How To Make It Count When You Can’t Take It Back

Writing can be scary for all kinds of reasons. There’s the fear of the blank page – what the hell am I going to put on it? There’s the fear of rejection – thanks for submitting your book titled – whatever – I didn’t read it but it’s not what we’re looking for. Best of luck. There’s the fear of what your mother will saythe sex scenes are kind of dry. There’s the fear of the negative review – worst pile of swill I’ve ever read.

And then there’s one of the worst – what’s my opener? How can I make it count when I can’t take it back? I can have a cover worthy of hanging in the Louvre and to-die-for blurbs from Alfred Nobel and Joseph Pulitzer but if my opener is a bust, I’m shit out of luck. Readers looking inside the book on Amazon will click to another book instead of clicking on the buy button. My dreams of riches and fame (okay, depending on the day, I’ll settle for one or the other) will go up in smoke and I’ll be back to signing up for the Internet scam of the week promising that I’ll make six-figures a year working fifteen minutes a day at home if I just provide my social security number, my bank account number and my left testicle.

Like most things in writing (and life) answering the question is simpler than doing it but here goes.

The opening of a book has to make the reader ask at least one of the following questions (a) what happened and why; and/or (b) what’s going to happen and why. That’s why “It was a dark and foggy night” doesn’t work. So what? Who cares?

But making the reader ask the questions won’t be enough if the prose doesn’t make the reader care about the answers. Prose matters. Active voice, action verbs and vivid, powerful descriptions will give the questions the sense of urgency that compels the reader to buy, read and love it. And, most important to the writer, recommend it to friends and family.

My pal, Kate Naylor, shared her reader’s perspective with her usual insight, charm and infinite good taste by citing one of my openers as among her favorites. That girl knows where her bread is buttered.

Now here are some openers that got it done for me.

Lee Child does it right in his latest Jack Reacher thriller, A Wanted Man

The eyewitness said he didn’t actually see it happen. But how else could it have gone down? Not long after midnight a man in a green winter coat had gone into a small concrete bunker through its only door. Two men in black suits had followed him in. There had been a short pause. The two men in the black suits had come out again. The man in the green winter coat had not come out again.

Who wouldn’t want to know who these men are and why one of them didn’t come out again? And, if you’ve read other Jack Reacher thrillers, you know that an exciting story is about to unfold.

Michael Connelly in The Fifth Witness –

Mrs. Pena looked across the seat at me and held her hands up in a beseeching manner. She spoke in a heavy accent, choosing English to make her final pitch directly to me. “Please, you help me, Mr. Mickey?”

A woman in trouble needs the heroes help. You’ve got to care what happens to her.

And Justin Cronin in The Passage –

Before she became the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years—she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy.

This one hooked me and held on to me. So many questions. I had to find out the answers.

Let me hear from you. Any favorites? Any clunkers? Just post them below

Image source:  justCRONO

3 Responses to “How To Make It Count When You Can’t Take It Back”

  1. Michael Sherer

    Thought I had a great opening for NIGHT BLIND with “The day Cole Sanders died, I lost my voice. I found it again the night of November twenty-fifth. Or rather, early the morning of the twenty-sixth.” But when I added multiple POVs on a subsequent draft, that ended up as the opening to chapter two. The new opener?

    “Gagnon pulled back into the shadows as a car passed, alert to the sights, sounds, and even the smells around him. The Quai d’Orsay was busy all the time—after all, this was Paris, the City of Lights—but he’d come at perhaps the least busy time of day, when one could best appreciate the city. Alive, but in repose, a slumber interlaced with dreams, even fitful nightmares as traffic coursed through the arteries and veins of its streets and chim- neys huffed clouds of breath into the night air.”

    Can’t decide which is better. What do you think, folks? Openers are tough, and I agree with Joel, the hook has to be sharp and barbed to set it deep enough to keep readers on the line these days. There are too many books out there.

  2. Burl Barer

    Oregon businessman Phil Champagne, age 52, died in a tragic boating accident off Lopez Island, Washington. He was survived by one ex wife, four adult children, a septuagenarian mother and two despondent brothers. Phil didn’t know he was dead until he read it in the paper. All things considered, he took it rather well.