Elmore Leonard, when asked about how he approached writing, said that he just tried to eliminate the boring bits. The parts of the book that readers skip through to get to the good bits. That’s great advice which I followed when writing ‘Pushing Rubber Downhill’. The original draft came in at 140K words; four rewrites later and it clocked in at 90K. Eliminate the boring bits.
But for me the all important aspect of any book has to be the first sentence. If I’m in a bookshop and dithering around on whether or not to buy a particular book, it’s often the first sentence that decides the issue for me. If that first sentence is not up to scratch then it’s an easy decision not to waste my time on it. Because if an author can’t be bothered to get that first sentence right, how much of the rest of the book did he get wrong as well? In my experience reading thousands of books it’s almost a sure-fire bet that a bad or indifferent first sentence will then lead to a similarly poor book.
Let’s look at some examples of poor openings to books. I’m going to go straight to Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code:
“… Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery …”
He lost me at the first two words. Why is this guy a renowned curator? Because Dan said so, which means he’s going to keep telling us stuff for the rest of the book. And what does being renowned have to do with staggering?
How about some high fantasy with good old Robert Jordan and the first book in the Wheel of Time series?
“… The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened …”
I never did buy any of the other books, and now I know why.
The first sentence in ‘Pushing Rubber Downhill’ was tough for me. Here I’m going to show you the progression over the four drafts of that first sentence which I tried so damn hard to get right. The first draft came out like this:
“I first stepped into a kayak when I was thirteen years old.”
I suppose it’s okay, but it doesn’t grab the reader. Why do we care that I did that at thirteen? I know I don’t and it’s me. So how the hell is a reader going to want to continue after that? A poor effort. Let’s go to the second draft:
“When I was a young man I didn’t know what to do with my life.”
As so often happens with subsequent drafts, they tend to get worse. Now I’m telling the reader that a while ago I was a pretty boring dude. Not much enticement going on there. How did the third draft go?
“The most important part of riding a motorcycle alone from one side of Australia to another is to look tough.”
At least this is better than the second effort, but not by much. I can tell you that at this point I was starting to get desperate. My editor was telling me that I was over-explaining myself and using language that was too formal. Everything made sense but the syntax was stuffy. But then he quoted one of my sentences that he loved:
“… And she hadn’t answered the phone since. But I was still going because hey, love conquers all, right? The thing is, when you’re young and clueless you really need to find these things out for yourself. And the only way to do that is to make terrible decisions like I was about to do. So I kick-started the bike’s big old engine, and after waiting for a break in the traffic I pulled out and headed east …”
This is what my editor said about that sentence:
“… Goddamn. That is a great fucking paragraph. It generates immediate momentum. It’s like I’m at a café table with you and you’re telling me the story and I am fucking CAPTIVATED. You don’t just sound like a real person, you sound like the kind of person who’s so fun to listen to that I don’t really care what it is you’re talking about …”
And then he told me to rewrite the first two pages like that. So I sat down after having a few beers and I wrote without thinking. I was trying to feel the pages onto the screen. And what I wrote in that twenty minutes became, with just some minor tweaking, the first two pages of the book. My editor was ecstatic and I had my first sentence. I think that it makes you want to read the book and it reassures you that you’re in safe hands. A hell of a lot of time and effort went into that first sentence. First sentences are tough. So here is the first sentence of ‘Pushing Rubber Downhill’:
“Sex is power.”