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Rebel, Rebel: Maggie O'Farrell

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

In this series, I discuss the so-called rules of writing--and how great authors manage to break them.

The Book

INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE by Maggie O'Farrell (HarperCollins/Tinder Press)

After practically inhaling Maggie O'Farrell's HAMNET & JUDITH last summer, I put her entire backlist on hold at my local library. She's a wizard. And a rebel! For a masterful example of literary rule-breaking, we need look no further than the opening to INSTRUCTIONS FOR A HEATWAVE, which was published in 2013.

The novel begins with protagonist Gretta waking up just after dawn on a remarkably hot day. In doing so, O'Farrell breaks two of the most cited "rules" for writing--and she does it in the very first line. Not only does she start with a character getting out of bed, but she also gives us weather. If you've ever taken a creative writing course or read a craft book, you know that this is more than a little daring.

Why you might want to follow these rules

Let's start with the "character getting out of bed" thing. This might be the cardinal rule of novel writing: Thou Shalt Not Begin With Thy Protagonist Waking Up. Why? Because if you aren't Maggie O'Farrell, it's probably going to be boring. Most of us pick up a book looking to be transported. We want the unusual. In my own writing, I try to start a manuscript at a point of imbalance. The ground should be unsteady beneath our characters' feet. One faulty step, and the whole world could flip. An alarm clock going off? Probably not what we're looking for.

Now, the weather thing. People harp on this a lot. Don't start with the weather. Which is interesting, because a lot of classic novels do start with weather. Like 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-door exercise was now out of the question."

Weather can set mood quite effectively, as it does above. Doom! Gloom! Rain clouds!! My two cents? You're more likely to hook the modern reader by giving us a) a person, and b) a problem. People are more interesting than clouds. Especially if they're at a crossroads.

Why it works to break the rules in this case

Our protagonist, Gretta, is a housewife. She is woken by the heat and goes downstairs to bake bread, which doesn't sound like it would be exciting--except that it totally is! O'Farrell's descriptions of the heat make the reader feel deeply uncomfortable. The heat is abusive. The heat is punishing. O'Farrell employs brilliant word choice here, describing the heat as an intruder that "inhabits" the space and "pushes Gretta down into the floor". This is an ordinary day in one sense, yes, but it is also palpably wrong. There's our point of imbalance--the character is under siege in her own home. And we feel that sense of siege more keenly because everything else--waking up, baking bread--is so supposedly ordinary.

There we have it--a literary rebel!


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