Sunday, January 1, 2012

Hey, Baby... You Come Here Often?

How many of you lovely ladies reading this post have heard that lame line, or its functional equivalent, more times than you care to remember? I'm very sure you rolled your eyes and turned your back to the fool who uttered those words to you. I'm equally sure at least one of the thoughts you had about him was if that's the line he chose to attract your valuable time and attention, he wasn't worth your interest.

Opening lines are so important, don't you think?

That maxim applies just as much to your writing as it does to the slimy wannabe pick-up artists lurking at your local watering holes. So much so, in fact, that there's an annual fiction competition that hammers this point home without pretense of delicacy. Yearly since 1982, the English Department at San Jose State University in California holds the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest. Entrants compete "to compose the opening sentence for the worst of all possible novels." The contest's title "honors" British author Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel Paul Clifford is the one that actually begins with the infamous, "It was a dark and stormy night." The contest's 2011 winner is Sue Fondrie of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Her triumphant submission was, "Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories." 

Incidentally, at 28 words, Fondrie's entry was the shortest grand prize winner in the contest's glorious history. There's a reason why any journalism major is familiar with the rule that no sentence should be longer than 23 words. Shortly after World War II, the Associated Press determined that a sentence's readability declines after the 23rd word. If that rule is good enough for the AP and its millions of readers worldwide for the past 60+ years, it's good enough for you.

Authors are pick-up artists. We package our book in an attractive cover with our photo on it, along with some intriguing back-cover copy adorned by a few effusive blurbs. All this in an attempt to entice some stranger we've never met to trust us enough to leap from being a potential to an actual reader.

When that potential reader flips open your book to read the first sentence in your prologue or opening chapter, she's reading your pick-up line. Is it your best one? Is it sufficiently alluring to make her take your book home tonight?

My friend Austin Camacho is a very good and prolific author. Among other works, Camacho writes the hard-boiled  Hannibal Jones mystery series. I attended a talk Austin gave in Leesburg, Virginia, not long ago. That evening he stressed the incontestable importance of a story's opening line. He said that more than anything else, a story's first line must make a reader hungry to know more about something inside the narrative. It doesn't matter what the enticement is -- whether about a character, an event, a setting. That first line is a hook. It's an invitation that foreshadows joy or dread or adventure, if only the reader will keep reading.

An example's in order. I'm working on a short story for a national mystery magazine. It's a first-person narrative. Unless I change my mind, the opening is:

"She thinks I don't know. But I do."

 The objective of this succinct opening is to raise lots of questions, and tickle the reader's curiosity. Who is she? Who's the speaker? What does she know? How does the speaker know what she does? Why doesn't she think the speaker knows it? What's her relationship with the speaker?

Compare my opening to the hoary chestnut, "It was a dark and stormy night." The only question that comes to my mind on reading the latter is, So what? I'd have to keep reading, God knows how long, before something else Bulwer-Lytton writes might prove sufficiently provocative to seduce my curiosity. Assuming I keep reading at all, that is.

Your opening is your pick-up line. So work very hard on it. Keep it suitably brief, and make sure what it lacks in length it promises in intrigue, danger, mystery or romance.

An effective pick-up line both creates an itch, and promises the scratch. Will your first line make her roll her eyes? Or will your book be scratching her itch tonight?

 "Are you a parking ticket? Because you've got FINE written all over you." 
~~ Too Many Fools to Count ~~

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