Where to begin your blog, your novel, your nonfiction book

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

It should be obvious to each of us that, depending on what we’re writing, we need to begin our creative piece in a way that’s suited to its category. But sometimes we aren’t as intentional in constructing that first sentence as we should be. Today let’s explore where to begin various types of writing.

A blog. This blog post was birthed when I came up with a topic and mentally tried out various ways to start writing. I realized thatGroup of the beginnings Stock Photos my impulse was to create a lead that is a story. But that’s all wrong. The Books & Such blog is informative in nature so I need to start out by announcing what benefit you will gain if you’ll dip into the blog.

Blog visitors will read the first few sentences–or first few paragraphs at most–to “try on” the blog. Does it meet a need? Does it stimulate ideas? Blog readers tend to be pragmatic. They seldom visit a blog because they want to read beautiful writing. (Exceptions exist, of course.) No, most blog readers want to either gain insight or appreciate that someone is expressing what the reader feels. A sardonic look at a political situation can make the reader feel that he or she has connected with the blog writer. Or a mom who is overwhelmed by her familial duties will enjoy reading a blogger who commiserates with the mom’s plight. An agent’s blog should offer information on the publishing world or the writing life.

As blog writers, we have only a couple of sentences to draw readers in through a sense of “me too” or “I need to know that.”

A novel. Fiction requires a different sort of beginning. The very best books nab us by the collar and whip us into the story in the first sentence. I just finished reading Gone Girl, which is superbly written even though it’s an utterly disturbing book. Here’s the opener: “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.” That’s kind of odd, right? Not many men would say that. I’m nabbed.

The opening to Laura Frantz’s historical novel, Love’s Reckoning: “‘Twas time for his daughters to wed, Papa said. But he had a curious way of bringing wedded bliss about, sending all the way to Philadelphia for a suitor.” I want to know more!

A nonfiction book. I checked out some of the nonfiction books I’ve read recently and found that most of them, regardless of category, start out with a story. It takes awhile for the book’s purpose to unfold. Unlike fiction, we are drawn in more slowly to the book.

Here’s the start to The End of Money: “On Christmas Eve 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab began the journey he thought would take him from this world into the next, and into the awaiting embrace of six dozen virgins.” That’s a startling opening sentence, isn’t it? The author, David Wolman, tells us about the underwear bomber who fumbled his chance at infamy and those virgins. What’s that  have to do with the end of money? Turns out the terrorist bought his ticket for that ride to heaven using cash. Yup, he bought a one-way ticket from Lagos, Nigeria, to Detroit, using $2,381.

The book’s  thesis is established through story and then stated directly on page 2: “Money is no object. [Referring to the bomber.] Maybe so for a lucky few. Except, of  course, money is an object–tearable, flammable, even wearable.” Wolman thus begins his exploration of  what is money, why we use it, what would it mean to end using it.

Now take a look at the beginning to The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: “There’s a photo on my wall of a woman I’ve never met, its left corner torn and patched together with tape. She looks straight into the camera and smiles, hands on hips, dress suit neatly pressed, lips painted deep red. It’s the late 1940s, and she hasn’t yet reached the age of thirty. Her light brown skin is smooth, her eyes still young and playful, oblivious to the tumor growing inside her–a tumor that would leave her five children motherless and change the future of medicine.” That opening sets us up for a fascinating read as the author braids the woman’s life-story around the affect that tumor has had on medicine and each of our lives. That complex interplay between the personal and the scientific continues throughout the book. The author has established how she will approach the book and the book’s purpose with clear intent at the outset.

To sum up:

  • Where should you begin a blog? With a felt need.
  • Where should you begin a novel? With a point of contention or curiosity.
  • Where should you begin a nonfiction piece? With a story (or a quote or a statistic) that establishes the theme and the tone of the book.

How does your WIP’s beginning match-up with where to begin?

How about the latest blog you’ve written?

If you’d like to, share your opening with us.

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77 Comments

  • Janet, I learn from every single post on this blog! Reading each post is like attending a mini session at a writers conference.

    Blogs are such curious creations. Your statement has me thinking and evaluating:

    As blog writers, we have only a couple of sentences to draw readers in through a sense of “me too” or “I need to know that.”

    Thinking of those needs is so helpful in knowing if my posts are on track.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I LOVE reading first lines! Anne of Green Gables starts with a sentence that’s a paragraph long. That would be a lesson in how writing changes over time!

    I hadn’t thought about the importance of how a blog begins, though. I strive to keep my posts short and skimmable, but I’ve totally neglected the fine tuning of the first line to identify the need. I’ll be working on that . . .

    As for my fiction–here are the first two lines from Streams of Mercy: “Sadie Phillips turned the buff envelope with its crisp, college insignia over and over in her hands. She didn’t need to slide a finger under the barely sealed flap to know what was inside.”

  • Jeanne T says:

    Janet, this is great. I always knew that the opening line of a novel needs to be strong. I hadn’t figured out how exactly that worked in a blog setting. I try to begin mine with a statement that hopefully grabs readers, or with a question.

    Thanks for the insight that blogs need to reach a reader at his/her point of need. So helpful!

    Let’s see, here’s something I’m playing with as a first line for a book: “This was life as Charis Brennan knew it, and she wouldn’t change anything. Okay, maybe a few things. But not her job.”

    Love this post today, Janet!

    • Larry says:

      I would suggest a slight modification to the P.O.V. :

      Show the reader the in-the-moment hilarity, absurdity, fun, responsibility, whatever it is that the protagonist gets from her job: but bring the reader in-the-moment, make them feel what the protagonist feels.

      If in your story you go on to describe the job, or show the protagonist doing her job, have that be the focus: show / describe the job or scene of the protagonist at her job, then, within that context, go with, “This was life as Charis Brennan knew it, and she wouldn’t change anything. Okay, maybe a few things. But not her job.”

      (Kinda hard to critique things like this, as there’s no context at all for how it relates to the rest of the story / beginning scene: thus some suggestions could be utterly moot).

    • Hi Jeanne.

      I’m not writing this to disagree with Larry, but just to give a different opinion. I like your idea, but consider shortening the opening: There were a few things Charis Brennan would consider changing about her life, but her job wasn’t one of them.

      Blessings!

  • Good morning, Janet.
    Thank you for this excellent post!
    Here is the beginning of MS #1-”Natanii reined in Tł’éego and looked down the mountain over the river valley. “How far will we go before I kill us both?”
    Natanii rubbed his tired eyes. His body hurt from the cold, his mind was empty and his heart nearly broken. At least he could breathe free again.”
    Hopefully the reader wants to know the answers to the questions popping up in his or her head.

    As for the blog opening, my latest entry was on my miscarriage and the avalanche of grief that washed me down the mountain into a dark painful place. I actually took the very first blog/journal entry I did at a different site in June of 2001 and pasted it into TFTR. So much has changed in twelve years, so much is the same. I wanted to share with people that recovering from such a catastrophic loss is not impossible. In an entry like that, the need to close it carefully becomes almost more important that grabbing the reader. So I ended with this…” Remember this, my friends, if and when there is a day you choose to go to war with God, and yes, that was the day for me…He will not fight back, but He will hold your hand on the battlefield and bring you home. He will heal your broken heart. He will hold you against His heart and let you cry until you have nothing left. And He will restore you.”

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jennifer, what a tender way to describe coming alongside us as we rant from out pain.

    • Larry says:

      Hmmm……..I think some readers might be put off by the names of the characters, and feel that the book might prove to be a bit too much of a language barrier. Nice action scene, but maybe too many questions: the reader might be puzzled by the names of the characters, and then to be puzzled by the events leading up to the scene might, once more, make readers feel like they’d have to put too much effort into the book.

      Of course, that’s a general market perspective: if you are targeting a specific demographic, those might not be problems for the readers you are looking to reach.

      • Janet, please forgive me, I never want to be the one to hijack someone else’s blog, but I am rather upset.

        Larry, thank you for your thoughts and opinions. I do think, however, that the words “reined in” used immediately prior to his name would give an indication that Tł’éego is a horse. And as for the language barrier, with all due respect, a few unusual names does not constitute a “language barrier”. If so, then anyone who knows my maiden name would think I didn’t speak a word of English. Several of which, I assure you, I am reining in right now.
        Other than the occasional Navajo/Dine phrase used in the story, which I translate in the context of a conversation between characters, the entire book is in English. And I’m sure the book jacket would have already hinted at the events in which our character finds himself. If a discerning reader can handle Shakespeare or even unusual street names, I’m sure a few Navajo words won’t be reason to toss my book up against a wall.
        I am ‘looking to’ heal a rift that is 145 years old, if I can’t accomplish that, then I’m ‘looking to’ build a bridge between those who remember the suffering and those who pretend it never happened.
        As for making readers put ‘too much effort into the book’? Mercy, how do you think that sounds to a writer just getting on her feet?

        One last thought, Larry. The bit about which you find reason to point out and offer an opinion on, has far less importance to me than the part of my comment that I laid bare to the world and that you did not see fit to mention. Weigh your words, at least to me, in the future. Thank you.

        Ms Grant, my most humble apologies for using your blog to vent some righteous indignation and to stand up for my work. I hope I have done so with grace and dignity.
        Again, please forgive me.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Jennifer, if you scroll down through the comments, you’ll see that Larry critiqued many if not all of the opening sentences writers are offering. Larry can speak for himself, but I believe he saw this as a sort of online critique session.

      • My apologies, Janet.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Jennifer, I suspect you were feeling tender about the personal nature of the blog entry you recounted to us. There’s room here to express not only thoughts but also feelings.

      • Larry says:

        As I said, Jennifer, that was just the general market perspective: the market where James Patterson is a best-seller might not be receptive to novels which involve putting effort into understanding the themes and characters and stories a writer is trying to tell.

        I don’t say that to belittle the general market, but just to point out that there are different readers who might approach your book differently; and that, depending on your market, depending on who you are trying to tell your story /to, there might be barriers for engaging with the story for those readers that you might not be aware of.

        I applaud the purpose of the novel, to, as you said, “heal a rift that is 145 years old, if I can’t accomplish that, then I’m ‘looking to’ build a bridge between those who remember the suffering and those who pretend it never happened.”

        I was merely giving a critique, not “attacking” your story. (I assumed that writers sharing specific parts of their stories, in a community of writers, were doing so to hear feedback from those other writers. If that was not the intended purpose, I sincerely have no clue as to why everyone just kept giving their opening parts to their novels. If it was just one person sharing the beginning of their story, it’d be one thing: but when the majority of posts included it, I assumed that the community was seeking a discussion on that particular aspect of their writing).

        Finally, I did weigh my words quite carefully. I tried to make clear the distinction between who the critique meant to cover: as I said when I wrote it, the critique may not even apply depending on the audience you seek to tell you story to. Furthermore, weighing my words carefully is why I did not speak of the other subject you wrote of in the first place. I couldn’t think of anything that would not sound trite or might inadvertently cause offense (not that that worked….).

        Put in another way, I didn’t have anything to say that I felt would have properly addressed the gravitas and hurt of what you wrote of, so I chose instead to respectfully not comment on it at all.

    • Jennifer,

      I love the “close” of your blog. Well-said, affirming and very true.

    • That’s beautiful, Jennifer.

  • I started Secrets to a Happy Life with a story… (whew)… a personal one:

    “I can’t dance. Whatever muscles are supposed to swivel my hips seized up decades ago. My sense of rhythm puts me in a league with tambourine-wielding pre-schoolers. And the closest thing I have to ‘moves’ looks like the human equivalent of a cat hacking up fur balls.”

    This was a REWRITE, asked for by the editor, who felt the original opening was to cerebral. He was right, and this new opening, which leads into one of my most embarrassing moments, puts my heart out there to connect with the reader.

    Excellent guidance. Thanks.
    Bill

  • Love your summary here, Janet! I love how you broke it down into the three categories as well.

    My first line is an attempt to get into the head of the character and help the reader know exactly what she’s thinking:

    “She’d never been more thankful for a distraction.”

  • Great delineation, Janet. So many of the great bloggers, like Michael Hyatt, talk about headlines to draw in readers. Since my heart is in fiction, that was a little frustrating for me at first. But a blog is still a great place to practice strong nouns and verbs. Today’s blog post actually begins with a couple of sentences telling my readers what’s coming the rest of the week. I seem to get more readers coming back if they know there will be something of interest to them in the future.

    Blog: “It’s Creation Week on the blog this week!” (Boring but informative.)

    My WIP hopefully begins with curiosity: “No one had ever warned Mavis that the retirement years would fritter away in the telephone netherworld of Hold.”

    Thanks for another wonderfully informative post!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Meghan, you’ve learned something important about your blog readers: They want you to explore a topic throughout the week. So you’re meeting their expectation when you deliver.
      Your opening for your WIP is startling, but since we’ve all been in that netherworld, we relate.

    • Larry says:

      Very good. Already a feeling of tone is established; feels like Mavis is going to be one tough cookie put into some really absurd situations!

      Has a “Discworld” feel to it, which is one of the better fantasy series out there.

    • Meghan,

      Your WIP opening is wonderful!

  • Thanks! Your post got me thinking more about my blog openers.

    Here’s the first line of my novel WIP: “She was the unwanted daughter of a mother with a new baby son.” Feedback welcome from all you cyber folk.

  • This is so true about blog posts! As I read this, I thought about how much of my time is spent considering the hook of a post. The tricky part is that you really have to hook people differently depending on how you are pulling them to your blog. For my blog, there are 3 key ways, and what hooks readers varies:

    1) From my Facebook page. When you post a link to your blog post on Facebook, they don’t see ANY of your actual writing from the blog post (except in that little preview that no one reads). To get them to click through, you have to write a stand alone hook in the Facebook post – short, to the point, and immediately speaks to a core takeaway if someone clicks through. Here’s a recent one from mine: “[New Blog Post] Do you find it hard to decide how much to protect your kids from negative influences? I certainly do. Click below for my latest post, with 5 key questions to consider in your decisions!” Facebook posting is a hook art in and of itself. That blurb drives the click through more than the headline on the link share in my experience. Most of my traffic comes from Facebook, so I have to sell them the click through before I can even sell them on reading the rest of the post!

    2) From email subscriptions. It’s key to have the subject line be the same as your blog headline. A lot of bloggers send auto emails from their RSS feeds and the subject line doesn’t have the post title – that loses a lot of click throughs! The headline grabs attention into the email itself. The most important thing I do in my email marketing is create an email appropriate hook length. This means NOT using the default excerpt text from Word Press. If there are just a couple of lines automatically selected from your post by Word Press, they are not likely to make a busy reader click. I cut all my posts at what I feel is the best place for getting a person reading and then feeling they HAVE to click through for the remainder (that, of course, is custom for each post). Usually that’s as much as a third of what I wrote! The bottom line is that with email marketing, the hook is the headline and then the right amount of text in the email itself, customized for each post.

    3) From Google organic traffic. When people arrive at your site for the first time, they need a sample. What they see on the home page as they scroll down is critical. I’ve structured my home page so that you see all the excerpts that I selected for my emails. That way, people are hooked by the sample of what I think are compelling headlines and compelling blog post intros. If they like the sample platter, they’ll hopefully become a fan!

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Thank you, Natasha, for taking the time to explain your carefully-planned campaign to get people to read your blog. Obviously, it takes more than just writing a stream-of-consciousness blog and then hoping people will drift into your meandering river. They need lots of sign posts to get them to reach the destination you have in mind for them.

  • Larry says:

    Most blog readers don’t care for the quality of prose?

    That surprised me, as I thought amongst all the myriad sources of info readers could otherwise look at, it would be the quality of prose which would help make a blog distinct and worthwhile from a readers perspective.

    I guess that really says something about this digital era, and our modern society, where folks are like gluttons at the information-buffet, not caring what they stick down their craw nor the quality thereof.

    Ever the more I learn about blogs, the more I realize it’s just not the platform for me.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Larry, I did qualify that there are exceptions. If you want to brand yourself as a fine writer, your blog must reflect that. As a matter of fact, that should be one of the prime goals of your blog.
      But most blogs are informational in nature. They need to be written in a straightforward, skimmable way. That requires the blogger to write cleanly, and hopefully the writer will also choose strong verbs. I picture it more as a newspaper writer style.

      • Larry says:

        Ah! I do like the newspaper-style suggestion. It certainly is much better than what I mistook blog readers to desire, which was a prose style no different than a VCR manual. If that is the style readers prefer, then blogging might not be so bad.

  • I began the novel “When the Morning Glory Blooms” with a line I didn’t realize would lace itself in and out of the pages: “The hand on her cheek weighed no more than a birthmark.” I hope it lures the reader with the tenderness but the wonderment that considers, “Does a birthmark weigh anything? Maybe not physically. Does it have weight emotionally? And is it a birthmark or the marks left by a birth?”

    I began my July nonfiction release–”Ragged Hope: Surviving the Fallout of Other People’s Choices”–with, “Ron and Judy called their Realtor to say they wouldn’t need to look at retirement property on the lake after all. Their grandchildren will be living with them for the next who knows how many years. Ron and Judy’s daughter, a single parent, met someone on the Internet. He lives in Brazil. Children don’t work into his life plan. So she left her kids with the grandparents to pursue the man with smoky eyes and a sultry accent.”

    It starts with a story. Even if that example hasn’t happened to readers, my hope is that their ache for those living in the fallout will draw them in to the other stories in the book and the larger questions about how to survive when hope seems threadbare.

  • Loved this post, Janet. It got me thinking for a Monday, which is sometimes hard to do.

    I love blogging, and it amazes me just how many of them are out there and how you can get lost in what they offer. One of the most popular features at my blog, The Busy Mom’s Daily, is Diary of a Busy Mom where I share some of my parenting challenges.

    Here’s the opening of a picture book I just finished:

    “I’m sure you know that beautiful blonde girl whose fairy godmother helped her go to the ball. She met a prince and they lived happily ever after.

    Blah. Blah. Blah.

    Bet you felt sorry for Cinderella when you heard how hard her stepmother made her work. Well, I’m here to tell you, you’ve been lied to.

    Deceived.

    Manipulated.”

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Janet, I know to do these things for books, but I need to make sure I’m applying them to my blog posts. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Here’s the first few lines from my WIP.

    My work-worn hands itched to grab the switch that would change the course of my future.
    The overseer, Mr. Martin, paced across the vibrating floor. He watched and waited for a hint of disruption. The mill stunk of sweat and tobacco juice. And through the air there crept a tension caused by defiance.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I might actually put the first sentence after the sentence ending in “defiance.” Since the first sentence is about the narrator, it’s a big switch to immediately move to what Mr. Martin is doing. Just my thought.

      • Thanks for your idea Janet.

      • Round #2
        My work-worn hands itched to grab the switch that would change the course of my future. “I don’t agree.” The words I spoke were inaudible over the roar of the looms. I watched for tangled threads until my eyes ached. My fingers hovered over the spools, poised to respond.
        The mill stunk of sweat and tobacco juice, and through the air there crept a tension caused by defiance.
        The overseer, Mr. Martin, watched and waited for a hint of disruption. He paced the vibrating floor past a long line of machines manned by girls halfway through their ten-hour day of drudgery. We all had the same stance, uniform, and hairstyle in a pouf on top of our cotton-coated heads. But we all didn’t have the same opinion about what would happen next.
        The first move was coming, and I was going to make it.

  • Here’s the start of my Yet-To-Be-Named Novel (working title is The Black Knight):

    It had been twenty-five years since the Great Divide. Twenty-Five years since the once great United States split. The split happened from years of disagreement. Years of dissention and disagreements.

    Still not sure if I like it, but I’m still in the “keep writing and don’t look back until the end” stage :)

    —Christen Krumm
    ChristenKrumm.com

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Christen, the idea is intriguing, but the opening would benefit from some tightening. I understand that you’re just getting it all down, which as a rabid self-editor, I’ve always struggled with making progress rather than editing.

  • Love this! Love reading everyone else’s openers, too.

    One of my favorite books of all time opens with:

    “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents.”

    Fifty points for anyone who can name the author and book!

    One of my recent parenting blog posts begins with this:

    “Kindly, my five year old reminded us this morning that no matter what we think, or how well things are going, we, his parents, are not even remotely in control.

    Thankfully, God is bigger than this kid’s will.”

  • Jenny Leo says:

    Gaack! That should be “Adelle” with two l’s. I’m sorry.
    Signed,
    Longing For An “Edit” Button

    • *smile* no biggie. Adele has, at the very least, popularized our name to the extent that I no longer am met with a “huh?” upon introduction. Even if she does spell it wrong…

  • Thank you, Janet. This post was very helpful.

    I have struggled a bit with my opening. There are three things about my story that I want to establish right away. One is that the main character is a teenage faerie. The second is that she has the ability to create thunderstorms at will. The third is her contentious relationship with a Unicorn. I’ve managed to get all three within the first page and a quarter, but coming up with a brilliant, intriguing first sentence has proved a challenge. My current opening is below. I’d be thankful for feedback from you and the members of this blog community.

    Siobhan Rainshee scowled at the spark of sunlight reflected in the swirling waters of Ice Thistle Brook, then squinted up at the sky. Obediently, a line of storm clouds formed, curled together and obliterated the spark.

    Happy Monday, Everyone!

    • Christine, I’m not much of a fantasy reader, so I don’t know if I’ll be any help. What I like is the pictures the two sentences conjure up.

      That first sentence seems so much to digest. Perhaps lessening the alliteration would help. Maybe it’s a glimmer of sunlight instead of a spark. Also, I honestly didn’t catch that Siobhan conjured up the storm, but a regular fantasy reader might realize that.

      • Thank you, Cheryl, for the feedback. It is indeed helpful! It’s great to hear that the two sentences conjured up pictures for you. I was worried about the alliteration, so you confirmed my fear. Thank you for the suggestion of glimmer. It’s helpful, too, that you said the first sentence was a lot to digest. I had combined three sentences into one. Obviously, that doesn’t work, so perhaps I need to hook readers with imagery and reel the information out more slowly.

        It’s fine that you didn’t get from the sentences that Siobhan created the thunderstorm. Some of my critique partners who are fantasy readers did get it, but I don’t know that readers need to find that out within the first two sentences. It is stated explicitly before the end of the first page when the unicorn, Cay, pokes Siobhan in the back, then scolds her for misusing her magical powers.

        Thanks so much for your feedback. And I am definitely intrigued by your picture book opening. I love when fairy tales are told from a different perspective! Please make an announcement when it’s published. I would love to buy it.

        Blessings!

  • donnie and doodle says:

    donnie finally agreed that I can use his laptop to write my first novel.

    It’s called: “Jokes You Should Never Tell A Cat.”

    I’m doing quite well – I have the page numbers finished.

  • Kiersti says:

    This is very helpful, Janet–thank you! For me, the bit about beginning a blog with a felt need helps especially.

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