Monday, September 26, 2011

Grand Openings

There are as many ways to begin a story as there are stories to begin. But they are tricky things. Where to begin? Where best to focus the reader's attention? What needs to be accomplished? Today's Novel Matters Roundtable is about opening paragraphs. What do we each look for in an opening, and we will each share the openings from our books.
The bonus of this roundtable is that we are holding a mini-contest! In the comments section, post the opening paragraph from ONE of your novels. All six of us will read the comments and offer our thoughts as we are able. One winner will be chosen to receive a Teeth and Bones edit of their first chapter. The winner will be drawn randomly from the comments section. Please ensure you post ONLY the opening PARAGRAPH of your novel.

For me, there are three things I look for in a beginning (things that capture my attention), 1) Story world--you could call this setting. But it's the way the writer was able to plant my feet
inside the place and time where the story takes place. 2) Narrator--Who is telling this story and why does it need to be told now? and 3) Movement and/or promise of plot--I like to see a little something up front that tells me this story is going somewhere, it has movement. I don't read much genre fiction, so I don't need my plot served hot in the first lines, but I do like some inkling of plot near the beginning.
Here are openings from two of my works:

1) Talking to the Dead:
Kevin was dead and the people in my house wouldn't go home. They mingled after the funeral, eating sandwiches, drinking tea, and spoke in muffled tones. I didn't feel grateful for their presence. I felt exactly nothing.

2) A Gi
rl Named Fish (the novel I completed a week ago):
The population of Picture Island, Maine is arranged in a horseshoe configuration around the open grave, one in back of the other four or five deep. It’s raining hard and they’re frozen to the bone under the black awning of umbrellas. Why does it always rain at funerals? It’s spring but the rain is as cold as if the clouds had scooped the freezing ocean waters and dumped it down their backs. The wind howls up the cliffs to where they are gathered—a cemetery on a high cliff overlooking the sea. The rain slants so it drives sideways into their faces. People try to look reverently miserable, as if it’s mortality they’re contemplating and not their warm houses and maybe some buttered toast with tea and the weekly paper by the fireplace.

If you find it striking that both these novels open with a funeral, well, so do I. My approach is to create miniatu
res inside the scenes and paragraphs of the novel, so that each piece tells part of the whole, and also tells a mini-story of it's own that explores a theme found in other places in the novel.

Let's hear from the others:

What I look for in an opening paragraph is A) Voice -- which tells me right off the bat how I'm going to feel about the character. I want to feel an affinity with either the words or thoughts of the speaker; B) Promise -- what the story holds in store for me. I'll invest several hours in reading the book, so I want to know it will be worth my while; and C) Tone -- is this a serious read or will there be some humor weaved in. I love a touch of humor, even in a serious novel.

Here is the opening from my novel, Unraveled, which I hope will be released in November:
I lost my faith at twenty-four. Well, that isn't true. I didn't lose it, I left it. On a mission field in Moldova, amidst the sunflowers. Just took it off like a vesture discarded. Not outgrown. Discarded. It left me feeling exposed, I'll admit, but I figure if God isn't capable of protecting the weakest among us, well I'd just reather work for someone else. Oh sure, he makes it plain as day that pure and undefiled religion is caring for the widows and orphans, as if it's my job and not his. and that was the thing, he let us down in the worst way. So, I tipped my hat and shook the dust off my feet.

And this is from my most recently completed novel, The Color of Sorrow Isn't Blue:
Grief, it is said, is a sea that ebbs and flows. Comes in waves that roll over the shore, then recedes in a dizzying, lose-your-footing-in-the-sand sensation, leaving you unsettled but standing. Well. Whoever said that never felt the tsunami effect, the drowing, sucking, tidal wave of grief. I know, because I haven't come up for air in five days short
of a year. A suffocating, black hole of a year, each day collapsing in on itself like sand too long unwatered.

As per my usual, I'm going to cheat. Stylistically, I usually start my novels with a one-sentence paragraph, a grabber. L
ike the others, I'm looking to establish voice and a tone. Here's my first paragraph+ for Like a Watered Garden:

I received a box of flowers from my dead husband.
That's a stretch. They weren't flowers at all but a dozen montbretia bulbs. They looked like
hazelnuts with ponytails. Blooms wouldn't show up until July, I figured, if they showed up at all. The UPS man had hidden the box under the welcome mat. His clumsy attempt at security amused me until I remembered I hadn’t ordered anything from a seed catalog last fall. Far from it. Within a heartbeat, I knew the flowers—because that was what he had intended them to be—were from Scott.

Here's an example of a very different voice from my novel, Seeing Things:

You’re talking to the queen of skepticism right here.
I roll my eyes over newspaper stories where teary-eyed folks report they’ve seen Jesus in a potato chip. That sort of hogwash sends me straight to the comics for a dose of reality. You don’t have to worry about me. I know Alley Oop doesn’t slide through time, but the inhabitants of Moo remind me of my friends in Ouray with their common sense and heave-ho attitudes, something sorely missing among the potato chip crowd. Honestly, someone isn’t rowing
with both oars in the water.

I look for deliciousness - a hard to define quality of voice or mood that tells me I'm going to lovespending time inthe three hundred pages or so to come. Here's my two:

The woman stood atop the cinnamon bluff, her arms stretched to the horizons, her face dry as sandstone, her silver hair blowing like the grass at her feet. "She thinks she's Moses," muttered Data, peering through a gap between drawn blinds.- From To Dance In the Desert

They're just decorations, these candles. You don't need anything to pray. Truly, it is best to come with nothing-only yourself. Just one of the things I've learned.
- From The Feast of Saint Bertie

When I open to the first chapter of a book, I hope to find something fresh - some indication that the story is different than others I've read. I also look for the tone in the first paragraph and for some indication of the plot. But, truthfully, what strikes me as promising can change with how I'm feeling when I pick up a book, whether I'm in the mood for a light, entertaining read or a more engrossing story.

Here is the first paragraph from Tuesday Night at the Blue Moon:
"We weren't strangers to this courtroom. The first time we came, it was to petition to have Ginger's hospital birth records opened. When you lose a child to a genetic disease that doesn't haunt your family, you want to know why."

Here is the first paragraph of an untitled WIP I'm toying around with right now:
"Grover is an ink blot on a Google map - a Rorschach's splatter of asphalt and advertising tucked into a fold of brown hills. At least, from May through September, between the rains. Otherwise, the hills are fuzzy and green as moldy bread."

Maybe because I love mysteries, I want an opening paragraph to create a big question mark in my mind, one that forces me to keep reading.

I've attempted to do that in the following opening to my first attempt at a type of Biblical speculative fiction:
Last night I dreamed the dream again, and for the only time I dreamed it, of all the times I dreamed it, it brought me the least fear last night.




Now it's your turn: All comments are allowed, of course. If you want to enter the Teeth and Bones contest for a chance to have your first chapter read and commented on by one of us, then enter your opening paragraph in the comments section. Otherwise: What kinds of things capture your attention in an opening? Have you flipped open a novel, read the first bit and felt, ahhh THIS is what I'm looking for! Tell us!

16 comments:

Nicole said...

I'm a patient reader, and while I do judge a book by its cover, I rarely judge one by the first sentence or paragraph or chapter. Although I appreciate the zing in a first sentence or paragraph, I don't necessarily look for it or expect it.

Some good work here, ladies.

Here's one from a WIP:

The first time he looked over the half-empty pitchers of beer on the round rough-hewn table and past the cheeky smiles and loud laughs of the men seated there, he caught a glimpse of her pulling the tap lever while smiling across the counter at a kid he’d swear was under 21. Immediately his mind drove straight to the recollection of how long it'd been since he’d been with a woman and parked there.

(And although it doesn't sound like it here, it is a Christian novel.)

Jack G Hardy said...

Madrid, Spain, 1587— Marcelo’s 19 year-old legs felt leaden as he forced himself forward over wet cobblestones as he climbed the hill that towered above his home. Rain stung his face and blurred the light from the lantern his father held to guide their way through the shadows. Marcelo looked over his shoulder to make sure his mother was following close behind.

Marian said...

Jack stood directly in front of the small congregation flapping his open Bible, "It says right here, Judge not or you will be judged." He strode down the narrow aisle between the two rows of chairs shouting. "Anyone who calls this place a cult..." He turned suddenly, lowering his voice as he headed toward the pulpit, "I like to break their neck."

Bonnie Grove said...

It's great to see the first brave comments. I can visualize so many writers combing through their openings to spiff them up before showing them off to everyone.

A wonderful beginning! And I'm proud of you first three willing to brave my so very sharp teeth. heh heh.

No. I'll be nice.

Sorta.

Maybe.

Jennifer Williams said...

I tend to like something that either shocks me a little or leaves me with a feeling that there is something mysterious going on.

Here is something from my WIP:

I was growing weary of the eternal journey that I had been placed on. Instead of landscapes that could be seen or touched,there were only mountains and valleys of emotions that fought to pull me away from the initial conversation with my Creator. This conversation was like a call and as with most things spiritual it is difficult to explain when or how it began, or if it would ever come to an end.

Melissa Hambrick said...

I've been toying with changing my opening a bit, but for now, here it is, warts and all:

Chelsea Franklin’s future is in a brown paper bag currently riding shotgun in her silver Volvo sedan. Alone in the leather-wrapped luxury cocoon, she feels the weight of the bag on the seat next to her, the presence of it, as surely as if another person is sitting there. An hour later, she’s still driving it around, alternating between ignoring the sack and talking to it as if it were one of those tiny dogs that rich girls carry in their purses or push around in little strollers. It’s a brown paper bag—an inanimate object, nothing to speak of on its own. It might contain a quart of milk. A birthday card. Maalox. New lipstick. Hair dye. Even a diamond ring. But it holds none of those things—just hope and fear wrapped in a tidy little package.

Judy Gann said...

Love your opening paragraphs, ladies! Gulp. Here's mine:

I've gotta get off this bus. Now.

Diesel fumes blended with vinegar-like whiffs of body odor assaulted Megan's nostrils. Hemmed in by her seatmate, an elderly woman who'd introduced herself as Joan, she was trapped on this bus like an animal in a cage. Bile rose in her throat, threatening to reject the bites of cracker she'd forced down at the roadside diner during the rest stop that morning.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I very much enjoyed the first paragraphs. I appreciate the opportunity to read fellow writers' creations.
Therefore shall I submit myself to the same standard....with my eyes closed.

Clear, warm musical notes of water lazily dripping into a calm pool sang to accompany Leoshine’s bath. The steam that permeated and thus exuded from the rough wooden walls made her drowsy and comfortable. No one would disturb her here because no one in her family, except Father who ordered the bathhouse built, enjoyed the simple pleasure of warm water. They shunned the water with the myriad of other innovations Father brought back from his captivity.

susiefinkbeiner said...

Okay. Here I am. With shaking hands and nervous tummy... Don't bite down too hard, Bonnie!

(Opening lines of "Paint Chips")

South of the city, past all the tall mirror windowed buildings and the long twisting highways. Past the billboards and stores. In an out of the way, behind the trees sort of place. That’s where I lived out the punishment for my sins. Separate from the schools and churches and parks and neighborhoods. An out of the way, overlooked place is best for hiding hell. That’s where I lived.

Pat Jeanne Davis said...

Another great discussion on an important consideration when crafting the first paragraph. Enjoyed reading the other comments and learning about what you all look for in an opening. Well, here goes my first paragraph for the chance to get a teeth and bones critique.

Tonight they would tell her to go, and she hated them for it. Abby’s temples throbbed as she leaned against the heavy oak door. She felt the latch click home, as though scraping along nerves rubbed raw by the struggle of the past three days. Abby had no reason to expect her father would be flexible, or that her mother had changed her mind about Simon.

Megan Sayer said...

I've been fighting against myself this morning, and the fight has been tough. I had the vision of myself being lashed to the mast of my ship, Jason and the Argonauts-style, to bind me from dashing my ship on the rocks.
I. Am. Not. Ready. For. This.

Your siren-song is so beautiful and so tempting; but I've seen those teeth : )

thebeautifuldue said...

This from a work-in-progress -

He was born on December 25th. It was the happiest day of single-mother Liberty Walton's life. But the ache in her bones told her it would be easy for his birth to be overshadowed, what with sharing a birthday with Jesus and all. She knew how the town loved to do Christmas. So she willed herself to give him an inimitable name, something to level the field a bit. His birth announcement in the local paper read

Onceuponatime Walton, 7lbs 12 oz, 19 inches

The truth is Liberty Walton could've named that boy Judas and the folks of Delight (pronounced Dee-lite) would've loved him just the same. The reason is every breathing soul in that town adored Liberty, she was native, 'a born and raised delight' as they say. In many ways the girl and the town grew up together. Liberty's parents were both beloved fixtures, her mother the school superintendent for years and her father the founding pastor of the Congregational church. Upon graduation from high school, Liberty received a prestigious scholarship to an Ivy League school. Delight was simply agog.

Bonnie Grove said...

These are engaging beginnings! Each one drew me in, but in different ways.

There are so many ways to start a story. I know every novelist struggles with beginnings. Is this the place to begin? How much should I let out and how much to hold back (and what to hold back and what to foreshadow?), the list goes on.

You are all brave sharing your work with all of us and we admire and appreciate each of you. The winner will be announced soon, so if you're on the fence: tick tock.

Megan: You made me laugh. And I salute you.

The Joy of Grace said...

Here is the opening paragraph from my completed CBA romantic suspense titled Fresh Hope.

It's a prologue.

(Italics)I am nothing without my baby. Yo no soy nada sin mi bebe. Every thread of her body screamed at the men surrounding her. But no sound escaped her lips. Dim light illuminated shadowy figures standing like guards over her. (Italics)Please. I want to keep my baby.

my email address is kellihughett at gmail dot com

some chick said...

OK, I'll bite. I'm not afraid of you!

I, like Patti, write short opening lines. I especially like to use dialogue. I often find the beginning to hardest part to write. When I worked for a newspaper I always had to write my lead last. I still do that with my fiction. I go back to the beginning again and again (there's a metaphor in there somewhere).

Here's my opening (cheat) first paragraph:


“What’s your name?”

Serena’s eyes had been trained on her hands, which rested in her lap. At the sound of the voice, she looked up from her seat on the wooden bench that lined the stone corridor.

Christina (Christinareadsya) said...

Beginnings are the most important for me, but I'm not sure I look for anything specific in the opening. Maybe just look for a way to identify with the protagonist.

My WIP opening:

Like the frail strings of an old violin, Lily’s nerves wore to their breaking point when she crossed the threshold to her mother’s bedroom. She neared the dresser, her footfalls soft on the carpet but unable to drown out the rhythm of her heart. Quickly glancing over her shoulder allowed her to breathe more deeply, to uncurl her toes as she resumed her task. She grabbed the photo frame, but her fingers, slick with sweat, lost their grip, and it plummeted towards the ground. For a moment, she stared at its descent, her hopes shattering under the sudden roar in her ears. Then she dove and caught the glass, her world righting again while she waited for her hummingbird’s pulse to slow.