Thursday, November 12, 2009

Guest Blogger, Literary Agent Janet Kobobel Grant

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?


Carla Gade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carla Gade said...

Thanks for visiting us today, Janet!

Favorite first lines:

"This Street is Impassable, Not Even Jackassable."
- The Measure of a Lady, Deeanne Gist

"Odessa tried to shove back the wave of fear as the slow suffocation began."
- Breathe, Lisa T. Bergren

"This was Dajon Waite's last chance." - The Red Siren, M. L. Tyndall

For me, if I put down a book often times it is just that I cannot wrap my head around the author's voice. The story may have grabbed me if it had been told differently.

I've also had a hard time with some series that dragged out and would have been better suited to a single novel.

Voice is important to me. So is raising my curiosity in the very beginning so that I want to learn more.

Laura J. Davis said...

I have no problem writing opening lines. My head is full of opening lines. It's the rest of the book that drives me crazy!

Favourite books that drew me in right away? Diane Noble's The Veil:
"Lucas Knight fled through the woods, his breath coming in short, painful pants. The boy was too scared to think, too numbed by what he had just witnessed, to consider anything but shoving through the tangle of wild berry vines and scratchy brambles."

Bonnie Grove said...

I agree with you, Janet, about Water for Elephants opening. I strongly wish she had skipped the prologue. The first line of chapter one is satisfying: "I am ninety. Or ninety-three. One or the other."

A few recent favorites:

David Maine's FALLEN: "The mark burns upon him all the time now. Its hurt is open and shameful like a scab picked until it bleeds. In years past he could find ways to forget it or at least misplace his awareness for a while; it was never easy but he managed. These days he cannot. There is nothing to fill Cain's time so the mark does this for him.

Joy Jordan Lake's wonderful BLUE HOLE BACK HOME: "Likely it was only two dreams crisscrossing paths, one snagging on the other in passing, but somehow the face that walked by me this morning, no four feet away, got tangled up with the one from my past. The way-back and way-faraway, all quiet and almost forgotten, got yanked up and placed along side today, where two minutes before I'd have told you I was; in Boston. At the Public Garden. Not a stone's throw from Beacon Hill, where I live and work, and pay as much for my own private parking space as folks back home do for a decent slab ranch and enough acres for the dogs to tree themselves something other than a city-soft squirrel."

And the amazing GILEAD by Marilynne Robinson:
"I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you say, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand in my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it."

Robinson manages poetry from dialogue. Joy enables you to stand in two worlds at once, and Maine brings to life a primordial ache of all we lost in the fall.
And that's just the beginning!

Teri Dawn Smith said...

I teach a fiction writing class to high school students and searched recently for great opening lines as examples for them. I was surprised to find so many that were a bit lackluster. By far the most common opening was of someone waking up.

But I did find some amazing ones too:

"My decision to become a lawyer was irrevocably sealed when I realized my father hated the legal profession." --The Rainmaker by John Grisham.

"Today, more than any other, reporter Will Masterson prayed that his lies would save lives.”
--Escape to the Morning by Susan May Warren.

“The first time I saw the sin eater was the night Granny Forbes was carried to her grave.”
--The Sin Eater by Francine Rivers

“It had been thirty roller-coaster years since Daisy Marie Chance forced fourteen-year-old Jed Pepper to fall in love with her.”
--Daisy Chain by Mary DeMuth

Fabulous first lines contain something unusual, something that makes us wonder why, or something that makes us want to read the next sentence.

Nicole said...

I'm probably the exception here because I don't abandon the novels I start. And first lines don't hook me. I read on anyway. And I finish the novel whether I like it or not.
However, when good first sentences or paragraphs begin a story, it's exciting to continue. I loved James Scott Bell's first few paragraphs of the second in his Ty Buchanan series Try Darkness. Too good.
The problem can be when those first few sentences or paragraphs don't continue, and the story/writing takes a significant drop off afterward. I'd much more prefer to be eased into a good story than to be carried to the cliff and dropped with an echoing thud.

Kathleen Popa said...

Janet, what a privilege to have you on our blog today. (And how blessed I am to have you for my agent!) Thank you for stopping in to visit with us and our amazing readers.

Bonnie, I loved Fallen - and Blue Hole Back Home, and Gilead, and you're right, the openers were marvelous.

I almost shouldn't look at the first page of a book, unless I want to spend money. Two that made me buy them immediately were The Book of Fred by Abby Bardi, and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller.

The first is a novel about a young girl growing up in a religious cult, whose parents are charged with second-degree murder for the death of her brother, to whom they denied medical care:

When Little Freddie took sick, I knew things would change and change fast. We sat next to his bed all day, laying our hands on him and saying the Beautiful Prayer, but he just got hotter to the touch and more shivery. His skin looked yellow, like he was turning into old paper. I laid my hand on his forehead and said "Get thee hence" a bunch of times, but it didn't help. That night I had a dream that the Archangel Willie came to me and said, Lo, Mary Fred, thou wilt be traveling down the road. Thou wilt be somewheres else when the Big Cat comes. So look to yourself and say Ho.

When I woke up, I said Ho a bunch of times. Then I went to see Little Freddie, but he was already gone.

The second, a memoir about the author's childhood in Africa begins like this:

Mum says, "Don't come creeping into our room at night."

They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, "Don't startle us when we're sleeping."

"Why not?"

"We might shoot you."


"By mistake."

"Okay." As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. "Okay, I won't."

Laura, you're right. The rest of the book will suffer if it doesn't live up to the promises made on the first page. The Book of Fred is a good book, but it doesn't deliver the quirky mixture of humor and tragedy I expected when I read "I said Ho a bunch of times..."

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight has a great title, a fantastic cover (look it up), and some of the most intriguing first sentences ever, but I've never been able to finish it. I suspect this is my shortcoming and not the book's - it's got 195 reviews on Amazon, most of them good. And every time I look at the cover, I want to try again.

Latayne C Scott said...

And this is supposed to help me finish my WIP? Janet, whose opinion I revere, and all the rest of you giving me snippets of books so luscious that I want to log onto Amazon and buy them all?

Get thees hence: I'll look to myself and say Ho more bunches of times.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

As a reader, I'm a lot like Nicole. I didn't start studying first lines until this year. I'm really enjoying doing so, though. It has helped me in writing my own WIP!

Unknown said...

What great openings to books. I agree with Latayne; how am I supposed to get any work done when I'm being invited into so many delicious reads? Thanks to each of you for the temptations.

Sande said...

As readers of a fast food generation, we don't give our authors a lot of room do we.

Guess we have to be more male about our approach and cut the forplay.