I’ll be speaking at the Houston Writers Guild Annual Conference this weekend – Saturday, April 30th. I’m giving a break-out session on Killer Openings: Nailing Your First Five Pages. While creating this lecture, I was reminded of how terribly hard it was to craft an opening line, paragraph, and scene for my middle grade book, Doom & Gloom.
Brief background on Doom & Gloom: it’s a superhero action adventure novel about a kid with xeroderma pigmentosum (XP), a life-threatening sun allergy. Because of the XP, Dane Winter must shun the light as he valiantly tries to save his family’s town.
Throughout the years, I rewrote these crucial opening pages easily a dozen times.So I decided to go back into the archives (i.e., my hard drive) and pull up old versions so I could talk about them during my presentation. Yikes. Here are just a few of the opening lines of Doom & Gloom, presented chronologically, along with my comments in red.
Oct. 2008: “Tell me that wasn’t a cat,” Dane said. “It didn’t feel like a cat under the wheels. Holy crap, this is cool.” Too heartless. FYI…it wasn’t a cat. Just a distraction.
December 2008: “In two minutes, I can get a second degree burn from sunlight,” Dane said. Better…actually, not bad.
November 2009: “Holy crap! Are you trying to kill me?” Dane shouted. Too fast and furious. The reader can’t figure out what’s going on.
August 2010: Iris’s cry for help excited Dane. Um, what? No.
December 2010: Dane Winter hiked his laser gun over his shoulder and sprinted through the gloomy arena toward Iris. An okay line, but it doesn’t sizzle.
April 2012: Dane Winter hiked his laser gun high on his shoulder and sprinted through the gloomy arena toward the last place he’d seen Iris. Clearly over written.
June 2012: Dane Winter had mastered the dark like no other twelve-year-old. Getting there, but a little stilted for the middle grade market.
April 2013: Dane Winter had never been afraid of the dark. The winner! This is a brief, punchy statement that hints at character, establishes voice, speaks of theme, and provokes curiosity. It’s also is perfect for middle grade because these kids still remember what it’s like to be afraid of the dark (some probably still are).
And these, good people, are the lines that made it into a saved version. This doesn’t reflect the countless other versions that I wrote and immediately erased. As you read through them, it’s easy to dismiss the “not quite right” sentences. But at the time, I thought they were brilliant.
Bottom line: an opening line should briefly telegraph of the entire novel. No small task, indeed. Some opening lines accomplish this, some don’t. But the best ones do.
Don’t believe me? Read the opening line of one of the world’s most famous books:
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
From this one simple statement, authorial command is established, the main character is mentioned, and a unique set-up prefacing the entire book is supplied. Pretty cool, huh?
As you’re reading today, go back and discover a few of your favorite opening lines. And if you’re in the Houston area, sign up for the conference to hear me (or others) speak in person. It promises to be a great time!
Here’s the schedule: