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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Hot Starts versus Twenty Two Pages of Description?

A couple of months ago on one of my writing loops we were discussing hot starts, those first lines of books that grab you and draw you in right from the off. I love hot starts; maybe it's because I can be an impatient reader, wanting something to happen, wanting to be swept away at the beginning of the book. There is a school of thought that says that modern life has trained people to have such a short attention span that if you don't grab them within 10 seconds you've lost them. I'd hate to think that I had the concentration of a gnat but maybe there is something in this.

One of my favourite first lines is: "I picked four of them up at White Waltham in the new Cherokee Six 300 that never got a chance to grow old." This, from Dick Francis's book Rat Race, flags up the drama that is to come, creates a sense of expectation and already has me on the edge of my seat wanting to know what happens. It's short, sharp and direct with an element of danger.

We all want to write a first line that is so memorable that people instantly recognise it and are drawn into the story from the off. “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again…” Is this a hot start? It's certainly intriguing and mysterious, pulling the reader in. Other favourite first lines of mine are: "Penitence Hurd and the plague arrived in London on the same day..." from Diana Norman's wonderful historical novel The Vizard Mask and “It had been too long since he had bedded a woman,” Lisa Kleypas, Lady Sophia's Lover. Both in their different ways, grab the attention.

And yet in the historical novel or historical romance, and maybe in other genres too, isn't there room for the slow build up? One of my all time keepers, Daphne Du Maurier's book Frenchman's Creek, has twenty two pages of description before anything actually happens. It's incredibly evocative and atmospheric; you can taste the salt on the sea breeze and feel the wind against your skin and hear the seabirds calling on the Helford estuary. And all that description contributes to the feeling that you are slipping back in time to the seventeenth century. It calls to the imagination, it envelops you and draws you in in a different way.

One of these days I would like to write a book that starts in such a way, creating atmosphere, appealing to the senses, grabbing the reader because of the layer upon layer of vivid description. But in the meantime my next book, The Undoing of a Lady, conforms very much to the Hot Start:

"It was a perfect night for an abduction..."


Jan Jones said...

I think the real problem with 22 pages of fabulous build-up is that it will never even get past the acquiring editor's in-box these days, let alone as far as a genuine reader.

Anonymous said...

22 pages of scene description reminds me of Zane Grey which I liked. Powerfully packed concise writing reminds me of Stephen King which I love. Historical romance grabs my imagination before I even open the book. The anticipation of delving into the past such as 1810 throws my mind into another time and place. Sometimes that is just what I need. Thanks

Nicola Cornick said...

Thank you for the comments. It's interesting that 22 pages of build up might well appeal to readers as much as a book that plunges straight into the action but we're not going to get the chance to judge if editors don't let us!