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Monday, September 17, 2012

So Many Fish in the Sea

by Julie

So Many Fish in the Sea—

A little experiment with hooks and lines

In my last blog entry, I wrote about being married to writing. Today I’m all about dating. It seems I am past-due for a round of speed-dating. I just have to line up some “potentials” and spend a few minutes with each in hopes that love connections can be made without the hassle of hours wasted with some guy who stares at his reflection in the window behind me through dinner or who plants a surprise! kiss on me at the end of a long night with a mouth full of Oreo shake. I mean, I can just imagine the horror of such things.

So I lined up some potential suitors and spent a little time with each, wanting to see what makes me long for more…pages.
  Design © Kazmierz Szmauz: Bookman
My little speed-dating experiment (seeing as how I’m gratefully out of the people dating pool) is a book affair. I have an obscene number of books, some unread, and I decided I’d check out the first chapter of each of those, hoping I’d learn something about craft I could apply to my current projects.  I devised a rating scale of one to ten (one being “I think I need a restraining order,” five being “Let’s be friends; I’ll call you,” and ten being, “Come home with me NOW”). I even made a point of not reading the covers and flaps to avoid the “pretty face” trap.

What did I learn from my dates?

I flirted with 16 books, no two alike--at all. And I liked them ALL.  Seriously, I tried applying numbers that read like gymnastics scores, but I seem to be a nine giver. A character that endears, questions I MUST have answered, and those inexplicable moments of “Ooh, that’s nice” were all keys to a bit of literary love at first sight.
As I read Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay For Now, I hit the line “It was the most terrifying picture I had ever seen. The most beautiful,” and I knew I’d have to find out if the main character’s ability to see beauty in a brutal world would be enough to save him. And Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer had me with its little one paragraph first chapter that conveyed in a voicey way that the main character had survived, changed and sad, while others hadn’t. Okay, I cheated and read the next chapter and was rewarded with a first kiss (a good one) and a heartbreak (a bad one).
Cindy Pon’s Silver Phoenix sucked me in with forbidden love, a wrenching goodbye between a mother and newborn, life and death in the balance. I don’t think I breathed. In contrast, Jerry Spinelli’s  Stargirl  wasn’t wrought with life or death questions, but I was just as drawn in by the promise of a main character with a thing for porcupine ties and the image of a new girl playing the ukulele in the middle of a school cafeteria—“Stone cold silence all around. Then came the sound of a single person clapping. I looked. It was the lunch-line cashier.” It was such a real and familiar world, and I must know more about this girl.  Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Cosmic isn’t my world at all, but when the main character explains how in primary school he was told, “You should know better, big lad like you,” he reacts “Why, by the way? Why should a big lad know better just because he’s big? King Kong’s a big lad. Would he know the way to the bathroom the first day at school? When no one had told him? No, I don’t think he would.” Right there on page five, I "got" and cared about the character and whether he'd get out of his wild predicament.

Gorgeous language and wit, like that in Richard Peck’s A Long Way from Chicago entranced me straight away in a kind of light-hearted way, and Jandy Nelson did so in a more heavy-hearted way when in The Sky is Everywhere her narrator describes grief: “It’s as if someone vacuumed up the horizon while we were looking the other way." Yeah. I'm in.

I'd have thought I'd be kind of over speed-dating by the time I got to the last book in the line-up, but Libba Bray had me chucking and gasping through the aftermath of a plane crash. Let me make you dinner at my place, Beauty Queens.  Make room for DuPrau’s The City of Ember because I’ve got to know what’s in the box and for Westerfeld’s Uglies, because with a first line like “The early summer sky was the color of cat vomit,” I'm intrigued.

 Sure, I gave some books sevens and eights, or “LIKE at first sight” scores. But I saw enough potential that I suspect I’ll be a goner in another chapter or two. Granted, my sample is biased because I am, after all, the one who purchased these books, even if they sat waiting for attention a bit. Still—it was a treat to find so much to love. If only real dating had been so rewarding.

I’d hoped to come out with definitive insight into what about a chapter makes me weak in the knees, but I came out with the realization that there are very different ways to make me care enough to sign on for a long-term book relationship. It's surprising the variety of characters and situations I became absorbed in—no “my one and only” in sight. 

Somehow that realization is comforting to me as a writer. If I can make a character come alive or create a compelling question or offer moments of surprise or delight, my chapter might just get to second base with a reader.

Well, I’ve got some second dates with some books I can’t wait to get serious with now, but would sure love to hear what first chapters have really spoken to you as a reader. What was it that hooked you? 


  1. BTW, Libba Bray had me chuckling, not chucking. :) Must be all the fishing metaphors.

  2. You just never know with Libba Bray. ;)
    The last book I read was Laugh With The Moon, and it did a great job of hooking me in the first chapter. I think it was a combination of the setting (Africa) and the girl not speaking to her father (tension) that did it. It's a lovely book. And this is a lovely post! Hugs Juliebear!

    1. That's a great point about setting, Amy! I'm adding Laugh with the Moon to my TBR pile. :).

  3. This is so much fun, Julie! You've inspired me to tackle the pile of "suitors" languishing by the side of my bed...Wow. That sounded way better in my head.

    1. Sounds good to me! :) Thanks, KCH! It's hard to get to books when so many great things just show up in my Dropbox!

  4. I love learning from first sentences. Thanks for this post.

    1. Thank you, Linda! I wish I'd made it more analytical, but it was fun. :). Hope to see you soon!

  5. This is great, Julie. I smiled all the way through while reading, comparing books to dates. Very clever! I'm reading Ellen Hopkin's Collateral right now. I've never read a book in verse like this one, and I find it very powerful. I take it to bed with me every night! Wonderful post, Julie :)

  6. Ooh, nice! :) I need to read that! And some more Ellen J chapters!