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‘The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written.’ Joyce Carol Oates

Recently I read Wolf Hall for the second time. I didn’t mean to, not quite so soon after my initial head-long rush through its pages, but I casually opened the book and Hilary Mantel hooked me in yet again. But at least the second time around I was able to look at it with more of a writer’s eye.

‘So now get up.’
Felled, dazed, silent, he has fallen; knocked full length on the cobbles of the yard… One blow, properly placed, could kill him now. …his left eye is blinded, but if he squints sideways with his right eye he can see the stitching of his father’s boot is unravelling. The twine has sprung clear of the leather and a hard knot in it has caught his eyebrow and opened another cut.

What an opening. Our hero is in jeopardy. And from his own father. Hilary Mantel has drawn a picture of that cobbled yard and the battered leather boot. The reader understands how that rough knot would cut into tender flesh.

Three paragraphs later Hilary Mantel continues:

Inch by inch. Inch by inch forward. Never mind if he calls you an eel, or a worm, or a snake. Head down, don’t provoke him.

When reading this the second time around, it dawned on me that not only is the prose powerful, not only does it push the story forward, but that here on the first two pages Hilary Mantel is foretelling Cromwell’s progress at the Court of Henry VIII. The tortuous, careful advance. The need to shrug off hurtful insults. The danger inherent in provoking the man with so much power.

Those first pages were surely the last that she penned – and the lesson must be to soldier on, finish one’s book and then go back to craft that vital opening. So, no more delays trying to find that elusive opening sentence. It’s almost certainly too soon. Finish the book, then perfect the opening. Another Wolf Hall is too much to aim for – but one can dream.

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