Avoiding Reader Burnout by Texting the Gods

(c) Copyright 2017, Random House Books for Young Readers

I’ve been repeatedly having the same vaguely disturbing conversation in person and via email with a number of individuals recently about books and reading. The topic is variously referred to as “reading fatigue,” “book burnout,” and “reading slump,” among other terms. The complaint centers upon the perceived feeling that new books being published are “all” following the same pattern. Elements of that pattern would include 1) “the placement of the word ‘girl’ in the title; 2) the unreliable first-person narrator; and 3) a missing child/husband/sister who seems to suddenly reappear with an inability to explain their absence.

It is true that publishing industry generally is reactive and not proactive. We all remember The Da Vinci Code. That book became a sub-genre unto itself. It seemed for a while as if every other newly published book concerned a hunt for an ancient relic that, depending on what it was and who was hunting it, would destroy, save, or enslave the world. Going back a bit further, Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent and John Grisham’s The Firm revived the popularity of the courtroom thriller, though it’s not as if that sub-genre ever really went away, once Erle Stanley Gardner had taken that beachhead in the 1930s with his Perry Mason novels.

There is some method to publishing’s madness, based on the proposition that if the public likes a certain type of book then it will want more of the same. I don’t recall a research  ever calling me and asking, “If you went to the library tomorrow, what type of book would you look for?” My answer would be “bound,” but that’s beside the point.

What does this mean for budding authors? My best advice is to not follow trends. If someone writes a book about an alcoholic housewife on a train who suspects that she has witnessed a murder being committed, and it becomes a bestseller, write your book about something else. Flip the script. Write about a recovering alcoholic who is as reliable as a Fossil Haywood and who, while doing some backyard gardening,  believes that she sees someone being murdered on the LIRR. I’m only kind of kidding. Do something different, because by the time you write your book and find an agent the publishers will probably be looking for something else. As for readers: if you’re tired of new books, look for an author who is new to you, or go back to the past and seek out something in your favorite genre among the mountains of books that have been published in the past sixty years or so. You can also seek out a couple of go-to authors. When I do my own reading, and nothing seems to please me, I pick up one of Timothy Hallinan’s fine novels, or an Elmore Leonard book, or start working my way through James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux canon, among others, to shake me out of my doldrums. Reading is good for you. You don’t want to stop.

Whatever you do, whether you are writing or reading or both, please don’t develop the impression that there are too many books. One of the blessings in my life is my association with bookreporter.com. I started reviewing books for Carol Fitzgerald’s website twenty years ago, and one of the many happy results of that relationship is that I receive new books of all sorts on an almost daily basis. Some of them are outside of my interest or demographic or whatever you wish to call it, as was one which I recently received entitled Greek Gods #squadgoals by Courtney Carbone, a children’s book editor and author. I thumbed through it and was totally lost — I don’t get the whole ‘#’ thing, or tweeting, Instagram, Pinterest, and the rest,  and probably never will — but the premise of the book was interesting, if incomprehensible to me in execution. It tells the stories of Greek Mythology from the point of view of the participants while assuming that they had smartphones and could text one another. I passed the book onto Samantha,  our (almost) eleven granddaughter. Samantha lives in the same city as we do, and as a result — another blessing — we get to see her frequently. I left Greek Gods at her place at the kitchen table. She came over for a visit, picked it up, and was entranced. She put her phone down, ignored the computer, turned off the flat screen, and started reading it from beginning to end, laughing all the way and sharing passages with us. Samantha is no stranger to books. She is working her way through that wonderful Warriors series by Erin Hunter and the likes of R. L. Stine, Chris Grabenstein’s Mr. Lemoncello books, and a host of others. This doesn’t happen by accident. Her father —my son — is a reader himself, and makes sure that she gets to the library and a local children’s bookstore pretty much on demand. I was happiest, however, about Samantha devoting full focus to Greek Gods. Whether she will at some point down the road pour over Edith Hamilton’s classic work on the subject, in the same manner in which those wonderful Classics Illustrated comics led me to H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and yes, Fyodor Dostoyevsky,  remains to be seen. What is certain, however, is that from Samantha’s perception there won’t be too many books, or not enough interesting ones. There simply won’t be enough time to read them all.

Back to you. What book or series would you want to read right now, time and availability permitting? For me, it would be Richard Prather’s Shell Scott series, in the original paperback editions. You?

 

8+

Dialogue – Ten Ways to Make it Real

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Recently I’ve been writing characters with unique regional accents or characters that I’ve had to invent how they speak, because they are unlike any other character I’ve ever written. When you create a character like this, you have to work doubly hard to “see” them and “hear” them in your mind.

Listen to real conversations. I especially love eavesdropping on teens, but as writers it is fun to be a snoop and hear the way people express themselves and their cadence. People often speak in fragments and laugh at one word asides. They launch into a diatribe and get interrupted by someone else. How do they react? If they come from a large family, I have a pretty good idea how they would react. But if they are an only child, do they retreat until the blustery winds of a blowhard die down?

It’s important to not only hear authenticity, but to also visualize it, without losing the fluid flow, pace, or clear plot points conveyed. Fictional dialogue must have a point, too.

1.) How well do you know your characters?
• Does it take you some writing time to get to know your characters? A good exercise is to write your character in first person to take them for a test drive, to get a feel for who they are and what matters to them.

• Live in their skin for awhile. Imagine what they look like, what they would wear. Create a photo image board from internet searches to flesh them out –in posture, eyes, attitude, swagger, dialect, education, job, sense of humor, etc.

• When you have a good feel for your main character, pair them with other fictional sidekicks or antagonists who will argue with them or cause conflicts and friction.

• Be careful to minimize slang or poorly spelled words or lots of bad grammar. Readers might have a problem with dialogue that is difficult to read throughout a book, but a smattering of regional color can be just the ticket to setting your world stage.

2.) Imagine Playing Your Character on Stage
When I “hear” voices in my head (from my characters, that is), especially if I’ve written them with accents or attitudes, it is fun to act them out. Do this by reading aloud and embellishing with your thoughts on how they sound. Reading aloud helps catch edit issues, but it can also help you create a cadence suitable for your character and give you insight into who they are.

Whenever I do readings at book signings (which I LOVE to do), I really get into the reading and become the character. I sometimes have my attendees close their eyes to focus on the story and trigger their imaginations, forgetting that they are in a bookstore. Often you can hear a pin drop when I finish and you get the real reaction from those listening when they open their eyes and return to the present from where they’ve been. Who knows? Acting out your character can help you “see” them in your mind – how they move or do hand gestures.

3.) In action scenes or tension packed scenes, make the dialogue sound real.
As an author would shorten narrative prose to give the reader the feeling of tension, suspense, and danger, it’s best to use short, concise sentences to enhance pace. Each line is like a punch in the gut to give the reader a visceral reaction to the change in pace.

Some passages may have longer lines of explanation or technical plot essentials, but keep those to a minimum if you want pace to lead the way. An expert in a dangerous situation would not suddenly turn into Mr Wizard to explain everything. They might get impatient and find a quick example or way of speaking to get their point across, while showing their frustration. How do they react under stress will show in their dialogue.

A long back and forth with punchy short sentences can let the reader sense the mounting tension, but if it goes on too long, it can get old, fast.

Excerpt: The Darkness Within Him (Amazon Kindle Worlds)
When a startling vision triggered a memory Bram Cross thought he’d buried, an icy shard carved through his body The macabre and haunting face of his mother lurched from the pitch-black of his mind—her eyes, what she did.

No, I can’t do this. Don’t make me. He fought hard to stifle his childish, irrational refusal, but he had to say something.

“You’re an asshole. We shouldn’t be here,” Bram said. “Someone’s watching us. I can feel it.”

“Shut up. You’re paranoid,” Josh spat. “You said you’d come with me. Quit your whining.”

“Something’s not right.”

Josh stopped, dead still, at the mouth of the infamous tunnel. He stood on the spot where the mutilated, half-eaten bodies of dead rabbits had been found in 1904—killed by ‘Bunny Man,’ an insane prison escapee named Douglas Grifon. The bad omen made Bram step back, but too late. By sheer stupidity and bad luck, Josh had jinxed them both.

Josh glared at Bram as he reached into a pocket of his jacket.

“I brought insurance, courtesy of dear old dad. We’ve got nothing to worry about.” He pulled out a gun and grinned as if he had all the answers.

“Are you insane? Put that away.” Bram fumed. “I’m out of here. I didn’t sign up for this.”

Bram turned to go, heading back toward the car that Josh had parked at the trailhead, but his friend grabbed his arm.

“You’re not going anywhere. I’ve got the car keys. Man up, shit for brains.”

4.) Dialogue should intrigue and draw reader in. Don’t use it to explain or the lines fall flat.
Dialogue should enhance the action and add to the emotion and pace. If you take the time to explain an action, the dialogue will sound contrived. If you explain what the characters should already know, why are you doing it? Savvy readers know when the dialogue is meant for them and when it doesn’t add to the story, but detracts from it and slows the pace.

Think of endings where the villain goes through lengthy explanations to “tell” the reader what the book has been about. Old mystery formats are like this where Sherlock Holmes expounds on how clever he is by detailing “who done it.” If a certain amount of this is necessary, make it about a mind game between the hero and villain where they have a reason to “one up” the other with reveals, but keep it to a minimum and not at the expense of good dialogue.

5.) Interruptions can be good in dialogue.
Interruptions can focus a character, keep up the pace, or show a realistic way to direct the reader where you want them to do. Have your characters ask questions of each other to liven things up.

Excerpt – The Darkness Within Him
Ryker Townsend – FBI Profiler
After the kid undid the latch and the deadbolts, he opened the door enough for me to see the injuries he’d sustained in his fight with Mr. Whitcomb. Josh stared at me for a split second before he shoved the door closed, but I jammed my foot in the opening.

“Police. We just want to talk.” I pushed through the breach and he winced. “Are you Josh Atwood?”

He didn’t answer and backed into a small living room. Reggie and Jax walked in behind me.

“Hey, aren’t you supposed to show ID?”

I eyed Reggie and the detective indulged him with a show of his badge.

“But I didn’t invite you in.”

“That only works with vampires. Consider this a welfare check, Bueller.”

6.) Add tension in Dialogue by making your characters hesitate or stall.
Is one of your characters in charge or forceful? How does that manifest in the other character in the scene? Often dialogue is like a chess game where one person tries to outwit the other or get the upper hand.

When one character stalls or shuts down, and the conflict grows, that can read as very authentic. We all have little voices in our heads, especially when we are dealing with arguments or confrontation. Effective dialogue must have nuances like a dance choreography that flows naturally and reads as effortless. When the scene starts out, one character can suddenly change course. How would you reflect that? Conflict is always interesting.

7.) Cut out the unnecessary and keep your dialogue vital. No chit chat.
I often write dialogue first, like in a script, to flesh out the framework of a scene. Later I fill in the body language, action, internal monologue, but dialogue is vital to make the scene hold up. It’s what the reader’s eye will follow on the page. When I edit, I will tighten dialogue lines, especially in action scenes, to keep the lines flowing naturally.

8.) Punch up the dialogue with action or character movement in the scene.
Give the reader something visual to imagine as they read your scene. All dialogue scenes, where two characters sit at a table, can be mind numbing and boring. Make the scene come alive by giving them something to do, especially if it puts them at odds with each other. Make that action unexpected, like adding sexual tension in the scene below (excerpt from Elmore Leonard).

Even if you MUST put them at a table, give them something to do. I especially like body language where it’s obvious the characters are hiding something and have let the reader in on that fact. Or punch up a funny line with a physical habit to accentuate humor or give distinction to a character.

9.) Minimize tag lines and give characters unique dialogue so tags aren’t as necessary.
One of my edit reviews is looking at tag lines to eliminate ‘saids.’ I often replace a said with an action that attributes which character delivered the line.

Also keep in mind, if you have a number of characters in a scene, a well-placed ‘said’ can orient the reader and ID the character in a scene where it’s easy to get lost. Gender oriented lines can help distinguish characters, or the regional dialect, or even if one character has a certain type of humor. ‘Said’ is the kind of word that disappears in a reader’s mind, but if you string too many together, it’s like sending up a flare “NOTICE ME!”

10.) Reading authors who write excellent dialogue is important.
Real pros at dialogue make it look effortless. Get schooled. If an author makes dialogue work, try to understand why it works and how you can infuse that in your own style and voice. Here are a couple of examples:

 

Elmore Leonard Excerpt – From Out of Sight (U S Marshal Raylan Givens) – I can imagine this very visual scene with the sexual tension.

‘You sure have a lot of shit in here. What’s all this stuff? Handcuffs, chains…What’s this can?’

‘For your breath,’ Karen said. ‘You could use it. Squirt some in your mouth.’

‘You devil, it’s Mace, huh? What’ve you got here, a billy? Use it on poor unfortunate offenders…Where’s your gun, your pistol?’

‘In my bag, in the car.’ She felt his hand slip from her arm to her hip and rest there and she said, ‘You know you don’t have a chance of making it. Guards are out here already, they’ll stop the car.’

‘They’re off in the cane by now chasing Cubans.’

His tone quiet, unhurried, and it surprised her.

‘I timed it to slip between the cracks, you might say. I was even gonna blow the whistle myself if I had to, send out the amber alert, get them running around in confusion for when I came out of the hole. Boy, it stunk in there.’

‘I believe it,’ Karen said. ‘You’ve ruined a thirty-five-hundred-dollar suit my dad gave me.’

She felt his hand move down her thigh, fingertips brushing her pantyhose, the way her skirt was pushed up.

‘I bet you look great in it, too. Tell me why in the world you ever became a federal marshal, Jesus. My experience with marshals, they’re all beefy guys, like your big-city dicks.’

‘The idea of going after guys like you,’ Karen said, ‘appealed to me.’

 

John Steinbeck – Of Mice & Men

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

Lennie grinned with relief.

For Discussion:

1.) What dialogue craft skills work for you? Any tips to share?

2.) What authors do you like to read for dialogue?

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6+

First Page Critique of MOONSTONE

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

Cry baby Truss ZF-9327-85193-1-001

 

Another courageous author has submitted the first 400 words of a work-in-progress anonymously for critique. Read and enjoy. See you on the flip side with my comments, then join me with yours.

PROLOGUE

Waterford, MN
June 4, 1994

By the light of the moon you can catch fireflies, or sit by a campfire watching the embers drift upward toward the stars. By the light of the moon you can stroll down a dirt road, or just sit on a back porch with a tall glass of iced tea. By the light of the moon you can propose marriage, or just leave your lover.

And by the light of the moon, if you have a shovel, you can try to bury your past.

That’s exactly what Jack Cicero had in mind, on this night in early June. The sun had already dipped below the horizon, and the full moon was threatening to make an early appearance. As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. All of his senses went into high alert. He pushed his thick eye glasses tighter on his nose. He strained his ears to listen for the sounds of approaching cars. The night was silent except for sounds of the Snake River choking itself on the rocks in its path; and the pounding of his own blood in his head.

He pushed on not willing to test his luck. He spied a large rock under the trees, and set the flashlight down in such a way as to shield its light from the road. If he heard anything, he could grab it in an instant and kill it.

He picked up his shovel, and cursed and groaned as he stabbed the soft earth at the base of the rock. He had to hurry, because this moon was a reluctant, silent witness rising higher in the sky, threatening to expose him. Although she tried, the full moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead. But that didn’t make Jack feel any better. Despite the cool night air, he was breaking a sweat. He swore and picked up the pace. He was in a race to put everything behind him, closing one chapter so that he could open another.

With a groan, he hefted one final shovelful. Then he patted the dirt down and scraped some of last fall’s dead leaves over his handiwork. For a moment he thought that he might actually vomit. He dropped to his knees, leaning against the large rock and bent his head. A single tear rolled down his cheek, soaking into the sandy soil below. A final act of contrition. He wiped his face with his sleeve, pushed off of the rock and stood up. It was done. But Jack knew that no matter how much he could try to hide the past, it could come back to haunt him. He’d always be looking over his shoulder for someone to figure out his secret and expose him. Considering he knew just about everyone in Waterford, the list of possibilities was longer than the river itself.

FEEDBACK

OVERVIEW: At first reading, I liked this introduction because it stuck to the action (for the most part) and did not slow the pace with back story or explanation. That takes discipline for an author to do this. The narrative is simple and pulls the reader into the story with its mystery. Well done. But as I got into this on a 2nd and 3rd read, I found things I would edit if this were mine. This author shows promise and if the following items are addressed, I would keep reading.

THE START: I understand what the author intended with the first paragraph – to set the stage with a light and breezy beginning of harmless imagery before the reader is shocked once they realize the story will take a dark turn. Who’s POV is this? No one’s. It’s omniscient before the POV becomes that of Jack. This tactic–and the use of YOU–pulled me out. If the story is set up properly, where we see Jack in the dark with a shovel, he could be doing ANYTHING until we learn what’s happening and the mystery begins. The shock factor would be presented in another way, without the need for the faux lead-in.

THE ACTION: What is Jack doing? He’s got a shovel and a flashlight, but it doesn’t appear as if he’s burying a body because he’s not carrying anything else. Is he digging something up? He starts by digging into the ground with his shovel but ends by patting down a mound of dirt and pushing leaves over the pile to hide what he did. The transition from start to finish didn’t describe enough for me to understand what he’s actually doing. With the vagueness, the reader might make an assumption that would prove false later on, and the author takes a chance of alienating the reader if this is not made clearer. I also wondered why Jack would pick a spot by a road where he can be seen with his flashlight. If he’s got a choice and wants to be secretive, why risk a location where he can potentially be seen? I know the risk of getting caught adds to the tension, but maybe there would be a way for the author to explain why Jack picked the spot (even if it meant risk of discovery) and still leave an element of mystery.

WORD CHOICES: In 3rd paragraph, “The night was silent, except for the sounds of….” If there are sounds, the night can’t be silent. The night might be “still” or “quiet,” but not silent if noise is heard.

In 5th paragraph, calling the moon “she” pulled me out and made me wonder if another character had stepped into the scene.

In 5th paragraph, the moon can’t be a “reluctant” witness to anything, but in one line the moon is shining on him, threatening to expose him, then in the next sentence, that description is contradicted by this – “the moon failed to penetrate the thick oaks overhead.” (Oaks are usually ‘overhead’ too. Directional words like up, down, overhead should be scrutinized during the edit process. They can usually be deleted.)

I’m not a fan of the word THAT. It’s often unnecessary and can be eliminated.

DESCRIPTIONS: This might be nit picky, but this phrase pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder if there would be a better way of describing what is happening. This comes across as TELLING to me and could be more effective.

As he ducked under the oak trees, darkness shrouded him, causing him to have to use his flashlight which lit up the area like a beacon. 

“The area” is actually the ground but what’s on the ground? How does the light play across it? it might be a more effective line if the author could get the reader to actually see the effect of the light, rather than merely saying it “lit the area.” Do the shadows of spindly grasses elongate and move as the light passes over it? The effect could add a creep factor. What sound do they make in the wind…for a guy who is already nervous?

PASSIVE VOICE: One of my favorite TKZ posts of all time came from Joe Moore in Jan 2012 – Writing is Rewriting. A great overview of the draft and edit process. Below are some examples of passive writing. My first pass at editing is to delete and tighten my sentences into succinct and clearer writing. Many readers might not pick up on the passive voice, but authors should strive to hone their craft and challenge themselves with each new project.

3rd paragraph: “was threatening” should be ‘threatened.’

5th paragraph: “was breaking” should be ‘broke.’

Last paragraph: “could try” should be ‘tried.’

PARAGRAPH LENGTH: I prefer to give the reader some white space so the paragraphs don’t appear laden and heavy as they look ahead. A heavy paragraph could encourage a reader to skim. As Elmore Leonard (RIP) once said – “Try to leave out the part readers tend to skip.” I often break up longer paragraphs into 3-4 sentences and change the length of those sentences to create a natural cadence if the words were spoken aloud.

FOR DISCUSSION:

What about you TKZers? What constructive criticism would you give this author?

 

HotTarget (3)

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2+

Finding the Right Door
to Enter Your Story

Disney2

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

By PJ Parrish

I had a whole ‘nother blog in the works today but Clare’s post yesterday on common amateur mistakes made me want to switch gears. That, and the fact that I was hearing voices in my head the other day and this is a good way to exorcise them.

A while back, I gave a talk to a beginning writers group about what makes for a great opening in a novel. We had a good time analyzing which of their openings had promise or why they had veered off track. It’s a popular topic, as we at TKZ here so well know, but I think it’s one that we all need to revisit constantly. Me included.

See, the other day, as I was pounding around the jogging oval at the park, I heard a strange voice whispering in my head. I had never heard her before, but she was insistent: “Tell my story! Tell my story!” I tried to ignore her, because as Kelly and I await the Sept. 9 launch of our new book SHE’S NOT THERE, we are 16 chapters into a new Louis Kincaid. And one of the commandments of novel writing is Thou Shall Finish One Book Before Starting a New One. But this woman wouldn’t shut up, so I went home and banged out 2,000 words. Wow! I never get out of the gate that fast! I was chuffed.

Well, I re-read it yesterday. Wee-doggies, it stinks. I open with a woman sitting alone in a fishing boat in the Everglades. She is thinking about her life and what brought her to this point. She is sad. She is regretful. She is boring as hell. I also larded in pages of description of the saw grass, the weather, the clouds, the water, even the type of fishing lure she was using. Finally, toward the 2,000-word mark, I reveal she is a Miami homicide detective who turned in her badge when her husband and child were killed in a drug deal gone bad that she was involved in.

This morning, I deleted the chapter. Lesson number 1: Just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you should act on it. Lesson number 2: Even experienced writers have trouble with openings.

Even Stephen King. You think you sweat bullets over openings? He says he spends months and even years before he finds his footing. I read this recently in an interview King gave to The Atlantic magazine. He talks at length about what makes for a great opening, and how hard it is for him to find the right one.

When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.

And he makes a great point, that the right opening line is as important to the writer as it is to the reader:

You can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.

Which is why I deep-sixed my woman in the fishing boat. Maybe her story does need to be told, but I entered via the wrong door. I’m going to set her aside for a while. In the meantime, I am going back to school. Want to come along?

HOOKS

Enthuse or lose! What was the prime crime of my bad chapter? NOTHING HAPPENED! The first chapter is where your reader makes decision to enter your world. Your hook needn’t be too fast or fancy. It can even be quiet — like someone going on a fishing or hunting trip (see example below!).  But it must be suspenseful enough to makes us care about your character. Fancy hooks can be disappointing if what follows doesn’t measure up. If you begin at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill. Also, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you might just make the reader mad.

What about opening with action scenes? I’ve seen it work well; I’ve seen it look silly. I think intense action scenes work only if they have context and reason for happening. Car chase, bullets fly, things explode, dead bodies! But unless you give reader reason to care about someone, it feels cheap and pushy, like a Roger Moore James Bond movie. If you can make us CARE about the person during intense opening action scene, yes. If not, it’s boring and trite.

OPENING LINES

A good one gives you intellectual line of credit from the reader: “Wow, that line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.” A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. One of my fave’s is from Hemingway’s story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:  “It was lunch now and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. But if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up.  Stephen King has two favorite opening lines. One is from James M. Cain’s great novel The Postman Always Rings Twice:  “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”  Here’s King on why he loves it:

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious. This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do.”

GET INTO STORY AS LATE AS POSSIBLE

This is one of my pet peeves about bad writing…throat clearing. Begin your story just moments before the interesting stuff is about to happen. You want to create tension as early as possible in your story and escalate from there. Don’t give the reader too much time to think about whether they want to go along on your ride. Get them buckled in and get them moving. Preferably not in bass boat.

INTRODUCE THE PROTAGONIST

Another pet peeve of mine. Don’t wait too late in the story to introduce your hero. Don’t give the early spotlight to a minor character because whoever is at the helm in chapter one is who the reader will automatically want to follow. I call these folks “spear carriers” after the guys who stand in the background holding the spears in “Aida.”  They aren’t allowed to steal the spotlight when Radamès is belting out Celeste Aida. So don’t let your secondary characters get undue attention or the reader will feel betrayed and annoyed when you shift the spotlight.

IDENTIFY THE CONFLICT OR QUEST

Begin the book with conflict. Big, small, physical, emotional, whatever. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama. Conflict is interesting. Your first chapter is not a straight horizontal line. It’s a jagged driveway leading up a dark mountainside. Don’t put a woman in a fishing boat in the Everglades thinking about how crappy her life is and expect the reader to care.

WHAT IS AT STAKE HERE?

What is at play in the story? What are the costs? What can be gained, what can be lost? Love? Money? One’s soul? Will someone die? Can someone be saved? The first chapter doesn’t demand that you spell out the stakes of the entire book in neon but we do need a hint. And we don’t care that her fishing lure is a 1-ounce jig with a bulky trailer.

CREATE A DRAMATIC ARC

Your whole book has an arc, but every chapter should have a mini-arc. Ask yourself “What is the purpose of this chapter?” and then build your chapter around that. This does not mean each chapter needs a conclusion but it needs to feel complete unto itself even as it compels the reader onto the next chapter. The opening chapter should have its own rise and fall. It is not JUST A LAUNCHING PAD!

GET YOUR CHARACTERS TALKING

Dialogue is the lifeblood of your story and you need it early. Too much exposition or description is like driving a car with the emergency brake on. Likewise, don’t bog down your opening with characters doing menial things. Like fishing. Or thinking about boring stuff. Like fishing lures. Here’s some good advice from agent Peter Miller that I read once on Chuck Sambuchino’s Writer’s Digest blog: “My biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition, when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”

SO DOES THAT MEAN  I SHOULD OPEN WITH DIALOGUE?

This goes to personal taste. I’m not a fan of it, but I have seen it pulled off. But be careful because opening with dialogue tosses the reader into the deep end of the fictional pool with no tethering in time and place. This is like waking up from a coma. Where am I? Who are these people talking? I could be wrong because I haven’t read them all, but even Dialogue Demon Elmore Leonard gives you a quick couple lines or graphs first. (Okay, I’m wrong: LaBrava opens with “He’s been taking pictures three years, look at the work,” Maurice said.) But if your dialogue only leads to confusion, that isn’t good. Which relates to…

ESTABLISH YOUR SETTING AND TIME FRAME

The first chapter must establish the where and the when of the story, just so the reader isn’t flailing around. Yes, you can use time and place taglines, especially if your story is wide in geographic scope or bouncing around in time. But if your story is fairly linear and compact (taking place, say, all within six months time in Memphis), sticking a time tag on each chapter only makes you look like you don’t know how to gracefully slip this info into your narrative.

ESTABLISH YOUR TONE AND MOOD

First impressions matter. From the get-go, your reader should be able to tell what kind of book he is reading – hardboiled, romantic suspense, humorous, neo-noir? Yes, the cover and copy conveys this, but you need to convey it in your opening. Everything in your book should support your tone, but the first chapter is vital to inducing an emotional effect in your reader. I’ve mentioned Edgar Allan Poe’s Unity of Effect often here but it’s worth repeating: Every element of a story should help create a single emotional impact. But remember that a little mood goes a long way – think of a few swift and colorful brush strokes rather than gobs of thick paint.  Did you know that in the Everglades, intense daytime heating of the ground causes the warm moist tropical air to rise, creating the afternoon thundershowers? And that most of the storms happen at 2 p.m.? I should have just wrote “It rained in the afternoon.”

MAKE YOUR VOICE LOUD AND CLEAR

This is where you are introducing your story but also yourself as a writer. Your language must be crisp, you must be in complete control of your craft, you must be original! Shorter is usually better. No florid language or indulgent description, no bloated passages, no slack in the rope. The reader must feel he is being led by a calm, confident storyteller. See quote about by Stephen King about James M. Cain.

BACKSTORY AND EXPOSITION

The first chapter is not the place to tell us everything. Don’t be like a child overturning his bucket of toys — then it’s just a colorful clamor, an overindulgence of information. Exposition kills drama. Backstory is boring. Give us a reason to care about that stuff before you start droning on and on about it. Incorporating backstory is hard work, but you must weave it artfully into the story not give us an info-dump chapter 1.

Shoot-1

To end, let’s go back to Stephen King. So we know he admires James M. Cain. But what is his all-time favorite opening line? It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s novel Shoot. Here’s the set-up: A group of middle-aged guys, all war vets, are on a hunting trip. As they come to a riverbank, they spot another group of guys, much like themselves, on the other side. Without any provocation, one of the hunters on the opposite bank raises his rifle and fires at the first group, wounding one man. Reflexively, one of the first group returns fire, blowing the shooter’s head apart. The opening line: “This is what happened.”

And here is King on why he loves it:

“This has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know. A line like “This is what happened,” doesn’t actually say anything–there’s zero action or context — but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.

King loves it so much, he echoed it in the opening of of his own novel Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.”  And guess what? It’s his own favorite opening. Which is a good place to end, I think.

 

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