Hack Writing 201: Dynamite Openings

Reading fiction manuscripts from a slush pile has gotten me thinking about opening lines. A dynamite opening is what separates the royalty checks from the rejection slips. Hemingway knew this. Fitzgerald knew this. All the greats knew this. Now, I’m revealing this insider’s secret to you. Simply stated, you want a few lines, right off the top, that will grab the reader and not let go. For example, here are the opening lines of an (unpublished) novel a friend worked on for years:

Grandpa stirred the pancake batter with a smile of satisfaction.

“Come here, Jimbo!” he said, his new teeth gleaming. “I’ll show you how to make ’em so they’re nice and brown and crispy!”

For personal reasons my friend would rather not go into (too painful for public discussion), he decided not to finish writing that novel. So, you’re in luck. This opening is for sale. The price? You tell him what it’s worth. You’ll get full rights. If he accepts your offer, he’ll sign an affidavit stating that he will cease and desist from all use of that opening for the rest of his life.

Here’s another really strong opening for a different type of novel, and I’m publishing this with the writer’s permission.

Something about Larry’s feeling of ennui was bothering him. He said the word softly: “Ennui.” What did it really mean? Sure, everyone called it ennui, but maybe it should be called something else, something less abstract, more compelling… He fired up his cigar, a stale panatella, and spoke the word once more in a lazy cloud of smoke: “Ennui.”

Now, I don’t think a better opening could possibly be devised for the kind of novel this writer was thinking of. And if you are writing a novel like that, and you think this opening would fit, it too is up for grabs. Again, full rights. Make a reasonable offer—emphasis on reasonable—and I’ll arrange for the agreement to be notarized. This friend will have no problem with that.

Here’s another of my favorites. This one needs no introduction:

Doctor Zwarko pointed the disintegration ray at the giant lumberjack, hoping he wouldn’t have to use it. “Now keep your distance, Bunyan!” he yelled. “This baby’s loaded!”

This one I can’t let go. This is for my “Zwarko versus the World” series, which I’m pretty sure will leave Harry Potter in the dust. So, I’m going to save that opening to use in one of my Zwarko books… Sorry. Just a teaser.

But, I’m not doing romances any more, so here’s an opening I really like from the Vegas Lit slush pile (Vegas Lit being the new fiction imprint of Huntington Press, of which I’m senior editor). I’m sure the writer spent many hours—days really—working on this one:

Gloria adjusted her wig, enjoying the wild freedom she felt as a blonde. She hoped Pastor Bill would like it. She sighed thinking of him, her perky bosom rising and falling in the sun. Then she remembered her dress, chosen especially for this meeting, so pretty with the daisy print and patch pockets… and that awful ketchup stain!

You get that far and you can’t put it down. It’s that simple. Who is the mysterious “Pastor Bill?” And as soon as you start thinking about that “awful ketchup stain,” Gloria’s dilemma captures your heart. I know romance writers are having some tough days in this economy, so how about a flat $100 for this author (to take away the sting of yet another rejection slip)? First come, first served.

Finally, this is my personal favorite. But this author’s going to let it go tonight and he’s going to let it go cheap. I’m featuring it here as a gift to all those who have been supporting my own writing addiction for these many decades. Imagine picking up a novel, kicking back in your favorite reading chair, opening to the first page, and reading this:

“Howdy, Bob.”

Can you believe that’s only two words? One of the words is “howdy” and the other one is “Bob”—nothing special about either word by itself. But, you put them together, Howdy, Bob, and it’s unexplainable. We have an opening. (And you could have your name on those words!)

You want this one? Here’s my price: Walk my dogs for one hour. That’s it. I’ll take care of the author. I should mention that my dogs are big dogs–five of them, mostly German Shepherds, not very well trained, and you can’t put them on leashes because if they see a cat and you manage to hang on they’ll drag you to your death. So, you’ll need shock collars and a big stick. They’re really nice dogs. I just want them out of my house for an hour or so. Think about it. Howdy, Bob. It could be yours.

For more hack writing, see Hack Writing 101: The Lost Meat Spear Manuscript.





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