Bring Up the Bodies, Joyce Carol Oates, the importance of a first page, Wolf Hall, Writing Historical Fiction
I have just started reading Hilary Mantel’s long-awaited third book and am not disappointed – though it highlights my own insecurities about trying to write quality historical fiction.
After collecting The Mirror & the Light from Waterstones, I referred back to something I posted on this blog back in March 2015 about learning from the opening pages of a masterpiece like Wolf Hall. Thoughts triggered by a quote from Joyce Carol Oates: ‘The first sentence can’t be written until the final sentence is written‘. She was talking about not getting hung-up on your beginning.
I hope you will agree that the post quoted below still has relevance:
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 once 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 vivid picture of that cobbled yard and the battered leather boot. The reader can imagine how easily that rough knot would lacerate 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 digesting this the second time around it dawned on me that not only is the prose powerful, not only does it push the story urgently 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 ignore hurtful insults. The danger inherent in provoking a man with total power.
Those first pages were surely the last that she penned – and the lesson to us must be to soldier on, to 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 your book, then perfect the opening. Another Wolf Hall is too much to aim for – but one can dream.