Famous first lines and apple tarts

Helga’s Post #6 — One week after our return from the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Information overload on books and writing. How to write the perfect book, how to avoid pitfalls, how to pitch your manuscript to agents, etc. etc. Three days filled with dozens of workshops on those and many more topics, keynote speakers, and sharing stories and laughs among ourselves. Among 700 or so people connected by the passion for the craft of writing. 700 women and men who keep on writing bravely even in the face of formidable odds against seeing our work published; to continue writing endless hours without getting paid, simply because we want to tell a story.

I would like to share some of what I’ve learned at one of the conference sessions.  It is about the perfect formula on starting a novel. Literary agents and editors are deluged with unsolicited manuscripts and submissions, hundreds a week or more, way beyond their capacity to read them all. So they have developed a method to quickly scan and evaluate which ones are worthy of their time. Sadly, most end up in the trash can. So how do I make sure these good folks are sufficiently motivated to read my work?

If you think it’s by writing a perfect first page, or paragraph, you are wrong. Nothing of the sort.

The reality is that my work may be read if I have written the perfect first line or sentence. In case I can pull it off: not only will my manuscript snare the agent’s attention and get the reading it deserves (in my opinion), but it will also entice future readers to get hooked on my story and buy the book. So let’s look at some famous first sentences and judge for yourself if you would be motivated to read on:

“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” (From ‘Paradise’ by Toni Morrison)

“Ignatius Martin Perrish spent the night drunk doing terrible things.” (From ‘Horns’ by Joe Hill, Stephen King’s son)

“Three men at the McAlester Penitentiary had larger penises than Lamar Pye, but all were black and therefore, by Lamar’s figuring, hardly human at all.” (From ‘Dirty White Boys’ by Stephen Hunter)

These are examples that tell the reader up front that they can expect a fast-paced action thriller. It’s both a promise and a warning for those who are not up to it. For somewhat slower-paced stories, here are a couple of others that are supposedly snagging readers’ attention:

“Once upon a time – for this is how all stories should begin – there was a boy who lost his mother.” (From ‘The Book of Lost Things’ by John Connolly).

“I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.” (From ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott)

“The circus arrives without warning.” (From ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern)

What they all have in common is that they intrigue readers. Who can resist a good tease or hint? These first lines are hooks that will keep them turning the pages.

And then the instructor said something that heartened me immensely: chances are, he said, the beginning of your manuscript, the first few chapters, are boring, with too much fluff and non-action stuff, and too little conflict. A good start is always in the middle of an action scene. Forget about back-story, elaborate description of settings, the weather, or – worst of all – someone just waking up or taking a shower. His advice: throw away your first three or four chapters.

Start your book with chapter four or five. Hah!

Why did this hearten me? Because I haven’t written the first three or four chapters in my 5 writers challenge novel. So that means I am actually ahead of the game, because I am supposed to throw them out anyways. Now, if I compare this to Joe’s first 20 pages that he tells us he has written, it means that I am far ahead of him. According to my (female) logic.

Last but not least, a note on how I deal with writers’ block (the subject of another workshop). Lots of advice given. None that work for me. Forget yoga, meditation, long walks in the rain, and so on. When the dark cloud of writers’ block descends upon me, I get up from my chair and head for the kitchen.

And I start doing what I like best after writing – putting together what I hope will be a delicious meal, or some baking. So I made a Normandy apple tart today, with Gravenstein apples from our tree. Big fat chunks of apples arranged on a blind-baked buttery pastry shell and smothered with a custard of eggs, creme fraiche, sugar and copious amounts of Calvados. Baked for an hour while heavenly smells wafted through the house.

My temporary writers’ block was much appreciated by my spouse. Maybe I should write a cookbook instead of a thriller, he suggested.

I wouldn’t go quite that far, rest assured.

Normandy apple tart

9 thoughts on “Famous first lines and apple tarts

  1. Helga, I couldn’t agree more with you. J.LeCarre, cooking and writing are tops for me as well. And, I too got a lot out of the SIWC. Meeting so many folks involved in their craft was stimulating to my need to write, and I heard the throw away line, after I had offered reading on my first chapter, I have much to learn. Good luck on your novel.

  2. Love it Helga! Your apple tart has me wanting to leave my seat, but I’ll wait until I’ve written enough to ‘earn’ a sweet break! Happy writing.

  3. You reassure me – I’ve been hearing that starting the action in the first sentence is passée, that we have to do the “in media res” thing, which means “in the middle” of the hero’s life – show what their life is before their call to action. Since I’d absorbed the other way and all my work starts with the hero hip deep in trouble, I was panicking – so a very big WHEW! I don’t have to go back and rewrite my cooling off novel or the WIP! Thanks, Helga. And the recipe for that pie – if you have a sec, would be a great blog post. Just a thought.

    • Thanks, Bev. I think regardless of all the good advice we writers get, it still has to work for us intuitively. If it feels right to you, stay with it. As for the apple tart recipe, I love writing about food. The hyperlink has the recipe for the tart. It’s a good one.

  4. Love your post Helga, but you have committed the ultimate sin! Teasing us with your description of your baking – I could almost smell it from here. Where is that recipe for your apple tart? I need it! I have three huge boxes of apples in the basement, just picked from our orchard, waiting for me to so something with them. How about a recipe addendum on your post?

    • Thanks, Silk. The recipe is all there, just click the hyperlink ‘Normandy Apple Tart’ (the text, not the photo). It’s an Emeril recipe, and if you don’t have Calvados (apple cognac) at home, you can use cognac or brandy instead.

  5. Helga, you are cruel! Just arrived in the desert, not a lot of fine dining off I-5, though Silk might be interested to learn we had a lovely lunch in Lodi, where we did not get stuck!

    • Oh do tell me where you found a “lovely lunch” in dear old Lodi! I don’t think I could take another meal at Applebees!

  6. I started my novel right in the middle of the action, with no explanation, back-story, or anything, dropping small hints as to what the setting was and what was going on. I wanted to draw the reader into the power of the story before going through the formalities, so I revealed the setting in a throw-away line after about 20 pages. I didn’t understand why I was doing this, it just felt right, and I feel vindicated by your instructor’s advice. Thanks

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