Great Opening Lines

Henrik Nordenberg Blick aus dem Entrée

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” – Uprooted, Naomi Novik

“Sabrina had never picked a lock in her life, but it was done every day in books.” – Tryst, Elswyth Thane

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Random thoughts of a problem I’m trying to work out for myself: how to start the story. This isn’t something I worry about when I start writing. The idea is on fire and off I go. But when editing, I come back and look at what I wrote. That’s when I start to question everything.

I love the feeling I get when I open a book and read a great opening line. I want to find a secluded corner and settle in for a good read. The stories don’t always live up to their opening lines, but the promise is there. The promise of a wonderful adventure.

What makes an opening line work? I love the above samples because of their promise. They intrigued me into reading more, which is the basic goal of an opening line.

It’s so simple when someone else does it! It’s harder when I try to do it.

I like to start by grabbing the reader and that doesn’t work for everyone. Some people love a leisurely opening and feel disoriented when they get thrown in the deep end. Plus, there is the plain truth that no matter how shiny and promising the idea starts out in my mind, the actual words on the page are going to look flat in comparison.

The opening of His Forgotten Fiancée:

“Who am I?”

Liza Fitzpatrick dropped the cleaning rag onto the counter of the dry goods store and spun around. A man stood in the doorway, his rough, workingman clothes soaked to the skin. He stared at her as if she were the first woman he’d ever seen.

The opening of Geoff and Lia’s story, tentatively titled A Gentleman of Leisure:

Geoff heard the click of a gun from the bushes behind him, and then a woman’s voice, deadly calm: “Stand up — slowly, now — and keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”

I like to start out in the middle of the action, in medias res, but even so the reader needs some basic orientation. I remember one contest entry that I read. All I knew was that the heroine was near the seashore looking at a ship. I didn’t know if she were sitting or standing or floating sideways. I didn’t know if she were on a dock or standing on a beach or looking out of a window of a house on the shore. I was trying to picture the scene and I was missing fundamental elements, which threw me out of the story at the start.

I want to start with something happening, but while it is happening I have to slip in some crucial details. Just enough for the reader to feel grounded, not enough for them to feel swamped. Argh!

What’s your favorite opening line for a book? Why does it work for you? Do you get disoriented if an author starts out too abruptly?

It’s tricky, achieving that balance between hooking the reader’s attention and throwing too much at them all at once. It’s frustrating, trying to convey an idea from one mind to another through the medium of words on a page. It’s amazing, to look at a whole book and think, “I did that. I want to do it again.”

Reviews: the good, the bad, the ugly

Isaac Asimov once listened to someone giving a lecture that explained in detail his personal theory of what one of Asimov’s stories meant. After the lecture, Asimov came up to the man and kindly pointed out that while the man’s theory was ingenious, it was also completely off base regarding the story. When the man asked why he was so sure, Asimov said “Because I wrote it.” I loved the man’s response.

“… tell me, what makes you think, just because you are the author of ‘Nightfall,’ that you have the slightest inkling of what is in it?”
-Gotthard Guenther

The other day, I read a blog written by an author who, some years back, wrote a critical review of a book. It wasn’t nasty, there was good and bad in the review, but now he is wondering if perhaps he should not leave the review up. Other authors chimed in to agree, saying less-than-positive reviews aren’t helpful for the author.

I have to say that I don’t agree with that point of view. I don’t think the point of a review is to be helpful or hurtful to a writer. It’s written by a reader and is helpful to other readers. Reviews are opinions and as such as wholly subjective and not designed to be anything else.

Reviews are not written about what the author put into the book; they’re about what the reader got out of the book. Just because I wrote a book doesn’t mean that I know what’s in it. Not, that is, from the reader’s point of view.

Reading a book is a joint effort between the author and the reader. What I get out of a book is not necessarily what the author put into the book, because my experience of reading it is shaped by the mood I’m in, my past experiences, etc.  There’s no point in an author getting upset about a review, arguing with the reviewer, saying “you just don’t understand.” What they got out of the book is their experience, not yours.

I have bought books based on one-star reviews that I read in Amazon, because the reviewers mentioned why they disliked the book, and the things they called out would not bother me. On the other hand, I’ve read five-star reviews that deterred me from buying the book. If the reader thinks the book is wonderful even though it’s riddled with grammatical errors, I know I will be too distracted by the poor writing to enjoy the book. That’s just me.

Note: when I’m talking about a review, I’m talking about someone’s honest opinion about what they liked and what they didn’t like. I am not talking about one of those reviewers who enjoys being witty at someone’s expense. That’s someone who enjoys being cruel. It’s got nothing to do with whether the book is good or bad, often I suspect the person skimmed the book if they read it at all.

I’m coming from the perspective of someone who’s spent the last 20+ years writing books. Granted, they were non-fiction and usually only reviewed by engineers, but I wrote ’em,  my livelihood depended on them, and I got the equivalent of some one-star reviews. Not fun. However. As a professional writer, I considered it part of the job not to get upset or argue with someone’s opinion. If I write a book, I will sweat over it, bleed over it, angst over it, but then I will let it go. If you don’t like it, that’s your prerogative. You probably love books that I can’t stand. And that’s okay.

P.S. Blog posts are also subjective. The above is my opinion. I won’t feel hurt if you give this post a one-star comment.

Rant: Prologues, or how to make this reader put down a book quickly

Your opening pages are the first impression the reader has of your story. Don’t throw them away.

When I’m reading, I want to imprint onto a character and follow them about, seeing the world through their eyes. I’ve learned to tolerate two points of view, since that’s endemic in Romance novels these days, but any more than that and I become less invested in the characters. I start to lose interest.

One common mistake that I see new writers make is starting out a story with a prologue. Almost invariably, the prologue is in the point of view of a character that I’m not going to meet again for several chapters, maybe not until the end of the book. This is throwing away your prime time slot on a character who does not play an active role in the story.

As I read the story, I’m still waiting in the back of my mind for this original character to come back. They’re the one I first met in this world. I imprinted on them. Starting off with someone who then disappears is a great way of ensuring that I’m never going to be fully involved in the main POV characters. It weakens the link I have to the story and makes it much easier for me to put the book down.

I’ve heard authors argue that this POV character is going to make sense once the reader makes it to the end of the story. That assumes that the reader is going to care enough to make it to the end. Why should they care? You’re telling them you have a big secret and they have to finish the book to find out what it is. As a reader, my response is “So what? I don’t see any point in learning this secret. It feels like you’re playing a game with me. If you don’t give me a reason to care, I’m going to feel manipulated.”

The whole reason I start to read a book is that I’m looking for a reason to care. You need to hook my interest within the first few pages or I’m going to put your book down and go find something else to do. Don’t waste your first pages on a prologue or on a character who isn’t going to show up again until the end of the story. If the information is so important to the story, slip it into the active story line bit by bit. If the character is so important to the story, make them the main POV character of the story.

Reasons I stop reading a book

This book should not be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force. – Dorothy Parker

Lately, I have hit a series of DNF books. I used to always finish a book if I started reading it, even if I had to skim the boring bits to find out whodunit. Maybe I’m getting less patient as I get older. Life is too short to read bad books.

Note: all these books were fairly popular, so clearly other people liked them a lot. They just didn’t work for me.

Book #1: Category Romance about an arrogant millionaire and a beautiful innocent young woman. (Not usually my cuppa, but it was free and the author is popular. I thought I could study what made her so successful.)

Where I stopped: Page five.

Why I stopped: I loathed both characters from the start. He was domineering to the point of being abusive right in the first paragraph. When he belittled her and ordered her about, she found herself becoming turned on despite (or because?) he was so unpleasant. Get thee both to a therapist.

What might have fixed it: Some redeeming quality, even one little scrap of kindness or courtesy, shown within the first few pages.

Book #2: Self published “lightly paranormal” romantic comedy.

Where I stopped:The Kindle reader was at 15%.

Why I stopped: The heroine herself had no goals. I mean it. No goals at all. This woman didn’t want so much as a drink of water. Random wonderful-but-strange events happened to her, but she didn’t care enough to try to find out if they were connected. She apparently wanted nothing out of life. Why should I care about her life if she didn’t?

What might have fixed it: If the heroine had wanted something, anything. Chuck Wendig wrote a good explanation of why this is important.

Book #3: Traditionally published Inspirational novel

Where I stopped: The Kindle reader was at 13%.

Why I stopped: The writing. It was very awkward.

For example, one sentence described a character prancing across the room while her hair bounced and her beige suit complemented her white teeth.

My problems with this sentence:
1) No grown woman should prance unless she’s doing a My Little Pony impersonation.
2) Even if the woman were doing a My Little Pony impersonation, no sentence should be asked to include the fact that she is prancing while her hair is bouncing and her suit is complementing. It’s way too much action for one poor sentence to bear.
3) When I read that a suit complements something, I assume the writer means the colors were complementary; they didn’t clash. But what clashes with white? Or with beige for that matter? It doesn’t make sense. And who coordinates their clothing with their teeth in the first place? I’ve got to back away from this sentence. It’s driving me crazy.

What might have fixed it: An editor who stood firm when the writer wanted to stet sentences like the above. The original idea was intriguing enough to keep me reading for a few chapters.

I really do want to finish a book when I start reading, but it was useful analyzing why these books didn’t work for me. I’ve written awkward sentences, passive heroines, unlikeable heroes, but it’s easier to see these errors in someone else’s works. Hopefully, this will help me avoid them in the future.

Here’s another writer’s list of reasons why  she loathed certain books.

Have you had a DNF book lately? Why did you stop reading?


What makes a book re-readable?

“I can’t imagine a man really enjoying a book and reading it only once.” — C.S. Lewis

Melbicks Christmas display 06 - Narnia
There are some books that I can read multiple times and still enjoy them as much as I did the first time I picked up the book. It’s like walking through a doorway into a secret world that is just waiting there for me to explore it. Going back in and re-reading the book is like visiting an old friend.

Some authors pull this off consistently. On the other hand, there are some authors — competent writers who know their craft — who write books that I read only once. While the books weren’t bad, I have no desire to go back and open them up again.

What makes a book re-readable?

I went back to some old, familiar books to try to determine what exactly it is that makes some books re-readable and others not. I wanted to find out how the trick was worked. The authors that I remember most from childhood* are the ones who wrote books that I can go back and re-read today, decades later. But I couldn’t analyze the magic by looking at individual books. It was like trying to analyze my kidneys. I’ve read them too many times; I’m too close to them.

So instead I went through to see if I could discover what they had in common. Here are a few things that I noticed, with examples from the text.

Opening lines that caught my attention right away:

“Repeat after me,” said the parson. “I, Horatio, take thee, Maria Ellen –”
The thought came up in Hornblower’s mind that these were the last few seconds in which he could withdraw from doing something which he knew to be ill considered.
-C.S. Forster, Horatio and the Hotspur

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
-C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

To be encumbered with a corpse is to be in a difficult position, especially when the corpse is without the benefit of a death certificate. True, any doctor, even one just hatched from medical school, would have been able to diagnose the case of death. The man had died of heart failure, or what the medical boys pompously call cardiac arrest.
The proximate cause of his pumper having stopped pumping was that someone had slid a sharp sliver of steel between his ribs just far enough to penetrate the great muscle of the heart and to cause a serious and irreversible leakage of blood so that it stopped beating. Cardiac arrest, as I said.
I wasn’t too anxious to find a doctor because the knife was mine and the hilt had been in my hand when the point pricked out his life.
– Desmond Bagley, Running Blind

Use of the senses combined with the character’s emotions. Not just what it felt like to eat a pear, but how the character reacted. Too often, writers provide a clinical, detached description of what the food tasted like, spicy, sweet, whatever. I don’t want that. I know what food tastes likes. I want to know what the character feels about the food. The character’s reactions are my entryway into their world and the sensory details help anchor me in that world.

I should think that this effect could be achieved by any sensual description combined with the character’s reaction. However, each of the books I looked at included specific descriptions of food. The writers didn’t describe every  meal, but each book has a least one scene where the POV character sits down to a meal and enjoys themselves.

There were neat brown cutlets on his plate that bore no outward resemblance to lobster, but when Horatio cautiously added sauce and tasted, the result was excellent. Minced lobster. And when Doughty took the cover off the cracked vegetable dish, there was a dream of delight revealed. New potatoes, golden and lovely. He helped himself hurriedly and very nearly burned his mouth on them. Nothing could be quite as nice as the first new potatoes of the year.
-C.S. Forster, Horatio and the Hotspur

… on the table itself there was set out such a banquet as had never been seen, not even when Peter the High King kept his court at Cair Paravel. There were turkeys and geese and peacocks, there were boar’s heads and sides of venison, there were pies shaped like ships under full sail or like dragons and elephants, there were ice puddings and bright lobsters and gleaming salmon, there were nuts and grapes and pineapples and peaches, pomegranates and melons and tomatoes. There were flagons of gold and silver and curiously wrought glass; and the smell of the fruit and the wine blew towards them like a promise of all happiness.
“I say!” said Lucy.
-C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

We both needed cheering up and there’s nothing like a first-class meal under the belt to lift the spirits. I don’t know if Mr. Fortnum and Mr. Mason are aware of the joy they bring to sojourners in far-flung lands, but after the oyster soup, the whole roast quails, and the pears pickled in cognac, I felt almost impelled to write them a letter of appreciation.
-Desmond Bagley, Running Blind

Scenery. The stories took me to a place that I wanted to explore. The location doesn’t have to be somewhere exotic. A place the character finds interesting, a place the writer wants to explore by way of writing a story.

It was an upholstered chair in which Hornblower sat; under his feet was a thick carpet; there were a couple of pictures in gilt frames on the bulkheads; silver lamps hung by silver chains from the deck-beams…But what held his attention most was two long boxes against the great stern windows. They were filled with earth and were planted with flowers — hyacinths and daffodils, blooming and lovely. The scent of the hyacinths reached Hornblower’s nostrils where he sat. There was something fantastically charming about them here at sea.
“I’ve been successful with my bulbs this year,” said Collingwood, putting his letters in his pocket and following Hornblower’s glance. He walked over and tilted up a daffodil bloom with sensitive fingers, looking down into its open face. “They are beautiful, aren’t they? Soon the daffodils will be flowering in England — some time, perhaps, I’ll see them again. Meanwhile these help to keep me contented. It is three years since I last set foot on land.
C.S. Forster, Hornblower and the Atropos

Lucy was of course barefoot, having kicked off her shoes while swimming, but that is no hardship if one is going to walk on downy turf. It was delightful to be ashore again and to smell the earth and the grass, even if at first the ground seemed to be pitching up and down like a ship, as it usually does for a while if one has been at sea. It was much warmer here than it had been on board and Lucy found the sand pleasant to her feet as they crossed it. There was a lark singing.
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

God has not yet finished making Iceland.
In the last 500 years, one third of all the lava extruded from the guts of the earth to the face of the planet has surfaced in Iceland and, of 200 known volcanoes, thirty are still very much active. Iceland suffers from a bad case of geological acne.
-Desmond Bagley, Running Blind

These are all examples from books that I read when I was a child and that I still remember decades later because the writer created a world came alive in my mind when I read it.

I didn’t start reading Rex Stout until I was a teenager, but he does this in his books as well. He starts the story out with an interesting situation, he includes sensory details with the POV character’s reactions, and he creates a world that I want to explore. That is why I go back and re-read his books. It doesn’t matter that the location is not somewhere exotic. In a lot of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe books most of the action takes place inside two rooms inside of a brownstone in New York City. He still creates a world inside that house that I like to explore.

This was just a quick analysis of a few books. It involved a lot of re-reading on my part (O, the sacrifice) but I am sure that there are other qualities that make a book re-readable. What makes you go back and re-read a book? Or is that something you never do? Why?



*Quick explanation: my definition of “childhood book” is a book that I read when I was a child. It is not necessarily a book that would be found in the Children’s section of your local library. I grew up in a house that had nine other people living in it. All of them were a) older than I was and b) reading books all the time. There were books lying around just waiting for someone to read them. A bookworm’s paradise. So I read a lot of books that probably wouldn’t ordinarily have been shared with a young child. Didn’t understand some parts of them until I was much older, but I read them all the same. By the time I was ten, I’d read all of the early works of Alistair Maclean, some of Raymond Chandler, and much of the Brontes as well as more traditional children’s fare such as the Narnia books.