It seems we live or die by our openings, doesn’t it? Like, if you haven’t caught an editor’s or agent’s attention in the first two lines, you’re done for.
Writers bemoan the fact that there’s no room for art anymore. The slow build is dead.
Sad to say, I think it’s mostly true. Anyone who has attended the Romance Idol sessions at RWA knows what I’m talking about. The idea is that everyone submits their first, what?, 3 pages? Something like that. Then the moderator begins to read until one of the judges on the panel says “stop.”
They proceed to shred it. It doesn’t say anything. Why should they care about the weather? They don’t like this character already. Or they’re bored. They’re frequently bored.
People were shocked. “They didn’t give it a fair chance!” Well, no. They didn’t. But it’s indicative of how they think. They’re not going to wade through an entire manuscript if they can tell in the first two pages that the story isn’t moving.
Also, it’s my understanding that a lot of people buy books by looking at the opening. If they’re not caught by the first couple of paragraphs, they’re not putting down their hard-earned cash for it. Can’t say as I blame them, either.
It’s possible, of course, for the first chapter, or first three chapters to be the most beautiful, polished prose this side of Charles Dickens, and then have the rest of the story be a crumbling mess. That’s not where I’m going with this.
I’m saying that it pays HUGELY to get those first few words right. Sometimes all it takes is a little tweak. When I first wrote Not Quite Dead, I had the first two sentences switched around until someone said that the killer sentence was the second one. She was right. I fiddled with it and came up with a creditable opening:
Sabine Harper stood in front of a crumbling crypt with her younger cousin, Lily, waiting for the original airhead to try to raise the dead. After years of questionable decisions, she could now categorically state that this was the stupidest thing she had ever, ever done in her life.
Ta-dah! Sold! Ok, maybe it wasn’t the first couple of lines that sold it, but it didn’t hurt, either.
One of the first things Lani asked us to do in this workshop was to grab whatever book was handy and tell the opening lines. Some were fantastic. Some were “meh.”
"Be kind to dragons, for thou art crunchy when roasted and taste good with ketchup."
-- Sherilyn Kenyon, Dragonswan (This one’s my favorite)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
--Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
Phoebe Sommerville outraged everyone by bringing a French poodle and a Hungarian lover to her father's funeral.
--Susan Elizabeth Philips, It Had To Be You
At the tender age of nine, Tara Evans was one of the youngest bank robbers in history.
--Troy Cook, 47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers
Scarlett O'Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
--Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind
I haven’t read all of these, but the openers grab me!
What are your favorite opening lines?
What’s the opening line of your current wip?
And go check out Lani's workshop. I learned as much from the critiques she gave other Divas as I did from my own.
I think what's important to keep in mind is that editors and agents get deluged with submissions. And we read them in addition to doing all of our other work. Submissions are very time consuming, so you can't cross your fingers and hope that an editor/agent will take the time to read your entire manuscript just to see if it eventually grabs them. It's up to you to remember that they're only going to read those that grab them with a partial (not the first sentence but maybe the first couple pages or first several chapters). The fact is that we don't want to have to wade through a book to get to the good stuff. We want the good stuff to grab us right away, just like some readers in a store do (I hear a lot of people talk about the(insert your number of pages here) test.
If a submission hasn't gotten my attention in three chapters, I move on. I just don't have time to read whole submissions on all that cross my desk I have to use my judgment and choose what to continue reading and what to pass on. There's no practical way to do otherwise. And I'd bet money that most NY authors and agents have a much larger submission pile to wade through than I do.
Thanks for chiming in, Angie!
(Everybody wave to my favorite editor! Hi Angie!)
I hear you about the lack of time. There's no way you guys could get through your slush pile if you read every word of every manuscript you recieve.
That's really interesting, Sela.
I do some editing and printing of other people on my blog and a lady fudged an opening, asking me to fix. I asked her to introduce a character and smooth out the continuity right away, otherewise there was this fuzziness around the opening paras that would give an editor a marbled eye.
She was a natural writer trying too hard at the very beginning with a resulting rigidity that made for a tough read at the beginning. The quick establishment of an unusual character with all sorts of kinks made the story readable right away.
I learned the trick from Eric S. Wright, my professor of English who long ago published "The Night the Gods Smiled", through Collins.
She got what I was trying to suggest and smoothed things out right away. Good student, good writer.
Yes, the lead is everything.
When I was in journalism, my co-workers would say, "Once I get past my lead, I've got the story taped."
Awesome Blog topic, Sela!
You're absolutely right. Readers want to be wowwed in the first few pages or they put the book down.
I spend extra time on my opening lines for this very reason. :):)
Kristen and I got a bunch of books at the RT conference and the first line was how we determined which one to read first. :)
She read the first line of the eight books she got during the conference for free and she let me decide which one she should read first based solely on the first line. It was fun.
So...can I steal this blog topic?
Please oh please!!
Go for it, Lara! I'd love to read your take on it. What a fun way to pick a book. I'm a blurb reader, personally, but I may have to start checking out opening lines, too.
Ivan, I loved writing news lead-ins. It was like an outline of the rest of the story right in the first paragraph.
I always miss all the good topics! I added you to my Kinja though =)
Ok, my first thought was, "What the hell is Kinja?" Then I looked it up on Wikipedia (TGFWiki!) and figured it out. Cool!!
And Lani is still checking at the Divas if you want to look up her workshop!