Wednesday, November 22, 2006

The Question of Beginnings

[Cross posted from Tate Hallaway’s blog, with additions]

On another group blog I belong to the question of how you’ve started your novel came up. Below is my answer. I'd love to see the opening lines from other Wyrdsmiths, be they from novels or short stories.

Archangel Protocol starts with a visual/tactile image:

“My hairline itched where the dead receiver lay just under the skin.”

Fallen Host begins with a statement of fact:

“I never sleep. Like the dolphin and the spiny anteater, I don’t experience REM.”

Messiah Node starts with one of my favorite all time first lines of my own:

“Sometimes I wondered what God was thinking.”

Apocalypse Array starts:

“When the preacher asked if there were any objections, I have expected God Himself to strike me down.”

Tall, Dark & Dead actually starts with a two sentence question and answer:

“What’s the best way to keep Vatican witch hunters off your scent? Dress to kill.”

Dead Sexy also begins with a question (special thanks to Bill Henry who suggested it):

“Who knew there were so many dead things in Madison, Wisconsin?”

The book I’m working on right now (tentatively called Bloody Charming) begins with:

“I was on my bicycle five miles out of town and thinking about what it might be like to settle down, really settle down with a vampire, like forever, when I saw the gray wolf on the side of the road.”

...which is clearly not as snappy as the other two, and may explain a bit why I’m still struggling with this sucker. I’ve started Bloody Charming three times now and can’t quite get things into focus. I’ve decided, in fact, to abandon perfection for the moment in order to keep moving forward.

I agonize over first lines. I’m convinced that they’re critical in hooking (hoodwinking?) your reader into buying your book. I know that when I’m thinking about book buying I often judge a book first by its cover, its back copy, and then by the first page or so of the author’s writing. Given that usually only one of those is in the author’s complete control, I figure I need to make my first page a real grabber.

How do you buy a book? How important is that first page (if you even read it)? And what about first lines, Wyrdsmiths? Any you're especially proud of?


Anonymous said...

I've always been proponent of easing folks into a story with sappy, sentimental opening lines like: "I spend my days shoving monkeys into vacuum."


Erik Buchanan said...

Small Magics opening line is:

Singing, in the distance.

Mari Adkins said...

Midnight - Life sucked.

Heir - Roses of various colors and sizes grew thick around the deck, but Samantha Young planted them close together on purpose and let them grow mostly wild.

Elders - Samantha Young shut the heavy front door behind the last departing guests and breathed out a long exhale.

Daybreak - The Elders and their heirs gathered together in Mick Devon's living room, such a get together fast becoming hard Family tradition.

Mari Adkins said...

How do you buy a book? How important is that first page (if you even read it)?

I look at the cover, read the cover (but not the back), read the author information if it's someone new or I'm not familiar with, and thumb through. If anything catches my eye, it's a keeper.

shawn e. said...

It seems to me there's a question of point of view here. When you have a novel that's principaly told from one point of view I think it's more likely that you can find that great opening line that sums up your character, your plot, etc. But how do you do that in a multi point of view story? I think in that case steering away from that zinger opening line may be the most prudent course of action. I mean, how do you find an opening line that works for each of your POV characters? I've been trying to do that with my own book and I'm not sure that I can.


Erik Buchanan said...

But how do you do that in a multi point of view story?

Good question. I think (and I'm just thinking out loud here) that that opening still needs to grab the audience's interest, but it needs to be about the event or the place or the person thatthe story revolves around, rather than just about one character. On the other hand, one of your characters may be the mai one, and starting from their point of view may help.

Most of my stuff goes from a songle point of view, so I'm not sure on this. Other thoughts?

Kelly McCullough said...

My opener from Winter of Discontent in the post above Tate's on the front page is from a multi-viewpoint novel and it does what Erik talks about, focussing the reader on the central action of the story. It's a book about Shakespeare and Richard III and theater magic. The opening line is designed to evoke plot and setting.

Muneraven said...

I think the idea that the very first line of a book has to GRAB a reader by the lapels or all is lost is ridiculous. If a reader is so impatient that she will not read at least the first whole page (and it ought to be the first ten pages), I would not be in the least interested in having that person read my book. Seriously. Readers who can't sustain interest beyond a first line unless that line attacks them are looking for a tv show, not a book, and that sort of person wouldn't like my writing style no matter how I spiffed up that first line. (I don't mean to sound crabby towards anybody HERE, but this sort of thing chaps my hide in gneral, if you know what I mean).

I have read a lot of forgettable books that had a compelling first line or even a great first scene. I may erroneously buy one book by an author who writes great openings but can't sustain quality over many pages, but I will never buy another book by that writer again. Fool me once...and so on.

A writer who can write a rocking opening AND keep up the quality in other ways as the story progresses is VERY cool, though. Sharon Shinn's "Mystic and Rider" has a rollicking first scene that certainly grabbed me, but it also did a lot to introduce characters who were interesting throughout the book.

Johm Varley's "Steel Beach" employs a rather shocking first line and, in suceeding chapters, he makes use of cliff hangers to get you to go on to the next chapter. The book is not short on nifty ideas and characters, though, so these "grabbers" are bonuses rather than a sort of trick to hook the reluctant reader.

But I do think there is too much emphasis placed on the first line. I really do.

Silvence said...

How do you you buy a book? How important is that first page (if you even read it)?

I'll admit that a book cover says a lot to me about what the author is willing to put on, and therefore into, their book. If an artist's depiction of what the book is looks inferior to me, and the author acepted its portrayal of their book, then that, to me, says more than many words can.

But we all know not to judge a book by its cover, right? Right. So if a book catches my eye, I usually will read the back of a book to get a sense of the story. If it intrigues me I then will pull open to the deep innards of a book and read completely out of context. If that authors cover, sense of story, and craft of writing hits me than the book has sold me despite any Hooks.