In For Writers, Plotting

According to Les Edgerton, author of Hooked, the single biggest reason manuscripts get rejected is because the writer begins the story in the wrong place. At most, a writer has only the first few pages to grab the agent’s or editor’s attention. Often times, even less. Sure, it sounds unfair. Why don’t they just spend a little more time on each manuscript? Why don’t they wait for the good stuff?  

Edgerton, who once worked as an editor, says, “The first thing I realized was that there was no way on earth I was ever going to get through that pile of manuscripts heaped before me if I read every page of every blessed one of ’em.”  

So he did what every agent and editor does, he looked for red flags: improper formatting, misspellings, punctuation mistakes, grammar and syntax mistakes, inconsistent point of view, a manuscript that has obviously been to several places because of its physical condition, and, most importantly, bad beginnings. “If I came upon a story that had a great beginning – and they’re relatively rare – I knew from just a little bit of experience that the odds of discovering a good, quality story had just increased exponentially.”  

So how do we create a great beginning? In Hooked, Edgerton talks about the ten components of an opening scence, but it’s #6 – a stellar opening sentence – that’s one of the most important. He says, “More effort should be expended on your story’s first sentence than on any other line in the entire story.”  

When you think about it, the opening sentence needs to accomplish a lot. It must make a strong first impression, draw readers in and make it impossible for them put the book down. 

In order to get a feel for some winning beginnings, let’s take a look at the opening lines from five books that are currently ranked in the top 10 on the New York Times Bestselling Hardcover Fiction list: 

(rankings as published on 7/2/10): 

#8: Whiplash by Catherine Coulter:

Erin used her third-generation lock picks.  

(This is a short sentence but it works hard to create a strong hook. Things that hooked me: normally you’d expect a man to have lock picks, not a woman, so I’m immediately intrigued by the scene that is unfolding; her “third-generation” lock picks hint that there might be some shady family history we’re going to learn about; and finally, I’m curious what she is using her lock picks for.) 

#7: The Passage by Justin Cronin:

Before she became the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years – she was just a little girl in Iowa, named Amy. 

(Who is this Amy person? How/why did she become “the Girl from Nowhere – the One Who Walked In,the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years”? Something life-changing has happened to this person and I’m interested in finding out what it is.) 

#5: The Lion by Nelson DeMille: 

I’m sitting in a Chevy SUV on Third Avenue, waiting for my target, a guy named Komeni Weenie or something, an Iranian gent who is Third Deputy something or other with the Iranian Mission to the United Nations.  

(I immediately like this protagonist. He appears to be an agent of some sort but he goes against the grain with his sense of humor and loose handle on the facts. The fact that he’s waiting for his target gives me the sense that we’re going to be propelled into action soon, which makes me want to read on.) 

#3: The Overton Window by Glenn Beck: 

Most people think about age and experience in terms of years, but it’s really only moments that define us.  

(I’m intrigued…what moments is he talking about?) 

#2: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson: 

Dr. Jonasson was woken by a nurse five minutes before the helicopter was expected to land.  

(Why are they flying in a helicopter? Where are they going? What are they going to do once they get there? I get the sense that we are about to witness some action and I want to read on to find out what it is.) 

There’s no doubt that these five books have opening sentences that hook the reader right away. Does your opening line accomplish this?

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  • Les Edgerton
    Reply

    Just wanted to thank you for the review and illuminating application of the principles in my book, Hooked. I might add a bit here–some (including me) have often said that it may not be fair to a writer to have their worked judged on the first few pages–but, it is fair. Why? Because every single page of a novel needs to be interesting or the agent/editor will choose another novel in which every page IS interesting. And, they’re out there. That’s just part of the competition. So, why not make every single page interesting? The reason many manuscripts don’t follow that is that a lot of writers don’t rewrite. They send in first drafts. If a writer would only rewrite with Harry Crews’ advice–he says he “leaves out the parts readers skip,” then every page would be interesting or at least more likely to be. But, it requires rewriting and lots of rewriting to get a mss to that point. I don’t know of any applicable statistics, but suspect that novel manuscripts that are rewritten at least five times have an enormous advantage over first or even second drafts.

    But, I mostly wanted to thank you, Erika! I’m delighted that you found my little blue book helpful.

    • Erika Liodice
      Reply

      Thanks for chiming in, Les! As a newbie writer myself, I can attest to how tempting it is to submit an unrevised first draft. I made that mistake with my first manuscript and am determined to do things right this time around. Hooked found me at the exact moment I needed it and it’s been a Godsend as I work through my revisions. Thank YOU for writing it!

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