I have this thing I do when I see a book lying unattended. I check the copyright page to see what printing the book is in, and then I read the first sentence of the first chapter. I do this because I’m a literary vampire who nourishes himself on the blood of kick-ass openings.
I found one such kick-ass opening while waiting for an appointment in my prison library. Impatience sent my gaze roving across the counter, looking for something to do when I spied Tina Seelig’s book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20.
“Hmm.” I picked up the book.
An incarcerated clerk raised his eyebrow and tossed his chin at the book: prison-speak for You want that book?
I pursed my lips and shook my head to each side once: prison-speak for I’d really like to but I made this promise to myself to focus and be more responsible about the new projects I undertake.
I returned to the copyright page. Along the bottom of most copyright pages, the terminal digit in a series of numbers indicates how many times the publisher ran out of books and had to print thousands more to meet demand. For example, the “19 18 17 16” in Seelig’s book means it’s from the 16th printing run. I use this number as a litmus test for Seelig’s public appeal. Popularity doesn’t necessarily make Seelig an excellent writer (though she is), but it does mean she probably has a lot to teach me about connecting with readers.
I flipped to page one. The first line read: “What would you do to earn money if all you had was five dollars and two hours?”
Questions generally have the power to capture a reader’s attention, but Seelig’s question seized and dragged me across the page because in 17 words, the sentence appealed to dominant needs in my life. The workaholic in me needed concision because I have little spare time. The academic in me seized upon the intellectual challenge. The starving artist in me always wants to know how to make money in two hours. Touché, Ms. Seelig.
I still didn’t intend to squeeze the book into my schedule, but needing an answer to the question, I read the next sentence.
“This is the assignment I gave students in one of my classes at Stanford University.”
A grin slowly broke across my face. It was compelling to pose an intriguing question about creating value with minimal resources. It was next-level Jedi mastery to promise answers from some of the brightest minds in the world. Where my stubbornness threw me into stage-4 denial about how this encounter would end, the writer in me knew Seelig had hooked and landed me in two sentences. And she did it while I was drowning in other-things-to-do. I continued reading, racing to the end of each line, hoping to get my answer.
Seelig, instead, explains the premise of the assignment:
Each of the fourteen teams received an envelope with five dollars of “seed funding” and was told they could spend as much time as they wanted planning. However, once they cracked open the envelope, they had two hours to generate as much money as possible. I gave them from Wednesday afternoon until Sunday evening to complete the assignment … They were encouraged to be entrepreneurial by identifying opportunities, challenging assumptions, leveraging the limited resources they had, and by being creative.
Delaying the answer was Tension Building 101, but this technique achieved next-level status, too, because the premise was as interesting as the question. I would have read through a dog’s list of chew toys to get the answer I sought, and Seelig might’ve relied on my urgency to do her work.
She maintained the standard of pushing her sentences toward more value to her readers. At this point, it approached blasphemy for me not to acknowledge her excellence by reading her book.
“What would you do to earn money if all you had was five dollars and two hours?” Questions generally have the power to capture a reader’s attention, but Seelig’s question seized and dragged me across the page because in 17 words, the sentence appealed to dominant needs in my life.
Glancing up, I saw the person I’d been waiting for walking toward me. I dove back onto the page and hit the second paragraph. Surely Seelig would take pity on my overscheduled soul and hand over the answer.
“What would you do if you were given this challenge?” it read.
I bit my lip and rapped my knuckles twice on the counter: prison-speak for “motherf—er!”
The incarcerated clerk was a friend, and he knew me well enough to read the journey I’d undergone in the smile that again broke across my face. He smirked and held his hand out for the book to complete my checkout.
I added two hours to my workday, but I learned something valuable about openings from page one (and many valuable things about success from the book). We’re told that books should be irresistible. Editors tell writers, “Make me want to read the next sentence, and the next, until I get to the end.” I’ve always tried to craft compelling openings, but I never took the commandment literally. I believed I could interest a reader, but I’ve never quite believed I could compel a reader until I read Seelig’s work. I kept reading because I had to discover something. I needed to find the answer. That’s a kick-ass opening.