Thursday, September 04, 2008

Author Roberta Isleib

I’m turning over the reins (for today) of Straight From Hel to author Roberta Isleib. Roberta is the President of National Sisters in Crime, a clinical psychologist, and the author of the Cassandra Burdette Golf Mystery Series and the Dr. Rebecca Butterman Advice Columnist Mystery Series. She also blogs on her own blog and on Jungle Red Writers.

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.

“Dr. Butterman?”

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?”
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:
Spring, and a young woman’s fancy turns to Louis’ Lunch: broiled square hamburgers on toast, loaded with cheese, tomato, and onions.

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.
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.

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.


  1. Hey Roberta! Congratulations on Asking for Murder--it's terrific. Rebecca Butterman is hilarious and wonderful. We should all have a best friend that smart and tough and wise.

    Beginnings huh? I'm sure that first one was not really blackboard-screeching bad...although in looking back at some of my own firt draft, there were some real howlers.

    My favorite first line of all time if from Charlotte's Web--you all remember it?

    As for me--I can't begin to write a book until I have the exact first line I need. In my three (and a half) mysteries, the first lines never changed after they were first typed.

  2. I had to go and look at Charlotte's Web: "Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

    Of course EB White was an absolutely brilliant writer. Wow, that's interesting about your lines never changing Hank--everything changes in my WIP!

  3. Hi Roberta, good to 'see' you again! The new book sounds great! Openings can be hard but they set the tone for the book. I wondered, how much does the opening have to do with your title; does it help you form a title better, or do you have no choice in that? Thanks, Chris V.

  4. Hi Roberta,

    Really enjoyed your "guest blogging" here. The examples illustrated your point well. Beginnings are hugely important-I had to write one for an upcoming writers' retreat because the people who are running it are very demanding. ;-) But once I felt that the opening was right, I found it surprisingly easy to jump into the rest of the story.

    John (Yes, "that" John...)

    PS - Hi again, Hank!

  5. John, you crack me up. (He's coming to our Seascape Escape to Write conference in a couple of weeks.)

    Hey Chris! The title for my new book was LINE IN THE SAND (in my mind.) It was dismissed as not projecting "mystery." We must have gone through fifty titles before we agreed on ASKING FOR MURDER. So the opening was long written before the title was settled.

    And you're right, openings definitely set the tone for the book. Imagine how many times you've picked up a book in a bookstore, skimmed the first page, and then either set it back down or tucked it under your arm and headed for the cash register. It happens so fast!

  6. Excellent tutorial and examples, Roberta - I now have to add a couple of your books to my must read list. Sigh, hanging around these kinds of blogs has that list growing by quantum leaps - lol. I liked your comment about the correct amount of "backstory" to include in an opener. Too much can read like a boring textbook for history 101, but enough of a teaser to get a little bit inside the head and feelings of the protagonist and/or antagonist is paramount for the reader to identify with motivations involved in the story.

    Thanks for the post, Helen, and thanks especially to you. Roberta!

  7. What a timely blog topic! Helen, you dear!! My current problem with opening is that I have a secondary character named Boo who is overpowering the protagonist! A fellow writer said, Syl, you've written her too well! So, what to do now? I only have one section in Boo's POV, and her voice and personality is so destinctive,she wins hearts. One change is to take that scene out, and change it to protag's POV, and save the other for a good short story about the character later. Any suggestions?

  8. Marvin, thank you for stopping in! I make that backstory mistake in just about everything I write. That's why my writers group is completely essential. They are kind, but ruthless.

    Sylvia, are you sure Boo isn't your protagonist?? Or maybe you need to get more clear about who your protagonist is? That's another mistake I make: pushing the protagonist around without knowing her well enough to be sure how she'd react inside "my" plot.

  9. Your sample chapter openings were great - it gives me a clearer idea of what a good hook really is.

  10. thanks Zhadi! And thanks again to Helen for her gracious offer to host this blog post!

  11. Dear Dr. Butterman,

    What does it mean when both the opening and closing of a book deals with food? And even more importantly, what does it say about readers who drool for the next book? LOL. Seriously, despite your characters's love of culinary delights, you don't add recipes in your books. What made you decide not to do that?


  12. Wow. Those were good opening lines! So good that I'm tempted, even though I haven't read a mystery since Encyclopedia Brown (ah, the memories)... However, I'm always open to having my horizons expanded!

  13. Hope you read it, Emma.

    Funny thing is I used to read almost solely mysteries. But I find myself now reading a lot of mysteries, but also romance, Y/A, suspense, inspirational, poetry, nonfiction...

    Expanding my horizons as I grow up, I guess. ;-)

  14. Roberta,
    All these beginnings were great, but the second one really grabbed me. I'm delighted Preaching to the Corpse is available in a Kindle edition. My Kindle is supposed to be on its way from Amazon so Preaching to the Corpse will be my first Kindle purchase. I can't wait.

  15. Dear Dani, When both the opening and closing of a book deals with food, it means the writer is hungry:).

    Seriously, the question of recipes is more of a marketing decision-done by the publisher people in NY. since they are marketing this series as "advice column", it was more important to have the Q and A in the books than the recipes. Don't mix your marketing metaphors I suppose. And really, Dr. Butterman's cooking evolved as I wrote--didn't set out to write a culinary mystery.

    Emma and Helen, I read a lot of other things aside from mysteries too. Sometimes you need a rest from the puzzles...

    Lillie, let us know how you like the Kindle!

  16. Thanks for sharing, Roberta! I am struggling with where to start my WIP. The entire thing is written, but I'm reconsidering the first chapter, and whether to dump it entirely. Very timely subject for me!

    I'll check out the ref, and thanks for the diverse examples.

  17. Great openings. I've also put the books on my TBR list! Thanks, too, for the mention of the Elizabeth Lyon book. I'll check it out.

    Another way I've discovered for learning about what works and what doesn't in openings is to judge contests. I've judged several of "first 15 (or whatever) pages only" contests. You learn quickly what grabs you as a reader.

    Thanks for the reminder of how important openings are. Great topic!

  18. Hi Roberta,

    Thanks for the great, timely post. How does the opening fit in your writing process? For me, the opening is almost always the last thing I write. The only function I see for an opening in the first draft is to get the writer to the second chapter. It's when you're finally wrapping everything up for the reader that the opening becomes important. I know that if I write five drafts of a story, I'll probably have five openings. In that regard, I'm exactly the opposite of Hank Phillippi Ryan.


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