Beginnings

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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? 

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15 comments to Beginnings

  • Oy… In the Jane Yellowrock books I open with action.
    My WIP starts out: The crash shook the house, sounding like the front wall exploded. I whirled as the front door blew in, icy wind gusting with hurricane force. My ears popped. The bed skirt blew flat beneath the bed. My Beast rammed into me, the light going sharp and the colors bleaching into greens. Beast-fast, I reached for my vamp-killer and—with only the slightest hesitation—a nine mil. Raced into the foyer.

    The door was open, the knob stuck into the wallboard, the hinges bent. The glass of its small window was busted all over the floor. Again….

    Hmmm. It isn’t funny, but then my humor is usually relationship-based and accidental, and I only laugh afterward, when I see it on the paper the first time. But action I can do.

  • I usually begin with some sort of action and occasionally in-medias-res. I can always answer questions later.

    Oddly enough, the beginning of the work that was just picked up, was a rule breaker. It started with a character waking up…..of course, it was an emergency wake up from stasis to find the transport wrecked and on minimal life support, but still. 😉

    Even the Noir work starts with the MC running from a cab for a meetup he’s late for.

    Those that I’ve shown the beginning of my MG lately have loved it and want more, so I must’ve done at least a decent job there. It’s got a bit of stealthy action coupled with a sort of narration bit that I thought might appeal to a younger reader. It’s still rough, but I’m having quite a bit of fun writing this one.

    “He crept through the darkened kitchen, not wishing to wake the cat. He’d done that once. It wasn’t recommended, though he was glad that it was around. He wasn’t a Spirit Shaker. At least, not yet. Cats were naturals at it. But the cat also liked mice and other small things, which would not do, should she decide to wake.

    He was still young, no longer a sproutling, but old enough now to work in the home on his own. In fact, this was his home now, newly appointed, his job, and he always tried to do it as well as he could.

    But you might ask as to who would be so afraid of a cat in darkened rooms in the middle of the night, and there are many. Spirits, as before mentioned, for one. Cats can see them, and should they find one that has the intent to scare or torment, the cat can drive them off, shake them back into the other world. Mice, and sometimes rats, are frightened of cats, but no small mystery there. Birds should be, but Jasper knew from a sparrow drunk on too many elderberries that this was not wholly the case. No, birds liked to taunt cats, which Jasper found just more than a little strange.

    But Jasper was also…he wouldn’t quite say, afraid, he wasn’t afraid of anything, but perhaps cautious of cats. And with good reason. When you are the size of a grown human’s finger, it’s best to avoid such things that eat mice.”

  • Ken

    I try to start with action of some kind, following the “Enter the scene late and leave early” mantra. I also try and make it multitask a bit by showing action and revealing character, etc.

    My WIP starts out: Jasmine tea, a few degrees shy of boiling and Deana Markenyen’s favorite, splashed over the rim of the cup and onto her fingers.
    “Ow, Damn it,” she said.

    In two sentences I’ve got action, introduced a character, and revealed a little bit about them. The only thing that’s missing is the setting (She’s piloting a spaceship in a horrible storm) which comes in the next few sentences.

    What I’m also trying to do is mix the mundane (the tea…although a good cup of tea is *Anything* but mundane) with the unusual (the spaceship in the storm) in order to nurture the interest that got you to read the first two sentences in the first place.

  • Funny thing is, I came this close [thumb and forefinger a millimeter apart] to writing this week’s post about story openings, with a focus on opening short stories versus novels. Well, maybe I’ll do that in a couple of weeks. But in the meantime, I love this post and its digressions. I’m looking forward to THE BIG BAD and I’m hoping that next time you’ll invite me to be in your anthology!!

    I don’t necessarily feel that a story has to begin with action, but it should certainly begin with something that grabs hold of the reader’s imagination — an odd turn of phrase, a jarring image, a piece of dialog that makes them go “WTF??” On the other hand, a good murder can also get things rolling . . .

  • In openings I try a few different things: incongruity (a MRI machine covered in faerie sparkles); humor with incongruity (the Wicked Witch in the Big Bad story screwing up a child sacrifice); but in my, I think, most successful pieces, it’s been voice for me. I get a real clear sense of the person who is speaking. They haven’t necessarily been first person (one first, and one third). While one is in progress, and the other just missed a pub (alas), in both cases, it was the voice that worked and made people want to keep going.

    And I hear you about writer’s block. I don’t believe in it either, but like 2500 words in 4 months? That’s what it is starting to look like here too. Maybe I need to work on my ego. 🙂

  • I like to shock people when I open books; its so much fun that way. Action is really great too but you leave the readers on a high only to shut them down with a narrative. So if you’re to start with action, your book better be filled with action and action at every 150 pages.

    “Listen to me carefully when I tell you this. I’d like to eat your children. The demons want to replace them with clones for a price. The angels want to erase them from exsistence. You want to protect them; that will never happen.”

    This is from my WIP about Amelia, The Huntress who has to pay for her past sins, the biggest being that she killed Jesus and his army of angels, and now has protecting the very
    children her people wanted to destroy, only
    she can’t remember why they wanted to them or who her people were. If she does remember the angels will kill her because she was the angels and demons worst enemy.

  • And not action at every 150 pages. Opps.

  • But we love your tangents, John! I think it really helps you to get your point across, and makes for very engaging reading. 🙂

    On the writer’s block matter, I also don’t believe in it, but I do believe little things can throw us off our game. For me it’s got a lot to do with my personal energy levels, which is something I’m trying to work on, or at least do what I can to manage them. Same goes for drama and anxiety. Working on it! 🙂

    And pretty much what David and Emily have said about something being off to get the reader’s attention. Incongruity, definitely. “It had been three years, and Eddie still wouldn’t tell me how he’d died.” These really do help to establish voice and get the reader hooked!

  • sagablessed

    I’m with Pea on this. Voice is how I do it and an example follows. I would say more, but am in the middle of four crises at once right now.

    The Sisters had summoned him.
    Over a score-plus-ten centuries in service, yet to be before the Sisters never got easier. He knelt before them, sweat falling from the tip of his nose. Under his knees lush grasses cushioned his weight, while the scent of apple-blossoms wafted around him.
    At the edge of his vision a wave of midnight-blue cloth rippled in the afternoon sun. The Eldest was moving towards him. Pools spread rapidly under his arms as his chin tucked tighter into his chest.
    “We have decreed. It is time again to wipe the daemon-sleep from the eyes of mortals.”

    There we have an idea of the type of material, a character’s position, and some other major players. I gotta run.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Humor is definitely a nice way to hook things at the beginning, but it’s just not where my talents lie.

    I don’t yet have any data on how effective it is or not, but I tend to focus on a sensory hook for my beginnings, with emphasis on something tactile. Looking at four projects I’ve been working on recently, I actually find that in three of them the second sentence references pain of one sort or another. For example:

    “A thin, keening fox howl shivered through the air as Lucca cautiously approached the pine hollow where he’d laid his snare. The fox must have heard the shush of his skis as he drew nearer, for the cry changed suddenly, shrieking upward, high, like a woman in pain.”

    Reading it to myself, I feel like it works, but again, I have no idea about for other people. The world is a big draw for *me* into stories, and so I’d like to have direct contact with it as soon as possible.

  • quillet

    I read somewhere (wish I could remember where) that a good beginning immediately poses story-questions that readers will want answered. They’ll keep reading to find out the answers.

    In your first example, the story-questions would be: Who’s calling Bubba? What do they want him to help with? Why’s he in the hammock? And (my fave) what ~did~ happen to his pants? 😀 Love that. Just to compare: In your second example, the first question is answered immediately, the second not asked, the third answered immediately, and only the fourth remains. So, like you said, there’s much less there to hook the reader. (And I agree with you about “embarrassed,” a word I could never spell properly until I decided it has extra r’s and s’s to draaaag out the embarrassment as long as possible.)

    Faith’s example is awesome, because it poses a whole slew of urgent story-questions right off the bat: Who’s attacking? How? Why? What’s Jane going to do about it? Is she going to be okay?? What about Beast?!? Eeeeeep!

    I’m not sure my beginnings reach that level of intensity, but I do try to put a story-question in the very first sentence. And then keep more questions coming so readers will (hopefully!) keep on reading.

  • I try to remember what Ed Schubert said at a Con Carolinas writing workshop – establish setting, character, and conflict in less than 250 words for a short story, the first page for a novel. The sooner the better. This works against my natural desire to write boring exposition of world building before letting the plot begin. Often the first words of the first sentence are the MC’s name and a verb – somebody doing something. Then I establish where they’re doing it. Boom – the plot is underway. When it works, it works pretty well. When it doesn’t it’s usually because I’ve gone off on an exposition tangent and am delaying the plot.

  • quillet–I think I read the same thing about story-questions that you did, although I also can’t remember where.

    In my beginnings, that’s what I go for, story-questions that the reader wants answered badly enough to keep reading. Here’s the current first line in my WIP:

    Keely had no right to spy on Captain Laris, not this time. Maybe she never did.

  • I’m a questions person. I want my reader wanting answers to questions. Of course, sometimes a little humor works, or some action – blood is always good. But still, questions.

    “Sweet dreams,” the man said as I swallowed a sip of golden wine.
    I swallowed a second time, although I hadn’t taken another drink. The sharp, sweet flavor of the wine slid off my tongue like a cloak off my shoulders, revealing the tanic bite of the drug. A chill finger traced the ridges of my spine and made the hairs raise on the back of my neck.
    “You…?”
    The man nodded, then reached for me as the world tilted and dumped me off.

  • I like openings that ask questions–the stranger the better. It doesn’t have to be the central question of the story, but a question that makes me go “How is that possible?” and then quickly provides a plausible response sets in my mind the expectation that here is a writer who can be trusted. Trust is vital. My favorite example–one you’ve probably heard before if you’ve seen me at a convention–is from a James Maxey story that begins (and I’m paraphrasing)–‘He was on his way down the stairs from his bedroom when he saw the shark in his kitchen.’ We quickly find out the world’s oceans are rising and the home is near a beach and partially submerged. It makes perfect sense–as soon as it’s explained. But that initial moment of What the hell is a shark doing in the kitchen? is a brilliant way to tickle the brain and I loved it. It intrigued me and simultaneously generated complete trust in the space of a single paragraph.