Wednesday, June 08, 2011

First Lines and How They Get Your Readers

My latest WIP and opening line

First lines. Who loves them? Sometimes we've been told to wait until you've written the whole book before writing that opening.And yes, it could mean the difference between a rejection from an editor or agent, or a request for a whole manuscript. So, I think about this often for not just my manuscripts, but also anyone's manuscript that comes across my desk.

Noah Lukeman has a whole chapter about adjectives/adverbs in his book, The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.He talks about overuse and how you do not want to pepper your manuscript with them. He says just cut them. But he also says to replace common ones with unusual ones. Get ones that draw attention. Strengthen your nouns and verbs. Or substitute a comparison, analogy or metaphor. Use this advice for your opening lines, too.

I decided to look at some books I pulled off my shelf. Try it with your favorite authors, too. Mary Connealy is one of my favorite authors and here are some openings of her books:

Montana Rose: "Cassie wanted to scream, Put down that shovel!"

Petticoat Ranch: "Sophie heard God in every explosion of thunder as she listened to the awesome power of the approaching storm."

Petticoat Ranch was one of her early books. Montana Rose came later. Can you see a difference in the openings?

This is from Gingham Mountain: "Martha had an iron rod where most people had a backbone."

She sure can tell a story and she pulls me in every time. I'm anxious to get into some I haven't been able to read yet because I've been doing a lot of judging and book reviews for magazines.

Can you choose a book to share from the opening? I think writers often choose books differently than just straight readers. We have a whole set of criteria that intrudes into our selection process. So tell me, does a first line or opening scene clench the choice? Or is it something else? Here are some others I pulled from the shelf. Do any of these grab you or would it be the author or genre that would be your first criteria?

By Darkness Hid by Jill Williamson (Blood of Kings Book 1):
"Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic."

Missing Max by Karen Young:
" They say people have a premonition about calamity before it strikes. But Jane Madison felt only irritation when her cell phone rang as she waited in the Mardi Gras crowd to order shrimp po' boys."

She Walks in Beauty by Siri Mitchell:
"'Get dressed, Clara. In your visiting costume. We are going out.' My aunt's words were at once both commanding and precise--as precise as her posture: a series of ninety-degree angles, seated upon one of my bedroom chairs."

Almost Forever by Deborah Raney:
"Bryn drew the queen of diamonds from the stack of playing cards on the wobbly table between her and Charlie Branson. The grizzled Vietnam vet eyed her from his wheelchair as she discarded an ace."

A Woman Called Sage by DiAnn Mills:
"Life didn't get any better than having the love of a good man and his baby kicking against her ribs. Add a summer breeze to cool the heart of a southern Colorado sun and a bed of soft green grass tickling her feet, and Sage felt a slice of heaven had come to earth."

Lukeman points out these things that could draw a rejection for your manuscript: (And realize that he is speaking about the first five pages:)
1. A weak opening hook.
2. Overuse of adjectives and adverbs.
3. Flat or forced metaphors or similes.
4. Melodramatic, commonplace or confusing dialogue.
5. Uneven pacing and lack of progression.

While openings are only one portion of the entire manuscript, you usually only get one shot at the first few pages to attract attention. Here's the other thing we didn't talk about yet--sometimes the opening which caught the agent/editor's eye to start will get changed before it's published. (Yeah, it happens. Go figure!)

All this isn't written in stone, but seeing many openings of published books shows you how it has been done by those who are published. When you pick up a book in the bookstore, Steve Laube, a bookstore manager-turned-editor-turned agent, says you only have a scant few seconds to capture that reader before he puts down your book and picks up the next one. There is something to writing that opening paragraph. Once you've written your book, go back and look over your opening with fresh eyes before sending it out. Get Lukeman's book and work on his exercises. Run your opening past a few people who know nothing about your book to test it.

Are you trying to pick your next book to read? Want to entice us with your own book (published or unpublished?) Throw out a few sentences to let us pick!Throw us the opening sentence or especially if you're trying to decide.

The First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman is a book for every writer's shelf, so be sure to get a copy.

See my posts at Hoosier Ink, along with other Hoosier Writers.

Those Opening Lines

1 comment:

Christine Lindsay said...

I keep a copy of Noah Lukeman's First Five Pages in my purse to read whenever I'm stuck anywhere. I don't read it as much as I read my Bible of course, but I do read it on a continuous basis.