Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Great Beginnings

There’s a certain amount of irony inherent in the fact that I am writing a blog article about great beginnings…and I can’t find a way to start for the life of me. I’ve tried everything by this point: impersonal facts. Frightening editorial tales. Definitions. I even tried drumming up a few bad jokes to get the ball rolling.

It was a dark and stormy cliché.

It was the best of submissions, it was the worst of submissions…

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a busy editor in possession of a spare moment must be in want of a manuscript.

And so on.

A good beginning is important. No, I’ll go a step farther and say it’s vital. While a title and a good cover may be what draw a reader’s eye, the first paragraph of a book is what keeps her from immediately putting the book away. The same holds true for editors, except in our case there is nothing but the cover letter and those first few words to get us interested. No handsome men and no kickass women posed with werecoyotes howling in the background—just the bare bones of the very best beginning you can manage.

Each editor has his or her own way of dealing with external submissions. Some faithfully read three chapters all the way through before making a decision. Some read only until the first typo. Some read the first page.

And, of course, there are some editors who will only give you that first, vital paragraph. That leaves it up to you to impress them, interest them, immediately. That leaves it up to you to come up with a truly great beginning.

There’s a catch 22 in this, however. While it’s important to start your story off with a bang (whether it be with an interesting question, an exciting event or an irresistible character), it’s all too easy to fall into the beginner’s trap of crafting that perfect opening line…and not following up with a story that matches. Or, even worse, to put so much emphasis on the opening line that it may as well be waving flags and shooting off fireworks. You do need a hook to capture my attention, but you also need it to fit your story. If your first few lines are a promise to the reader that you’ve got something worthwhile to say, the rest of your book is a delivery on that promise.

So, to recap: the hook of your story is vital to getting it read, getting it sold and getting it to as many readers as you can. But beware of the temptation to put so much into the hook that it no longer fits within the meat of your story. You have to deliver on the promise of that first line and offer not only a great beginning but a great middle and end as well.

That said—who has a first line from their own book to share?


Wilfred Bereswill said...

Mine starts with more of a quote:

There are over one hundred-eighty species of chameleons in the animal kingdom. They survive by camouflage; approaching by stealth to destroy their prey, then melt into their surroundings before becoming prey themselves. There are chameleons in the world of humans as well. Using the same tactics for different reasons.

Laura said...

Delicate, leafy arcades lined the boulevards of Blenheim Street in the summer months.

Heather Wardell said...

Nice post! There's been quite an emphasis on the first line lately, to the point of "if your first line doesn't grab me by the throat I won't read on", which I think might be leading people to the "bells and whistles" first lines that don't fit the book.

That said, here's the first line of my most recent book, which goes back into editing mode next week before going to the crit group and then to agents!

I stared at the seven men of my supposed dreams.


Anonymous said...

Here's mine...

She didn't belong here.

Anonymous said...

Here's mine for a paranormal romance.

I was eleven when I called on all the magic surrounding me and nearly killed my dad.

Kim Knox said...

From a just finished sf romance:

“When I get you Paxton, you son-of-a—”

Though my favourite, from another sf romance, has to be:

Wet and glistening, Cahn Dal’s head slurped out of the gelatin sac.


Bernita said...

My line:
"I was standing there naked when a dead man sauntered into my bathroom."

Michelle Hasker said...

From one of my latest releases:

“Have you been introduced to my darling Nalini?”

the hero is referring to his 6 foot long yellow anaconda LOL

Belle Scarlett said...

"She did what?"

Anonymous said...

I rule at ghosts and I reek at girls but given the idiots in my school, I'm not about to admit it and make a dick of myself.

Ian said...

It was the kind of bar you wouldn't look twice at; the kind of place you'd drive by on a Saturday afternoon and look away quickly, thinking to yourself that the only people who would possibly visit it are scumbags, lowlifes, or even worse ... cowboys.

From my book The Milkman.


Anonymous said...

The first line of my BDSM contemporary WIP:

The first time David Green saw Ariel, she was pinned against the lockers on the third floor, being f****-*****d by a football player.

Sarahlynn said...

I was scared of the baby growing inside me.

It hadn’t started out that way. . .

from an as-yet-untitled memoir about a pregnancy that did not go as planned.

Antony B said...

A piece of advice I've come across suggested that a novel should start when everything that comes before it can't be wrapped up in a sentence. It's a useful way of making sure you're starting the story as late as possible.

My current submission starts with the climax of an unwritten event:
George Mina came into his house to find Wayne, his bodyguard, lying facedown on the wooden floorboards.

My current WIP starts:
The first thing Alex Chapman did after his release from Wandsworth was walk to Clapham and break into his mother’s flat.

Anonymous said...

I pinched my arm and almost yelped at the sharp pain. I remember pinching myself yesterday, too. It hurt just the same. I wont be pinching myself again so soon.

Rachel Aaron said...

Wow, these are all pretty good!

Here's mine for a funny fantasy that's out on submission:

"In the prison under the castle Allaze, where the greatest criminals in Mellinor spent the remainder of their lives counting rocks to stave off madness, Eli Monpress was trying to wake up a door."

Rachel Glass said...

: ) Interesting!

The fat pigeon bobbled his head around as he scavenged along the pavement. He cocked his little head to the side as the two women ran towards him. Spreading his wings, he fluttered a few feet to get out of the way, continuing his foraging in peace.

It has nothing to do with my book itself, but sets the scene of the morning.

Carrie said...

"What the hell is that on your neck and where the hell are your pants?"

Anonymous said...

I escaped before light the morning after Granddad’s funeral.

Melissa said...

Not all that different from some of the ones already submitted but...

From an untitled WIP I keep toying with:

"Lydia knew her day had officially gone to hell when she stepped into the elevator and found a demon and a woman fucking in the corner."

Diane said...

Hey! Great post and I love reading everyones entries!

Here's mine, which is the beginning of a Urban Fantasy.

"Some days having wings is a bitch."


Evangeline Holland said...

"The devil’s playground, many called Monte Carlo. And on 1.96 square kilometers of land, jutting out into the sapphire blue Mediterranean, the devil could wreak much havoc."

Anonymous said...

"The contents of her life fit into one small box."