether it is going to be a hard or busy month. This check up page is also great to spur on your motivation for finishing projects or training for a sport event.

At the beginning of the diary, there is a month to view, for the full year. This makes it incredibly easy to see birthdays, big events and deadlines, without flicking through each page.

At the very end of the diary there are also some lined pages for you to use as you wish.

Although Papier’s diaries have a lot to offer, it has to be personalisation and their designs that I love the most about Papier. I know so many people who have either a name that is spelt slightly different or that have a different cultural name (either from Europe or further afield) that find it difficult to find personalised items. Papier however removes this worry and allows personalisation to anyone who wishes to acquire it.

I also love the design of my diary and I mean love! I am so pleased that Papier give credit to the artists as it allows you to look further into the artist who created your design. My design is by Rachael Cocker and is called Blooms of Joy. After surviving two national lockdowns in the midst of a pandemic, a Bloom of Joy is exactly what I need.

Since the beginning of lockdown I have began writing letters to friends and close relatives to help combat loneliness during this challenging time. Lets hope that they like Papier as much as I do! To have a look at all of their designs visit: www.papier.com and find your own personalised diary for the new year!

My Top 5 Christmas Book Buys!

If this pandemic has taught us anything this year, its that we all love reading. This could be a psychological thriller, a goofy romance or even a self-help book. Whatever style or genre you are wanting to read, you will always find something. However as there are so many books to choose from, I have whittled my favourites down to a top 5 to help you find the perfect gift for someone this year. There is something so exciting about receiving a book. We all know the shape, yet with so many titles on our ‘to be read’ pile, we still don’t really know what we will get. Here are my top 5 to unwrap this year.

Thriller – One by One by Ruth Ware

What could be better than a psychological thriller located in a snowy setting at Christmas? Ruth Ware has brought a murder mystery concept into the 21st century by the use of realistic – and at times, relatable – settings with current motives. One by One takes place in a lodge that is extremely secluded. It could be perceived as tranquil. However with only a cable car to leave or escape the lodge, the characters begin to think it is anything but peaceful. As killings become more and more frequent, the serenity of the lodge begins to feel like a prison. Who will survive as the characters disappear one by one?

Romance – The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary

If crime and murder isn’t your thing, then have a fling with The Flatshare. The Flatshare is about two young professionals that share a flat but never really see each other due to work commitments. This book was my favourite read in lockdown as it made me laugh and smile when times were hard. Please note that is not the type of book that I would normally read and yet, I am now anticipating the release of her latest novel, The Road Trip, out in 2021. A perfect book to lift your mood and to laugh when times are challenging.

Check out my full review of this book here

Classic – Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

How many times have you heard – but have you read the book?- when a film comes out? Yes, very often and why does this get asked? The book is better. Admittedly, the latest adaptation of Rebecca on Netflix is good but at times I found the film slow and it missed a few scenes that the book had solidified in my mind. Yes, readers, I wanted to see the garden at Manderley! The book on the other hand is not slow in the slightest. The novel is an exciting read and is filled with tension and suspense between the main characters, right up to the very end. If you are looking for a classic this Christmas, I would definitely recommend this novel. Who knew a young woman living in Cornwall could have such a dark mind that could write with such suspense! A much welcomed break from Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen.

See my full review here

Non-fiction – The Little book of Clarity by Jamie Smart

This is hands down, one of my favourite books that not only made me realise how people perceive the world, but how non-fiction can be engaging and impactful. Jamie explores clarity in this book in relation to all aspects of an individual’s life. The outward-in method that he discusses really makes you think about your own choices and your own happiness. This book is, as you may have guessed, short, clear and concise. A short but memorable read.

Read my full review here

Self-help – Get Your Sh*t Together by Sarah Knight

I too wish I was Sarah Knight, living in the Caribbean and writing books as my profession. Who knows, after reading this book, maybe I will. Get Your Sh*t Together, provides its readers with a little tough love, followed by fantastic strategies that can be applied to all aspects of your life – be it relationships, health or work. Sarah Knight has tried to make the subject comical as it does touch on some serious and quite scary topics. However after reflecting on this book and attempting to actually get your sh*t together, you will begin to realise that this book does exactly what it sets out do. A great gift and motivator to making your dreams become a reality.

Although I have so many other great books I wish I could include, the books above have to be my top 5. Feel free to read any additional reviews I have written on these books to help you make your mind up with which to put on your own ‘to be read’ list. If however you are still wanting some book inspiration, I have provided you with a few more noteworthy reads. Who knows, you may even want to gift one to yourself.

Recommended Reads

The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

The Exact Opposite of Okay by Laura Steven

Write Yourself Happy by Megan Hayes

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

Coffee Break: Dialogue

Welcome to second instalment of Coffee Break. In this instalment the main focus will be looking at how dialogue works within prose and what we can do to make our dialogue clearer and flow with ease.

Structuring Dialogue

Many of us sometimes question whether when a new person speaks, we should start a new line. Admittedly this should really be happening but sometimes, when we get lost in our character’s minds it can be tricky to decipher who is really speaking. I have recently read a novel by Ruth Ware who uses the confusion of her dialogue to give the reader a hint that the narrator might not be who they say they are (Review can be found here). This further highlights how the structure of dialogue can be confusing, but can be used to complement your plot.

“Try to make a break in your dialogue every six lines”

Chris Thurgar-Dawson

This quote was given to me by my lecturer at Teesside University who always used this as a rule of thumb. He explained how sometimes the reader needs to see a little bit of description whilst dialogue is still taking place. Consider this: Would you watch a play if the characters didn’t move and just read their lines? Would you even consider this a play at all? I know I wouldn’t. The reader can find out a lot about your characters in these descriptions. It could be that your character is saying one thing but their actions are saying something completely different.

Try this

When you are structuring your own dialogue, try to create a new line every time another character talks. By doing this your dialogue will be clear for the reader. Once you have your dialogue in your work clear on the page, go through the dialogue and add a little description every 6 lines. Again this will give your readers something else to consider and might sprinkle more depth to your existing characters.

Accents and Dialects

Sometimes including these within your work can add depths to your characters and give your readers a sense of purpose of where they are from and their upbringing. The important element to this however is making sure that your readers can still understand every detail. For example, where I live people love to eat Parmos. However if not everyone knows what a Parmo is then the concept of using this within language is lost.

Round of applause for anyone who does know what a Parmo is – they’re great.

Try this

Write a brief piece of dialogue about two people that get talking in a queue in the airport. These people can be from opposite places (ie. someone from Newcastle and someone from Cornwall) or you could have two people who are different ages (one could be in their teens and another could be an elderly man/woman). When you are writing this dialogue, try to think of their accent and how their perceptions of the world will come into play in their discussion.

Please let me know how you get on with these writing prompts, as I am interested to see what you have come up with! The next instalment of Coffee Break will involve a different writing focus but until then, sit back, enjoy a coffee and get writing!

Coffee Break: Setting

Welcome to the first instalment of Coffee Break. These articles will be filled with writing prompts and advice that are tailored to a particular theme each month. This month the theme will be setting. This article will look at how to describe setting without leaving your writing clunky and how to make places memorable to the reader. So sit back, relax and have a pen and paper at the ready!

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It can often be questioned how much description is too much description when it comes to setting. The truth is that many people tend to overthink how to set the scene, which in turn, leaves it looking clunky and feeling forced. What you should try to focus on instead of what a physical place looks like, is to show the setting through the eyes of your main character.

Whilst travelling you are moe likely to immerse yourself in the culture and your surroundings. You wouldn’t just look at the old theatre just off the side street – you would watch an opera in there, get a few photos and socialise there too. This is exactly what your characters should be doing. It is for this reason why the show don’t tell method works brilliantly for setting the scene.

Here is an example of telling your readers what happened:

Susan looked around at the grubby tables in disgust. Just looking at the rubbish on the floor made her body shudder. She hated this place.

Here is an example of showing your readers what happened:

Susan pulled out her hand sanitiser and used it up to her forearms. She glanced at her friend and pulled on a pair of latex gloves, ‘best to be safe than sorry in this place.’ She put her coat on her seat and sat on her coat.

The first example uses some describes the main character’s feelings whilst the writer is describing the place, but all the reader knows is that the floor and table is dirty. However in the second example, the sanitiser and gloves represent that the place must be really dirty (not just a particular part such as the floor). So much so that the main character won’t even sit on the chair she has been given, without the comfort and safety of her coat. Furthermore by including dialogue, the characters actions are showcase and provides the reader with a more fluid sense on setting the scene. By setting the scene within your story you are effectively moving the story forward whilst adding description. Not only will this help the development of your characters but it will also help the pace of your writing.

Try this yourself! Imagine you have just gone to work in the middle of a heatwave. Describe your surroundings through your characters actions.

Keep me updated with your writing by leaving a comment below!

The rest of this month writing prompts will be given around the focus of setting, so stay tuned and keep writing!

How To Navigate Your Thoughts Into Your Writing

How to Navigate your thoughts into your writing

It’s a great feeling wanting to write, yet finding somewhere to start can be tricky. Even if you know what you want to write, it can sometimes be difficult to start if a plot hasn’t occurred to you yet. This then begs the question: Can you write without an initial plot? This article will focus on the notion of wanting to write but not having a clue where to start. If this behaviour sounds familiar or is something that you know you struggle with, then read on for my top tips for overcoming the beginning of your writing.

Do I just begin writing and see where I go?

This is partially what I tend to do. I’ll have an idea or a style of writing I’m wanting to convey within my work and tend to work my way through it before several drafts of editing. However sometimes you may not know how to get to your destination and therefore become stuck at where to start. If this happens to you, try thinking about your characters’ journeys within the piece of writing too. Many characters tend to take their own route rather than allowing the writer to direct them. It is for this reason as to why I would encourage you to focus on character development, before you jump straight into a story.  Often by doing this a character will help you create a plot to drive your writing forward. So sit back and enjoy the ride!

Wouldn’t a really structured plot help?

This can be extremely useful for long writing projects, however I believe an over-structured plot can hinder a writer’s creativity if too rigid. So how structured is too structured you ask? This is ultimately down to you. Consider how free you are wanting your writing to be. Do you just want to know how to get from A to B or do you want to know every direction and service station that you’ll end up in? When writing, the phrase, ‘I never get lost, I just end up changing where I want to go,’ comes to mind. Sometimes not knowing where you are going, helps you to explore an area you have never been to before. This is similar when it comes to your writing and creativity. Try writing where your stay begins and ends. Now ask yourself, do you need anything else to help you start writing? If yes, include a middle twist and if not, start your engine.

I never get lost, I just end up changing where I want to go

It’s all good writing but how do I get ideas?

Ah, this old chestnut. Sometimes considering the day to day stuff that people get up to can be a great place to start. For example, just before lockdown I was made aware of TikTok (a social media platform that consists of various videos, currently a lot of dancing!). It might be that many teenagers use this platform but what about the elderly? Imagine an old man that uses it to interact with his family and he ends up going viral and there you have it – the beginning of an idea. Make a list of daily tasks that you, a friend or a family member does and try to consider a piece of writing including this daily  task or chore.

Ideas are around us all of the time, so pay close attention to your surroundings and you’ll never have to worry about finding an idea again.

The Turn of The Key by Ruth Ware

The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware, Vintage, paperback, 340 pages, £6.99, Waterstones

Their dream house will become her worst nightmare…

Their Dream will become her worst nightmare-2

The Turn of the Key is Ruth Ware’s latest novel set in the Scottish Highlands. Ruth Ware’s most recent novel is instantly familiar to her other novels as its presence and ending continues to pack a punch.

The Turn of the Key begins it’s journey similar to Ware’s previous novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, as it begins with the main character explaining how she ended up in her current predicament. The novel begins with a job advert about a current nannying role and the main character jumps at the chance. However has the nanny potentially bit off more than she can chew?

Structure

The structure of this novel is very important to point out as it’s not the standard structure you would expect a novel to take. The Turn of the Key begins with the main character writing a letter to a barrister about her recent experiences at Heatherbrae House. The reader can instantly acknowledge that something has happened that they are not aware of, however it is clearly evident that the main character will explain everything in the letters to come. This already gives the reader a sense of intrigue as the reader begins to question whether they can be convinced of the main character’s situation. As the novel progresses the main character makes several points referring back to the prison and demonstrates an interesting narrative style. This in turn reminds the reader to be on edge and to trust no one.

Pace

The pace of this novel is very interesting as there are many subtle elements to be aware of.  Since the narrative keeps referring back to the main characters’s situation, the subtle elements become even more questioning and as a result keep the reader engaged and intrigued. I must warn the readers however to brace yourself in the last hundred pages as it can feel as if you are in a tornado. As the pace and tension begins to build, so does the plot twists. So much so that it feels as if poison ivy is twisting around each scene, making the reader feel glued to the page.

Characters

Each character in this novel seems carefully considered. This novel has three children and one teenager in the heart of the story and how each child reacts and adapts to the new nanny and scenarios they are put in is really realistic. All of the characters are relatable to some extent and the Scottish characters, Jean and Jack, have been written brilliantly. Ruth has not only created characters that are relatable but has also managed to get their dialects right too. I have relatives that currently reside in Edinburgh and when I listen to Jean and Jack talk, even when in Carn bridge, they all sound authentically Scottish. Nothing is thrown in to make the characters seem obviously Scottish but the subtle differences within their language and word choice, highlights exactly where they are in the UK.

Influences

I cannot ignore that there appears to be a potential influence from Alnwick Garden, which again can be seen through the potential location and some of the ‘facilities’ that Alnwick Garden has to offer. Once you begin to read this novel you will begin to see the connection emerge.

Their Dream will become her worst nightmare

Similar novels

Interestingly The Turn of the Key, reminds me of two of Ware’s previous novels, In a Dark, Dark Wood and The Death of Mrs.Westaway. The narrative structure in Ware’s current novel is similar to In a Dark, Dark Wood whereas the ghostly and haunting aspect of a manor house in The Death of Mrs. Westaway, mirrors the more contemporary isolated house of The Turn of the Key. Interestingly when considering the technology that is seen within this novel, I cannot help to compare the house setting of a similar feel to The Girl Before by JP Delaney. Both of these novels make the reader have to get to grips with technology fast, whilst self-policing in the process. Another book that identifies technology as a great driving force is George Orwell’s 1984, as the quote ‘Who controls the past controls the future,’ fits perfectly with Ruth Ware’s most recent novel.

If you find psychological thrillers gripping and enticing then this book is for you. I personally find self-policing an interesting topic and was unaware that this was considered in the book before reading. I personally love how Ruth Ware’s endings always seem satisfying and as soon as I picked the book up, I knew I would enjoy it. I throughly hope that The Turn of the Key has the same effect on you.

You can buy Ruth Ware’s latest novel The Turn of the Key here.