Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 10, 2014

Margie’s Rule # 6: Make Your Opening Pop!

Margie Lawson

I’ve talked to dozens of agents and editors about what makes them stop reading submissions. We’ve chatted on planes and on yachts, in several countries, on several continents. We’ve chatted at luncheons and dinners and late nights in bars.

Some agents and editors shared general ideas regarding why they quit reading.

They said things like:

  • First paragraph didn’t impress me.
  • Story didn’t hold my interest. I wanted to skim.
  • Couldn’t connect with characters.
  • The writing was amateurish.

Many shared the dreaded, “I don’t know why, but it didn’t work for me.”

Aack!  Not useful for writers.

Writers need to know what to avoid doing, and what to do. They need specifics. I teach writers how to make their writing stronger.

I compiled a fifty point list about openings that includes points from agents and editors as well as deep editing points from me. We’ll look at my top ten.

Margie’s Top Ten Reasons Why Agents and Editors Stop Reading
  1. Didn’t get locked in POV character’s skin in first or second sentence.
  2. No setting. No idea where we were. Floating heads.
  3. No hint about a story promise.
  4. Boring blocks of backstory.
  5. Voice wasn’t distinctive.
  6. Flat writing. Didn’t use structure and style to make the read cadence-driven.
  7. Opened with a dream or flashback. Fooled the reader.
  8. Confusing. Stuff happened, but I didn’t know why, so I didn’t care.
  9. Too nicey-nice. No tension.
  10. Overwritten. Writerly. Trying too hard to impress.


I’ll share two openings in this blog. The first is the opening from Katie McGarry’s debut novel, a YA, Pushing the Limits.

Pushing the Limits, by Katie McGarry, Margie-Grad

Pushing the Limits McGarry"My father is a control freak, I hate my stepmother, my brother is dead and my mother has, well, issues. How do you think I'm doing?"

That's how I would have loved to respond to Mrs. Collins's question, but my father placed too much importance on appearance for me to answer honestly. Instead, I blinked three times and said, "Fine."

Mrs. Collins, Eastwick High's new clinical social worker, acted as if I hadn't spoken. She shoved a stack of files to the side of her already cluttered desk and flipped through various papers. My new therapist hummed when she found my three-inch-thick file and rewarded herself with a sip of coffee, leaving bright red lipstick on the curve of the mug. The stench of cheap coffee and freshly sharpened pencils hung in the air.

My father checked his watch from the chair to my right and, on my left, the Wicked Witch of the West shifted impatiently. I was missing first period calculus, my father was missing some very important meeting, and my stepmother from Oz? I'm sure she was missing her brain.

Katie McGarry’s strong writing put me in her POV character’s skin in that high school counselor’s office. Her writing also made me smile.

I’ll flip my top ten list now and make it what to do, not what to avoid.

Margie’s Top Ten Checklist for Openings

1. Locked reader in POV character’s skin in first or second sentence.  Yes.

2. Shared setting.  Yes.

3. Shared hint about a story promise.  Yes. Dealing with her brother’s death and father and step-mother.

4. No boring block of backstory. Correct. We learned a lot about the POV character, but the backstory was shared in a fun way.

We learned she’s seeing her high school counselor, and has a long history of counseling. Her father is a control freak, her brother died, she has a wicked step-mother, and she’s probably a junior or senior, and smart, because she’s taking calculus.

5. Distinctive voice.  Yes. Several humor hits. Fun style.

6. Empowered writing. Used structure and style to make the read cadence-driven.

She used three rhetorical devices: alliteration, eponym (Wicked Witch of the West, Oz), and mesodiplosis.

Mesodiplosis -- repeating a word or phrase at the middle of three or more subsequent clauses.

7. She did not open with a dream or flashback or try to fool the reader.

8. Clarity ruled. I knew what was happening to whom, and why.

9. We had tension.

10. Nothing was overwritten or writerly.

Writerly is my term for those words and phrases and sentences that don’t sound like natural thoughts or natural dialogue. They sound like a writer wrote them.

 ~  ~  ~  ~

The second opening is from Laura Drake. 

Sweet on You, Laura Drake, 2014 RITA Winner, Margie-Grad, Immersion-Grad

Sweet on You - Laura DrakeChapter 1

Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan

Another night of blood and adrenaline.

Katya Smith pulled her shower-wet hair into a bun. The weight of exhaustion tugged at her, but the fine hum of tension running just under her skin warned that she wouldn’t sleep.

Yet, beyond that, resting close to her heart, was a firm pillow of satiety. They’d saved two soldiers’ lives last night.

Being alone in the small, fake-wood–paneled room of the Quonset hut was an odd occurrence, given her three roommates. But Role 3 hospital inhaled medical personnel. They must be working a shift. The army was so desperate for medics that Katya had been transferred from physical therapy to triage medic two years ago.

She took the few steps to the American flag-draped wall and the small chalkboard beneath it, almost covered in chalk lines. Neat bundles of five, representing men that they’d saved from the enemy. She picked up the chalk, to add her night’s conquests, but hesitated. Keeping score against the bad guys only made sense if you were clear that there was an actual bad guy.

That’s not right. The enemy they fought in the ER wasn’t the Afghani insurgents.

It was death.

Laura Drake always delivers powerful openings, and powerful books. Masterful writing. If we used my checklist above, we’d have every point covered.

Laura shared a hint about the story promise. We expect a trauma, probably a death. The full story promise is revealed within a few pages.

~  ~  ~  ~

Review the list. Which of those ten points can you control?

The writer can control all those points! No excuses. You can learn how to make your opening pop!

Remember—this post just shared my top ten out of fifty teaching points about openings.

I teach a month-long online class through Lawson Writer’s Academy: A Deep Editing Guide to Make Your Openings Pop! I’ll teach Make Your Openings Pop online next May. But the lecture packet (over 130 pages of lectures) is available through my website all the time.

BLOG GUESTS:  IT’S YOUR TURN! Say Hi!  Or – share what makes you stop reading. 

Post a comment and you could win an online course from Lawson Writer’s Academy!

Check out the courses we’re offering in January:

1. Screenwriting Strategies for Fiction Writers, Instructor:  Susie McCauley

2. From Blah to Beats:  Giving Your Chapter a Pulse, Instructor:  Rhay Christou

3. Virtues, Vices, and Plots, Instructor:  Sarah Hamer

4. Creating Reader’s Guides for Young Adult and Middle Grade Books, Instructor: Koreen Myers

5. 30 Days to a Stronger Novel, Instructor:  Lisa Wells

Thank you for your time. See you on the blog!

All smiles................Margie

Want to read Margie's other five rules for bestselling writing? Click here.

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About Margie

Margie LawsonMargie Lawson —psychotherapist, editor, and international presenter – teaches writers how to use her psychologically-based editing systems and deep editing techniques to create page turners. Margie has presented over eighty full day master classes in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Writers credit her innovative deep editing approaches with taking their writing several levels higher—to publication, awards, and bestseller lists.

To learn about Lawson Writer’s Academy, Margie’s 4-day Immersion Master Classes (in Colorado, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Columbus, Dallas, Seattle, San Antonio, Houston, Jacksonville, Washington, D.C., and on Whidbey Island), her full day Master Class presentations, keynote speeches, on-line courses, lecture packets, and  newsletter, please visit www.margielawson.com.

58 comments on “Margie’s Rule # 6: Make Your Opening Pop!”

    1. Janet --

      Yes! I love the opening of PUSHING THE LIMITS too.

      Katie McGarry slips in who, what, where, and why so smoothly, you don't feel like you read backstory. Her opening is fun and powerful and enticing, just like the rest of that book, and all her books!

      Thanks for posting!

    1. Rebecca --

      Fabulous! And...keep in mind, this short blog is just a few pixels compared to the full picture of Make Your Openings Pop. 😉

      Thanks for posting!

  1. This was such a great post with really helpful advice. Pushing the Limits is one of my favorite books. I couldn't put it down and one of the reasons is that powerful opening. I fell in love with Echo and her story immediately.

  2. Now I'm dying to know what the other 40 ways to make openings pop, are!!!! Guess I need to sign up for the class to find out!

    Thank you for using my beginning - I'm thrilled! (And glad it wasn't cited as what NOT to do!)

    1. Hello Immersion-Grad Laura!

      I always use examples from you in my online course lectures, in my powerpoints, in Immersion classes, and in blogs, even when I'm not on Writer's in the Storm. Your writing is incredibly strong, and I'm proud you're an Immersion grad.

      Big Miss-You Bear Hugs!

  3. Maybe it's Monday morning fog, but I can't find the lecture packet on your website. I'm revising my first 50 pp. and love to get the next 40 points to make my opening pop.

  4. Another super-informative post, Margie and I learned a new rhetorical device!
    Mesodiplosis. Another spice to add to my writing. Love those RHs. 🙂

    1. Hello Immersion-grad Suzanne!

      Yes! I'm always adding new goodies to lecture packets and Immersion class. Glad you like mesodiplosis. I bet Hertz likes it too!

  5. One thing that makes me stop reading is the introduction of too many characters in the first few pages. It's especially annoying if these characters are two-dimensional without anything memorable about them, meaning I have to keep flicking backwards and forwards in the chapter to remind myself who they are. I also get angry when there's a proof error on the first page, as in a novel I started reading yesterday that's written by a well-known author.

    1. Hello S L Blakeway --

      I don't believe we've met before. It's great to e-meet you

      I hope you drop by my website and check out the lecture packets for my courses. I won't be teaching my first three courses for a long time.

      If you like what you read in this blog, you may want to consider getting the lecture packet for EMPOWERING CHARACTERS' EMOTIONS. Just didn't want you to miss out...

      Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm. Love your style!

      I bet you'll power through Pushing the Limits!


    I'll have the new lecture packet for A Deep Editing Guide to Make Your Openings Pop uploaded this afternoon. Sorry for the delay. New laptop, a MacBook Air. Love it! But still learning to speak Mac.

    Check back in a couple of hours. Thank you!

  7. Good morning Margie, great excerpts. My question is about the YA novel, I've been told never to start with dialogue (though I feel it does put you directly into the POV characters head) Are there hard and fast rules to this, or?

    1. Hey Jacque --

      I've heard that rule too. But like any writing rule, you will find exceptions.

      Opening with dialogue may not be your best choice, unless you make it kick off your story with power like Katie McGarry's opening.

      Always great to see you online!

    1. Hello Heian Woman --

      I have a lot of published authors who take all my online courses, and fly to Colorado, or another state, to attend one of my five day Immersion classes. Some are on their third, fourth, and fifth Immersion classes. Like you, they want to keep making their writing stronger.

      Thank you soooooo much for your endorsement!

    1. Heian Woman --

      A little delay getting all the January courses set up. but they're all on the Lawson Writer's Academy schedule now.

      Registration is open for the January courses. The link is in the blog.

      Thank you!

  8. It's driving me nuts that I have to miss your master class. See you in an online workshop! I'm already finding the 3 packets I printed out invaluable.

    1. Dana --

      I'm sad you couldn't make the Immersion class in Washington, D.C. too.

      I'm teaching 17 of those 5-day intensives next year. I'm counting on seeing you in one of those Immersion classes!

  9. Wow, Margie--this is such a great post. I love the concrete list of points and the examples, too. You make us feel like, hey, that's not so hard!

    1. Hello Holly --

      I'm all about teaching the how-to's of deep editing. I developed psychological based deep editing tips, techniques, and systems. My courses are loaded with new ideas and examples and deep edit analyses.

      If you haven't taken any of my online courses, or ordered the lecture packets for my courses, check out the course description for Empowering Characters' Emotions. It's on my web site. Click on LECTURE PACKETS on the horizontal menu bar under the airplane header.

      If you have questions, please email me.

      Love your on-screen energy!

  10. Margie and her team unveiled what needed to be improved in my manuscript. I can't thank them enough. Their courses are an incredible value. Highly recommended.

    Great post today Margie! I switched to Mac Book Air last year and all the adjustment hassles were worth it. Loving it now. Just slips into the handbag and we're off!

    1. Hello Helen M!

      Thank you! All the Lawson Writer's Academy dig deep and work with writers in the classroom just like I do.

      They impress me. I'm proud to have them on the LWA faculty.

      I love my Mac Air. It's only three days old, and I feel like my Mac Air and I are one. Cliche alert. 🙂

      Mine will go to Florida tomorrow, and Washington, D.C. next week. Both trips are to teach Immersion classes. I'm sure my light weight Mac Air will make me a happy working-in-airports-and-on-planes traveler!

    1. Hello Two-Time Immersion-Grad Julie G!

      I love working with you and your characters. Such smooth and empowered writing. I know I'll see your characters in print!

  11. Margie, I loved this and it was good for me to read as I'm "popping" and polishing all over my nun book (currently thinking of it as "Rosaries Make Bad Thongs"). THANK YOU!

    Also, I just approved a ton of comments so you might have to start at the top and work down one more time. 🙂

    1. Jenny --

      I loved working with you in Immersion class. Your new title is a WINNER!

      Rosaries Make Bad Thongs -- so perfect for your book!

      Thanks so much for setting up the blog. Fabulous!

  12. Just learned a valuable lesson here, Margie. My openings don't pop. I thought they did, however comparing them to these two excellent examples I realized they drag. Not good. Thanks for both the post and the examples.

  13. The first opening grabbed me. Wow! That is what writing is supposed to do. Thanks so much for your lessons and sharing wisdom.

  14. Not only do you always have advice that prompts me to think, struggle, learn, but your example books are always so intriguing!

  15. Hi, Margie! Fantastic post once again. Love the list and the examples. Made me see one more change I can make to the opening of my novel and power it up. Miss you and your fabulous lessons.

  16. Late getting here, Margie. Another great post. I'm not finished with the WIP, but getting close. Definitely need to refer to this list when I start back through. my beginning is a bit on the weak side. But anything written is fixable! Thanks WITS for having Margie.

  17. Inert storytelling is a book killer for me. Give me a world where the characters have no choice but to act. If a story could end on any random page without consequence for the heroes, it's got problems.

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