Monday, May 11, 2009


Just a reminder that a wonderful novel, Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney, is our May giveaway. To be eligible, make your first-ever comment to one of our blogs, mentioning this is your maiden voyage, so to speak. We'll send a copy of Claudia's book to you and to one of your friends. Instant book club! The drawing will be May 29th, so--ahem--speak up!

Back when Melville started his epic novel, Moby Dick, with "Call me Ishmael," his readers knew they were in for a ride. Most would have been familiar with the implications of such a name. Ishmael was an outcast, second rate, a bit of an embarrassment, and he was the chosen narrator. The reader was hooked.

How do you decide which book to read? I read the first sentence. If that tickles my imagination, I continue on through the first paragraph, and I may read through the first couple pages. That's when the smokin' credit card comes out.

It turns out that most people choose novels this way. That makes beginnings crucial. Beginnings must sell the story within the first sentence, a paragraph, or scene--first to an agent or editor and then to a reader.

Enter a whole book on writing the irresistible opening scene, Hooked by Les Edgerton, who identifies ten core components of an effective opening: (1) the inciting incident; (2) the story-worthy problem; (3) the initial surface problem; (4) the setup; (5) backstory; (6) a stellar opening sentence; (7) language; (8) character; (9) setting; and (10) foreshadowing. Edgerton claims the first four are the most important with the others vary by degree, depending on the story.

Egads! That's quite a balancing act!

Knowing the components of a strong beginning is one thing, constructing them artfully and effectively is another. So what gold nugget can I extract from Hooked for you today?

Beyond the components mentioned, Edgerton reveals the true need for a hook-through-the-lip beginning: Novel readers are following the same trend as the rest of society. Groan. Their attention spans have shrunk. It's up to the writer to jump into the story in such a way that the reader feels the story's current and surrenders to the ride. I'm not necessarily talking about Class V rapids, but the writer must respect the reader's intelligence, their ability to catch up to the characters and the story without tons of backstory. And by the way, no fair leaving your reader confused either. It's all a delicate dance, to be sure.

For our discussion today: Readers, what makes you commit to a novel? Writers, what components of a strong beginning shall we open for discussion and questions? Anyone, toss the title of a novel with a strong beginning out for us to snatch up.

Pardon me this indulgence. This is one of my favorite openings from The Things We Keep by Elizabeth Berg:

Outside the airplane window the clouds are thick and rippled, unbroken as acres of land. They are suffused with peach-colored, early morning sun, gilded at the edges. Across the aisle, a man is taking a picture of them. Even the pilot couldn't keep still--"Folks," he just said, "we've got quite a sunrise out there. Might want to have a look." I like it when pilots make such comments. It lets me know they're awake.

Whenever I see a sight like these clouds, I think maybe everyone is wrong; maybe you can walk on air. Maybe we should just try. Everything could have changed without our noticing. Laws of physics, I mean. Why not? I want it to be true that such miracles occur. I want to stop the plane, put the kickstand down, and have us all file out there, shrugging airline claustrophobia off our shoulders. I want us to be able to breathe easily this high up, to walk on clouds as if we were angels, to point out our houses to each other way, way, way down there; and there; and there. How proud we would suddenly feel about where we live, how tender toward everything that's ours--our Mixmasters, resting on kitchen counters; our children, wearing the socks we bought them and going about children's business; our mail lying on our desks; our gardens, tilled and expectant. It seems to me it would just come with the perspective, this rich appreciation.

I lean my forehead against the glass, sigh. I am forty-seven years old and these longings come to me with the same seriousness and frequency that they did when I was a child.

Shall we keep reading?


Susan Storm Smith said...

Great and informative column Patti. Really enjoyed your insights!

PatriciaW said...

I never read the first sentence, paragraph, or chapter to decide whether to buy a book. Usually the back cover blurb will hook me, or not.

But, when I'm pulling a book out of my TBR pile, it depends on my mood. There I might try out a few sentences. If I'm not in the mood, I slide it back into the pile, and pick something else. I'll get back to that book later.

Janet said...

Two things sell me on a book, OK, three.

1. An author name I trust.
2. A recommendation I trust. Better yet, a good number of them.
3. The opening pages.

I'm not as impatient as many other readers; I'll usually give a book more than the first line or paragraph. But something had better hook me in the first few pages, or it's over. And nothing better turn me off.

As for your excerpt, I would keep reading, but I'm not yet sold. It looks rather charming, but if the story continues on an introspective note, I'd probably put it back on the shelf. Introspection can be wonderful, but in measured doses.

I am going to have to contemplate those 10 factors.

Lori Benton said...

Hooked, by Edgerton, is on my writing craft shelf. A good book I've recommended in the past.

Just lately, The Feast of Saint Bertie's opening hooked me into purchasing it at Mount Hermon. I've recently finished reading it. Kathleen, just so you know, I turned the final page with tears in my eyes and an "Ahhhh," sigh of satisfaction. Well done!

Oh, and I bought yeast the other day because I can't wait to try out India's cinnamon roll recipe. I'm so glad you included it!

As to how I choose which books to read/buy: If the time period or story situation on the back cover or dust jacket has interested me, but not quite hooked me, then I do rely on the first page of the story to make the final choice, read or pass. I have certain favorite time periods and story situations that I'll read again and again, even if the writing isn't great, but I'll venture into new places and times and scenarios for writing that sings.

Both together is bliss.

Patti Hill said...

I read the blurbs too, Patricia. That's the first test. Does the storyline tickle me? Reading the opening paragraph reveals the voice I'll be spending hours with, and I want that voice to entice me like a whisper.

And I prescribe to your list of requirements too, Janet, as long as the recommendations come from people who share my tastes in literature. That's why I love my book club. We're like an old married couple who knows each other's tastes and preferences so well that most of what's offered is a treat. Now, that doesn't mean we read the same ol' thing over and over. We experiment quite a bit, but the basics of strong voice, good pacing, and thoughtful story are always there.