Begin At The Beginning

When I was a very young writer, whose “professionalism” was measured in the number of rejections I got every month — a prodigious number.  I usually hit 100 by March of every year.  I was the writer of no future — I was offended when I heard that most editors only read your first page and rejected on that.

The thought went something like “but I have all that good stuff afterwards.  So, what if my first page isn’t brilliant.”

Years later, when I was the editor of a micro press, I found that I could reject stories on one paragraph and that if — because I was young and stupid — I forced myself to read to the end, the story never improved.

But, you say, what is the point of that?  Nowadays we’re not submitting and if we do, it’s not cold, and certainly not short stories, which used to get the biggest pile of submissions for editors to go through.

That’s true.  But if you’re indie, you’re selling that book on a sample.  And yes, I know they give you what? 10% of the book as a sample on Amazon, and that’s way more than one page.  But does the reader give you that?

I’m a subscriber to Kindle Lending Library, mostly because I read “popcorn books.”  That is, I chain read something like 2 books a day, 6 if I’m not working that day.  I read while cleaning house, while brushing my teeth, and if I ever find a way to read while asleep, I’ll do that too.

Now, popcorn books are not things I wish to be extraordinary — though some of them will be — or stay with me.  They’re just things I read so I don’t get unutterably bored and decide to paint the cats chartreuse. (Okay, I never did that, but I once installed an entire floor because I’d run out of reading material, about 10 years ago.  If you’ve read Ray Bradbury’s Story Almost The End of the World, it’s like that.) But they do have to be entertaining, and the book can’t “fight me”.

A book fights you when you’re doing your best to stay immersed and the book keeps kicking you out.

Obviously, when I download books (usually on description.  I don’t bother with samples for borrowed books)  I want them to be an enjoyable and non-troublesome read.  That’s it.  I want them to keep me immersed enough to read them all the way through.  If they turn out better than that, great.

Some do turn out better than that, but about a quarter I discard.

Now, it’s rare for me to discard something on page one.  Possibly because I usually don’t download books with only two star reviews.  BUT it’s not unusual to discard books at the “beginning” — i.e. page two or three or four.

Why are most books discarded?  Not any great offense, just I get to page four or five, and I still couldn’t care less about what is going on on the page.  There is a lot of verbiage, but nothing that holds me.

One of the more obvious offenders — a mystery — last week was narrated by a person who was supposed to have trouble following a line of thought.  First person.  By page ten I was so tired of the asides, which were everything to the narrative so far, that I discarded it. They did excellently at portraying the character as they proclaimed him.  BUT it sucked.

There are many reasons why a book grabs and doesn’t let go.

-One of them is starting at the right point.  Most beginning authors start a book fifty pages too early, a short story two pages too early.  They feel they need to give us scene setting which is not in fact needed.

This was never a big problem for me, but with Darkship Thieves, I DID start it a chapter too early.  And it didn’t work.  It sold when I removed that chapter.

-One is starting with something intriguing that’s obviously not a mistake.  Something that makes the reader want to read more so they figure out what’s going on. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” from the opening of 1984 does that, because clocks don’t usually strike thirteen, not even in Europe, where people do what we consider military time.  (Thirteen is 1pm.)  Clocks are designed on a twelve hour model, and strike at most twelve.  So you read, because you want to know why these clocks strike thirteen.

Note that the killer first line or first paragraph only gets you so far.  It earns you maybe another two three pages.  At which point you have to:

-Be very clean, very crisp, very easy to follow, and have SOMETHING happen.  It doesn’t matter what, provided it’s interesting, it’s building up, and it’s easy to follow.

-Build it up.  Even in the beginning, we need to have a sense this is leading somewhere.  If your entire scene is the character burning the eggs for breakfast, unless you’re writing for a peculiar demographic, you’ll lose readers.  Take Agatha Christie’s opening to A Murder is Announced.  It’s a domestic scene and breakfast, but there is a murder invitation in the paper, and it’s for the house where these people are eating breakfast.  It builds.

-Voice.  This one is harder to explain.  Part of it is being clean and crisp and easy to follow, but a great part of it is being confident.  You know where the story leads, and you’re telling the story to people you know want to come along with you.  Don’t hesitate or vacillate.  Remember you’re in charge.  Start up and lead.

So, do I expect you to LEARN the stuff above just because I told you?

Bah.  You’re writers.  Most of you probably learn through your toe nails.  Telling you things won’t do ANYTHING.

So, this is the first post of a workshop.  Next post, next Wednesday, we’ll look at some great openings and why they work.  I’ll bring some.  Your homework for next week is to find your favorite story opening (and please not MHI because I’m using it!) and bring it.  I want you to identify two things: why it’s your favorite opening, and what promises it makes for what the story will be like.  Be prepared to quote no more than 2 paragraphs.

Note- Some of you write the opening after you finish the manuscript.  I usually  re-write it after I finish the manuscript.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  This should still be useful.

Also, and related, these workshops are usually great for revision and rewrite, not first write.  Each writer is so different on first write, that you can’t do this sort of thing without blocking most of them.  So, study, learn, and hold it for revision.

Till next week.

 

86 comments

  1. Question, or rather a point of clarification. When you are talking about favorite story opening, are you talking something we have written or a story that we enjoy reading? Don’t know if it’s my lack of sleep or reading comprehension here.

  2. “In the beginning the Universe was created.

    This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”

  3. There are many contenders for best first line.
    But MHI is the undisputed champion of best second line.

    1. It seems we’re quite a tribe of fans of young Scrubb, here!

      It’s actually a very loaded name, since one of the main subplots is his redemption; by themselves, each piece is very plebian and Boarding-School English, as far as I can tell, but Eustace come from “Justice”, Clarence refers to purity, and a good spiritual Scrub was what his character needed for two-thirds of the book.

      (Confession: I binge-looped Narnia back to back about six times between ages six and nine.)

  4. In my latest book to be ignored on Amazon, I lopped off the original first chapter because it was boring. I’ve done the same with the sequel, for the same reason.

    I get that an experienced editor can judge a manuscript by the first paragraph. Yet, I remember one editor, who said, with a proud, arrogant, sneer, that she didn’t have to read past the first paragraph. That gave me the idea of an editor, found himself facing a sign that says “You are judged as you judged,” and he and other deceased editors get the slushpile treatment.

    1. I seem to recall that there was a short story, I think by Asimov, about a mad scientist who created a drawing that would cause all who saw it to lose their minds. He copied the drawing, submitted it to a bunch of editors, and…nothing happened. Because he put the drawing on the second page of his submission.

      Though Sarah is right here that what the editors are doing isn’t really all that different from what the audience is doing. If a potential reader is bored stiff by the beginning, they won’t keep going to discover the good stuff in the middle.

      1. I don’t deny that. If we can’t hold a reader’s interest, we aren’t going to make a sale. That said, it was the editor’s attitude that grated on me. So it was, in that story that a “reviewer” didn’t wait for an editor to finish before dropping him … elsewhere, The review shrugs and says “After a while, you know what they’re going to say.”

        Sigh. Do I finish that one or not? Very nasty. But it has a guy who gets sent right on up. The reviewer says. “He attended the workshops.”

  5. In Mark Steyn’s book “Broadway Babies Say Goodnight,” there’s an entire chapter devoted to opening numbers. To sum up, the opening number is more than just the first song: it’s what sets the tone for the whole musical, gets the audience on your side, and gets them pumped for what’s to come. If the opening number doesn’t get people excited, or worse actively misleads them about the rest of the show, it’s unlikely that you can ever recover from that.

    Since reading that, I’ve looked at the “opening numbers” to a lot of things: books, movies, TV shows, etc., and I’ve found that Steyn is right. A good piece of entertainment always has a good opening, and a bad one usually has something that failed in the first few pages/minutes.

    1. That instantly made me think of the train number in “The Music Man.” Reveals the whole main plot of the show, really – but then you get interested in just how this rogue is going to accomplish the impossible. Keeps you going even when the “unexpected love interest” and the “reform of the villain” zigs the show off on a new zag.

    2. It’s one of the reasons that I think Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat could do with a good editing back down to a one-act. If you open the show with the show-stopping number, that’s a bad idea by definition. (Other ideas are to get rid of the unnecessary frame story, kill the mandatory repeats, and take a close look at which ideas have aged badly. Elvis, unfortunately, has to go, but the cowboy schtick is still good.)

      1. I’m not sure if the “Pharaoh as Elvis” necessarily has to go so much as it needs to be recognized that it isn’t greatest thing ever. It’s okay once to move along the story, but many of the productions of Joseph I have been to seem to think that the Elvis number is the reason we’re all here and requires at least one, if not two, encores.

        1. Yep. See “mandatory repeats” above. But my concern is that “King must be Elvis” is going to be opaque to viewers, if it isn’t already.

  6. Was that nice? Now you’ve got me prowling the shelves, hunting for a good opening (or a spectacularly bad one!) when I ought to be working.

  7. Concerning the opening passage of a novel, I’ve been advised my many other, more successful writers:
    — A peek or a hint at the major conflict is good.
    — Better yet if it directly involves the protagonist.
    — Still better if it involves the antagonist as well.
    — Beware excessive description and stylistic flourishes.

    It all sounds good. Yet when I think of some of my favorite opening sentences:
    — Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.
    — He found the flying mountain by its shadow.
    — It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
    — It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
    — Call me Ishmael.
    — In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.
    A Dream Of Freedom was a ship that had once been a world.

    …most of them depart from the advice above. They get their effects not by pointing at a key conflict, or introducing the reader to a Marquee character or two, but by jarring the reader out of “mundane reality.” And they work quite well. So once again, there’s more than one way to skin this cat.

    “But,” the student may ask, “what if it comes natural to me to experiment rather than conform? What if I am a pioneer, or even a genius?” Answer: then be one. But do not forget that what may seem like pioneering may be merely evasion, or laziness–the disinclination to submit to discipline. [E. B. White, Afterword to The Elements of Style]

    1. Right or wrong, I revised both novels to open while the characters are doing something. In the first, the protagonist is on horseback at dawn, shivering from more than the cold. Then it goes into why, all while introducing the setting and the premise. Hopefully, by the end of the first paragraph, the reader knows that this is a desperate evacuation. By the end of the first chapter, the reader hopefully has some idea about the protagonist. Older readers hopefully realize that the protagonist’s father is not optimistic of their chances. Then things get worse from there.

      In the second, the same protagonist is once again on horseback, struggling to stay awake. This novel’s opening is lower key, but, hopefully, the reader wants to know why the protagonist is on horseback. There some minor drama that become pivotal, but right there it’s just to hold interest. But once again there’s setting, and this one foreshadows the main story.

      That’s just my theory. The first hasn’t sold, so if someone is reading the sample, it doesn’t seem to hold their interest. In short, it may have the very failings our hostess discusses today.

  8. “People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father’s blood but it did not seem so strange then, although I will say it did not happen every day.”

  9. Except there’s more to an opening than just the hook.
    First lines are great, and we can debate the best example at length. But there are lots of great openings where the hook is merely serviceable.

    I’m personally give of framing stories, quotes, or poetry.

    (And really folks, we need to invoke Pride and Prejudice for our hostess. Failing to do so well be the very height of poor breeding.)

    1. I didn’t realize he was a werewolf at first. My nose isn’t at its best when surrounded by axle grease and burnt oil – and it’s not like there are a lot of stray werewolves running around. So when someone made a polite noise near my feet to get my attention I thought he was a customer. (Moon Called)

      I remember where I was and what I was doing when Bonnie Prince Charlie was killed. Not that I knew it at the time, of course. But while Charlie was travelling the distance from Pigeon Cloisters belfry to High Street with all the dispatch that gravity can muster, I was sunbathing. (Finder)

      It was going to rain soon. Ukiah Oregon could smell the rain on the wind. He felt the tension on his skin as he leaned out the Cherokee’s passenger window. He saw it on the far horizon over the skyscrapers of Pittsburgh. (Alien Taste)

      Hating the Earth was easy. It was always there to hate, a filmy blue eye hanging in the black sky, winking side to side. Even on that high day of the month when the eye was shut, a blue halo, a crust of dirty air, stared on. It asked to be hated, sending its people who thought Luna’s land was ugly and her cities strange and her gravity comical, sending its message that Earth was the source of all the life in the Universe as if nobody had ever been born on Luna or Mars or the Frames, never mind the Far Worlds, sending its trash and its stupidity and its lies. It was full as a pimple of trash and stink and jealousy, spitting them all by shipfuls at Luna, hating Luna for not being another piece of Earth itself, refusing to even call the world by its proper name, as if “Moon” meant “owned,” as if gravity made property: what was there to do but hate it back? (Growing Up Weightless)

      “Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is escape your powerful, control freak mother,” Nikki whispered to the mirror hung on the back of the apartment’s door. (Eight Million Gods)

  10. MOTHER TAUGHT ME to be polite to dragons. Particularly polite, I mean; she taught me to be ordinary polite to everyone. Well, it makes sense. With all the enchanted princesses and disguised wizards and transformed kings and so on wandering around, you never know whom you might be talking to. But dragons are a special case.

    (Talking To Dragons By Patricia Wrede)

  11. “In five years, the penis will be obsolete,” said the salesman.

    Steel Beach, by John Varley

  12. I was just thinking about the opening hook of Roger Zelazny’s “Nine Princes In Amber”–not so much the first line, which didn’t stick in my mind, but the first couple of pages. The narrator–who doesn’t have a name at this point–wakes up in a hospital with no memory.

    When I first read it, many years ago, I was hooked right away. I wanted to find out who this guy is and what his story is all about.

    I bring this up because I can think of two different books that I gave up on within a few pages that started essentially the same way. (One of them was Blair Crouch’s “The Pines” and I can’t recall the name of the other one.) Somehow Zelazny made Corwin very relatable even when he didn’t know that he was Corwin. Other authors who have tried that trick left me completely cold.

    I think that’s what you are talking about when you refer to “voice”. For me the most important thing is having someone that I want to get to know better.

    1. A few years back, Zelazny’s family found a complete manuscript that everyone had forgotten about for decades, a hard-boiled crime novel written about the same time as Nine Princes in Amber. It feels much like that first look at Corwin. Look for The Dead Man’s Brother (the paperback cover is much more fun than the Kindle edition’s).

      The opening sentence? “I decided to let him lie there, since he was not likely to bother anyone, and I went to the kitchen and made coffee.”

      -j

    2. I remember that opening. For me it was him getting a haircut, and then buying a new shirt because he couldn’t stand the itchiness from the strands of hair. I was nine or ten, but could totally relate.

  13. His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god. But then, he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

  14. You know, there’s a lot of great openings out there, and I’ll dig some up later, but I’m going to post the first line from a tightly-knit political thriller masquerading as a zombie novel because I’ve been thinking about that series lately.

    Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot—in this case, my brother Shaun—deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.

    Feed, by Mira Grant.

  15. “Danny Dragonbreath had a vivid imagination, much to the dismay of his family, teachers, lunch lady, and the occasional ambulance crew.” (paraphrased from an Ursula Vernon book.)

    1. And then that hilarious digression asking why doornails are such an exemplar of deadness.

      1. That digression was what convinced me that of all the versions of Christmas Carol out there, the Muppets was the one that really had the spirit of the thing. I think Charlie would have been flattered to learn that he was being played by Gonzo the Great!

  16. Thanks, Sarah. I badly need this post, since I’m about to start editing my latest book, and boy does the beginning need work. It’s not a bad beginning, per se, but I wrote it at least a year ago, and my writing has changed since then.

    *trundles back to the drawing board*

  17. Workshop! Yay!!!

    I am now looking at Book 1. It may well start one chapter too early. Genius Workshop!

    1. “On a bright sunny day in Amsterdam, Robert Cook found a shoe.” First line from “The Discarded Shoe”

  18. Serviceable but not great opening line:

    “The wargs chased the elf over Pittsburgh Scrap and Salvage’s tall chain-link fence shortly after the hyperphase gate powered down.” – Tinker, by Wen Spencer.

    Good parts: it lays out the elements of the story and clearly communicates what combination of genres you’re in (urban fantasy mixed with science fiction). Bad: it’s not punchy. There’s no way I can read this to someone out loud and hold their interest.

    She did get better at it, though. First two sentences of Wood Sprites, the fourth book in the series (Tinker is the first book): “Louise Georgina Mayer learned many important life lessons the week before her ninth birthday. The first was that flour was indeed explosive.”

    1. Putting the time bit last is to my ear annoying.

      The week before her ninth birthday, Louise Georgina Meyer learned many important life lessons.

      Shortly after the Hyperphase gate powered down, the wargs chased the elf over Pittsburgh Scrap and Salvage’s tall chain-link fence.

    1. Yes! That opening paragraph is the most compelling opening that I’ve ever encountered.

      I was reading the book with some degree of resistance, because I wanted it to be another Vorkosigan book, and it wasn’t. But by the time I’d reached the second page, I was entirely immersed and engrossed. Bujold reached out and grabbed an unwilling reader (me) and dragged me in so thoroughly that I didn’t emerge until the story’s end. And then I said, “Wow, oh, wow, oh, wow!”

      I still love the Vorkosigan books, but I came to love the World of Five Gods more.

      1. It was actually the first Bujold I’d read. And it was interesting at first and absolutely gripping later. It was the first book that I immediately re-read upon finishing since I was a teenager.

  19. Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife. Their house was small, for the lumber to build it had to be carried by wagon many miles. There were four walls, a floor and a roof, which made one room; and this room contained a rusty looking cookstove, a cupboard for the dishes, a table, three or four chairs, and the beds. Uncle Henry and Aunt Em had a big bed in one corner, and Dorothy a little bed in another corner. There was no garret at all, and no cellar–except a small hole dug in the ground, called a cyclone cellar, where the family could go in case one of those great whirlwinds arose, mighty enough to crush any building in its path. It was reached by a trap door in the middle of the floor, from which a ladder led down into the small, dark hole.

    Boring, boooring, bored…

    The second paragraph is more than slightly depressing.

    Yet… Absolutely necessary. IMHO, YMMV, etc., etc.

    Not that the advice is generally good. I have ripped out, for example, the entire first chapter that didn’t belong there (It is sitting there, waiting impatiently to be finished as a “bonus short” after the first novel is out.) Then ripped out a prologue that didn’t belong there. (Which was shredded and added to various places in the fourth book.)

    On the other end, the epilogue got chopped off, renamed as a very short Chapter 17.

    Some days I feel like I’m running a word weight loss clinic, and a svelte, sleek beauty will eventually walk out the door. Others, I fear that it is simply a reprise of Doctor Frankenstein, and the product will lurch out to terrify the villagers.

    Ah, well. After two days of taxes, tomorrow (today, oh my) will be a good day to die. For the villains in various spots, that is…

      1. I’m not sure the boundary is at about 50 years — things like the Zelazny’s that we’ve listed so far are about 50 years old, and really hold up.

        And we can go back even further. To pick another of my favorites, from 1939:

        The broad Hudson, blue under spring skies, was dotted with sails. The orchards in the valley were aglow with white and purple blossoms. Beyond the river frowned Storm King, not much of a mountain by western standards, but impressive enough to a York Stater. The landscape blazed with the livid green of young leaves—and Sir Howard van Slyck, second son of the Duke of Poughkeepsie, wished to God he could get at the itch under his breastplate without going to the extreme of dismounting and removing half his armor.

        Which sets you up for a pastoral novel, and then “York Stater” provides a small hint that there’s something different here, and then the final section, after the M-dash, puts you into, “What is going on here?” mode.

        I’d probably put the dividing line on style (and it was more of a gradual change, rather than a sharp line) at the Campbell period in Astounding (or maybe a few years earlier, to pick up early Campbell / Doc Smith / Williamson).

          1. Now THAT is so. But whether it is the market, or that the imitation is almost certainly a bad one, is a question. IMHO, it’s both.

            If I feel a need for a brain-stretcher some time, I’ll take a stab at writing an opening for a book with the same plot as The Wizard of Oz. It will be a stretcher, too – durned if I can see one right now.

            In the meantime, I’ll try to come up with something a bit more modern. Drat. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” just popped up. Sigh…

          2. I have a WIP that someone says feels like 19th-century phrasing, which is interesting since I see all the ways that it is not. But that’s because I eventually want it to sell, and it’s a riff on a well-known work, so I have to get the feel like and unlike for it to work.

  20. Recently I listened to “The Left Hand Of Darkness” again and the amount of information regarding the characters and the situation that is delivered in the first few pages is extraordinary.

    Who the Envoy is, his mission, the nature of the Ekuman, the political situation on Gethan, and what makes the Gethaneans different from other humans–all that is presented in a few minutes, clearly and concisely, without feeling like a data dump. Genly Ai is watching a parade followed by a ceremonial setting of the keystone of an arch–that’s all that really happens. But how Le Guin describes the scene fills in everything you need to know for the rest of the book.

    It’s an amazing piece of work.

  21. “There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always.”

  22. Apparently, one of my WIPs began about five years too late.

    I had intended to reference something that had happened to the characters “five years ago” only in flashback, and start with the “now”. But everyone who read it thought that my male MC (who I thought of as rather curmudgeonly) was rather wimpy.

    My editor friend finally convinced me to write the “five years ago” section, and no one who read it since had any problems with my male MC.

    1. I plead inexperience when writing Isabelle And The Siren, but my first opening had Isabelle remembering how everyone else in the village had heard this music and left. It was not until I revised that I put the siren pulling them off in the first paragraphs.

  23. Agent of Change by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller

    THE MAN WHO was not Terrence O’Grady had come quietly.

    And that, Sam insisted, was clear proof. Terry had never done anything quietly in his life if there was a way to get a fight out of it.

    Okay, that’s two paragraphs. I could probably have stopped at the first line, if I had to, but… Why is it a favorite opening? I think because of the promises it makes. PUZZLE! Who is this guy, and why is he coming along quietly (don’t worry, the action will start soon). Where are they taking him? What is going on here? Practically reaches out and says, “Keep reading!”

    Free over here! http://www.baen.com/agent-of-change.html

    Or Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

    Jack Holloway found himself squinting, the orange sun full in his eyes. He raised a hand to push his hat forward, then lowered it to the controls to alter the pulse rate of the contragravity-field generators and lift the manipulator another hundred feet. For a moment he sat, puffing on the short pipe that had yellowed the corners of his white mustache, and looked down at the red rag tied to a bush against the rock face of the gorge five hundred yards away. He was smiling in anticipation.

    “This’ll be a good one,” he told himself aloud, in the manner of men who have long been their own and only company. “I want to see this one go up.”

    Two paragraphs, again. But a very, very different beginning. A minor, out under the orange sun, with his contragravity manipulator, about to set off a blast. Which might be an allegory for the story, where he and Little Fuzzy bring down the Zarathustra Company, come to think about it. But it’s a comfortable beginning, even if it does have those hints of SF in the sun and tech.

    Free at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/18137

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