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.”

POV errors, or How often do you think about your own eye color?

My Wife and My Mother-in-Law
Is this a picture of a young woman or an old one?

What I see when I look at you is different from what you see when you look at me. Sounds obvious, no? But it’s very easy to slip up on this one.

I’m going through a manuscript and verifying there are no egregious errors. That gets more tricky because as part of the revisions I had to re-write some scenes from a different character’s point of view (POV). I’m doing a pass now specifically looking for moments when I slipped up and had a character start thinking about something they would never stop to consider. I think I’ve got most of them out, but I keep finding internals or visuals that are still from the original character’s POV.

 

“I hate thinking about point of view,” the heroic Handsomas thought as his chestnut locks flowed down over his manly shoulders to his rippling biceps. He looked the heroine up and down, his sapphire-blue eyes gleaming like the ripples on the lake near the cottage where he grew up, poor but smug.

It’s no comfort that I even see versions of this error in published books. Speaking as a human being, I rarely think of my bright blue eyes and flowing brown hair, let alone the fact that I grew up poor but smug.

Whether you write in first person, third person or shudder second person all depends on the effect you’re trying to achieve. But whichever you chose, be sure to stay in that POV while you’re in the scene.

Writing a scene that stays completely in the point of view of the character who has the most to lose can immerse the reader within a story. Breaking POV can throw a reader out of the story so fast that they stop reading and don’t come back.

Writer’s Digest has 6 tips on choosing the right POV for a scene.

Donald Maas wrote a post about Immersive POV.

Indulging my inner drama queen

How dare they not SWOON at the mere PRIVILEGE of being in the presence of a work of such INCREDIBLE genius?

Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (14 of 15)One good thing about entering writing contests is that I got really good at receiving criticism about my writing. I didn’t always agree with the criticism. Sometimes it was infuriating, especially when someone corrected my grammar but didn’t know what they were talking about.

But I found that in one respect, it didn’t matter. Unless the critic was unreservedly enthusiastic, a little part of me felt miffed. I call that part my Inner Diva. Its ego knows no limits, and even the slightest breath of criticism causes the same reaction:

How dare they not SWOON at the mere PRIVILEGE of being in the presence of a work of such INCREDIBLE genius???

(Inner Diva is rather fond of multiple punctuation marks.)

So I’ve learned to allow for that reaction. Whenever I get feedback, I read it, write a thank you (the critic is trying to help me, after all) and then I set it aside and get on with something else. If the criticism was especially harsh, I have to clean something or go outside and pull weeds. Something that involves setting the world to rights.

Then I go back after a couple days and re-read the feedback. Often, on a second reading, the words on the page have magically rearranged themselves so that the critic is much less harsh and much more balanced and reasonable. Sometimes I have to go out on and pull a few more weeds, but usually I can take in their comments and move on with writing.

Feedback is helpful. Feedback is your friend. Feedback is not always right — it’s your story, not theirs — but it really can improve your story.

Just pat your Inner Diva on the head and get on with it.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts about Rejection. Rejection is a form of feedback, even a ‘Not for us’ note.

Do you have any special tips for dealing with feedback?

What makes a good heroine?

Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (11 of 15)

Not a rhetorical question. I really do want to know what makes a good heroine.

In theory, it’s simple. She has to have agency, not be a doormat.

In practice, my heroines tend to annoy the bejabbers out of me.

I love my heroes. Geoff, for instance, leaps into action the moment a crisis appears.

But my heroines? They whine. They pout. I haven’t had one stamp her foot yet thankfully. (I won’t be held responsible for my actions if one tries that.) They Are Annoying.

For the moment, the only thing I can think of is to go through the story, line by line. Every time my heroine sighs, or thinks “there’s nothing I can do” I am replacing her feeble words with strong ones. If she has to be stymied, she can at least be doing something while she’s stuck. And that does not include sighing.

Lia sighed. “I don’t know how to get another dress in that time. Or even if I had more time, I don’t have the money. I’ll have to find a place to stay where I can try to clean this dress somehow…”

Lia stood up. “I have to find a place to stay before I can clean this dress. Do you know where I can find Mrs. Whitlow’s laundry?”

Does that work better? I think perhaps it does.

Have you ever read a story where you just wanted to shake the heroine? Or a story where you loved the heroine? Maybe revising this story would be easier if I looked at how other writers handled their characters. But maybe that would send me down a rabbit hole of distraction. I’ll try finishing this revision first and then go read some good books while the draft “sets” a while.

If you have any books with great heroines to recommend, please let me know!

 

Layering: not just for cakes

Honey cake Medovik
The thing I’ve learned about layering is that it does not involve shifting huge amounts of text and rewriting it from scratch. It involves tweaking the text already there, sprinkling in subtle changes that influence the flavor. It is like cooking, a tiny pinch of spice can create a big difference in the final experience. You want the reader to savor your work, not get indigestion.

Note to self: dieting while writing blog posts can influence your posts.

This is a good example of how subtle changes can create a large difference.

7 Stages of ‘Done’

Writing in 1830Stage 1: When I wrote the first draft, I thought I was done with the story.

I mean, it was perfect, right?

Then I came back to it after a few weeks and decided that I had only two choices: delete this complete waste of kilobytes or rewrite it.

Stage 2: After the second draft, I knew I needed to come back and look at the story again, but it was almost done. Like Kubler-Ross and her stages of grief, I was bargaining by this point. I wanted to believe that ‘good enough’ was acceptable.

Stage 3: After the polish draft, I reached a stage where I couldn’t look at the manuscript any longer. I could not tell if it was good or bad, I just know I couldn’t rewrite it any longer. So I called that done and sent it off.

Stages 4-6: After I received the revision notes, I had to revise several chapters. Back to the old routine, but with new material: first revision, second revision, polish revision.

And today it went back to the editor.

Stage 7: Write the next story.

Albert Anker Schreibendes Mädchen 1902