Tag Archives: writing craft

Killer First Lines

PJ Sharon here, chatting today about “Killer First Lines”. So what constitutes a great first line? Is it action-packed? Does it evoke emotion or imply conflict? Maybe it sets the scene or reveals the tone of your story. Or does an awesome first line combine all of these elements and more in order to grab the reader and compel them to read on? Consider these first lines:

1)      It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. —Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)

2)      It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984 (1949)

3)      I am an invisible man. —Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

4)      You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter. —Mark Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885)

5)      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. —J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

6)      Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. —Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)

These classic first lines might seem antiquated in terms of today’s genre fiction standards and rules, but they remain powerful examples of compelling prose. They say something about the author, expressing their unique voice, and setting the tone for what’s to come. They inherently ask a story question and open the eyes of the reader to a new world in which the author’s imagination comes to life on the page.

I spend a good deal of time contemplating first lines. I want my first line to pose a question to the reader—a question that compels them to read on and keep turning pages until that question is ultimately answered at the end of the story. In my current WIP, PIECES OF LOVE, the first line is, I’ve heard it said that it takes twenty-one days to make or break a habit. Hopefully that makes you wonder what habit our teen character must break. Maybe you’re asking what good habit she would like to adopt, and why she would be concerned about making or breaking a habit in the first place.

Here are a few more first lines. These are from more recent books and by authors some of you will recognize. Analyze each of them, not for what they say, but for what they tell you about the author and the story.

1)      The day Honor Grace Holland turned thirty-five, she did what she always did on her birthday. She got a pap smear. Kristan Higgins, The Perfect Match, 2013

2)      My fingers drum into the desktop, beating out the rhythm of my hammering thoughts. TL Costa, Playing Tyler, 2013

3)      The Garretts were forbidden from the start. Huntley Fitzpatrick, My Life Next Door, 2012.

4)     He lifted the limp body out of the trunk, wrapped the girl in a woolen blanket, and tossed her like a rag doll over his shoulder. PJ Sharon, Savage Cinderella, 2012

5)      I’m a liar. I know it. I hate it. And I can’t seem to help myself. PJ Sharon, On Thin Ice, 2011.

Yes, I realize those last two are mine, but they are, nonetheless, decent examples of first lines that hopefully compel readers to read on. Notice the tone in each of the above first lines. With Kristan Higgins books, you know you’re in for some laughs and you can bet that every reader who read that first line had an instant smile plastered on their face. TL Costa’s book, PLAYING TYLER, puts you squarely into the mind of a teenage boy with ADHD. You can hear the noise in his head as he struggles to find focus. And in Huntley Fitzpatrick’s contemporary YA romance, you can feel that you are in for heartache and conflict based on this enticing first line that immediately makes you want to know the Garretts.

Savage Cinderella FINAL 200x300

The opening line of SAVAGE CINDERELLA gives you a chilling look into the calculated actions of a serial killer and makes you instantly care for that little girl and wonder what happens to her next.

And in ON THIN ICE, teen readers are faced with a mirror into their own lives. What teenager can’t relate to the ever-tempting desire to lie?

on thin ice front cover jpg

Look at books you love. Analyze them for how that first line makes you feel. Does it propel the story forward? Does it grab you and pose a question that you have to know the answer to? In my opinion, as long as the first line makes the reader a) think, b) care about the story/character, and c) read on, the author has done their job.

Have you written any fabulous first lines you’d like to share? Can you think of any books you’ve read that had a killer first line?

Fight for Your Goals, Live for Your Dreams

Happy Friday everyone! Casey here.

UndeadSpaceInitiative_400Now that I’m plotting my next book, I’ve been thinking about my writing career a bit. As a rule, I don’t think too much about where I see myself in the future.

Probably a bad thing, but I’m a worrier by nature and I’m trying to curb the habit by living more in the moment. That means learning to accept the things I can control and letting go of the things that I can’t.

One thing I’ve noticed since I’ve become published is that there is a lot more pressure (often not self-imposed) to promote the heck out of your books and/or yourself. I admit that I have promoted myself through social media, blog tours, paid ads, ect.

And for the most part, I’ve resented all the time it’s taken away from my writing. I am one of those people who subscribes to the belief that the best marketing tool is your next book. Yet, I got sucked into the promotional vortex and paid the price by only completing two books last year (and one of them two days before X-Mas!).

I know writers who would kill to finish two books in a year, but for me, I wanted three. Maybe this year, I will meet that goal.

Before I go further, there is a difference between a goal and a dream. A dream is something out of your hands (like winning the lottery, making the NY Times Bestseller list, going to Mars).

Hope Springs
Fake movie theater – Stonington Point, CT

While a goal, is something you can achieve through your own actions. Want to be on the NY Times Bestseller list?  First, realize this is a dream and not in your control. But what you can do, is control yourself by writing the best books you can. You can continue to learn the craft of writing so readers, when they do discover you, want to read more of your books. If you’ve been spinning your wheels on the same book for years, time to think about changing focus.

If you want to be on the NY Times list, you’ll also need to recognize one simple fact – you can’t make anyone buy your book. Remember, dreams are outside your control.

Not sure which is a dream and which is an achievable goal?

Dream: win a RITA (or other award) Goal: learn skill ___ to improve writing. Take a class, read a book on craft, find a mentor (wash, rinse, repeat) Goal: submit published novel (or unpublished manuscript) to contests (again, you can’t control if you win, but you can use it as a learning experience to improve your writing.)

Dream: become rich and/or famous with your writing Goal: complete a novel in 2013 or

Goal: submit polished novel to agent or editor or pursue indie publishing.

Filming - Hope Springs - Stonington Point, CT
Filming – Hope Springs – Stonington Point, CT

Dream: sell X number of books. Goal: schedule an appearance at your local bookstore or library.(Remember, you can’t make people buy your books but you can make a favorable impression.) Goal: write your next novel and stop worrying about sales.

Now before you raise your arm and shout “Blasphemy!”, consider this - Do you let other people tell you what to buy? If I followed you around a store, chanting, “buy my book, buy my book!”, you’d call security. Then you’d probably never buy anything of mine ever again because I was obnoxious and rude. Not to mention, no one likes other people telling them how to think.

Hopefully, you’re sensing a theme: you can control your time, your output, your quality and yourself.

So, no matter how much control we writers have over our work these days, some things haven’t changed. Readers want to discover good books and they will find you eventually. As my fellow Scribe PJ says of a writing career, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

In the meantime, here is my goal for 2013: head down, write more, learn more, and be considerate to others. Always!

Share and share alike. What has your experience been? What strategies do you use to fight for your goals?

The unlocked secret of a “smellavision.”

Blessings to all on this rainy spring day. My lilacs have begun to bloom and the sweet scent permeates the air as I sit on my front porch, a balmy mix of moist earth and new life filling my senses. The smell of lilacs instantly brings me back to my youth, when the blossoming shrub outside our kitchen door made the beginning of May a time when my mother’s spirits seemed unusually high. She loved her lilac bush and went to great lengths to make sure she took advantage of the lavender blossoms by clipping them and placing them in every room of the house. Those few weeks in May were bittersweet, passing by much too quickly.

So what do lilacs have to do with writing, you ask? Today, I’d like to talk about using your senses when writing to engage readers. We all love to describe how things look and feel, but what about sound, taste, and smell. Of all of these, I think the sense of smell is highly underrated. Perhaps because it is so difficult to describe how things smell, and do it in a unique way. We easily revert to clichéd phrases like our hero smelling “musky” or “woods-like”. Finding new ways to describe scents is challenging, but that’s what makes for a fresh voice in writing.

Smells are powerful and can bring rise to emotions we didn’t even know we had. I call them “smellavisions.” You know, the image that comes to mind when you think of chocolate chip cookies straight out of the oven? We all have those “scent triggers” that can bring forth a memory, a feeling, or an image. A well-placed and vivid “scent” word or phrase can also add depth to your character by bringing their memories and emotions to the surface.

Fans of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series will probably never forget Jamie Frasier’s violent response to the scent of lavender, a residual effect after having been tortured by the sick and villainous Black Jack Randall who apparently doused himself in lavender water, not uncommon in the eighteenth century. But Jamie’s visceral response is powerful and evokes extreme emotions even from readers. Certain scents, described vividly and accompanied by powerful verbs can bring your reader straight to the heart of your character’s experience.

Take this line from HEAVEN IS FOR HEROES.The crack of gunfire exploded in the air…once…twice…three times. I flinched with each pop, the smell of gunpowder thick in the warm mist raining down over the cemetery. What emotion does this evoke? Does it paint a clear picture and put you right into the character’sexperience? It’s the first line of the book and you already know so much about what’s happening based on this one vivid “smellavision.” Use “smell” words to create a mood, set a scene, or evoke a certain emotion from your character.

Today’s unlocked secret: As writers, we have the power to create an experience that readers will remember. But in order to do this we must use all the senses, use them wisely, and use them to their fullest effect by pairing them with vivid descriptors and powerful verbs.

Can you think of a paricular “smellavision” that stands out in your mind from a favorite book? How do you describe smells?

Dusting off the old manuscripts?

It’s Tuesday again, Scribesters, PJ Sharon here. I’d like to talk today about revisiting those old manuscripts. You know…the ones you’ve got under the bed next to the old Pink Floyd albums, in the closet, or hiding at the back of your hard drive? Most writers, when they first start putting pen to paper, have no idea how to…well…write. Something compels us to record these crazy stories in our heads. We work our butts off, and are so excited when we write “The End,” that we ignore the fact that our stories have plot holes the size of the Grand Canyon, head hopping that even Nora would cringe at, and stilted dialogue that makes our characters sound like they just came out of a Cracker Jack box. Until we have someone read them for us, and they say kindly—or not so kindly—“you’ve got a lot to learn about the craft of writing.” At least that was my experience.

I actually have four such manuscripts, all of which have point of view problems and more –ing words per page than a do-it-yourself manual. My first novel, a 100,000 word fantasy erotic romance (although a fun tale that taught me a dozen ways to describe the act of sex) will sadly never see the light of day. My second book though, was a paranormal romance called “The Amulet” about a witch and a witch hunter. It was a ton of fun to write and had a lot of promise. After that, I wrote two romantic suspense novels. One of which is complete at 100k and the other which is three quarters finished—all great stories, but none written particularly well.

While revising SAVAGE CINDERELLA, I realized how much I’ve grown as a writer even over the past year. I’m still wiping out those -ing words and anhilating the passive voice issues left and right, but at least I spot the problems and know how to fix them. Now that I’ve learned a thing or two about the craft of writing, what’s to stop me from resurrecting these fabulous tales, revising them, and putting them out there? As an indie author, I can if I want to (that’s my rebellious inner teen talking again).

For one thing, I’m now branded as a YA author, so switching genres at this point would require a lot of work. Since I don’t want my teen readers picking up my adult books, I’d have to create a whole new persona and brand myself all over again in order to sell my books. This sounds like way too much work to me. I also have to consider the fact that I have lots of YA story ideas and books planned for the next year, so it would seem that my dance card is full…unless…

Well don’t you know,  I’ve seen a bunch of indie authors coming out with novellas and doing quite well crossing genres and selling a ton of these short novels under different pen names. I’ve also seen some authors use these novellas by offering them for free to increase the sales of their other books. It seems to be quite an effective marketing tool.

Hmmm…this has me thinking about all of those fun and interesting manuscripts that I’ve already written. I believe they are salvageable if I cut out all of the unnecessary words and straighten out the craft problems. I might even be able to turn them into YA stories. A major overhaul and I could have three or four novellas to add to my cyber bookshelf. What about a book of short stories?

I’m seriously considering this option and would love to hear what you all think. Great idea, or nightmare waiting to happen? What about you? Do you read novellas? Like short stories? Do you have a novel you could dust off and resurrect? Maybe you could indie publish and see what happens? You’ve really got nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Writing Success Doesn’t Happen in the Vacuum of Space

 I joined RWA and the CT Chapter in 2007 when I realized I needed to reach out to people who knew how to do this writing thing. I was immediately aided by published authors, budding newbies like myself, and everyone in between. I don’t think I’ve ever been involved in an organization where I’ve been so readily accepted and supported, and for that I am forever grateful.

Then I joined YARWA (Young Adult chapter of RWA) last year,  and I felt like I had found my people. I couldn’t believe there were others who sat around thinking like a teenager and re-writing history.

 Being a part of a writing community has afforded me the ability to share my work with critique partners and open forums where I’ve had tremendous help in learning every aspect of the craft. Although I’ve gone through four critique groups and probably six or eight critique partners, I’ve left each relationship on good terms and it is accepted that as our writing style changes and grows, our need for different perspectives comes naturally. I value each person I’ve worked with and hopefully they feel the same about me.

Crit partners, Susannah, Casey and Katy Lee

Another highlight of being involved in RWA is that I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to attend conferences and workshops with some of the most talented writers and best teachers around. The CT Chapter has outdone themselves by bringing in the likes of Michael Hague, Margie Lawson, and our upcoming guest, Laurie Schnebly Campbell. At each of the four Fiction Fests and National Conferences I’ve attended, I’ve had the opportunity to meet some amazing people, (including my favorite author, Diana Gabaldon). I even got to fondle, covet, and admire Kristan Higgins’ RITA statue and once shared a room with Jessica Andersen. I considered myself lucky on all counts. The best part of all of it, has been the friends I’ve made along the way. 

Also, thanks to the RWA and its tireless volunteer members, I’ve had the privilege of entering numerous writing contests. The feedback and acknowledgement I’ve received has been inspiring, interesting, and enormously helpful. Contests serve many purposes, not the least of which is that it gets you in front of agents and editors and you can use feedback to judge your own readiness for publication. Contest finals and wins also look great on your writer’s resume. What I found over time and with persistence was that, as my writing evolved, my contest scores and placement improved. It was tangible evidence that I was gaining ground. The same can be said for the dreaded query process. As painful as it was, after thirty or forty rejections, you start noticing that comments get more personal, useful and encouraging. That’s when you know that publication is around the corner. As an indie-published author, I am ineligable for entering the RITA Awards, but I can still enter the Golden Heart. Odd but true, and so I’ve entered Heaven Is For Heroes. Wish me luck!

With the shifting sands of the publishing industry, my choice to independently publish my YA novels may seem either foolish or brave, depending on your perspective. Only time will tell if I am successful without the assistance of an agent and a publisher. But I can say without a doubt that I couldn’t do it without the assistance of the RWA, my CT Chapter, and my YARWA and WANA (We Are Not Alone) peeps. Without your support, none of it would be possible. Thanks everyone! I’m proud to be among you. 

If you could meet your favorite author and ask them one question, who would it be and what would you ask?

Quirks, Kinks, or Commonalities?

What is it about our heroes that make them:

1)      Likeable

2)      Endearing

And most important,

3)      Worthy of our heroine

I’m in the process of revising my second book, ON THIN ICE, due out in December. One issue this story has had for me, is that Carter, my bad boy match for Penny, who is my good girl making bad choices seventeen year-old protagonist, is a bit…well…flat. Don’t get me wrong. Carter is cute, sweet, and sympathetic, but since he doesn’t get a lot of on the page time, I don’t know him well enough to fall for him.

 Not that Penny does either.

Teenagers don’t always have to know the nitty-gritty depth of a person to let their hearts be swooped up and carried away. In fact, they are usually ruled by hormones, attraction, and instinct. But that isn’t enough for the fictional world of Contemporary YA Romance. We need to have a reason for our girl to fall in love with our guy.

In Heaven is for Heroes, Jordie and Alex had the benefit of a past—a friendship turned romance that was left unresolved, so they already had conflict and tension built in.

Conflict is King

So what about characters that just meet, fall head over heels, and jump into bed right away? Where is the conflict, the build-up of tension, the oh-so-satisfying push and pull required for us to root for our couple to find their hopefully ever after?

I know there are tricks—like giving your hero a quirky habit, something about him that makes him real and more three dimensional. Maybe he’s nice to animals or shares a common emotional journey with our heroine, but how do we make him really deserve the love of a young girl who is putting her heart on the line for someone she barely knows?

Any ideas?

Jo Ramsey’s Lessons Learned Along the Way

Please welcome our guest, multi-published YA Author, Jo Ramsey. Her second book in the DARK LINES series, WHEN DARKNESS FALLS comes out September 15th. Here’s a sneak peek about the story.

Blake Walker learned the hard way to hide his psychic abilities from others. But new girl Faith Carlisle refuses to let him hide from her. When a force of darkness and its human minions endanger the town–and specifically Faith–will Blake dare to use his abilities to save her?

See Jo’s website below for details on how to purchase a copy.  Now Jo, tell us a few secrets about what you’ve learned along the way to becoming a multi-published author.

Coming September 15th

Thanks PJ, I’d be happy to. Friday on your homepage blog, I shared the story of how I went from being the “weird kid” (in my family, weird is a compliment) sitting in her bedroom with a spiral notebook and pen, to being a multi-published young adult author. Today I’ll give you just a few of the gems I’ve learned during that journey.

Lesson One: Not everything is publishable.

When I started writing, my dream was to become a published author. I wrote story after story, dreaming of the day my name would be on book covers. I submitted my first novel in high school. It was rejected–repeatedly. It just plain wasn’t that good. The writing wasn’t great, the plot was shaky at best, and I clearly hadn’t done any research. I still have that manuscript, but I don’t plan on submitting it again unless I do a whole lot of rewriting. This leads me to the next lesson.

Lesson Two: Writing is work!

I have a drawer full of spiral notebooks and a couple of typewritten manuscripts. Some of those stories could probably be reworked and submitted, and someday I might do that. Hence, my still having them. But back in high school and college, I didn’t want to do that much work. I wanted to write a perfect story the first time and send it in for publishers to praise.
         Obviously, it doesn’t work that way. The first draft is called “first” for a reason: There are going to be more! Back when I was in high school and college, to revise I would have had to rewrite the entire thing, because I had either handwritten or typed it on a typewriter. Computers have made life a lot easier for me, since now I can make changes without having to redo the whole thing. This is fortunate, because there are always changes that need to be made. It’s very, very rare for a first draft to be polished enough to be submitted; I know one author who can pull that off, but she’s the only one. I definitely can’t do it.

Lesson Three: Writers don’t typically get rich.

I’ve been asked a lot about how much money I make, or why I have to work a day job if I’m a writer. Some people have the misconception that all authors earn on the level of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. When I was a teenager, I had the same misconception. I used to daydream about buying my parents a new house with the earnings from my first book. So far, the earnings from all my books combined would barely be enough to buy a doghouse.
         Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but the reality is that writers do not get rich off their work. Anyone who decides to write a book so they can quit their day job is likely to be very disappointed. I write because I love writing, and on the occasions that enough royalties come in that I can pay a couple bills early or buy my kids something I’ve been putting off, I celebrate.

Lesson Four: The “work” of writing doesn’t end when the book is published.

In fact, it’s just beginning. Writing the book, revising it, getting it accepted, and then revising it again under the editor’s guidance—for me, that’s the easy part. After the book is published, the author still has to promote it. Most publishers do at least some promotion, but many if not all of them, especially smaller presses, expect the author to promote as well, which makes sense. The publisher has to promote all of their authors; each author only has to promote his or her own books. Promoting takes a lot of forms. Finding venues and methods to let people know my books exist takes a lot more time than I’d expected. It’s well worth it, but it’s still a lot of work.

I could go on about other things I’ve learned, but I did agree to a word limit on this post. Suffice it to say that I’ve learned a lot, and I haven’t stopped learning. There’s always more to find out, always skills to improve. Being a published author takes a lot of time and effort, but it’s definitely worth it, at least to me.

Now it’s your turn Scribes fans. What lessons have you learned?

Learn more about Jo Ramsey and her books, both published and upcoming, on her website, www.joramsey.com.