Friday, 11 June 2010

Where to start?

Help yourself to a mug of something, or the zingy grapefruit juice and we’ll go back to the beginning. The problem I have with them is that the opening lines of your novel might determine whether your book gets read by an agent, publisher, or bought by a customer, so no pressure… I love books that have a hook in the opening line, but I’ve written mine into dialogue. I’ve been reading Noah Lukeman’s “The first five pages” and he thinks this is a bad idea, because you can’t set the scene or introduce your characters. It’s a fair point, but I like the idea of being able to dive straight into the middle of a conversation.

So how do you like to write your first few lines? Do you want to set the scene, introduce your main character or jump into the main action of the book? Maybe you’re doing all of those and more. Do you find your first opening is the one you stick with, or do you move your starting point later on? I’m a bit of a sucker for that killer opening line, though I’ll usually read the first page of any book I pick up in a shop. But if it’s got that line…

Cartoon courtesy of Inkygirl (and Fia for having one of her cartoons a few ago!)


liz fenwick said...

First off sorry about missing last week's coffee - left the power cables to my computer behind!

My best opening line was for August Rock (Judith sat watching the incoming tide lap over her red toenails and wet the brilliant white lace of her wedding gown.) and they have gone downhill since...however I think the writing in the rest of the books have improved :-)

A good opening line is great but I have really been working on the part that follows more at the moment......maybe I need to switch back...


Debs said...

I'm always reading first lines in books and gather that they should convey the theme of the book, within those first lines.

My first line for the book I'm editing at the moment is - Bea had wanted it all and worked damn hard to get it all. Now, as a thirty-year-old divorcee, she had a fight on her hands if she were to keep it.

As I said, I'm still working on this one.

Fia said...

What a great question.

I tend to veer away from any book opening with dialogue. I find I need to play catch up and I might not have time if I'm just browsing.

Debs, you have a brilliant opener there. What a hook.

Flowerpot said...

I've done both but just found that switching the two opening paras around in the current one has made a huge difference. It can be the little things that matter!

Karen said...

I've no problem with a novel opening with dialogue, as long as it's gripping.

I faffed about with my opening paragraph for ages - it took sooooo long to get exactly right, because I was told it had to incorporate exactly what was different about this particular story when there are so many similar ones out there.

Hopefully it's worth it!

Graeme K Talboys said...

Hooks can be subtle and that can be achieved just as well with dialogue as in any other way.

I usually worry about the opening after I've reached a satisfactory end, then I try to tie the two together.

One thing I have learned is that whatever rule or advice I read in books by writers, agents, editors and the like is invariably broken by the very next bestseller I pick off the shelf.

Anonymous said...

I've already had my grapefruit juice today, so I'll have a nice Italian coffee, if I may.

If you write your novel in a linear fashion from start to finish, then I'll say this: agonising over the opening lines counts as procrastination! Why not write it out of order? Or perhaps just knowingly write a not-so-good opening and then go back and perfect it later.

I encounter this never start with dialogue rule from time to time in various arenas. I've never heard a satisfactory explanation of why and I'm dubious, cynical even, about unqualified rules. You can introduce characters and set scenes through dialogue. It's called showing-not-telling, I believe.

And fancy deciding on books from their opening lines. Next you'll be judging them by their covers.

Chris Stovell said...

I'd say go with the opening that gives you the confidence to carry on, but don't get too fond of it! The opening I'd chosen for 'Turning the Tide' was the first thing to go in the rewrite for the publishers!

I'd second the Captain's advice about writing out of order too.

Rowan Coleman said...

I almost always rewrite chapter one as soon as I've finished draft one, because you can't really know how to open a book until you've closed it. First lines are important, but I wouldn't get hung up in it, first chapters are more where to focus on. Also some of my favourite books have utterly awful first chapters. Captin Correli's Mandolin being one of them.

Lane said...

Ideally I'd like my opening lines to introduce a main character. I haven't used dialogue but I'm not adverse to the idea at all.

Funnily enough, when I'm browsing books, I rarely read the opening lines but scan a page randomly to see if it tickles my fancy and has a rhythm/style I'd be comfortable with.

Thanks for the question Denise and have a good weekend everyone.

Tam said...

I'm a sucker for a corking first line, whether it's dialogue or prose so I don't think there should be any rules. My stories quite often grow from the first line so it tends to survive the weeding out process.

Sylvia Phoenix said...

Where to start is an excellent question. I've changed my beginning several times and I'm still not happy with it. I don't mean the actual initial sentences and paragraphs, I mean where in the story to begin. I just can't make my mind up.

I've been told that the back-story should be woven in to the plot, rather than being presented as a prologue, for example. I can't do this yet as I'm not sure exactly what the full back-story is going to turn out like. For that reason I'm writing it as though it were a prequel, so that's my current beginning.

Confused? I certainly am. Will it work or not? Who knows. I'm considering posting some of the prequel on my blog. Any thoughts on that? Is it a good idea?

Lorna F said...

The Noah Lukeman book is excellent and I often recommend it - but at the same time his advice is very prescriptive and proscriptive. While seeking to please and interest agents, we still need to remain true to ourselves and not stamp on our individuality until it's squashed out of existence. Personally, I have no problem at all with a book that opens with dialogue - as long as that writer knows how to write dialogue ... As long as we are swiftly given an idea of context and who's talking, no problem. As Captain Black says, it's showing, not telling (as long as it's not laboured dialogue full of exposition).

Annieye said...

Great question. It's hard, isn't it - where to begin. I never begin at the beginning though. I begin somewhere in the middle and let back story unfold as the novel progresses.

I don't mind a novel that begins with dialogue as long as its not boring.

Denise said...

Liz and Debs - those are both fab opening lines. I love anything that opens with so many questions about what is going on.

Fia - good point. I'm thinking of quite a short piece of dialogue now, so it's not too confused.

Flowerpot - that's what I find so frustrating. Every tiny thing matters, the editing never ends!

Karen - I agree. Openings are crucial, and I fear I have to mess around with mine a lot more yet!

Graeme - that's a good point about endings. Once I'd finished I could see that it didn't start in the right place.

Cap'n - don't get me started on covers...

Chris - I have tried writing out of order, and though I got a lot more done initially I ended up with quite a mess by the end. I didn't enjoy writing the less interesting linking passages - but then again they really shouldn't be less interesting...

Rowan - I couldn't get past the first page of that book!

Lane - ooh, that's interesting. I always go for the first line is a bookshop. I'm scared I'll find out something crucial by flicking!

Tam - a lot of my ideas have come from first lines too, though I often find I haven't started where I should.

Sylvia - I'm still nervous of putting work online unless it's on a private blog.

Lorna - and my copy came from Blackwells about 10 minutes after the end of your course!

Annie - That's another interesting idea. I've never started in the middle. Might try that!