Great Opening Lines

 

One of the most important parts of a story, whether it’s a novel or a short, is the first sentence.

The first sentence has a big job to do, and a most important one. Basically, its job is to make the reader read the first paragraph.

And that’s important because the first paragraph’s job is to make the reader read the second.

And, by extrapolation, the first page’s job is to make the reader turn to the second. Once they have done that, the writer has them.

So that first sentence is vital. I’m an English teacher, among other things and I’ve read thousands of essays and stories and assignments from my students over the years. And usually I can tell from the first sentence what the rest of the piece is going to be like. If it’s a good one, I can relax into it and maybe even enjoy the read. If it’s a bad one I reach for a glass of red wine (every teacher’s panacea at mark time) and resign myself to a mediocre effort.

The late great children’s author Madeleine L’Engle started her novel A Wrinkle in Time with the sentence ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’ That is usually the sentence used as an example of how not to start a story. Which is why the brave Ms L’Engle used it, I guess. She went on to write a very successful series of novels from that bold opening.

So let’s have a look at some great opening lines of great stories, and try to work out just why they hit the mark the way they do.

First up, one of my favourites, from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948):

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

 
That phrase “the clocks were striking thirteen” is what makes this a wonderful sentence. Of course, common sense tells us clocks that strike on the hour (that is, sound out a series of chimes, one for each hour) are not twenty-four hour clocks, so none of them normally strike thirteen. The use of that word indicates there is something unusual about these clocks, and that draws the reader in. He or she wants to know not just why the clocks are striking thirteen, but how. Orwell arouses our curiosity in a subtle way and does what every good writer should do: make the reader ask questions. It’s by reading the book that the reader will find the answers.

Another example, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Tolkien did a similar thing to Orwell. He introduced a word that would immediately ask a question. What is a hobbit? We want to know, so we keep reading. In this case, Tolkien almost immediately answers the question and gives us quite a long description of his invented race. But it works, because after that description he dives straight into the story and vindicates our newfound knowledge by putting his hobbit into a situation that demonstrates not only the racial tendencies of hobbits but the ways in which his particular hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, is different.

Another good line, for different reasons, from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day. We had been wandering, indeed, in the leafless shrubbery an hour in the morning; but since dinner (Mrs Reed, when there was no company, dined early) the cold winter wind had brought with it clouds so sombre, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-of-door exercise was now out of the question.

Here the author plunges us straight in. We meet at least two people: the narrator and Mrs Reed, and learn a bit about the habits of each. Mrs Reed is particular about when she dines; the narrator seems to dislike the outdoors and finds raw winter weather uncomfortable.

It is a grammatically perfect way of drawing us into the writer’s world. We know it’s Charlotte Bronte, of course, so we can anticipate the sort of story we’re in for. But here we have no “faffing about” that other writer’s of her time might have indulged in. We are into the story.

Here’s an opening from a more modern book, Ben Elton’s Past Mortem:

The victim died as he had lived.

Cruelly.

Only more so.

Three short paragraphs that set up a situation that has us wanting to know more. Is this a murder? And what was it that made the victim’s life cruel? The fact that each paragraph contains a single short sentence or sentence fragment rams home to us the suddenness of the death and the impact of it. It turns out to be a gruesome murder and Elton cuts no corners in getting us straight to it. It’s up there with Charles Dickins’s wonderful opening to A Christmas Carol: ‘Marley was dead, to begin with.’

The importance of killer opening lines can’t be stressed too much. They have to be strong and intriguing, they must raise questions in the reader’s mind, and they must immediately reflect the style and nature of the story to come. Sometimes it may well be that the first sentence is the last one to be written.

 

 

The Thot Plickens

Some writers plot. Some don’t. I sort of do it. I don’t sit down and carefully write out everything that’s going to happen in my books. If I did, I would no longer be interested in writing them. I sort of have an outline, or at least a vague idea of what I think might happen, and go from there.

After that, I start writing along the lines of what I had in mind for that chapter, and make it up as I go. I discover new things as I write, develop new ideas for the characters, and sometimes things go in a very different way to what I had intended.

Take today for instance. I was writing a scene in my new book (I hate the word ‘Chapter’. I don’t regard the divisions within my books as chapters, although they are, mostly. I call them scenes. My background as an actor coming back to haunt me, I guess). Anyway, I was writing a scene and half way through I had an idea that changed the direction of the entire book. That’s ok. I think the new direction is a superior one. The scene didn’t end at all the way I had planned. But that’s writing.

Such irresponsible activity usually means that I have to reconsider other chapters, particularly what has gone before, and re-write them to conform to the new stuff.

Occasionally, I do plot something out in detail. Below are some notes I made for several scenes in my novel ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’ which detailed two sets of characters doing two things separately from each other. Most of the ideas on these pages ended up being scrapped anyway. But this level of detail in my pre-planning is rare.

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Usually it’s more general ideas, most of which I won’t use eventually. This makes my writing more dynamic, and to me more interesting.

Some writing teachers abhor plotting. Some encourage it. One, namely James Scott Bell, suggests you try a combination of both, or neither. It’s up to the writer. I am kind of the school that goes with, ‘Well, if I know what’s going to happen, I don’t feel inclined to write it anymore.’ On the other hand, ‘winging it’ from start to finish has a lot of dangers, too. The only writer I knew who could wing it entirely and get away with it was Roger Zelazny, who is one of my influences and one of the best dialogue writers I ever had the pleasure of reading.

I guess writers do whatever it takes to produce the goods. I start and stop, do research when I discover I need to, write the ending sometimes very early on so I know where I’m going, think up characters and then try to justify why they are in the story, realise they aren’t, get rid of them and bring them back later when some justification for their existence comes to mind.

Writing is dynamic, and pre-plotting sometimes gets in the way of a good tale. So I do a bit of both. I think it works.

Russell Proctor, http://www.russellproctor.com

 

Introducing…Kindra Sowder

One of the best things about being a writer is interacting with other writers. Today, I’m turning my blog over to Kindra Sowder, who is a fellow Permuted Press author. Permuted Press is a publishing company in the United States which has undergone a lot of transformation recently and has engaged a swag of talented people to write books for them. Kindra is one of these. I’m looking forward to the release of her book ‘Follow the Ashes” in the near future.

So here, she is: Kindra Sowder in her own write:

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Granted, I may not have an actual release date for my first book “Follow the Ashes: Part 1 of the Executioner Trilogy,” but that won’t stop me from spreading the word. I have been working on this for ten years and it went from a partnership with very campy humor, and a five part story to what is now. It is one of the best up and coming urban fantasy series that will have you on the edge of your seat and a knife in your heart. It is tragedy, love, loss, and destruction.

All the campy humor is gone, the partnership is history, and the story has evolved to its three parts, much better self. Now it will be published by Permuted Press, the same publisher who I have the pleasure of working with amazing author Russell Proctor with. A real up and comer. So, you guys might be wondering what it’s about. Well, here is a brief synopsis below. I also have another work being published by Permuted Press, but this is the one I am the most excited about. Here you go guys! Enjoy!

Synopsis:

There is a Gypsy legend of a woman called the Executioner. She is the one who will take on the night and all of the creatures within its dark depths. Robin is this woman and along with her partner Elizabeth, who is a very talented witch, they will fight the darkness. According to this Gypsy legend, they are destined to take their places as the leaders of an army to fight the forces of darkness in the apocalypse. This is the beginning of their journey to that very moment. Robin encounters a man who Elizabeth has foreseen who will forever change her life, but he isn’t quite human. On her way home from this shadowy encounter with this mysterious man she comes across something else in the lonely death of a cemetery. At this moment, little does she know who this creature is who she has witnessed crawling from a small crater in the ground, covered in soot and it is up to them to stop her, no matter what the cost.

And here is an excerpt just for you guys to get you hooked, to become part of the following:

I was swiftly taken through our home and my eyes were able to drift open long enough for me to see our kitchen doorway as I was laid on the kitchen island. I felt very large, warm hands on me that rolled me onto my side. One hand moved to my shoulder and gave a reassuring squeeze as I heard rummaging through a cabinet. I knew what was coming. A holy water shower, followed by a silver nitrate shot. This was going to hurt.

I heard glass moving around and knew Beth had found the bottles of holy water. I was already shaking because I knew what was coming. I had experienced this pain before. We both had, but she wasn’t the one who had almost burned the house down because of it.

Fear gripped me and my eyes shot open and met his. Beth laid a glass syringe and an amber glass bottle on the corner of the island next to the three bottles of holy water it would take for the process. She glanced at me when her eyes met mine I saw pity and concern. She knew exactly what I was about to endure, and she felt sorry for me. I half expected her not to be able to do it herself, but as she picked up one bottle of holy water she removed the lid and gave me a reassuring look. I turned onto my stomach and gripped both side of the island, and braced myself for what was going to happen next.

Beth held the bottle over the wounds and hesitated. I could see her arm shaking as well. She didn’t want to do this, but she had to. If she didn’t, I was going to turn and they would be my first victims. I’d kill myself before I let that happen. I would not be one of the monsters.

I looked her directly in the eyes and nodded, giving her the okay. It had to be done. I gripped the counter even harder and squeezed my eyes shut, holding my breath. Every muscle in my body tensed up, and she hadn’t even poured anything yet. Then I felt the first sting as a few drops landed on my skin, and I gripped the edges of the counter even harder. Those few drops weren’t as bad as the barrage of acid that was about to be poured onto me.

A river of holy water touched my skin and sizzled. I felt like acid was being poured onto me and I was able to stifle a few screams. The river stopped, and then another started. I couldn’t stop it this time. Screams of agony ripped through the air and filled every corner of the house. There was no way to fight it. It stopped again. I opened my eyes and Beth was standing there, holding the bottle but not daring to pour anymore. I gave her another nod and closed my eyes. She then poured the whole bottle and then moved onto bottle number two, then three. I was sweating and soaking wet and could barely breathe by the time that was done. Now came the worst part. The syringe full of silver nitrate.

I slowly sat up, wincing, and put my arm out, rolling up my sleeve so she could get to the veins at the bend of my elbow. She touched the very tip of the glass syringe to my skin, looked me in the eyes, and pushed it into the vein right at the surface. I cringed, but held still. I knew once she pushed the plunger down I wouldn’t be as retrained. The man grabbed my shoulders from behind.

She pushed the plunger all the way down and at first everything was okay, then I felt a sensation was starting to build. My veins were on fire and as the burning grew, a glow began in the center of my chest and began to spread through those veins. The pain grew with it. I couldn’t hold it back. My head rolled back and I shrieked, a demonic scream being released with it.

The pain was unbearable and my body felt as if it was on fire and I went limp. My vision went black, but I was still aware of what was happening. The man picked me up and I could hear Beth directing him on where to go. As he laid me on what I could only assume was a bed I felt the coolness of the sheets, which was more than welcome as far as I was concerned. I wandered off into unconsciousness again, and everything was gone.

Author Links:

http://kindrasowder-insidemymind.blogspot.com/

https://www.facebook.com/kmkinnaman

https://twitter.com/KindraKinnaman

 

 

 

 

10 Books to Keep No Matter What

 

A church near us is having a rummage sale. A flyer was put in our letter box asking for any donations, so I decided to go through my collection of books and see if there were any I didn’t need any longer.

That sounds almost sacrilegious: of course I need books! But lately I have managed to fill six bookcases, and some of them I know I’ll never read again, so it’s better that other people get the chance to read them than they just take up room on my bookshelves. There is some sanity in these things to cling to.

So I spent a day going through my books and seeing which ones I could bear to part with, and which I knew I would never desert. It was a great day, not painful at all, but certainly full of memories as I pulled volume after volume off the shelves, flicked through them, and recalled what I did and didn’t like about them.

The decision became not which ones do I donate, but which do I keep? So I made that my benchmark.

I won’t tell you which ones I donated – rather, the interesting question became why I wanted to keep certain books. What is it about them that makes me want to hang onto them?

So in no particular order, just as they came off the shelves, here are a few I decided to keep, and the reasons why:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.

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This one was easy. It’s actually the first four instalments of his trilogy (and if you don’t understand that reference, it’s probably because you haven’t read them). But I always figured the first one was the best. After all, Earth is destroyed in the first few chapters, and towards the end our hero discovers the answer to life, the universe and everything. That’s an enormous task for one average-length book. Funny, very witty, and also deeply wise, this book has always been a favourite of mine. Adams managed to turn conventional science-fiction on its head and created something quite unique. His quirky insights to the human condition, in particular the absurdity of our never-ending quest for meaning in a meaningless universe, are inspirational far beyond his original intentions.

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

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This is a very misunderstood book. Let’s face it, it isn’t exactly easy to read, and Melville breaks off the narrative a lot to digress on aspects of whaling that frankly have nothing to do with the plot. In some ways it’s the great American novel, in others it’s a handbook on whaling. Whole chapters are devoted to stream-of-consciousness musings by the characters, of whom there are a multitude. Melville makes errors too, patently declaring that a whale is a fish – even arguing the point at length. But the narrative, when it’s there, is tremendous. The last hundred or so pages bowl along madly. I’ve read this book a couple of times at least, and it’s one of those amazing stories in which you find different things with each read. Just don’t expect it to flow from A to B like a conventional novel – the deliberate, almost continuous, narrative collapse disallows that.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass , Lewis Carroll.

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Two separate books, often confused as one, and often confused as to content as well. Hollywood consistently seems to mix the books up, placing characters from one into the other and playing with the order of events. The dream adventures of a seven-year old girl have bewitched people for over a hundred years. What is so fascinating about these books? They are far from being the total nonsense they are often taken for. Experts have determined that mathematical concepts are contained in Wonderland’s chapters, and of course Looking-Glass is based on a chess game. I myself have used these books as inspiration for my horror/fantasy series The Jabberwocky Book. They remain as timeless as they are haunting. There is something about Alice’s adventures that touch deeply hidden parts of the human psyche. Or something. Maybe it’s just magic.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte.

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Come on, I have to mention this one, even though I am a guy. But it’s a girl’s book, I hear you declare. It’s a romance, isn’t it? Boy meets girl sort of stuff. Yes, it is. And then there’s the rest. Betrayal, violence, the supernatural, storms aplenty and not a single bit of bodice-ripping.  It’s a powerful tale of two families torn apart by the incursion of the Other, which is a Gothic concept Mary Shelley demonstrated so well in Frankenstein. Something from outside intrudes into the natural order of things and tears it apart. The tragic tale of Cathy and Heathcliff has repercussions for us all. This was Emily Bronte’s only book – she was much less productive than either of her sisters. But in my opinion this is the book that outshines the others.  Emily was one strange puppy if this is what was going on in her head.

Where Eagles Dare, Alistair MacLean.

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All right then, here’s a boy’s book. In World War II a brave bunch of British (and one American) commandos infiltrate the headquarters of the Nazi Alpenkorps in the heart of Germany to rescue a captured American General. Or do they? Is there something else going on? If I was ever to write a book about how to write a thriller, this is the example I would base it on. Absolutely gripping from the first page to the last, with many twists and turns that will have your head snapping. And the movie was good too. Nazis are great to use as an enemy – no reader will take offence. I’ve read this one a number of times, and even though not knowing the real nature of the commandos’ mission is the key to the surprise element of the book, it’s still great to read even when you do know it. It’s just that good.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

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This book has its faults. It’s a bit…well, gooey. The nice people are really nice and the bad people are really bad and there’s an underlying Christian overtone that rankles (if an overtone can be said to underlie something – not a good description, I guess).  But I love the story anyway for its unusual and even daring experimentation. And any author who has the courage to literally begin a book with the words ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ deserves respect. The tale of Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin rescuing Meg’s father from the clutches of an oversized pulsating brain from another planet could have been really, really trite. But L’Engle does it really well, despite the gooiness. I have to say the subsequent books in the series were nowhere near as good, which is a great pity since this one is a gem – a sticky one, but a gem.

The Oxford English Dictionary

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It comes in many forms, and is also available in CD form or online. all of which is good. I’m not trying to promote the Oxford over any other language’s dictionaries, of course, it’s just that English is the only language I know. This book certainly has all the words, even if it is a bit light on plot. I confess to reading dictionaries for fun. That is, dipping into them and finding out new words. I use it a lot when writing too, of course. It’s a pity that a lot of people don’t use this book more often than they do. As a teacher, I encourage my students to use it, but many don’t even seem to consider doing so. Which is a shame.

Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, Mervyn Peake.

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I’m putting three books together on this one, which is a cheat, but I did it with little Alice above, and these books do need to be considered as a whole, even though the third one was left unfinished when Mervyn Peake died. To me, Peake was an incredible influence. I was captivated by Titus Groan when I first read it as a teenager. Writing with an artist’s eye, Peake’s descriptions of setting and people were second to none. And the convoluted, Gothic plot about the mad castle of Gormenghast and its madder inhabitants resonates with me profoundly. Only…I don’t know why. As an unfinished work, it of course lacks cohesion. There are unfinished sub-plots, extraneous characters and many unanswered questions. But there is no denying the trilogy’s power.

The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson,

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Another weird work that I have found very influential. And another flawed one, like the Gormenghast series and A Wrinkle in Time. But aren’t all books flawed in some way? Nothing is perfect. This is a spectacular vision of a dark – literally – and immensely remote future of an Earth after the Sun has died. Hodgson was a horror writer of some note during his lifetime, but his works haven’t resonated well with modern audiences. This is a shame, because the imaginative journey in this one is staggering. Very long, over 200,000 words, with basically just two characters, one of whom isn’t in the first half of the book. And chilling. Very, very scary. It’s a pity Hodgson was killed in the First World War – he could have done so much more with a mind like his.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

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I wouldn’t want to be accused of only adding English-speaking authors here. This was another much-loved book from my youth. The tale of a double-murder from the point of view of the murderer himself is a great picture of a man who isn’t innately bad, but who is forced to extremes for the purposes of survival. And of course, the redemption at the end, just so everyone goes home in a good mood. I had to read it in translation, of course, but it was a good translation, and there’s nothing wrong with reading a good translation.

 

There are so many other books I could have added, but these were just some I sorted through for the jumble sale. None of these are going there. They will remain on my shelves for as long as I’m around, and maybe after.

 

You will, of course, have your own list, and that’s good too. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone’s own list of books they will never get rid of.

 

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

Jack the Ripper’s Sister was Inspiring

The moment has come. I am about to submit my new  novel, The Red King, to my publisher, Permuted Press. http://www.permutedpress.com.

Every writer faces this moment, when the new manuscript sails off. It’s a weird time. And really, I have Jack the Ripper’s sister to thank. Whoever she was. If he even had one. Because she helped create the book, in an indirect way.

In my diary is the date I started writing it. It was almost exactly a year ago. On the 17 April 2013 I started the first few paragraphs. Actually, back then it was a very different animal. Back then, it was going to be a novella. I pictured 35,000 to 40,000 words, tops. Now, a year later, and it’s the first book of a trilogy. Things happen like that. On 4 November 2014, I finished the first draft. Since then, I’ve been editing, and working on the second book, An Unkindness of Ravens.

The whole thing was originally inspired by a picture.

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This cracked me up. I don’t know who drew it, and I apologise for posting it here if they didn’t want it to be. But the picture arrived on my Facebook page at an appropriate time, and just seemed to strike a chord. What if Dorothy and Alice met and discussed their adventures? Where would that lead?

I’ve always loved the Alice in Wonderland books and the Oz series by L. Frank Baum. In 2010 I directed a school production of the William Brown/Charlie Smalls musical The Wiz.

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So I guess I sort of had the characters in my mind when I started on a novella about Jack the Ripper’s sister. I was doing research on the Ripper and when this cartoon arrived I thought, what if Alice and Dorothy went on the hunt for him. Jack the Ripper’s sister got nowhere, but it was the inspiration for what was to become The Red King.

Then, things got moving as I started to write. The Ripper became the Red King, a minor character from Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. I devised an excuse for Alice and Dorothy to meet and started what I thought would be under 50,000 words. I threw in  the son of Inspector Lestrade from the Sherlock Holmes stories as another character as I needed a policeman, and I was sure Conan Doyle wouldn’t mind mixing it with Carroll and Baum. (The man did believe in fairies, after all.)

Well, 50,000 words later and I realised, since the story wasn’t finished, that I had a full-length novel on my hands. I started to write that with the idea of self-publishing it. Then I got wind that Permuted Press were on the hunt for new writers so I sent off a pitch to them and was offered a five-book contract, three of which are to be The Red King series.

So now I’m busier than ever thrashing out three books and thoroughly enjoying myself.

Only now, I’m finished the first one,  it’s a bit like being a parent. My child is leaving home. The first of three children in rapid succession. I’m proud, and a little nervous. I wonder if I’ve done the right thing, tried all I could. Will I think of something else to put n while writing the rest of the series and need to have included some foreshadowing in the first book? I don’t want to have some fantastic idea and find it’s too late to include it.

I only recently worked out how the story ends. That’s the thing with writing. You never know what’s going to happen, and half the fun is finding out as you go what happens to these characters you invented. I tutor English, and recently I was helping a year 8 girl write a story for homework. We came up with an idea and she put her character into terrible danger facing a wild, ravenous wolf. Her mother came in at one point and the girl was all caught up in composing the story and said excitedly, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next!” And it was all up to her as to what did happen! It was so cool to see her excitement, and share in it. She actually found what she thought would be a chore to be something thrilling.

That’s why being a writer is hard work, but ultimately so rewarding. Emotionally, you are there with the characters, you share their danger, you make it up as you go. Maybe you work from an outline, but the details fill themselves in as the writing takes place, and sometimes new paths appear, awaiting exploration.

So I’m about to hit the “Send” button and dispatch The Red King to its fate. Who knows how it will turn out? Two more books to go in the series, and only one of those is almost complete. The third, The Looking-Glass War, exists only as a few ideas and a fond hope at the moment.

I never did finish the story about Jack the Ripper’s sister. But she helped me find a new story, a bigger one. Maybe she will have her own story one day. I hope so, she sounds like quite a girl.

When I’ve finished this one, maybe I’ll sit down with her and hear what else she has to say.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com.

Please also sign up at my Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/writerproctor

Alice in Wonderland v The Red King

I am in the process of writing a new horror/fantasy series, The Jabberwocky Book. It’s a mash-up featuring Alice Liddell from Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz.

London is being stalked by a supernatural serial killer from Alice’s past, the Red King she met in Looking-Glass Land (Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There). Only our intrepid heroines can stop him, aided by the son of Inspector Lestrade from the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Reaction to the first book, The Red King, has been very positive. I am now writing the second in the series, titled An Unkindness of Ravens. The third volume, tying up the whole story, is to be called The Looking-Glass War.

I thought I might publish the first two chapters of The Red King here, to give a taste of what is to come.

The Red King should be out later this year. Keep watching!

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The Queen is dead.

 Long live the King.

The Red King smiled at his wife’s corpse as her blood made a widening pool on the floor. A good kill: he had spared the Queen too much suffering, just a quick thrust through her heart with the Bandersnatch knife. Best to do the deed quickly; he at least owed her that.

Through the tower window, from out of the Forest of Forget, came the clash of metal and the thud of battle-horses’ hooves as the Knights hurried towards the castle.
Curse them! They would know the Red Queen was dead; all the Land would tremble at her passing. The animals in the forest would know, the creatures on the river would know, as would the people in the towns scattered across the chessboard fields. But he was ahead of them all. His escape was ready.
He left the corpse where it was, crossed the room to a thick tapestry on one wall and quickly pulled it aside. Behind was a disused fireplace with a mirror hung above it. A shiver passed through him as the temperature in the room suddenly dropped. He gripped the edges of the Looking-Glass, long crooked fingers wrapped far around the wooden frame, and stared at his reflection for a moment, smiling. He had been asleep too long – for an age and more. This was a good day, the best day. No more sharing the throne, no more chess game. No more Queen.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, waiting for the last few seconds of the last ten years to run out. The timing was so delicate, so fine…
Under his fingers, the Looking-Glass’s wooden frame shivered for a moment, and was still. The sign.
The King opened his eyes and looked deeply into the mirror. His reflection blurred and faded, colours swirled and shifted, coalesced again to form the drawing room of a comfortable house. His image was nowhere to be seen; the glass reflected neither the throne room, nor the tapestries on the walls. The Looking-Glass’s surface was cold, very cold – there were only a few moments to act. The other side of the mirror waited, but it would not wait for long.
Something behind him – a bright flash of light? He turned his head, but there was no one else alive in the room. Three loud explosions like thunder, in quick succession, filled the air around him. Then silence.
He tensed, suddenly afraid. Had the Knights arrived already? Were they pounding the castle with cannons? But no, that was not possible; the sounds must have been in his head. It was nerves; fear; adrenalin from the murder of his wife playing tricks on him. Fear was irrational, something felt by weaklings, not Kings.
He smiled and faced the Looking-Glass again. It was time to pass through…
Yet still he paused: was this right? Was it the way? While the Knights were in the forest surrounding the castle all was safe, for there they could not remember anything. The trees sucked away memory, drinking it through their roots, using it to confound those wandering beneath them. Even their own names were lost. But when the Knights eventually emerged from beneath the brooding trees they would remember their quest. Then mercy would remain the one thing still forgotten.
He glanced back again at the body of the Queen, at her open, staring eyes: so blue, so deeply, brightly blue – he had never noticed their lustre before. But she was quite dead. Yes, escape through the Looking-Glass was the right thing to do, the only thing. There was no ruling the Land now. The Knights would see the deed and rip out his heart for what had been done to the Queen.

But they would be too late: the Looking-Glass was ready, and once the King passed through, the Knights could not follow. Let the silly creatures hunt all they liked. Now, he was free, and ready to begin again.
He used a chair to climb onto the mantelpiece of the large fireplace over which the Looking-Glass hung, took a deep breath, and stepped through. A moment of darkness as realities collided, a moment of disorientation as his body adjusted to being in a new universe, and he was there. No problem at all – a child could do it.
Once, long ago, a child had.
A room in a house surrounded him now instead of the castle. Richly furnished, with dark blue wallpaper; a fireplace filled with black, cold ashes; a heavy panelled door, ornately carved. Early dawn peeked through the curtains. So this was the world on the other side of the Looking-Glass. The King climbed down from the mantelpiece.
Sudden weakness hit him. His legs were unable to support his weight. Somehow, form and substance vanished here. He grabbed the corner of the fireplace and rocked slightly. An effect of the transition between worlds, perhaps. Life-force drained away.

He looked at his hands. They were transparent. He was becoming a ghost, fading away to nothing. Panic hit him. He turned back to the Looking-Glass, but it was already too late; its power was gone in the transference. There was no return that way, not yet, not until the power built up again in ten years’ time.
The King’s body faded, washed out, until just a shadow remained, an outline of darkness on the carpet, the wan sunlight through the window the only illumination to give any sign of his reality. Was this how forms existed in the other world? It was not right, not the way it should be.
Suddenly, the door opened. He swung to face it, white teeth bared in a snarl, one hand reaching for the Bandersnatch knife in his belt. But his scowl turned to open-mouthed astonishment.
It was her! Older, taller, but there was no mistake – the same long blond hair, the same pale face: the girl in his dreams, the Yellow Child, the one who had dared to become a queen. She stopped with one hand on the doorknob, the other hand holding a lighted candle, looking into the room.
The King drew the knife silently from its sheath, but it, too, was merely a thing of shadow. The blade that just a few minutes ago had sliced between the ribs of the Red Queen could do this woman no harm. He groped backwards towards a small table on which a heavy vase sat, but his hand went through it. Like the rest of him, like the knife, it was as insubstantial as a wraith’s.
The woman stood, peering into the room, the candle held high. Then she saw his faint ghostly outline, made more definite by the candlelight. She could see him: a dim, blurred shape. But there was enough form yet left to define the face and the robes and the crown on his head. They were familiar, coming back to her memory after many years.
Their eyes met for a fraction of a second, and she nodded slowly.
‘You,’ she mouthed silently, and glanced at the drawn knife in his hand. But still she did not move or try to protect herself.
He screamed, a howl of anger and frustration and defiance, but no sound reached the woman. His mist-like body could not distort the air enough to be heard. The Yellow Child just stood and glared back at his mutely howling face. He rushed towards her, and at the last moment she flinched, holding the candle up between them. As his face came close to hers, he took on a more solid form. There was a moment when he might have been corporeal enough to grab her, to ask what was happening, why he was a ghost…

…Alice woke, body twisted under the bedclothes, one arm held up as if to ward off a blow. The bedroom was in darkness, just a thin stream of moonlight leaking through the thick curtains. On the dressing table, a clock ticked loudly: four o’clock in the morning.
She sat up as the last shreds of the nightmare fell away, ran a hand through her long blonde hair and sighed out a breath. Then she rose and crossed to the window. The curtains were slightly drawn. Outside, London lay in the quiet of dawn, still asleep, unaware. Alice remembered her vision.
He was here, the Red King. But why? Why, after all these years, could the Land not remain just a dream? The time was right: ten years. Ten years since the Looking-Glass had last spat out something from the ragged edges of the mind…
Softly, in the darkness of the bedroom, Alice began to cry.

2

There were new worlds everywhere, Dorothy Gale decided. New worlds to go with a new century.
Most strange were the worlds next door, the ones that lay only a few days’ travel away. You didn’t arrive by riding a cyclone or even falling down a rabbit hole, but by boarding a ship and spending a few uneventful days at sea. She stood outside Waterloo railway station and stared about her at the swarm of London, capital of the Old World: as far from Kansas as it was possible to be, she reckoned, without actually going back again. Wonders were nothing new, of course, but even the Emerald City’s grandeur had a rival in this seething metropolis.
Dorothy was used to arriving in a new land unceremoniously, dumped there with no resources; the last time had been by shipwreck with only a hen for company. But this was somehow more disconcerting, arriving with a suitcase borrowed from her cousin and a few other pieces of luggage that Aunt Em had insisted she would need. The train journey from Kansas to New York, the voyage across the Atlantic, another rail trip from Dover where the great ocean liner had docked: it had been an interesting four weeks. But it was not how she was used to travelling at all. Even though it was the way everyone else travelled – the way, indeed, one was meant to travel – it somehow felt wrong.
‘Miss Gale?’
A tall man stood beside her. He was middle-aged, dressed in pin-striped trousers and black jacket, a thin moustache across his upper lip which literally looked like it had been drawn there. She backed away from him a step or two, hugging her handbag close to her chest.
‘I am Cartwright,’ said the man. He attempted to smile, but in Cartwright’s case this was never more than a sucking in of his upper lip so that his moustache disappeared. He nodded self-consciously. ‘Mrs Hargreaves’ butler. I presume you are Miss Dorothy Gale?’
Dorothy nodded. She had never met a butler before: not, at least, a private one to an English person. She had seen pictures of them, and had noticed several valets and maids travelling with their employers on the ship. But a real-life butler who actually came to pick her up at the station – that was another new experience in this new world.
For his part, Cartwright surveyed the young girl dubiously. He was not an expert on young girls, or females of any sort for that matter. The girl’s freckles and bright expression indicated nothing to his mind other than a fairly gormless naivety. The plain blue travelling dress likewise hinted at simple tastes and modest means. The red braids – well, best just to ignore them completely.
‘It is my duty to escort you to Mrs Hargreaves’ home,’ said Cartwright, sallying forth despite his doubts. ‘She sends her apologies that she is unable to meet you in person, and that you had to find your own way from Dover.’
‘Thank you, Mr Cartwright.’ Dorothy found her voice at last, and performed a curtsey.
‘Please, Miss Gale, call me Cartwright. No “mister” is needed.’ The girl was from America, after all. Kansas, apparently. From what he had heard of the place, they had no sense of class at all, no bearing, as his father would have said. Kansas was part of the Corn Belt, whatever that was. Full of farmers, no doubt, all decked out in overalls with pitchforks in their gnarled but honest hands. It sounded ghastly. He performed his sucked-in smile again, the moustache re-appearing afterwards like a moist caterpillar. ‘And I assure you that it is not necessary to curtsey to me.’
‘I didn’t know if I should do that,’ she said. ‘You bein’ my first butler an’ all.’
He sighed patiently. ‘You’re a guest. A curtsey is inappropriate.’ He turned to her suitcase. ‘Is this your luggage? Permit me to obtain the services of a boy who can assist us with that. And we’ll need a growler.’
‘A what?’
‘A cab big enough to take your luggage. The omnibus will be too crowded. Please wait here.’ He strode off, leaving a faint whiff of moral indignation in the air.
A few minutes later he returned with a small but brawny lad in tow and a Clarence cab drawn up ready to receive them. The boy helped the cabbie to load Dorothy’s luggage onto the growler and took the coin Cartwright handed him.
They rattled along in silence for a while, Cartwright staring out of the window with all the aloofness Dorothy had heard they should possess. She shuffled her feet and fidgeted with her purse. Eventually she could stand it no longer.
‘Have you been workin’ with Mrs Hargreaves long?’ she asked.
There was a moment’s pause as Cartwright considered the dangers of entering into idle conversation with a guest.
‘Two years,’ he replied eventually. ‘Mister Hargreaves was good enough to take me in. Now, please refrain from talking. I’ve been asked to acquaint you with certain rules before you meet my employer. So be patient and listen attentively.’
Dorothy had briefly been to school, where she had learned the basics of reading and writing, until Uncle Henry could no longer afford to send her. The teacher had acted just like Cartwright, and said the same sort of things. It had annoyed her then, too.
The butler reached into a breast pocket and extracted a carefully folded piece of paper and a pencil. Dorothy could see lines of meticulous script. Cartwright cleared his throat.
‘Number one,’ he read. ‘On no account –.’
‘Excuse me,’ said Dorothy politely, ‘but are these Mrs Hargreaves’ rules?’
The child would apparently continue to ask questions, despite his enjoinment to sit still and be quiet. How odd. ‘Not all of them. Some are mine. Number one –.’
‘Which ones are yours and which are hers?’
‘Number one. On no account are you to enter the cellar.’ He made a small, neat tick next to that item on the list. ‘Number two –.’
‘Why would I want to go into the cellar?’
They crossed the Thames on Westminster Bridge and headed for Trafalgar Square, then onto Mayfair. Some rows of houses on either side momentarily distracted Dorothy, who gazed out at the identical buildings, all attached to each other, surrounded by high steel railings. What a strange way to live. And so little grass or trees anywhere. Again she thought with a touch of nostalgia about the tiny one-roomed farmhouse she used to share with her Aunt and Uncle. That was odd – she had never felt sentimental about that rickety old shack before. It was far away now, of course, carried off by a tornado.
‘Number two…’
But Dorothy was only half listening as she continued to look at the city passing by. There were quite a few rules Cartwright was reading out, mostly about her not going to places in Mrs Hargreaves’ house that Cartwright did not want her going, times of meals and so forth. It sounded like an enormous house. After the first dozen mundane regulations, however, there were a couple more peculiar ones.
‘Number thirteen,’ said Cartwright, turning the page over. ‘On no account are you to play chess or cards, or request to do so. Do you have any chess sets or cards in your luggage?’
‘Don’t play either of them. Uncle Henry plays cards occasionally, but Aunt Em gets mad if she finds out. She reckons he loses too much money.’
‘I am not interested in your family’s distractions. I am interested in you.’
‘I can understand Mrs Hargreaves not likin’ cards or chess. But why can’t I play ’em if I want to?’
Answering foolish questions was none of Cartwright’s concern, particularly questions to which he did not know the answer. Mrs Hargreaves had forbidden chess and cards – that was reason enough in that weird household. He ticked number thirteen a little more firmly than the others.
‘Number fourteen. Mrs Hargreaves serves tea at four-fifteen each Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoon. You will be prompt in attendance as Darjeeling is not pleasant lukewarm. Besides, she often has ladies in attendance who don’t like waiting for guests.’
Dorothy refrained from asking what Darjeeling was.
He double-checked both sides of the paper, made sure that each item on the list had a tick beside it, folded it and slipped it back into his pocket. Another job done. ‘Any questions?’ he asked.
‘I’m allowed to ask questions now?’ she asked.
‘Of course.’
‘In that case, Mr Cartwright, I don’t have any.’
The butler sighed heavily and gazed out of the window for the first time since the journey began, sucking in his moustache thoughtfully. Then he let it out again with a dull pop of wet lips. Dorothy only just prevented herself from laughing.
The rest of the ride continued in silence.

Hayley Roberts and the Birds

I’d like to introduce everyone to my friend, Hayley Roberts. She’s an artist who lives In Melbourne, Australia. I’ve known her for a few years and we were even work colleagues for a while. She’s pretty damn good both as a human being and as a ‘girl what draws stuff’ as she would put it.

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Hayley has just produced a small booklet called Birds Are Friends which is full of bird drawings and information about birds in Eastern Australia, since Hayley is something of a bird nut. As she explains in her introduction, she has always liked birds since she got a peach-faced love bird as a pet when she was 8.

Her effort is not only informative and imaginative, it’s also laugh out loud funny. Hayley not only gives us information about the birds she has selected but also writes hilarious anecdotes and observations about them, based on her own experiences living with and watching them.

Hayley is happy to mail anyone a copy of the booklet. All you need to do is contact her at hayley_m_roberts@hotmail.com and ask nicely!

Hayley is also doing some fan art and concept illustrations for my upcoming novel The Red King. I like her quirky style and her more abstract ideas when she can let go with whatever’s on her mind at the time.

Oh, and she likes unicorns. So she can’t be half bad.

Russell Proctor www.russellproctor.com