Ten Novel Openings

It’s been a while, and I’ve accumulated ten or so more samples and full books, so let’s take a look at the way these novels open. There’s a wide range here; these are all genre fiction, but the genres range from cozy mystery through a lot of other genres right to literary.

1.  Silent Night by Donna Ball

Ashleigh had just finished hanging the string of Christmas lights over the front door when she saw the flash of lights around the corner of Willow Land, and Dusty Harper’s red pickup truck pulled up in front of the trailer. Her daddy had lost his license a year ago and sometimes Dusty would run into him at the Last Chance Bar and Grille and give him a ride home. Ashleigh’s stomach always knotted up when she heard Dusty’s pickup truck chugging around the corner because she knew that meant they’d both been drinking. Nothing good ever happened when the two of them went out drinking.

This is a Christmas cozy. I sort of like a Christmas cozy mystery or a Christmas Regency or something along those lines at this time of year, so I picked this one up because there are dogs and the reviews were pretty good and, well, why not.

I find this opening … hmm … forgettable. Uninteresting. There’s nothing here that immediately appeals to me. This thing about Ashleigh’s dad drinking is a little bit off-putting. I don’t much care for drinking problems or alcoholism as a plot element, particularly not in mysteries. It often signals not a comfortable cozy but a gritty detective novel featuring a retired cop who screwed his life up and hit rock bottom and so on, you know the basic type of protagonist I mean because this is a total cliché. This can’t be that type of story because it’s being sold as a Christmas cozy, but I’m hearing this echo of the bitter washed-up alcoholic protagonist nevertheless. Ashleigh also seems a bit ineffectual right off the bat. Her dad has this problem and apparently she hasn’t done anything effective about it.

I would, however, turn the page, because after all dogs plus decent reviews. So we’ll see.

2. Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair

The Careless Venture’s intruder alarm erupted through the cavern with a harsh wail. Trilby Elliot shot to her feet, knocking over the makeshift repair table. Sonic welder and integrator cables clattered to the cavern floor.

She bolted for her freighter’s rampway. Overhead, a nest of sleeping blood-bats burst out of the rocky crevices like small, leathery missiles. The panicked bats spiraled in front of her. Screeching, they fled through the wide mouth of the cavern into the lavender twilight.

She reached her rampway just as a silver object flashed across the sky behind them

“Damn. Double damn.” Another ship here meant big trouble. And even a little trouble was more than she could handle right now.

This is an SF romance. I’ve had it on my Kindle for ages and ages, but recently got reminded that I want to try something by this author. I’m kind of in the mood for a light SF romance, so I pulled this one up to the front.

This is a much more active opening. I’m not especially interested, but certainly nothing pushes me away from this opening. I would certainly turn the page, no question.

3. Owl Dance by David Lee Summers

“Sheriff, I hate to spread rumors …”

Ramon Morales tipped his hat back on his head. The blurred form of a small, hunched-over woman silhouetted by the light of the setting sun was in the door of his office. “Rumors? What …”

The woman inclined her head and planted her hands on her hips. “I’m talking about the curandera who rode into town last month in her fancy wagon.” She looked from one side to the other, then stepped close to the desk. Mrs. Chavez’s face became clear then. “I think she may be practicing black magic,” she said in hushed tones. “She might be a bruja.”

Now, your mileage may vary, but personally, I think it’s quite risky to open a novel with dialogue. I think it’s hard to pull that off. For me, this opening doesn’t manage it. Maybe if the woman were more sympathetic. But “I hate to spread rumors” means “I love to badmouth people.” Ugh. Also, the writing doesn’t seem all that strong in other ways. The transition from “woman” to “Mrs. Chavez” doesn’t seem smooth enough to me.

I don’t remember why I picked up this sample, but here’s the description from Amazon:

The year is 1876, Sheriff Ramon Morales of Socorro, New Mexico meets a beguiling woman named Fatemeh Karimi, who is looking to make a new start after escaping oppression in her homeland. When an ancient lifeform called Legion comes to Earth, they are pulled into a series of events that will change the history of the world as we know it. In their journeys, Ramon and Fatemeh encounter mad inventors, dangerous outlaws and pirates. Their resources are Ramon’s fast draw and Fatemeh’s uncanny ability to communicate with owls. The question is, will that be enough to save them when a fleet of airships from Czarist Russia invades the United States?

Sounds like a wildly weird Western, but I find the description more appealing than the actual opening.

4. The Shadow Prince by David Anthony Durham

I saw Merk and his friends before they saw me.

My first instinct was to jump behind something and hide, but I was out in the open now on a flat expanse beside the village, with nothing but sunbaked ground and a few tiny shrubs around me.

My second thought was to drop to the ground and play dead. Not the best plan, though. If they saw me, it would be way too embarrassing. I probably could have leaped back down into the canal next to me, but I’d just been in the canal for ages cleaning out debris.

It was one of my jobs – an important one as my mentor, Yazen, liked to remind me. The village depended on the crops for food and the crops depended on water to grow. Since we lived in the desert, water wasn’t easy to come by. It took a system of canals powered by sunmills to bring it in.

This is a MG story. I sort of like the first couple sentences, but the worldbuilding seems less than smooth. “Since we lived in the desert,” really? This is a version of “As you know, Bob.” The protagonist knows all this. Presumably everyone in the village is aware of the fact that they live in a village in a desert and the canals are powered by sunmills and so on. This is the kind of thing that makes people say, “Can’t you show rather than tell?” It’s an example of telling that is not smooth. You’ve already got sunbaked ground and tiny scattered shrubs and canals. Go on with that and build the image and feel of the desert without saying, “Here we are in a desert.”

I’d go on a bit because I like interesting settings and this one sound interesting — it’s described as an alternate Egyptian steampunk setting — but I’m not very taken by this opening.

5. Changer of Days by Alma Alexander


There were still echoes of sporadic fighting, but night was drawing in fast. Fodrun, finding himself suddenly alone in the middle of what had until less than an hour ago been a fierce battlefield, paused and looked around, taking stock. There was blood on him, none of it his own, but fatigue ached like a wound and his wrists throbbed with the pain of simply holding his sword. He remembered very little after the incandescent moment when he had seen Red Dynan, the king, stagger and slide off his horse with a cursed Rashin arrow in his eye. Fodrun had succumbed to pure battle frenzy, leading his small knot of men directly into the Tath army’s flank, exposing all to certain death for an instant of revenge. All were now dead. All except him. And he seemed only now to have woken from a nightmare.

The price was good and I thought sure, this sounds like it might be good, why not, and picked up the full book. There’s a long prologue. It’s not a dreadful history textbook prologue or a context-free battle prologue, but it’s sort of close to the latter, since here we are, in the immediate aftermath of a context-free battle. Also, my goodness, I sure hope Fodrun isn’t the protagonist of the book or, in fact, a point of view character, because I despise him. He lost his head and senselessly led his men into a slaughter.  That is … I don’t have words. That is the exact opposite of a sympathetic character. Sure, he could be worse – he could be an outright villain instead of an impulsive idiot – but wow, this is not an appealing moment in his life.

I realize readers all have their individual likes and dislikes. It just so happens that Alma Alexander could hardly have opened a novel in a way more carefully calculated to make me recoil in disgust with the pov character.

6. Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie

Sophie Dempsey didn’t like Temptation even before the Garveys smashed into her ’86 Civic, broke her sister’s sunglasses, and confirmed all her worst suspicions about people from small towns who drove beige Cadillacs.

Half an hour earlier, Sophie’s sister Amy had been happily driving too fast down highway 32, her bright hair ruffling in the wind as she sang “In the Middle of the Nowhere” with Dusty Springfield on the tape deck. Maple trees had waved cheerfully in the warm breeze, cotton clouds had bounced across the blue, blue sky, and the late-August sun had blasted everything in sight.

And Sophie had felt a chill, courtesy, she was sure, of the sixth sense that had kept generations of Dempseys out of jail most of the time.

Now, this is delightful. This is a contemporary romance recommended by Anna Paradox at Paradox World. I liked the first paragraph, I liked the second paragraph, and this third paragraph cinched the deal.  I read this little snippet and just like that, I’m confident this story is going to be light and fun and well-written. I’ve never heard of Crusie before, but I’m pretty sure I’ll like her style.

7. Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff

It’s a room an uninspired play-wright might conjure while staring at a blank page: White walls. White ceiling. White floor. Not featureless, but close enough to raise suspicion that its few contents are all crucial to the upcoming drama.

A woman sits in one of two chairs drawn up to a rectangular white table. Her hands are cuffed in front of her; she is dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit whose bright hue seems dull in the whiteness. A photograph of a smiling politician hangs on the wall above the table. Occasionally the woman glances up at the photo, or at the door that is the room’s only exit, but mostly she stares at her hands, and waits.

I got this because I liked another book of Ruff’s and this one sounded intriguing. It’s fairly far over on the literary side of SFF, which I think is probably where it falls, but I’m not completely sure. Here’s the description:

Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder. She tells police that she is a member of a secret organization devoted to fighting evil; her division is called the Department for the Final Disposition of irredeemable Persons – “Bad Monkeys.”

It goes on from there. This sounds potentially really interesting and I might well love it, but, I will add, I am a lot more likely to read contemporary romances and Christmas cozies right at the moment.

8. Lanny by Max Porter                                         

Dead Papa Toothwort wakes from his standing nap an acre wide and scrapes off dream dregs of bitumen glistening thick with liquid globs of litter. He lies down to hear hymns in the earth (there are none, so he hums), then he shrinks, cuts himself a mouth with a rusted ring pull and sucks up a wet skin of acid-rich mulch and fruity detritivores. He splits and wobbles, divides and reassembles, coughs up a plastic pot and a petrified condom, briefly pauses as a smashed fiberglass bath, stumbles and rips off the mask, feels his face and finds it made of long-buried tannic acid bottles. Victorian rubbish.

Tetchy Papa Toothwort should never sleep in the afternoon; he doesn’t know who he is.

He wants to kill things, so he sings. It sounds slow-nothing like tarmac bubbles popping in a heatwave. His grin takes a sticky hour. Cheering up, he chatters in the voice of a cultured fool to the dry papery wings and under-bark underlings, to the marks he left here last year, to the mice and larks, voles and deer, to the quaint memory of himself as cyclically reliable, as part of the country curriculum.

Evocative, poetic, intriguing, but not remotely anything I want to read right now. Very literary. From Amazon, this: “LANNY is a ringing defense of creativity, spirit, and the generative forces that often seem under assault in the contemporary world, and it solidifies Porter’s reputation as one of the most daring and sensitive writers of his generation.”

Well, this is the sort of novel that’s going to require more attention than I may want to give it. It’s very short; actually a novella. 157 pp, it says. Typical time to read, three hours. That means I’m pretty likely to read it eventually … but not this month.

9. The Q by Beth Brower

Every time the door into the front office of The Q opened, the sounds of Gainsford Street, business hub of Rhysdon, would come tumbling in on the heels of whoever entered. Clicking, turning, marking time, the rush and flow of the patrons was like the working gears of humanity’s clock. These sounds all transformed neatly into the mechanics of The Q. And, perched on a stool behind the front counter, conducting her business – waiting upon customers, efficiently taking questions for the next edition, tidying figures and markets and profits down to each percentage and comma and dot – sat Miss Quincy St. Claire, chief officer of operations, self-appointed auditor of all accounts, final editor overseeing the team of typesetters, proffers, and printers, and, in general, the central gear in the workings of her great-uncle’s business.

I like this a lot! Honestly, the writing, different as it may be, might be as good as the one above – the rush and flow of the patrons was like the working gears of humanity’s clock – but this is just infinitely more approachable. There’s a lightness to this, not comic, but lively and appealing. Of this batch of novels, this is the opening that appeals to me most, though I’m actually likely to read either the Christmas cozy or the contemporary romance first. Something witty and familiar, with a setting that I don’t have to think about.

10. The Walking Drum by Louis L’Amour

Nothing moved but the wind and only a few last, lingering drops of rain, only a blowing of water off the ruined wall. Listening, I heard no other sound. My imagination was creating foes where none existed.

Only hours ago death had visited this place. This heap of charred ruins had been my home, and a night ago I had lain staring into the darkness of the ceiling, dreaming as always of lands beyond the sea. Now my mother lay in a shallow grave, dug by my own hands, and my home was a ruin where rainwater gathered in the hollows of the ancient stone floor, a floor put down by my ancestors before memory began.

Already dawn was suggesting itself to the sky. Waiting an instant longer, my knife held low in my fist, I told myself, “I will have that gold or kill any who comes between it and me.”

You remember, I read that book about books by Louis L’Amour recently and wanted to pick up a book of his. This is one of the ones I thought I might try. Honestly, although the writing isn’t bad, the narrator isn’t very appealing. He’s just buried his mother, and what he’s thinking about is the gold? Practical, to be sure, but not particularly sympathetic.

I was going to stop at ten, but let me look at the other Louis L’Amour sample I picked up at the same time:

11. Hondo by Louis L’Amour

He rolled the cigarette in his lips, liking the taste of the tobacco, squinting his eyes against the sun glare. His buckskin shirt, seasoned by sun, rain, and sweat, smelled stale and old. His jeans had long since faded to a neutral color that lost itself against the desert.

He was a big man, wide-shouldered, with the lean, hard-boned face of the desert rider. There was no softness in him. His toughness was ingrained and deep, without cruelty, yet quick, hard, and dangerous. Whatever wells of gentleness might lie within him were guarded and deep.

An hour passed and there was no more dust, so he knew he was in trouble.

I think this is an interesting opening. I mean, this is the purest example of opening a novel by telling rather than showing that I can remember seeing in a long time. It’s not off-putting particularly; just unusual compared to more modern novels. Ah, first published in 1953. Nearly seventy years ago. This makes me kind of want to go open The Count of Monte Christo or something and compare this stylistic element.

Anyway, I actually like this better than the opening of The Walking Drum. I don’t dislike this protagonist. Maybe I might like him. He sure sounds like a quintessential Western hero. Also, the last line quoted above is good. There’s no dust, so he knows he’s in trouble. That’s intriguing and promises action is coming soon. A classic Western is as good as a contemporary romance for providing familiarity, though perhaps not lighthearted wit. This is another one I might read while also working on my own stuff.

In terms of what I actually like best here – Yes, The Q is the one I’d put at the top. That’s my favorite, even if I’m not likely to actually read it right away. Lanny is the one with the best writing, I do agree with the critic I quoted that this is an amazing opening, but it’s hardly the one I like best. After The Q, I like Welcome to Temptation the best.

For me, Changer of Days is the least appealing because I really do not like the pov we see in that prologue. When I eventually try that book, I’ll probably re-read that opening, say Oh, yeah, this one, and skip the prologue. Maybe I’ll like whatever pov opens the actual story better. It would be hard to like that pov less. I doubt the prologue is all that necessary, and if I get puzzled I can always go back and skim the prologue to see what was in there.

Owl Dance and The Shadow Prince seem to have less smooth writing than the others here, but Silent Night is the opening that seems least interesting. That makes it more likely, not less likely, that I’ll try it soon – but that’s a mixed blessing, because if an opening doesn’t appeal to me, I’ll be reading the sample with an eye to hitting delete rather than see in store.

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12 thoughts on “Ten Novel Openings”

  1. I believe I’ve read the Jennifer Crusie book and I remember actually laughing at some parts of the book. It’s maybe not as good as Kristan Higgans’ Blue Heron series, but maybe that’s comparing apples to oranges. Sounds like The Q is the one to try— thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I am biased because I love Jennifer Crusie. Welcome to Temptation is up there among my favorites, though Bet Me often comes out on top. I think that list of unexpected things that she uses can work well for an opening line.

  3. I’ve read almost all of Jennifer Crusie’s romances and liked almost all of them; enough that I own half a shelf of them in both paperback and e-book. They are contemporary romances with snarky heroines who take action themselves and don’t wait to be rescued; generally witty and fairly lighthearted. Sometimes there’s a bit of thriller/action thrown in (especially the two she co-wrote with Bob Mayer), or a whiff of the supernatural (some ghosts or such), and some are a bit more of a caper. This one is just straight-up contemporary romance with a bit of detecting if I remember it correctly.
    I should reread some of them (again) sometime soon…

    I also read some of Linnea Sinclair’s ebooks/novellas, enough to remember I quite liked them but not enough to make a big impression or go searching for all her backlist. IIRC some were quite spicy/sexy (which tends to quickly bore me), but not all. This opening doesn’t ring any bells for me, I don’t remember reading it before.

    The others I don’t know, and generally don’t appeal to me. The style of writing of the Q reminds me a bit of the later Amelia Peabody stories. Those take a bit more patience and time than I have right now, but it’s the only one of these I might read some day. I’ll probably wait until you read and review it, and decide whether to buy it for the TBR pile based on that.

  4. After your own blog here, I think the “Good book Thursday” posts on Jennifer Crusie’s blog Arg Ink is the place from which I get the most book recommendations that I turn out to like.
    The miss rate is higher than here, I can’t remember you steering me wrong. Her commenters have more varied tastes that don’t always coincide with mine, but generslly give enough of a hint that combined with the cover blurb I haven’t landed many lemons-to-me.

  5. Oooh Finders Keepers, that’s one of my favourite Sinclair romances – hope you enjoy it, too

  6. Welcome to Temptation isn’t my favorite Crusie, but none of her books are bad, imo. The first of her that I read was “Anyone But You,” which starts out with a woman who goes to the pound to pick up a perky little puppy and ends up adopting a lugubrious basset hound instead.

    I like Finders Keepers a lot. I read it when I was focusing on Goal, Motivation, & Conflict in stories. Sinclair plays a lot in this story with recurring themes, such as introducing a phrase (such as “I love you” in the hero’s language) and then having it pop up in an unexpected place.

  7. Wow, I didn’t realize everyone but me had read a bunch of Crusie romances. Regardless of how I like Welcome to Temptation, I’ll try a couple of the others you’re recommending. And thank you, Hanneke, for the link!

    I’ve started the Linnea Sinclair novel and it’s fun, though also pretty silly. I’m enjoying it — it’s just about perfect for what I want right now.

  8. 1) Silent Night by Donna Ball

    Not bad. Sets time of year and more or less present day smoothly, as well as providing tension in the comments about the drinking. Doesn’t draw me in, though.. The three sentences out of four in that opening dealing with it signal it’s going to be the Problem. Not interested, I don’t care.

    Finders Keepers by Linnea Sinclair
    Oh, we have a couple by her, but not that one. Hmm… I’m distracted wondering what an apparent spaceship is doing in a cavern, other than being repaired. Obviously meant to signal probably a smuggler or something, but not convincing. And the writing is trying just a little too hard – too many adjectives, I think. Not that I object in principle to adjectives but on this look they seem shoehorned in. Pass, for now, maybe give it a chance in a few months.

    Owl Dance, by Summers – this one sounds awfully familiar like one I tried and rejected. Pass. Agree with Rachel, the writing just isn’t quite good enough.

    Shadow Prince by Durham
    Strikes me as better than the Sinclair or Summers samples at the beginning of the sample. The lines about living in a desert were too heavy handed – we already knew that. Oh, MG story. … Maybe the kids would need that kind of handholding? I don’t remember being that new to books. And The Teen is not a good comparison for normal readers.

    Changer of Days by Alma Alexander
    I liked the original, haven’t read her revised version yet. Fodrun is secondary but major character – his choices set up a lot of the plot. I think there were some sections with his POV throughout. Since I have read a version of this it’s hard to step back and judge cold. But I think I agree she could have given us the King in trouble which would have been some context before the rest. As with rereading Cyteen, I tend to pick up this and look at favorite bits, and haven’t revisited the whole in years, and certainly not the opening. I’ll have to unearth the original at some point (boxed due to mold in the floors (sigh)) and compare.

    Welcome to Temptation by Cruise It’s lively enough. I may actually give it a try. Smoothly gives us a fair amount of info and characterization. I know I tried a Cruise years ago and passed on it, but things change.

    Bad Monkeys by Matt Ruff. First thought: He’s still writing? I’ve liked one by him, disliked a second. This looks like a pass. That opening puts me off instead of drawing me in. But I may try a sample to see if it turns out more interesting than that white white opening.

    Lanny by Porter That’s literary? It reminds me of what The Teen has taken to calling Kirkbridism. Here’s a bit of that: “The mirror-make of the SMIS Longbow started up, spinning in glass collectors set to catch the sun’s warnings of threat. Its bridge unfolded, and the high elves of its helm folded out from their collective to panel stations, lathered in micro-seconds by their protocolinachs in the filaments of emergency varliance to protect their skins and uniforms from immediate death by aetherfire.” A Kipling-esq run-on style with lots of adjectives that are unusual in context along with nouns, also not quite normal for context. I don’t know if I’d read this or not it strikes me mostly as weird and difficult. It pushes me away. I know right now I don’t want anything that requires too much attention. hmm… must compare with Greer Gilman, when have enough brain.

    The Q by Brower yes, that one is lively and interesting. It draws in instead of pushing the reader (me) away.

    The Walking Drum by L’Amour. I’ve liked most L’Amour I’ve read, but haven’t picked up this one. It accomplishes a fair amount in a short space. Our narrator feels a threat (contexless, but less offputting than Fodrun above?) Sudden death, and a drive to accomplish. Perhaps because I have read his work before I assume the house was burned because people were hunting for some gold believed there and our narrator is going to make sure they don’t get it.

    Hondo is a very L’Amour opening. He wasn’t afraid of just telling a bit to keep things moving.

  9. Finders Keepers (and the Accidental Goddess) are my two favorite Sinclair books. I reread them often enough. Crusie I’ve heard good things about.

  10. Pete, your comment made me laugh, and I’m always happy to see recommendations. But really, I do like the openings of The Q and Welcome to Tempation.

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