a compelling opening
A few weeks ago, I happened across a webinar with Alessandra Torre and Tex Thompson, titled “Don’t Give Up On Your Book - 5 Success Strategies To Get To The End.”
Tex’s spark and wit (and her red cowboy hat) instantly won me over, and I was quickly sold on Alessandra’s Inker’s Con Writer’s Bootcamp, in which Tex participates as an editor.
In these last three weeks (with 4 more to go), I’ve learned so much, and it’s been super valuable to connect with other budding authors across the country and the globe. (Thanks to the class, I have a new writer friend in Germany I now have daily exchanges with about our challenges, wins, inspirations, pitfalls, and successes. Very cool!)
Here’s what I learned this week:
The first sentence of your book is SUPER, SUPER important! It can make it or break it.
One of this week’s lessons was with an investigative journalist turned author at age 55 (now 70), called Hank Phillippi Ryan. It was an eye-opening lesson. Hank gave examples of first sentences from famous authors (the likes of Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald) and deconstructed them, outlining all that we could glean from sometimes as little as five words.
My editor had previously suggested starting my book at a later point. She’d recommended dropping into the first chapter part-way in, where the action began. She thought it would make for a stronger opening. I knew that she was right, but I resisted applying her advice. We get attached to what we’ve written—especially when we’ve already poured hours of blood, sweat, and tears into our work. And I felt like I needed an intro to lead up to the action. But what I learned from Hank last night is that you WANT TO drop right into the action! You don’t want to start the book with boring background information. You want to grab the reader’s attention with your very first line! You want to make SURE that the first few words of your book make the reader HAVE TO to find out more!
The other recommendation my editor gave me was to eliminate my prologue and work it, instead, into the meat of my novel. Now, mind you, I LOVED my prologue! And I loved how it bookended the story in parallel with the epilogue. I was so pleased with how I’d written them both! They were richly infused with spirituality, set in an otherworldly realm, pre and post incarnation. I thought they’d help to draw in readers who were as spiritually-minded as I am.
But here’s what I learned from Hank: prologues can be tricky, and they can give the reader a false promise. Hank explained that the beginning of your book is a promise to your reader—a contract you make with them. If they read the prologue and then reach the first chapter to find out it feels like a completely different book, they will be disappointed.
Listening to Hank speak, it all clicked into place for me. Everything my editor had told me crystallized, and I knew I needed to take out my prologue—as sad as that genuinely makes me, because I do so love it! But I can see now that the energy of the prologue is quite different from the rest of my book, and it would be a false promise to the reader.
My editor also advised me to avoid starting chapter 1 with a character waking up. It’s predictable, she said. I thought she had a point. But I was attached to my beginning. I felt it provided a transition from the other-worldly realm of the prologue into the first chapter—plus my book title contains the word “awakening,” so I argued that it made sense in my case. She said it was fine, and that it’s my book, after all. It has to feel right for me. But still, she felt starting the chapter in a later scene would be more compelling.
After listening to Hank Phillippi Ryan, I did everything my editor originally suggested. I guess sometimes we need to take baby steps to reach our destination. And hear the same thing repeated more than once.
This was my original opening line:
"Sage faintly heard the sound of her alarm, as if coming from a faraway place."
While I was pleased with this sentence when I first wrote it (and it may re-appear further down the line in my book—maybe as my opening for chapter 3), it feels patently boring now as an introductory line with my new understanding. I might still choose to read on if I picked this book up in a bookstore, but I wouldn’t be invested at this point. Maybe I could relate to the feeling. But I’d be okay if I never found out more about Sage. I could go about my day and not feel like I lost out on a major opportunity to learn more about this character.
In contrast, here’s the revised line:
"Alex Fischer’s name stood out on Sage’s schedule."
Reading this, my curiosity is peaked. Who is Alex Fischer? Who is Sage? What kind of meeting or appointment is Alex scheduled for, and what will it hold? And what type of a relationship will develop between Sage and Alex?
I want to find out more. And I hope so do you.