Tag Archives: Madeleine l’Engle

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night…

The other day, my agent (Polly Nolan, for those who are new to the party – hello! Welcome!) posted an interesting Tweet. Here it is:

Why, indeed.

The opening of your novel is so important. It’s the bit that will draw in not only agents and publishers, but also readers. It should be true to your ‘voice’, open a window into your fictional world, give a clear impression of your protagonist and a hint about what’s facing them as your story unfolds, and – if possible – it should avoid a few classic mistakes.

As Polly says, ideally a strong opening to a novel shouldn’t feature weather or a character waking up from sleep, particularly if it’s due to an alarm clock ringing or because of a nightmare frightening them into wakefulness. In my opinion, a novel also shouldn’t open with a character describing themselves, either, particularly if it’s achieved by having them look into a mirror.

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Camil Tulcan via Compfight cc

Not that I’m anyone to judge.

My first ‘novel’ – completed, but never shown to anyone – began with a little girl looking out her aunt’s window watching the rain fall outside and wondering how she was going to pass the time until it stopped. Also, I once wrote half a novel which opened with a girl waking up from a recurring dream which had been bothering her for months. She returns to sleep and when she wakes up again – properly, this time – she and her sister help one another to dress, enabling me (the extremely novice writer) to describe what my protagonist looked like through her self-deprecating self-comparisons to the other girl. I then go on to describe the day outside and what the weather was doing, for no real reason.

All in the space of the first four pages. Yeah. Clever, huh?

It’s no surprise that neither of these stories went anywhere. The first was just nonsense, and I felt the second was too similar to every other YA-kidlit dystopian narrative out there. Parts of its story world did end up resembling another novel (in one of those weird ‘My-idea-has-been-STOLEN-from-my-very-BRAIN moments which happen to everyone at some stage), and I felt the other book had handled it much better than I ever would. So, I chucked my own story. But I thought of these books with a certain fondness when I read Polly’s Tweet. Everyone has to make the same mistakes when they’re starting out. It’s a rule. Or maybe a law. I was (and am, because I’m still learning) no exception.

The strange thing is that even though nobody ever read these proto-books of mine, and I had no feedback on my writing at that point in my life, I somehow picked up, probably from reading other books, that these methods of kicking off a story weren’t good ones. It’s important to say that this isn’t because they’re not good places to start off a story, per se; it’s more to do with the fact that everyone does them. These methods of beginning a story have been used so often that they’ve become almost instinctive (which is why so many beginning writers default to them), and they’ve become so clichéd that Madeleine l’Engle parodied them in the opening to her most famous novel A Wrinkle in Time. I’m sure agents see them in their hundreds, week after week – and that’s what you want to avoid, if you want to get their attention. (Other things to avoid: bribes, ‘presents’, scented paper, threats to burn their offices down unless they take you on, pleading, personal photographs of you, and general weirdness. Word to the wise. You’ll get their attention that way, too, but for all the wrong reasons).

However, I do have to admit that thinking about this issue got me wondering whether it’s ever a good idea to begin a story with an alarm clock ringing or the weather or your protagonist looking at themselves in a mirror. Just for fun, then, I put this together:

Katie woke from a deep sleep to the sound of an alarm. Half-conscious, she wriggled her arm free and slapped at her bedside table, searching for the clock as its relentless brrrrrrring burrowed into her brain. Her knuckles knocked against something cold and unfamiliar, something which clanged like hollow metal, and it jerked her more fully awake. What on earth had that been?

Consciousness crept over her, confusion coming with it. The mattress felt weird; harder than usual. The air smelled cloying, with a tang like blood. Her breath caught in her neck as she opened her eyes, feeling the sharp pull as a layer of encrusted… something broke apart, tugging at her eyelashes.

Everything was dark.

She blinked, but the darkness stayed absolute.

Then, like she was inside an egg being cracked with a silver spoon, light burst across her vision, slashing her retinas. She recoiled from it, hissing, as she raised her hand to shade her watering eyes. All she could see was light, like a scalding yellow sun. Gradually, it began to show her the smooth, domed ceiling above her, the featureless walls.  This is a dream, she told herself.

The alarm never stopped its ringing.

’99-097-31!’ shouted a voice, clanging inside Katie’s skull. She rolled her gaze around, wondering what she was enclosed in. A capsule? A cell? ‘On your feet!’ Like the words had triggered her muscles, Katie swung her legs out of bed. The floor was cool on her bare soles, but the light-filled gap was widening, permitting the brightness of a desert day to pierce Katie’s world. The heat was rising with every breath. The snow and ice that had been there, outside her window on the street where her house was, where she’d grown up, where her parents were in the next room and where she’d gone to sleep just a few hours before, had been replaced by unrelenting sun and cracked earth. A broken ruin lay somewhere on the horizon. As she struggled to stand, her feet slid across the metal floor in pools of sweat, throwing her back against her thin mattress. Her heart thumped painfully beneath her collarbone.

‘What’s happening?’ Katie called. ‘Where am I?’ But there was no reply.

As she gazed around, desperately searching for answers, a telephone, a door, she was transfixed by an image in the metal wall opposite. Her reflection. She saw a skinny dark-haired woman sitting on a sleep-tossed bed, bright blue eyes staring out of a hollow face, stick-like arms clutching the thin blankets. A scattering of dark moles pocked her face like ash on milk. The reflection’s thin, chapped lips stretched as Katie gasped, raising a bird-boned hand to her face. She felt rough fingertips touch her blistered mouth, and the movement was echoed by the mirrored woman.

But the reflection showed someone Katie had never seen before in her life.

So, there you have it. Maybe starting with an alarm, the weather and a character’s self-description isn’t always a bad idea.*

*Just kidding. It is. Don’t ever do this, kiddos.

Book Review Saturday – ‘A Wrinkle in Time’

Okay, so. Yes, I’m aware this book is now over fifty years old. I’m aware that, probably, everyone in the world has read it. I’m aware it’s a deserved classic.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

I’m aware – you may not be aware of this, though – that I own no fewer than three different editions of this book, such is the overwhelming love I have for it.

So, the question you’re no doubt asking is: Why, o Why, are you doing a review of this book today?

Well, this is the reason.

I learned during the week that this book has been turned into a graphic novel – an award-winning graphic novel, at that – and my book antennae immediately twinged into action. Another volume to track down and add to my collection (or assimilate into my book-Borg, if you like), and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it ever since. So, this week it is on the review hotseat, for which I make no apologies. I’d like to think that someone, somewhere – perhaps even a reader of this very blog! – has never come across this book, and maybe my words will convince them of their folly.

‘A Wrinkle in Time’ tells the story of Meg Murry, a girl who is the child of gifted scientists but who feels, in her own heart, that she is inadequate. She is the oldest in her family, and the only girl – her twin brothers (Sandy and Dennys) are athletic and confident and her adored ‘baby’ brother (Charles Wallace) is supremely gifted, but appears ‘weird’ to the rest of the world because he speaks in full sentences, like an adult. Meg, however, knows that he can read her mind, and they have a deep and inexplicable connection – and, also, the most moving and believable love I’ve ever read between siblings, which becomes the driving narrative in the novel. One ‘dark and stormy night’ (the clichéd opening line is deliberate) Meg discovers Charles Wallace having milk and bread-and-jam with Mrs Whatsit, a strange old lady who is, she says, their new neighbour. In the course of conversation, she says: There is such a thing as a tesseract.

Mrs. Murry, the children’s mother, immediately starts to worry. Her husband has disappeared as the story opens, and the last thing he was working on before he vanished was – the tesseract. A complex scientific/mathematical concept (and one I fully admit I didn’t understand at all as a child reader, not that it mattered in the slightest), the tesseract is used in this book to mean something which allowed people to move through space and time, much as one can fold several layers of cloth over one another and pass a needle through them all simultaneously. Mr. Murry was employed by the government to do research into the tesseract, and has not been seen since.

Meg, Charles Wallace and Meg’s schoolfriend Calvin O’Keefe then set off on a quest to find Meg’s father. They enlist the help of Mrs Whatsit, and her two mysterious ‘friends’, Mrs Who and Mrs Which. In the course of their quest they are transported to other planets (including the home planet of the three ‘Mrs W’s’, where they meet them in their natural shape, and not the human forms they take while on earth), and they are shown a huge, universe-devouring blackness, which is threatening the future of the earth and all the other worlds.

They end up on Camazotz, a planet which has many earthlike features, but which has fallen completely under the power of this nihilistic darkness, and is ruled by a gigantic disembodied brain known as IT. This brain pulses to a particular beat, and the entire planet operates to this same beat – people’s footsteps, the rhythm with which children throw balls during playtime, the opening and closing of doors – and, as a child, the concept terrified me. It’s a clever way of using the ‘unheimlich’ – that which is familiar, and yet unfamiliar, and hence terrifying – to excellent effect. Mr Murry is being held captive on this planet, and Charles Wallace – due to his brilliance, and his telepathic abilities – is able to find him, but by doing so he puts himself at enormous risk. Mr Murry tries to tesser away from the planet with Meg, Calvin and Charles Wallace – but Charles Wallace gets left behind. The only person who can go back to save him is Meg, because she has the one thing IT does not have, the one weapon which can overpower it and reclaim her brother, and so she sets off alone to bring him home.

Image: garrettsbookblog.wordpress.com

Image: garrettsbookblog.wordpress.com

‘A Wrinkle in Time’ fascinated me as a child. I loved the familial connections, the bravery of Calvin O’Keefe, the complex portrayal of Meg’s parents, particularly her father – it was the first time I’d ever read about a parent who ‘fails’, and who doesn’t know the answers to everything – and, of course, I loved Meg herself, a girl who puts her brother above everything else. I loved the three Mrs Ws, and their clear, easy ways of explaining huge concepts, and the horror of the world-ending nothingness that threatened the existence of the universe was extremely real, to me. That concept has also been used in ‘The Never-Ending Story,’ of course, but I think it’s even more emotive in this story than in that other towering classic of children’s literature.

Madeleine l’Engle went on to write four other books in this same fictive universe, featuring the Murry and O’Keefe families, and I have also read those – but, sadly, not with the same pure and unsullied love as I have for ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ The later books grow a little too obsessed with religion and morality – there are tones of this in ‘Wrinkle’, too, but they are so quietly present that they’re hard to spot – and I found the sequels overly preachy and not at all in the same league as the earlier book. However, ‘Wrinkle’ stands alone as a prime example of everything that is brilliant in literature, let alone children’s literature, and should be read by all people, everywhere.

It’s just that good.

If you haven’t read it, sort it out. If you have, re-read it. I know I’m about to.

Recommended Books (Vol. 1)

The other day on Twitter, a very kind lady named Steph asked me if I’d ever blogged a list of books I’d recommend. I thought about it, and realised that I hadn’t, really, ever written a post like that. I do random book reviews, and I’ve talked a bit about why I buy certain books and not others (which, no doubt, you’re aware of if you’ve been hanging out here for a while), but I’ve never put together an actual list of books I would recommend to others.

It’s been on my mind for a few days now, and I think I’ll give it a go.

It’s a bit scary, though, in some ways. It’s sort of like opening the door to your mind and showing people around, hoping they won’t turn their nose up at your choice of curtains or finger your upholstery in a derisory way, going ‘Really? This fabric? Couldn’t she afford anything better?’

'Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn't see that at one of my candlelight suppers!' Image: politicsworldwide.com

‘Well, I never! How *could* she choose that colour for the walls? Has she *no* decorum? You wouldn’t see that at one of my candlelight suppers!’
Image: politicsworldwide.com

Anyway.

So, the list of books below are some of those which I found world-enhancing, life-changing, utterly wonderful in every way, and which I’d recommend everyone reads as soon as possible. Here goes. Be gentle.

The Silver SwordIan Seraillier. I first read this book in first class at primary school (so, I was about seven or eight); we were going through a World War II phase, wherein we read this book, ‘The Diary of a Young Girl’ by Anne Frank, and another book I adore called I Am David by Anne Holm.  Everyone in the world has heard of Anne Frank, but not everyone has heard of the others. So, that’s why these ones are recommended.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine l’Engle. I brought this book on a family holiday when I was about ten, and I lost it. I almost lost my reason, too. The strop was almighty and unmerciful, and nobody escaped my wrath. I actually found it again years later, after I’d already bought myself two replacement copies, but I didn’t apologise to my family for the temper tantrum. So it goes.

Speaking of l’Engle, though – as much as I adore A Wrinkle in Time, I’m not completely sold on the other books in the series of which this book is the first volume. As they go on, they get a bit less interesting and a bit more ‘preachy’. But Wrinkle is definitely worth reading.

I’ve already wittered on about The Little Prince and Elidor before, so I won’t do it again.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath, and The Owl Service, all by Alan Garner, are so amazing that I don’t have a word to describe them. Just read them, as soon as possible, and then read everything Alan Garner has ever written, including Boneland, Strandloper, Thursbitch, The Stone Book Quartet, The Voice that Thundersand anything else I may have forgotten.

I need to go and have a lie-down now, after thinking about Alan Garner’s books. They’re that good.

Right. Next, move on to Susan Cooper, and her magnificent The Dark is Rising sequence of books; once you’ve read them, try Victory for size, a story which links the modern day to the Battle of Trafalgar, and which is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. I read the last fifty pages of it through a veil of tears. Just a fair warning.

Then, there’s Jenny Nimmo, and her Snow-Spider Trilogy, which is fabulous.

There’s also John Connolly, who has written for children (beautifully), but who also has the marvellous Charlie Parker detective novels, all of which are worth reading; my favourite is Bad Men.

I’ve spoken before on this blog about Jeanette Winterson. To be honest, I’d find it impossible to recommend one of her books above any of the others, but if I had to, it’d be Sexing the Cherry. Or The Passion. Or The Power Book. Or Written on the Body. Gah! I can’t choose. Read them all, and you decide.

Margaret Atwood. What can I say about her? Read The Edible Woman, and follow it up with Surfacing, and then let me know if your mind is blown. Because mine was when I first read these books. I was the same age as Atwood had been when she’d written them, and I went into a funk of ‘what on earth am I doing with my life?’ that lasted about four years.

It’s pretty unfashionable not to read and love Neil Gaiman these days; I’m no exception to the rule. Pick anything he’s written and give it a go, and I’m pretty sure you’ll love it. I recommend all his novels (perhaps not Anansi Boys as much as the others, for some reason), but my absolute favourite Gaiman is Sandman, his graphic novel. Genius.

I love Garth Nix. I read The Abhorsen Trilogy several years ago, and was astounded. Those books inspired me to write more than (I think) any other young adult/children’s book I’ve ever read. Give them a whirl, if you haven’t already.

When it comes to Ursula le Guin, everyone recommends The Earthsea Quartet. Of course, I do, too. But there’s so much more to her than that. The Left Hand of Darkness, The Lathe of Heaven, and The Word for World is Forest are also amazing.

I’ve just finished reading A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, and I couldn’t recommend it more highly, either. I took a chance on it, as I’d never read anything by the author before, and I was richly rewarded for it. A beautiful, completely unique book, it’s great and should be widely read.

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando changed my life when I first read it. It showed me what a novel can do, by breaking every single narrative rule in the universe and then making a brilliant story out of the shards. Incredible.

Also, Sylvia Plath’s Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams, which isn’t a novel (it’s a collection of stories). This book left a lasting impression on me. Everyone has read The Bell Jar (also wonderful), but not as many people have read Plath’s stories. So, do it.

I reckon that’s enough for one day. I have a feeling I’ll revisit this topic, because I’ve really enjoyed taking a stroll through my bookish memories.

Have you read any/all of the books I mention here? What did you think? Would you agree that they’re worth recommending to others, or am I off my trolley?