Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Openings-- first blood, I mean, first volunteer!

Alicia says--

Let's start with our fearless first volunteer, Ian.

The airport was a pandemonium of police, journalists, and strange, beautiful people in colorful costumes. Katie Malone watched them in fascination from the comparative coolness of the concourse. The temperature was threatening to break the hundred-degree mark for the third day in a row, and the air conditioning strained to keep up. She watched the jet from Deep Six taxi across the tarmac, circled by a woman sporting feathered wings.

Ian, maybe you can tell us what you were going for here. I'll just give my impressions, but tell us what effect you want this to have.

Notice that the POV character is named right away, second sentence. I like that. I'm simple-- I like to know who I am from the get-go. Keep in mind that editors have been reading voraciously all their lives. That is, confusion here-- you have to think of what two different readers are going to feel reading your opening-- your actual target reader, say the woman in the airport who reads 15 novels a year and loves Robert Ludlum, say, and then the editor who reads 130 books a year in many genres/categories, edits 50 books a year, and reads thousands of submissions. Okay, let's keep in mind, you get to number 1 (target reader) only through number 2 (editor). Now the editor should be reading as a stand-in for the target audience (her employer's customers); however, the editor is more likely to be a constant reader than anyone else you might meet. (That is, do NOT ask Theresa and me how many books we're reading today... it's scary, how much we read.) So never forget that your editor is a reader too, but one who is perhaps a bit more ... jaded, but also more open to innovation, than you think your target reader is. (I personally believe that all of our target readers are more open than we give them credit for.)

So... Seriously, do 747 pilots have to make as many calculations as writers do???

So yes, you can grab an editor with the perfect opening for this type of book, for this target reader, but editors have been (cough) known to buy books that grab THEM personally. Just keep that in mind if you love your opening and think it's cutting-edge and innovative-- you could be appealing to an editor who has been waiting for something different.

Or, then again, you could be dealing with me, who is a pretty conventional sort, and really wants to identify with the POV character. And I want to know my name, darn it!!!! So tell me already, and then we can move on!

So I must say, I like it when we start in a POV, and that character's name is identified right away. Thanks, Ian, and hello, I'm Katie Malone. :)

But notice the first sentence is setting-- we know we're in an airport:

The airport was a pandemonium of police, journalists, and strange, beautiful people in colorful costumes.

This is one of those genre things. I'm a romance editor, so I'd be asking for something inside, more of a feeling, or a setting sentence that tells something about how the POV character is feeling, like "The airport was designed to make her feel alone-- all those kissing couples and goodbying families." That is, in romance, I would be asking for some emotion in the first line, just to set up that more emotional feel.

But in a thriller, I'd want more excitement, more sense that this is a setting where something thrilling is about to happen. See how this moves beyond the generic in that third item of the list-- police and journalists, no big deal (could be the championship college basketball team is coming home), but strange, beautiful people in colorful costumes? Immediate re-jiggering. Maybe it's Mardi Gras and this is Rio... or maybe this is Gay Pride week in San Francisco. See, you don't have to give all the answers in the first few lines... the trick is getting the reader to ask the right questions.

The temperature was threatening to break the hundred-degree mark for the third day in a row, and the air conditioning strained to keep up.

Now this I'd probably have as the start of the second paragraph. Why? Well, remember what Theresa said about paragraph unity. Inside the airport, the journalists, the strange people, Katie... that's unified. And the 100 degree temp is OUTSIDE. (The airconditioning is inside; all the more reason for this sentence to be in a second paragraph, which is usually a transitional paragraph, so can unite inside and outside.)

Notice also that it breaks up the "inside-Katie" sentences-- more reason for it to go elsewhere.

Back to Katie:
She watched the jet from Deep Six taxi across the tarmac, circled by a woman sporting feathered wings.

Okay, something to observe here. Notice that the "hook," the unusual aspect (woman with wings) is withheld to the end of the first paragraph. That is, you don't need to put the hook in the first line! Trust us... we'll read the whole first paragraph. :) (You all are going to think we're really lazy, if we're reassuring you about that. )

Now my only thought here is that, well, two thoughts.... 1) I like ending the first paragraph on a slight puzzle, especially attached to a more understandable situation (woman waiting at airport). and 2) Read that aloud. What's circled? The tarmac (last noun), the jet? Or Katie? Really, that past participle could modify any of the three noun/pronouns in the sentence. I first read it that the tarmac was circled (because participles usually modify the closest noun), but then it made more sense that it was the jet. But then I envisioned the feathered woman swooping UNDER the jet (circled?) and that sounded dangerous, so I wondered if maybe Katie was being circled---

You don't want me coming up with this many scenarious, just because you didn't put the modifier in precisely the right place. You want me effortlessly moving on to paragraph 2 with just the right picture-- your picture-- in mind.

So... picky, picky. I know. What the hey. It's a good opening-- I had to strain to find something I could pick at. :)

Now stop and think about what the reader will be asking and thinking and waiting for at this juncture?

I am thinking, "So how is Katie FEELING!!!" because I read mostly for character. (Really, it's embarrassing-- I was joint-reading a Dorothy Dunnett novel with a group, and they all knew not only who poisoned the hero, but also how it happened, and I pretty much missed all that, but I totally knew how the hero FELT about being betrayed by his loyal employee. :)

Another reader might be thinking, "What's with the feathered woman?"

And a third might wonder, "Deep Six? Cool! A special ops team, right?"

Those are all good reader questions, and a sign that the intro (mostly) worked.

I will say, it felt like what I'd call an adventure thriller, but one with a woman protagonist (maybe; I'm willing to withhold judgment to find out). The adventure is in the technological setting (airport) mixed with exotica (strange people), but with a tinge of the occult, that is, the plane circled by the angel.

Now I know I'd be annoyed if this turns out to be a small town drama about a marching band competition. :)

So make sure your opening sends the right message. This is a very good opportunity to bring in the virgin reader, the friend or relative who knows nothing about your book (but isn't really a virgin-- reads other novels). Have this reader read the first page, but don't hand over anything more. Ask, what do you feel? What do you think is happening? What do you expect to happen, given that opening? What sort of book does this remind you of?

Then listen and stay open. Every writer can learn from every reader, and once you decide you know it all (because you're already published, or because you were on some bestseller list, or because your current editor loves you, or whatever excuse you come up with for not bothering to keep learning), you have stopped growing, and after that is only... death. :) Readers know all. Listen to them. It's cheaper than printing out a manuscript and mailing it to an editor and getting back a form letter that says, "Sorry, not for us."

Thanks, Ian, for volunteering your opening! I'd keep reading. (I did, actually, when I read it on the Amazon page! Here it is:



Edittorrent said...

Damn, you're good! I love the way you parse prose.

who read fewer than 200 pages today -- a light day

Edittorrent said...

Thanks, Theresa! I get dinner next time (and it will be in March, when I come up there to see the 'rents, and you better make sure the weather is better!!!).


Ian said...


Wow. All that from four sentences. I'm astounded. Honestly, this is a whole dissertation. If I thought too much about all this, I'd be too paralyzed to write at all! Hopefully the important parts will just sink in and I'll figure out the rest through repeated edits...

Thanks for your feedback!


Edittorrent said...

Ian, check the link. I TRIED to link to the Amazon page. I am not really good at this, so check it out.

Yes, I agree-- thinking about this as you write is paralyzing. I was just imagining trying to factor everything in... but maybe this is more revision than writing. And your opening was just great-- don't second guess yourself too much, when you're already doing great! But one thing that really helps is to look for things that don't fit in the opening paragraph, that mess up the unity. Easy to move a sentence to elsewhere.

But really, don't get too self-conscious. I wouldn't have had any problem with the opening (and didn't, when I first read it) except I was looking for things to comment on. Got to earn my keep, you know! :)


Anonymous said...

The link works for me, so I think it's fine. :-)

PatriciaW said...

I'm amazed you got all that from four sentences too.

Best part? "I'd keep reading."

Anonymous said...

Ian, you inspired me with your sheer productivity. Now with your sheer grit. You did get some great feedback. To the edittorent - are you looking for anymore volunteers regarding openings?