opening paragraphs with examples from Miserere

This post is for writers, and more of a personal note for my friend Vaughn Roycroft, who spoke of opening paragraphs on his Facebook page yesterday. Vaughn liked Miserere's opening paragraph, and I've had a few other people ask me how I came up with that opening.

The answer is simple: that opening paragraph mutated no less than twenty times over the course of writing Miserere. Every time I opened that file, I tweaked that paragraph.

I went back and found my original opening paragraph for Miserere:

Lucian listened for the noise that had awakened him. He sat on the edge of his bed and pushed his hands through his heavy black hair. His palms were wet with sweat. The only sound was the crackling of the hearth fire. The blaze saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade opening windows. His twin sister was always cold.

I broke every trope of the bad opening paragraph with that one, but (and this is the important part) it set the scene and enabled me to continue the story. After reading several writing blogs (Writer Unboxed being one of them), I spotted the tropes and decided to trim and rework the paragraph. Keep in mind that I continued working on the story itself and just tweaked the opening in my spare time.

The next version looked like this:

Lucian laid his book aside and listened. Night shadows deepened when he extinguished the candle beside his bed. The only sound was the crackling of the hearth fire. The blaze saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade opening windows. His twin sister was always cold.

That one was okay, but not very gripping. The noise that disturbs Lucian isn't seen until a few more lines down, and I knew I had to grab an agent or reader's attention in those first few sentences. With this version, I had a guy in a room reading. Big deal. So I tweaked and I tweaked and I tweaked and came up with this:

Lucian listened for the noise that had awakened him. Nothing but silence penetrated his sister’s house. The blazing hearth fire saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade the opening of windows. His twin was always cold.

I thought this one was much better until I submitted it to Edittorrent for a critique. Alicia offered to critique the first four sentences, and when a professional editor makes that offer, you submit your first four sentences and prepare for the worst. Alicia picked up several issues with that opening. I talked about it in depth on my old writing blog and you can read that post here.

So I chewed over Alicia's advice for a while. After several minor tweaks (and moving words around, etc., etc., etc.) I came up with a new version. My agent had me clarify just a little bit more, and this is the final, final version:

Night shadows deepened when Lucian extinguished the candle beside his bed. The cry from beyond his chamber ended too soon for him to determine its source. He sat on the edge of his mattress and listened for the noise to repeat itself. The hearth fire crackled. The blaze saturated the room with heat, but Catarina forbade open windows. His twin sister was always cold.

Now I have my noise up in the second sentence, one tense protagonist, and my antagonist all in one paragraph. The hook and my conflict between Lucian and Catarina are clearly established. Ta-da. The whole thing only took hours and weeks and months of sweat for me to arrive at that one, very important paragraph.

You are not going to turn out a perfect opening paragraph on your first, second, or maybe even third draft. Don't give up working to make it better. If I'm not mistaken, I tweaked that final opening right up until I sent my final draft for publication.

I won't bore you with all the openings I went through with The Garden, but the same process has been applied there too, and that's because writing is a process. Sometimes as you're writing your novel or story, new developments arise that allow you to go back and insert or clarify your opening. Good editing is a learned skill that takes good teachers and lots of practice.

Hang in there and enjoy learning. That's my best advice for any writer.