Monday, October 22, 2007

Let's Start at the Very Beginning. . .

Oh, you poor authors. You follow the guidelines and work so hard on these brilliant proposals with intricate chapter-by-chapter summaries and market analyses and publishing histories--and then what does the editor do? If she's THIS editor, first she skips back to your sample chapters and reads the opening lines/paragraphs. If those introductory words to your story don't grab her by the throat, she either sends an immediate Thanks-but-no-thanks rejection or files the proposal away for another day when she figures she might be in a more receptive mood to buy your idea. And that day seldom comes.

I hate to sound like the publishing grinch, but if you don't wow me by the end of page one or so neither wouldn't I expect Mrs. John Q. Reader to plunk down her limited dollars for the privilege of reading those same words. Of course, I realize the criteria for great opening lines vary with each editor. Some experts advise against beginning your story with a line of dialogue. Others say to avoid backstory in the first three chapters. In my own writing, I like to open with something that hints at the story's theme. Consider the opener of your latest work. Are you hooking the reader from the very start?

I've pulled together a random selection of opening lines from my various reading projects this week. Do they leave you wanting to read more? Can you peg the genre by reading the opener? If you can match just one author with his/her opening line, I'll send you a free Barbour book. (A tough assignment, since I'm not listing author names! However, just in case you all know your authors' voices, I'm limiting rewards to the first three winners.)
  • You might as well know that Sue Jan and I are fat. I don’t know which one of us is fatter, but we wear the same size clothes.

  • Being named in Great-grandma’s will was like hitting bankrupt on Wheel of Fortune. The whole family held their breath while the wheel ticked around and around--or rather while the lawyer opened the envelope. Then they all heaved a sigh of relief when the wheel stopped on Carrie’s name.

  • When the desk clerk first mentioned Stefan Lauber's death, I didn't react. The truth is, I was only half-listening.

  • No matter how old I get, when I stand in front of the doors of Four Oaks High School, I’m threatened by flashbacks. Some of my high school memories are good, but too many have to do with the rampaging insecurities that consumed me at the time.

  • I marched into church on Sunday— not to search for God, but to find a killer.

After studying JUST the opening lines of so many projects, I'm going back to rewrite the opening to my own current WIP. . .for the thousandth time! SKD

11 comments:

Jess said...

I don't mind doing all that extra stuff; it's a learning experience and helps me get a handle on my books. In fact, after doing the comparisons and chxch - I've been known to go back and change a few things in my own book to tighten it up. But-

You wrote: If those introductory words to your story don't grab her by the throat, she either sends an immediate Thanks-but-no-thanks rejection or files the proposal away for another day when she figures she might be in a more receptive mood to buy your idea. And that day seldom comes.

Wow, Susan. I can pick up 10 books and only two of them might grab me yet they made it into print. :( Ever give a gal a chance to rewrite that opening? You've slapped me right back into my post-conference depression just when I thought I was snapping out of it. :/
I need to stay off-line and just write!

I do love "I marched into church on Sunday--not to search for God but to find a killer." I look forward to reading that one.

When We Were Young said...

I am learning from this. Thanks!

Anita Mae said...

Wow Susan, from all your examples listed, the only one that I would jump at reading is the last one. ie I marched into church on Sunday— not to search for God, but to find a killer.

I would also like to state that I find nothing wrong with starting a book with a dialogue line if it is an integral part of the story.

Janelle said...

Oooo. Oooo. I know two of them. But to guess would be cheating. So mum's the word. But you've listed some good ones. Makes me want to list mine and see what kind of response I get. But again, I'll behave. Great post, Susan.

Mary Connealy said...

That opening line is so crucial. I never write the first line of a book with any intention that it'll survive. that one line takes thought and revision and I change it a dozen time before I'm done. But maybe...I'd better go ahead and change it thirteen times, huh?
:)

Darlene Franklin said...

No one's guessed yet? I took Mary Conneally's suggestion and checked out Of Mice and Murder. Poor Carrie and grandma's will. I would also guess Cecil Murphy as the author about returning to high school.

Great blog! I can do a lot better with first lines.

Jess said...

QUESTION:
For the past few days I've been studying the first few lines of different novels. See my post at http://www.jessyferguson.blogspot.com

And now I have a question: do you ever come across a manuscript that didn't live up to its fantastic opening?

Susan Downs said...

Jess,
Yes, I'm sure there've been many a novel which all creative energy was spent on a great opener and from there the plot just fizzled.
Of course, I can't really recall any specific titles at the moment, but it's after hours and I'm pretty much brain-dead.
Darlene, you're right with your guess of Mary Connealy's line, but wrong about Cec Murphey being the author of the high school line. Care to guess again?

Darlene Franklin said...

Candice Speare! Band Room Bash.

Thanks for the second chance ...

CHickey said...

I marched into church is mine! Titled Fudge-Laced Felonies.

Pam Hillman said...

Oooh...I know the title to one of those opening lines! What fun.