Monday, March 16, 2009

Let's Start At The Very Beginning

If you are not familiar with the musical The Sound of Music then A.) I feel very sorry for you and B.) You probably do not realize that the title of this post is a lyric from the Do-Re-Mi song from The Sound of Music, which is why there is a picture from that musical at the top of this post.

Not that this post has anything to do with The Sound of Music, it does however have to do with beginnings. Beginnings of books to be precise.

You see this weekend I worked on revising Chapter 1 of my WIP (and I'll talk more about the whole revision process as always during my WIP Wednesday posting) which I am now officially calling Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. I'd settled on this title several months ago, but it wasn't official until last night when my husband, Andy, looking over my shoulder, saw the title and said that he liked it. He might even have said that he really liked it. This was amazing, because Andy's usual response to my titles is more like, "Really? That's your title?"

Luckily, he is much more encouraging in all other aspects of my writing, so I guess I'll keep him around. Andy hasn't actually read any of my WIP errr... BTDATDBS yet though, so once he reads it there is a very good chance he will tell me that the title doesn't fit at all.

Anyway, it just so happened that while I was working on this first chapter there was a discussion going on in my Passionate Critters group about writing a first sentence that hooks the readers. The difficulty of this and the questionable importance of this first sentence was debated, and I found myself wondering how effective my own first sentence was.

I also thought about what draws me into a book. As I mentioned last week in my Musing Monday post, I am a big believer in the first page test when deciding whether or not I want to read a book. This isn't to say that I always read the whole first page, but I don't think I've read only the first sentenced and then closed the book and placed it back on the shelf, knowing without a doubt that it wasn't for me. Usually I'll give a book at the very least a paragraph or two to give me a sense as to whether or not I'll like it.

I've also mentioned in a past post that Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes was a book that I fell in love with right there in the middle of the bookstore after reading the first page.

However, If I only had to go by the first sentence I don't know if I would have been hooked.

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born."

That's it for the first sentence. Are you hooked? There isn't really any action there, but there is some heavy foreshadowing and also a hint of the writer's voice.

For another opinion I Googled through the always amazing past posts of Nathan Bransford's blog - specifically some of this past contests, which interestingly enough started with the first sentence, moved onto the first paragraph, and then the whole first page. All this focus on beginnings should be enough to tell us that they are important.

In the first sentence contest here is how Nathan's co-judge summed up what really grabbed them:

"In looking over the finalists, I realize I tend to like the ones that leave you wanting to know what they mean. They don't necessarily ask a question, but pose a situation that you want to know more about. I guess that's what a first line is supposed to do—draw you in—but it's interesting to see how it works."

Okay, but what if you first sentence doesn't do that? Or do it enough to win the contest? Can you build upon an okay first sentence to have a great first paragraph?

Here again is Angela's Ashes.

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone."

For me the voice really builds here, maybe it is that brief mention of Ireland, but I start to hear the lilt of an accent. The listing of all the siblings while it could be boring, also draws me in because you note how close in age they are, and then it ends with the heartbreaking news that one sibling is already "dead and gone".

And what did Mr. Bransford have to say about the importance of the first paragraph while anouncing the finalist for one of his first paragraph contests?

"I was reading these paragraphs for clues. Clues on whether someone has a novel that I can sell. Because selling is the thing. People want to be eased into a novel. They don't want to be throttled by first paragraphs. They want the scene to be set and the characters revealed. They want subtlety, and proper word choice, grammar, sentence structure, and seamless readability. Clues that the rest of the package is a sure thing."

Finally, the full page. Actually, this isn't the totally full page of Angela's Ashes, but most of it. I'll stop at the point where I knew I was hooked good and deep.

"When I look back at my childhood I wonder how I survived at all. It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father, the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years.

Above all-we were wet."

It was that last line that hooked me. After that long list of items, each one sadder and more horrible than the next - you get this little glint of humor, that oddly makes it all the more poignant. There also almost a feeling of poetry in these words, that also made me want to read this page again and then every page that came thereafter.

Again, back to Nathan Bransford's blog and his first page contest. Apparently, there was some grumbling after the finalists for this contest were announced and Mr. Bransford addresses those grumblings and also explains how he chose the finalist.

"A first page really can do (basically) four things: reveal the setting, reveal the characters, reveal the plot, and/or reveal the style. There were many first pages (just as there are many wonderful books) that started off with a wonderfully evocative setting, there were many that started off with wonderful characters, an intriguing plot and/or an interesting style. You could find all sorts of wonderful books that start with a combination of one, two, three, or four of these elements (ATONENMENT, for instance, begins with a fascinating character, Briony, organizing a play with McEwan's intricate style)."

I would argue that Frank McCourt in his first page hit all four of these elements. Setting he hits really hard. Characters - again yes. We get all the siblings and we know the father is an alcoholic and are also given the first glimpse of the titled Angela, the mother "moaning by the fire". Plot is probably the least of these, but the book isn't one with a very strong plot and really just follows his miserable childhood, which he sets up for us right at the beginning. And finally, style, or voice, and again I think this one is evident from the first sentence up to the last one.

Now you tell me: How important are beginnings to you, both in the books that you read and write. Would the first page of Angela's Ashes have drawn you in as a reader? Do you agree with Nathan Bransford's thoughts? And is it most important to hook the reader with the first sentence, first paragraph, first page, or all three?


  1. First pages are always a hit for me. I've got to be drawn in or I'm out. Make sense? ;oD

    I think Jennifer read a book called "The First 5 pages". I have it but I haven't read it all the way through (imagine that!). I think it's a general rule somewhere that it has to draw someone in to sell. Think of this famous opening:

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

  2. I agree on all counts, Kate. And I haven't read Angela's Ashes, and I can't believe it! What a great post. And can I just say, that I absolutely HATE writing the beginning of something. Hate. It.

    PS. Cool title. Me likes.

  3. Cool post! I agree, I think that first pages are what will or will not hook you.

    I've noticed that my first chapter, especially the first pages, are the pages I've spent the most time rewriting and editing.

    But whenever I go shopping for books, I read the first page, then I flip to the next chapter and read a few lines, just to see where the story goes. So while a good first impression is important, overall the whole thing needs to be good. Such is the struggle. :p

    Good luck on your revisions!

  4. Writer in Me - Stephanie it took me a minute to realize this was you!

    Elana - I don't know that I hate writing my beginnings, but maybe that's because I always know I will end up rewriting them too. And thanks for the thumbs up on the title - I am still feeling very shy about it.

    Kat -Oooh, I've never thought of flipping to the beginning of the next chapter and reading that... hmm, I might try that next time I am on the fence about a book.

  5. I can usually tag a book in the first page. Sometimes it's the voice I don't like, sometimes it's the narrative. I like a strong opening, though I've some really wonderful books that didn't start out as strong.

  6. Great post - and something I am totally working on. Thanks for the great info!!!

  7. First pages are ooooooh so important. If I'm not hooked by then, chances are I won't continue.

    I read Nathan Bransford's blog every day. It's like this beautiful little treasure trove of information.

    And The Sound of Music -- one of my all-time faves. Yay!

  8. Great points! It's interesting because I look to the first page before I purchase a novel.

  9. I love your new title! It's perfect!

  10. Bethanne- I agree, I usually get a good sense of the book from the first page, although I just read The Book Thief and it didn't immediately draw me in, but in the end was a terrific book.

    Christine- Oh, I'm glad you found this helpful! Good luck on getting your beginning the best it can be!

    Kat - I know, the Bransford blog gets delivered to my email inbox daily and is essential reading.

    T. Anne - Yes, the first page test is essential.

    Jennifer - Yea! I am so glad you like the title and think it fits with what you've read so far!

  11. I was one of the six finalists for Nathan's first paragraph contests. I just barely altered this first paragraph today... scared to death that it was perfect as-is and I shouldn't change anything. But as I rework things, I see the importance of constant revision and change.

    I think all three play an important part, because everybody reads differently. Thanks for a great post!

  12. Lady Glamis - OMG I had no idea that you were one of the finalists - that is so cool! Well now I have to go back and figure out which one was yours. I understand your reluctance to make changes in this case, but agree that sometimes revisions are necessary even when something seems like it's almost perfect as is.

  13. Before I buy books I also read the first page and the little jacket summary inside. So I get why agents stress the first page... oh, do I get it! :)

  14. I read the first page, but I'm also a middle pager. I like to flip through a book and pick a page at random in the middle, read a bit into the scene and see what's ahead. In fact, I'll sometimes do that first, and only read Page One afterward.

    Sick, sick, I know.

    P.S. Lady Glamis, wow, congrats! There were, what, only BILLION entries in that contest! Brava!

  15. You guys are too kind. :) Mine was the MA entry. The one with Nick and the bloody butterfly wings on his kitchen floor. Nathan has requested a partial, and I've been super-stressed in getting the dang thing ready for him. Gotta get the novel polished up first!

  16. Lady Glamis - !!!!! I am giddy with excitement for you - a request from Nathan soooooooo great!!!! Best of luck getting your WIP ready for him - I will be keeping my fingers crossed for you!

  17. If you can pull off all three -- great.
    I very rarely get hooked by the first sentence.
    First paragraph, yes, first page usually.
    I think I'm relatively good at beginnings -- and then I sag in the middle. :) That's my worst part, the middles. Ugh.
    Unlike many writers, I rarely rewrite the first page, but my first sentence doesn't usually shine or hook. Though I tend to be good at starting things off with a bang. It's the rest that gives me nightmares!

  18. Silke - Oh, yeah, I know what you mean about the sagging middles, I actually fretted myself to sleep just last night thinking about that!