Openings by Sherry Harris
Oh, the pressure of writing the perfect first line, the perfect first paragraph. I’ve heard over and over if you don’t grab readers in the beginning you can just forget about it. (Me? As a reader I’m a bit more patient with a story.) So you would think when I was writing my first published book, Tagged for Death, I would have been a wreck but I wasn’t. Why? Because my first few lines came from a conversation I overheard in an airport while I was waiting for a flight.
Like most writers I’m constantly listening to other peoples’ conversations. On that particular day I noticed a twenty-something guy pacing around, talking on his cellphone. His conversation would fade in and out as he went by. But my ears perked up when I heard him say, “gunshot.” I would have loved to follow him back and forth but that seemed a bit obvious. Fortunately he paused long enough for me to hear some really interesting and twisted things. All I thought was: Wow. I’d love to use that in a book some day. (My next thought was: Wow. I hope you aren’t on my flight.)
When I had the opportunity to write a proposal for the garage sale series the opening was ready. And the rest of the overheard conversation became part of the plot. Here’s the opening of Tagged for Death: A gunshot sounded. I jerked the phone away from my ear. This time I hung up first. That had been the pattern–one gunshot then the caller disconnected.
I like the opening. Something happens right away and we know it’s not the first time it has happened. I hope it makes a reader react with an “Ooohhh, I want to know what this is about.” But this opening didn’t have an easy journey. When I submitted my proposal I had to include the first three chapters. My agent didn’t think the gunshot was cozy enough. Following his advice I changed the gunshot to a threatening phone call.
This is what I changed it to: “Leave,” a voice said. This time I hung up first. One word and then the caller disconnected. That had been the pattern.
The proposal was accepted and I was off writing the rest of the book. But the new first line never sat well with me. Sarah Winston had a lot of people in her life that handled guns — military personnel and police men and women. The threatening phone call also created plot problems. Was it a man or woman? (And if Sarah knew it cut the suspect pool in half.) Why doesn’t she recognize the voice? Should I say the voice has been electronically altered? My problems seemed to grow from there.
In the end, before I submitted the full manuscript, I changed it back to the original opening. The story unfolded as it should. To my surprise, no one ever mentioned the change. I’m not sure I’d recommend doing this. Sometimes a suggestion makes the story better but in this case it just didn’t feel right or work as well. I’m glad I stuck to my guns and hope my readers are too.
Readers: Do you have a favorite opening?
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Sherry Harris started bargain hunting in second grade at her best friend’s yard sale. She honed her bartering skills as she moved around the country while her husband served in the Air Force. Sherry uses her love of garage sales, her life as a military spouse, and her time living in Massachusetts as inspiration for the Sarah Winston Garage Sale series. Tagged for Death the first in the series was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. The Longest Yard Sale released on June 30, 2015.
Blog: Wickedcozyauthors.com Website: Sherryharrisauthor.com