Last week in an online writers group we were discussing excerpts of books. How long do you need to get a reader’s attention? It made me think about what grabs me. I often don’t read book blurbs, but open the books themselves and read the beginnings. I can be hooked by a sentence. Sometimes it takes a paragraph or two. But something has to intrigue me on the first page to keep me reading.
Here are nine openings I like from a variety of genres:
1. “It was the egret, flying out of the lemon grove, that started it.”
Mary Stewart The Moon Spinners
2. “The movers had gutted the house of her furniture and belongings. Rae Gabriella doubted she could fine even a throw pillow remaining. She sank down on the living-room carpet to use the fireplace hearth as a backrest.
“Stones dug into her back. The house had felt sunny and welcoming when she had moved in; now it felt ready to expel her too. Too much violence had happened here.” Dee Henderson Before I Wake
3. “Blue Sargent had forgotten how many times she’d been told that she would kill her true love.” Maggie Stiefvater The Raven Boys
4. “I can’t say I’m the type of person who believes in love at first sight or some other random sappy cliché.” J.F. Jenkins The Corruption of Mila
5. “Ashton Hilary Akbar Pelham-Martyn was born in a camp near the crest of a pass in the Himalayas, and subsequently christened in a patent canvas bucket.” M.M. Kaye The Far Pavilions
6. “I work in the magic industry. I think you’ll agree it’s pretty glamorous: a life of spells, potions, and whispered enchantments; of levitation, vanishings, and alchemy. Of titanic fights to the death with the powers of darkness, of conjuring up blizzards and quelling storms at sea. Of casting lightening bolts from mountains, of bringing statues to life in order to vanquish troublesome foes.
“If only.” Jasper Fforde The Song of the Quarkbeast
7. “Mira woke to the sleepy bleating of a goat. The world was as dark as eyes closed, but perhaps the goats could smell dawn seeping through the cracks in the house’s stone walls.” Shannon Hale Princess Academy
8. “Five more reps and I should be done with this body for good.” Carol Riggs The Body Institute
9. “So it had come to this.
“Hideyori Kato paced the dirt floor, his face wrinkled in a frown of disgust. Unprotected by tabi, the silk stockings he was used to wearing, his feet bled from the coarse straw of his sandals.” Patricia Kiyono The Samurai's Garden
So what appeals to me in these? What hooks me?
It could be a well-written sentence or image. Sometimes it’s the hint that something interesting is going to happen. In others, the voice of the character sounds like a person I want to meet. Or the character is out of place. Humor can pull me in. So can an unusual setting. Or things that don’t quite match up. A question might be raised that I want answered. Each of these makes me want more, so I keep reading and reading.
And when I’m working on my own writing, I try to emulate the idea of best beginning words.
My editor had me working on what she calls “pre-editing.” This included removing commonly overused words and too many uses of a character’s name. The shocking part was finding out how many times I overused certain words. (Especially since I thought I’d already done this process.) Some words could be cut completely. Others I had to find another word or rephrase the sentence.
But what I especially like about the search method of editing, is that I see a small section on its own and can analyze what I wrote without being hung up on the story as a whole. Can I say this sentence better another way? If so, great. Do I need the sentence? Will the meaning of the paragraph be changed if I remove the sentence? Often the answer is no. That means I’ve gotten rid of some clutter in my story. Either way—rewritten or cut, it’s a win.
Because of this close up view of sections, I discovered an awkward writing pattern. I was having my character saying something “to” another as in “I said to Mark.” If they are the only two people in the room, who else could she say it to? “To Mark” and the like got cut quite often.
Have I used the best words to tell the story now? It’s hard for me to judge. My story is certainly better because of this editing step. But good enough? Probably not. I’m sure my editor will have more work for me to do. I’m not discouraged though—I already see the book improving because of her advice.
The best words don't arrive easily. It takes writing, rewriting, and rewriting again and again. With my novel ALONE I’d gone through who knows how many rewrites (I’m not one for keeping track of drafts). It went through a few rejections and then sat in my files for years.
One day I decided to pull it out and look at it again. Some of it I hated. Some of it I liked. I’d also learned quite a lot more about writing in the intervening years and had even become a writing instructor myself. I now knew the manuscript was too long as well.
So . . . time to rewrite again.
Here’s what I simply cut:
I also tightened scenes, paragraphs, and sentences to get to the action or conflict more quickly. This included asking myself questions. Are these important plot details? Does this move the story forward? Does this show character?
Rewriting is not all about cutting. I also had to see what I was missing or misusing. Fix where my characters weren’t believable. Check my verb choices. Were any passive? Overused? Vague? Unfortunately, yes.
The resulting manuscript was more than 11,000 words shorter. Whew!
But is it the best it can be? No. Next will be time to work on requested edits by my editor.
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.