Speaking strictly as a reader now, and not as a writer, I want to say a few things about the kind of advice that new writers are often given. I may be something of a unique reader, so for all of you who want to write, take my comments with a grain of salt. I know you need readers, not just one reader, not just me.
First, many recent writing guides suggest that starting with dialogue is a good idea. As a reader, I absolutely hate this. Most of the books I’ve picked up and put back down after a few sentences are ones that began with dialogue. Ann Rice’s Interview with the Vampire is an example. Some writers can create truly excellent dialogue, but the fact is that I don’t care about what the character says until I begin to get a feeling for the inner nature of the character. That means, I need to see them acting, not talking.
Second, I’ve been told all my writing life that you never start a story with the weather. As a reader, I absolutely love it when writers do this. Now, it needs to be good strong weather, and the character needs to be pitted against it, but—for me—opening with a character fighting against a storm, or freezing cold, or violent high seas instantly catches my attention and brings me into the tale. There is immediate intense conflict. Many of my favorite reads begin with the character facing off against nature. Westerns often begin this way. Perhaps my favorite short story of all time, Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” begins this way. Note that, for me, a beating sun or a cold, dark night also constitute a form of weather.
As far as openings that catch my attention, what do I personally like as a reader? A character placed in a strong setting with conflict looming, or at least with a question as to why the character is in this place. Here’s the opening to the book I’ve reread more than any other, To Tame a Land, by Louis L’Amour. “It was Indian country, and when our wheel busted, none of them would stop. They just rolled on by and left us setting there, my pap and me.”
Here’s the first two lines of The Road, my favorite of Cormac McCarthy’s books: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.”
Here’s the opening paragraph of Teot’s War by Heather Gladney. It’s got everything I crave for an opening, and poetry too! “Heat beat down on my shoulders, my face cloth. My armor dragged at the riding sores underneath. Little sparkles danced behind my eyelids, and the strains in my joints were cramping to knots in the muscles. It had been a long ride. A grating call made my shoulders twitch. The carrion crows, who glided after us day after day, were waiting.”