Wednesday, May 15, 2013

That Tricky First Paragraph

A young unpublished writer wrote me an email yesterday asking if the following were true:
 "I heard that both editors and agents judge a manuscript based off the first few paragraphs and determine whether or not it would be a good use of their time. Is this true?”

Well … yes and no.

According to Lisa Cron’s must-read book “Wired for Story” she believes these three elements must appear on page one:
  1. Something needs to be happening.
  2. Who is it happening to? Whose skin are we going to be in?
  3. Something needs to be at stake—something we can see that’s hanging in the balance.
In other words ... All is not what it seems!

Lisa believes we should include all of this on the first page—better still ... in the first sentence.

How about these:
Elizabeth George What Came Before He Shot Her
“Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent towards murder with a bus ride.” 
Louise Penny: The Cruelest Month
“Kneeling in the fragrant grass of the village green Clara Morrow carefully hid the Easter egg and thought about raising the dead, which she planned to do right after supper.”

Both brilliant!

I’m tortured over my first paragraph in my latest book. I must have rewritten it at least fifty times. My editor is currently reading the latest draft of my manuscript but I can’t stop fiddling with it. It doesn’t sing. 

With my first series – The Vicky Hill Mysteries—I remember spending a whole week noodling with that first paragraph. In the end … this is what I settled on: “The brown envelope addressed to Annabel Lake sat on her empty chair. Of course, it was marked confidential, but given that Annabel was home, suffering from a severe case of food poisoning, I thought it prudent to open it. After all, it could be urgent and what was in a name anyway? Weren’t we journalists all seeking truth and justice?”

Here are a couple more to muse over. 

Sue Grafton: A Is for Alibi
“My name is Kinsey Millhone. I’m a private investigator, licensed by the state of California. I’m thirty-two years old, twice divorced, no kids. The day before yesterday I killed someone and the fact weighs heavily on my mind. I’m a nice person and I have a lot of friends. My apartment is small but I like living in a cramped space. I’ve lived in trailers most of my life, but lately they’ve been getting too elaborate for my taste, so now I live in one room, a “bachelorette.” I don’t have pets. I don’t have houseplants …”

Joanna Hines: The Murder Bird
“Five weeks before Kirsten Waller’s body was found in a cliff top cottage in Cornwall, Grace Hobden cleared away the lunch, checked to make sure her three children were playing on the climbing frame at the bottom of the garden, then went indoors to murder her husband.”

I have a many more in my collection but alas, those books are still packed in boxes from our move (yes, I know it was months ago).

Anyone care to share their favorites?


Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Wonderful examples of knock-out first paragraphs.

And now I want my manuscript back again so that I can tinker some more on my first paragraph -- after agonizing for months about how to begin. . .

Charlotte Hinger said...

Hannah, I loved this post. I'm a fan of both Elizabeth George and Louise Penny.

Picks By Pat said...

Interesting post. One of my favorites, from The Unquiet Night by Patricia Carlon.

"He hadn't meant her to die. It was a cruel trick of fate that she had; that in spite of all his efforts her head, with its stiffly lacquered dark hair, lolled helplessly when he tried to move her, and that the half open dark eyes gazed, slyly-bright, into nothingness.