You can also listen to Helen read three of her Mermaid Tales on the Story Circle Network podcast site.
WRITING THE BOOK
The opening sentence in your manuscript is important, but it’s really difficult to have a hook in the very first line. Sometimes an author can do it for a particular book. Sometimes you can’t.
The next best option is to do it within the first paragraph. If not there, then the second paragraph. If not there, then within the first page. If you can’t do that, then you better have something by the end of Chapter One that will make the reader turn the page and keep reading rather than put the book down and go to sleep.
I went to my library and picked out three books that I think have great opening paragraphs.
In alphabetical order, we start with Jeff Abbott in Distant Blood. He actually starts out with a great hook in the first line, then he keeps you hooked through his opening paragraph:
Mortal fear is knowing you’ve been poisoned. I sagged against the fine oak paneling, agony vying with numbness for control of my body. My heart raced with the knowledge that it was pounding its last rhythm, like the beat of a runner’s shoes against the road as he surges toward the finish line, toward blessed rest. Bile rose in my throat and I swallowed, trying to steady my breathing. I slid down to the floor, dizziness and nausea washing across my body like an obscene tide. I tried to cry for help and my throat felt dead. Raising one leaden arm, I managed to focus my vision on the blurred figures in the room.
Next, here’s Marsha Moyer in The Second Coming of Lucy Hatch:
I was thirty-three years old when my husband walked out into the field one morning and never came back and I went in one quick leap from wife to widow.
Now, that’s a pretty good hook, I think you’ll agree. But keep reading and see how she develops this hook and then catches you again at the end of the paragraph.
I wasn’t the one who found him; that was Sam Gill, who’d come by to ask Mitchell to help him load a horse. He’d fallen off the tractor and under the blades of the mower – my husband, Mitchell, not the horse; I guess we’ll never know how. Try as I might, and I have a thousand times on a thousand nights, I cannot imagine such a thing; my mind creeps up on it, then turns and bolts. I can’t let myself think it, a man shredded like a handful of husks, bleeding dry in the sun. I’ve never much liked machines, never trusted them, but Mitchell could drive anything, repair it, make it run, and he was not a careless man. I didn’t love Mitchell, which you’d think would help but it doesn’t, really, not when you’ve been with someone fourteen years and worn their presence next to you so long it’s like a favorite old shirt, come to take for granted its smell and its feel. I didn’t love Mitchell, but he was mine and that was something.
And lastly, we turn to Gerald Roe who wrote the young adult book, Terror in the Steel Mountains:
It was just two months ago that I lost my mind. Now, I know that sounds kind of weird. After all, losing your mind is something that happens mostly to really old people, right? And when it happens to them, it’s sort of expected. But I’m only eleven years old. No one expects an eleven-year-old guy to lose his mind; but that’s exactly what happened to me. At least that’s how it felt at the time. I heard voices, had strange dreams, and even saw things that seemed to appear and then disappear into thin air. I mean, who wouldn’t go mental under the same circumstances?
All three of these have a strong opening sentence. All three follow it up with a strong first paragraph. If you weren’t hooked by the first line, then you are soon after.
Writing is hard work and re-work and re-work. You know you’ve succeeded when the reader thinks it was easy. Or, better yet, when the reader doesn’t even think about the writer or the process of writing and editing. They’re just caught up in the story.
It used to be that books started slowly, with the weather or with character development. Then they evolved into quicker starts. You needed to hook the reader (or agent) by the end of the first chapter. Then it was by the end of five pages, then one. Now everyone wants to be hooked by the first sentence.
That’s not an easy task, although some authors make you think so. But in most cases, it wasn’t easy for them. They slaved and worked and rewrote and rewrote that first sentence. So, if you’re struggling with your opening sentence, don’t give up.
I went to my library shelves and pulled out some books. Here are the first sentences of four of those books.
From Danielle Steel in Secrets:
The sun reverberated off the buildings with the brilliance of a handful of diamonds cast against an iceberg, the shimmering white was blinding, as Sabina lay naked on a deck chair in the heat of the Los Angeles sun.
From Katherine Dunn in Geek Love:
"When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing."
Sharon Kahn in Fax Me a Bagel:
You haven’t lived until you’ve died in Eternal, Texas.
Lee Child in The Hard Way:
Jack Reacher ordered espresso, double, no peel, no cube, foam cup, no china, and before it arrived at his table he saw a man’s life change forever.
Each sample is from a different kind of book. Each sentence is different and sets a different mood and tone. Each one is great. Each one makes you want to read more.
Think about your own book beginning. Will it make the reader/agent want to keep reading?
As a writer, how do you find your voice? If you’re working on your third, fourth, fifth manuscript, look back at that very first one. What do you think of it now? Do you still have the same voice? Has it evolved? Do you feel like you’ve “found” your voice?
How did you find it and when did you lose it? Did you find it by hearing voices in your head? Did it come to you in a dream?
Now, remember, I’m talking about your voice, as the writer. Not the protagonist’s voice. Your voice.
The arrangement of the words in sentences. The cadence. The words you use. The length of the sentences, the paragraphs. What the readers hear when they’re not reading the words or thoughts of your characters. The overall voice of your book. The author’s voice. Keep in mind, that voice is not static. It can evolve. It can change from book to book. But some authors maintain their voice. You can pick up their eleventh book and know it’s them.
Chances are you may have developed yours without even thinking about it. And you may have gotten it from other writers. Writers, I believe, read differently than non-writers. We’re not always reading just for plot. There are times when a sentence catches our eye. Stops us. We re-read it; ponder its structure, the way it talks to us. We think, that’s beautiful or I never would have thought of putting it that way or wow, that is such a unique metaphor. Sometimes we may even make note of it by highlighting or adding it to a list we’re keeping of examples of great writing.
Although we may never go back to read that list, it affects us. Not that we copy that person’s words, but we absorb what we consider “good” writing. Good writers are readers. And we learn by reading. And, over time, we develop our own voice, a lot of it based on what we consider wonderful writing.
How many of your FAP? Probably none since I made up the acronym. It stands for Free Association Plotting.
Maybe you’ve got an idea for a book, but it’s just a general nugget, nothing thought out or planned. Or maybe you’ve written the opening chapter, but aren’t sure where to go from there. I suggest you FAP.
I think this is similar to Mind Mapping. I say “think” since I’ve never learned to Mind Map, but I’ve heard others say they Mind Map. And it sounds rather like FAP.
If you’ve got an idea for a book or you’ve written a scene or two, then you’ve got what you need to FAP. Get a piece of paper, big or small. I’ve used a notepad; I’ve also used a huge bulletin board covered with paper.
In one or two words, write your nugget in the center. I usually start with the protagonist. It might be a concept or a murder or a love interest or a setting. Whatever you have. Circle it.
Now, you start Free Associating. Let your mind go to new ideas. Don’t censor.
Around your centered nugget, jot down the things that come to mind. Characters, both main and secondary. Possible plot points for the book. Changes in setting. Connections between the characters. Action.
You can use different colors of ink to differentiate characters from plot points. Or you can put circles around characters and squares around action points. You choose. Use lines to connect the different characters. Dotted lines to show indirect links or red herrings or layering.
Work quickly. Don’t stare at the paper and think. Let your mind come up with all kinds of ideas. You can filter later.
You don’t have to know how everything will fit together. That’s not the point of this exercise. But the beauty is that as you free associate, you’ll discover that things are indeed fitting together. You can see how it would work.
Now step back and look at the entire FAP you created. I bet you’ll smile.
And if you ever get stuck during the writing of the book, do another FAP just for the area you’re having trouble with.