Category Archives: settings

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?

Book Signing Success

PJ here, just off a long weekend at the Granville Harvest Fair. I’ve done many such book signing events over the past couple of years, but this one was by far my favorite. For one thing, I live ten minutes up the road, so it’s close, and I inevitably saw lots of familiar faces. Thousands of folks ambled by my booth, many stopping to chat–whether they were teens or simply teens at heart. The fact that I was a local author was also a big draw. Putting a face to someone local who has achieved what so many others only dream about, seems to be an instant conversation starter. I can’t tell you how many people I spoke to—young and old—who said that they write in one form or another, and that it was nice to meet someone who has actually published their stories. It was lovely to be a source of encouragement and inspiration.

I’ve said in the past, that book signings have netted me little profit in the monetary sense and I’ve wondered whether they were really worth my time, but this event has changed my mind. In addition to making a modest profit from book sales, I gained a couple of dozen names for my newsletter list, and made many potential connections–including school teachers, librarians, mental health professionals, and teens interested in finding me on social media or purchasing my e-books for their e-readers after the fair. All in all, a great success. I thought I would share some tips that I found helpful. I hope you’ll share yours in the comments section below, so others may benefit from your experience.

harvest fair pic 11) THINGS TO BRING-A sturdy, 10×10 easy-up tent, a comfy chair, a couple of tables with table cloths (I have a six foot and a four foot table), books in plastic totes (don’t forget to take inventory and keep track of your sales), swag (bookmarks, post cards, etc.), tape, scissors, pens, plastic bags (recycle those plastic grocery bags and carry them in an empty tissue box for convenience), or have some nice bags made up with your name, website, and logo if you want to make an impression. You might reserve those for people who buy several books. Don’t forget a cash lock box, business cards, and candy (no chocolate on hot days) or a treat.

2) SIGNAGE-Invest in a nice banner, which you can have printed up through Vista Print. I have yet to do this, but I made do with a homemade banner. Plastic stand-up sign holders from Staples work great for specific table top signs. You can make whatever signs you want on your computer to fit the 8×11 frames. “Local Author of Teen Books,” “Sign up for my newsletter and enter to win…,” “Follow me on FB, Twitter, etc.” and pricing signs, are just a few ideas. Be creative.

3) PRESENTATION-Consider your brand, your audience, and your space. Create a visually appealing stage for your books. harvest fair pic 3Use color wisely to catch attention of passersby and don’t overcrowd your space. Too much to look at can be a deterrent.

4) SELLING-You can offer book sets with special pricing/discounts, you could sell merchandise related to your books (cups, tee shirts, or in my case, wooden whistles which I also offer as a free gift to those who purchase both book one and book two in the Chronicles of Lily Carmichael trilogy).

5) SALES PITCH-This is an opportunity to hone your sales pitch. Have a one liner to pull people in. Keep it simple. “Feel free to take a bookmark.” Keep it real and fun. “This is the glamorous life of an author.” This last phrase spoken as I used duct tape to secure my tent signage or while I peeled tape residue off my tent poles. I got lots of smiles with this one. Pitch to your audience. “I write books for teens…and teens at heart,” when speaking to adults and elderly folks who actually might enjoy reading my books. I describe my contemporary YA novels as the kind of books that would make great Lifetime Network or Hallmark movies, and note when I’m speaking to parents of teens that I write books that I wish had been available when I was a teenager. I mention accolades and awards, my million plus reads of SAVAGE CINDERELLA on Wattpad (which made that particular book sell very well all weekend), and try to hone in on what might appeal to the demographic to which I’m presenting. “The book is about a girl who is kidnapped as a child, left for dead in the high country of North Georgia and survives in the wild.” One sentence grabbers are essential! Comparisons also work well as in “Savage Cinderella is like Law and Order SVU meets Nell.” Of course this only works for people old enough to remember the movie with Jodie Foster, LOL. With teens, I might compare The Chronicles of Lily Carmichael to the TV show, Revolution, or books like The Hunger Games and Divergent, but not quite as grim and gritty. As time goes on throughout the event, you’ll find what works best. It’s excellent practice for agent/editor elevator pitches at conferences. You never know who you’ll meet, so always have a professional and friendly demeanor.

6) GIVEAWAYS-Book signings are a great place to expand your newsletter mailing list. Offer entry in a prize giveaway, a FREE download, or some incentive to get people to sign up. Reassure them that your newsletters aren’t spammy and that their information will not be used for any other reason. Be prepared to offer something for free. You can be generous without giving away the store or breaking the bank. It costs me nothing to give away a free download of ON THIN ICE (I get a coupon code through Smashwords, and have cards printed up through Vista Print with my cover on the front and instructions and the download code on the back. I can usually get 250 cards printed up for free or next to nothing when I’m ordering other items through Vista Print).

Most importantly, have FUN! Try to stay engaged with people and don’t stick your nose in a book or hide behind your computer screen. Fortunately, we had a dry and beautiful weekend with a great turnout. I met some amazing people! I also had some fabulous apple pie with Granville cheddar cheese…yum! And yes, I even sold a good number of books.

Any other ideas or things I missed?

Pot smoking teens and other family dramas

Hey readers,

PJ Sharon here on a lovely autumn day in the Berkshires. I’ve actually seen a few patches of yellowed leaves on the trees and the star-filled nights here are getting cool.Crane This crane will likely be taking flight to warmer climes soon enough.

It’s also the time of year for the spreading of colds and such.*sniffle…sniffle*

I guess I can’t complain. It’s the first time I’ve been sick in a few years and it gives me some needed downtime to rest and reflect…and write.

As I swim through the murky middle of my current work in progress, PIECES OF LOVE, I’m reminded of my own teen dramas and those of my many siblings. You see, I grew up in a pretty crazy, dysfunctional family. Lots of alcohol, a dash of mental illness, secrets, lies, some seriously scary and frequent catastrophes, and lots of drama! Yes, we all loved each other in our own way, but each person in that house of seven children and three adults, was flawed. As we all are. It’s what makes us human. It’s also what makes us interesting to paint into the canvas of a story.

There’s a reason that I write YA dramas that touch on  taboo topics that encompass everything from grief and loss of a loved one, to teen pregnancy, bulimia, the effects of war, and even sexual abuse. I draw as much as possible from personal experience and from all that I have seen to be true in the human condition.

So when I began PIECES OF LOVE, I wanted to make sure to give Ali’s plight its due. Not that I’ve ever lost someone to an alcohol overdose or been arrested for marijuana possession, but I’ve certainly seen my share of these kinds of family dramas to draw real emotion and conflict from them. Understanding the motivation behind why people do what they do is a key element in making your fiction believable. As is sharing accurate and interesting detail to utilize your setting to enhance your character’s journey. Since I’ve been on a Mediterranean cruise, I have lots of insights into how Ali sees the world anew with each port she visits. It’s been fun and interesting to revisit the places I went and relive it all through her eyes, watching her transformation from self-centered, immature teen trying desperately to avoid dealing with the painful realities of life, to a young woman who learns to appreciate the people in her life who love her.

Here’s the blurb for PIECES OF LOVE:

Sixteen year-old Alexis Hartman wants nothing more than to smoke pot and play guitar. What’s the point in planning for the future? Her world is shattered by her sister’s accidental alcohol overdose at college, and she is arrested for marijuana possession a second time. Her mother’s breakdown is the final straw that forces Ali to spend the summer with her Grandmother in Malibu.

But problems aren’t so easily dismissed. After Ali steps over the line one too many times, she’s certain her life is over and that she’s destined for juvenile detention. Her ‘Malibu Barbie’ grandmother, Maddie, takes desperate measures…a Mediterranean cruise…for seniors. If overwhelmed and motion sick Ali needs further torment, Maddie has decided that her granddaughter’s childish name could use an upgrade and renames her Lexi. Can a new name and a French haircut fix everything that’s wrong with Ali’s life? Maybe when Ethan Kaswell says the name.

Eighteen year-old Ethan, the poster child for being a good son, who is stranded on the cruise when his famous heart surgeon father is kept away by an important consultation, finds Lexi irresistible. Although he’s smart enough to see that there is no future in falling for a “vacation crush,” Lexi’s edgy dark side and soulfully sad eyes draw him like an anchor to the bottom of the sea. As she spirals out of control, will she bring him down too, or was he already drowning? Maybe by saving her, he can save himself. 

Greece2011 224 (2013_02_16 18_14_38 UTC)Visiting such ports as Portofino, Italy; Palermo, Sicily; and Rome. From the Greek Islands to Tunisia, North Africa; and Barcelona, Spain to Dubrovnik, Croatia; you’ll see the sights and walk on sacred ground with Ali as she learns about herself, her family, and what it means to love someone–even when you have to let them go.

Infusing our own experiences, we can create flawed but redeemable characters who are on a journey of self-discovery. The more vividly we can paint that portrait, the more we bring the story to life with their color, depth, and the rich texture of emotional reactionary drama that makes us connect to them in an intimate way. When the character’s fatal flaw forces them to face the consequences of their actions and choices, and we see them grow, it’s satisfying and uplifting. Readers heart’s are touched. It’s what all writers strive for and is so challenging to do, and do well.

One thing I’m sure of is that we can’t shy away from addressing tough issues when writing for teens, but we have to be willing to step fully into their shoes to get it right. Knowing that “pot” is now mostly referred to as “weed” and other such specifics, are important for authenticity, and can only be known if you hang around teenagers and ask questions. It’s been my experience that they are most willing to share their opinions and ideas when I tell them why I’m asking. They seem to appreciate that I’m willing to have an open dialogue and that I’m not interested in judging them. I don’t think any of my teen library group kids are “potheads,” or “stoners” as they call them, but they are fully engaged in the youth culture in a way that I am not.

I’m hoping for the book to be ready for release in the first part of 2014. A cover reveal and the ability to pre-order the book through Smashwords should be coming up at the end of November. I’m also working on recording a theme song for the book–possibly two, written by yours truly!

So if you’re a writer, write what you know, ‘they’ say. I agree. Either draw from your own experiences, or find a way to walk in someone else’s moccasins for a mile or two. Your characters will be so much richer for it! Just be real, and let your characters take the story where it needs to go. You might even experience some healing as you create/or re-create a painful real-life event that still holds you back from being the best you can be–just like your characters.

I often have to remind myself that ‘do-overs and make-believe are not only allowed in fiction writing, but encouraged.’

Today’s unlocked secret: Infuse your personal experiences into your writing to create vivid, authentic, and memorable characters. Don’t be afraid to tackle the tough problems, and keep it real.

I’m heading back to bed for more rest. I have to be better for my trip to Nashville and New Orleans later this week, where I’ll be at my step-son’s wedding and doing some research for book three in the Chronicles of Lily Carmichael trilogy. I hate getting on a plane and being THAT person who gets everyone else sick. I’m also thinking my sinuses aren’t going to appreciate the flight…uggh!

To happier thoughts and my original statement in this post, I really do love it here in the hills. Our town has the cleanest air on record in Massachusetts, and has one of the healthiest ecosystems. I routinely see lots of wildlife, including a host of various birds here. Although with hunting season commencing, and flight of the migratory bird populations, that will likely be less now. Blue heronI am so grateful to live where I live and feel blessed to be part of my small community.

As such, I’m participating once again at the Granville Harvest Fair coming up Columbus Day weekend (October 12-14). I’ll be hanging out in front of the library signing books with a few other authors. If you’re in North Central CT or Western MA, I hope you’ll stop by and say hello. There’s tons to see and do. I swear, we have one of the BEST harvest fairs in New England!

Do you write what you know, or rely on a mix of research, empathy, and experience? I’d love to hear from you about your process and how you make your characters authentic.

The Making of a Book Cover by Katy Lee

I received a sneak peek of my book cover for my October release, WARNING SIGNS, a few weeks ago. I tried to share the link, but it stopped working, so please forgive me and allow me another chance to show you my new cover.

Here it is!

Warning Signs Cover

It was so neat to see the end result after working with Harlequin’s art department back in December, especially since I had to repeat the process because I failed to do it correctly the first time. Oops! Now that I know what they want, my next books will hopefully be easier.

I write for their Love Inspired Suspense line, and if you’ve ever taken notice of this line, you will see the ominous, nail-biting mood each title expresses. They really are all about the suspense, which is what I messed up on in my first run-through.

I was making it all about the romance, and not about the intrigue.

The key to making the art department happy was to provide three scenes that set the tone and the premise of the book. I had to provide one scene that included my characters, but the other two scenes couldn’t have any people in them. But that does not mean there wasn’t a “character” in the picture.

For you writers out there, I’m sure you understand what I mean when I say that your setting is a character of your story. Well, that setting comes through on your book cover.

The scenes I provided depicted a small New England Island and fishing community where danger seeps in, lurking, and ultimately rocks the town upside down.

Do you think the cover captures this?

Warning Signs Cover

The mood on the cover needs to reach out to a prospective buyer perusing the shelves for their next book. It needs to say, “Something’s not quite right in this picture. What is it?” and it needs to make them pick it up to find out what this book is about.

Now, when they pick up WARNING SIGNS, they will read the back cover. And this is what it says:

GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT

When a drug-smuggling ring rocks a small coastal town, the DEA sends Agent Owen Matthews to shut it down. A single father with a deaf son, Owen senses that the town’s number one suspect—the high school’s new principal—doesn’t fit the profile.

Miriam Hunter hoped to shrug off the stigma of her hearing impairment when she returned to Stepping Stones, Maine. But her recurring nightmares dredge up old memories that could prove her innocence—and uncover the truth behind a decades-old murder. Yet Owen’s help may not be enough when someone decides to keep Miriam silenced—permanently.

The Unlocked Secret: Even the though WARNING SIGNS won’t be released until October, it is up for preorder on Amazon and Barnes and Noble and ChristianBook.com now at discounted rates! If you plan on purchasing it, and you like a deal, take advantage of the lower preorder prices now!

And let me know what you think, and if you’re a writer, please share your pointers on making an eye-catching book cover with us!

Are you repeating yourself?

PJ here. I love the editing process. Well…love might be too strong a word. What I do love, though, is learning my strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and layering my story with the fine brush strokes that hopefully make the characters leap off the page and the plot keep readers riveted.

As I’m reading through a printed copy of WESTERN DESERT, my editor’s voice rings in my ear.

Coming June 24, 2013!
Coming June 24, 2013!
She has pointed out a specific weakness many times, but I couldn’t see it for myself until I read it on a printed page. There are just some things my eyes don’t pick up on the computer screen. In my case, it’s the glaringly repetitious -ing sentence structure that results in lots of “telling”. It seems I have a habit of structuring my sentences as follows:

We stopped only when necessary and took turns driving, making good time and closing in on our destination.

All in all, it’s not a horrible sentence, but repeating this pattern frequently can really bog down the writing. This is clearly a case of “telling”–beginning with a subject/verb construction, using –ing words, and making it a weak sentence that is unnecessarily long. Ooops! I did it again! Did you catch it? I’ve used two phrases connected by a comma, requiring me to use the gerund form of the verb in the second phrase. Darn it! I did it yet again! I can’t seem to help myself, LOL. Believe me, it was an eye opener when I finally saw it. Hopefully, I’ve taken care of the problem through most of the manuscript. If not, I’m certain my second round with an editor will catch it.

As for strengths, I’ve been told I have a knack for description. Here’s an example of using description to ground the reader in place and to paint a picture of the scene.

In the distance the Western mountain ranges turned a deep purple under clouds of smoke from wild-fires gone unmanaged. The coastal winds from the ocean beyond carried the wayward flames toward the desert, but with nothing but sand and cactus, they would die of starvation long before they reached us or the city of Las Vegas.

Although this could be considered telling, in just a few sentences you get a clear picture of the environment and lots of information about what’s happening. Like most writers, I struggle with brevity—the art of saying more with fewer words—but I’m definitely improving.

Do you know your strengths and weaknesses? Do you have any particularly stubborn habits that bog down your writing?