Michelle Gable, Writer

Michelle Gable, Writer

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First Impressions

August 14, 2013 , ,


Out of Office

Oh, man, sorry for the long delay in posts. I’ve been, as they say, OOO or out of office, figuratively and literally, while also at times being so far IN the office I couldn’t even see the desk. Between a crush of tasks at my day job, travel for both business and pleasure, the summertime kid craziness, and on top of that, a gigantic heap of edits from my editor, I’m lucky when my day involves sleeping and eating actual food.

As I’m deep into edits I was thinking about story beginnings. Every writer knows: start with a hook. You cannot begin a novel with a character admiring her beauty, or by waxing poetic about a meadow, or with anything resembling a dream sequence. The opening must grab the reader, give him/her the incentive to keep going. A couple of great opening lines…

From Waiting by Ha Jin:

“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.”

Or, one of my favorites, from T. Greenwood’s Grace:

“Kurt is suddenly aware of the way the snow looks like something living, like something with a purpose. He has always thought of snow as simply falling from the sky, at mercy to gravity. But now, as he marches out across the snow-covered field behind the house, his rifle drawn and aimed at the back of his only son’s head, he sees that it is intent in its falling. Resolute, determined, even calculated in its descent.”

[Don’t you want to read the rest…like NOW?]

I think newbies can mistake a very high-stakes action sequence (something or someone is killed, maimed, pillaged) for a “hook”, sometimes neglecting the hook of a good character. Of course said character can be doing something super “hooky”. Like, I don’t know, a woman stabs a guy, carefully slips the knife into her Louis Vuitton and then calls her husband to say the PTA meeting has run late, start dinner without her. But what about more ordinary characters? How are you going to get the reader to care right away? I don’t have the answer, by the way.

You see, there’d been this niggling problem in my manuscript, cited by my agent and editors and readers alike. The protagonist, April, is very sympathetic in the long run but is not all that likable at first. Huh. Okay. I could buy that. She’s a bit wry and snarky (I hate that word, but let’s go with it here). So I toned it down. I toned her down some more. I did a bunch of other stuff but, still, that niggling remained.

Then I got my editorial letter/redlined manuscript back (oh my gosh, my editor’s suggestions/comments are brilliant, every last one of them). And she put it so simply: “April comes across as a bit wounded in the first chunk of the book. Which, after reading the whole thing, makes sense. But for a new reader, who doesn’t understand either her work pressure or marriage strain (yet), she runs the risk of coming off as a complainer.” Eek! Yikes! And on the mark. The comment entirely clarified the issue and what I needed to do.

First impressions mean everything – at work, socially, in the opening pages of a book. You can start with whatever big or small event you want, but the reader is only just stepping into the cocktail party and laying eyes on your protagonist for the first time. Maybe this is obvious to most. Maybe this is entirely about my inexperience in this industry. But the hook is not only the hook, it’s the interest in the character too. [light bulb]

What do you think?

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