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?