A Great Opening Line

You’ve probably heard it before, but the opening line of your story can make all the difference when you are in the submission phase of your story.

And yet it eludes many writers. We are too close to the story. We are sure we need to start where we started when we wrote the first draft. We want to establish the scene, the character, the theme.

Often times we just plunk our reader down in a seat and expect them to stay. Sometimes they will if that seat turns out to have a good view, but if they are agents, editors or publishers, they might have more important places to be.

So how to write a great opener?

First lets examine some classic openers that just do not work anymore.

It was a dark and stormy night. Cliche

Jennette awoke to the bright sun streaming in her window. Boring and Cliche

All Roy ever wanted was a normal life. Whiny, boring and Cliche

You want your first line of the story to throw glitter in the face of your reader, blinding them to everything but your words, compelling them to sit down in that chair on their own so that they have a better view of what you got to show them.

The best way to do this? Start with action. Start with weirdness. Start with whatever it is about your book that makes it so freaking great.

The first scream was nearly drowned out by the sharp crack of thunder.

Jennette awoke to a hand around her throat.

On his way out the door to work, Roy found two gray aliens leaned up against his black Buick. “Not again,” he thought.

Can you see the difference? Starting with urgency or intrigue immediately ups the ante of the story and is an extremely effective way of cleaning up your work.



40 Years of Rocky #MondayMotivation

Growing up in the Philly area, I remember gazing up at the Rocky Statue in front of the Spectrum as a young child.

The story my mom told me at the time went like this, “A man tried every day to run up the steps of the art museum, which are really high. He worked so hard and when he finally did it, he was so proud he had a statue made to show people that you can accomplish anything.”

The whole story is a bit different, but I think this was a pretty accurate metaphor for the story of Rocky Balboa and the real life story of Sylvester Stallone.

You see, Sylvester was an out of work actor who wrote a hell of a screenplay. Everyone agreed it was a hell of a screenplay and they offered him some great money for it. But he didn’t want to give it to them. He wanted to star in it. He had barely any money. No one in the industry believed in him. But he fought. He persevered. He kept up those steps until he finally reached his goal.

With a low budget and no projections that Stallone would make money off his brilliant work, he forged ahead and ended up making not only one of the best sports movies of all time, but one of the most inspirational movies of all time.

The film went on to win three academy awards, spawn numerous sequels, was the highest grossing film of the year and launched the career of a poor struggling actor into epic stardom.

It took a while for the Art Museum to accept the gift of the bronze Rocky statue, but today it stands victoriously at the steps, a symbol of Philly spirit to the locals, and a beacon of inspiration to everyone, everywhere who is striving toward an impossible dream.

How to own being an author, no matter what stage you are at.

Once upon a time I told a guy I was dating that I wanted to be an author. At the time I was in journalism school and  I had already completed three novels, and while I knew I had a ways to go and didn’t dare to presume myself already an author, I knew it was the path I planned to pursue.

“You write novels?” he laughed. “I just can’t imagine you sitting at your little computer typing away little stories..

Yeah. We never went out again after that.

But this kinda reaction is one that a lot of novelists encounter, no matter what stage in their career they’re at.

If you are working toward publication you get condescending smiles and things like “Well that’s a nice dream to have.” or “What is your real job?” and the general sense that people think you are sweet and delusional.

If you are self published you hear things like “Oh, so it’s not really published” or “Yeah, people can publish anything they want these days!” Insinuating that your work, no matter how professional and successful is somehow worthless because you chose a different route.

And it even extends out to traditionally published writers. “Has anyone actually read it?” “I’ve never heard of that book.” and “Do you actually get paid anything for it?” Because if it’s not a well known bestseller, it apparently doesn’t exist.

So for many years now, when people have asked me what I do, I shrug and say, “Oh I’m a stay at home mom.” suggesting my days are spent cleaning boogers, cleaning house, and and wiping butts (to be fair, the boogers and butts are a large part of my days).

Certain friends and family have given me the raised brow, smile and nod and move onto the next subject when I have had the delusional optimism to mention that I am spending my time querying, editing, social media-ing on behalf of my writing career.

But I am done hiding. I may not be on the bestseller list this year. I may not even be published for a while yet. But this is my career, just like an actor, an artist, musician or a director. I am working my way into it. I am learning. This is the arts and it is an industry I am working hard at it as I refine my product, make connections and learn the market.

A few months ago, a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time asked me what I was doing with myself besides being a mom. I told him, a little sheepishly, I’m working on getting my first novel published. His eyes lit up and he responded with, “That’s AWESOME!”

Wow. That felt good. Because it is awesome. It’s frustrating, it’s exhausting, sometimes it’s completely depressing, but it is awesome and I am proud of the work I am doing.

So I decided to stop acting like it wasn’t awesome. I am pursuing a career I love and, while I know there is a stereotype of the wannabe writer who is always talking about writing and never actually getting their work out there, that isn’t me. Is it you? If it is, that’s okay too. You will get there.

The holidays are coming up and I am owning my career path. And if are in a position like me, whether you are working on your first publication or preparing to release your eighth book, here is how to handle the skeptics you encounter.

  1. Your book is a product. You are working in an industry. Refer to them as such. In fact, throw some industry jargon in there. Suddenly the slow nods and the “oh, that’s nice” will turn into “oh, that’s impressive.” Because you are doing something they can’t do and you know things they don’t know.
  2. Be proud of your work, whether it’s a serious historical character study or a wildly unique take on YA paranormal romance. You wrote an effing book and you’ve had the work ethic and maturity to refine it, to kill your darlings, to cut out large sections that you loved because they weren’t working. No non-author is going to understand the blood sweat and tears you put into your work, so don’t expect them to. Just don’t let that discourage you from beaming with pride over what you have accomplished.
  3. Don’t downplay the work. You know how long it took you to write the damned thing, Researching, editing. Editing again. You know how much time you have spent learning the industry, going to writers conferences, pouring over articles, researching agents, editors, publishers, marketing, writing blogs, creating an online presence. Non-writers don’t know this. Many people think you just wrote down some sloppy thoughts for a couple hours and want all the glory of Stephen King. Tell them. People put value on hard work and you have worked hard.
  4. Mention the professionals you have worked with, whether it’s editors, published writers, bloggers, reviewers, designers, whatever. It lets people know you are serious about your product and about not only getting it out there but calling on established professionals to get it right.
  5. Give a realistic projection of your timeline. Realistic doesn’t mean bleak. Don’t say “I don’t know if I’ll ever make it.” or “It’s so hard to make any money in this industry.” Realistic means, “It might take some time, but I’ll get there.” or “My newest self published book brought in twice as much revenue as my last. I think the third one will be my best sales yet.” You are putting in the work. It is only going to get better. Will you be a millionaire next year? I don’t know but I don’t suggest you tell people that as a certainty. It might be years before you can quit your day job. But realistically, you will get better with each novel you write. Your novel will get better with each draft. Your chances of getting an agent get better with each query you put out, and so on and so on.
  6. Don’t let it get to you. When your date still insists on making little digs about your “little stories” accept that he’s just a bag of horse crap and file him away for future villains. Many people wish they had the courage to pursue a career in the arts and are going to project resentment out at anyone who does.

Of course we all know that we have to make the distinction to ourselves first that we are awesome because we are authors. Other people will catch on eventually, but don’t let them deter you in the meantime.

You are an author. That means you are a salesperson, a researcher, an online personality, a professional reader, a marketing director, and a creative genius. Own it. You deserve the title.

The Poltergeist remake: The gold standard of what not to do with ghost stories

I didn’t seek this one out. My husband flipped on the TV tonight and the new “Poltergeist” was on. Now I read some of the reviews. I had avoided it because of my love for the original, but it was there and so was I so I watched while it did everything wrong.

Now I have to add a disclaimer. I do not consider myself a big fan of traditional “horror”. Lots of blood and big body counts don’t do much for me. This is a much loved genre that I believe the makers of this new version were trying to incorporate more of in their quest to bank of the success of the original.

But ghost stories, that’s another matter. The paranormal, when done correctly, scares the crap out of me, but it’s got to have the right elements and it HAS GOT TO have a foundation in reality.

Because ghost stories play on our fears of the world unseen, the things we think we don’t believe in during the day, the things we can’t quite deny in the dark. If a story doesn’t feel like it could be real to us, than it is not scary.

And in order for it to feel real, the non-supernatural (or I guess natural) aspects need to be spot on.

So what not to do:

Everyone is way too chill

When something is terrifying, people act terrified. When something challenges everything they believe in, they also act terrified. Terrified people are not chill. They are irrational, they are aggressive, they are emotional, they are inappropriate. In the new Poltergeist everyone is kinda irked and a bit confused. Occasionally they do something that resembles terror, but then it kind of putters out.

Starting at the bottom

This is a personal preference of mine, but I don’t love it when people who really need a break end up getting crapped on instead. While in the original the family is at the top of their game, in this one they are starting over and really need a break. The father is unemployed and the mother isn’t working either. Then things get worse but, apparently, only kinda.

Money? What?

As I said, unemployed father, not working mother- because they agreed he would work until she finished her novel, but she’s not writing the novel, but she still can’t work. Even though he isn’t working. So they buy a giant four bedroom house “in a bad neighborhood” which apparently means a very nice suburban neighborhood with large 4 bedroom houses. They’ve maxed out two credit cards and that makes that dad very sad. So he buys everyone in the house expensive gifts. Jewelry, new iphones, a drone, at least $1000 worth of gifts. And the mom’s all like “we should return these” and then it’s dropped because he doesn’t want to.

AND when they’re house is destroyed by the ghosts, they are looking at other very nice 3 bedroom homes. Because, you know, they had that down payment for a new house in their back pocket the whole time. I can explain to you why this is stupid and detracts from the story, but since we all live in the real world, I don’t think i have to.

Seriously, these people aren’t just chill, they are robots

Little girl disappears. There is no holy shit moment. There is no break down. The only one who comes close to having a human reaction is the son, and that’s just because he, instead of encouraging his sister to run with him, stopped, talked to her for about five minutes, then ran away and left her there to be abducted by the closet.Mom is really embarrassed to go talk to the paranormal people. Dad wants to drink a bit, but has a bad ghost experience with it and then dumps his drink. The kids waffle between looking kinda scared and making smart ass remarks.

But maybe that is because…

I don’t care that much about this little girl

She’s kinda creepy and there is no time spent making the audience care about her. Plus, she kinda seems to want to be in creepy land. Sure, she’s a little girl, taken away from her family, but they are pretty chill about it, so why shouldn’t I be?

Nobody talks to each other

Ug, how infuriating is this? People, who supposedly trust each other, not sharing their experiences with one another even though they all accept they are in a haunted house this stuff is happening? Nope. Not realistic. Not good story telling. Just lazy writing.

I honestly hate dissing anyone’s art. I really do, but if you are going to take on my favorite movie and smash it up against your sub par effects, than I have to try to guide people away from recreating your flaws.

Bottom Line: A ghost story is just a story about people encountering something they know nothing about. Just like a drama about a family moving to a foreign country or a romance about a woman dating a severely damaged man, without the humanity, it’s not going to be much of a story. Give your stories a heart, otherwise your audience will not give a crap.

Is “said” really dead?

When I went about getting really serious about improving my writing I ate up all the advice I could find. I pinned hundreds of articles and read all of them. I started to apply this to my work and I saw the quality of my writing increase for it.

But as it turns out, not all advice is good advice.

While cutting out passive voice and verbs cleaned up my work, relying on synonyms of “said” cluttered it up in a new way. There are many articles and lists on more action oriented ways to tag your dialogue, and I, being a writer who relies heavily on dialogue, used these replacements liberally.

Then one evening in my writing crit group, someone commented that “said” is nearly invisible to a reader, while “shouted” “cried” “snickered” “demanded” can start to disrupt an otherwise fluid set of dialogue.

Here is an example.

“I can’t do it!” Laura huffed.

“You can!” Marcus shouted.

“No! It’s too hard!” she whined.

“There is no other way! You have to!” Marcus insisted.

Now, while Laura might be huffing and whining and Marcus might be shouting and insisting, adding these descriptive verbs as dialoge tags starts to feel bogged down and redundant.

Read instead.

“I can’t do it!” Laura said.

“You have to!” Marcus replied.

“No! It’s too hard!”

“There is no other way! You have to!”

Consider that even without the descriptive tags, the dialogue itself conveys the urgency of the situation and allows the reader to follow the scene with ease. Once you establish who is talking, you only need to take the speaker once unless the dialogue goes on for more than a few lines.

Is there a place for “chortled” “inquired” “belted” and “marveled”? Absolutely! But they should be used with discretion and only when serious emphasis is needed.