In the Beginning . . .

By Allison Brennan

ADDED 5:13 pm Sunday: Oh! Toni has a winner from last week! Elisabeth (commenter #9). Yeah! Please email Toni at toni [dot] causey [at] gmail.com and give her your preferred email address and whether you want an Amazon or a BN or Borders gift certificate. Toni will then email the gift certificate directly to you!

 

Now back to the regularly scheduled blog . . . 

 

I start writing a new book tomorrow. I would start today, but I’m revising the final two chapters of my current book one last time. It’s crucial to make sure the ending is not only satisfying, but that all the loose ends are tied up, and those that are continuing threads are at least neatly identified. Writing a series is HARD WORK–I didn’t realize how hard until now.

But whatever difficulty I have in ending a book, it’s nothing like the beginning of a book. And the most important question for me now is:

WHERE DOES THE STORY START?

Because this is a series, and this book takes place about two weeks after the book I just finished (well, I THINK two weeks, I’m not quite sure because I haven’t started it yet), the story really started two books ago. Of course, readers don’t want a boring recap of what happened in the first 900 pages of this saga. 

For CARNAL SIN, I started with another vision for my heroine, prompting a tense conversation between characters where I could both advance the story and give the reader the minimum information she needs to understand the story. But since my heroine is not in town at the beginning of MORTAL SIN, I can’t do that again–and it would be kinda boring to do the same thing.

LAW & ORDER is brilliant in how they enter a scene “late”–meaning, after the action or in the middle of action. Elliot and Liv go in asking questions. No lengthy set-up. Dead body? Rape victim? We see part of the set-up (prologue) and then jump into the middle of the investigation. We don’t see them being called, or stopping for donuts, or having a conversation about how they spent the night before. BORING. Sure, it might go to character, but we can get that information in context, not in the beginning.

I love starting books with a dead body. A standard opening in mysteries–a crime to be solved. I’ve done it in many of my books:

SPEAK NO EVIL:

Her death had not been easy.

Homicide detective Carina Kincaid stared at the dead, naked corpse of the young woman, avoiding the wide-eyed terror etched on her face. her mouth was gagged, but what drew Carina’s eye was the word slut scrawled in thick black marker across her chest. A small red rose was tattooed on her left breast.

SUDDEN DEATH:

The homeless man’s murder had been ritualistic, brutal, and efficient.

THE PREY:

Rowan Smith learned about Doreen Rodriguez’s murder from the reporters camped out in her front yard Monday morning.

Because in MORTAL SIN, one of my main characters is suspected of murder, I thought–why not start with finding the body? Not let the reader know–through reading the scene–whether he’s innocent or guilty. When I get into his head, the reader will know (he’s a reliable narrator) but initially, there are doubts. And, perhaps, he’ll know more about the death than he lets on to the other characters–

But still, I don’t know for sure that this is the best place to start, hence my preoccupation with beginnings today.

So I pulled out some books from my TBR pile and read the first paragraph of two, just for fun. Now for a little game: read the openings and tell me which book you would most like to read. (And if you know the book, don’t let on! I’ll post the titles in the comments at the end of today.)

A

At the mass of the dead, the priest placed the wafer of unleavened bread and the cheap red wine on the linen corporal draping the altar. Both paten and chalice were silver. They had been gifts from the man inside the flower-blanketed coffin resting at the foot of the two worn steps that separated priest from congregation.

B

“You have a whisker.”

Though I hear the loudly whispered comment, it doesn’t quite register, as I am rapt with adoration, staring at the wonder that is my hour-old niece. Her face still glows red from the effort of being born, her dark blue eyes are as wide and calm as a tortoise’s. I probably shouldn’t tell my sister that her baby reminds me of a reptile. Well. The baby is astonishingly beautiful. Miraculous.

C

Every eye in the newsroom followed me as I left Kramer’s office and walked back to my pod. The long looks made it a long walk. The pink slips always came out on Fridays and they all knew I had just gotten the word. Except they weren’t called pink slips anymore. Now it was an RIF form–as in Reduction in Force.

They all felt the slightest tingle of relief that it hadn’t been them and the slightest tingle of anxiety because they still knew that no one was safe. Any one of them could be called in next.

D

I’ve always wondered what people felt in the final few hours of their lives. Did they know something terrible was about to occur? Sense imminent tragedy, hold their loved ones close? Or is it one of those things that simply happens? The mother of four, tucking her kids into bed, worrying about the morning car pool, the laundry she still hasn’t done, and the funny noise the furnace is making again, only to catch an eerie creak coming from down the hall. Or the teenage girl, dreaming about her Saturday shopping date with her BFF, only to open her eyes and discover she’s no longer alone in her room. or the father, bolting awake, thinking, “What the fuck?” right before the hammer catches him between the eyes.

E

Cops aren’t supposed to get frightened. The badge and the uniform and the gun strapped to a cop’s side are intended to ward off the normal fears that most people experience when confronted by unspeakable horror and evil.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. Cops get scared, just like everyone else. Sometimes they get so scared, they run for their lives. Other times, they get shaken to the core and never forget the things they’ve seen. It happened to me, two years into the job.

F

On January first, Mac rolled over to smack her alarm clock, and ended up facedown on the floor of her studio.

“Shit. Happy New Year.”

She lay, groggy and baffled, until she remembered she’d never made it upstairs into bed–and the alarm was from her computer, set to wake her at noon.

 

Okay, those are the six pleasure books on the top of my TBR pile–meaning, I’d looked through them on Friday to pick something to read for the weekend, and those interested me the most, but then one thing led to another and I didn’t have time to start anything new. If those six books were at the top of your TBR pile, which would you read first? Remember, don’t spoil the fun and give away the author!

And as a little teeny reminder . . . ORIGINAL SIN went on sale this week. It’s a supernatural thriller–a little different than what I’ve been writing, but I had a lot of fun writing something new! So to celebrate . . . I’m giving one copy away to a random commenter. Just tell me your favorite beginning (above) or just say hi! 

 

51 thoughts on “In the Beginning . . .

  1. Vicky McAulay

    For me it’s a toss up between D and E. Both leave me wondering what will happen. But if I was more in the mood for something light, I’d go with F.

    Reply
  2. Paula R.

    Allison, these are all great openings…so it is a difficult choice to make. After taking a second read through though, A or D would be closer to the top of the must read for me. A because I already have questions about what is going on. I get the idea of it being a funeral, but the "who, what, where, when. why. how" questions popped into my head right away. So because I want to know now, I would probably start this one. D on the other hand, pulls me because I want to know who is thinking these thoughts, why they are even thinking them…are we in the head of the protag or antag? My mind has already answered the second question. I feel we are in the head of the antag…not sure, but it makes it more interesting to see what the antag is thinking before s/he makes a move, you know what I am saying? In comparison to A, I don’t have any questions answered, no scene set up in mind, but with D you don’t have any idea where the character is and it seems more dark and sinister than the rest, but I am intrigued because I love a good murder mystery…LOL!!!

    Good luck with starting your new book…

    Peace and love,
    Paula R.

    Reply
  3. Stacy McKitrick

    F looks like a fun read. I’d have to know more about the others to even see if I would want to go any further (like what kind of books are they).

    Reply
  4. Allison Brennan

    In hindsight, I probably should have stuck with one type of novel. There’s a romantic suspense, three mystery/suspense/thrillers, and two romances/women’s fiction. Four are NYT bestselling authors, two aren’t. Five I’ve read previous books, one I have never read that author. I like reading all types of books, but usually read romance when I want to relax and sink into a hot bubble bath. Of all these, the two that I read more of last night as I was typing in the opening (so excuse any typos!) were D (definitely a suspense) and F (a romance).

    Reply
  5. Terry

    Hi Allison, Although they all sound like great reads, I would go for F. D would be second. But the best read for me right now would be "Carnal Sin". "Original Sin" was awesome and the excerpt from the new one made me want it now. Take care and keep writing. You are the best!!

    Reply
  6. Joy Hill

    Hi Allison

    D really got my attention, made me think, OMG whats going to happen, must read on to find out. But then for some reason F jumped out as well, with only a few sentences the Character Mac has a personality!!! already!!! I’m intrigued to know more…. as I’m off to read the 1st chapter, when at 3.07am I should be alseep! oh well, sleep is so overrated :))))

    Is Original Sin being released here in Australia sometime soon??? I hope so πŸ™‚

    Reply
  7. PK the Bookeemonster

    Well, I’ve narrowed it down to A, D, and E. (already read C).
    A: I don’t know the premise, but potential religious intrigue, er, intrigues me so at this point I’d like to know more. Otherwise, an interesting picture is being presented.
    D & E: I really want to know what happens next. With D I can almost hear ominous music in the background, plus first person POV. With E I want to know what scared the bejeesus out of a cop, plus the first person POV.

    Allison, at the end of the day, could you list the titles? Adding more books to my TBR? No problem!

    Reply
  8. Eika

    I think D would be my read of choice, followed closely by F. I’m biased, as I’m not mainly a mystery reader- they’re great, but in an incidental way, when they’re what I stumble upon in the YA and SFF sections.

    A and B just don’t do it- I was bored with the description of A, and see no point in B, not to mention thinking of the waffly narrator who thinks the niece looks beautiful and like a reptile. C and E both promise something’s coming, but don’t deliver; if I was bored or desperate, I might slog through the ten or twenty pages it’d take for something to start happening, but the story’d likely continue that slow (stories usually do) and it’d lose me.

    F, though, you’re in the scene. I already know this character, suspect a few things about her, like her. She’s hungover, she’s grumpy, and something’s bound to happen soon. And D has an air of mysteriousness. I saw that and slight chills crawled up the back of my spine. If that story keeps going, then I expect the narrator to find out the answer first-hand, or very, very close. That snagged me.

    Reply
  9. kit

    Hi Allison,
    for me it would be A and E……will you share, later today perhaps ..the titles of these books? thank you.

    Reply
  10. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is a fantastic post, Allison. D and E, equally is the answer to the question, but C was a book that had me literally breathless at times, all the way to the end, it’s so well written —-so it goes to show that that first paragraph isn’t everything.

    But even more I love your thought process about where to start in your next series’ book. Personally I try not to stress too much about where I start because I know I can always throw chapters out if I started too soon. The important thing is just STARTING. (She says to herself, hoping it will sink in…)

    Reply
  11. Allison Brennan

    SPEAK NO EVIL:

    Her death had not been easy.

    Homicide detective Carina Kincaid stared at the dead, naked corpse of the young woman, avoiding the wide-eyed terror etched on her face. her mouth was gagged, but what drew Carina’s eye was the word slut scrawled in thick black marker across her chest. A small red rose was tattooed on her left breast

    I read this one and will re read it is great!

    Reply
  12. Derek Nikitas

    This is a fascinating exercise, mostly because the answer comments were eye-openers for me, and not in a way that makes me feel confident about my own ideas regarding writing!

    For me, A is the only one that has much promise because it shows instead of tells. It’s cinematic, forcing the reader to make value judgments about what’s going to happen. It raises questions. It’s also not in some mad ADD rush to get to something "pulse pounding." It’s actually interested in setting a little atmosphere, the key to legitimate and rich emotional involvement from the reader.

    B and F are all right, and I might give them a change, but they seem rather silly to me, quirky for the sake of quirky. "Light." And there’s a lot in B that just outright tells us how the narrator feels–no analysis or intuition needed from the reader. Thus, no engagement. No questions raised. I hear a valley girl accent reading both of these.

    C is information dump instead of drama, though I know drama is on the horizon. I just wish this venerable author, in this particular case, wouldn’t get so hung up on providing a string of inert facts and procedure so quickly, get us interested in character and atmosphere first. S/he has done so masterfully many times in the past.

    D and E are the ones I really couldn’t get behind. Both of them are big blocks of telling instead of showing. There’s nothing left for the reader to intuit. If any questions are raised, the reader can just blank out and be assured that the questions will be neatly answered for them, with no emotional strain involved.

    IMHO, telling can sometimes work if the telling is weird, unique, insightful or otherwise enlightening, but these two (D and E) are common denominator types of thoughts, stuff meant to feel familiar and agreeable to just about everyone, on a base level. It’s very SAFE. I feel like I’ve heard it all before, many times–and for me, it’s exactly what sets mediocrity apart from greatness in "voice." It’s the sort of thing I teach my students to avoid at all costs, but then, as I see here, it seems to work for many readers, but I can never understand why. Why?

    Reply
  13. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Derek’s thoughtful analysis goes to show – there’s no accounting for taste! πŸ˜‰

    As a reader, I LIKE being told what I’m supposed to feel in the first few paragraphs. I LIKE to know what I’m in for. I read so much that you need to wake me up for me to keep reading. Bludgeon me a little. Or a lot. As long as it’s well-written bludgeoning. Too subtle and you run the risk of losing me. I just don’t want to work that hard, most of the time, but I will – if you engage me up front with a little spoon-feeding and emotional manipulation.

    Reply
  14. Donna

    B and F were the ones that grabbed me. Not because of any plot hints, but because of protagonist’s intense personal reaction to what was happening. It made me want to get to know them better.

    Reply
  15. Pete

    Hi Allison!
    I’m going to put my vote in for A and D. A because there is something compelling about a religious ritual and it’s conjuring up some interesting images, and D because of the first line completely sucking me in. I don’t know, but it could be a law enforcement office arriving at the scene of yet another crime? Can’t wait to see where these are from and good luck writing YOUR beginning!

    Reply
  16. JT Ellison

    I am all over D. I’m with Alex, I really like the set up. I have no problem with tells that are so sophisticated. Gillian Flynn’s DARK SPACES starts with a whole chapter of this, and I LOVED it. So it’s obviously subjective.

    And congrats on the release of ORIGINAL SIN! I can’t wait to read it!

    Reply
  17. Viva

    This was a lot of fun, and just goes to show how impossible it is to write an opening that will please everybody. Given that I can’t be objective about C, I’ll omit it from the possible choices.

    Personally, I think action opens are a trend. It’s okay to jump on the action open bandwagon if that’s what you prefer, but I’m looking for tone in that all important first paragraph. I don’t want to be dropped in the middle of a scene.

    That said, A has way too much detail – honestly, it bored me. B feels overly contrived. E sounds like the old ‘cops are only human’ trope. F has great energy, but was a little too bright and chirpy for my taste – I’d have to be in the mood.

    That leaves D, which drew me in at once.

    Reply
  18. Derek Nikitas

    You’re right about no accounting for taste, Alex. And my taste is obviously a minority one. To get myself in more potential trouble, I’ll say that E feels particularly manipulative to me, like a corny, overzealous camp counselor at a bonfire going, "This story’s gonna be reeeeealy scary! Just you wait! Here it comes!" I always thought the trick to good manipulation is that the target doesn’t realize he’s being manipulated. I get the idea that one can like to be told stuff, but here’s one more devil’s advocate question: can a reader ever truly feel what she’s being told to feel? Does reading the words "unspeakable horror and evil" really elicit goosebumps?

    Just trying to keep the conversation going…

    Reply
  19. JD Rhoades

    In order, most to least intriguing: E, A, D, F, C, B

    E is, as Derek pointed out, showing, not telling, but it’s only two paragraphs and promises something interesting immediately to follow. A draws you in because it makes you wonder who’s in the coffin. D because I often wonder the same thing. F: I’d probably keep reading, but waking up with a hangover’s been done. C: I need to care about this person before I care about why they’ve been fired. B’s just confusing. The baby looks like a reptile but she’s beautiful? Does this person have a thing for reptiles?

    I might read F, C, and B for other reasons, but not solely for the first paragraph.

    Reply
  20. toni mcgee causey

    I was about to type out my response, but I’m gonna just ditto Dusty above, because he said exactly what I was thinking, in the same order.

    (Though I did recognize a couple of them. πŸ˜‰ )

    Reply
  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Derek, I love unspeakable horror and evil.

    I see what you’re saying, but I didn’t get hung up on those words as a cliche. I wonder this myself – about what really scares cops and other people like – teachers – who see unspeakable horror and evil, and I am lured in by the promise of a case that will shake this cop to the core.

    If it proceeds and turns out to be badly written, I will stop reading. But like Dusty said about D, too – D and E promise situations that I am interested in knowing about. And they solidly promise a GENRE that I love and will often pass up arguably better-written books to read.

    Reply
  22. allison davis

    E, definitely E. Love the cop angle, love the vulnerable cop angle even more. C, maybe but E for sure.

    I also love the idea of setting out the first page of each TBR to see what intrigues the most. My TBR pile is so big, I’ll be ten years dead before I get through them all. All really pushing myself to read more, but also fitting in the writing, exercise, oh and the full time job…well, you all get the picture.

    Nice post — good thoughts about writing, reading and the craft. thanks.

    Reply
  23. Gar Haywood

    Exactly what Viva said, except:

    I think openings are most important for what they suggest about the entire book. Few people will read A and B, hoping for a kick-ass read, and keep on reading expecting to get one. If you’re writing a thriller, your opening had better advertise one because if it doesn’t, no one’s going to give you another 40 pages to produce the goods; the converse is true for cozies. In other words, your book’s opening needs to accurately reflect everything that is to follow if you want to attract and hold — and not turn off — your target audience.

    E brought an immediate question to miind:

    Exactly what happened to you, two years on the job?

    C is very well written, and I’m intrigued, but I’ve got no clue what kind of crime novel to expect.

    F: A protagonist with a drinking problem. Now there’s something you don’t see every day…

    For me, a great opening is all about suspense: What’s this all about? What’s going to happen next? And suspense starts with unanswered questions.

    That’s one of the reasons I think John Burdette’s BANGKOK 8 has one of the greatest opening lines I’ve ever read:

    "The African American marine in the gray Mercedes will soon die of bites from the Naja siamensis, but we don’t know that yet."

    This line is awesome for all the things it doesn’t say, leaving the reader to wonder:

    β€’ Who’s the marine, and how will his military status figure into Burdett’s story?

    β€’ Why is the marine going to die of something so exotic as (we assume) animal bites? And exactly what kind of animal is a "Naja siamensis"?

    β€’ Who are the "we" of whom our narrator is a part?

    Additionally, note how Burdett gives the reader an extra incentive to keep reading with his use of the word "soon." Not only will all of the questions above be answered eventually, they’ll be answered quickly, perhaps in the very same paragraph, or the very next page, or…

    Reply
  24. Nancy Laughlin

    Amazon sent me Original Sin the day it came out. I look forward to reading it!
    As to your question, I’ve read A, B made me laugh, but D is the one I’d keep reading.

    Reply
  25. Allison Brennan

    I am absolutely FASCINATED by this conversation!!! I’m going to play this game again later. But I’ll stick to one genre in the exercise because I think one problem is that two of these are obviously "lighter" and the other four "darker."

    Five of these authors I’ve read virtually everything they’ve written. I’d say that they are five of my favorite authors, but the "lighter" books are ones I read when I really need to just relax and sink into a good story and know that I can trust the author not to let me down. No dead bodies, no emotional victims, just good, fun stories that I can read fast and put down and say, "That made me happy."

    One is new-to-me but my editor gave me the book last time I was in NY and I’ve been meaning to read it so I can tell him what I thought.

    I am fascinated by book openings. When I was going through my TBR pile last night, I learned something — some of the books I didn’t include in this post are by my favorite authors, but I didn’t find the opening two paragraphs compelling at all. These particular authors ALWAYS give me good stories, but if they were new-to-me, I don’t know that I would have picked them up. Which makes me wonder about both me and expectations, and how readers view the opening.

    Reply
  26. B.J. Daniels

    Okay I really like D and F. D really sucked me right in. I would just hope that after that first graph the author got into the story. F was fun. I liked the voice. All of them were definitely readable and I really wanted them all on my bedside table. πŸ™‚
    BJ

    Reply
  27. Jean W

    Hi Allison — Fascinating discussion–

    I’ve read A, so won’t be a spoiler. I’m in the mood for light, so I’d dive into F right now. D is a definite thriller right from the headlines…really creepy, but an attention getter. I’m a reader willing to give you a few pages to get going. E I find passive. B reads like women’s fiction unless the next paragraph someone is murdered <g> C needs more for me to be interested.

    Reply
  28. Allison Brennan

    Oh! Toni has a winner from last week!

    Elisabeth (commenter #9). Yeah! Please email Toni at toni [dot] causey [at] gmail.com and give her your preferred email address and whether you want an Amazon or a BN or Borders gift certificate. Toni will then email the gift certificate directly to you!

    Reply
  29. Rashda

    I’ve actually read A and have to say that I loved it. So had to recommend it. Other than that, E got my attention. B/c I want to know what scared the cop so bad…

    Reply
  30. Allison Brennan

    OKAY . . . . The books are . . . .

    A: SALVATION IN DEATH by JD Robb.
    I am a huge Robb fan and have read almost all her books. I’m three behind, hence SALVATION is next up.

    B: THE NEXT BEST THING by Kristan Higgins.
    Kristan writes feel-good, heartwarming women’s fiction. If you just want to sit back with a glass of wine and read a good, happy story fast, Kristan is perfect. She hasn’t hit any lists, but she’s won the RITA and finaled another time for contemporary romance.

    C: THE SCARECROW by Michael Connelly.
    Not a Harry Bosch book, or a Mickey Haller book (I really like Mickey Haller.) But it doesn’t matter to me, because Connelly has never disappointed me.

    D: THE NEIGHBOR by Lisa Gardner
    Definitely one of my favorite authors, her new book comes out this summer so I have to get this one read first. It’s next up … I read on last night (cough cough) and it is so, so, so good.

    E: THE NIGHT MONSTER by James Swain
    I haven’t read Swain before, but my editor thought I’d like it.

    F: VISION IN WHITE by Nora Roberts
    NR is a master storyteller. I usually only read her stand-alone romantic suspense books (ala HIGH NOON, ANGEL FALLS, etc) and of course the JD Robb books. But this "quartet" caught my attention, my mom read it and enjoyed it, and so I put this in my pile. I read the first chapter as well last night and it’s a fast, satisfying read. You can’t go wrong, IMO, if you want to read a romance.

    So there you have it! The top six books in my TBR pile.

    Reply
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