“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
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
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
KISS HER GOODBYE
St. Martin’s Press, February 2007
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