Great Opening Lines

Henrik Nordenberg Blick aus dem Entrée

“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley.” – Uprooted, Naomi Novik

“Sabrina had never picked a lock in her life, but it was done every day in books.” – Tryst, Elswyth Thane

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Random thoughts of a problem I’m trying to work out for myself: how to start the story. This isn’t something I worry about when I start writing. The idea is on fire and off I go. But when editing, I come back and look at what I wrote. That’s when I start to question everything.

I love the feeling I get when I open a book and read a great opening line. I want to find a secluded corner and settle in for a good read. The stories don’t always live up to their opening lines, but the promise is there. The promise of a wonderful adventure.

What makes an opening line work? I love the above samples because of their promise. They intrigued me into reading more, which is the basic goal of an opening line.

It’s so simple when someone else does it! It’s harder when I try to do it.

I like to start by grabbing the reader and that doesn’t work for everyone. Some people love a leisurely opening and feel disoriented when they get thrown in the deep end. Plus, there is the plain truth that no matter how shiny and promising the idea starts out in my mind, the actual words on the page are going to look flat in comparison.

The opening of His Forgotten Fiancée:

“Who am I?”

Liza Fitzpatrick dropped the cleaning rag onto the counter of the dry goods store and spun around. A man stood in the doorway, his rough, workingman clothes soaked to the skin. He stared at her as if she were the first woman he’d ever seen.

The opening of Geoff and Lia’s story, tentatively titled A Gentleman of Leisure:

Geoff heard the click of a gun from the bushes behind him, and then a woman’s voice, deadly calm: “Stand up — slowly, now — and keep your hands where I can see ‘em.”

I like to start out in the middle of the action, in medias res, but even so the reader needs some basic orientation. I remember one contest entry that I read. All I knew was that the heroine was near the seashore looking at a ship. I didn’t know if she were sitting or standing or floating sideways. I didn’t know if she were on a dock or standing on a beach or looking out of a window of a house on the shore. I was trying to picture the scene and I was missing fundamental elements, which threw me out of the story at the start.

I want to start with something happening, but while it is happening I have to slip in some crucial details. Just enough for the reader to feel grounded, not enough for them to feel swamped. Argh!

What’s your favorite opening line for a book? Why does it work for you? Do you get disoriented if an author starts out too abruptly?

It’s tricky, achieving that balance between hooking the reader’s attention and throwing too much at them all at once. It’s frustrating, trying to convey an idea from one mind to another through the medium of words on a page. It’s amazing, to look at a whole book and think, “I did that. I want to do it again.”

The difference between an amateur and a professional writer

“…that was the moment I changed from an amateur to a professional. I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.”

-Agatha Christie, An Autobiography

I must be a professional writer. I don’t feel like writing today. I don’t feel that what I’m writing is particularly good. I still like the story, but I’m not so thrilled with the way the writer puts words on the page.

I’m going to keep going anyway.

Patricia Anderson describes four stages of writing for publication:

  1. Writing for the joy of it
  2. Cultivating discipline and the will to revise
  3. Understanding—and accepting—market dictates and the business of publishing
  4. Writing as a job

Today, it is a job.

That’s okay. I’m going to keep going anyway.

 

Creating Tension

Ropetrailer2Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Rope isn’t a movie that I like to re-watch because I always feel uncomfortable in a story where the murderer is the protagonist. But it’s a great example of how to create tension. In the picture above, the murderers are being confronted by the one person in the story smart enough to figure out what they’ve done, which is murder a man and hide his body in a trunk.

The murderers and the ‘detective’ are in the background. Hitchcock put the trunk with the dead body in the foreground of the shot. He always kept the tension right in front of the audience.

I have to resist the urge to keep everything secret from the reader until the Great Reveal. That doesn’t produce tension so much as it produces annoyance. It’s far more effective to use suspense instead of surprise.

Hitchcock had the right idea. if the audience can see the danger coming, the tension is high. You’ve caught their attention and they want to know what happens next.

Note to self: Twists in the story are great. But if given the choice, go with suspense every time.

What do you do when the book stalls?

Kulikov Writer E.N.Chirikov 1904
I’m judging entries in the Golden Heart contest again this year. It’s like pulling out gifts from a grab bag; you never know if what you get is going to be something you like. So far I’ve read a couple stories that fell into the “well, it’s okay” category and one that absolutely made me sit up and want more.

I think the “it’s okay” stories might be published after some re-writing, but I’m curious to see what happens to the “Wow!” story. I’ve read stories in contests that were better than most published books that I’ve come across — and yet I never see the stories published. (I do look. These are stories that made it to the finals of their contests, so I could google the author’s name.) So either the author published under a different name and title or… they never published at all.

A lot of manuscripts are contest winners because the first few chapters are incredible, and the rest of the book goes downhill faster than a slalom run. But if these authors were that wonderful in their early chapters, I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t polish the rest of the story as well, given time and persistence.

And that, I think, is the problem. Persistence. Especially when you’ve been listening to inner voices (or outer ones) that say you can’t finish. Or facing the fact that you’re simply not sure what to do to finish the book.

Napoleon Hill built a whole career writing books with titles such as “Think and Grow Rich.” His philosophy on how to succeed boils down to these steps:

  1. Try something.
  2. If it doesn’t work, analyze why.
  3. Try something different, based on what you learned in step 2.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until you succeed.

That’s where I’m at right now with the manuscript I’m revising. One chapter is falling flat and I am analyzing why it doesn’t feel like it’s working. I’m trying different ways to write it to find a way to that works. Not exciting, but it’s still progress.

Writer’s Digest wrote a post on how to resurrect a stalled manuscript.

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. A chrysanthemum by any other name would be easier to spell.

 

Batten - Europa'sFairyTales
Alternate title: stop hiding in my bushes, you stalker! (Well, she does look like she’s fed up with him in this picture.)

Where does a writer get the title for their book?

Not a rhetorical question. When I first wrote up the one-paragraph blurb for the Manuscript Matchmaker contest, I blithely slapped on a title without much thought. The story was about a woman who is fighting to keep her homestead claim and her fiancé, so Claiming His Heart seemed to fit. Then I got to the end of the story, then to the end of the rewrites, and I looked back at that title from the perspective of hundreds of pages and wondered if it really fit after all.

The trouble was, I had no idea what to suggest as a replacement. Now I’m brainstorming, writing down every title I can think of without judging it too harshly (yet).

This blog post has some excellent ideas on ways to find a good title, including these suggestions:

  • What role does the hero play in the story? Is he a troublemaker? A peace maker? A quilt maker?
  • What is the heroine’s career? A firefighter, a teacher, a detective?
  • Can you use the setting of the story in the title?
  • Scan through the story and see if you can find any catch phrases that would work as a title

Indulging my inner drama queen

How dare they not SWOON at the mere PRIVILEGE of being in the presence of a work of such INCREDIBLE genius?

Arthur Rackham 1909 Undine (14 of 15)One good thing about entering writing contests is that I got really good at receiving criticism about my writing. I didn’t always agree with the criticism. Sometimes it was infuriating, especially when someone corrected my grammar but didn’t know what they were talking about.

But I found that in one respect, it didn’t matter. Unless the critic was unreservedly enthusiastic, a little part of me felt miffed. I call that part my Inner Diva. Its ego knows no limits, and even the slightest breath of criticism causes the same reaction:

How dare they not SWOON at the mere PRIVILEGE of being in the presence of a work of such INCREDIBLE genius???

(Inner Diva is rather fond of multiple punctuation marks.)

So I’ve learned to allow for that reaction. Whenever I get feedback, I read it, write a thank you (the critic is trying to help me, after all) and then I set it aside and get on with something else. If the criticism was especially harsh, I have to clean something or go outside and pull weeds. Something that involves setting the world to rights.

Then I go back after a couple days and re-read the feedback. Often, on a second reading, the words on the page have magically rearranged themselves so that the critic is much less harsh and much more balanced and reasonable. Sometimes I have to go out on and pull a few more weeds, but usually I can take in their comments and move on with writing.

Feedback is helpful. Feedback is your friend. Feedback is not always right — it’s your story, not theirs — but it really can improve your story.

Just pat your Inner Diva on the head and get on with it.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts about Rejection. Rejection is a form of feedback, even a ‘Not for us’ note.

Do you have any special tips for dealing with feedback?

Slow and steady may win the race, but it’ll lose the reader’s attention and in that case who cares about the race?

Old french fairy tales 0077

“When you print out your manuscript and read it, marking up with a pen, it sometimes feels like a criminal returning to the scene of a crime.”
― Don Roff

It’s revision time. Oh, how do I love thee… not. Looking at the mechanics of the story.

  • Not too much thinking. If the characters sit around thinking all the time, the reader will fall asleep after a page or two, if they haven’t tossed the book aside already.
  • Not too much dialogue. Talking heads are disconnected from the senses and the emotions.
  • Not too much narrative. Long descriptions of the scene… yawn.

It’s a balancing act trying to get the mixture right. I never feel as if I done it correctly, but maybe feeling like that is part of the process.

Joanna Bourne has an excellent post on balancing the elements of writing.