Thursday, May 17, 2007

How Good Are You at Writing Opening Lines?

Editor’s note: Here’s something we’ve never tried before--a contest with a real money prize. A few weeks ago, The Rap Sheet was approached by New Jersey writer Jack Getze, author of the recently released Big Numbers (Hillard & Harris), the first installment in his series starring a down-on-his-luck and trouble-prone stockbroker named Austin Carr. Getze, a former Los Angeles Times financial and economics reporter, asked if we could help him find an opening line for his second Carr novel, Big Money. He thought what he had wasn’t good enough, and he was hoping our well-read and intelligent audience could suggest something better. We were reluctant at first, but were impressed both by Big Numbers and by Getze’s sudden ubiquity in the blogosphere, as he talked about the long history of his first novel at M.J. Rose’s Backstory site, and submitted to Marshal Zeringue’s Page 69 Test. So, we invited Getze to lay out the terms of his proposed first-line competition, which we’re posting below.

* * *

The contract is signed, my manuscript read and approved by its publishers, but the second book in my Austin Carr Mystery Series, Big Money, still needs an opening line.

Punchy? Symbolic? Dramatic? Foreshadowing? I don’t know. If I knew, I’d write it. There’s just something missing, it seems to me, an opportunity to do much better.

Why am I confusing my problem with yours? Well, The Rap Sheet is allowing me to make you an offer: Write me a top-drawer, catchy opening line to my next book, Big Money, and I’ll not only give you credit in the front of that book, but I’ll write you a check for $250.

Everyone who enters this competition (the top 50, for sure) will receive a free copy of my current Austin Carr book, Big Numbers. In addition, The Rap Sheet will publish the winning entry and some of the better runner-ups in a future post.

How are YOU going to write an opening line for MY book? Nobody said this contest was easy. And though there will be a winner, the $250 prize, and the books awarded no matter what, I must reserve the right to use none of your first lines if I decide that’s best.

Before I show you my current opening, you should know that Austin Carr and his full-boat grin are always up to their ass in crap. That’s his MO. Like the first book, Big Numbers, this second novel begins with a prologue in which an unknown villain is about to kill Austin. The reader’s job, when Chapter One takes the story back in time, is to figure out which of the many Austin Carr haters is the real killer. In this new story, Austin entangles himself with three women, one of whom is a murderer.

Now remember, I want a brand-new first sentence on top of what I already have, not a whole new first paragraph. Even if you’ve got a better one, this is MY tale.
The lady’s two-story house ranks as ancient, so it’s no surprise the pine floorboards creak. But do I detect a certain rhythm ... as in footsteps? Hope I didn’t make too much noise going through her dirty laundry.

I lean back on the blood-red living-room sofa and hold my breath to listen. A grandfather clock tick-tocks in the foyer. The oil-burning basement heater pops and rumbles. And yes, there ... bare or stocking feet pad quickly toward me down the hall. My heart rate ratchets up to match the footfalls.

I stuff the DVD under my laptop and work hard to put on my three-o’clock-in-the-morning, full-boat Carr grin. Not exactly a simple trick. And definitely not sincere. I mean, how am I supposed to be calm and forthright when this DVD suggests last night’s love interest may not be the innocent beauty I imagined?

In truth, the lady headed this way could be a killer.

Clever of me to wake her up.

I don’t mention her name because ... well, gentlemen do not identify their secret lovers, not even by pet handles. And seeing her march out of the murky hall into the living area’s yellowish lamplight strongly suggests the need for a new nickname anyway.

Oh, my. And oops. Oh my, because she’s wearing nothing but white athletic socks. And oops, because she’s using both hands and all ten red-nailed fingers to grasp a pump-action, single-barrel shotgun.

“You found the DVD, didn’t you?” Ms. Shotgun says.

“DVD?” If it wasn’t for rhyming consonants, I’d be pretty much speechless. My gaze is tightly focused on her bare breasts and that shotgun in the same close-up. Visually and emotionally, it’s a lot to absorb.
Enough of the book, though. You should know, before diving into this contest, that my Austin Carr stories are meant to be entertainment, not great literature. If there was a theme to the first one, I suppose it was redemption--a man who’s lost everything tries to win his self-esteem and manhood back. In this second one, Austin must preserve his recently won success by fending off a local crook, fraud charges against his investment firm, a Brooklyn mobster, the betrayal of a friend, and accusations of murder. And then things really get bad.

Like I said, Austin is always up to his ass in crap. And it’s usually because of a woman. A few unpublished manuscripts ago, I used a decent opening line for a female protagonist that went like this: Men were trouble, dead or alive. I’ve tried using versions of that with Big Money--“Woman are trouble”--but it doesn’t seem to fit. As Big Money opens, remember, Austin just heard something that attracted his attention--squeaky floorboards.
The lady’s two-story house ranks as ancient, so it’s no surprise the pine floorboards creak. But do I detect a certain rhythm ... as in footsteps?
I don’t see how he could, in the first line, jump right to the conclusion that it’s Mrs. Shotgun coming for him. A woman. I want him to worry about the sound first, then the woman. But maybe I haven’t thought of something ...

What else? Well, a lot of fiction-writing instructors say that the first line of a novel should be evocative of the book to follow, its themes and subjects. Others say it must grab the reader by the throat, or raise important, interesting questions. Some say the first line should do all of these things and more, perhaps even contain a one-word promise to the reader.

All I know is, this writer could use some help. E-mail your suggested opening lines (and any questions you have about this contest) to me at The deadline for submissions is Friday, June 8.

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