More “I wish I had known that before I wrote 100,000 words”


Reflecting further on the University of Wisconsin Writers’ Institute I attended in early April, another workshop that made an impression on me provided a second “I wish I had known that before I wrote 100,000 words” moment. Angela Rydell did an excellent job of presenting “Enticing Openings: Hook Readers (and Editors) from the Start”.

Since the first chapter of my novel manuscript has changed more times than I can remember, this workshop hit me where it hurts. Partly because of Ms. Rydell’s workshop and partly due to the fact that nagging doubt in my brain caused me to toss out the crappy versions of my chapter one, I am certain I’m on the right track for crafting an excellent opener. But there is method to the madness of attracting the reader. Here are a few tidbits of how to write a compelling opening that will stay with me forever:

Agents seem to have a “five second rule.” If your first sentence or two doesn’t catch her imagination, chances are good your submission is headed for the reject pile. Bad story beginnings are the single biggest barrier to publication.

The reader’s perspective is: “Make me care”. Something about your first sentence, paragraph, or page must persuade the reader to choose your book out of the dozens of others within reach in that section of the bookstore or its online equivalent. Raise questions, introduce a sympathetic protagonist, and/or capture the imagination with genre, tone, voice, or style.

Four Tenets for Today’s First Time Novelists.

  1. You’re a contemporary novelist. Don’t think you can copy the masters of centuries gone by and succeed in today’s market. Been there, done that.
  2. You’re not published yet (but hope to be soon). This means we must survive the slush pile. It’s critical to claw your way out of the pile with a compelling opening hook.
  3. You must first learn the rules before you break them. Know your craft!
  4. You must strive to be original. ‘Nuf said.

An overarching point Ms. Rydell made was to find your “inciting incident” and begin the story there. That’s the event that throws the main character’s life out of balance and the MC must deal with the conflict that arises because of that event.

Ms. Rydell’s last excellent checklist is:

Five Goals of Great Openings.

  1. Intrigue your reader with a character.
  2. Plunge into the problem.
  3. Convey a tone and style that delights.
  4. Introduce the setting.
  5. Hint at your ending.

Looking at my work, I think I’ve gotten points 1 and 2 established, and I think I’ve at least got a start on 4. Point 3, I’m not sure. Point 5 I’ve never thought about until this workshop, so I’ll be looking closely at chapter one to see if I’ve done that or if not, how can I hint at my ending.

What have you discovered about your opening hook? What did you learn about openings that you wish you had known before?

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