Today YA author Joe Lunievicz is guest blogging here. I enjoyed reading his post; I hope you do, too! I think openings in books are just as important as Joe does. Take it away, Joe!
Call Me Ishmael
Don’t get me wrong – I love book covers. When I’m browsing in bookstores book covers are the first thing that either attracts me or pushes me away from a book. But after the cover it’s all about the opening line.
I know, as a writer, that I have to grab the reader right away. This has been brought home to me over and over again in writing classes and workshops, but it never really hit me until I read Scar Lover by Harry Crews. The first line is, Pete Butcher had not meant to speak to her. The next two paragraphs begin like this: He felt a little chill on the back of his neck, and with the chill came the thought that she wanted to tell him something. And, People were forever telling him something he did not want to hear. Something bad. And we’re off and running. I had to read this book because of the first line and what followed in the first three paragraphs. But the first line has to hook.
So I spend time on my first line.
I spend a lot of time on it and I think most writers do too. Andrew Smith, author of Ghost Medicine, In the Path of Falling Objects, and The Marbury Lens, has told me he rewrites his first lines over and over again until they are perfect.
So what should the first line do?
It needs to grab the reader, yes.
But it also needs to give a frame for all that will come. It’s a tall order, in just one line. In the case of the protagonist, Pete Butcher, in Scar Lover, the woman he meets and speaks to becomes the whole reason for the tale. It tells us about the trepidation of the protagonist, the hesitancy he has to meet new people because of the horrible things he has been told in the past, and the importance of chance in what is to come.
Look at Cheryl Rainfield’s opening line in her novel, Scars.
“Someone is following me.” I gulp air, trying to breathe.
Right from the start we are on a chase. The protagonist – Kendra – is afraid and we can tell immediately that she is also in danger. She’s talking to her therapist but the feeling of being not-believed, of being trapped begins with the gulping of air and continues in the next few sentences with, a voice that stings, hands that twist, words that are spit and lips that are dry. Everything follows from the opening line. In Cheryl’s case the tension level of the story is high from that opening line, continues with sensory details that speak to strong emotions, and promise a narrative that will not release us until the very last line of the book. Scars does just that. It grips, makes it hard to breathe, and makes us worry what will happen to a girl who is always looking over her shoulder to see who is following her.
In the case of my book, Open Wounds*, it took me four years to find the first line, even though revisions continued on other parts of the book for three more years. But when I found that line I knew that was the way I wanted readers to start the journey of Cid Wymann – the protagonist of my story.
“It begins with blood and ends with blood,” begins Cid’s tale. It’s 1936 and seven year old Cid Wymann has been looking at an advertisement in The New York Times for the movie, Captain Blood starring Errol Flynn – the Heath Ledger of his time. But Cid’s mother, we also find out within the first two paragraphs, died giving birth to Cid. The blood of his mother and the blood of Swashbucklers begins the tale, setting terrible hardship and adventure hand in hand. The question becomes whose blood are we talking about ending the book with? Is it Cid’s or another’s? Is it one person’s or many? Cid presents you with his own mystery, the mystery of his life and asks you to come along as he proceeds to lay it out for you.
When you’re writing your own novel, or short story, think about your first line, and spend time on it. It doesn’t have to be perfect at first. Wait until you have your ending so you know the whole take you’re going to tell, then go back and take another look at that first line. Does it still grab the reader? Does it frame what is to come right from the start?
Remember, if you have readers like me, you have only the cover, a first line, and maybe the first couple of paragraphs to grab me and keep me, before I move on to another book on the shelf. If you are looking for an agent or publisher, you don’t even have the cover. All you have are those words and the opening words have to be, well… perfect for the tale you are going to tell.
See if you can match the following opening lines of some of my favorite YA novels to the books that they come from.
1. The end of the world started when a Pegasus landed on the hood of my car.
2. The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World.
3. The temperature of the room dropped fast.
4. Sixteen is too young to lose your mother, people kept telling me.
5. “Somebody must have told them suckers I was coming.”
6. I’m under Momma’s coffin.
7. The women resemble schoolgirls with gangly limbs, ruddy cheeks, plaited flaxen hair; they walk holding hands.
8. Our brother fell apart in the war.
9. I was six.
10. He waited on the stoop until twilight, pretending to watch the sun melt into the dirty gray Harlem sky.
a. Ghost Medicine, Andrew Smith**
b. The Contender, Robert Lipsyte
c. The Amulet of Samarkand, Jonathan Stroud
d. Madapple, Christina Meldrum
e. In the Path of Falling Objects, Andrew Smith**
f. Crossing the Tracks, Barbara Stuber
g. Stitches, David Small (note this is a graphic novel)
h. Going Bovine, Libba Bray
i. The Last Olympian, Rick Riordan
j. Fallen Angels, Walter Dean Myers
* Open Wounds is the story of Cid Wymann, a scrappy kid fighting to survive a harsh upbringing in Queens, NY during the 1930’s and 1940’s. Almost a prisoner in his own home his only escape is sneaking to Times Square to see Errol Flynn movies full of swordplay and duels. He’s determined to become a great fencer, but after his family disintegrates, Cid spends five years at an orphanage until his injured war-veteran cousin “Lefty” arrives from England to claim him. Lefty teaches Cid about acting and stage combat, especially fencing and introduces Cid to Nikolai Varvarinski, a brilliant drunken Russian Fencing master who trains Cid. By 16, Cid learns to channel his aggression through the harsh discipline of the blade, eventually taking on enemies old and new as he perfects his skills. Evocative of The Book Thief with a dash of Gangs of New York, Open Wounds is the page-turning story of a lost boys’ quest to become a man.
**In Andrew Smith’s two books the opening lines are from the first chapters of each book. Both books also have prologues. Read them and tell me what impact each of them has on you.
Joe Lunievicz is the author of Open Wounds. In Open Wounds, Cid Wymann, a scrappy kid fighting to survive a harsh upbringing in Queens, NY, is a almost a prisoner in his own home. His only escape is sneaking to Times Square to see Errol Flynn movies full of swordplay and duels. He s determined to become a great fencer, but after his family disintegrates, Cid spends five years at an orphanage until his injured war-veteran cousin Lefty arrives from England to claim him. Lefty teaches Cid about acting and stage combat, especially fencing, and introduces him to Nikolai Varvarinski, a brilliant drunken Russian fencing master who trains Cid. By 16, Cid learns to channel his aggression through the harsh discipline of the blade, eventually taking on enemies old and new as he perfects his skills. Evocative of The Book Thief with a dash of Gangs of New York, Open Wounds is the page-turning story of a lost boy s quest to become a man.
You can visit Joe at lunievicz.com