Killer Year–The Class of 2007

July 20, 2006, 8:01 am
Filed under: Killer Year Members, Robert Gregory Browne

“When he first walked in the door, nobody said a word. They just looked at
him, their faces slack and full of pity, like he was some kind of cripple
searching for a miracle.”

Those are the first words I ever wrote as a “serious” writer. By serious
I mean taking the ACT seriously, with intent, rather than random scribbles
in a blue-lined notebook. I had a selectric typewriter and a head full of
ideas and a true love for crime fiction. So what better way to start a
career than write what I love?

Although I never finished the story, I think those first lines make for a
fairly good opening. One that compels you forward, wanting to know more.
As I was cleaning out my office the other day, I discovered the words on a
yellowed piece of typing paper and thought briefly about the story that
never was.

A few moments later I was thinking not about that story, but about opening
lines in general and how important they are to me. Not just in my own
work. But in any novel I read. Such lines are a critical part of my
book-buying ritual.

When I go to the bookstore looking for something new to read, the first
thing that attracts me is the cover. This, of course, is not uncommon.
Publishing houses spend countless hours trying to get their book covers
right. My own publisher, St. Martin’s, is busy working on KISS HER
GOODBYE as we speak. God knows what they’ll come up with, but judging by
their past jacket art, I’m sure it’ll be something wonderful.

The next thing I look at is the title. A bad title can turn anyone off.
It won’t kill the book-buying experience, but it will certainly slow me
down a bit.

Once I’ve gotten past the title, for better or worse, the next thing I do
is open the book to the first page of prose – prologue, chapter one,

And this is where I’m the least forgiving. I was raised on the books of
Donald Westlake and Ed McBain and these guys were masters of the opening

So, if the writer doesn’t grab me in the first few lines, I’m outta there.
Gone. Goodbye. Good riddance. My time for reading these days is
extremely limited and, as cruel as it may sound, I give the writer only so
much room to get me interested.

I’m sure this is a mistake sometimes. Had I stuck to this rule several
years back, I would never have read William Goldman’s MARATHON MAN, which
is truly one of the greatest thrillers ever written. I picked up the book
more than once, tried to get into it, but just couldn’t. It wasn’t until
I forced myself to read past the prologue that I realized how stupid I’d
been and had one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my young

So my rule obviously isn’t perfect. I’m sure there are plenty of great
books out there that I gave up on because the first couple paragraphs
didn’t grab me.

Yet that continues to be my ritual to this day.

We live in a very demanding world. Every waking moment we’re bombarded by
visual and auditory stimulation from music in the mall to flashing
billboards and video games and blaring radios and MTV reality shows and
magazines and newspapers and warehouse sized bookstores full of thousands
of potential new friends calling out to us.

So, in order to get our attention – to get MY attention – a book has to
start with a bang. It can be a quiet bang, by all means, but it had
better be a significant one or I’m gone. I just don’t have the time to be

An opening paragraph tells me everything I need to know about a writer.
His or her tone, style, voice, attitude – it’s all there on the page. I
can usually tell if a book is going to be “my kind of book” within those
first few lines. And the ones I continue to read are rarely a

But then I may well be an anomaly. Different people use different
criteria to justify plunking down the bucks for a new book.

How about you? What keeps you reading?

Robert Gregory Browne
St. Martin’s Press, February 2007



8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

My opening line from my first ‘serious’ piece of writing is something I keep in a file to teach me humility at those times I need taking down a peg. Yours is pretty damned good.

I’m with you on the opening. I have ADD. I figure any book that can hold my attention has done its job. The author gets one line, maybe two. Sometimes a paragraph. If it’s a novel and I like the opening. I’ll go to a random chapter start in the middle, just to see if the quality holds up.

What grabs me is voice. If it’s there and I like it, I continue.

Comment by m.g.tarquini

That is a pretty solid first, Rob!
I agree with Mindy — voice can grab me as much as action. But if you don’t have me quickly, I’ll put it down and go to something else.
I have that opening too. Used it for two manuscripts because I liked it so much. Neither one will ever see the light of day. Shame, because I love the image.

Comment by JT Ellison

I’m learning that if the first 10 pages don’t grab me, the rest of the book probably won’t.

Except that I haven’t yet learnt to do the reading at the bookstore/library.

Comment by miladyinsanity

I’m a pretty generous reader. I will go through a few chapters before giving up, sometimes more. I do love great opening lines, and yours is definitely a winner, Rob, but for a piece of writing that’s several hundred pages long, I’m not going to less a less than stellar opener put me off.

Comment by Bill Cameron

I guess I’m not alone. A line or two, a paragraph, ten pages. Only Bill is kind enough to keep going… 🙂

If you want to read a great opening, check out up and comer Gregory Huffstutter, who I think we may be seeing in the Class of ’08 if he can find representation. He certainly deserves to:

Comment by Rob Gregory Browne

One thing I should probably clarify. If I am browsing in the store with no particular target in mind, I will probably only read a page or two before I move to the next option. At that point, I’m grazing, a nibble here and there. When something grabs me, I get out the wallet. Certainly I’m not going to stand in a bookstore and read thirty or forty pages of a book!

Once I have a book at home, I will give it a fair go. And a lot of the time the book might be something I bought based upon a review, a recommendation, or was just in a hurry at the store or library. If I’ve gotten it home, I will give it the benefit of the doubt.

So perhaps I’m not that different, at least during the random book buying phase.

Comment by Bill Cameron

I used to think I had to finish every book I started. I hated putting a book down unfinished, just like walking out of a bad movie. I suffer and sit through it in silence. Okay, not silence . . .

But now when my reading time has been cut short, I have to get into the story quickly. One chapter. If I’m not hooked by the end of the first chapter–unless it’s an author I love–I don’t keep reading. I buy a lot of books now that don’t get finished. It’s sad, really.

I’m too focused on the industry so I pretty much know what’s coming out in a given month. I try to buy all debut authors in suspense or romantic suspense, plus people I “know.” But getting into the book is another story . . .

Comment by Allison Brennan

The cover is critical. If a publishing house doesn’t believe in their author enough to put in the enegy and creativity required to design a sellable cover, then why should I believe in him/her?

Then, I open to the middle. I’m always interested enough, or at least generous enough, to read the opening line and the first three chapters of a book. But can the author hold my interest through the middle? After the characters are established, but the climax is yet to come? That’s the clincher.

Comment by Elizabeth

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