Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer is out this month. You can read a few of his tips below. Bloomsbury have offered us some free copies for the first ten people to correctly answer the following question: What should a first line open up? You need to read the article for the answer! Please email your answer and postal address to Vicky.Beddow@bloomsbury.com
Writing Tips From Colomn McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer
There are no rules
Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. To hell with grammar, but only if you know the grammar first. To hell with formality, but only if you have learned what it means to be formal. To hell with plot, but you better at some stage make something happen. To hell with structure, but only if you have thought it through so thoroughly that you can safely walk through your work with your eyes closed.
The great ones break the rules on purpose. They do it in order to remake the language. They say it like nobody has ever said it before.
Your First Line
A first line should open up your rib cage. It should reach in and twist your heart backward. It should suggest that the world will never be the same again. The opening salvo should be active. It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your reader’s ear that everything is about to change.
So much of what then follows is based on the tone of the opening cue. Assure us that the world is not static. Give us something concrete to hang on to. Let us know that we’re going somewhere. But take it easy too. Don’t stuff the world into your first page. Achieve a balance. Let the story unfold. Think of it as a doorway. Once you get your readers over the threshold, you can show them around the rest of the house. At the same time, don’t panic if you don’t get it right first time around. Often the opening line won’t be found until you’re halfway through your first draft. You hit page 157 and you suddenly realize, Ah, that’s where I should have begun. So you go back and begin again.
Open elegantly. Open fiercely. Open delicately. Open with surprise. Open with everything at stake.
At least not yet.
Your Last Line
Gogol said that the last line of every story was, “And nothing would ever be the same again.” Nothing in life ever really begins in one single place, and nothing ever truly ends. But stories have at least to pretend to finish. Don’t tie it up too neatly. Don’t try too much. Often the story can end several paragraphs before, so find the place to use your red pencil. Print out several versions of the last sentence and sit with them. Go to your park bench again. Discover silence. Read each version over and over. Go with the one that you feel to be true and a little bit mysterious. Don’t tack on the story’s meaning. Don’t moralize at the end. Don’t preach that final hallelujah. Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where they have been. They know what they have learned. They know already that life is dark. You don’t have to flood it with last-minute light.
Try, if possible, to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward. Never forget that a story begins long before you start it and ends long after you end it. Allow your reader to walk out from your last line and into her own imagination. Find some last-line grace. This is the true gift of writing.
Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer is published by Bloomsbury, May 2017.