Monday, May 16, 2011

How fast do you fall in love with a book?

by C.L. Phillips

What do you get when you fall in love?  Burt Bacharach asked that question in one of his songs.  I confess I can hear Dionne Warwick singing as these words hit the screen.

How fast do you fall in love with a book?

I fall in love before I turn the first page.  I throw myself into the story, lose track of everything and everyone around me and escape into what I am reading.  And if the first page doesn't draw me in like that, I throw the book away, or delete the sample from my Kindle.  But when that first page works, when love strikes and I'm compelled to read the rest of the novel that fast, I'm rarely disappointed.

Now I want to deliver that same experience to my readers, and it's tougher than I thought.  The big question is "where do you begin the story?"  Every character has a life before the story opens.  How much of it do you need to know?

Last week I sat in a room with five other writers and we read the openings to about twenty books.  Some were best sellers, others simply personal favorites, and others our works in progress.  After five hours, I can tell you with great conviction that I may not know how to write a strong opening, but I can now identify one.  Like learning the field marks of the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, I know what makes me turn the page.

What did I learn?   The magic lies in the choice of each word.  Specific.  Sharp.  Memorable.  In strong openings each word serves triple duty, more than exposing the action, or introducing the emotion, each word sculpts the fine nuances that tie theme, premise, and promise together with tension.

A tall order for mere mortals.  But not for Burt Bacharach.  I've decided strong opening chapters are like a song.  Crisp and unforgettable, with an cadence that carries you into the story problems.  Rhythm, rhyme, melody and time.

Like Katniss from Hunger Games, or Jack Reacher from Lee Child's novels, I'm drawn to characters that drag me into the story problem quickly, with clear emotions, minimal distractions.  Characters with a strong moral compass.  It's not about likability for me, it's about situational strength.  I love characters that fit their environment.  No pussy footing around.  I want a mystery in the first sentence, a problem within the first paragraph, and a fast beating heart before I turn the first page.  Field marks.

What are your field marks to a great opening?


Joyce said...

In one of CJ Lyons' workshops this weekend, she said the writer must make an emotional connection to the reader. A writer could have the most beautiful prose in the world, but if it's distant and doesn't invoke some kind of emotional response from the reader on the first page, the writer will lose the reader. I think this is exactly what you're talking about.

C.L. Phillips said...


Right on. You can feel it when you read it.

Now, I'm back to those first three pages. :)


Susan said...

I think Joyce is right. I don't want to be bored. So a person can't take too long to make a connection with me.

but I oh-so agree about word choices and good writing.

Good writing will cause me to give an author as many as fifty pages to hook me in...LOL...but I might be an exception!

susan meier

C.L. Phillips said...


What makes a strong connection for you? Is it the situation? The emotions? Or something you can't quite lay your finger on?


Patg said...

I think we march to a different drummer as writers. We seem to demand (or think we demand) stories start with a bang.
All those expectations and demands for what happens on the first page is rarely shared with us by non-involved-with-publishing readers. I'm always asking readers about these expectations and the response is generally a blank stare.
Most in my book club will read the book even when they are hating every minute of it. I'm the only one claiming to slog to page 50 and quit, and I'm thinking of dropping that number.(The others simply will not read the book.)
OTOH, I have to say that thanks to my 50 page rule, I acquired two of my favorite authors.
And I started a very well established author's second seried last week, and immediately thought I'd be slogging to page 50 because she did sooooooooooooo much description of the landscape and no action for the first 20 pages, but found I can't put the book down though I'm skipping over those decriptions. And no chapter ends with any kind of a cliffhanger. Tons of useless info about all kinds of stuff. Why isn't this a tooser? I like the time period, there is a majorly good puzzle(definitely a mystery, not a thriller) and her style is smooth.

Jenna said...

I've gotten picky in my old age. Used to be if I started the book, I'd finish it. I don't anymore. If the first - or at most, the third - page doesn't grab me, I'm outta there.

Not sure how well I do in crafting that kind of opening myself. Sometimes I guess I succeed better than others.

A few months ago, the MCRW (romance writers) here in Nashville had a mini-conference with two agents. (Barbara Poelle, as it happened, and Holly Root.) Part of what they did was read first pages out loud and stop whenever they, as agents, would stop reading if the manuscript had arrived as a query. Very eye-opening. It was rare that they got to the bottom of the first page. Sometimes, they didn't even make it through the first paragraph. It reinforced, again, how important the opening is, to agents as well as readers.

C.L. Phillips said...

Patg - thanks for reminding me that those of us looking behind the curtain are *not*our*readers. Like the old adage, don't tell me how the watch works, tell me the time.

And that brings me to Jenna's comment - give me the time when I ask - and agents are on the clock from the first word, aren't they.

Thanks for stopping by and giving me more to consider. I appreciate all y'all.

Ramona said...

Voice. You can get away with almost anything if you have a terrific voice.

C.L. Phillips said...


Ah, voice. Sounds like a great topic for my next blog post.

How do you recognize it? How do you get it? :)

Take care,