Sunday, May 30, 2010

Openings and First Lines

I'm sure everyone and anyone who is in publishing or wants to get publishing will tell you you have to hook the reader/agent/editor from thew first sentence.

And if you didn't get the memo: You have to hook the reader/agent/editor from the first sentence.

This sounds hard, doesn't it? I know a lot of new authors who come into the game, take one look at that and think action. Action, they assume, is the best way to catch a reader's interest from the get-go and hold on tight. Now, I won't deny that this works, but there are so many other ways to hold onto a reader from the beginning. Voice, is a great one. Actions, yes, but sometimes just plain weirdness will keep someone reading.

Let's look at some famous openings, shall we?

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
-Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

Why is this opening line engaging? What about it makes you want to continue reading? Well, for one, it's a terribly long run-on sentence. But this is a run-on because it's part of the character's voice. Almost instantly we see the kind of person that Holden is in this opening. It also leads a bit of mystery. What is "it" and why would we want to hear about it? There are specifically placed words that allow us a glimpse of what kind of character we will be spending this novel with. "Lousy childhood" "How my parents were occupied and all before they had me" "David Copperfield kind of crap." Each little hint is a reflection of his character. None of these words are acceidental.

Which is very important when discussing the development of character: Nothing should be accidental. If your character compares his father to Elvis, there has to be a reason in that.

All children, except one, grow up.
-Peter Pan, JM Barrie

I LOVE this opening. Why is it effective? Because of the mystery! Six words and you're (or at least I am) instantly hooked! All children grow up, that goes without saying. So who is this child, this ONLY child that won't grow up? What makes it so he can't grow up? What about him is so different from other children?

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
-I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith

Why does this opening work? Because it's just plain weird. There's not much voice in this, not much mystery. (Other than why would you be sitting in a kitchen sink?) But it's not what you expected. When you're writing something, you should be sitting at a desk, or maybe on the couch, or even on the floor, but a kitchen sink? Suddenly, there's an urge to read on, to understand the why.

So there we go. We have the three characteristics that make up great opening lines: Mystery, voice and just plain weirdness. But, of course, what's a good line followed by a good second or third? The sole purpose of the first line is t0 make them read the second, then the third and so on. Though the whole novel is the most important part, trying to grab the reader from right away is never a bad thing.

"You're not going to like what I have to say, but you are about to die a horribly painful death. Within moments, someone will swing in through the window and shoot you four times in the chest. Should that fail, several men are hiding behind your sofa and desk, and will engage in hand to hand combat. Should you defeat them, it will not matter, because by then the undetectable poison leeking in through your air vents will shut down your heart and lungs successively."

I turn up from the card, eye the window, then the couch and finally the air vent. Moments before the glass shatters I can't help but think, 'Mom has to find a new way of wishing me happy birthday.'

This is an opening that I wrote not long ago, for no other reason than I like writing openings. Looking at the first line: You're not going to like what I have to say, but you are about to die a horribly painful death. Not a bad opening sentence, but not "wow" factor. The only thing that makes it better is the rest of the paragraph, followed by my main character's commentary on this seemingly inevitable chain of events.

But did the first line do its job? Did it make you read the second? And that second line, did it make you read the third? Then it succeeded in its job.

Your first line doesn't have to be action packed, or filled to the brink with voice or mystery. Trust me, a powerful first line helps like you wouldn't believe, but it won't sell your book. But if you're first line just doesn't cut it, it may cause that reader/editor/agent to put down your book.

First lines are really not easy for a lot of people, so I suggest practicing by just picking a random subject and writing a line about it. Or finding a great voice and just trying it out.

First lines can be really fun when you get the hang of them. So go! Go, go, go and practice!



Thursday, May 20, 2010

Have Faith

Publishing is a lot like jumping from an airplane. Except less fun.

Sorry I haven't been updating lately. I've been a busy little... (bird? Bee? Lawnmower? I don't know) so I haven't had the time. Plus, I don't really know what to talk about half the time. Sometimes I imagine I'm talking to empty space, because I can't imagine anyone wanting to listen to the advice of an unpublished author on how to get published. Go me.

Anyway, like I was saying. Planes. Publishing. Plumiting towards the ground. Right.

Today I recived a partial request for TED. Now, naturally, iw as very excited when I recieved the request. But as I checked through my chapters to comb for any last minute mistakes, the doubts started fluttering in. "There's no way this is good enough. This is all wrong. This writing is horrible. These opening pages don't draw the reader in enough. I could swear this was good last week!"

But what could I do? Rewrite the entire beginning of my book? That would just leave me a mess before I had to send it off. There were some changes I could make, but this was what I had to offer, sink or swim.

So I sent it. Sometimes it's hard to see the merit in your own work when you've spent so long looking at the mistakes. But all you can do is take a deep breath and send it out there. There was something about that book that made YOU write it, and make YOU love it. So all you can do is leap from the plane and hope your parachute open. Or, at least hope someone else likes your work as much as you do.

And if it's a rejection, so? It's not like you've fallen any farther than you were before you sent it out. But you had a chance to get further. If you feel fear when you send yourself out there-- that's a good thing. If you're living your life without fear, you've stopped trying new things, you've stopped making yourself vulnerable. And when you stop making yourself vulnerable, you limit your ability to grow.

So be afraid. You have every right to be. But eventually, you'll stop being afraid of it. And then you can expand your horizons even further, and keep on growing.



Tuesday, May 4, 2010

New Adventures and Teaser Tuesday? Yes, let's do that.

So, lately, I've come to a place in my life where I realize I have no idea what the hell I'm doing.

I blame school. School makes me lose my mind.

So, because of that I'm started to venture into unknown territory. I've got my helmet and a sharp stick and that's about it. Normally, I write third person past tense YA fantasy. Well, I've figured, "Fuck it," and am currently working on a book which is first person present tense YA contemporary.

Am I insane? Yes, yes I am.

I want to really focus on voice here, and strangely, I'm succeeding. In preparation for this, I've tried to find a few first person "voicey" books, like Hannah's Break or Will Grayson, Will Grayson. But other than that, I've never written a contemporary novel before. hell, I've only written ONE, count it, ONE, urban fantasy book. Which leaves me pathetically underprepared for this venture into contemporary territory.

But remember, I have a sharp stick!

I doubt I'll ever try to market this book, which is currently untitled (But why don't we cann it NAM? Just for fun.) NAM isn't a book that I've wanted to write for very long, although its main character Antoine has been bothering me for quite some time. So, with nothing but a vague idea of a conflict and a handful of characters, I dove in. And what do I get?

Is it physically possible to gut and then hang yourself with your own intestines, or would you just die from trauma or whatever before you could tie a noose?

Yeah, you read that right. Whether I am completely insane or not is up for debate. But, truthfully, this line took forever to write, because I never know how to actually start books, even ones in genres and tenses and POV that I am comfortable. The key with really nailing down Antoine's voice was to let go of my reservations when it comes to writing and literally writing whatever comes into my (or his) head. That includes swears and all that nasty teenage slang.

I get dressed and text Wyatt even thought he can’t text me back. I tell him about how much I love him, and that no distance or person or whatever will change that and I know it’s bullshit and he knows it’s bullshit and we don’t care.

I know what you're thinking. (Well, maybe. I'm not a mind reader.) That second sentence is pretty much a run on. And I wrote it purposefully like that because the way I hear Antoine speak in my head is he goes on and on and sometimes doesn't know when to stop because it's easier to keep talking than stop and ohmygod breathe!

Who knew I would take creative liscence? It's kind of fun.

The bell rings, so I don’t have to talk to Mrs. Cheery-McFuckface anymore.


...Yeah, I think I'm getting a handle on this voice thing.

“Hey, bitchface!”

It takes me a moment to realize the bitchface is, in fact, me.

I turn and find a girl standing behind me. Her brown hair is tied up in a ponytail, and she’s got a sports bag at her side with a lacrosse stick in her hand.

I level the most annoyed stare possible on her. “Yes?”

She drops the bag to the ground, rears back and wails me across the face with her lacrosse stick.

-whistles innocently- I'm starting to have fun with this. Though I'm sure you have no idea what is happening, I hope by this point you understand what kind of character Antoine is. (Note: Antoine has been forced to move from a city in Quebec to a small town in Alberta and hates it. We are seeing his first day at school. Poor Antoine. Havin' a bad day?)

So yeah, that's about all I can share. I hope I can get some support as I venture out onto this crazy new world. Hopefully after this novel I can get back to writing fantasy. Contemporary is great, but I can't make a living out of it. It's way too hard.

If anybody knows any great first person voice-y books, let me know!