Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Grab Me By The First Line

"Twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie, twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie…" The words were on repeat in Morgan Drake's head, a litany, over and over, in case he forgot. His FBI shadow had drummed the words into him until he could repeat them in his sleep. 
"Just in case, Morgan, okay? If there's any problem, you take these keys and the car I showed you in the next door basement parking, and you take Highway Twenty West onto the 166, head for Altamont, Western Street, find a bookshop called Black Cat Books. Someone will locate you there, and he'll have a password, okay? Lemon Pie. He's a guy I trust with my life, and his name is Nik. I'm writing his cell number on this paper. You need to memorize it in case I can't contact him. Can you repeat… twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie. After me…" (Guarding Morgan by RJ Scott)

How long do you give a book to grab your attention? One chapter? First Page. First paragraph? First line? 

Once upon a time - see there, you know I'm a reader - I used to have a long attention span. I'd take my latest fantasy novel, all six hundred pages, retire to my bedroom, and not come out until I'd reached The End. That was a long time ago.

Since the advent of my kids, social media and the fact I read on my phone, I have the attention span of...  Squirrel! Yep, like Dug the dog in Up, shiny distracts me every time. I love books, I love reading, but the days of reading three chapters of info-dump before I get to the meat of the story are long gone.

Today's world is faster, more immediate. Long-form articles have been replaced with sound-bites and tweets. Fiction has evolved too. You don't have much time to capture people's attention before they wander off to see the latest drama on Twitter and God know there's a lot of that these days. As a writer you may want to set the scene, world-build, and ease people in to your universe. You will have lost me somewhere around the end of the first page. Get me hooked and I'll happily stay with you until the last word.

I posted the first couple of paragraphs of Guarding Morgan because I remember this first line like it was burned in my brain. I heard RJ Scott read it out at a UK Meet several years ago and I've never forgotten it.

"Twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie, twenty, one sixty-six, Altamont, western, black cat, lemon pie…"

I was hooked immediately. I didn't need to know more to want to buy the book. In fact, I probably remember this beginning better than a lot of my own books.

Not all books start with action. I asked on Facebook for best beginnings and got a multitude of genres from romance and classics to children's books and American literature, although this is possibly my favourite.

"Later, as he sat on the balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months." High Rise / JG Ballard
 Take time to think about your opening lines. You may find it halfway through the book. It may be a scene you never expected. My finished book rarely has the start I intended. Just make your beginning worthwhile.

You've come up with your killer opening. You've hooked your prey, now you have to keep them biting. Don't whatever you do, forget that you're competing with a multitude of distractions in your reader's lives. It doesn't have to be high octane drama, but enough to keep them turning the page or swiping the screen. Let's keep that for another post. 

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