Monday, December 3, 2012

Where do I begin – Deciding where to start your story

I've just finished judging the First Impression contest for ACFW, which is such a great idea for a contest.

It made me start thinking about starting a story and I’m going to try and talk with you about where, when and how.

I’m open to other opinions here because it’s tricky, so chime in.

I always say explode your story. Explode that book onto the page. But it’s not enough to explode for the sake of exploding. You've got to explode your story.

The opening of a book needs to do five things.
1) Explode
2) Story 
3) Anchor
4) Moment of Change
5) Cute Meet

1) EXPLODE- I mean something big, emotionally or physically, right off the bat.
When you’re revising your book take a few moments and VISUALIZE the editor. Visualize her sitting at her desk with STACKS of manila envelopes to her left and right. You know she is exhausted, overwhelmed, she’s got a lot of other jobs besides acquiring and she’s set 2-4 pm aside daily to read submissions from unpublished authors.

She rips open envelop after envelop and here’s the thing…she WANTS to buy your story. She wants something to grab her and excite her. She is hoping and praying she’ll find a new author. SHE NEEDS YOU.

Now, I don’t know this, but I suspect you've got about two minutes. You have got to grab her just like you're going to have to grab a reader when your book is published. You've got to write something exciting and you've got about half a page to do it.

Now look at your opening. Is it there? Is what she needs going to leap right off the page at her? Your story needs to explode.

HOWEVER it needs to not just explode for the sake of an explosion. There needs to be a point. It’s your STORY that’s exploding not just some random action scene to hook an editor.

2) STORYStory! Story! Story! I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH!!! YOU'VE GOT TO TELL ME YOUR STORY. The story need to be there, front and center. I don’t think I can stress this enough. You’ve got to tell me the story. Yes, explode the book, but WHAT STORY ARE YOU GOING TO TELL? The trickiness of starting a book becomes MUCH SIMPLER if you just tell me your story from word one!

One of my recurring comments in judging is, “I still have no idea the story you’re going to tell me. I can’t tell by reading if this is a romance, who the hero and heroine are going to be, I don’t know where I am, when I am, who these people are and what story you’re going to tell. This is a sure fired way to get your submission rejected. START THE STORY. It needs to be in there. If it’s NOT in there, then you need to rework it until it is. I should NOT have to go to the blurb to know your story. No, not even in a short submission like five pages. TELL ME YOUR STORY! (have I stressed that enough, yet?)

3) ANCHORWHERE am I, WHEN am I, WHO are these people. When someone picks up a Mary Connealy book hopefully from my past work, the cover, and the backstory blurb, a reader flips open the page knowing what to expect. It’s gonna be a historical romance set in the America West, post-Civil War. But even with the reader knowing that, I still need to anchor them firmly in a time and place for them to join me on this journey. A tag after the title isn't enough. AND—I CAN’T LET IT STOP MY STORY FROM EXPLODING!

Yes, you can put a date under the title
Over the Edge
Rawhide, Colorado
October 30, 1866
Chapter One
(sometimes I include setting here, Rawhide, Colorado, but I didn't in Over the Edge)

But no place and date can do the job of drawing in a reader. That isn't enough to truly anchor your reader and draw them into the world you’re trying to create. You don’t have to be heavy handed about this. If Callie Kincaid is in a stagecoach hold up, I’m done. I've anchored them. A stagecoach sets you in time and place.

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I haven’t said:

Callie Kincaid was riding through the Colorado Rockies in 1866.
Instead page one, sentence one of Over the Edge:

A bullet slammed through the door of the stagecoach, threading a needle to miss all four passengers.

It’s a hold-up!” Callie Kincaid grabbed her rifle. “Get down!”

Almost every reader is immediately going to start thinking about a stagecoach hold-up they’ve seen in a movie. And I’m done. It’s cowboys. It’s the American west. Horses, rifles, Stetsons. It’s all done with one sentence. I work Colorado in pretty soon, but honestly there’s little time with the bullets flying. And at this point Colorado isn’t important because the reader knows exactly where they are in a general sense. The Wild West.

4) Moment of Change— I've heard it said to start your story at the moment of change. So, okay, picture yourself right now. What are you doing? Duh, you’re reading Seekerville. Then, maybe you've got screaming kids tugging on your knees, or it’s time to get dinner or you've got to head out to work, or you’re going to write for an hour. I’m sorry to tell you this, but YOUR LIFE ISN'T A STORY. The stuff you did yesterday and today and tomorrow is all good, it’s life and it’s a good life. But it’s not a STORY. (and be thankful for that, most stories are full of trouble--in fact PRAY that your life never becomes a story!). A story usually begins when that everyday life is changed.

The phone rings.
A knock on the door.
An outlaw shoots you out of the saddle.
A man plunges over a creek bank riding his horse at full speed and a woman races to save his life.
The train pulls up and a tall, dark and handsome stranger steps off and his fiery hazel eyes lock on yours.

Now THAT’S a story. Pick that moment of change. How does your heroine’s life suddenly change?

In Too Deep, the hero and heroine already know each other. But there’s that awful, beautiful cavern and it nearly steals the heroine’s baby from her forever. Ethan saves the baby and Audra knows she’s got to get away from that cavern. It’s too dangerous for a toddler. Ethan and Audra are married by the first sentence of Chapter Two. There’s your moment of change.

In Too Deep
Chapter One

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"Ethan! Where's Maggie?"  
Ethan's head snapped up at Audra's sharp tone. "What?"
Audra, rounding a boulder, just coming into view, dropped an armload of kindling. With the baby, Lily clutched to her chest, she charged forward calling, "Maggie!"
"I thought she stayed with you?" Ethan rose from where he crouched by the morning fire and turned in a circle, searching for the toddler. 

Mary again—the kindling, the morning fire, these cues set this book in the past. I suppose it could be a camping trip, but hopefully it’s enough. The explosion is a missing toddler and the accompanying panic and desperate search. But the story is there, too. A mother with children, a heroic cowboy there to help. And the moment of change, once we’re done exploding of course, is that Audra needs to get away which propels the marriage and the change that begins our story.

5) Cute Meet—Begin your story with the moment the hero/heroine have their cute meet.
Have you ever heard that in a romance the hero and heroine need to meet by page three? This is a hard and fast rule in shorter romances. Especially unshakable for a new author trying to get that first contract. You can try and push the envelop later, when you’re established, but for now, no matter the length, if you’re trying to get published, a great way to start your story is for the hero and heroine to meet. BAM! Page one. Sentence one. No backstory. No prologue. Just have them meet.

In Out of Control, Rafe and Julia meet when Rafe hears a scream for help. This--the moment they meet--is such an obvious place to start a romance novel that if you DON’T pick it, you’d better have a really good reason. This is the moment of change, this can explode, this can anchor you in time and place. THIS IS YOUR STORY!
Out of Control
Chapter One

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Last time. This is it. Never again.
Rafe Kincaid pulled his chestnut thoroughbred to a halt in full darkness, still a distance away from the entrance of the cavern. (Mary--Rafe is riding a horse, BAM cowboy, American west, historical, his name...the book is anchored)
He rubbed the ugly, jagged scar that ran from the corner of his eye to his hairline just above his ear. He was glad he had it. A lifelong reminder of that awful day eleven years ago and this treacherous cavern. He'd grown up fast. 
A breeze came down across the mountains and cooled the air and made the tree branches bob and dance. Like most summer nights in the Colorado Rockies, a fire would feel good. (Mary--more anchors, Colorado Rockies)
Rafe smelled grass. Over the crest of this rugged, heavily-wooded mountain, his cattle dozed in the moonlight, spread out over a lush meadow. 

But tonight he wasn’t looking for cattle. Instead he was looking to make his peace. 

Right in front of him stood a cave entrance, nothing but a hole in the ground. It looked like a mouth gaped open with the cornered turned down in a scowl. Mouth was a good word for it because this place almost swallowed his family whole. 

Then he saw the rope.

A rope coiled beside the entrance to the cave. (Mary--the explosion, an intruder, in Rafe's cave)
Narrowing his eyes, he swung down and hitched his chestnut to a scrub pine. It’d been over a decade since Rafe had fought his battle with that cavern. And he’d faced that cave many times since because he refused to let it defeat him. But he’d never seen evidence anyone else had been in it. Not since Seth had run off.

He took two more steps and heard Seth scream. (Mary--more of the explosion, screaming is ALWAYS GOOD! )

Cold control sleeted in his veins as he drew his gun, leveled it. The metallic crack as he cocked it
There was nothing to aim at. 

Seth didn't scream. Seth wasn't down there.

Another scream split the air. (Mary--the cute meet and the moment of change, though screaming and cute don't seem to go together, nothing cute in the real world about screaming usually. But in a novel they fit, and that screamer is Julia, of course. The change is, love comes into Rafe's overly controlled life in the form of a feisty damsel in distress who needs to be rescued in many ways, which will keep Rafe busy for 80,000 words)

The thing is, I’m not giving you a list of five possible ways to start your story. Your story needs to start with ALL OF THEM.

Moment of Change
Cute Meet

If you do this, when that overworked, hopeful but pessimistic editor pulls your submission out of it’s envelop, you've got a lot better chance of her reading past page one. You might even end up getting THE CALL!!!

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Candlelight Christmas
My latest release is an ebook Christmas novella containing two books, one by me, one by Linda Goodnight.
If you have read this (and liked it) I would really appreciate it if you'd go LIKE it on Amazon and leave a review.

Two Inspirational Christmas Stories ...
1. The Outlaw’s Gift by Linda Goodnight
1880s Oklahoma Territory
When drifter Seth Blackstone shows up at Raven Patterson’s homestead, Raven thinks this may be the solution to all her problems. But Seth’s mysterious past is about to catch up with him and could mean disaster for them both.
2. The Christmas Candle by Mary Connealy
Arkansas Ozarks 1883
Gabe Wagner, has left his hectic city life and moved onto Rose Palmer’s mountain. His plans to build a house will tear the heart out of her Ozark Mountain home. Rose learns that what she calls peace and quiet has evolved into isolation and loneliness. As Christmas approaches and she searches for the perfect way to honor the Savior’s birth, she realizes she wants to let Gabe into her life. But to do it, she may have to face a larger world that frightens her while she gives up the safe life she has always known.
Can the search for the perfect Christmas candle and the broken hearts of two little boys bring a solitary woman and a grieving man together?



    L*I*S*T*E*N to her. She didn't final in the Christies, and the RITA's and win the Carol for no good reason.

  2. Could I start a story with a pot of coffee? I know, I'll make it an exploding pot of coffee!

    Okay, I get it. Thanks for the pointers, Mary.


  3. Great tips, Mary! Thanks for sharing. I'm starting a new book and really needed this fantastic reminder.

  4. Explode?



    One thing I think I'm pretty good at is knowing where to start a story.

    Getting night vision goggles to stalk someone.

    A funeral for a late sibling - complete with orphans looking to you.

    A car accident.

    Refusing to order a bride through a catalog.

    On a day of infamy. In a place of infamy.

    With a phone call and shocking accusations. Shocking *and* false accusations.

    With a pretty boy going on the heroine's minimalist hiking trip.

    Seriously, it's something I've heard a number of times in contests etc.

    Jeff Gerke says you have to establish normal before you can take it away. But you can do that very quickly. There's a norm in a stagecoach and it's not with bullets flying through it. There's a norm riding the range and screaming banshees aren't [usually] part of it.

    And so on :D.

    In the meantime, I need to get back to my middle and pray it doesn't sag.

    Thanks to all of you who are judging First Impressions! You rock!

    [here's hoping my opening in my entry grabbed someone... :D]

  5. Agh, Agh, I'm working on ch 6 right now, but I've got ch 1 open and fiddling now!

  6. Scalding exploding water can only lead to good things, Helen. Good luck. and thanks for the coffee.


  7. Hi Tina! I loved the elf video in the weekend edition.


  8. Liz, good luck with the new story. I always just LOVE starting a new book.

  9. Carol, the moment on change is I suppose leaving the real world. So Jeff can be right at the same time I will tell you not to LINGER over establishing the real world. It can so so so so easily slump into backstory.

  10. Melissa I fiddle with the beginning of a book so many times trying to get it JUST RIGHT. And I think it only gets better and better.

    My WIP right now starts out with a brawl, started by my heroine and descends into somethign of a mud wrestling mess.

    Believe me when I say I've fiddled with it a dozen times (at least) trying to make it move, make it funny and make it a big old mess...that of course is all rooted in the story I'm telling.

    (I hope!)

  11. Awesome post! As an avid reader I wholeheartedly agree with everything here!I hadn't really thought through all the details but it's true that if those things are missing at the start I may not look any further!

  12. Great stuff here, Mary. Excellent reminders!

  13. BAM!

    I felt like I was watching that cooking show with the guy from Louisiana.

    I don't think my hero and heroine meet until page 6 in Season of Joy. (It says 11... but that's just page numbers.)

    Start on the day that is different, I've heard. I like that one.

    Carol, loved that Jeff Gerke quote.

    I really liked the use of staging. Definitely showing and not telling.

    Helen, I'm not real fond of exploding coffee!

  14. I knew I was going to do something this weekend. Write a review! I had an emotionally draining weekend and am so exhausted I couldn't do it justice will try to remember tomorrow.

    And Exploding coffee pot sound dangerous.

    Oh and I have Melissa on my blog today which is so cool.

  15. I'm listening. Always. Mary never fails to pull of the knockout opening.
    Now off to look at page one again.

    Happy Monday!

  16. As a reader, you are right, Explode should be number 1. That is what gets a reader hooked right away on a book.

    I loved your whole post and agree whole heartedly with what you posted. I for one love your books. I have never ever been disappointed in any of them.


  17. Good morning Mary -yes I think I would probably say your books do explode, I like reading all the excitement you put in them and seeing the characters interact with one another. I know it will be a good read when I pick up one of your books. liked reading the post today and can see you standing there with smoke curling around you as you shout out for writers to make their stories explode.
    love to be in the drawing
    Paula O(

  18. After my editor cut the first four pages of my last manuscript so the hero/heroine could meet sooner, I immediately reworked my next proposal so the hero/heroine meet by the end of page two.

    In another proposal, my hero/heroine meet by the third line of text.

    So, I've learned my lesson!

  19. Mary,

    Oh why couldn't this printer post have been put up about a month ago before the 1st Impressions deadline *smacks head on desk* Well, it's coo--this great info always can be applied to the next entry!


  20. Right on perfect! Every single point has to be included.

    Every. Single. Point.

    You've just written the best Christmas gift of all--how to start a killer novel.

    Even your Christmas novella starts off with a ...

  21. MARY - I LOVE a good opening! Yours always deliver on that as the reader gets breathlessly swept into the story!

    In the Love Inspired contemporaries, they do like the hero & heroine to meet ASAP. Except for my "Texas Twins" continuity book, Look-Alike Lawman (which has them meet at the end of the first scene--only 5 pages into the book), my others have started with them together in the middle of something as the story opens.

    If writers follow your 5-point guideline, they'll really boost their chances for catching a judge's, agent's or editor's eye!

  22. Love your 2nd point. Story.

    I feel so ripped if the first couple of pages are "explosion", but then it really has nothing to do w/the story. It was just a device to get my attention.

    Mary, you make a lot of sense. Great way to start of my week.

    Connie Queen

  23. This is such a keeper, Mary. Thank you!!!! I could see bits of my story in each point -- and where I can improve. My biggest issue is Anchor though. And it is in everything I write. I'm almost hesitant about committing to all that logistical anchoring stuff -- like setting. So I write around it, which doesn't always work. :-)

  24. Great stuff, Mary!

    And you know what... Sometimes I don't notice the place, year and date when I pick up a manuscript, but when I find myself having to look to see where I am, then I know the story isn't anchored enough with those details, and my attention has wandered.

  25. Hey Mary, Great post. Spot on.

    Looking forward to reading your Christmas story.
    I'll write a review for you if you write one for me.

    Oops better order the books first. Is it on Kindle?

  26. hooray, a Mary Connealy post! always interesting, always informative, and always with the quirky humor of hers i so love.

    now i know what is wrong with a few of my openings of WIPs. i'm missing one or more of the five MUST HAVES. this post will make me a better writer - for this, i am so grateful.

    thank you Mary. thank you, thank you, thank you...(to the power of infinity)

  27. Excellent post, Mary. I remember reading a post (maybe here) that listed a set of 'no-no's': Heroine driving and thinking. Heroine waking up and thinking. Heroine talking with girlfriend and thinking out loud.

  28. Mary, I loved this! The whole thought of an explosive beginning makes such sense! I'm going to have to think on how to really do that with a contemporary women's fiction.

    I'm coming back later to read. At least I hope I am. My friend's husband has surgery at 9:00 today. I plan to be there with her.

    My brain is working, my stomach is tensing as possibilities begin to whir. Thanks, Mary.

  29. Love the advice and I intend to use it!! Thanks!

  30. Jeanne, God bless you for being with your friend today. The Post will still be here, waiting.

    That's the beauty of Seekerville.

  31. BTW, I just finished Look-Alike Lawman. I'm slow, I'm sorry, but Glynna's latest book is really wonderful.
    Such a great, wise, sweet love story. YAY GLYNNA!

  32. Oh, and Glynna managed to have some shooting in it. Nice Work!

  33. Sherri Shackleford, to me, there is no greater, easier, more THOROUGH way to kill your book than for it to open with the heroine, driving, thinking.
    Absolutely WRONG.
    What she is inevitably thinking is all ALL THAT HAS COME BEFORE. It's like a backstory dump trapped in an inaction scene.
    Go cut that.
    But do NOT think it's wasted.
    I guess that makes it bearable to me to cut words I love and need. Because you need to work out all that stuff she's thinking about. You NEED IT.
    Just not all at once, up front, in an enert, motionless car ride. (No, the car moving doesn't count as action!)

  34. I love cute meets!!! What an absolutely excellent post. Keeping this in mind!

  35. Is it my imagination or am I seeing a lot of new names here today?
    Anyone who is new to seekerville and who feels brave, I'd love for you to introduce yourselves.

  36. Jessica, one of my very favorite 'cute meets' in my own work is when is when Sally McClellen is shot out of her saddle, goes plunging over a cliff and falls right past Logan MacKenzie, who is sitting in a tree painting.

    Sally gets snagged by a tree and hangs there, for only seconds. Their eyes meet.
    Her certain death is there in her eyes for him to see.

    Then she plunges on down.

  37. ROSE, what you said about your editor cutting all that happens before your couple meet, to an author that seems BRUTAL.


    You know what??? NO YOU DON'T! You need your characters to get together.

  38. Excellent excellent, Mary.

    My fave section for laffs I’m sorry to tell you this, but YOUR LIFE ISN'T A STORY. The stuff you did yesterday and today and tomorrow is all good, it’s life and it’s a good life. But it’s not a STORY. (and be thankful for that, most stories are full of trouble--in fact PRAY that your life never becomes a story!).

    Needed that! :)

    Mary, you write the kind of books I aspire to write. Thanks for being the pathfinder who is willing to teach.

    May sends her best sniffs and greetings!!!

  39. and wow - Tina... NO comment?!

    Your work is done, Mary. Savor the moment! With Helen's explosion this, as you say, can only lead good things. :)

  40. Perfect post! Starting a new story is always hard for me. Especially the first line, because I want it to grab the reader.

    And I always WANT to dump in lots of backstory and setting and details when I really just need to get the action moving. :)

  41. Mary, what a GREAT post!!! I'm going to post that list somewhere. Like over my screen. And on the wall. And on my forehead!

    Such a great reminder that we need to do all of those things. I need to especially remember to EXPLODE. In my sweet romances I need to make sure to have enough action. In my next book, I open with the hero walking in after the yarn shop is closed and startling the heroine. So for me, I guess that's an explosion. :) (no guns, no horses, no screaming, although the heroine jumps up and sends her chair scraping across the floor). :)

  42. My very favorite subject to read about writing is how to start. I can have every single important aspect in my head & in an outline but I will suffer for months about where/how to start. Thankfully, I 'finally' have a beginning I like & it has everything you listed, except the cute meet. But it is fairly intense so I'll work on putting something cute/sweet right after the opening scene.

    I needed to hear this! Thanks!!

  43. It really helps me to visualize that editor.

    Think of HER.

    Entertain HER!

  44. One important thing about starting is, YOU CAN'T GET IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME!
    Don't sit there with a cursor blinking on a blank, white screen while you figure out PERFECT.
    Instead, plan on coming back. Plan on reworking it. Plan on picking the exact right spot INCORRECTLY at first.
    But write it and get on with your story.

  45. What Erica said about that first line is so important. Yes, it needs to be exactly right. But it doesn't need to be exactly right AT FIRST.
    You've got to plan on going back, tinkering if not outright disgarding and rewriting that beginning multiple times.

    Your story needs to start in a really compelling way to entice an editor--AND A READER, the editor is the gatekeeper but getting through the gate means you have to face the reader so you want to charm the gatekeeper for a VERY GOOD REASON.

  46. PS KC has a new book out.
    I just bought it and I can't wait.
    I'm starting my nearly 4 year old Granddaughter on the May the K9 Spy books.
    KAV is being interviewed today on The Borrowed Book
    The Borrowed Book with May the K9 Spy and KC Frantzen

    And you can buy MAY FINDS A WAY-Peril in Paris MAY FINDS A WAY-Peril in Paris Here


    Let's all just pause and soak in the joy of this moment!!!

  48. I'm thrilled your live link works. I'm soaking.

  49. I can honestly say I have the exploding moment, although I wonder if yelling at my computer counts.


    I use date tags, but not always. I could probably work on my anchor better, so people continue to follow where I am.

    As for the meeting, I don't mind a cute meet, but when the couple is all googly-eyed with each other and in love two pages from the cute meeting, I'm not buying it.

    Pacing is so important.

  50. Awesome, awesome, awesome!!! Gonna add this blog post to my list of must reads for new writers!

  51. Tina, I like for there to be just a moment, a shared attraction for one second, and then BAM! Antagonism reins.

    And I don't always do that.
    In Doctor in Petticoats, Beth McClellen is deeply, deeply disgusted by Alex Buchanan. But by the end of what turns out to be quite a long two full chapters with the stagecoach wreck and the injured people and Beth slapping Alex around...there is a nice moment.
    And then he helps her and she's glad and then he puts her hands on her during and argument and she has to ... HARM HIM!

    You know, just because I say it doesn't mean I know what the heck I'm talking about.

    I'm open to disagreements or other elements you think need to be there. Don't necessarily take what I say as the FINAL WORD on a topic because I often lead people badly astray with my ADVICE.

  53. By all means, Harm him. I can handle that, even let her think of him afterwords, find his eyes lovely with a strong desire to blacken one of them.


  54. I don't know that I always have a big, exciting thing happen at the beginning, I suppose there can be subtle freak you type openings as well. Or thoughts that tug you in.

    Here's the start for my upcoming book. To Carry Her Cross

    The corridors closed like arbors of pitch around him. Snakes of black mist slithered along tar walls, melding until but a glimpse of their silken, lucid skin remained. Harrison's small torch acted as a dismal beacon to their whereabouts. Real or perceived, his senses, riotous, confused, felt them.

  55. Love it - and love this whole series of books too. I just love Mary in general ;-)


  56. This is the best article I've ever read about how to write a story.

  57. Still not done but this is my WIP which is book three of the Trouble in Texas series, book one of which has still not released so I'm working WAY AHEAD. (which is good)
    (hint, Duffy is NOT the hero, but the hero comes charging in very soon, about the same time Tina falls into the horse trough, breaks out the side of it and washes water all over Main Street, turning it into a mud hole)

    Stuck Together
    December 31st, 1868
    Chapter One

    Tina Cahill finished hammering a hefty board across the front of Duffy’s Tavern. Carefully printed on the board were the words ‘Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here’.
    It sent a message at the same time it nailed Duffy’s door shut.
    Tina’s plan was to get his notice.
    “That tears it!” Duffy roared from inside the saloon.
    He’d noticed.
    With one hard shove, he swung the batwing doors open and knocked down her sign, which clattered across the wooden sidewalk. Tina was encouraged when it stayed in one piece—handy for using again later.
    Duffy Schuster glared at Tina.
    “Close this den of iniquity, Duffy Schuster.” To make her point more fully, she looked behind her for her placard—she had this in addition to her sign. It said ‘Whiskey—The Poison Scourge’ on one side and ‘LIQUOR--A Thief in Your Mouth that Steals Your Brain’ on the other.
    She spied it leaning against the saloon and picked it up, intending to wave it in Duffy’s face.
    “I am sick of you standing outside my tavern.”
    Duffy hot breath blasted her neck. Startled, she whirled around. It was a complete accident that her placard slammed Duffy right in the head.
    Duffy staggered backward through the swinging doors of the saloon, howling in pain. An unfortunately located spittoon tripped him and he fell, pin-wheeling his arms.
    He backhanded his brother, Griss.
    Griss, the worse for drink, bellowed.
    Tina peeked through the slapping doors. “I’m sorry, gentlemen.”
    She wasn’t really. Well, she was. She hadn’t intentionally clubbed Duffy in the head. And it was just the worst sort of luck—for Duffy—that her placard was on a very stout stick. And it wasn’t her fault about the stick either. Why, just last week, Griss had snapped the handle of her sign right in half. So of course she’d chosen a thicker length of wood this time.
    But if ever a man needed a length of wood taken to his head it was Duffy Schuster…and his brother right along with him. So in that sense she wasn’t all that sorry.

  58. How about starting a story with an actual STARTER? You know, like the one under the hood of your car??? Do-able???

  59. Aaron, is the STARTER going to explode? Because if so then...maybe. :)

  60. Tea Norman, seriously, the very best? How cool is that, huh?
    Read in the archives. There are HUNDREDS of great craft posts.

  61. Waving to Janna!

    Welcome to Seekerville, Tea!

    Hey, Mary, you hit a home run with this blog! Excellent and right on the target.

    What could we add? You've nailed it!

    Checking Chapter One of my WIP to ensure I exploded into the story, anchored the reader (which is so, so important IMHO), clued the reader into the the journey ahead, and provided the moment of change for my heroine. The hero comes on stage a few beats later.

    Grabbing a cup of Helen's coffee and heading back to work.

  62. Mary - you make me want to try again.

    Thank you.

  63. Well that post woke me up in a hurry! LOL.

    Great advice, as usual, Mary!

    For a while I was confused by the whole 'show the ordinary world' before you show the 'call to action' and the 'refusal to go', etc.

    I like Mary's way better! Just blow the ordinary world up!!

    Thanks for the smile, Mary!

    sbmason at sympatico dot ca

  64. Thank you - that is so interesting...really makes sense and I really enjoyed those books..I've read most of them.

  65. I am an influencer/reviewer on my blog. Thank you for pointing out what to look for to accent for other readers! Kathleen

  66. Oh, goodness, I came by earlier but got distracted when I scrolled down to Tina's Weekend Edition and the elf video! Spent the next 30 minutes creating JibJabs of hubby and me with the kids and grandkids!

    Anyway . . . what a super post, Mary! I'm getting ready to start my next book, so this is perfect timing. You've got me brainstorming how to explode my opening. Which means the scene I'd been contemplating needs to be totally rethunk!


    Love that saloon scene, those signs, the smack on the head, etc.

    I will now only refer to whiskey as 'the thief in your mouth that steals your brain'. So pithy, so concise.

  68. Myra, was the JibJabs video you did easy to use? Tina is a techy guru. I, on the other hand, am computer challenged, thus the reason for my question. :)

  69. Mary, I've been paying attention to beginnings for a long time, doesn't mean I always get them right, but I think you've pretty much nailed it.

    I know newbies' heads are probably spinning trying to figure out how to get all of those elements right up front, but you've shared excellent examples.

  70. As a reader I discover I have become more discrimination as I get older. If that first chapter or two doesn't grab me, I will set the book aside.


  71. Debby, you just have to upload a photo with a clear view of a face, then adjust the "points" around it to the right shape. A one-year subscription so you can share via email, Facebook, etc., is $12. I laughed so hard, it was worth it!

  72. Lost in Thought

    Marie drove the Mercedes past the Eifel Tower and turned towards the Champs Élysées. She had never been so lost in thought.

    Should she kill her husband first and then shoot the mistress or should she shoot him first and then kill the mistress? If she killed the mistress first, it would pain her husband but it would also give him time to try and sweet talk her out of killing him. That was never going to happen again.

    Marie approached her destination.

    “If I kill Vinnie first, wouldn’t it seem cruel and redundant to also kill Christina? Tee wasn’t particularly bad as Vinnie’s mistresses went. And what did Brutus say? ‘If we cut off the head need we also cut off the limbs?’”

    “Who cares anyway? Thinking is overrated and I’m not Hamlet. My days on the stage are long over. Besides in ten minutes I’m going to know exactly what I decided.”

    Marie drove down into the parking garage. This was her golden opportunity to kill both of them and get away with it scot-free. She just loved Guido for setting this whole thing up.

    “Next time I won’t marry a guy his associates call, ‘Vinnie the Weasel’.”


    What does Marie do?
    Will poor Tee survive?
    Can Vinnie sweet talk himself out of trouble one more time?
    Will Marie marry Guido?
    Does thinking really make it so?

  73. Love the suspense, Vince!

    The clock is ticking.

  74. Thanks for the info, Myra! I'll be expecting to see some of your videos on Seekerville! :)

  75. Yeah, I am having waaaaaay toooo much fun with JibJabs.

  76. Love this post. I'm a start slow and build person, but I've gotten much better. But openings still are the hardest part for me. I need to think explosion, car crash...maybe not that dramatic, but close.

  77. Im with Patty if a book doesn't grab me in the first chapter or tow I also will not continue reading the book.

  78. Christina said: "Yeah, I am having waaaaaay toooo much fun with JibJabs."

    LOL--it's addictive, isn't it?

  79. Haven't read every comment, but don't have your first line make no sense stylistically with the rest of your chapter just for attention sake--some of you write sweet, languid, literary books--no matter what Connealy says, shooting someone out of a saddle in line one is going to make me mad at you if the rest of the chapter doesn't read like that. :)

    I recently read the "Look inside" of a recommended book by some lady who was trying to tell me that CBS fiction wasn't written well, and the first line was quite interesting....I had no idea what it had to do with the pages that followed though! It seemed to be pretty just for pretty sake.

    I also saw a really cool turn of phrase in a contest entry that captured my attention and promised me something really intriguing, but then I realized it was just hyperbole of the character's thoughts.

    So don't do this!

    Jenny picked up her rapier and pointed it at her nemesis; the sweet scent of death was about to fill her kitchen. Wham! She stabbed the bread that failed to rise with a butter knife. Why couldn't she bake a decent loaf of bread for once? All her friends laughed at her, but what would the Englisher Tyrell think of an Amish girl who couldn't bake?

  80. Um, that would be CBA fiction.

    Though I guess you could do the Amish bread stabbing girl if the character often thought like this as part of her character. Point is make sure sentence one fits with the story rather than only be there for attention catching purposes.

  81. Melissa is so right about this. Just like the opening explosion, your opening line needs to make sense for the STORY!

  82. Vince, I think you should start when she kills someone. Action.

    Of course if this is the heroine and she starts off the book killing someone (no matter how deserving) you've got your hands full making her likeable. :)

    Ultimately, it's your book. Do what you want.

  83. I think a bread-killing Amish girl is gonna be a tough sell.

    Although with Amish fiction, who knows. Might just jump right onto the shelves.

  84. Hi Mary:

    To be serious I didn’t enter “Frist Impression” because I didn’t feel it could hold up to the standards of a powerful opening. I’m rewriting the opening right now and trying to do everything you have in your list. I think the hero and heroine will meet by the third page if you mean single spaced pages in a real book.

    I would add one more element to your list and that is make your hero and heroine as sympathetic as possible as soon as possible. Really think about this. If readers truly care about your characters they will put up with some poor writing in order to find out what happens to them. I’ve been working very hard on little things that would make the characters more likeable. Just the right word or two and make a big difference.

    Alternative openings.

    Sandra Byrd, in her YA books, uses multiple AEs, anticipatory events, page after page. Her books are almost impossible to stop reading. I think a book could start with a series of irresistible AEs and work fine (depending on the genre.) Here is the opening of “Don’t Kiss Him Good-Bye”:

    It was just a kiss. I saw him give her a simple kiss, a quick kiss, an innocent peck . . . because they were saying good-bye and no one was watching. But someone was watching them—me. Not that I’d meant to.

    This opening hooked me and I’m not the intended teen reader. Simple yet wonderful. Then there is the opening that is written so well that you know at once you are in for a treat in reading the book.

    Here’s the opening to Julie Lessman’s, "A Passion Most Pure"

    LATE SUMMER, 1916

    Sisters are overrated, she decided. Not all of them, of course, only the beautiful ones who never let you forget it. Faith O'Connor stood on tiptoe behind the side porch, squinting through her mother's prized lilac bush. The sound of summer locusts vibrated in her ears as she gasped, inches from where her sister, Charity, stood in the arms of- "Collin, someone might hear us," Charity whispered. "Not if we don't talk," Collin said. His index finger stroked the cleft of her sister's chin.

    How could you not want to read further! Notice this is similar in AEs to the Byrd book? AE’s work too. Of course, I think Julie has said here on Seekerville that “A Passion Most Pure” was rejected 1067 times so, as good as it is, an explosion or two may have been quicker. : )

    In summary: I think it is helpful if you have an opening that makes the reader think: “Oh, I just love stories like this! I can’t wait to dive in!”

    But then a whole lot of us love explosions.


  85. SUCH good advice. I LOVE Seekerville (and am glad I don't do romance so I only have FOUR things to fit in there LOL). Will be keeping this in mind BIGTIME when I start reworking/plotting/writing my WIP.

    And enter me. Duh, right??

  86. Second Attempt :

    Marie got out of the Mercedes. She already had the Glock in her hand ready to fire. No one else seemed to be in the underground Paris parking garage. The plan was working. When her husband and his mistress approached Vinnie’s prize Lamborghini, she shot and killed them both. Then she got back into her car and left. Guido would be very happy about how well things went.


    Mary: Do you like this opening better? My first opening used AEs. “What’s going to happen. What’s going to happen.”

    This one has more direct violence. Why did this happen? What’s next?

    I’m not sure now which I like best.


  87. VINCE, LOL except for this opening needing to be like....ten pages long, it's fine. You need to add some terrorizing, some begging for mercy, some five senses, the bang of the gun, the smell of sulfer, the mistress on her knees begging for mercy. And I'd shoot the stinking lamborghini, too, clearly the man was having a mid-life crisis, for which he needed to die.

  88. Vince Great Point, making your characters sympathetic.

    You know a constant refrain I hear from aspiring authors is: But she's TROUBLED. She's going to GROW in the course of the book. She's going to find faith and change her life.

    Short hand for that, My heroine's an unlikeable jerk but trust me.

    No, I don't trust you. If you were a long established author that I knew would deliver a great book I might trust you. (and those authors have failed me before, too, and that can get ugly)

    But not an unpublished author. You've got to make me care about her right out of the box.

  89. I read a book from a beloved author that just dragged. Like the whole first chapter was backstory and internal musing and set up.

    I kept reading because I trusted her but the whole time I'm slogging through that beginning I'm thinking, "Shame on you. This is just LAZY. You'd have NEVER gotten this published if you weren't who you are."

  90. Hi Mary:

    Update & Last Post. Promise.

    Actually, in my first story I didn’t plan on having Marie kill Vinnie. She was going to kill him when there was a mob hit on him. He’s wounded, Tee is killed, and Marie kills one of the hitmen. Both Marie and Vinnie have to go underground and hide out until things blow over. Vinnie thinks Marie came to save his life, sees what a jewel he has in his wife, and vows to be a good husband evermore. The romance is if they can survive the mob’s revenge and still get back together again. A lot of conflict here.


    P.S. Based on what you said, I had to adjust. I could not make Marie a heroine after killing Vinnie or Tee.

  91. Thank you, Mary! I'm late to the party, but I SO needed to read this today.

    I love the way you anchor the reader in those first few pages. I never feel lost in a Mary Connealy book.

    And Tina? I ALWAYS listen to Mary. A person would have to be a fool not to listen when Mary talks, right?

  92. Mary thanks for these great pointers.

    This is going in my to be saved file.

    Now I'm going back to my stories to see if they explode. I think my biggest problem is the cute meet in the first five pages. I can figure out the explode and start with action, but the cute meet is harder for me.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Jackie L.

  93. Jan, I'm going to print up your comment and show it to my husband and suggest he would have to be a fool not to listen when I talk.

    His response? Probably something along the lines of, "Wait until a commercial."
    Or maybe, "Yes dear." (while yawning and watching TV)

  94. Jackie, you need to get them together, girl. c'mon now!

  95. Vince, just a question, is Vinnie your hero? And if so, should your hero be named after you?

  96. Great information, Mary! I'd prefer to ease into a story, but I don't want to put readers to sleep, so I try for a fast start. I love how you do it!

  97. Love this advice. I just wrote the first, well, maybe fifth "first draft" of my opening last night.

    I do have a question though.

    I'm wondering how you handle a Cute Meet when the hero and heroine have already met. Old flames.

    My story opens with the hero crumpling a telegram stating his presence is required at the reading of his estranged father's will. Readying to go home, he runs across a memento of his first love tucked away in his saddle bags. Is this enough to get things going romantically? I cut to her POV where she's about to accept a marriage proposal from the hero's brother. I'm wondering if I should skip the "Inciting Incident" and a depiction of what the hero will leave behind in favor of their conflict-riddled reunion.

  98. Oh, I love this... I'm late to the party, but I can't find a thing wrong here and that's just not like me where the Connealy-meister is concerned!!!!

    Wait... I'll re-read this excellent post.

    Naw, don't have to.

    Mary, this just sings "LISTEN TO ME!!!"

    And for once, it makes perfect sense!

    Here. Have some birthday cake. It's really delicious.

  99. Deb, you said that and I agree: Mary never fails to start a story off with some kind of explosion or implosion or gunfire or stark madness....

    How can we do that in contemps that aren't suspense stories? Because that's different, right?

    Advice, Mary? Without gunfire?

  100. Aaron, I can see the story starting when the starter refuses to work... and leaves someone stranded.


    With danger lurking.

    OR... the exploding Godfather-style "starter"... oops.

    I'm on Aaron's side, here. Or we could simply have the ignition ignite... car fills with smoke... children trapped.... Against side of cliff....

    Wait, I'm starting to like this...

  101. Natalie, I don't know how it's done in your book, but I know reading about it made me smile. How great is this? She's already to marry his brother.
    Oh, yeah. Trouble coming for sure. :)

  102. Let's see, my contemporary work.

    Ten Plagues, a building exploded

    Of Mice and Murder and mouse runs out of a closet and she screams and leaps into the hero's arms.

    Pride and Pestilence a man comes to the door and tackles her. At first she thinks it's an attack, and then the car crashes into her building. Mayhem there.

    The Miceman Cometh...she smashes a door open onto his face. Nearly knocks him down a stairway, then she falls on top of him and that's kinda a sweet moment. And then, moments later, a dead body falls out of a cupboard.

    You could use one of these, Ruthy. :)

  103. It can be an emotional explosion. Or a metaphorical explosion. But honestly, I like it best when something actually blows up.

    And falling over a cliff is NEVER WRONG.

  104. I'm still loving the Amish bread-killer.

    Wouldn't that be a great heroine who always thought in historical-type phrases because she was always reading Regency romances??

    Adorable! I would totally read that, even though I don't really grab Amish or historicals or Renegency or mass murderer books or cook books or...

  105. And Ruthy has a great point...

    For contemps, you can't always start with gunfire or mortal perile.

    I prefer an earth-shattering internal conflict.

    But then, I love the inner journey.

  106. Mary, have you ever taught a class on this at a conference?

    This would be such a great class...

  107. Ah, Natalie, love triangle....

    Old flames.

    Unrequited love.

    I'm smiling, thinking of it!

    That brother vs. brother stuff. It's so prevalent in literature because it works so well.

    Love it.

    So I just sent a book in to my editor and as I reiterated the list of what she'd advised me to do (and yes, I listened and did every stinkin' one) I realized that they made perfect sense in the process of the book....

    She had me cut two story lines that didn't need to be so strong, and weaken their threads.... move the hero/heroine action up two pages...

    And it's fun action because the last person this chick farmer wants advice from is her new cop neighbor who doesn't like roosters crowing...

    Too bad for him, right?

    Piper pulled her attention back to him, arched a brow and smiled as if what he had to say mattered. The smile almost made him downgrade his request. Or forgot it completely, she was that engaging. Bright green eyes sparkled beneath thicker brows than most girls sported, and her classic athletic look said she stayed in shape to do her job, not just to look good in a dress. But Zach was pretty sure she’d look great in a dress.

    Another rooster crow brought him back on track, followed by the bird’s buddy in a noisy war of the wills. “Him. Them.” Zach waved a hand to the right. “I need the roosters to quiet down during the day when I’m sleeping.”

    She stared at him, then tried to hide a grin by coughing into her hand. “You want quiet roosters? There’s a novelty.”

    He jutted his chin in the direction behind her. “I’ve been working nights...”

    “Close your windows.”

    Brilliant idea, except for the extreme summer temperatures and lack of shade on the south side of his house. “Too hot,” he shot back.

    “Get a fan. Install air conditioning.”

    Was she being purposely obtuse? Or did she truly not understand his problem? “A room air conditioner blocks sound. That’s not a safe thing to do. And I’ve got hot water baseboard heat, so installing central air would be crazy expensive.”

    She tapped a finger to her jaw, contemplating him, then raised her hand upright, palm out. “Let me get this straight. You want the roosters to be quiet because you can hear them, but you don’t want to install a room air conditioner to block the noise of the roosters because then you can’t hear things. Right?”

    Okay, it sounded preposterous put that way, but essentially, yes. He wanted to be able to hear a home invader before assuming a jump-out-of-bed battle position, so the idea of a noisy air cooling unit wasn’t on his list. But he didn’t want to hear annoying birds that refused to respect his backwards sleeping habits. “Kind of.”

    She arched him a bright smile that said “conversation over” and started to back away. “I’ve got a cutting of hay to bale and get pulled in before this afternoon’s possible thunderstorm, so Zach...” she raised her index finger to her cap and tipped the brim in a gesture of respect, “I’m going to take what you said seriously right after I get in acres of forage, oversee the afternoon milking and pray this drought doesn’t ruin an entire year’s corn crop or I’ll be feeding cows with non-existent funds. I’ll be doing that while keeping those two little girls alive although they seem determined to tempt fate in multiple directions, running a busy dairy store and keeping a neat and tidy June Cleaver-type farmhouse. I may or may not be lying about that last.” She turned and strode away, but not without one more parting shot. “Sleep well.”

    Grudging respect rivaled frustration for his sleep-deprived emotions. First, he had sounded somewhat absurd and she wasn’t afraid to call him on it. Second, she looked just as good walking away as she had from the front and the teasing grin she sent over her shoulder, a look that said she’d be looking forward to ‘round two’?

    The expression was enough to make him eager, too. Right until the roosters let loose again, reminding him that in nine short hours he’d be back at work. He’d really like to spend half-a-dozen of that sleeping.

  108. WOW---Great (Keeper) post, Mary (and if I may ditto Virginia's comment about your teaching a class on this at ACFW!). Thanks so much for sharing some of your wisdom with us--you are amazing. Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo

  109. I'm late to the show but loved the post. Great advice Mary! Definitely needs to be printed out. Now to go back and read all the post.


    This is definitely a KEEPER POST for my notebook. Such wonderful advice and examples. I need to put it to use now.

    Have a blessed week!

    Smiles & Blessings,
    Cindy W.

    countrybear52 AT yahoo DOT com

  111. Wow. Lots of comments already. These are some great tips, but sort of hard to follow at times. Not hard to understand, just hard to put into practice.

    I guess you don't believe in Prologues?

    Thanks for sharing. Please enter me in the drawing. :)



  112. Virginia said, "And Ruthy has a great point...

    For contemps, you can't always start with gunfire or mortal perile."

    Really? Why not? ;)

  113. Ruthy- why are their houses so close together if they have acres and haying to do? Unless she's playing at farming, not many working farms under 50 acres. Unless it's fruit trees.

    But maybe that's New York?

  114. You're right Christina Rich!

    Next book will open with gunfire.



  116. RUTHY do NOT think for one minute that talking a LOT makes up for being so LATE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  117. Ohhh, V, can I read your first chapter? I want to make sure you're not messing with me. ;) And it better not be gunfire on TV.*g*

  118. Mary, you should do a workshop on this. It's great! You can have everyone bring in their first para/first page.

  119. Christina, I'm totally messing with you. I've gone urban fantasy... but not that far.

  120. CHRISTINA Sweetie, There is actually documented proof that people get STUPIDER when I teach them something.

    It's on file with the county attorney.

  121. Mary Virginia-of-the-many-names, back here there's a huge influx of suburban homes abutting farms... Lots of times farmers would sell off 2 or 3 building lots to make money in bad years... But then they have to deal with neighbors...

    So this guy shares his east and south property line with the farm and the back of his house faces the barns...

    And the roosters.

    Poor guy, he really likes the country. He just doesn't have a lot of love lost for farms or roosters.

    Cock-a-doodle-do! ;)

    And Connealy, I was working.... Slaving, making cakes for THREE YOUNG BIRTHDAYS today.

    It was cake city at Ruthy's Place and try as I might, computer time didn't make the agenda.

    Shoulda come in first thing this morning but was re-checking my epilogue for one book and the seamless (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! opening for another.


    Christina, I might just shoot someone soon... These are cop heroes and heroines.... It could happen!

  122. Mary, YES.


    You know we'll help.

    I'll be like your #1 cheerleader.

    Okay, heckler.

    But hey, anything for a friend. ;)

    Oh, dagnabbit, who is this Ruth Blodgett person??? Clearly an imposter!

  123. Fin dibs on the Amish bread killer. I could use her in my next book. :)

  124. Ruth Blodgett, you don't happen to have relatives living in Sapulpa OK area do you???

    And Debby I have absolutely no desire to write Amish, nor contemps for that matter, so you may have dibs.

    I do like the quirky, talk in regency speech, character idea. When I read Austen or immerse myself in the Bronte's I swear my vocabulary usage and sentence syntax changes for the better for at least a week...and I get quite a few number or bewildered stares too, more so than usual because I get the "huh, what does that mean" look/email a lot anyway.

  125. Melissa, I love regency too. and I catch myself THINKING things like 'mayhap'...and 'I am five and twenty, kind sir.'


  126. Melissa, always thought Jenny was a good name for a Heroine!

    I know some that are handing with a bread knife (I also know some that are dangerous with a stanley knife if if it is inflicting an injury on them self!)

  127. Too true!!!!

    As a reader I must say thank you!!

  128. Wow. Love this post. I need to rework the opening of my current WIP!

    Thanks for the tips. :)

    nicnac63 AT hotmail DOT com

  129. She gave some good tips to really hold your readers! If I read 2 chapters of a book and it doesn't catch my attention, I leave it!!Love to win the gift card!

  130. Great post Mary. Love your books. :)

    Jodie Wolfe

  131. Fantastic post. So helpful. Thank you!

  132. LOVE THIS! So straightforward and easily answered my questions--this helped me more than reading many of the books on "how to" write. LOL Thank you SO much, Mary!

  133. I would love to win,Enter me!!
    Thanks for the giveaway and God Bless!!
    Sarah Richmond

  134. Really great examples you've shared of how to get readers into the scene without having to spell everything out. Congrats on another great sounding book! :O)


  135. Great advice, Mary! I love how you used examples, too. Now I'm looking through my own WIP and thinking, hmm, do I need to change things?

    Hope to see you soon!

  136. Thanks for laying it on the line, Mary. I love your novel openings, so I appreciate seeing the parts laid out like this.

    I'd like to reiterate that the first draft likely won't have all these pieces. This advice is something to aspire to in rewrites! (Whew, I feel better already.)

  137. MARE!!! CANNOT BELIEVE how late I am in commenting -- PLEASE forgive me, but I'm here now and LOVING this post, but no surprise there.

    And, I'm with Tina -- LISTEN TO MARY, PEOPLE, the woman knows what she's talking about!!

    VINCE ... BLESS YOU, my friend, for the quote from APMP!!


  138. Love this article.

  139. I'm catching up with Seekerville today, so I am a bit late. Thank you for your post. I'll keep the "explosion" in my mind as I rewrite the beginning of my story. Thank you!

  140. I can use all the help I can get on opening my story. Thanks for the post. I am printing this oee.

  141. thanks for the entertaining post!

  142. thanks for the entertaining and informative post, Mary!