Sunday, December 30, 2012


Since the New Year is just around the corner, I thought I would talk about beginnings in today's post. 2012 brought many new beginnings for me: a new dog (Ziggy), a new passion (antiques and two booths), one new book published (American Girl BOUND FOR SNOW), two new books to research and write, a daughter who graduated college, a son who got a new job (tree climbing), and a passel of new students to inspire and teach.

When I look back, I realize how fortunate I am that these new things were all positive. I didn't have to deal with difficult family, health or financial issues. No giant storms like Hurricane Sandy hit our area. Our recent snow is icy but easily dealt with by humans and horses. No unexpected catastrophes. What new adventures will 2013 bring? Will the positives again win out? Or will bad luck hit us?

Only time will tell as 2013 begins and rushes into 2014. (Does the year go by fast for you, too?) But I also want to talk about different kinds of beginnings: how to start a story, chapter or novel. First lines and scenes must hook a reader/editor. Many editors today won't read past the first page. Some new writers struggle with this; others have no problem.

Usually I can't start a new book or chapter until I have mulled over (and over) in my mind the opening line and scene. Only then do I sit down and write.
For anyone who has problems with those first lines, here are some tips and examples that I have gathered after writing over a hundred new story, article and book beginnings:

Hook your reader with a single, bold statement, usually one that has some shock value.
“He should never have taken that shortcut.” (Michael Crichton, Timeline)

Hook your reader with a problem. This often takes more than a single sentence, but it sets up the story’s problem immediately, thrusting a character into trouble.
One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War. And the next minute he was gone. There. Gone. No 'poof.' No flash of light. No explosion.” (Michael Grant Gone)  

Hook your reader with immediate action:
"Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen." (Philip Pullman The Golden Compass)

Hook your reader with dialogue:
"I do," she said, and only then allowed herself to wonder what she'd done. (Edith Layton To Wed a Stranger)

Hook your reader with sensory images:
“The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit.” (Scott Westerfeld Uglies)

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort” (Tolkien The Hobbit)

Hook your reader with a compelling character:
“Billy Ray Cobb was the younger and small of the two rednecks. At twenty-three he was already a three-year veteran of the state penitentiary at Parchman. Possession, with intent to sell.” (John Grisham  A Time To Kill.)

"I have been accused of being anal retentive, an over-achiever, and a compulsive perfectionist, like those are bad things." (Lisa Yee Millicent Min, Girl Genius)

 Happy New Year, ya'll! And let me know what new beginnings you will toast to at midnight (or earlier if you're like me), whether they're on paper or in your life! 


TBDancer said...

I loved many of Ray Bradbury's stories just because they had such great opening lines. He was one of my very most favorite writers; I had a chance to talk with him once at a book signing, and he was as adorable in person as he looked in his wonderful pictures. My 2013 plans are to get into manuscript form (either cyber or "hard copy) the story ideas I've been mulling over for years. No time like the present ;o) Happy New Year to you, Alison. Looking forward to reading more of your adventures!

Laura Crum said...

Alison--This got me thinking about my own books, and which ones had good opening lines. Several of them begin with a ringing phone--a big cliche, I know. The one that I think has maybe the best opening line is my fourth book, Roped. It begins with, "I saw the leg break." And then goes on to describe the protagonist witnessing a horse breaking his leg during a team roping contest (this scene is taken verbatim from something I --sadly--actually saw). But then I started thinking about some of my books that opened in ways that (in retrospect) seem kind of wordy and not very effective. At this point I decided best not to go there.

Anyway, Happy New Year! And here's to good beginnings, in life and on the page.

Emmi said...

This was really helpful, thank you!

Belea T. Keeney said...

An awesome first line from Toni Morrison's Paradise:
"They shoot the white girl first, but the rest they can take their time."

Who could stop reading after that??

And I have to agree as an editor; we love strong first lines. We love to find an author in command of the story and the language. Hook me and keep me reading if you want to sell me something.

Alison said...

TBDancer--good luck with that manuscript! I am going to keep posting on writing in 2013 and you are welcome to hash out any problems via the blog.

Laura--I LOVE that first line even though it is gruesome. And Happy New Year back atcha.

Emmi--Keep you eye on the blog, I'll be posting more on writing--let me know if there is anything you'd like us/me to write about.

Belea - Thank you for sharing Toni Morrison's first line. I need to to add it to my 'stash' AND I need to read Paradise--another to do for 2013.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

"Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances."

I do like that first line from Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. It's intriguing, possesses a moral dimension, and makes one think of the self same realities dealt upon us in individual proportions. The possibility of evil snares the voyeur who lurks within nearly every reader.

Peculiarly - and breaking all the rules - I've begun my latest work using a first line in a latin language simply for the resonant beauty of those exotic syllables. The sheer sound of those mysterious words will draw forth the curious reader. Those who lack curiousity will find the work tedious, in which case it would be churlish (if tempting) to take their money. Let's start the year on an upright note!

A Happy New Year to you all.

Alison said...

White Horse -- I am intrigued--and I think readers will be, too. I'd love to say Happy New Year in Latin but that class was decades ago.