By Faith Hunter
Openings today make or break a writer. In a changing, downsized, much more vertical marketplace, culminated with the advent of Amazon publishing, editors and agents in the traditional marketplace have less and less time to spend slogging through stories. Instead of reading a story or novel through, hunting for that one gem that makes it all worth reading, they must be hooked in the first paragraph or they stop. On busy days, a writing professional might make the first sentence. After that, it’s the round can. Or the delete button, with a quick, form rejection letter.
One of my WIPs (works in progress, for newbies) is Kicking It, an anthology soon to be released from Penguin/ROC, edited by Kalayna Price and moi. There are some big names in this antho, but even with bestseller names, the openings of shorts stories are of paramount importance. They needed to catch the reader’s eye and yank him in, and they needed to do it fast. The writer could use humor, action, a quick turn of phrase, most anything, as long as it baited, hooked, snared the reader, and did all that fast.
Rachel Caine’s openings are always killer-good but this one really grabbed me. The first paragraph was a one sentence zinger, which was followed up with a two punch second paragraph that set the relationships, established the characters, and dragged me willing and yelping with delight into the story, Forked Tongues.
It wasn’t the first time I’d woken up to a cross burning on my front lawn, but it was definitely not my favorite time, either.
The first I knew about it was the sudden, violent movement of the bed as my boyfriend Andrew jumped out from the covers. When Andy moved like that, I instinctively moved, too; I wasn’t battle-tested like he was, and I didn’t have gunslinger reactions, but I could throw myself face down on the floor with the best of them.
Rachel Caine’s was by far, the best opening in the entire series of shorts, and there were some really good openings, including my own. Editing the famous (and not so famous) writers, made me look at my own work from over the years. In the previously published short story Haints, set in the Skinwalker world of the Jane Yellowrock series (also by Penguin/ROC), the kicker line is the last one in the second para. Ideally I should have opened with it and if I was doing it over today, I’d definitely start with the last sentence.
I watched Jane Yellowrock as she crawled across the floor of the old house on all fours. Most adults looked foolish or ungainly when crawling, but Jane was graceful, her arms lifting and moving forward with feline balance, her legs raising and lowering, toes pointed like a dancer, even in her western boots. My friend moved silently in the hot, sweaty room, easily avoiding the bird and mouse droppings, the holes in the old linoleum, and avoiding the signs of recent reconstruction—the broken plaster walls, large holes in the floor, and the shattered remains of the toilet, tub, and kitchen sink in the corner. Her shoulder blades lifted up high with each crawling step, visible beneath her thin T-shirt, her head lowered on the thin stem of her neck, moving catlike. I envied her the grace and the slenderness, but little else. Jane was more alone than anyone I had ever known.
In Cat Tats, a short story also set in the Jane Yellowrock world but featuring another secondary character from that series, the opening was different because I needed to set the character and his state of mind up fast.
Rick raised his head, the tendons in his neck straining. Nausea roiled in his stomach and up his throat at the slight movement, and he dropped his head back. He was lying face up. The rafters were barely visible over his head in a dusky, gloomy light. The familiar scent of hay and horses was strong in his nostrils, but it wasn’t the hay of his parents’ barn. There was an acrid under-tang to this scent, as if the box stalls hadn’t been mucked out in a long while, and it was musty, as if horses hadn’t used the premises recently. He rolled his head to the side and saw a shaft of light filtering through dusty air, falling through a wide crack in the wall. No. Not Dad’s barn. He’d never let it get in this condition.
This place was abandoned.
He almost called out, but something stopped him, some wise wisp of self that wasn’t still hazy from the raspberry -Jell-O shooters. He tried to sit up, but pain shot from his hands and pooled in his shoulders like liquid fire. His arms were bound.
John Hartness, author of The Black Knight Chronicles (Bell Bridge Books) and the Bubba, The Monster Hunter series, and editor of THE BIG BAD anthology coming soon from Dark Oak Press, says of his own work, “If I can make some laugh on the first page, they buy my work.” So true. This is from his story soon to be appearing in the aforementioned antho.
“Beauregard Ulysses Brabham, get your worthless behind down here and help me!” The shrill voice rang out over half the valley and Bubba sat bolt upright in his bed. Only he wasn’t in his bed, he was in the hammock out in his back yard, so the motion of sitting up quickly deposited all three hundred pounds of him firmly and swiftly onto the hard-packed earth. Bubba hauled himself up to hands and knees, then crawled out from under the hammock, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs. How did I end up in the hammock? He wondered. And where are my pants?
Novel openings can be a bit slower, but like any book these days, a reader needs to be pulled in fast. In a standalone novel, or a first novel to a series, it has to be nearly as fast as with a short story opening, and the opening to SKINWALKER the first Jane Yellowrock novel, did that, fairly well, establishing setting, style of writing, tone, genre and sub-genre. And character moxy.
Chapter One: I Travel Light
I wheeled my bike down Decatur Street and eased deeper into the French Quarter, the bike’s engine purring. My shotgun, a Benelli M4 Super 90, was slung over my back and loaded for vamp with hand-packed silver-fléchette rounds. I carried a selection of silver crosses in my belt, hidden under my leather jacket, and stakes, secured in loops at my jeans-clad thighs. The saddlebags on my bike were filled with my meager travel belongings—clothes in one side, tools of the trade in the other. As a vamp killer for hire, I travel light.
I’d need to put the vamp-hunting tools out of sight for my interview. My hostess might be offended. Not a good thing when said hostess held my next paycheck in her hands and possessed a set of fangs of her own.
It’s clearly Urban Fantasy, modern day, quickly suggests the danger to follow, and has just a hint of kickass weapons-porn. Perfect for the genre.
The opening to BLOOD TRADE the sixth novel in the series, didn’t need to be so fast an opening, but it did need to establish several things at once, character mood, time of year, and her living arrangements, as all these things were left in limbo at the end of the last book. The pace is slower, the info given is less (thought it still starts with Harley, natch) and it opens up as the last book ended, with Jane trying to figure out why she is so different from other people—normal people, whatever normal might be.
Chapter One: Been There, Shot the Place Up
I threw my leg over Bitsa and slammed my weight down on the kick start. The engine fired up with the rumble only a Harley can boast. It should have made me feel better, that lovely roar, but it didn’t. I was too ticked off. Or something. I wasn’t big on introspection or self-analysis; I just knew I wasn’t happy and hadn’t been in weeks. It had started back at Christmas and New Year’s, which I’d spent alone. Well, as alone as a girl can be living with two men.
Previously, my new roommates—the Younger brothers—and I had spent days training, learning how to work together, wisecracking, and picking on one another. More recently, they had proven themselves good about giving me space and letting me hide in my room. My black mood had started when the Kid, the younger Younger, demanded a Christmas tree and gift giving. I have no idea why. But I’d been impossible to live with for weeks and I knew it.
As the market changes, the traditional one shrinking, and the new indie one growing, openings will have to be ever faster, cleaner, sharper, and writes will have to dance on the edge of a blade to get them just right.
Faith Hunter is the fantasy author of the Jane Yellowrock vampire hunter series and a long time professional fiction writer. Including her other pen name, Gwen Hunter, she has over 25+ published books in 28 countries around the world. Her latest addition to the Jane Yellowrock series, Blood Trade, was released by Penguin/ROC on April 2nd, 2013. She is an original creator of and regular contributor to MagicalWords.net, an industry blog for sci-fi and fantasy writers. You can find out more about Faith at her home on the web, FaithHunter.net, or visit her official Facebook page to connect with her and other fantasy fiction fans.