Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

And So We Begin …


My writer friend Ami at Muse Ink posted a link recently to a blog post that talked about how important the first 250 words of your novel are — basically, the first page.  If you haven’t hooked your reader by the end of page one, this blogger warned, s/he will never turn that page.  Thus, avoid the following pitfalls: don’t start with a character, alone, thinking. Don’t start with a passage describing nature or the weather. Don’t start with exposition.  Don’t start with someone having a dream.

Is it true? I wondered.  Do writers have to grab readers on the first page and plunge them in over their heads in plot and conflict if we hope to keep their attention?

The book I was reading today happened to be this year’s Giller Prize winner, Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, so I opened to the first page to see if it conformed to The Rules, and here’s what I read:

The night before things started to become unstuck, I actually spent a good hour taking stock of my general situation and concluded that, all things considered, I was in pretty good shape.  I was approaching the age of fifty, a psychological threshold only slightly less daunting than death, and found myself not much changed from forty or even thirty. If anything, I was healthier. The last decade of the century, and of the milennium, was shaping up to be less stressful than the eighth — which had been defined by certain events in Central America — and the ninth, burdened as it was by scandals here at home.

Then, for fun, I picked up what I think is the greatest Canadian novel of all time, Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. Here’s how it begins:

The river flowed both ways. The current moved from north to south, but the wind usually came from the south, rippling the bronze-green water in the opposite direction. This apparently impossible contradiction, made apparent and possible, still fascinated Morag, even after the years of river-watching.

These Canadian literary giants are smashing rules left and right. Both start with a character alone, thinking.  MacIntyre gives us a couple of pages of the man’s interior thoughts, weaving in a good deal of exposition, before he gets a message saying the bishop wants to talk to him, thus nudging us gently into the narrative flow.  Laurence gives us two solid paragraphs of nature description.

I wondered if these “rules” apply more to commercial than to literary fiction. Is one of the differences (and I know those differences are slippery and hard to define) that people pick up what they consider “literary” fiction with more patience, more willing to give a writer time to develop setting and character before immersing them in plot?

Hard to say.  I went back to the original blog and read a follow-up post where the same blogger, having told us what not to do on Page One, now tells us what to do, and claims this works equally well for commercial and literary fiction. What you have to do on Page One, he says, is introduce a disturbance to your main character’s life. Shake him or her up a bit.

I looked back at my examples. The Bishop’s Man has a slow start, no doubt about it, but the very first sentence introduces this introspection by saying, “The night before things started to become unstuck….” So we know, going in, that things will become unstuck, and that this will begin to happen on a specific day. The shake-up is subtle, but it’s there.  As for The Diviners, yes, we get two paragraphs on the river, but at the end of the second (short) paragraph we find that Morag is looking at the river “trying to avoid thought” unsuccessfully. In the third paragraph, well before that first page ends, we know what Morag is trying to avoid thinking about — her teenage daughter has left home, leaving only a terse note.

So perhaps there is more room for subtlety in these “rules” than might first appear, and perhaps the requirement to grab your reader on the first page does apply as much to literary as to commercial fiction. It’s a very real concern for me right now, as I am playing around with opening chapters for two new novels, and trying to shop around an existing MS on the strength of a query and (if I’m lucky) a few sample pages.

I suspect these rules, if they have any validity at all, are more about how to capture the attention of an agent or publisher than a reader, but the blogs and surrounding discussion did make me think about how I start, and whether I am “hooking” readers from the beginning.

So, for your viewing pleasure, I present the opening passages (very brief; I won’t give you 250 words from each!) from my three works-in-progress.  Which, if any, would you want to read further in? Why or why not?

1: Opening Sentence:

The longest journey of my life began with an argument about chips.

2. First Two Paragraphs:

“The thing you don’t know about me,” Trif Winsor says, “is I was one of a twin.”

 She has said this, over the years, to many people. She has said it standing on the back bridge of the house, shaking out mats in a brisk northeast breeze. She has said it in the dark, turning to a face half-seen beside her in the bed. She has said it so often that it is, in fact, a thing almost everyone knows about her, part of the story of Trif Winsor.  But another part of the story is her illusion that she is sharing a secret, letting you into a confidence. So she says it this way, with lowered voice, with a sideways glance to make sure there are no eavesdroppers.

3. Opening sentences:

This is the worst thing I know about myself, my darkest confession.  When I heard Jesus was missing, I thought he was dead.

And I was not sorry.

4. Oh heck, just for fun, I’ll throw in another opening paragraph.  The biggest problem with this one is that it proves you can write a grabby opening and still have trouble crafting a book to go with it.

I expected a lot of things when I woke up on Monday morning. I expected a department meeting, a few hours editing my thesis, and a visit to the dentist.

 I didn’t expect a monk in my bedroom.

So, folks, what do you think? How much responsibility does a writer have to “grab” readers and drag them into the story right away? And what’s the best way of doing so — if there even is one best way? Writers and readers alike, tell me what you think!


11 thoughts on “And So We Begin …

  1. Are you finished the Monk novel? And the one about the road trip with the big guy?

  2. Yes, those are examples #1 and #4 above. The road trip novel is out looking for someone to love it, and the time-travelling monk is sitting around waiting for me to do some research so I can do another revision. It’s “complete,” in the sense that it has a beginning, middle and end, but it feels like it needs a lot more.

    #2 and #3 are my brand-new projects.

  3. Okay, I would read ALL of them…. please finish them soon. I need closure.

  4. Thanks for the nod to MuseInks. This topic certainly set off a lively discussion there. I maintain that the first 250 words (1st page) of a book — ANY book, whether pulp fiction, literary, narrative non-fiction, or any other genre — must accomplish only one task: to engage the reader and make that reader turn the page.

    I do not write with the intention of attracting agents or editors, but the reality is that they are the gatekeepers to the publishing world. Every book I’ve written that got published had to have the editor’s and publisher’s approval. But you know that as well as anyone.

    In the drafting phase, I don’t write for readers. (I write for myself. It’s quite indulgent, really.) When editing and polishing, however, I want to give my work the best opportunity to connect with its reader.

    I love to watch people in libraries and bookstores. They’ll scan the backs of books (the equivalent of the book’s “query letter”) and sometimes crack open the first page. Very, very often, they will not read beyond that page. And these are the books that made it into print!

    If I can get the reader to turn past the *first* page to see what happens next, then he or she has taken a concrete physical action to enter the story I’m trying to tell. From there on, it’s my job to make the reader satisfied with committing to the relationship.

    The first page is like a first date. The length of the relationship hinges upon it.

    (BTW, for what it’s worth, I’d read more of #3 and #4. I didn’t have enough of #1 to form an opinion…)

    As always, luck and blessings to you!

  5. Good thoughts, Ami. I sometimes look at the first page of a book when I’m picking it up in a bookstore or library (I always read the cover blurbs first), but I’m just as likely to flip to some random page in the middle to try to get a feel for the writer’s style and character voice.

  6. I’d read 1, 3, and 4. Number 2 did nothing for me.

    I think you’re correct that the hook doesn’t have to be anything huge, earth-shattering and obvious, but it does have to be there. There has to be a hint that something interesting is about to happen.

  7. To be fair, #2 is a rough draft that I dashed off in 20 minutes at Starbucks, so I think it’s reasonable to say it needs some work! And I think that’s the right balance … doesn’t have to be blatantly obvious, but has to be there.

  8. I agree with most here; I would read 3 and 4. Three is most interesting to me. I see these two as encapsulating the stories contained in the whole book and make me want to know more details.

  9. I don’t judge a book by its cover or by its first paragraph. Having said that, based solely on the excerpts, I’d be more inclined to read #3 (which I suspect may be the book about James you recently posted about) and #4 because who can resist a time-travelling monk.

  10. As a book browser, that first line (or first paragraph) is very important to me. I’ll pick up a book and read the flyleaf. Then I’ll start the book at Page 1. If I’m hooked immediately, I’ll buy it. If not, I’ll move on to the next book.

    Having said that, I find all your first lines intriguing. I like the monk one best, and the road trip first line least (though I loved the book itself).

    I also buy a lot of books without ever seeing the book itself, though, based on recommendations of other readers. In those cases, of course, the first line is usually meaningless unless it’s quoted in a review (like Joshilyn Jackson’s first novel, Gods in Alabama — the first line was SO great, it was quoted in every single review).

  11. As a reader who has enjoyed a lot of books a LOT more than I thought I would based on the opening page/paragraph/chapter, I have to say that I’m usually a little more patient. Yes, I LOVE being grabbed from the first page, but that’s not always easy or practical for an author. So, I hang in there a while. I’ve learned that there is a “tipping point” in every book (Irrelevant question: have you read The Tipping Point?) and if a book hasn’t tipped after an unspecified period of time randomly decided by me and based entirely on the collective potential presented, then it gets put down…

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