Grazia magazine recently ran a writing competition. You were given the opening paragraph of the first chapter of a novel and in 1000 words, you had to complete the rest of the chapter. I was keen to have a go.
I found it incredibly hard. I spent so long trying to figure out what the story could be, instead of just trying to write the first chapter. Eventually, with about 2 hours to go until the deadline (ironic, as that was the name of the book we were writing the first chapter of), I knuckled down and wrote something.
As a result, it's a bit pants. The characters are trite and shallow. And I intensely dislike all of them. Suffice to say I didn't win. I wasn't shortlisted. I was just one of the 1200 people who sent in a story and didn't make it. My first taste of writer rejection.
I read the winning entry (which is in this week's magazine) and the entries that came second and third (which you can read here). I get why they won. I'll try not to hate them for it. Incidentally, I liked the story that came second the most.
This exercise raised lots of questions in my head about whether I could really write at all. I didn't have a massively long pity party. I just don't think this story is the type of novel I will one day write. I'm going to have a go at writing a novel - I just need to find what that story of mine is. If nothing ever comes of it, it will be a great mind-enhancing experience.
I debated whether to post my entry on here (because it's a bit crap really) but sod it, I wrote it and it seems a shame to leave it hiding on my hard drive. So here it is - the first chapter to The Deadline (note, the first paragraph is what we were given to work with.)
She stood looking up at the house. At the blank grey walls, the shuttered windows with empty boxes on the concrete sills, the stern front door. The house said nothing about what it was or what took place inside, it was unassuming and nondescript and uninviting. She’d come here several times before, but never got the courage to go in. Now, there was no choice. The deadline was today, no last chance of a reprieve or change of heart. If she was going to do it, it had to be now. She shivered, chill from the sudden drop in temperature now the light was fading, or from excitement or from fear, she didn’t know. Also, the sense of possibility that, by pressing this suburban doorbell, her life could – would – alter for good. But still she lingered on the unwashed step, picking at a thread of wool come loose from her glove, caught between the girl she was and the woman she might be. A deadline she never thought she would face.
Ironically, deadlines were something she’d been ignoring most of her life. She had been two weeks overdue as a baby and she’d never quite caught up. Her sister, the perfect first born, was always early for things. Assignments were never handed in late. She always made sure she had everything organised long before they were needed.
‘Anal,’ she thought to herself. ‘That’s what she is. And a complete pain in the arse. Little Miss Perfect, like the Roger Hargreaves’ character.’
Elizabeth, or Queenie as Natalie chose to call her sister, had managed to annoy her for seventeen years. Well, she couldn’t quite recall the first four years of her life, but the pictures, taken by countless au pairs, told a thousand words. Queenie sitting perfectly for the camera while she pulled silly faces. Queenie wearing clean, neat clothes while Natalie looked like a messy tumbleweed alongside. Queenie sitting studiously painting pictures while Natalie painted Queenie. People had always commented that they were polar opposites. Natalie preferred to think of Elizabeth as a frigid polar cap and herself as the fiery molten core at the centre of the earth.
Just two years her senior, they should have been friends, like most sisters are. They should have played dolls together or built dens. They could have giggled over the rude bits in The Thorn Birds, or shared clothes, or painted make up on each other or gossiped about boys. But that hadn’t happened. Instead they’d lived individual lives under the same roof, virtual strangers, rivals, fighting for the same thing. To be noticed.
And then last year Queenie had gone and gotten herself noticed. Spectacularly. Little Miss Perfect for once in her life wasn’t early for something. She was late. By several weeks.
Natalie recalled how Queenie had sat silently in the drawing room, a room the family barely ever used except for when her parents where entertaining their important work guests. On those occasions they were required to either be invisible or parade like prize ponies for podgy men and disinterested women, who’d politely smile before turning away in search of more stimulating entertainment.
Elizabeth had worn white, a hugely inappropriate virginal dress. Her dark hair was scraped back into a perfect pony tail, her blue eyes large, round and only just holding in the tears that threatened to ruin her mascara. Twisting a handkerchief she must have dug up for special effect, she asked her parents and Natalie to sit down. Their mother, Fenella, always the perfectly coiffed PR darling, managed to separate herself from her iPhone, albeit rather reluctantly, and perched on the edge of the suede sofa in an attempt not to crease her Jaeger skirt. ‘Come on Roderick darling, Elizabeth has something she wants to tell us,” Fenella said, attempting to coax her husband into the room and away from his laptop.
He marched in, bristling with irritability, and fell into an armchair with a sigh. ‘What is it Elizabeth?’ he attempted to say in a vaguely caring yet impatient tone.
Elizabeth sniffed, then straightened her back, raised her chin and said somewhat defiantly, ‘I’m pregnant. And I’m going to keep the baby.’
A momentary pause hung in the air, a fragile bubble waiting to pop. Fenella’s cosmetically plumped lips frozen into a comedic O, incapable of speech. Then the calm burst.
‘Jesus Christ Lizzie!’ her father exclaimed, jumping to his feet and running his hands through his greying hair. ‘Jesus Christ. I’m about to be appointed as foreign secretary and you decide to get knocked up! How do you suppose this will look in the papers? Who the fuck did you fuck? You don’t even have a goddamn boyfriend. Do you? Does she? What the hell has happened to you? Fucking hell.’
He strode from the room, before turning back and pointed a finger at his wife. ‘This is your fault. She’s learnt how to be a slut from the master. You have always been too busy giving blowjobs to reporters for the sake of a good headline to notice what our children are up to. I cannot be preventing war in Libya and managing diplomatic relations with the Pakistani government while making sure our daughters have their knickers on.’
As if reminding himself that he had not one but two daughters, he turned to Natalie before leaning ominously over the back of her chair and whispered menacingly, ‘And what about you? If this is what your sister has been up to, what in God’s name have you been doing?’
For a brief moment Natalie had felt a small pang of pity for her sister, but in that instant it was replaced with anger at the injustice of once again being accused of something she hadn’t done. How on earth could she be blamed this time? She hadn’t been the one sleeping around. She was still a virgin, not that she’d ever admit to that. In fact, she was somewhat incredulous that her perfect sister had done something quite so out of character. Yet at the same time, she envied her. She had done it. She had gained her parents attention. And it hadn’t even been a tactic she’d ever considered. Her sister had outplayed her.
A loud door slam broke her reverie. Reminded of the bang the door made after her father stormed from the room that day, she looked up. It was still there. The grey walls. That uninviting suburban door. The cold face of anonymity. It had taken her months to find out about it. It’s not something that’s readily advertised. And it had cost her. But now she was here. All it took was a knock and she’d step into her new life, leaving the people she most despised to deal with the consequences. It was her time. Her trump card. Deadline had a whole new meaning now and she was ready to meet it.