what's in an opening?

I'm finishing up a short story, putting the final polish on it so I can give it over to a couple of beta readers. While working on the story, I got to thinking about hooks and opening lines and paragraphs. I think the opening and ending portions of stories are the hardest to write, even though these two aspects are most often the clearest part of the story for me.

The hard part is coming up with that magical combination of words that will give me the hook that I need to make the story flow. Sometimes, the real opening doesn't come to me until I've finished the entire story or novel. Other times, it rocks right on from start to finish.

I'm curious about what initially draws someone into a story, so I threw together a brief Friday post for fun. Out of all of these openings, which one intrigues you the most? Which one would you most likely pick up to read?

#1

Down by the river, where the water ran deep and the odor of rot lay cool and wet against the earth, the ghost of Magdalene Watts raised her silvery hand and whispered my boy’s name. I stopped rocking and listened to her cold voice rise up through the holler. In the yard, my ten-year-old son Jaime paused in his game of catching lightning bugs and cocked his head toward the sound. The crickets hushed until nothing was left but Magdalene’s deep song.

#2

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.

#3

In the garden beyond my window, a night bird cried a sublime song while in the distance, a guard called the watch. Otherwise, the palace slept as I, Solomon, third King of all Israel, lay dying with only an angel at my side.

#4

I turned fifteen the year the desert swallowed my brother. I should have gone first, but Mamá said that I looked too young, too skinny—no one would hire a boy my size. Although I possessed the sharper wit and even spoke a little English, my wiry build went against me. Time wasn’t our friend and we couldn’t wait for me to attain to Jorge’s girth.

#5

My first memory was of the sun on the Alboran Sea, glittering crystalline tears of light that bounced on every wave. The ocean thundered and foamed against nearby cliffs, clawing at the earth and dragging it away one pebble at a time. Gulls wheeled overhead, dazzling bolts of silver, they shrieked like women afire.

#6

If color were sound, this would be a song of blue, low and sultry, bittersweet—but not a requiem. Not yet. These were merely the opening notes, the long slow growl of a guitar, a player in pain. He mourned his song in a harmony of indigo and black.

___________

If you're so inclined, vote in the comments, or you can let me know on Twitter, or Facebook. Have some fun and have a great weekend.

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.

Writing your hook

I'm raising myself from the world (or in my case, Woerld) of edits on Miserere to give you a slice of StellarCon 35. I realized there were so many great events going on last weekend, it would be impossible to  cram them all into one blog post. So I've decided to break some of my favorite parts into several posts. These will include people I've met and workshops I got to attend, and I hope to point you toward some speculative fiction authors that I had the privilege to meet.

One thing I've always loved about StellarCon is Allen Wold's Writers' Workshop. The last time I had the opportunity to attend this workshop, StellarCon was still in the single digits. That ought to tell you all you need to know about Allen and me. Like all finely aged things, Allen's workshop has gotten better.

Here's how it goes: The only people allowed into the workshop are the participants. Allen doesn't want spectators in the workshop; his intention is to create a safe environment for novice and experienced writers to share their work. Allen gives the attendees a writing assignment and we have ten minutes to complete the assignment. Then Allen and a panel of talented writers and editors critique the attendees' works.

This year's panel included: Allen Wold, Danny Birt, Barbara Friend Ish (you can also fine Barbara at Mercury Retrograde Press), Debra Killeen, and Darcy Wold.

Allen never tells anyone what the assignment is prior to the workshop to ensure that everyone is on an even playing field. The point of the workshop is for individuals to see what they can produce with a first draft and how they can improve that draft. We were really lucky in that we were able to return on Sunday morning and share our second drafts with the panel.

This year's assignment was to write a narrative hook for a short story by introducing questions that could only be answered by reading further. We were to write approximately one hundred words (or fewer) to introduce a character with a word or two about the character's gender, age, and name. Of course we were to include a setting, time, and place. We had ten minutes to write this.

Everyone did a wonderful job and the panelists made very constructive comments on each individual's work. I can't print anything anyone else wrote, but I will share with you what I came up with during the workshop so you can see how it worked.

Here is the first draft that I came up with on Saturday:

The rain came down like nails on the roof. Billy stumbled through the door to his granddaddy’s bedroom. His granddaddy had promised to give him the shotgun when he turned sixteen, but granddaddy was gone now. Gone like mama and that Naomi-girl from down the road.

The soles of Billy’s sneakers slid on the hardwood floor. The shotgun was nowhere to be seen. He shut the door and moved toward the closet. Quiet, he had to be quiet. Something outside slapped the bedroom window and Billy dived for the floor. The acid weight of fear rumbled through his stomach.

The panel made the following comments:  

  • The paragraphs had no barb to hook the reader (Allen explained that the hook is whatever it takes in first paragraph that peaks curiosity and makes you want to read more. The barb changes what you thought was going on.) So one panelist suggested that I needed to introduce what was slapping the window and bring that back up quickly. Use this point to build and relax the tension throughout those opening sentences.
  • It was also suggested that I use the senses of smell and touch as well as sight and sound.
  • One panelist loved imagery of first sentence, but felt my sentence structure needed to vary. I needed to mix up imagery and structure by varying my sentence structure.
  • Another panelist really liked the invisible hook and the mood of the piece. He suggested in the first draft that I should list the key elements of story, which in this case are: having to be quiet and to stress the quiet in the beginning and keep reiterating the quiet; the hunt for the shotgun. He said I should reduce words that don’t have to do with key elements.

So I rewrote my first draft based on those comments. On Sunday morning I read this:

The rain came down like nails on the roof. Billy opened the door to his granddaddy’s bedroom. Quiet, he had to be quiet. He strangled a sob and eased the door shut, wincing when the latch clicked. Granddaddy promised to give him the shotgun when he turned sixteen, but granddaddy was gone now. Gone like mama and that Naomi-girl from down the road. Nothing left but whispers dying beneath the rain.

Something outside slapped the bedroom window. Billy dropped to the floor. He tried to think of a prayer, but all that came to his mind was Jesus Loves Me. The smell of camphor and old man sweat had soaked into the wood beneath his cheek. Billy felt the vibration of a footstep through the boards.

See the difference?

So in a nutshell, here's what I learned from Allen, Barbara, Debra, Danny, and Darcy about writing my opening paragraph whether it is for a novel or a short-story:

  • Don't just have a hook, but include a barb to change what the reader thought was going on;
  • Engage all your character's senses to describe the world around them;
  • Vary imagery and sentence structure (intermingle short sentences with long sentences);
  • List the key elements of the story and reduce words that don’t have to do with those key elements.

Did you get a chance to attend Allen's workshop? If you did and would like to share your paragraphs and what you learned send, them to me or leave a comment and I'll get in touch with you. If you've posted yours on your own blog, by all means, leave a link to your blog in the comments. I'd love to see what you have done.

If enough people respond, I'll run a separate blog post for each one or combine them into one blog post. Or if you like, tell us what you learned while writing your first draft.