Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Lasso Me

Jane Jones sat drinking her herb tea by the window and looking out on her backyard. She enjoyed how her decision to use mainly blue and yellow flowers had painted a beautiful summer landscape.
Contentment filled her. Owning her own house and having a good job to pay for it made waking up each morning rewarding. She even had a newly acquired housemate in the form of a terrier puppy to enjoy.

The phone rang, and Jane spent the next twenty minutes catching up with her best friend Sue. Soon it would be time to head off to Bible study at church, and Jane collected her well-worn Bible from the bedroom and her notebooks from the living room. Yada . . . Yada . . . Yada . . .

Why do authors persist in starting their stories in such painfully slow manner? Nothing has be presented to make me care about this character or want to keep reading about her.

Send me a chapter that opens like this, and 9 times out of 10 I'll pitch it across the room to the recycle bin. If I make myself read further, it is likely because something in the story summary promised a plot hook that I'm determined to find -- or I feel obligated to the author. Beginnings can be revised, but even an interesting story summary often doesn't have enough power to pull me past a slow and boring beginning. If the book starts out slow, I fear the author will never get it revved up enough to push past that dreaded middle drag that so many authors fall prey to.

I want to be lassoed and hauled into your story. I want to quickly get so tangled up in your characters' lives that before I know it I've read the first 3 chapters and I'm panting for more.

Jillian Jasper's green thumb had become particularly helpful when turning her backyard into a cemetery.

One sentence and my attention is alert. Why would anyone want to bury someone in their backyard? Is she a murderer? Is she nuts?

When you read other authors' fiction, pay close attention to how the book starts. Do you find yourself getting engaged in the story quickly, or could you easily put it down after reading the first page?

Can you think of a fiction book that had you hogtied within the first paragraph?



Jess said...

I discovered the hilarious Anne George a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, she didn't write that many cozies before she died so I read slowly (to savor) and treat myself to one or two a year. :) The one I picked up last night starts:

"The way my sister Mary Alice got us arrested was simple enough; she hit the president of the bank over the head with my umbrella."

She never ceases to yank me into the action and have me laughing in no time.

If a first paragraph doesn't grab me immediately, then I usually put the book back on the shelf. I've become very picky about who I spend my reading time with. I know I probably miss out on some good books that get off to a slow start, but I want what I want: immediate gratification. :) Yank me in and keep me there!

Kathy Kovach said...

My favorite opening of all time is by an ABA mystery author who lives in and writes about my home state, Colorado.

Adrienne's tomatoes froze the same night that Arnie Dresser did.
--Manner of Death, Stephen White

I think a mystery or suspense lends itself to a good hook. It's harder when you're writing romance, or something less adventurous, but it can be done.

In my latest shipment of Heartsongs, Irene Brand begins *Broken Bow* with:

Paula Thompson had run out of options.

And Kristy Dykes starts *The Heart of the Matter* like this:

"I want everybody to pray that God will give me a mommy," little Brady said in a heart-tugging, grown-up way.

My stab at a proposal I'm preparing for HeartSong starts like this:

Ruthanne closed her eyes and listened to the humming. Such a peaceful sound in her recently rocked world. She gazed at the teddy bear faces, all reliant on her now for sustenance.

I love a good hook when I read, and that challenges me to write a good hook when I write.

Mary Connealy said...

I love a great opening line. I try so hard to make that opening line or paragraph explode off the page that I often just don't even concern myself with it until the book is done, rewriting it many times, looking for that great first line that really hooks the reader, sets the stakes really high. In fact, I'm going to go look at all of them again and try to do it better.
I know, when I was working on my first contracted book, Golden Days, I sent it to Cathy Marie Hake to read and, you may not know how it opens, but there's an accident on a bustling Seattle street.
Cathy emailed back and -- paraphrasing-- "I want her under the wheels of that freight wagon before the end of the first page. :) Writing is a funny business, isn't it? We're a ruthless bunch on paper. LOL
Anyway, I tossed her (my heroine, not Cathy) under there on the first page, and I started the page 1/3 of the way down, too.

Drema Drudge said...

I've been accused of starting my stories out too fast, but it's the only way to go to me. If I'M bored with my writing, why would I ask anyone else to read it?

My favorite was when I started a book with a mother slapping her daughter -- in public. Ouch!

Beginnings are SO important. My son heard a trivia question the other day he was sure I knew, and I did: what is the opening line of Gone With the Wind? (I'm not going to tell you if you don't'll just have to look it up, tee hee.)

Thanks, Becky, for the great reminder to watch our beginnings.

Janet said...

Actually, Becky, I really like yours! I'd definitely keep reading a book that began with *that* first line!

Jess, I'm also an Anne George fan. She was the only writer who could have me laughing out loud as I read.

Becky said...

Thanks for the comments. Keep them coming.

I'm sure I once knew the first line of GONE WITH THE WIND, but now I can't pull it out.

Lynette Sowell said...

I looked up the first line of GWTW:

"Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tartleton twins were."

One of my favorite opening lines is from the BOOK "The Princess Bride" ... "The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette."

Kathy Kovach said...

Ach! Lynette! You beat me to it. We must have been writing our comments at the same time! Apparently I got the letters wrong in the word verification, so as it was rejecting mine, it popped yours in there.

What about this classic opener?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
--Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

We'd never get away with this in modern literature, but doesn't it make you want to read what the heck they're talking about?

Janet said...

"Where's Papa going with that ax?"
(Charlotte's Web)

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents."
(Little Women)

And of course, "Call me Ishmael." (Moby Dick--reading it once was quite enough for me, though)

Kristy Dykes said...

Thanks, Kathy, for your complimenting me. Appreciate it.

Great post, Becky. Makes us think, think, think. Like you said, it's important to capture the reader from the get-go.

My current log-length WIP starts this way:

"I never knew dead people wore underclothes." Sara James picked through her cousin’s lingerie drawer, grief overtaking her as she remembered the explicit instructions from the funeral director.

Would you be interested in taking a look, Becky. :) (Wink, but sincere.)

Kristy Dykes said...

Oops. "Long-length" not "log-length."

Mary Connealy said...

Other opening lines inspired me to send the opening of Calico Canyon, the recently contracted (Thank you so much, Becky) sequel to Petticoat Ranch.

>>'The Five Horseman of the Apocalypse rode in.

Late as usual."

Mary Connealy