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?