Post by Richard J. Schneider/Denver
Of the cool tips I picked up at the 2011 Northern Colorado Writers Conference, the critical one came from mystery writer Sandi Ault whose session on The First 99 Words reminded me that the opening sentences of my novel were the among the most important – to catch the eye not just of my customer/reader, but also my agent and my publisher.
I say “reminded” because I already “knew” this. More about that later.
I backed into the opening of WATER: A Vic Bengston Investigation, focusing on a bus ride, rather than setting the hook with the crime and a few other morsels. After Sandi's seminar, I retooled the mystery novel between drafts three and four.
Here are the first 110 words of draft three, pre NCWC:
“Vic Bengston felt the trickle of saline sweat snake its way from an armpit gland through a tangle of graying underarm hair and down his right side as the number fifteen bus followed its serpentine path, smoothly moving from one lane to another to gain advantage over mostly SUVs and pickups along East Colfax Avenue. From his window seat on the westbound bus, Vic could see down into the front and rear seats of his fellow travelers as they cruised toward downtown Denver chatting on cell phones, noshing on nibblies and consuming expensive designer coffees, all in air conditioned comfort, while he felt his Sunday morning shower rapidly melting away...”
What did the reader learn? Vic took a bus ride. He sweats and has gray hairs. People eat in their cars. It's Sunday, in Denver.
Here are the first 107 words of draft four, post NCWC:
“No woman looked elegant with a bullet hole in the back of her head and lying face down in the South Platte River, not even Colorado’s next governor. Vic Bengston burned to see her face, but the cops kept him far away, refusing even to say who she was. That just made him want to find out all the more. He thought about circling around, stashing the newspaper's pool car, and hiking back to the craggy cottonwood snag that caught the body. But bushwhacking his way through mud, water and thistles wasn’t his idea of a fine time, especially on his first day back at the paper.”
What did the reader learn? The murder victim is a woman, a high profile Colorado political figure, shot in the head, thrown into the river. Vic is a driven journalist who has just returned to the newspaper business (from where?). He's already at odds with the police and probably is a risk taker.
A lot more intriguing.
Thank you Sandi and the NCWC.
I should have “remembered” this, because I've done it in the past. One of my readers, who reviews my current fiction drafts, still remembers the opening line to a 15,000 word novel fragment I wrote in 1985.
Former award-winning journalist, governor's energy spokesman, and communications consultant, Richard J. Schneider now writes fiction full time. He lives in Denver. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.