Openings have been on my mind of late. The topic seems to be haunting me, as such things tend to do once they are ingrained in your thoughts.
Everywhere I turn there are articles and discussions about the openings and opening lines of novels, and their importance. It came up on the Writer Unboxed facebook page yesterday, and I saw this article on the website io9 today. My friend and fellow fantasy writer D.D. Falvo has been featuring some of her favorite first lines as a regular Friday feature on her facebook page.
For those of you who haven’t been keeping score, I’ve recently begun a rewrite of book one of my historical fantasy trilogy. The goal of the rewrite is to capture readers and draw them in faster than any of my previous openings. Since I have three more completed books in the series that hinge on accomplishing this goal, I’ve been feeling just a wee bit of pressure to get it right.
But do I really care? I have written dozens of openings, most of them discarded, and evidently few of them have been worthy of further discussion. I’ve often thought the fuss over openings, and opening lines in particular, has been overblown. You see, I’m not one of those people who uses the opening page or pages as one of my criteria for selecting a book to read. These days, I usually find out about books online or through personal recommendations. On the rare occasions I make it to an actual bookstore anymore (the nearest one is over twenty miles away), I’m more of a back-cover-blurb and random-page-sampling kind of guy.
Well, perhaps just a little: I have to admit, when read the io9 list, and saw the opening to Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart, I perfectly recalled first reading it and being blown away. My wife and I were both reading in bed, and I actually read the opening few pages aloud to her. I was just elated by the baroque power of the first person voice (I’m pretty sure my wife was less thrilled by the interruption, but still…). I’d owned the book for several weeks. I picked it up after reading her Sundering duology, which had been a recommendation of George RR Martin. I wasn’t too enamored by the cover, and there the book sat, on my night stand. Until I ran out of books to read, picked it up and read the opening—and couldn’t put it down again.
So before writing this, I started perusing my shelves and my Kindle this morning. Several of my favorites have great openings and pretty enticing opening lines. A recent favorite, that knocked my socks off, was Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy:
“I bear a deep red stain that runs from my left shoulder down to my right hip, a trail left by the herbwitch’s poison that my mother used to try to expel me from her womb. That I survived, according to the herbwitch, is no miracle but a sign I have been sired by the god of death himself.”
With that, I was not only sockless, I was all in. It’s one I could not put down (and highly recommend).
But I like wearing socks: They’re just so darn comforting and warm. Truth be told, I’m a bit of a sock weirdo, and rarely work without them on, even in summer. But I digress…
My point is, comfort is important to me. I am all for being wowed. But I don’t think it’s necessary. Intriguing is not the same as enticing. I don’t need clever to be drawn into story. I don’t need a hook to love a book (pun intended, if lame). All I really want is to experience the flavor of the voice. And to not be put-off by clunky prose or confused, of course. I want to feel a sense of impending conflict, but I also want to be comforted—for the first few paragraphs to assure me I’m going to enjoy reading what’s ahead.
Steven Pressfield is a master at this. Nothing too flashy, just solid storytelling from the first sentence—setting the tone for what’s to come. For example, the opening to Virtues of War:
“I have always been a soldier. I have known no other life. The calling of arms, I have followed from boyhood. I have never sought another.”
Or this one, from Last of the Amazons:
“When I was a girl, I had a nurse who was a tame Amazon. Of course such an expression is a misnomer, as one of that race may be domesticated no more than an eagle or a she-wolf.”
These are not showy; they are perfectly in line with the character’s voices. But more than that, they begin the story. Things move seamlessly forward from these lines. They also both happen to be first person, as is Kushiel’s Dart. I think third person is a bit trickier, but I still believe the same workmanlike virtue can be achieved.
So I was stuck for a bit. I wanted what Pressfield consistently achieves for my own opening. I thought my previous opening line was clever. In fact, I was going for clever—swinging for the fences. But, after a couple dozen rejections, I’m ready to call it a swing and a miss. Not that I think it was bad. It just didn’t matter. Nor did the rest of the opening. I even had a few rejecting agents say the words, “The writing is strong.” But those same agents followed that line with, “But I just wasn’t drawn into the story.” The opening just didn’t do its job.
So this week I stripped all the clever away and focused on story, lopping off about the first fifty pages of the old version with the idea of getting into conflict faster and much closer to the inciting incident. I thought about what mattered to my primary protagonist for the new opening; how he felt, what was his conflict in the moment. Then I tried to speak in the now well-practiced voice of the series (one could only hope by now, right?). I just put something down. Just to get my ass moving. I’m leaving it for now, but it’s not set in stone. Lord knows it very well may change. And it’s certainly not a showy hook, but it set my mood for the opening scene and the story to follow.
I suppose it all begs the question: I’m usually not much for sharing my work before it’s done. I don’t know that I consider it bad luck or anything. But sharing out-of-context work never seems to me to do it justice. And it can also come off as a bit desperate, like I’m seeking validation or approval. Having said all that, I’m sure this post has a few of you wondering what I came up with. And, since its only a few lines that will likely change anyway, I’ll bend my rule and share my new opening paragraph with you. Big whoop, right? Anyway, here it is:
“Everyone knew he should be riding to war, just as everyone knew his mother was the reason he wasn’t. After all, he was the Wulthus clan heir, the rightful next bearer of the futhark sword. But she had seen to it that he was not among the departing hosts. Thaedan loved his mother, but at the moment he hated her for it.”
As I mentioned, the focus is on Thaedan’s conflict in the moment before the oncoming action sequence, written in the third person voice of the series. I’m not sure I love it, but I do feel it achieves ‘workmanlike’ status. Good enough to move forward with the work. In the coming weeks, I’ll have to decide if I feel it’s good enough to entice readers to read on.
What about you? Are you wowed by showy hooks? Is simply starting the story enough for you? How do you feel about socks? Or would anyone else care to share?
I would definitely read on, Vaughn! And while there are books I read because of the first few opening lines, I tend to be like you — what I pick up is more because of blurbs and personal recommendations. (Also, re socks — there’s a big trend for mismatched ones amongst the younger set. It makes laundry difficult.)
We actually have a basket full of mismatched socks, lovingly referred to at our house as ‘lone bones.’ The basket it called ‘Sockland.’ This is primarily because I’m not the only one who loves socks in our house. Unfortunately, our lab Belle loves socks as much as her master, and tends to steal them on a regular basis. She even sometime sneaks into Sockland to steal a lone bone. 🙂
Thanks, Liz! I’m honestly not fishing, but I appreciate the vote of confidence.
I’d read on..there is enough of a question there for me both forward and back to find the answers. And I’m not a huge sci-fi person.
I don’t know if the first line is what entices me all the time: I am, admittedly, a cover slut. If I am drawn to the cover I will most often pick it up. Then it’s writing, do I find a flow that appeals to me. The hardest thing for me to craft is a title (for blog posts) that wants you to read, and doesn’t get lost in the “so what” pile.
Socks – I could wax poetic on socks. The universe also has a sock obsession as it steals one of mine nearly every laundry load. If the universe starts doing that to my flannel pajama pants however, It’s ON.
I remember when ebooks first started gaining popularity, there was talk about how covers weren’t going to matter anymore. I think the opposite has happened, that a good cover is more vital than ever. You might only have an instant to attract the eye in the zippy world of the internet, whereas in a book store, other elements may gain pause and notice (the size, thickness, materials–then backcover, etc.).
I’m not claiming to do it well, but one of my favorite things to write is titles. I even title all of my chapters, just because I love it so much. That includes blog posts (although this one’s pretty straight forward).
I believe in the universe’s sock obession, too. Makes me wonder for the size of the universe’s Sockland (see above reply comment). 🙂 Thanks so much, Gaele! Capturing backward and forward story links is a big part of what I’m trying to achieve with the whole opening (without info dumps or bogging in back-story).
I have a drawer with nothing but socks – filled to the brim with socks – I keep saying I need to clean them out and get rid of some but so far I have not – fuzzy socks, socks to wear with boots, socks to wear around the house in the cooler days, comfy soft socks, Betty Boop socks, socks given to me and socks given to myself. Sounds a lot like books 😀 except for some parts 😀
I don’t have to be wowed with openings — I just like a good story with characters I either care about or am intrigued enough to find out if I care about them.
You and Mo have a lot in common, Kat. I can’t even get her danged sock drawer closed after I stuff in the matched pairs on laundry day. But she won’t be parted with any of them. My new sock obsession is Smartwool socks in winter. They’re just so damn cozy. But today I have on white ankle-lenght tennis socks. Sorry, digressing again.
Yay, you agree with me about openings! Thanks! 🙂
I do agree with you! 😀
And next to socks, I love barefeet the best 😀
Eeee! I’m reading along and then, huh, that’s . . . me. Aw. 😀 Thanks for the mention, your support is much appreciated, as is your timely wisdom.
I agree completely. I either target a book b/c someone’s talking about it (and then I use my inter-library loan system) or if I’m aimlessly picking up books (again library) the following happens: Book cover (Oh! Oooo. Pick that one up.); back cover blurb (a quick perusal, does the content match my interest?) and flip it open to any page (read a bit of dialogue, do I like the voice?) Then weigh all three against whatever else is in my hands. I never, ever looked at the first sentence– until I started writing. Sigh.
Now I do. I need to understand that hook, and what artful word structure commands it. And that’s b/c I’m terrified an agent or publisher will judge me for the ability to grab their interest from the first sentence. It’s silly. But in this age, it’s hard to get someone’s attention for very long– and even harder to hold it, especially from someone who may, potentially, jump start my dream.
This mindset is making me bi-polar (another topic this week,) when all I want is balance. Socks off, socks on– that’s me. Sounds like Mr. Miagi from Karate Kid, but I’m missing the focus. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s why we need to strip the clever away. You’re right, you know, it isn’t about clever. It’s about power. “He should be riding into war.” That’s a very powerful opening. It’s set the tone, implies conflict on two levels, and leaves some room for personal conviction. All in six words. I say well done.
Another great post, Vaughn!
I agree about being terrified re: grabbing the interests of the gatekeepers. But I suppose raising our game to its highest potential is what the whole vetting process is all about. But I agree it can be crazy-making, too. I guess that’s why I just laid one down and moved on.
Btw, I did link to Drakaenwood up there. The color contrast of my links vs. my blog background leaves something to be desired. I’ve been meaning to investigate changing it. My pleasure on that.
Thanks so much for the Mr. Miagi wisdom. I say strip it away and let the muse come to us through the act of doing the work. As we were saying, you gotta trust the soup! 😉 And thanks, too, for your kind praise, D!
I just have to add, my youngest daughter deliberately wears mismatched socks. I don’t know how that figures in but it makes me laugh. Thank you so very, very much for linking to DrakaenWood. 😀 I guess I need to get something new in there. You, however, have been on a good run with your blogs.
Can we still be friends if I admit I loathe socks? I’ll wear them out in the winter, but I’m happiest padding around barefoot and I absolutely cannot sleep with socks on. Oh well, we still have Jacqueline Carey- loved the opening to Kushiel’s Dart by the way and she is an artist with language and imagery- and similar music tastes. 🙂
I’m happy to know I’m not the only one who’s spent so much time and intensity on a good beginning. My first one was too cold, too removed. Another beginning jumped right in the action, and my awesome critique partners pointed out they needed to care about my protag and understand her motivation. It is a struggle, and one I know I’m not done with yet.
When it comes to what I read, I tend to be patient. Well, especially now that I know what effort goes into starting a story. Sometimes, a slow beginning is nice- that comfort thing. It’s like taking your time settling into a warm bath. Luxury is nice, too.
Great post, as usual.
I get the barefoot love. I even used to have it. Nothing better than the feel of grass or warm sand on bare feet. But I grew a more intense love of socks over the course of my life. So of course we can still be friends. I can’t sleep in socks, either, btw. Told ya–sock weirdo. Isn’t JC’s lyrical style just da bomb?!
I was a bit afraid of going straight to an action sequence, too. Which is the reason for this six or eight paragraphs. It’s a fine line to walk. I tend to be pretty patient while reading as well. I reserve judgement for at least a chapter or two. But I know I can’t rely on having readers like us. Love the warm bath analogy.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting, and for letting me still be your sock weirdo friend, my barefoot writing/music buddy!
I like what DD Salvo says in her comment above — that a good opening has power. I guess I always interpretted the “hook” as whatever draws the reader in, not necessarily a quick, clever plot turn, but power, either of character, story, language (or, in a perfect storm, all three).
I loved, loved Grave Mercy — could not put it down.
And it sounds like we’re in a similar place with novel openings. I rewrote mine at least a dozen times before I started sending out queries. My responses have been like yours — the agents who have read it said the writing was strong, but they weren’t bowled over by the story. In May, I went to The Muse and the Marketplace conference and got a lot of ideas for how to revise and strengthen the story. I’ve started tearing everything up again, including the beginning. So difficult!
As for socks, our kids like the mismatch, the six-year old just wears and discards several pairs a day and the dog’s favorite game is to steal a smelly sock from the hamper and run around the house with it like a demented jackrabbit. Wait, maybe socks and all their fallout are why I don’t get more writing done . . .
OMG–I’m starting to see a pattern, Lisa. It’s a sock/rewrite conspiracy! So consumed are we by our sock issues, we don’t have the brain-space left for working though our story structures.
The damnedest thing about my opening issue is I’ve got so much hanging on it. It’s the hardest part for me for sure–getting them into the story without bogging down in backstory, info-dumping, or confusing the hell out of them. Still working on it, nine years after writing that first suckie opening. I can see progress, but it’s hard to tell when you’ve ‘arrived.’
Thanks so much for reading and commiserating, Lisa! And good luck putting your ms back together again! We’re in this together!
I am wowed by showy hooks, but can’t write them. I’m hoping that will change as I grow as a writer. Clever hooks are amazing, but I think you did a very nice job arguing for the working man’s hook. There are plenty of books that don’t have jaw-dropping hooks, but do the job just fine.
Now, as for your first lines, I love them. Not just saying that, either. They very much pull me in, and creates huge amounts of conflict. I want to know why his mother has that much power of him, what is the structure of the society, what the heck a futhark sword is, and I want to know what happens between him and his mother. I would definitely keep reading. Plus, you have a great voice there. I kind of hope you keep them!
So, I just started a book this morning–with openings on my mind, of course–and I was in total slack-jawed wow-erie! The book is Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. It makes me wish I was a wow-type writer. But we can always aspire and keep striving, right? Makes me think my next post is going to be about writerly envy. 😉 I guess that topic’s been done to death, too. But, boy, was I feeling it today (in a good way).
Thanks so much for the praise! It’s the exact reaction I would hope for from a reader. They say write what you would want to read, and your reaction is exactly what I think I would have to it. 🙂
I’ll admit, if I’m browsing through books in a bookstore, 1) the cover, 2) I look at the first two or three paragraphs. If I’m not immediately taken in, I put it back on the shelf. I also look at writing quality. I can’t help it. I consider myself a writer (and an editor), so I am looking at a multitude of pull-me-ins. I do the same with e-books – if I’m not quickly drawn in, delete. Vaughn – I commend you for working so hard on your opening and your writing. Wish there were more writers like you! Re: socks. I never go barefoot. I have some crazy socks, but mostly they are for home. Argyles – love!
Yay, Karen! You were able to comment. Sorry my blog seems to eat your comments so often. So you’re a first few paragraphs kind of gal, eh? Thanks for the commendation and letting me know it’s worth the effort.
Just for home socks are the best kind! Have some on right now. 🙂
PS – I haven’t forgotten I owe you an email. It’s been a hectic weekend around here.
I love a good opening line, but they don’t have to slay me. What’s more critical for me is that they’re followed by strong writing and a strong story. As has been said above, I’m already predisposed to like a book if I’ve opened it. Something about the premise, author’s reputation, or cover pulled me in.
I like your opening. Lots of story questions already. It’s probably more critical to identify and nail the inciting incident, so that you think you’re there is fantastic news!
Also, I’d kill for a number of agents to say “strong writing.” Keep going, V. Good things lie ahead.
That’s a good point that hasn’t been raised, Jan: What goes on before we even sit down to read page one. I’m usually in the mood for what I glean is coming.
Thanks so much for the praise and encouragement, Jan! As I said, I’m open to ongoing improvement, but I feel like I’m on the right road. 🙂