Monday, April 12, 2010

First Lines-First Five Pages Mania

 Are the first five pages, the prologue, the first sentence, really all that important?

I'm finishing up judging entries in a writing contest this week and it has become apparent to me just how important it is to hook your reader from the beginning. It's disturbing to me how many prologues there are in the entries I've received. By the way, even your prologue should hook the reader. That connection must be made between the prologue and the beginning of the story. When I'm more confused than settled into the story by a prologue--lose it. It better be a sterling prologue or forget it. My first clue is when I'm skimming the prologue to get to the story. Sigh.

I can't talk about first lines and the first five pages without mentioning Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection PileIt's a book to have in your writer's library so if you don't have it, get it. (Simon & Schuster/Fireside, $13.00 ISBN 0-684-85743-X) Weak openings can doom a writer from the git-go. This book includes exercises at the end of each chapter so you can even work on what he's saying about getting your hook established early on. His book doesn't just focus on fiction, but also nonfiction. He's talking about basic elements in good writing.

So, today I want you to dig out those novels or nonfiction books that just blew you away. What was the first line, the first paragraph? Make a file on your computer of your favorite books and their first lines. What hooks you, may not hook me, but at the very least we can see just what helps to grab us. If you're a book nut like me, you always have a book within reach of your computer. Grab one of those books right now. Open to the first page. What does it say? Ok, writer's dream now--did you keep reading for a few more pages and get distracted? If not, what do you think happened?

All week I want to concentrate on this topic. If you're really brave, give us the first paragraph or first line of your WIP. (Work-in-progress) Think about whether you want to disclose this (you may not want to right here, and that could be wise.) But I'd love to hear what your favorite books of all time are,and what you've read this year that captured you, and what books you just couldn't get into because you couldn't get past the first chapter. Did you ever read a book that you persisted in reading that didn't get you until later?

Ok, while I am not a fan of prologues, one really got me this year. I read The Silent Governess by Julie Klassen (Bethany House, $14.99, ISBN 978-0-7642-0707-5) for Church Libraries magazine. (My review is not published yet so I can't share that here.)

Here's her first line from her prologue:

"For years, I could not recall the day without a smoldering coal of remorse burning within me."

Chapter One then starts 12 years later, so I have a frame of reference of how that prologue fits with the story. The prologue enhances the story and in fact grabs me, making me want to hear the rest of the story. The story didn't disappoint me, and I read, read, read. Chapter one starts like this:

"Heart pounding with fear and regret, Olivia Keene ran as though hellhounds were on her heels. As though her very life depended upon her escape."

This is a Regency Historical Romance set in 1815 England. Knowing the setting also helps in finding that reference for the reader to dig further. In some cases I do not have that option unless I've been provided this.The cover, the cover copy also helps to pull me to a story, so it's not always just the words that we have to depend upon with a book, but an editor or an agent have little else, so the words have to stand without all the "dressing."

Ok, today's assignment: Pick up a book on your desk and open to the first chapter. Give us the first sentence. Have you read this book yet? If so, did you like the book? Did the first page get you from the beginning? If you haven't read the book yet are you anxious to read further?

And to sweeten the pot, I'll give away a copy of Noah Lukeman's book on Saturday, chosen from those of you who comment all week. If you already have the book, I'll read your first five pages of your WIP and give you my judgment (which is actually worth more than the book because I charge more than the book is worth.) 

Leave your nameATispDOTcom so I can contact you if you're chosen.


Susan J. Reinhardt said...

Hi Crystal -

I recently read Tamara Alexander's book, "Rekindled." It begins with a Prologue. The first line:

"Larson Jennings had lived this moment a thousand times over, and it still sent a chill through him."

I wanted to know: "What moment?" and "why did it send a chill through him?"

Thanks for your post. I'd love to win the book.

Susan :)

Karen Lange said...

Good post. Thanks for sharing this info! :)

The book I opened was Liz Curtis Higgs' "Here Burns My Candle". The first line is:

"Lady Marjory Kerr heard a frantic tapping at the bedchamber door, then her name, spoken with marked urgency."

Yes, it did draw me in, and it is a wonderful book. Love her books.

Thanks and blessings,

Steena Holmes said...

Great post!

I have Dressed for Death on my desk by Donna Leon. Here we go:

"The shoe was red, the red of London phone booths, new Yor fire engines, although these were not imagine that came to the man who first saw the show."

The color is what caught my attention and I wanted to know the image that came to the man ... it's a crime story and yes, I want to read on.

Christine said...

You are so right, Crystal. The importance of those first few lines, those first few pages cannot be stressed more.

Here's my suggestion for the pot. But I'm throwing in her first paragraph too. It's from "The Pilot's Wife" by Anita Shreve, not a CBA book though, but a gripping opening.

She heard a knocking, and then a dog barking. Her dream left her, skittering behind a closing door. It had been a good dream, warm and close, and she minded. She fought the waking. It was dark in the small bedroom, with no light yet behind the shades. She reached for the lamp, fumbled her way up the brass, and she was thinking, What? What?

And me too, Crystal, enter me for this book. I've wanted to get my hands on Noel's book for so long.

Crystal Laine said...

Susan, I loved Tammy's books of that series and that definitely sets the tone for that particular book! Good one!

Crystal Laine said...

Karen, I haven't been able to read this book of Liz's and now I'm hooked. What's one more book in my stack? Joy, I tell ya.

Crystal Laine said...

Steena, you have my attention! Yes, the color definitely is setting a pace and tone here. Red can be symbolic here. With the title of the book, and though I know nothing of this book, I can get a lot just with that. Great!

Crystal Laine said...

Christine, often editors say avoid the dream scene, but this one not only sets tone, it gives a layer that draws a reader in because she's being awakened--why? That is a good one!

Christine said...

I decided to give in and find out what all the hype is about Stephenie Meyer's 'Twilight'. I have to admit--putting aside all theological arguments--that she has a great opening line.

"I'd never given much thought to how I would die---thought I'd had reason enough in the last few months---but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this."

Christine said...

This is an opening line to an old favorite of mine, 'Touch Not The Cat' by Mary Stewart. It's a romantic suspence set in England. It too is not CBA by any means. Without giving away the main premise of the story, read the opening line a few times to catch what doesn't quite make sense. As the story unfolds, it will make sense.

"My lover came to me on the last night in April, with a message and a warning that sent me home to him."

Did you catch it. If he came to her, he'd already be with her, right? Ah, but he isn't with her. :)

Christine said...

Okay, last one I promise. I have work to do. :) But this was fun. I just pulled books off my shelf that were my 'keepers'. Sorry, it's another ABA book. Here's Anna Quindlen's 'One True Thing'.

"Jail is not as bad as you might imagine."

giggling, and getting to work on my own writing.

Jan Marie said...

I am reading Ted Dekker's "The Bride Collector." The opening line is:

"Thank you, Detective. We'll take it from here."

I immediately had to know what "it" was and, even though I intended to read only enough to find out that answer, I was on Chapter 3 before I knew it.

I am also reading "Amber Morn," book 4in the Kanner Lake series by Brandilyn Collins. It begins like this:

"Any man going on this mission wasn't coming back."

I began reading this just before going to bed last night and, even though it was a school night, it was 1:30 before I turned off the light. How could I stop reading after that beginning? I couldn't!

I am already learning things I need to know just by reading your blog. Thanks, Crystal!