Friday, September 23, 2011

Let's Get It Started

By Susan

As some of you may know, my husband is a fantastic cook. He plans a meal by spending hours kicked back, scanning Cook's Illustrated, his fingers delicately flipping pages until he smiles, "Ah ha. Yes. This is it." He starts with someone else's recipe, then sets the book aside and makes it his own.

He begins his biggest productions with appetizers: goat cheese and sun dried tomatoes with garlic oil on crustinis paired with the perfect wine. Or maybe an opening course of French onion soup, salty and earthy in a crock full of bread and covered in Gruyere. (To the left is a shot of his sauteed risotto cakes with marinara from scratch.) The beginning, he tells me, prepares the guest for the food to come. It sets the palate. It gives you a taste for the flavor of the meal. It takes research, attention to detail, and flavor.

In my quest for the best possible beginning for my manuscript, I held a mini-workshop for myself last night, and I thought I would share it with you. In many ways, your opening scene is your appetizer to your meal. As I set the tone for my story, I can't help but think about the way my husband plans a meal. If this is helpful, let me know!

Here were my self-imposed assignments:
Read The First Ten Pages of My Favorite Novels (Read the recipes)Here are some opening lines: (Can you match them with the author and title? See the end of the post for answers)

“My wound is geography. It is my anchorage, my port of call.”
“You better not never tell nobody but God. It’d kill your mammy.”
“When he was thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”
“At night I would lie in bed and watch the show, how bees squeezed through the cracks of my bedroom wall and flew circles around the room, making that propeller sound, a high—pitched zzzzzz that hummed along my skin.”
“Alice Della Rocca hated ski school.”

What can I learn from these writers and their opening scenes? What is the pace? What tone do these opening pages set for the entire work?

Decide What I Want to Say (What are my ingredients?)
1) Who do I want to introduce?
2) What theme do I want to share?
3) Is my goal to paint a picture of setting, character, plot or all three?

Determine My Audience (Prepare the Palate)
Am I writing to impress someone or writing to tell a story? (To tell a story). What is the story I am attempting to tell? Is that story succinct or fractured? What is the strongest possible scene that can create interest and get that message across? Is it a scene I’ve already written or do I need to start again?

Clean It Up (Attention to detail)Is my formatting correct? Do I have consistent errors, typos, and mistakes that I can’t see?

There's more to an opening scene than just clean grammar and the introduction of characters. I want to make sure I am true to the work, true to the tone, and true to the theme from the first page forward. Just like a fine dinner, I want my novel to be an experience. And I want to prepare the reader, just as my husband prepares dinner guests, for a fantastic meal.

In your own work, revisit your beginning. Does it showcase your story and make the reader want more? The answer is one you may never know. Just don't allow self-doubt to cripple your voice. Write what you love, and write it because you love it. Hopefully, others will love it too.

Answers to opening lines:

Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides

Alice Walker, The Color Purple

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees

Paolo Giordano, The Solitude of Prime Numbers


  1. Really appreciate this post now as I rework the opening of my manuscript yet again. MUST. BE. PERFECT. :)

    Yours is pretty awesome as it is--but send over any changes if you want me to have a look...


  2. It's interesting- it's not so much about BEING PERFECT, as it is about BEING RIGHT. "Error-free" is one thing, but the hardest part is making sure it is the right scene that sets the right tone. Bleh. It ain't easy. :-)

  3. I know exactly what you mean, Susan. Thanks to this terrific post, I switched a couple of lines in the opening scene of my memoir and knew immediately that's right:) BTW, your description of your husband's yummy appetizers really got me salivating.


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