I’ve said on many occasions that I don’t believe in writer’s block. I’ve said on fewer occasions, but meant it every time, that “occasion” is a word that never looks right, no matter how many times I type it.
And again, I prove that if I am the master of anything here at MW, it’s the random aside. I mean seriously, folks, who else is going to go off on a full-blown tangent before we finish sentence #2? Anyway, I don’t believe in writer’s block. But when I read the first few pages of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, I couldn’t write for a month. I didn’t have writer’s block, I just thought that if I couldn’t get to be that good, what was the point of writing at all? I’ve often likened it to being a teenager who’s taken three guitar lessons and then sees Eric Clapton for the first time, and smashes his guitar in disgust.
Obviously I got over it, because let’s be honest, an ego like mine won’t be submerged by anything as ridiculous as reality for long. But that’s not the point (bringing me to my Writerly Superpower #2 – Burying the Lede). The point is not my fragile and yet monstrous ego, the point is that Rothfuss had an amazing beginning. The rest of the novel is pretty amazing too, but it was the beginning that hooked me, and made me jump on board the train for that massive, chihuahua-killing ride.
And today you have to have a killer opening. We’re not in a slow-moving “the best of times, the worst of times” world anymore. Although that’s still a pretty good opener. But my point is that in today’s market, you have to have a strong beginning. You don’t have multiple pages to get an editor or agent’s attention, you might not even have multiple paragraphs.
True story – when editing The Big Bad, coming soon from Dark Oak Press, I decided that I would read at least the first page of every submission we received. Then we got nearly 200 submissions. That’s when I decided that if I knew the writer, I would read every word, and at least the first page of every story. Then I started reading.
And I decided that I would read at least the first page if I knew you, and at least the first paragraph if I didn’t.
Then I kept reading.
One story I rejected eleven words into the first subordinate clause. I killed it before I got to the object of the sentence. Some stories were bad. Some stories were godawful. Some stories were amazing, and those went into the anthology (which will hopefully launch at ConCarolinas from Dark Oak Press). But some stories were just okay.
That’s the biggest problem with submissions. Not that some are terrible. But that a lot of them aren’t interesting enough in the beginning to get me to the payoff. I have a lot going on in my life, and my reading time is precious. And if I’m reading something for an anthology, my time is even more precious, because there’s a monetary value attached to it.
So make your openings pop. I watch people pick up my Black Knight Chronicles Omnibus at cons, and I know about the place where the first laugh should be. If they get that far, I get a sale. If not, I don’t. If I can make you laugh on Page 1, I’ve hooked you. If I can get your eyes to widen a little, make your pupils contract, make your heart speed up just a little bit, I’ve got you.
If I can’t, you’re walking away. The same thing goes for an editor. Here are a couple of examples. The first paragraph is the opening to Fire on the Mountain, available in Dreams of Steam IV: Gizmos from Dark Oak Press.
“Beauregard Ulysses Brabham, get your worthless behind down here and help me!” The shrill voice rang out over half the valley and Bubba sat bolt upright in his bed. Only he wasn’t in his bed, he was in the hammock out in his back yard, so the motion of sitting up quickly deposited all three hundred pounds of him firmly and swiftly onto the hard-packed earth. Bubba hauled himself up to hands and knees, then crawled out from under the hammock, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. How did I end up in the hammock? He wondered. And where are my pants?
The next one is from nothing, because this story got rejected.
“Beauregard Ulysses Brabham, get down here!” The dulcet tones of Tavvy’s voice penetrated the fog that was Bubba’s mind and dragged him forcefully from a dream into the waking world. The waking world was bright, so Bubba rolled over to limit his exposure to daylight. Unfortunately for Bubba, he had once again slept outside in his hammock, so the act of rolling over involved a rather abrupt introduction of his face to the hard-packed red clay beneath him. Sonofabitch, that woman is more likely to get me killed than any monster I hunt. And where’d my damn pants go?
Not only is this just a rehash of the same scene from the first Beauregard story, it’s wordy, convoluted and generally dull. Now that I see it again in the harsh light of a few months later, I’m a little embarrassed to show it to you. And perhaps more embarrassed to admit that “embarrassed” is another one of those words that never looks right. But I digress. Again.
So the point I’m driving at is this – make your openings pop, because your first few paragraphs are as important as your elevator pitch. You must hook a reader in the first few sentences, or you’ll probably never get a chance to hook them in later paragraphs.
So I try to make a reader laugh in the first few sentences. What do you do to “hook” readers?