Saturday, September 5, 2009

Welcome Tracy Wolff

Begin with a Bang: Hook Your Readers and Have Them Coming Back for More

In the first writing class I ever took in college, my professor had us do an experiment—we were supposed to gather some of our favorite poems of all times and then try to ruin the first lines. When he introduced the assignment, my professor explained that the first line set up the reading experience—and as such was of vital importance to the piece. In imagining some of our favorite poems—famous, infamous or obscure—with new first lines, would we change the entire scope of the poem?

I don’t remember the poem that I chose to do, but I do remember clearly, one of my classmates ruining one of my favorite poems of all time by adding two words to the first line. Instead of “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” which is the opening to Allen Ginsberg’s infamous poem, “Howl,” he wrote “I thought I saw the best minds of my generation . . . “ The insipidness of the new first line did, indeed, ruin the poem—and with it, Ginsberg’s brilliant take on intellectual life in the sixties.

This lesson, though much fun, has stayed with me for nearly fifteen years. It is a lesson I now give to my own writing students, one that never ceases to surprise them as well.

Now, I have to confess, I’m fascinated by beginnings. Beginnings of books, beginnings of movies, songs, poems—it doesn’t really matter. I simply love to look at the first line, or first few lines, of a creative work and wonder why it starts where it starts. Why did the author choose this particular spot to start the tale? Why did she or he use these exact words?

I admit for a number of years, beginnings were a weak point for me. I have the singular—and awful—talent of being able to determine the most interesting spot in a book . . . and then start the story ten pages before that. Nice, right? My agent, editors and CP call me on it regularly. Or at least they used to. Until one day I got it through my thick head, with the help of one of my favorite writing books, that for most readers, the beginning is everything.

In Stein on Writing, the author, Sol Stein, writes:
“Some years ago I was involved in an informal study of the behavior of lunch-hour browsers in mid-Manhattan bookstores. In the fiction section, the most common pattern was for the browser to read the front flap of the book’s jacket and then go to page one. No browser went beyond page three before either taking the book to the cashier or putting the book down and picking up another to sample.”

Three pages are all we get to hook the average reader—to get her interested in our characters, our plot or both. If we haven’t done it by then, chances are we’ve lost her and it doesn’t matter if the most brilliant writing of our careers comes on page five or seven or two hundred and four. She’ll never see it.
When writing fiction, we have to hook the reader at the very beginning, which means we must start off in such a way that the reader HAS to know what happens next.
With this is mind, and because I always struggle with the beginnings of my own books, I thought I would look at some ways in which to snag the reader’s attention . . . and keep it.

Tip #1: Tickle the reader’s funny bone, or sense of the absurd.
“It wasn’t every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road, not even in Dean Robillard’s larger-than-life world. `Son of a …’ Dean slammed on the brakes of his brand-new Aston Martin Vanquish and pulled over in front of her. The beaver marched right past, her big flat tail bouncing in the gravel, and her small, sharp nose stuck up in the air. Way up. The beaver looked highly pissed.”
–From Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Natural Born Charmer

Tip #2: Thrust your character into an emotionally destructive situation from the first paragraph.
“It was hot as only New Orleans could be. Hotter than a cat on a tin roof. Hotter than the Cajun cooking her mother used to make. Hotter than hell. And she was burning up, fury and sorrow eating her from the inside out.
More than ready for the day from hell to be over, Genevieve Delacroix slammed out of the precinct on the fly, then cursed as she plowed straight into the sticky heat the city was known for. It rose up to meet her like a wall—thick and heavy and all-consuming.
Pausing to catch her breath, she stared blindly at the planters full of cheerful posies that line the front of the precinct. Her partner, Shawn, had picked a hell of a time to take a vacation—in the middle of the busiest week homicide had seen I years. After working four homicide scenes in as many days, it was a miracle she could still put one foot in front of the other.
Today, she’d awakened to a ringing phone, news of a brutal sex-related homicide the first thing she’d heard as she surfaced from a sleep so deep it was almost like death itself. Yesterday, it had been a murder-suicide. Two days before that, a domestic dispute turned deadly.
This week, the Big Easy was anything but.”
-- Tracy Wolff’s Tie Me Down

Tip #3: Get her curious—make sure your reader wants to turn the page more than she wants the Pumpkin Latte beckoning her from the cafĂ© on the other side of the store.
“In the course of her long and illustrious career, Bryony Asquith was the subject of numerous newspaper and magazine articles, almost all of which described her appearance as distinguished and unique, and unfailingly commented upon the dramatic streak of white in her midnight dark hair.
The more inquisitive reporters often demanded to know how the white streak came about. She always smiled and briefly recounted a period of criminal overwork in her twenties. `It was the result of not sleeping for days on men. My poor maid, she was quite shocked.’
Bryony Asquith had indeed been in her late twenties when it happened. She had indeed been working too much. And her maid had indeed been quite shocked. But as with any substantial lie, there was an important omission: in this case, a man.”
-- Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband

Tip #4: Touch the heartstrings—play on the reader’s innate sense of empathy, so that she truly feels for your character.
“The late morning blazed with blue skies and the colors of fall, but none of it was for me. Sunlight and beauty were for other people now, my life stark and without song. I stared out the window at a neighbor raking leaves and felt helpless, broken and gone.”
- From Patricia Cornwell’s Black Notice

Tip #5: Get the fear factor rising—make your reader so afraid or horrified by what’s on the page that knowing is better than not knowing.
“She woke in the body of a dead friend. She was eight, tall for her age, fragile of bone, delicate of feature.”
–From Nora Roberts’s Carolina Moon

There are a lot of different ways to begin a work of fiction—the ones listed above are but a few. However, for me—as a reader and a writer—they are very often the ones that capture my attention. But don’t take my word for it.

Pull out a few of your own favorite books and see what about the first three pages first captivated you … and then share what kind of beginnings you like here to win a copy of my June Superromance, From Friend to Father.

Also, stop by my blog this weekend: to read about/enter my fabulous four-day Tie Me Down contest, in honor of my brand new book, Tie Me Down. It closes on Monday and the grand prize is a $100 gift card to the online bookstore of the winner’s choice.


Karyn Good said...

Hi Tracy and welcome to the prairies on this Labour Day long weekend.

Well, you've got my attention with a title like Tie Me Down and you certainly hooked me the beginning sentences you posted. :)

You've listed some great tips for hooking the reader. I'm going to have to revisit my opening lines for wip. I like to think it falls under tip 3, Get her curious. My other wip falls under tip 2. Hopefully. I think?

Thanks for visiting us here today. Look forward to reading your book.

Janet said...

Hey, Tracy! Great to have you visiting us here on The Prairies and a wonderful post, too.

I know that I've pondered, changed, sent off to beta readers, pondered some more - then revised, again. Your tips will help to narrow down the focus and perhaps come up with that perfect first line.

But then there's the second, and the third...

You write a lot of different sub genre under the romance title - off topic question: Do you find that it hinders or helps with getting your name out there? We've talked lots here on The Prairies about branding and I'd love your take on it. Thanks.

Molli said...

Thanks for the tips, Tracy. I appreciate both the exercise from your class and the examples you've included to illustrate each approach--that always helps me in grasping a concept.

I struggle with choosing the right spot to plunge in, so to speak, and find that I have to write it out as I see it happening in my mind, and go back later to see if I should change the lead in. Even so, I find it most useful to get feedback from other writers as well as I'm not always objective enough.

Thanks for joining us today and sharing your wisdom.

Helena said...

This is a very timely post, Tracy, and thanks for bringing your thoughts to the Prairie.

While I soldier on with the rest of my first draft, I know that my current beginning is not where my novel should start. I'm itching to work on that, but first I will finish writing the story before I begin to revise. I promise!

But I also know that your very helpful categories and tips on the importance of good openings will be useful when I get on to that next stage.

Here is an opening (from a SuperRomance that I have just started) that drew me in, partly from the emotional content and out of curiosity:

"Hank Shelter, if you're there, pick up."
Hank ignored his sister's order and strode from the desk to the window, putting distance between him and the telephone.
"Leila," he muttered to his empty office, "I don't feel like tangling with you today. The answering machine can deal with you."
He leaned against the wall beside the open window, his arms crossed, staring across his fields to the distant hills. June in Montana. Was there anything on this earth more beautiful than his ranch?
Correction. Not his ranch. Leila's. Another of Dad's crazy decisions, to leave the ranch to her. It should have been Hank's. He pounded his fist on the windowsill.

From - Mary Sullivan, No Ordinary Cowboy

Interesting that she starts with the hero, but before the end of the first page, Leila has left Hank the message that her friend, Amy, who is an accountant, is coming to the ranch "to go over the books."

Aha! I'm hooked. I like to know who the characters are right off the bat, and what conflict is going to arise. At least on some initial level. Poor Amy, working for her friend, and no doubt falling in love with the cranky brother.

Thanks again for being our guest on Prairie Chicks (and I'd love to win a copy of From Friend to Father).

Jana Richards said...

Hi Tracy,
Welcome to the Prairies.

Great post. I try to start my stories in the middle of the action but I'm not sure I always succeed.

Thanks for the excellent ideas on opening hooks.


Tracy Deebs said...

Thanks for the warm welcome, ladies. It's been fun blogging here. There are so many ways to start a novel that it's hard to figure out which one is best for yours-- I do notice that most authors find two or three that they really like and stick with them, you know? For example, Nora Roberts starts all her books in a similar fashion, as do Christine Feehan, Nalini Singh and Kristin Higgens-- just to name a few off the top of my head. But hey, I figure if you find one or two ways that you are really comfortable with that work with your genre I say stick with them!

Janet, to be honest I'm still so new that I can't answer your question yet. My first book was published last November, so I haven't even been published a year yet. Because my genres are so different, I just don't know how much crossover I get between family oriented Superromances and dark and edgy erotic suspense. I'm hoping there is some-- after all, I read bot-- but I think I'll need a few years to really find that out. Also, I'm about to add in a second pseudonym-- Tessa Adams-- who will write dark and sexy paranormals for NAL. I actually wanted to stay with Tracy Wolff, but my editor made the decision to use a second name. She was concerned with saturating the market with the same name-- next year I have a book out in seven out of twelve months and she thought that-- combined with the change in focus between my suspenses and the paranormals-- was asking too much from readers.

Sorry I couldn't be of more help. I'll let you know once I have a few royalty statements under my belt.

Janet said...

Thanks, Tracy - very informative answer. And I'll look for your books under your psuedonym.

And thanks to those that commented. It was a beautiful day here and I'm sure elsewhere. Everyone will have been out enjoying the last kick at summer. But when they return and are looking for information on first lines, Tracy's post will be accessible.

Anonymous said...

Wow, very informative post. This really had me thinking how to apply it to my writing. Thanks for getting the writing muse kicked into gear. Your book sound exciting too. I really felt like I was THERE!!!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Tracy, I'm a day late, but I'd like to add my welcome to the others.

Before I started writing I didn't know why I liked some books right away and others took longer to get into. Now I know. It's all in the hook. And although I don't use the first page hook to judge a book, I sure like it better when it's there.

Good examples.

The Brunette Librarian said...

:) I know I'm late but I still wanted to weigh in on this post. :) Lovely post!! I really like books that start off funny or with an absurd situation. I think it sets the right tone for the book.

One of my favorite beginnings is Susan Elizabeth Phllips' book, "Natural Born Charmer" The beginning starts with the heronie walking down the road in a beaver suit. :) Still makes me giggle!

Congratulations on your new book, it looks divine!!

Unknown said...

Hi Tracy,
What an interesting post.
One of my favorite opening line is from SEP's This Heart Of Mine :
"The day Kevin Tucker nearly killed her, Molly Sommerville swore off unrequited love forever."... that's it, I was hooked !
Congrats !!