The more I read first passages in books, the more I see this first part as “The Promise of the Book.” It’s really where the author needs to say, “Here’s is what you will get if you read the book,” rather than, “Here’s where the story starts.” I think the honesty of the opening is only realized after you’ve finished the book. But you need to want to read the book first to see if the author follows through on the promise.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I cannot seem to get the start of my novel right. And it’s pissing me off. Over the three-plus years I’ve been working on this book, the beginning has gone through three basic iterations with dozens of minor variations on each.
The first iteration was a scene I pictured clearly in my head when I first started the book. I loved that scene. I hung onto it until just a few months ago. People who have been kind enough to critique my book have had lots of good things to say about everything except for the beginning. So I tweaked it to hell. Nothing really worked, but I refused to believe that. Finally, once I started getting feedback from professional readers and editors, I realized it was all wrong. So I ditched it. Which was kind of liberating, but that’s another story.
The second iteration followed the prevailing dictum: Start the story at the beginning. So, I thought, that was the problem! I reworked the novel to start the story at the beginning and thought I had it nailed. Then I started querying agents. I received form rejections, which meant my writing wasn’t even good enough to warrant a comment. More than anything, that told me my novel lacked “voice,” that indefinable something that makes an agent, and any reader, want more. The novel has plenty of voice further on. I just couldn’t figure out how to work it into the start of the story.
There is a particular opening sentence format that I personally detest, and that I would like to never, ever see again. It goes like this: [PROFESSION] [CHARACTER NAME] [VERB] [PREPOSITIONAL PHRASE]. Here are three examples:
1. Fashion designer Cordelia Perkins walked toward the stage where her models were preparing.
2. Detective Hank Molloy crushed a cigarette under his boot as he peered into the dark alley.
3. Starship captain Marisol Ruiz frowned at the strange readings on her radiation scanner.”
My first reaction was, “Fuck you, Connor Goldsmith,” because my then-current latest greatest freshest first line was “John Laughlin rode his bike through the early morning fog, a stream of water whispering off his tires.” That is exactly where the fucking story begins. John is the main character; the story revolves around cycling (no pun); the fog is integral to the inciting incident. It’s a perfect fucking first sentence because it is exactly where the story begins.
After I calmed down, I thought more seriously about Mr. Goldsmith’s rant. I realize that he and probably every agent sees that identical opening sentence structure multiple times a day, every day, by every author who is trying to start the story at the beginning. I am certain the quotidian structure of my first sentence wasn’t the sole reason for my form rejections. But it was obvious I wasn’t doing myself any favors.
I decided to canvas the books here in our house. I spent hours reading first sentences, first paragraphs, first passages, trying to find a common thread, the thing these authors got right. What I realized is that openings to books I like have a quintessential element, in the sense of a fifth element that exists separate from the basic elements.
After reading all of those passages, it struck me that the real problem with the sentence structure cited above, despite being technically perfect, is that it lacks soul. Anyone can tell a story. It is a lot more work to tell one well. A hell of a lot more work. So, while my opening sentence starts the story, it does not start it well. It is functional, declarative, straightforward. But it doesn’t promise anything. It just states, “I’m going to tell you a story.” That’s not enough.
It strikes me further that this is one reason so many agents tell writers not to use a prologue. Agents state different reasons, but underlying all the reasoning, I think, is that a prologue is an easy way out of the hard work of actually crafting the start of the novel. A way out of putting in the work in to tell the story really well. It’s a shortcut.
So what I am doing these days is figuring out how to combine these two critical elements, voice and the start of the story, in less than a hundred or so words. I am trying to figure out how to tell my readers that this is what’s happening, what’s going to happen, and how it will happen, all without saying so directly, and in such a way that they feel they are being promised a gift they want and that they will feel they’ve received by the end of the book.