Lately, I have become a very harsh judge on the opening pages of a novel – for that matter, on the opening line. If it doesn’t grab me early, I’m out of there.
I blame some of this on the Kindle. I’m more than willing to check out a new author or novel on the Kindle simply by downloading the free sample. However, there is a fair amount of crap out there, and I can usually tell within the first few pages. Maybe that’s unfair of me, but I’m not alone. Another author once said, “It rarely takes more than a page to recognize that you’re in the presence of someone who can write, but it only takes a sentence to know you’re dealing with someone who can’t.”
So if that opening doesn’t grab me, and the rest of the first page doesn’t do much to pull me in either, then I’m probably skimming by the second page. And if I’m still skimming by page 5, that’s it. I almost never press on to the end of the sample in that case. I already know. If your opening has turned me off, it’s not worth sticking around to hope you’re going to turn it around by chapter 2.
The other thing I blame it on is Jim Butcher. Okay, that’s an oversimplification, but it’s close. In the last five or ten years, I’ve been exposed to some absolutely fabulous openings, and a number of them were written by Mr. Butcher. Others include Lilith Saintcrow, O.M. Grey, and J.C. Hutchins. There have been others of course, but those are the ones springing to mind right now.
Just to tease you, here are some of the openings from their novels. They may not be exact, because I’m quoting them from memory. (That in itself should be a sign of how good they were.)
My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.
I was to be King.
The building was on fire, but this time it wasn’t my fault.
The president of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy.
These grab my attention. They immediately pull me in and also leave a lot of questions unanswered. Your “working relationship”? Why were you not the King? Ok, whose fault is it? And what kind of four-year-old are we dealing with? I want to keep going to find out what’s going on, and by then these authors have hooked me even more deeply. Forget about skimming to page five. I’ve lost track of time by page five.
So now books without strong openings leave me flat, and if it’s a new author – even one who is good in all things but openings – I often don’t give them a chance. And I feel bad about that. I know that strong openings are something of a niche skill, and it’s a style that has only recently become more common. I look back at the SF/F books from the 70’s and 80’s, and many of them began with long expositions describing the world around us, or heaven forbid… prologues! Any many of them were really good books, but their openings sucked by comparison to some of the eye-grabby stuff we see now.
And the other reason I feel bad about it is that I recognize that my openings probably aren’t up to my own standards. Yes, I’ve tried to use my snap-judgment criteria to pump it up, but I don’t think they’re in the same league as Jim Butcher. (As an aside, Jim Butcher is great for readers… but terrible for writers’ egos. He’s just that much better than the rest of us.) So while I want to give others the same slack I’m hoping for, I’m just not willing to waste my limited reading time on someone who doesn’t grab me by the eyeball and suck me in.
Still, I think there’s hope for me. My openings are getting stronger, and the fact that I am such a harsh judge of openings means that I’m less likely to plop out a turd and hope for the best.
“It was a dark and swirly…” Nope. Gonna stop right there.
What are some of your favorite openings?
Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.
Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-eight million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue-green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.