The First Sentence

July 28, 2020

How much time do you spend crafting the first sentence of your novel? I believe it’s the most important line you will write.

The first sentence:

  • draws the reader in
  • sets the scene
  • sets the tone
  • reveals the voice
  • can introduce the main character
  • can introduce the story world
  • can reveal one or more aspects of the character
  • can hint at or directly state the main conflict or a smaller conflict

That’s a lot of material to cover in one sentence. It can sound daunting, yet great writers do it well. Consider the following opening lines:

 

“I’d never given much thought to how I would die – though I’d had reason enough in the last few months – but even if I had, I would not have imagined this.” – Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

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The reader is drawn in, wondering who is dying and why. We also wonder how the person is dying – it must be unusual. Is this a thriller or murder mystery? Is there a way the person can escape and survive? And what has happened in the last few months? It’s probably a young person since they’ve never thought about dying. This is our introduction to the main character, and since it’s written in first person, we know we will hear the person’s story.

 

 

 

“On the day King George V was crowned at Westminster abbey in London, Billy Williams went down the pit in Aberowen, South Wales.” — Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett

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We are told the timeframe (early 1900s) and the part of the world in which this story takes place. One of the main characters is introduced, although we may wonder what “the pit” is. This sentence also foreshadows the entire story – it’s about how politics and world events affect the lives of everyday people. The reader is wondering what relationship Billy Williams has to King George.

 

 

 

“I did two things on my seventy-fifth birthday. I visited my wife’s grave. Then I joined the army.” — Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi

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This is three sentences, but since they are short and to the point, I am considering them to be the first line of the book. The reader is introduced to the main character, who we infer is a male. Why would a 75-year-old join the army, and where would he be allowed to do so? We know he has a story to tell.

 

 

 

 

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling

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We infer that this couple is not normal or that their world is not normal or that something abnormal is about to happen. And why are they proud to be normal? As compared to whom? This is our introduction to a “not-normal” world and to a couple who have a large impact on the main character and important roles in the book.

 

 

 

“Two days after the murder, listening to Brett Allen’s tale of innocence and confusion, the lawyer waivered between disbelief and wonder at its richness, so vivid that she could almost picture it as truth.” – The Final Judgment, by Richard North Patterson

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This is a murder mystery. A legal mystery. We wonder if Brett is innocent or guilty. Is Brett a man or a woman and who has been murdered?

All these opening lines illustrate details of the story to come. They touch on different aspects and draw in the reader.

 

 

 

I can spend hours developing that first line. Or I can spend minutes. Usually, I’ve been thinking about the project for a while, and envisioning the world in which it will take place. When I sit down to write, I have a pretty good idea where I want to start and have a visual of the opening scene in my head.

That first line must be right. It doesn’t matter if my novel starts at the beginning or in the middle of an event/relationship/challenge. The first sentence starts the flow. It’s like the gates to a new world. It’s the beginning of the roadmap.

How do you want your reader to feel? Afraid, concerned, excited, curious? It must be in that first sentence. The first paragraph is also important and expands on that initial feeling.

Some writing advice says to skip writing the first sentence if you’re struggling, and come back to it later. Likewise, for the first paragraph.

I can’t. I won’t. I don’t. I do come back and tweak it, but everything flows from the first sentence.

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A Notepad is Essential

July 14, 2020

My stories carry me away to another place and time. When I write, reality fades and my fictional world takes over. I immerse myself in that world and I know what the characters are thinking and doing.

When I’m not writing, I think about the story. What will the MC (main character) do next? What action is needed? What drama is needed? What else should I have the MC do, think, see? I mull over the story when I’m going to sleep, and I ponder what I’ll write when I wake up.

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While in the midst of creating a story, I carry a notepad with me. Ideas frequently come unbidden. Typing or speaking ideas into a phone or iPad works, too, but I prefer paper. I use abbreviations and my own form of shorthand. When I get back to my writing, it’s easier to look at the notes than listen to something I’ve recorded or pull the file up electronically.

I can doodle additions on the notes, cross things out, or save the paper for a future story. Not only do I get ideas for my WIP, I also find inspiration for new stories.

I’ve mentioned that I write longhand on unlined sketch pads. I use a certain rollerball pen. One additional necessary tool for me is a small notepad like I’ve outlined here. These elements nurture my creativity.

When ideas strike, how do you record them?

Photo by Steve Johnson on Unsplash

 


Jigsaw Puzzle

June 30, 2020

Writing a story is like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. All the elements fit together to form a picture. With a puzzle, one piece out of place makes it impossible to finish. With a story, one piece out of place hinders cohesiveness and flow.

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Multiple components must be included when writing.

  • Each scene must have an objective, obstacles, and outcome.
  • Character traits, features and actions only serve to move the story along.
  • Words and actions express inner conflicts with which the reader can identify.
  • Everything physical is a metaphor for what is going on psychologically.
  • What the characters do is pivotal to their personalities and motivations.
  • Every action has a motivation.
  • Dialogue moves the story, creates tension, interests the reader, and reveals character.

These snippets are from my notes taken at conferences and from books. There are many more components not listed here. When I first heard that every element must move the story along, I thought, “I’m writing. I can’t keep all that stuff in my head while I’m writing.”

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You’re determining where your character is going, why she/he is going there, and how he/she will overcome the main obstacle to reach a goal. At the same time, you need to be cognizant of the above bullet points.

I was sure that advice was wrong, wrong, wrong. Then, one day it all clicked into place. Just like the pieces of a jigsaw.

You need all the different elements to make up the whole. Some fit together and some don’t. Those that don’t connect smoothly need to be moved or removed. It’s the writer’s job to put the jigsaw together in a way that creates an entire picture. It’s now become second nature for me to put all the pieces in place and think about all the necessary components while writing.

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Writing a story can be arduous. When it all clicks into place, though, and your puzzle is complete, there’s an indescribable joy a writer won’t find in any other endeavor.

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Photos by Hans-Peter Gauster, Ross Sneddon and marjanblan on Unsplash.

What’s in a Name?

June 2, 2020

When I tell people I’m writing science fiction and fantasy, I’m often asked if I use a pen name or my initials instead of my first name. The premise is that a male author is more acceptable in those genres. The Bronte sisters are probably the most famous women who adopted male pseudonyms in the 1800s. More recently, JK Rowling allegedly used initials so as not to turn off her target audience of young males.

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Is this necessary? When I poked around the internet, about half thought men had an advantage in the publishing industry, sci-fi in particular; the other half thought it didn’t matter.

What do you think? Is a male author more acceptable in certain genres or in publishing overall? Would you read sci-fi written by a woman? How about genres aimed at women? Would you read a romance written by a man? Would young girls have loved the Nancy Drew books as much if the name on the spine was male? What about the Hardy Boys books? Would they have sold if they had a female author?

What’s your opinion or experience with this issue?

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Include or Not?

May 19, 2020

Will Covid-19 show up in your fiction writing? Writer Lynne Fisher posed that question in a comment on my last post. She touches on it briefly in her blog, which you should check out. She’s a good and thoughtful writer.

I hadn’t even considered the question. I know there are poems out on the subject, and I assume there will be countless memoirs. What about novels? I pondered a while. If we want our fiction to be realistic, then, yes, we should probably include it. But I don’t want to read about the pandemic. I decided it won’t appear in my writing, at least not for a while. Maybe 5 or 10 years from now, but not right now.

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That made me curious about what was written after the 1918 flu pandemic. I didn’t look for memoirs or factual accounts, I wanted stories with the pandemic as a backdrop. Goodreads lists 85 books on the subject. I looked at a handful, all of which were written in the last 20 years.

An article in Smithsonian Magazine talks about earlier works. It highlights a 1922 novel by Willa Cather called One of Ours as the first major novelist to include the pandemic in fiction. There are a host of other books, too.

Pandemics, epidemics, and viruses have been featured in multiple books and movies, many of them science fiction. We can go back further, and look at plagues in the bible.

I draw on real life to create my stories. Some aspect of our current world may appear in my upcoming work, perhaps an aspect of isolation or socialization, maybe fear or illness, but not the virus itself.

Will the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 be a part of your fiction? Would you read a novel with the Coronavirus as its backdrop?

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