Rachel Neumeier

Fantasy and Young Adult Fantasy Author

Blog / The Craft of Writing

Ten novel openings

So, I mentioned that recently I’ve been in a zap-em-all mood, removing books from my Kindle as fast as I can make the decision to do so. There are, of course, lots and lots of books still on my Kindle’s TBR folder – those I know I want to read and those I just haven’t gotten to yet, plenty of each. Out of curiosity, today I opened the ten at the very back, the ones that have been sitting on my Kindle the very longest, and took a look. No decisions; just a  quick look at the very first lines that open each one.

Here they are:

1) Emissary by Melissa McShane

Zerafine had only a moment’s warning before the ghost was upon her. A shout, a flicker of movement, and it enveloped her like a chilly whirlwind.

Definitely catchy. I can hardly imagine a reader not going at least a little farther. Certainly this is a nice example of opening directly into action. Sometimes that winds up working and sometimes it doesn’t, but I do think in general this kind of opening will tempt a prospective reader to go on for at least a couple of pages.

2) The End of Earth and Sky by Tom Simon

Let me tell you why I destroyed the world.

Okay, that is even more catchy, even though it is so very much not an opening that catapults the reader directly into the action. A teaser opening, let’s call this.

3) Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond

I planted my feet on the wire that ran parallel to the rafters. My new act involved a series of ballet-inspired moves, building to a trio of slow but tricky pirouettes, and the barn was the best place to practice.

First person is supposed to draw in the reader and make the action feel immediate, but  I find this a rather static opening even though the narrator is on a high wire. The narrator is essentially reporting on the situation to the reader, and I think that prevents the reader from feeling engaged in the action.

Static openings can work perfectly well, but I am mildly disinterested at this point, though obviously I would go on quite a bit past these opening sentences before making an actual decision about reading vs deleting this book.

4) Norse Code by Greg van Eekhout

On the last true day of spring the nine worlds will ever know, my brother and I fly recon through the land of the gods. From this high up, Asgard shimmers. The shields that roof the timber halls glimmer like golden fish scales. It’s all green grass and fluffy white sheep and fresh red blood. A very pretty scene.

Well, now, this is an interesting and engaging opening. Of course it is present tense as well as first person. That’s also supposed to draw in the reader and make the action feel immediate. Normally it doesn’t, for me. It feels artificial and distancing to me, so ordinarily I dislike the first-person-present style. But I can like almost any style if it’s done well.  I might like this. I’m not sure yet. One can guess the voice of the narrator may be crucial to whether the reader connects to this story. So will the development of the setting. Flying recon, a military type of phrase, sits oddly in a paragraph about Asgard and timbered halls and fluffy white sheep. The blood fits right in for both, of course.

5) The Spark by Susan Jane Bigalow

A ghostly gray ship floated high above Valen, its running lights and beacon switched off. Deep inside, a young woman in a cramped cabin watched a video loop endlessly.

Completely uninteresting. Naturally I would go on for a page or two minimum. I will add that ending a sentence with an adverb can work, because almost anything can work under the right circumstances, but it can also seem a little awkward and weak. I do think that is the case here. Stick that adverb in front of the verb and I think the sentence would be smoother.

I see that this is actually the third book in the series. Hmm. I imagine there was a Kindle daily deal or something, since ordinarily I don’t like to start a series in the middle. The first book is called Broken. I might get a sample of that one and see if that’s enough of a guide.

6) Raetian Tales: A Wind from the South by Diane Duane

Her first memory was of the shine of copper in the kitchen – a dim, warm, ruddy light, gleaming from pots hung on the cream-colored, stuccoed wall, catching the firelight in the near-dark.

By chance, this opening makes a fine contrast with the previous one. Both are static openings, but I find this a smoother, more attractive sentence, as well as a dramatically more visual scene. It’s interesting how very much more positive I feel about Duane’s book vs Bigelow’s based on just these first sentences. Huge difference.

7) Magic’s Poison by Gillian Bradshaw

The attack came in the evening, when Marin was making camp.

She’d been late leaving Stonyvale that morning. The horde of last minute details that  always cropped up before a long journey seemed even more numerous than usual, and she’d been flustered and anxious about her errand to begin with.

Ah, this is an interesting example of opening into action, immediately followed by a flashback. A hook, instantly followed by a pause. That can work as a very effective teaser, or it might get frustrating. Depends entirely on the author’s skill. And how long the flashback lasts, but that’s part of the author’s skill. I expect Bradshaw probably pulls it off, she’s written plenty of excellent books. Of course I do intend to give this book a real try. I love many of Gillian Bradshaw’s historicals, so I really hope I love this book of hers too. I would never delete it without reading, at minimum, several chapters.

8) Butterfly Swords by Jeannie Lin

The palanquin dipped sharply and Ai Li had to brace her hands against the sides to stay upright. Amidst the startled cries of her attendants, the enclosure lurched again before crashing to the ground with a splintering crash of wood.

I don’t find this very interesting, despite the crash. It’s interesting to compare this one with the first entry in this list. Both open with sudden, sharp action, but I find the first sentences of Emissary more appealing. I think this is due to the inherent poetry in the phrase A shout, a flicker of movement. Let me try casting the second sentence above in the same mode … “A startled cry, a sharp lurch, and the palanquin crashed …” What do you think? Does that seem at all different to you? It does to me. I’m going to call this a matter of rhythm.

Oh, and I notice “crashing” and “crash” both in the original sentence. Now, I have great sympathy for undesirable repetition, a bane of my existence, but it is not a great sign to see this in the second sentence of the novel. I wonder if perhaps my ear picked that up before I really noticed it.

9) The Devil and Deep Space by Susan R Matthews

“I have your report from Burkhayden, Specialist Ivers,” the First Secretary said, looking out the great clear-wall window over the tops of the fan-leaf trees in the park below. “I apologize for taking so long to get to it. I find it rather strongly worded in places.”

This did not particularly appeal to me until that last sentence, which made me smile. Ah, I see it is the fifth book in a series. Well, hmm. Highish rating, but of course the fifth book would have a high rating, as readers who don’t like the series won’t have gotten this far. The first book is called An Exchange of Hostages. Good heavens, that one seems to feature a doctor being forced to act as a torturer? Not completely certain that would work for me. Ah, here’s a review saying the torture is explicit and appalling, and the doctor struggles with the fact that he is actually a sadist. Well, this is a no. The fifth book apparently does not feature these elements, but I can now say, the first pages are going to have to be pretty darn good for me to read it.

10) The Secret Portrait by Lilian Stewart Carl

Jean Fairbairn sat on the stone windowsill of her office, if hardly in command then at least in admiration of all she surveyed.

An elegant sentence. I like it. I immediately feel that this writer knows what she’s doing.

All right, any of the ten stand out for you, in a positive or negative way?

And have you read any of these? If so, what did you think?

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7 Comments Ten novel openings

  1. Elaine T

    I’ve read the Bradshaw and liked it, as I tend to enjoy Bradshaw’s novels. Went on to read the whole trilogy. It didn’t strike me as her best work, but it was Bradshaw. I remember wondering if she’d had good editing for it – not copy-editing, but story editing, but don’t recall what prompted that thought.

    I haven’t read the Susan Matthews but I recall her first book not making the cut back in the days of browing in stores. Then I read quite a few discussions about her first works. What I gathered from those made me stay far away from anything with her name on it. From this sample, it looks like her writing has improved at least.

    Tom Simon… I’ve read or started something by him…checks Amazon, essays and a different novel, which I didn’t finish. With that opening I’d read a bit farther, but skeptically given my reaction to his other novel.

    Of those I’m coming to completely cold:: #1 McShane, is very good, I’d definitely read on. #3, meh, probably pass. #4, hmm.. can’t tell, don’t usually like present tense, but it doesn’t immediately put me off this time. Give it more of a chance. #5, meh. #6, probably would pass on purchasing simply because of past experience with Duane. (Only one of hers has been a keeper.) The sentence is good, though. Might get from library or KU. #8 instead of being exciting it kills any interest. Pass. #10, I’d read on.

  2. Evelyn M. Hill

    I agree that #6 is a better opening than #5 but I’m not sure why. Perhaps because while both give a visual opening the latter provides feels as well?

    Speaking of opening sentences, I just read Swordheart by the fabulous T. Kingfisher:

    Halla of Rutger’s Howe had just inherited a great deal of money and was therefore spending her evening trying to figure out how to kill herself.

    I defy you not to read further ;)

  3. Rachel

    Evelyn, that is indeed a wonderful opening sentence. I really need to read more by Kingfisher / Vernon. I’ve really liked everything I’ve read by her so far.

  4. Charlotte

    7. why on earth is Marin making camp in the morning, I wonder. Especially since it’s the same morning she left town. Makes me feel suspicious of the author’s ability to think clearly/the quality of the editing.

    10. I found this very awkward, and had to force my mind to wrap around it, because I didn’t know at first she was looking out the window (my mind immediately placed her siting on the windowsill with her back to the window), and because I think “not” would have worked better than “hardly,” which is a more squishy, ambiguous word.

  5. Elaine Thompson

    Charlotte & Rachel, in my copy for #7, Magic’s Poison, Marin is making camp in the evening. My copy is from 2011, maybe the e-edition got tweaked and this changed?

  6. Rachel

    …. I don’t have my Kindle with me, but I probably typed it wrong! More than likely I saw “morning” in the one sentence and typed that word accidentally.

    Checking on Amazon via the “look inside” feature, I see that Marin was indeed making camp in the evening. Sorry! Fixing the post shortly.

    Okay, Charlotte, I grant that now that I’ve read your comment, I can easily read that sentence with the woman sitting on the windowsill.

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