Monday 6 April 2015

Pain: The Opening Hook in Atlanta Nights

This post is the first in a series illustrating some of the common fiction editing issues I see, using Atlanta Nights by Travis Tea as our object lesson in how not to write a novel. For those of you who didn’t read my post introducing Travis Tea and his illustrious novel … you might want to go back and read the post so you don’t think I’m ripping apart some poor author who tried their best to write a staggering work of genius.

Go ahead. I’ll wait. (Click here to read it.)

You’re back? Good.

We are going to start at the beginning (after all, what better place to start?). For those who have resisted the temptation to download a free copy of Atlanta Nights, here is the first page:
Whispering voices.
Pain. Pain. Pain.
Need pee--new pain--what are they sticking in me? . . .
Whispering voices.
“As you know, Nurse Eastman, the government spooks controlling this hospital will not permit me to give this patient the care I think he needs.”
“Yes, doctor.” The voice was breathy, sweet, so sweet and sexy.
Yes, today’s post is about how not to start your novel, and there are several ways of considering this question. First is the good old journalistic standby:

Does the opening answer the key questions of who, what, when, where and why?

No. We don’t know who, what, when or why. We can guess at the where—a hospital, in Atlanta perhaps? Do we care enough to turn the page and find out? I’m inclined to say no, because there’s no apparent story.

Are you capturing the attention of your reader?

In Wired for Story, author Lisa Cron explains that as readers, we think in terms of story. She gives several questions to ask about your opening paragraph to ensure you are capturing the attention of your reader … in a good way:

  • Do we know whose story it is? 
  • Is something happening, beginning on the first page?
  • Is there conflict in what's happening?
  • Is something at stake on the first page? 
  • Is there a sense that ‘not all is as it seems’?
  • Can we glimpse the 'big picture'?

Atlanta Nights fails on almost all these questions: we don’t know who the protagonist is, not in the first (short) paragraph, and not even by the end of the first page. Nothing is happening—there is no action, and no conflict. Nothing is at stake, as we’ve got no idea who is in pain, or how serious it is. Is there a sense that not is all as it seems? It’s hard to say, as we know so little. Can we see the big picture? No.

The Storytelling Checklist

One blog I enjoy reading is Writer Unboxed (and not just because editing guru Dave King is a contributor). One regular feature is “Flog a Pro”, where the author—and commenters—read the anonymous first page of a recent New York Times bestselling novel, and see if it’s compelling enough to make you want to turn the page. The author of the series, Ray Rhamey, gives us a storytelling checklist:
Evaluate this opening page for how well it executes these six vital storytelling elements. While it’s not a requirement that all of them must be on the first page, I think writers have the best chance of hooking a reader if they are. The one vital ingredient not listed is professional-caliber writing, a given for every page.
  • Story questions
  • Tension (in the reader, not just the characters)
  • Voice
  • Clarity
  • Scene-setting
  • Character
One interesting thing that continually comes out in Ray’s posts is that many of the novels make the bestseller list purely because of the author. The writing, to someone who isn’t already a fan of that author, is often clunky and telling … much like the opening of Atlanta Nights. Ray’s chosen books might be bestsellers, but they aren’t not good enough to attract new readers.

So how does Atlanta Nights fare against this list? Well, it does raise a lot of story questions. Who is in hospital? Why? There is a clear voice … drugged-up, to be sure, but still a voice. The scene has been set—the protagonist (if that’s who he is) is in hospital (we assume the narrator is male, because he thinks the nurse has a sexy voice). But we have little idea of his character (crude, perhaps?),

And the writing is hardly professional calibre, with a steam-of-consciousness opening interrupted by an author intrusion (any time a character says, “As you know,” it’s almost certainly the author getting in the way of the narrator to pass over his or her opinions on a subject, whether relevant or not. But that’s a subject for next week … Interior Monologue.

For those who would like some good advice on how to begin a novel by hooking the reader, may I suggest a trip back into the Australasian Christian Writers archives, to an excellent series of posts from Anne Hamilton:

How Should Atlanta Nights Start?

How should Atlanta Nights have started? The most obvious suggestion would be to start with the accident that put our painful protagonist in hospital (yes, I admit. I’ve read ahead, and know he was in a car accident). The obvious answer might not be the best answer (I haven’t read that far ahead). But regardless, a novel should start with action. Something should be happening.

What do you think? Does Atlanta Nights have a good opening hook? Would you turn the page? Why, or why not?

About Iola Goulton

I am a freelance editor specialising in Christian fiction, and you can find out more about my services at my website, or follow me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Tsu.

I love reading, and read and review around 150 Christian books each year on my blog. I'm a Top 25 Reviewer at Christian Book, in the Top 1% of reviewers at Goodreads, and have an Amazon Reviewer Rank that floats around 2500.


  1. I'm sure we all know how difficult it can be to execute a beginning which ticks off everything on the list given by Lisa Cron. I agree that action can work and have tried to utilise this in my books, such as the collision in Best Forgotten.
    At the same time, I can see how authors like our friend Travis Tea may think they're doing well not to start with 'Once upon a time.' I've come across novels which do have similar starts to Atlanta Nights. Perhaps setting mystery doesn't work that well if readers are left for too long without a clue what's going on.

    1. True. "He" could have started with "Once upon a time" or "It was a dark and stormy night" (just right for a car crash) - both options would have been worse.

      Beginnings are hard, and it's a lot easier to critique this beginning than to improve on it (which is why this such a brilliant book to critique. The "author won't mind!). However, I've read ahead and I know the writing is going to get worse. And probably not going to get better.

  2. I agree with Paula - having written the first chapter of 5 manuscripts and about a dozen short stories - getting an opening sentence or paragraph that ticks all the boxes and that catches the immediate interest of readers, editors and publishers is perhaps the hardest thing about writing fiction, in my experience.

    As you mention, Iola, the opening sentences do raise story questions and has a clear voice. It does give a sense of mystery and perhaps of threat. It is, perhaps, drawn out too long, is maybe unnecessarily repetitive (how many times can you say "pain. pain". It could be more descriptive (what is the pain like, where is it, does it change over time, are there other bodily sensations - apart from the need to pee; nausea, dry mouth, thirst, light or darkness, smell, noises of the hospital, not just whispering voices). For me the clunkiness really shows up in the authorial intrusion and the stereotypical presentation of the nurse as sexy.

    Great idea to look at this satirical work to examine what not to do.

    1. To get the full awfulness of this, you need to read it aloud. Catherine Hudson and I read the first chapter together, and Catherine reading it aloud made it worse. A lot worse.

  3. Great post Iola. I have to say I was lost for certain at the 'need pee' line. But then it made me howl with laughter too, especially given the reasons this novel was written.
    I've made a note of that checklist for openings as I'm working on mine now - thanks!

    1. "Need pee" adds a touch of realism to the book ... after all, how often do fictional characters visit the little room? However, realism doesn't necessarily make a good story.

  4. Wow - what a riveting first page. It really makes me want to ... not read the book. Good on you for ploughing through it Iola I don't mind if an opening doesn't tick all of the boxes, but there has to be enough to make me want to find out more. There's nothing in this opening to make you care about the poor person in pain. Looking forward to the next breathtaking installment :)

    1. Believe me when I say that reading the next couple of paragraphs makes you even less likely to care about the person in pain. Or, perhaps, to not like him (dislike is caring, right?).

  5. Iola, excellent post! There's nothing for the reader to identify or connect with in those opening paragraphs, let alone be pulled into the fictional dream. It's already a train wreck and I'm wondering how it can get worse? Kudos to the authors for creating an effective teaching tool for writers.


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