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On opening pages....

I asked Twitter for blog topics, and Laura suggested what I look for in opening pages. And then, duh, I realized as much time as I spent talking about queries, I haven't even touched on opening pages.

So here's what I look for, more or less in order of importance.

*Tension. This is a must for me. I need some kind of conflict or question that propels me forward-- a reason I just can't put it down. There are too many projects in the slush pile that consist of a character just... walking around and talking and "bringing you up to speed." There is a reason agents often say you should never begin a book with your character waking up. Because "waking up" usually means: so begins another day in my character's ordinary life. Maybe sometime this afternoon, something cool will happen. But right now, nada.

If I can put it down, I will.

Many of the projects I've taken on have managed to convey tension from the very first line.

Case in point, from a client project:

"The human thigh bone was the wrong tool for the job."

Immediately, I want to know where he got a thigh bone and what "the job" is. And my desire to find out is going to propel me further into the sample.

A secondary example: 

"Annie thought she was the one who’d come up with the plan, but I knew different."

Aren't you so dying to know what the plan is?

*Voice. Sometimes the voice is enough to reel me in, and the tension develops more slowly, like bringing a pot to boil.

From another client:

The car lights below crawled along like ants on their way to a midnight picnic. I was the giant in my own surreal fairy tale, ready to stomp down and squash them with my huge boot.

“Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum,” I shouted into the night.

 A strong voice creates a sort of atmospheric read-- it has its own ambience, one that permeates every line. One that you can't get out of your head.

*Character. This one is harder, as not every character pops right from the first paragraph-- just like some people are harder to figure out. But I need to see promise. I need to see something to make me think your character is fully dimensional. The ones that really blow me away, though, are the ones that have the tiniest details and quirks that it's like a charismatic, magnetic person just walked in the room and I can't stop watching them.

*Hook:  This one is important, guys. If I read your query and the hook sounds awesome, I need to see it-- or see it clearly building toward that central hook--within a chapter or two. One of the last things I do before I hit send on a full manuscript rejection is go back and re-read the query letter. And you know what? It's kind of shocking how many times I go-- wait, THAT is where this is going? They've hyped a concept/conflict that hasn't happened and I've read 20-40% of the book. It's really important that you don't spend the first half of your book trying to "set things up" so that the book can really start. 

If your big hook doesn't occur in the first chapters, then it really, really needs to be building in that direction and be a really freakin compelling read. Otherwise I'm going to wonder if editors will get bored and stop readding before they even get to "the good stuff."

And finally,

Internal conflict: Your character needs to have something at stake. They need to grow and change and have emotions tied up in the hook/concept. You can't have a robot/paper doll running around while you pull the strings.

I hope somehow that helps...


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 8th, 2010 09:36 pm (UTC)
Okay, I'm dying to know what the human thigh bone is for!!

Jun. 9th, 2010 01:09 am (UTC)
Me too!
Jun. 8th, 2010 10:38 pm (UTC)
Awesome post!
Very helpful. I, too, will be buying the thigh-bone story! Especially if it's a spy novel. Is it a spy novel?

Thanks for another superb instructional post. It definitely helps to have a checklist in my head while reviewing my manuscript. That part about the hook being there from the get-go is probably the hardest for me, personally. But you make a very compelling point about its importance. The reference to hooking editors helped me to understand that better.

Jun. 9th, 2010 04:50 am (UTC)
Totally agree with you on all of these, which is what floors me a little about the success of a recent popular paranormal book--the hook doesn't even come in until 2/3 of the way through book, which was a little frustrating and slow for me as the reader. And yet, it was wildly successful.
Jun. 9th, 2010 06:03 pm (UTC)
This is once again super helpful!
Opening pages are so important in setting the pace for me as the reader and extremely difficult as a writer!
Jun. 10th, 2010 01:46 pm (UTC)
Great post!
Love the "thigh bone" line!
Jun. 11th, 2010 05:57 pm (UTC)
Great tips. Thanks for breaking it down. First lines are hard to come up with!!

-Molly @ mbwcreates.com
Jun. 19th, 2010 01:14 am (UTC)
On Opening Pages
This post was great. I have been trying to come up with an opening hook for my YA mystery. Even though the rest is exciting, some free critiques say the opening doesn't give them reason to read on until the the mystery begins. I have read this same advice about how to hook readers many times before, but, until I read yours, I could not envision what to do with my protagonist. I believe I can rewrite that beginning now without a doubt. Amazing. Thank you.

Sherry Hudson
Jun. 22nd, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
Great post! I'm so glad I got to see this because I'm just about to rework my opening pages! I'll keep your pointers in mind. :D
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
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