Saturday, February 25, 2012

Plagiarize? No Way!

My MFBRN (most favorite book right now) is Hooked by award-winning author Les Edgerton. Here’s what I read last night from Chapter Four ‘The Set-up and Backstory’:

T.S. Eliot said, “Mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal.” That doesn’t mean plagiarize. It means to take a close look at how great writers achieved an effect, and use that technique ourselves.

Edgerton goes on to say, “When I’m writing a novel, for instance, I’ll have an average of perhaps thirty novels open, and I constantly look through the to see how others achieved the effect I’m looking for.”

Which is the better set-up - backstory opener?
This? The man had a reputation around town for being a brawler and a mean-spirited drunk. Ever since high school, when he had bullied just about every kid littler than him, he’d been known as a person to avoid. It might have been his parents who created his personality. His father spent a lot of time whaling on his son with whatever he found handy. A belt, a stick, whatever was available. One time he clopped him upside the head with an iron he snatched off the ironing board behind which his mother stood, helplessly wringing her hands. It might have been the dead-end factory job he’d found himself stick in for the past thirty-two years.
(…lots more backstory….)
Right now he found himself about six blocks from his home with his dead bride in his arms. On State Street just past Maplecrest, in the Georgetown Shopping Plaza. Behind it, actually, back by the dumpsters behind the Cap ‘N Cork.

Or this? He was so mean that wherever he was standing became the bad part of town.
At that moment, the bad part was State Street just past Maplecrest, in the Georgetown Shopping Plaza. Behind it, actually, back by the dumpsters behind the Cap ‘N Cork. Into one of which he was stuffing the body of his wife.

Here are some openers he recommends:
***A smell of spilled gasoline: when Saul opened his eyes he was still strapped in behind his lap and shoulder belt, but the car he sat in was upside down and in a field of some sort. (Charles Baxter’s “Saul and Patty are Pregnant”)

***They had dug coal together as young men and then lost touch over the years. Now it looked like they’d be meeting again, this time as lawman and felon, Raylan Givens and Boyd Crowder. (Elmore Leonard’s “Fire in the Hole”)

***He made her feel uncomfortable, and she didn’t like that. (Raymond Carver “A Small, Good Thing”)

***Tucker Case awoke to find himself hanging from a breadfruit tree by a coconut fiber rope. Like most of the big missteps he had taken in life, it had started in a bar. (Stephen Moore “Island of the Sequined Love Nun”)

***It’s true, he put his hand on my ass and I was about to scream bloody murder when the bus passed by a church and he crossed himself. (Luisa Valenzuela’s “Vision Out of the Corner of One Eye”)

***Even when she was very little her hunger was worth something: hunger taught her to dance, and her father noticed. (Robert Hill Long “The Restraints”)

***Looking back, I should have realized something was up as soon as I opened the bedroom door and found my wife asleep on top of the sheets with a strange man curled up like a foetus beside her. (Douglas Glover “The South Will Rise at Noon”)

***“You must not tell anyone,” my mother said, “what I am about to tell you.” (Maxine Hong Kingston “The Woman Warrior”)

Here are some romance openers from books on my shelf:
***It was the rain that made him think of the tale. (Nora Roberts “Morrigan’s Cross”)

***He understood his power early. (Nora Roberts “Entranced”)

***Claire Lancaster sat in the café of a large bookstore in Phoenix, Arizona, waiting for the half sister she had never met. (Jayne Ann Krentz “White Lies”)

***This wedding was no small affair. There were seven bridesmaids, seven groomsmen, three ushers, two alter boys, three lectors, and enough firepower inside the church to wipe out half the congregation. All but two of the groomsmen were armed. (Julie Garwood “Shadow Dance”)

***“What the hell d’ye mean by ‘marry without delay,’ Father?” (Bertrice Small “This Heart of Mine”)

***On the sixth of April, in the year 1812—precisely two days before her sixteenth birthday—Penelope Featherington fell in love. (Julia Quinn “Romancing Mister Bridgerton”)

***The coach belonging to the duchess of Magnus pulled up to the tall house on Berkley Square, and an impostor stepped out. (Christina Dodd “One Kiss from You”)

***Silver Ashcroft slipped through night and shadows, heart pounding and rage simmering. (Cheyenne McCray “Forbidden Magic”)

***It was a crime that Amelia Willoughby was not married. (Julia Quinn “Mr. Cavendish, I Presume”)

***Mathias was rudely awakened by a woman’s bloodcurdling scream. (Amanda Quick “Mischief”)

***I am going to die tonight. (Allison Brennan “Cutting Edge”)

***The boom-boom-boom of the distant lali—huge wooden drums—emulated the pounding of madcap hearts in the darkness. (Terri Valentine “Paradise Promised”)

I think I'm closing in on a zinger of an opening line!


  1. I've read excellent books with mediocre openings, and vice versa. I don't get pulled in or put off by the first line or paragraph of a book. It makes me wonder if too much emphasis is put on providing a 'zinger' of an opening line, as you call it, Ana. I've read bestsellers which start with a page of backstory, or a lengthy description of a street. For me, it's the 'blurb' which pulls me in or puts me off a book, not the first line, or even the first page.

  2. I have to agree with Paula. Yes, the first line makes me read more, but if I like what the book is about, I'll read it and give it at least 3 chapters before I decide against it. As a writer, I know editors want the hook, but I think if it's well-written, they'll read more than the first line before deciding whether or not to accept.

  3. Opening lines are important. I do like to start, whether reading or writing, in the middle of the action. Although it isn't a deal breaker if a book doesn't.

    One of my favorite opening lines is from E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web": "Where's Pa going with that ax?"

  4. Jane Austen's much-quoted first line in P&P could actually be classed as 'author intrusion' - but did that matter?
    I did however like the first line in a recently read novel which was 'Cassia Tallow was scrubbing the altar steps when she heard that she had inherited half a million pounds'.