Busy as she is, she graciously accepted an invitation to tell us her views on openings. She’s even citing examples from her own books. Thank you, Roberta! After you leave comments for her here, check out her schedule and follow her on her Blog Tour.
Welcome Roberta Isleib.
Thanks for inviting me to stop in today Helen! I was excited about the idea of blogging about openings—it forced me to think harder about something I usually stumble into. I’ve had eight mysteries published by Berkley Prime Crime over the past seven years. Some of the openings have come easily. Some have been a bear. Recently I came across an early draft of FINAL ROUND, the first in my golf mystery series, which was never published though it did land me an agent. I had written a prologue consisting of notes from a therapy session with my protagonist, golfer Cassie Burdette. It was blackboard-screeching bad: wooden dialogue, slow pacing, obvious insights. The first chapter launched into the action and my character’s reactions—much more promising. I’d like to publicly thank whichever wise soul suggested I axe that prologue!
With thousands of books published each year and agents swamped with hundreds of queries weekly, a writer can’t afford to come out of the box with a weak opening. We need to hook our readers quickly, whether they are agents, editors, or a bookstore browser looking for her next book club selection. Does that mean bodies have to drop on the first page? Not in my book. But you do need conflict. The first pages are most likely not the place for elegant landscape descriptions, unless (and isn’t there always an unless?) the landscape is setting up the conflict with its menace or contrast to menace. If you’re opening with your character, remember that we readers want to know enough about the characters to keep reading. But a backstory dump almost always slows the action. My writers group is often much more adept at identifying where my story should start than I am. And it often takes me days or even weeks to part with the deathless prose that’s been fingered.
I was eager to reread the openings for my last few books after mulling over this subject. In DEADLY ADVICE, I opened with an advice column from my protagonist’s alter ego, Dr. Aster:
“Dear Dr. Aster: After twenty-nine years of marriage, I’m single again. I won’t bother you with the whole pathetic story of how it came to be. But now I’m ready to dive back in to the dating world. What’s the best place to meet potential partners? No singles bars please. I’m not looking for Mr. Goodbar and I don’t drink anyway. Thanks in advance. Sincerely, Ready to Rock n’ Roll.”The advice column telegraphs something about the type of book to come (more likely to appeal to women than men) and foreshadows the character, who, like her advice-seeker, is preparing to enter the singles scene. I was counting on these elements to carry the reader through to page three, where the real action kicks in.
With the second mystery in the series, PREACHING TO THE CORPSE, I dove right into the conflict.
The phone jarred me out of a restless sleep.The opening for the new book, ASKING FOR MURDER, is more subtle. I’m hoping that Rebecca’s thoughts about the special lunch, set against her mounting concern about her friend’s no-show, will hook my readers:
I groped for the clock radio. 12:18. It was pitch dark and my mind swirled with dream riffs.
“Rebecca? Are you there? It’s Reverend Wesley Sandifer. Sorry to wake you.” His voice sounded tremulous and strained.
My lizard brain—home of primitive fears and fight-or-flight reactions—kicked in: “Minister plus phone call after midnight equals disaster.” Years of training as a clinical psychologist couldn’t protect me from a rush of nightmarish possibilities and dread.
My sister Janice? My niece Brittany? My dearest girlfriends, Angie or Annabelle? The image of a terrible car wreck, pulsing red flesh and twisted metal, flashed into mind. But why would any of the people I loved most be driving in the middle of the night? And how the hell would Reverend Wesley know? My heart pounded and my hands slicked up so much I almost dropped the phone.
“What’s wrong?” I whispered fiercely. “What happened?”
Spring, and a young woman’s fancy turns to Louis’ Lunch: broiled square hamburgers on toast, loaded with cheese, tomato, and onions.One of my favorite writers on writing, Elizabeth Lyon, has a new book out called MANUSCRIPT MAKEOVER. If you’re puzzling over where to start, I found her chapter on beginnings very useful.
I all but skipped the blocks from my psychotherapy office on Orange Street to the downtown New Haven, Connecticut green, where my friend Annabelle Hart practices sand tray therapy in an aging brownstone off Ninth Square. In order to celebrate the crocuses and daffodils and robins and the general hopefulness of the season, we decided to suppress our anticipatory worries about future middle-aged spread and trek to the home of the best burger on the east coast. Possibly the whole United States. My mouth had been set on a slow drool all morning.
I climbed three cement steps, pressed the buzzer next to Annabelle’s name, and tipped my face up to the sun, admiring the small red buds on the maple tree that was causing the sidewalk to heave as it grew. If that wasn’t a great metaphor for therapy—ha! No answer.
Thanks again for inviting me to stop at your blog, Helen! Now the doctor is in—ready to take your questions and comments about openings, closings, or anything in between.