For all things publishing--wisdom, trends, contractual--I deeply depend on my agent, Janet Grant of Books & Such Literary Agency, and she has never let me down. She's highly regarded in her field as the standard bearer for what makes a great literary agent. Not only does she come to her profession as a published author and editor extraordinaire, but in all things pertaining to life, faith, and friendship, she is a superb role model. Listen carefully to what she has to say. She knows what she's talking about. Also, Janet will be the agent for our spring Audience-with-an-Agent contest.
"You had me at the first line." Every author dreams of hearing readers proclaim that the first line of a book grabbed them by the lapels and wouldn't let them go. Rest assured that not only readers but also agents and editors are suckers for a great first line.
Let's look at some winners and some sleepers and see if we can figure out what makes one beginning work and another makes the reader work to wedge his or her way into the book.
"I should have known better than to respond. My personal planner was full enough without accepting anonymous invitations to dine with religious leaders. Especially dead ones." --David Gregory's New York Times bestseller, Dinner with a Perfect Stranger, in which the protagonist has dinner and a conversation with Jesus.
What I like: The cynical tone of the protagonist is served up to the reader at the get-go--and you like the guy. The juxtaposition of dining with someone who just happens to be dead is a grabber.
Here's the opening from my latest favorite novel, The Help, which depicts life for African American women in the South in the '60s, when many of them worked in white folks' homes, raising white babies, who would grow up to hate the black women who were like mothers to them as children.
"Mae Mobley was born on a early Sunday morning in August, 1960. A church baby we like to call it. Taking care a white babies, that's what I do, along with all the cooking and the cleaning. I done raised seventeen kids in my lifetime. I know how to get them babies to sleep, stop crying, and go in the toilet bowl before they mamas even get out a bed in the morning.
"But I ain't never seen a baby yell like Mae Mobley Leefolt. First day I walk in the door, there she be, red-hot and hollering with the colic, fighting that bottle like it's a rotten turnip. Miss Leefolt, she look terrified a her own child. 'What am I doing wrong? Why can't I stop it?'
"It? That was my first hint: something is wrong with this situation."
The author, Kathryn Stockett, has, in the matter of a few sentences, established the voice of one of the book's protagonists, introduced us to her life, and shown us a conflict that weaves its way through the book--a child not loved by her mother but by the black "help."
Now, here's an opening that didn't work especially well for me. It's from Water for Elephants, a book that I came to adore, but it took time to grow on me.
"Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook. Grady and I sat at a battered wooden table, each facing a burger on a dented tin plate. The cook was behind the counter, scraping his griddle with the edge of a spatula. He had turned off the fryer some time ago, but the odor of grease lingered."
No tension exists in this opening paragraph. It sets the stage for life in the circus during the depression, but I'm not finding anything to hook me and pull me in.
The second paragraph begins to do that work, but I'm still not wowed: "The rest of the midway--so recently writhing with people--was empty but for a handful of employees and a small group of men waiting to be led to the cooch tent. They glanced nervously from side to side, with hats pulled low and hands thrust deep in their pockets. They wouldn't be disappointed: somewhere in the back Barbara and her ample charms awaited."
Just as I evaluate openings in books I'm reading, so too I gauge how long it takes for me to be pulled into a manuscript. And I'm not alone in putting lots of weight on a project's beginning; many a book lived or died based on its first page.
What openings have grabbed you by the lapels and insisted you read on? What books did you have to persist in getting involved with--or didn't push you into the content fast enough so you abandoned reading them?