Sunday, October 3, 2010

Beginnings

Every story or book has one. Whether your novel is plot driven or character driven, you have to start somewhere. It doesn't matter if, as Ann Patchett suggests, you begin writing at the beginning and finish at the end, or if you write a collection of scenes and then order them in a manner that best suits your story and style. At some point in the process, you have to write that first sentence, first paragraph, first page. And, like it or not, that "first" is your first impression on the reader and, if it doesn't grab them, there's a pretty good chance they won't read any further.

We've all heard about the hook. We have to hook the reader, make them want to turn the page. We have to hook the editor or agent we're submitting to so they'll read more than our first couple of paragraphs. Every time I hear this, I picture myself sitting in a boat, fishing rod in hand, patiently waiting for a nibble at the hook playing along the bottom of the lake, muscles itching to set the hook and reel in the elusive cold water agent/editor/reader. The only problem is, I'm neither patient nor a good angler. Besides, cleaning that sort of catch would be really icky. (Okay, not enough coffee this morning means creepy imagery.)

So, as a writer, I've been aware of the need to find the perfect "hook" for my work. But as an editor, it's something new. I understand now why slush readers -- yes, Matapam, I'm talking abut you ;-p -- say they have to be hooked within a couple of pages of a novel or a couple of paragraphs of a short story. There simply isn't enough time in the day to read everything otherwise. Does that mean some good stories or novels might be rejected? Absolutely. But it is, unfortunately, a way of life. It is also a symptom of what's going on these days. Readers, on the whole, simply don't have the attention span or patience to wade through pages and chapters of what might be beautiful prose before they get to the plot hook. That's one of the reasons "literary" works don't sell as well as genre. There are others, but I'm not going to get into them.

What started me thinking about this was a round of editing yesterday, of my own work as well as submissions to Naked Reader, and then this article. American Book Review has published the "100 Best First Lines from Novels". I read through them, recognizing most of them as books I've read -- or tried to read. Some of the lines are so stuffed with description and various dependent and independent clauses as to make my eyes cross. Others are short and not so sweet. Some make me smile and others leave me scratching my head. But some grab me and make me want to read more.

42. Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature. —Anita Brookner, The Debut (1981) -- There were days in college English classes when I knew exactly what Ms. Brookner meant when she wrote this line. Reading it now, I can imagine so many scenarios this line could lead into, each of them more fantastic than the one before it.

49. It was the day my grandmother exploded. —Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992) -- WHAT? Grandma exploded?!? Now tell me you don't want to read what comes next.

100. The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting
. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (1895) -- While this doesn't cause that instant "WHAT?!?" the previous line did, it does leave me asking questions and wanting to know what army and why they are there. Are they resting after a march or resting before battle? Again, something that has me wanting more information.

8. It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949) -- Thirteen? That alone tells me there is something different to this world and I'll read on to find out what.

These aren't all the good ones on the list. Most of them are, in my opinion, excellent. Sure, there are some I don't think should be on the list and some that should be that aren't. What I'd like you to do is look at the list and then think about your favorite books, preferably books published in the last decade or two. How did they start? Did the book start with a bang or a whimper? If a whimper, why did you keep reading and would you keep reading today if you'd never read the book before?

If you want, you can post your first sentence. One sentence only. We'll let you know if it hooks enough to have us wanting more.

39 comments:

T.M. Lunsford said...

“I absolutely will not help you in this foolish scheme, Bea. I won’t do it!”

MataPam said...

Picking rocks was only fun for the first half hour.

Which, now that I think about it, is the first line of one I've submitted to NR. Poor Amanda, it may be a primary cause of the gray goo. Or effect. I did write it while under the influence of TMS (Too Much Slush).

Amanda Green said...

Taylor, my first thought is this is a period piece. If so, the first line works. If not, you might want to consider punching up, modernizing the language. Otherwise, acting under my first assumption, I'd want to read more. After all, I want to know what foolishness Bea is up to.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, you owe me a new keyboard. I seriously don't have enough coffee in me because my first reaction to reading this was to go to grade school humor and I'll just leave it at that.

As for the line, it doesn't turn me off and I'd read the next, assuming there would be more explanation for why your pov character is picking rocks and wanting to know exactly how and why he's picking rocks. Is this a rock beauty contest? Maybe rocks is a code word for something else. There are numerous possibilities and I'm interested in how you go forward and if my first guess is right.

MataPam said...

Amanda, advice from the retired ;)

Picking where to start is a skill very poorly mastered by the unpublished slush submitter. That horrible first three pages may be an unholy blending of someone's twisted idea of how a book should start and their very first attempt to write.

If it's bad, flip to 3/4ths through the book and read a few paragraphs. Some people improve so rapidly it's hard to believe that first awful chapter could be from the same hands. Sometimes you could lop off the first three chapters and have something close to publishable. Or at least something encouraging to say, as you reject their baby.

MataPam said...

Oh, and the next line is "Pity it was such a good way to practice magic."

Hmm, and here I thought everyone knew you had to pick the frost heaved rocks out of the field before spring plowing. ::sigh::

And yes, some times we get ambushed by our filthy minds. Or maybe some people are just too innocent, or their life experiences didn't take them this direction. Or expose them to that particular slang.

New dog grooming place in a small town I frequently drive through "Doggy Styles." The sign read better once my brain picked up that final "s." But still . . .

Amanda Green said...

Pam, you are right about openings being hard for some. Fortunately, I don't have to read the first pass through slush. Cliff gets that honor. And I know he does much as you recommend. By the time it gets to me, that usually isn't an issue. When it is, Cliff makes sure to tell me the strong points and why he thinks we can overcome what may be a weak opening chapter or chapters. And, so far, I haven't seen anything I'd automatically toss. Sure, there are some that could use punching up, but then that applies to a lot of my work...just ask Sarah ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Pam, LOLOLOLOL on Doggy Styles. I would have read it the same way -- and would probably have wrecked my car as I rubber-necked to make sure I'd really read what I thought I'd read.

First lines are important in that they can set the tone and start the reader wondering what is going to happen. But they are only the first stepping stone. (no pun intended) Your second sentence is a great example of how you build one sentence upon the next.

Stephen Simmons said...

My all-time favorite is the one they listed first, "hooking" me adequately to read the rest of their list ... the irony is, I *hated* Moby Dick. Despised the experience from cover to cover (even the chapter about golf). But it has what I consider the most brilliant opening line I've ever read.

Recent books? The best opening line I remember seeing recently was probably "The Crown Conspiracy" by Michael J. Sullivan: "Archibald Ballentyne held the world in his hands, conveniently contained within fifteen stolen letters."

My own? Let's see, how about this one? "No one knows quite how they got through immigration, but there they were, clustered around the rostrum and addressing the assembled delegates of the United Nations: representatives of Elves, Kobolds, Hobgoblins, Ogres, and every other sort of faerie-tale creature."

Anonymous said...

"Stella glanced over her shoulder to see the riders closing in."

From "Sssong"

Linda

Brendan said...

"If Jamon Mondo touched me one more time I would kill him" - Nylon Angel by Marianne De Pierres.

What is not to like about a first line where the narrator threatens to kill someone.

C Kelsey said...

Non-corporeal fingers rubbed my shoulders and I fretted as I tried to figure out how to tell my ghostly admirer that I had a real, living, girlfriend.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, I felt the same way about Moby Dick. It took me having to read it for college to get through it. As for your favorite line from a recent book, that's a good one. It leaves you wondering if these are letters like "A", "B", etc., or if they are correspondence or what. Then there's the question of how they can be so important. It is more than enough to make me want to read more.

As for your opening, it sure sets the scene. And yes, I want to know more about the world and if this is the first time these different creatures have been known to man.

Amanda Green said...

Linda, love that line.

Amanda Green said...

Brendan, you're a man after my own heart. A good threat, especially one phrased like that, is almost always a good way to open because of all the possibilities it raises in the reader's mind.

Amanda Green said...

Chris K, my only question is how non-corporeal fingers can give a back rub. Otherwise, it's a fun hook.

Stephen Simmons said...

Amanda - I have to confess: I cheated to get that into your stated guidelines. The story I submitted actually has that as two sentences, with the first comma in this version actually being a period. That's the entry I sent to the L. Ron Hubbard contest last quarter, which the judges should be reporting out on next month. Not expecting anything earth-shattering, but "hope springs eternal" ...

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Amanda. It's a flash version of a story that I wrote as a flash to make sure I had the core of the story like I wanted it. Now I shall flesh out and expand at will. But the first paragraph stays.

Linda

Dave Freer said...

You know, I learn something new every time on this site.
I thought: I'll play. Especially as I read Matapam's as Pickling rocks - which filled my mind with stories and curousity.

I went and looked at the first pages of some of my collection... and concluded fiirst lines are actually a bad cue to good books!

I then went looking at my own and decided I actually went in for good SECOND lines.

"I QUIT," said Death.

or
"Bottle of Gin,
Shweet oblivion..." sang the ragged individual clutching my prison in drunken delight.

Chris McMahon said...

The sensation always filled Karic with terror.

Amanda Green said...

Stephen, good luck with the contest and let us know the results.

Amanda Green said...

Linda, go for it and let me read it when you finish...I have to know about those riders ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Dave, I take issue. You have wonderful first lines and your second lines build upon them. So no more dropping coconuts on your head until you realize that. But looking at my own collection of books and then my own writing, I have more books where the second or third lines are stronger than the first -- at least in books I enjoyed reading. As for my work, if I'm lucky I have a strong second line but too often it is a stronger second paragraph than first.

Amanda Green said...

Chris Mc, no fair! I want to know what sensation and why it fills him with terror.

Stephen Simmons said...

Thanks Amanda. I think my favorite first line of anything I've written to date was the first flash I ever sold:

Loki really should have known better.

Chris McMahon said...

The sensation always filled Karic with terror. Not in the knowing he had been fading away, but in the realisation he was returning. It was that horrible moment when he passed across the threshold of consciousness, suddenly aware, yet still too close to the unknowable state that preceeded it to form a thought.

He drew in a sharp breath, the rapid beat of his heart like some new thing in his chest.

‘Back,’ he mumbled.

His hand hovered over his heart, then his fingers teased open the smart seam of his uniform fatigue to find the St Christopher medal on his chest. He gripped it between his thumb and forefinger, his thumb circling the smooth, ancient metal of the backing in anxious circles.

He cast a guilty look around the suspension room and the still forms of the other seven officers of the Starburst, their bodies surrounded by the shimmering nimbus of the suspension field, but there was no chance of them catching him out in his little act of superstition. Seven generations of Boston Catholic were hard to erase, even in the fusion age.

Amanda Green said...

Chris Mc, that is wonderful. Love it.

Dave Freer said...

Stephen - I love that first line.

Amanda I found the first line I was looking for --

"There's an alien living in my shoe," screeched the mob-capped old woman, as she waved her ladle threatingly under his nose.

Chris McMahon said...

Thanks, Amanda. Trying to rewrite that one at the moment. Nice encouragement!

Scott said...

Kim Stanley Robinson--

First you fall in love with Antarctica, and the it breaks your heart.

And here's the opening line from one I'll probably be offering for free on the internet--

Kim turned into the car-park and almost ran over Robin Hood.

And another that I'll get back to one day--

The heathens liked to attack at prayer time.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, my first thought as I read your line was your comments on your Flinders blog about finding the frog or toad in your wellie and how neither of you enjoyed the encounter. My second was to wonder what the old woman wanted the poor fellow to do about the alien in her shoe. After all, she's the one with the ladle. Maybe it's his fault the alien is there -- whether he knows it or not...hehehehe.

And, btw, I want to read it.

Amanda Green said...

Chris Mc, I meant what I said. I do want to read this. And good luck with the rewrite. I hate doing them.

Amanda Green said...

Scott, the KSR quote is a good one. Although, without enough coffee in me this morning, I first read the last part of it as "and then it kills you." Tells you what I'm like first thing in the morning ;-)

Your Robin Hood line is cool. Something is definitely out of place and you cue the reader to that immediately. Is this the real Robin Hood? Is there someone running around behaving like Robin Hood and the driver will be in hot water for hitting a pop hero? Worse, was some child running around in a Robin Hood costume and the driver hit him? Or maybe Robin Hood is an animal of some sort. So many questions you want answered right away.

The heathens liked to attack at prayer time. Interesting start. You might be able to punch it up a bit, but it is a good opening as is. Are these heathens non-believers who attack at a time they think the "righteous" will be vulnerable or are they just a bunch of unruly kids who "attack" by acting out during church? As with your other first line, a lot of possible explanations and most readers will keep with the story at least a bit longer to find out how you develop the scene and story.

MataPam said...

Looking at first, vs first and second lines is interesting.


Picking rocks was only fun for the first half hour.

Pity it was such a good way to practice magic


Is that a better hook than:


She practiced her magic by clearing frost heaved rocks from the field.


The single line will at least not have people thinking up recipes for pickled granite.

Amanda Green said...

Matapam, imo, the first two sentences are better than your last example for the simple reason the two sentences do create curiosity in the reader and they also set a tone. In the two sentences, the reader at least feels like they might be in the mind of your POV character, getting a glimpse into her attitude about picking rocks. The second example, while good, takes that away from the reader. Again, this is imo only.

Scott said...

Thanks Amanda.

Robin Hood is actually an old guy in a costume at the Robin Hood festival at Sherwood forest. He's probably dead by chapter two because the festival is attacked by aliens (using giant bats as landing craft).

As for the heathens, they're just regular run of the mill heathens. They're lulling the religious folk into a false sense of security so they'll be really surprised when an attack comes at some other time.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

mine:
Look honey, ain’t nothing special about what I do.

Cace had always been prone to forgetting the existence of the real world when immersed in an art project.

*They hurt you, my liege, and I was not there to protect you,* the words pounded through Lucretia’s head as she rode away from the palace on the lonely country road between snow covered fields.

Amanda Green said...

Sarah, you are evil. Especially since you know how much I want you to finish the book that last line comes from. Evil, evil, evil.

Okay, the first line makes me wonder just what your speaker does. Hitman? Exorcist? Demon hunter or plumber? There are so many possibilities. Add that to the "voice" and I want more.

Your second line sounds like my life, except you have to substitute novel/short story for art. It is also a feeling almost all of us can relate to in one way or another. So the question becomes just what form of "reality" does Cace live in when immersed in a project?

And, as for the third, well, I'll just repeat what I said earlier. You're evil for once more taunting me with this first line. Where's the rest of the book, dammit?

twittertales said...

I awoke from a dead sleep – for once, a sleep without nightmares.

This is from "The Monster Apprentice" for 9-14 year olds. She's awake because pirates have been spotted, and someone's at the door raising the village to (attempt to) defend themselves.

She has nightmares because when she was five (she's thirteen now) she saw her twin sister get killed by the monsters native to the island. The book (after she tricks the pirates into temporarily passing by) is about her secret decision to train the monsters to fight the pirates and save her island.