Those first 500 words

book cover for Hannah's Island

The first 500 words of a novel are the most important – maybe as few as the first 300 according to some people.

I have read through the profiles of over 150 agents, watched their video blogs where available (this is an excellent one from an agent I immediately warmed to because of his honesty) and read their twitter feeds (that took a while and wasn’t very productive). But one frequently mentioned desire is to be immersed in a place, a culture, a character – almost immediately. They want to know how it feels to be there. They want to be captivated.

My own writing has been strong on plot and characters, but I may have found a possible weakness in my previous novels in terms of this immediate immersive feeling. I am now trying to correct that with my fourth novel and am sharing my work in progress here. This opening may have to change a little as the story develops because plots evolve and characters develop.

ps The title of the novel is going to change, Hannah’s Island is just a ‘working title’. The cover image is apt and will probably remain if I end up self-publishing. This opening has not been edited yet – warning, there may be literals.

Hannah’s Island – Chapter 1

Hannah dived, leaving only a ring of ripples on the mirrored surface of the sea as it closed behind her. A trail of bubbles marked her progress as she knifed deeper, hands pulling confidently against the cool water. She eased herself between the roof timbers and into a space lit only by flashes of shattered sunlight on the swaying weedcovered walls. Swimming down the line of the stairs she searched for the kitchen, where any valuable items would most likely be found.

That day a soft mist had stretched along the horizon, obscuring the mainland, so that the island appeared to be afloat in an endless ocean. Even though it was not yet noon the sun-scorched rocks had burned against the soles of her bare feet. The sea shimmered with the ice-cold clarity of a reservoir and looked no more than a few feet deep, but the rafters of a roof were clearly defined, stark beneath the surface, a skeleton picked clean like carrion on a field. A shoal of small silver fish flashed against the bare ribs of the abandoned house.

Most buildings covered by the rising seas were stripped in the decades before she was born, but Hannah enjoyed the silence of exploring old submerged houses. She imagined a family there once, clustered around a television, each with their own personal phone, chatting to friends and to each other – technology that was no longer viable. Her occasional discoveries of aluminium pots and pans, copper items, even iron tools could all be weighed and exchanged for small luxuries when the packet steamer called on the second Tuesday of the month. Most of what she earned was saved towards a gift for Ethan.

After drifting out through the open back door, still empty handed, she glanced to one side and saw two large coalbunkers. They must have been overlooked when the house was abandoned to the waves. The timber covers had rotted and between missing planks they looked to be still full of coal – worth investigating with fresh air in her lungs. Hannah pushed off from what had once been the doorstep, a slab of dressed slate that might also be worth salvaging. She let her natural buoyancy pull her upwards. In no hurry, Hannah watched the ever-changing patterns of sunlight and blue sky flash and dance on the surface above her. With only a few feet to go a shadow cut across the water. The hull of a small boat sliced through the sea, the daggerboard missing her shoulder by inches.

Hannah broke the surface and gasped for air as her eyes followed the line of white water left by the dinghy. She heard wood grind against shingle as the boat rode onto the beach. The sudden contact unbalanced the woman at the tiller. The sail slapped like sheets drying in a fresh breeze. The boom swung, it struckthe woman on the side of her head and pitched her into the water. Hannah took a deep breath. Her hands dug hard as she swam towards the beach and the body, which lay face down in the shallows.

Plots and storyboards

plot a novel on cards

My first novel was planned meticulously
I had no idea how ‘real’ authors developed their plots. Previously I had tried to write a novel with very little planning and my plot got confused, I got confused – even the characters in my novel got confused. So I set about working out everything beforehand.

Here is my nerdy, old-fashioned, personalised method of plotting.
You will need…
Hundreds of small bits of cardboard
Two coloured felt-tip markers
(blue edge on a card for a chapter head and date, red for a chapter summary)
A pen of your choice that doesn’t smudge easily
A roll of clear sellotape
A cup of tea (coffee is an acceptable alternative)
Patience

The advantages of this method (which I still use in a modified form)
You only need to know three or four things in your plot, scribble them on bits of card and put them on your table.

You don’t have to imagine a whole plot in one go. Once you’ve started you can move them around, add ideas, even push some to the side. Before you know it the story will grow in front of you. Sellotape them together before the wind blows them all over the floor (it happened to me once).

Don’t let it rule you
In my work process this is produced as a guide only. Once I start writing everything changes. But you can just cut up your bits of card and replace them with new strands and characters as they appear. You can see my scribbled character spider in the top left of the picture.

Software options
There are software programs that emulate this method and probably give you more options, but…
1) I don’t have a computer screen as big as my table.
2) Getting away from the screen can liberate your imagination – it’s a touchy-feely method.

How not to get a Literary Agent?

illustration of literary agents

Preperation
Before submitting any material I read through the profiles of some 150 agents. But I didn’t only read their profiles, I read their twitter feeds, watched their video posts, read about their likes and dislikes and checked the authors they represent.

illustration of literary agents

I’ve failed so far, but what have I learned?
I submitted the first three chapters of Life After Alison, a query letter and a synopsis (at the requested length) to a number of agents. So far I have had only rejections – polite, formulaic, friendly, but still rejections.

As this is my third novel I have been searching for where the disconnect lies and I think I’ve identified a problem with my writing. I have concentrated on storytelling, not to the detriment of everything else, but storytelling has been my focus. My readers like my style, but it doesn’t grab the attention of agents.

So the novel I’m now working on, with the working title of Hannah’s Island, is addressing that perceived weakness. The first five hundred words immerse you in the character, the place, the time and how it feels to be Hannah, but without my usual driven storytelling (the story does evolve). We will see what happens when I’ve finished the novel, but I’m quite pleased with the new direction.

illustration of literary agents

The main thing to remember is…
Literary agents stand shoulder to shoulder in wanting to like your novel. It’s not their fault if you’ve written something dull or riddled with literals or derivative (I don’t think I have but… who knows). And they’re all different. Just because one is unimpressed, it doesn’t mean another will not turn out to be your champion.

I will be posting occasionally about how Hannah’s Island is progressing and probably post those first five hundred words, with notes, on how I think I’ve adjusted my style and content.

Summary
It may appear to be about ‘who you know’, but in the end it’s about what you’ve written.

ps editing
I have since had my manuscript professionally edited – I really should have done that first. No wonder I had no success with agents.

A character spider

writing aid character spider

Spoiler alert
This character spider contains facts about characters in my second novel The Act of Falling that don’t appear in the text. If you know anything about personality disorders you would probably work them out anyway, but just thought I’d mention that.

The size of the circle
My focus is on Emily Hamton, therefore she takes centre stage in this diagram. However, the novel is written from the POV of Richard. The size of each circle is roughly the prominence of a character in the text. There are three circle sizes, therefore primary, secondary and bit part players.

My nerdy approach to plot and character
I usually have a broad idea of the plot and theme of the novel – although I’m personally not so concerned with the theme as it seems a bit like lecturing to your readers.

The plot develops intricacies as I write. I keep that under control in another way, which I will post here soon. The characters also develop and this graphic helps me to keep the salient points of their relationships and history consistent.

Does the world need another novel?

my desk with scraps of writing on it

Probably not, and yet I’m writing my fourth novel. So why?

I still don’t have a simple, single sentence answer to that question of why I do it – but here are some of the excuses I’ve used when I don’t feel people want the full answer.

I wanted to see if I could write 90,000 words
There was this idea for a story that I had to write down
It’s fun, I do it as a hobby really
I hope to find fame and fortune by writing a bestseller

The real reason is… I don’t always understand people in real life (ref sub clinical autism – whatever that means). In a creating a story I get to invent the character’s and their motivation. I am inside the head of every character. I know why they do what they do, what they mean when say something and what they want.

When I’m submerged in writing is the only time I am confident that I know what’s happening. The rest of my life is spent muddling through with guesswork and I often misunderstand what’s said to me.

So, what’s your excuse?

Hannah’s Island – location

A work in progress. A post apocalyptic novel of sorts, but set in somewhere between a dystopian and utopian world.

map of Hannah's Island

The location for this novel is significant. I wanted to set it on an island, an enclosed, somewhat isolated environment. I also realised that I needed some sort of conflict or I wouldn’t have a story to tell.

This stumped me for a week or so, but one day I had one of those lightbulb moments and decided that an unexpected visitor would upset the apple cart in an otherwise idyllic but basic, rural, closed community. I knew almost instantly how the newcomer would affect lives of those already there – but why has the visitor come?

While I was thinking about this I decided to draw a map of Hannah’s Island. I needed to know where everyone was going to live and their relative positions. I also researched how much land a small population would require for real self sufficiency. It will make life easier to have this reference to hand while writing.

Hannah’s Island – disaster strikes

A work in progress. A post apocalyptic novel of sorts, but set in somewhere between a dystopian and utopian world.

A wave breaking over a road

The first disaster I envisaged for this novel is rising sea levels (it didn’t take much imagining). I had come across a map of how various coastlines, and indeed whole countries, would change if the worst case scenario happened. Transport, communication, shipping (ports would have to be relocated), cities (many are on the coast) would all be lost. Life would change slowly and we would adapt. But our infrastructure has taken hundreds of years to evolve and the land masses would be different – and the available material resources.

With so much infrastructure beneath the sea would salvaging of metals become a potential income stream for an individual?
What happens when food has to be more locally sourced?
What happens if other disasters disrupt the rebuilding process?