Friday, December 4, 2009


It's my pleasure to have Katherine Swarts back with us. This time Katherine talks about something we all (published or not) need to remember.  Please give a warm welcome to Spread the Word founder and inspirational poet, Katherine Swarts.


Schedules get more cluttered every decade. It’s hard today to convince people to make time to read. It’s even harder to convince them to keep reading if the first three paragraphs are dull. Many twenty-first-century readers won’t wait even that long; you have to hook their attention with the first sentence.

The best story beginnings arouse emotion: surprise, humor, concern. They introduce an intriguing situation or a likable character, encouraging readers to think, “This could happen to me” or “Here’s someone I’d like to know.” Don’t ever start with detailed scene descriptions or extensive historical background; if either is essential to your plot, there’ll be time to weave it in after the reader is hooked.

Always begin on the emotional note that will permeate the whole story: a light tone for a humorous piece, a grim tone for a dark one. More than that, your opening must be completely relevant to the rest of the story: no fair introducing an interesting eccentric character solely for his “hook” value, then letting him disappear without doing anything that influences the plot. No writer ever built a fan base by making readers feel cheated.

Don’t drag the opening out too long, either. Beginning with an intriguing conversation and letting it deteriorate into small talk is like setting a hook perfectly and then neglecting to pull in the line. Even once you have the reader’s attention, you can still lose it if the plot doesn’t flow smoothly. A story is not a line of loosely connected anecdotes; it’s a chain of events held together by a theme and leading to a satisfactory ending, as in “This happened; and because of this, that happened; and that made this happen; and this is how it all turned out.” Thus, a start appropriate to the story will relate to the ending—and to everything in between.

Knowing this can help you come up with a good opening. How do you plan to end the story? Design your hook based on that. If the last scene will show a narrow escape from a wildfire, foreshadow the possibility of that fire in the opening paragraph: “Eighty days ago, Michelle would have found the crimson sunset breathtaking. Now it seemed a bloody mockery of the grasslands’ misery. Yet another tomorrow with little hope of rain.”

If you’re stumped, remember that the first draft doesn’t have to be written in the order in which the manuscript will be read. Go ahead and tell the story any way it comes to mind, then quickly reread the first few pages and see if anything jumps out. It’s amazing how often the “real beginning” of a story turns up in the third paragraph—or chapter.

However you ultimately find it, the perfect opening is a treasure worth searching for. It’s a key element in one major secret of success—making everyone as eager to read your story as you were to write it.

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Katherine Swarts, Spread the Word's founder, owner, and head copywriter, has been writing professionally for more than ten years—and reading voraciously for as long as she can remember. She has a master’s degree in written communications from Wheaton College (IL), and has published over 100 articles.
Katherine has a bachelor's degree in English from Austin College in Sherman (TX), and a master's degree in written communications from Wheaton (IL) Graduate School. She has also studied with the Institute of Children's Literature, which publishes the monthly newsletter Children's Writer; two annual market guides; and an annual writer's yearbook.

Katherine is also a writer of Christian and inspirational poetry.

Visit her blogs:


  1. Thanks for the sound advice, Katherine. I appreciate your common sense approach. I've thought of writing random scenes, but it felt too weird. lol. Guess I better get over that.

  2. I actually know what you mean there, Joylene. I have a near obsession with "doing things in order"; like everyone else, I preach the right thing better than I practice it.

    Oh, one additional note for the author bio: My inspirational blog also has a separate address at

  3. I'm like Joylene, I write in chronologial order. This happened, then this happened, then that happened. I can jump forward after the first draft is written, edit chapter 5, then chapter 9, then go back and make adjustments to chapter 2. But I have to finish the first draft first. Otherwise I find the lineage gets messed up. I bet it takes discipline to get over this.

  4. Most experts agree that the best approach to writing a first draft is not to think too hard about getting it "right," but to go ahead and throw everything onto the page as it comes to mind. (Keeping fully aware, of course, that the time _will_ come for heavy editing--not like some amateurs who do the manuscript that way and then submit it as is!)

    I have to admit that I've never been able to get through a first draft without doing _some_ editing-along-the-way.

  5. Clarification: "Doing the first draft as it comes to mind" does leave room for always writing it in chronological order--if that's the approach that comes naturally to you.

  6. When I started back in the early 90s, it was nothing for me to do 20 drafts. Now I try to have a completed ms by draft #5/6.

    This brings to mind an interesting concept: sometimes it's difficult to break old habits.

    I'm usually near the end a book when a new ones starts playing through my head. That can go on for 2 years. My current WIP came to me at the beginning of the year and I'm still not working on it full time. I'm trying to polish book #5, plus I'm working with my editor on book #2, technically book #3.

    I wish I was more disciplined. But guilt sets in if I don't spend enough time with my family, my DH is retired, and Grandma lives with us now. Maybe as you get older, your ambition calms down a bit?

  7. Openings are the hardest part of writing a book for me. There's so much pressure on hooking the reader right off. I know this isn't the best way to write, but I don't move forward until I'm sure the first chapter works. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it's got to grab me.

  8. The first sentence is hard, but it's the one time I just put down something to get started, otherwise I can sit forever waiting to begin. I always think of Billy Crystal in Throw Mama From the Train. I first saw the movie before I started writing, and I wanted to scream at him, "forget the first line. Just start writing! Or at least get a thesaurus." Now that I'm writing, I understand his dilemma, but I also take heed of my advice. But it only applies to the first line. Everything else needs to be written in chronological order and in readable condition.

  9. Hi Sam. I agree. I struggle over my first chapters always. I probably have 5 versions before I ever reach ch.5. But that's how I work. I have to wound myself up. When I open the file every morning, I usually start at the beginning of the chapter I'm working on, or if it's only a few chapters, I start at the beginning of the chapter previous. It's like sledding down a hill, I need the momentum to carry me into the scene I haven't written yet.

    Works for me, thank goodness, once I stopped wanting to have another writer's experience.

  10. First lines? I really enjoyed your blog about the subject, Pat.

    Yes, I'm learning the importance of that first line.

    1. First line from my thriller Dead Witness:

    "Camera in hand, Valerie McCormick stepped from the bus into intense daylight."

    2. Kiss of the Assassin:

    "Mama shouted."

    3. Broken But Not Dead:

    "I waited at the intersection of Yellowhead Highway and Domano Boulevard, soothed by the gentle vibration of my truck’s engine."

    4. Omatiwak: Woman Who Cries:

    "Blood. So much blood. Pooling on the slate tiles around his head."

    5. Dead Wrong:

    '“It should be you in the ground.”'

    I didn't include the line from my first book Always Father's Daughter for a reason. But looking at these other 5 lines shows the growth I've taken as a writer. At least I hope it does

    I know what I was trying to do in each case. It has to do with all those classes at SFU studying literature. In DW, I wanted to show the contrast btw harsh light and the stark reality of life when it throws you a curve ball. But I doubt my reader got that until maybe the end.

    Same as with Brendell being soothed by the vibration of her vehicle stopped at the intersection. Life turns into something quite opposite of being soothed. Unless you count the time she takes a bat to Norse.

    If your first line isn't the most brilliant line created today, the book had better measure up fast. Hopefully, by the 2nd sentence. Sadly, those yet to be published books don't have much more chance than the first para. If your first line is brilliant, all the better. If not, hook em quickly.

  11. I don't think there's a set standard as to how many drafts are required; I've heard of many top authors who regularly do ten or more. Most experts recommend at least three full edits: one to weed out any plot inconsistencies; one for general smooth flow (e.g., in paragraph-to-paragraph transitions); and one to catch any overlooked typos or usage errors. Of course, there's a difference between "full edits" (which are done only after the first draft is finished) and the polishing of individual sections. (Does it count as five drafts if you refine that vital opening paragraph four times without touching the rest of the manuscript?)

    But the usual sign that a writer has reached the point of "too much editing"--nit-picking perfectionism marked by terror of submitting a manuscript with one tiny little word not the best choice--is when s/he starts changing the same words or phrases again and again, often back and forth between two wording choices.


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