Red Pencil Thursday

Red Pencil ThursdayWe don’t have a volunteer offering the first 500 words of their WIP today, so I thought I’d share a little about what I look for in those all important opening paragraphs. Writers only have a few seconds to hook their reader into their fictive dream so in the beginning of a novel, every word counts.

If you’re a writer and would like to take part in Red Pencil Thursday, please check out the details on how to submit your materials for a future online critique. And now to the essentials for an engaging opener…

The Title

Even though your publisher has the final word on how a book is eventually titled, it behooves the writer to come up with a dynamite title. This is your first hook, your first promise to your reader about what sort of story they’re going to get. I finally settled on a title for my New Adult/RS WIP. It’s The Warning Sign. I like this for a couple of reasons. First, since my heroine is hearing impaired and uses ASL, the “sign” portion has a double meaning. And “warning” telegraphs danger, which is certainly coming in this story.

If you’d like to check out The Warning Sign and get a fresh installment each week, I invite you to sign up for Mia’s Muses.

The First Line

Ever since Barbara Vey of PW’s Beyond Her Book christened me “the queen of first lines,” I’ve felt an obligation to come up with something surprising for each book. Think about openings that have stuck with you.

“Call me Ishmael.” ~ Why is this Moby Dick opener a great first line? It introduces our narrator and tell us something about him. He addresses us casually, inviting us to befriend him. But is Ishmael his real name? No one ever calls him by that in the whole massive novel. By identifying himself as Ishmael, he tells us he is the outcast, the one who’s out of favor with his father like the biblical Ishmael.

“To say that I met Nicholas Brisbane over my husband’s dead body is not entirely accurate. Edward, it should be noted, was still twitching upon the floor.”  Deanna Raybourn’s beginning of Silent in the Grave made me an instant fan. It’s clever, evocative and I already love the dry wit of the narrator, Lady Julia Grey.

What first line grabbed you so tightly you had to hold on for the next 400 pages?

In Medias Res

This is hoity-toity Latin for “in the midst of things.” What it means is you should drop your reader into the middle of an engaging and unique moment in the life of your protagonist. Then give your reader only enough information for them to keep up as the story powers forward. Think about how you can introduce your hero/heroine in such a way that your reader will follow them happily into their further adventures. The opening sets the tone for the entire novel. Begin as you mean to continue. Check the opening of my RITA nominated Plaid Tidings for an example

Hooking for Fun & Profit

I mean writing hooks, of course. (What were you thinking?) Your title is your first hook. The first line is the next. You need another at the end of each chapter, but before you get there, you’ll need to sink several embedded hooks into your narrative.

A hook is a tantalizing bit of information that raises a question in your readers’ minds and literally pulls them through the story as they try to discover what’s really going on. Please don’t confuse them. You want to tease, not confound.  In my novella Plaid to the Bone, the prequel to Plaid Tidings, there are several in the first chapter, usually in the form of my heroine’s internal dialogue. The real trouble will start once we arrive is an example of an embedded hook.

So those are some of the things I look for in an opening. Now it’s your turn to share. What book do you think is the best example of a perfect opening? 


4 thoughts on “Red Pencil Thursday

  1. Great insights, as always.

  2. Mia, you are on target as always with your advice on hooking the reader. Your Red Pencil Thursday is a master class every week it occurs.

    Here’s an opening line from FATAL GRACE by Louise Penny, a mystery I recently enjoyed: “If CC de Poitiers had known she was going to be murdered, she might have bought her husband Richard a Christmas gift.” The line suggests CC’s self-absorbed personality (which is confirmed by the next lines), gives us clues to the season/setting, and hooks us to read on for how and when she will be murdered.

    1. Mia says:

      Aren’t you the sweetest? Thanks, Helen. Excellent example of foreshadowing in the excerpt you shared.

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