In every book I write, and I’ve written five to date, it appears I have a problem with finding the very best way to open the story. Determined to improve upon this and save myself some rewrite time, I read Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel workbook. It uses the same principles noted in the book, obviously, yet is presented in a different format with different examples and exercises to illustrate the theories.
At the same time I read one of my all-time favorite author’s newest release—Murder Game by Christine Feehan. This book was so wonderful that I absolutely savored each page! I saved it for plane rides and a Florida vacation, and it did not disappoint. It was one of those rare books that you read as slowly as possibly to keep from racing to the end—and once you read the last page, you're sad it’s over.
To this author/reader, Feehan does it all right—so it’s no surprise she hits the bestseller list every time.
First Line- The cougar was going to turn. Simple, but invokes a ton of curiosity. Who cares if the cougar turned and why? Where is our heroine that she’s near a cougar? Is she in danger?
Setting—She’s camouflaged in the wilderness, perched high on a narrow ledge for hours with pins and needles shooting through her numb, cramping body, taking pictures of a large, very pregnant cougar. Tension in everything about the scene—just as Maass preaches.
Feehan pushes the limit that Maass preaches in my opinion. It’s not enough that her protagonist is stuck for hours in hiding, she’s physically uncomfortable—which also tells us that this character is very determined. It’s not enough that she’s trying to photograph a dangerous cougar—but it’s a large, pregnant cougar—ups the stakes and tension. And finally, the blind itself is perched very high on a narrow ledge—more tension and stakes. Wonderful!
In the beginning we learn that this isolated wilderness is her haven, yet once the hero intrudes, and then the bad guys start shooting at them . . . her perception of her haven understandably changes and it’s suddenly a ruined, dangerous place.
The most clever thing to figuratively slap me in the face was the reversal. Tansy has her shots of the pregnant cougar, she’s safely gotten back to her camp after a long night staking out the cougar. She secures her equipment, calls her adoptive parents to reassure them that she’s well, and she gives the reader a great picture of her inner conflict—that she’s been “different” since birth—and she desperately wants to be normal, that she’d been hospitalized for months and never wants that to happen again, that she worries about disappointing her supportive, wonderful parents. Then she happily bathes in the natural pool and stretches out in the sun to catch a few hours sleep.
On page 10 Feehan introduces our hero, Kadan, who is a special forces, ghostwalker whose mission is to find Tansy and force her—if necessary, which he suspects will probably be necessary, to leave the wilderness and help him save his friends.
On page 25 they meet. Tansy wakes up and looks into Kadan’s face—mere inches from hers. The expected response would be a scream, or react in great alarm, but Feehan has naked Tansy analyzing the man, then she gets up and crosses to her clothes. Her internal thoughts-She made no attempt to cover her nudity because there was nothing she could do about it and she didn’t want to give him any more of an advantage by letting him see she felt vulnerable. Brilliant!
It surprised this reader, logically explained her atypical response, and gave characterization. And it made me determined in my next book to be just as clever—not with a naked woman’s response, but with just as clever of a reversal that will engender as much reader admiration—hopefully.
And in those 25 pages, Feehan packs in TONS of characterization so I felt like I really knew these characters well, and was eager to go on the journey with them. And they hadn’t even shared their first kiss or been shot at yet! And though I knew a lot about Tansy and Kaden, she only included pertinent back story. The key word being, pertinent.
I could continue through all of Murder Game pointing out examples to support most of Maass’s theories of elements that make a bestseller, but I’m already convinced. I loved this book. Now to plot out my new story and try utilize these elements myself.
By the way, a small plug here for the Crested Butte Writers Conference June 19-21. If you too are a Maas fan, he will be giving a two-hour workshop on his new book, The Fire in Your Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, due out May 2009 at the CBWC. I cannot wait to see what else I can learn from him!
Also, CBWC attendees, can preorder any books--Like Fire In Your Fiction, from the local bookstore, Blue Moon, and get a 10% discount on your whole order AND have it waiting for you to pick up at conference registration--see the website for complete details as to how to take advantage of this cool new offer.
Kudos to two of my favorite authors, Christine Feehan and Donald Maass!