Many very earnest and efficient writers like to start at the beginning, providing not only the protagonist’s first and last name but birth time and birth place. I’ve encountered books that will literally describe a hero’s entry into the world … via the birth canal! Starting a book off like this is the equivalent of showing your friends family vacation photos from when you went to a civil war reenactment with your grandparents. Agents will not only yawn, they may angrily shred your manuscript for wasting their time in the first place.

I recommend you start your book in the middle of the action. Put your protagonist in the exact situation that is causing him or her to struggle, and use the energy of that struggle as a catalyst to propel the story forward with stakes, tension, and vivid detail so that—most importantly—your reader will keep your book in hand (as will any potential agent), and want to keep turning pages.

This may sound formulaic but the combinations are endless. Better yet, it works. Writing literary fiction about a man who returns to his native Ireland for his father’s funeral but ends up getting swept up in unfinished business from the past that changes him forever? Start with him in the past, witnessing what has now become unfinished business. Or begin with him holding a conversation with the woman who drops a clue about his past that he can not ignore.

The examples above don’t require you to write a lot of background, which can bog the reader down in detail and drain the energy of your story—especially that energy at the beginning of your book that is so vital in capturing your reader. All you need is the man holding the glass, a woman subtly but intentionally luring him in with a juicy detail that evokes something in him he can never forget, and a funeral (his father). All necessary background information is filled in on an as-needed basis so that it works to inform the story, not suffocate it.

Good opening sentences:

  1. Rowan bit the back of his knuckle and leaned back in his leather office chair. The news came on a day when grief seemed to already have imbued the gray surface of his desk, the empty, acidic feeling in his chest and stomach, and the miserable weather. He wasn’t sure how much more he could take.

  3. “I don’t remember,” Myrna said vaguely. She looked away from Cooper, maybe hoping he’d change the subject or walk away. Her entire being felt lodged in her throat, and her heart sped. She had to lie. There was no other way.

  1. “I’m so glad you’re here.” Liz spoke with a breathlessness and deep satisfaction in her bones as she opened the heavy door to the cabin. It was nearly dusk and the cicadas were in full chorus, the light diffuse and still. She could see the sun setting off behind the distant pines. Morgan stepped in. Liz sighed; even the air around her seemed to relax.

(Action step: pick up some of your favorite books and check out their opening sentences and pages. Notice the balance between background and introductory information and action.)

Poor opening sentences:

  1. Margaret Alice Brensworth was born on a hot day in the middle of the summer. The kind of day her grandmother Alice Jayne Norgan called “fire on pavement.” She was born in 1972, the year the first handheld calculator came into production. Her mother was very proud of her from the time she made her first gurgle….

  3. Laura Smith woke up to her alarm shrieking in her ear. Today was the day of her big job interview. She had formerly been an executive assistant to her father’s friend, Miles Hannery, but after he died, the business went under, and now she was out of work. She hit the snooze button and turned on her side.

  5. When I was a little girl, I often dreamed about becoming a ballerina. I would put on my best tutu, and twirl all around the house, knocking over lamps on nightstands, and tables, and trying to stay up on my tippy toes for as long as I could. Then, one day, I finally got to go to a real ballet performance. It was then that I finally decided I wanted to be up on stage.

Provide enough detail so that the opening is practically cinematic. A reader has to be able to quickly envision your scene in their minds out without being distracted by lengthy descriptions of furniture or complicated relationships. Be vivid, colorful, interesting, and spare. (See my post Fiction 101: Details, Details.)


Lessons from My Kale and Mustard Greens

by Darla on July 9, 2013

This year I planted flowers and vegetables in my plot at my community garden. I decided to go public with my fledgling efforts at vegetable raising. From the look of the dozens of other plots around me, it appears my skills are not the worst of the bunch.

But I’m still new to this gig, and didn’t realize the amount of work involved—digging up the plot, preparing the soil, building a bed, framing it out, sowing seeds, transplanting seedlings, watering, tending … and, of course, weeding.

Oh my god, the weeding.

I had to face it during this last, long Fourth-of-July weekend, or my precious plants would be threatened by weed Armageddon. I promised myself I’d do it, despite the 96-degree weather. So I put my head down and marched in the direction of the work that lay before me.

The previous week, I had spoken with my unofficial gardening mentor—my mother’s friend, someone I knew from my childhood. She has successfully gardened every year for over twenty years. She confirmed what I had suspected—my kale and mustard just weren’t going to make it. Time to pull them up and plant something new. She suggested pumpkins; they would be ready in time for the fall harvest.

While I like pumpkins, and was excited at the opportunity to plant a new species in my garden, I wasn’t thrilled about killing off my lovely hopefuls. I really wanted to stir-fry some kale, make salads and kale chips, surprise my mother with a bunch of home-grown mustard greens—her favorite. But I had planted too late, or too early, depending on how you look at it, and those plants simply never made it. On top of that, they were getting eaten by some critter or other, and I just knew … it was time.

But I weeded rather than uprooting the ailing plants, wishfully thinking there might still be a way I could rescue them. I feared that the empty corner they had once occupied would sit there, absent, abandoned, reflecting failure on the rest of my harvest.

I was hanging on out of fear.

The weeding was hard work. My shoulders ached, sweat dripped down the backs of my legs, and my neck felt itchy. I bargained with myself, thinking that maybe I’d come back another time to finish the work—but as the sun began to set, the cicadas hummed, and evening birds were chirping, I found myself finally really enjoying my nine-by-ten-foot plot of tranquility.

I started to gain momentum with the weed-pulling. I was seeing progress. The weeds were no longer choking my precious plants. My plants began to look glorious in their cleaned-up and unfettered state. There was a payoff to this weeding, this removing of obstacles, uncovering the fruits of my labor.

I was surprised and delighted.

I was reminded of the areas of my life where I had also recently weeded—cleaning up my desk area, my spending, the images on my vision board, my diet—so that what remained was the life-giving stuff that resonated and promised return on my investment. By weeding, by removing what didn’t belong or threatened to choke, I aligned myself with what I was wanting—an organized work area, a debt-free life, a clear vision, and vibrant health.

I’m clearing the way and making room so that the things that remain can grow stronger. So that their beauty is unveiled.

Which is not unlike writing. And editing. And rewriting.

I was so attached to my kale and mustard greens that I doubted the strength of my other plants. If I removed the dying plants, I was afraid my garden would look bare. I did not realize that that it would end up looking so much healthier and more robust.

When I edit, I am taking away what is no longer beautiful. What no longer serves the whole. It is a process of removing, of creating space for what is already working, and making room for what needs to happen next …

I think my jack-o-lantern seeds will like it where the kale and mustard greens once grew. If I really wanted, I could always try them again the next year.


Right now I’m letting the garden take shape by simply allowing what is beautiful to remain.


Seven Habits of Highly Effective Writers

January 8, 2013

Compassion Compassion is at the top of the list. Without it, I can’t imagine a writer getting very far. As writers, we are often too hard on ourselves, either because we haven’t kept to a writing goal, or we got rejected from an agent, or we beat ourselves up, or judge and shame our writing. […]

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How To Hire An Editor

October 15, 2012

You have written a book or you are in the process of writing one. That’s great! Maybe you’re just thinking about writing one. It’s going to be a bestselling novel. Or maybe it is more practical—a tool for promoting your coaching practice, something you can sell at a public-speaking event. You need an editor, or […]

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