Blog Series: First Lines #1

I’ve been thinking a lot about first lines recently, how a novel opens. We frequently hear about how this can make or break your novel, especially when you’re first starting out. Maybe that’s dramatic, but I can tell you from experience that a great opener can make a big difference in whether I dive into a book or sigh heavily and see if I can get through the first chapter.

Here’s a great opener.

“An abandoned auto court in the San Berdoo foothills; Buzz Meeks checked in with ninety-four thousand dollars, eighteen pounds of high-grade heroin, a 10-gauge pump, a .38 special, a .45 automatic and a switchblade he’d bought of a pachuco at the border – right before he spotted the car parked across the line: Mickey Cohen goons in an LAPD unmarked, Tijuana cops standing by to bootjack a piece of his goodies, dump his body in the San Ysidro River.”

—James Ellroy, L.A. Confidential

Why does this work? Well because it’s tense as hell. Serious shit is going down and Buzz Meeks, whether he’s a good guy or bad, is ready for it. Or maybe he’s not, but we sure as hell are going to keep reading to find out.

Here’s a completely different example

“Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

-Neil Gaiman, American Gods

This one starts with the character and then sets them at odds with out perceptions of this character. He’s a big scary guy in prison, who spends his time learning coin tricks and thinking not just about his wife but how much he loves her. Something is just a little weird here, the way the language is presented. I’m not sure what’s off yet, but I want to know, so I’m going to read more.

So, now I want to present to you a terrible opening. It’s mine, from a book I wrote long ago. I’m using this as my first example because although it’s terrible, it’s also typical. That is to say, in my readings I have come across openings like this more than a few times.

The night was dark and stormy. The kind of night you’d expect when you were going to an English castle but I wasn’t happy about it. I wasn’t happy about anything then, especially not the English castle part but I was almost there and the silence that had settled over the blue van would soon be broken.

Okay first, let me point out for anyone who doesn’t know, that the night was dark and stormy is the clichest cliche in the book of cliches. But at least the second line tries to acknowledge that cliche, awkwardly, with a fragment. Then for some reason the narrator tells us she wasn’t happy about it. What it is? Well that’s not very clear. But she’s also unhappy about the English castle, oh and apparently she’s in a silent blue van.

Nothing about this opener works. It is all over the place, trying to establish setting, mood, tone and time period all at once. It’s biggest problem is that it smells like a big stinking novice, but that doesn’t mean that it couldn’t be corrected. While we have to dig into this jumbled mess to discern what the writer (young moi) was trying to get across, the sentiment itself is not completely off course.

The storming sky was as black as my mood as our blue van splashed through mud puddles toward the looming English castle.

Well that’s kinda better. It compacts all those things from the first opener into something that might not send readers throwing the book into the dark and stormy night. Or what about this?

It was raining, of course it was raining. We were on our way to an old castle after midnight. Could it be more cliche?

This introduces us to our narrator quite well. She is not having this English Castle shit.

Or what about:

Fuck castles.

Honestly, I think I would choose the third, although it might be too shocking for certain readers. Two lines that present the entire mood of this narrator much better than that lengthy monstrosity about silence in blue vans and not being happy about dark and stormy nights or English castles.

What do you think? How could we improve this opener? What is your favorite opener?

I will continue to post my own old starts here to break down and improve, but I’d also like to open up the floor. Do you have a bad opener you’d like to improve? do you want to know why it’s not working? Shoot me a message or drop a comment.

 

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Writers’ Business plan: Write more books

If a company made one product, and after years of refinement, market research, paying consultants and pushing it at every niche and trade show there was, they still couldn’t get it to sell, what would you advise them?

Keep in mind that their product might be great. But the market doesn’t want it, right now.

Would you tell them to keep pushing? Would you tell them to give up? Close up shop, stop being a company now because your one product isn’t selling.

What if you knew that because they created this one product, they could create other products? That it was, in fact, their specialty to create these products, similar but not the same. With all the experience they had making and fixing and marketing their product, they had an expertise in the field that they couldn’t pay for.

Yes, I’m nudging you toward the answer I’m looking for, because all of the time I see writers clinging to their first novels with their cold dead fingers, insisting “I will not write another book until this one is perfect! Until this one is sold! I will keep pushing it until the bitter end! It deserves my unrelenting attention!”

Year after year after year, they are pushing just one product, and it is not selling.

Now, I will admit that being an artistic type is different that being a corporate type, to an extent. There are plenty of writers out there that do not care to make a living writing books. They write books because they love it, and that is a good thing.

But if you want to make money doing what you love (which is completely valid and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You do not need to starve to be an artist) you need to consider the market and the best way to meet the demands of the market are to have more than one product to sell.

Put down your baby. Try something new. Make friends with new characters.

Then do it again.

Each book will be better. Each rejection will hurt less. Each accomplishment will be more rewarding.

The Philadelphia Writers’ Conference: Tips for your first writers event

The Philadelphia Writers’ Conference in the oldest writing conference in the country, celebrating its 70th year this past weekend.

While I’ve been aware of it for years, this year I pushed myself to step outside of my comfort zone and take the trip. I’ve never been to any writing conference before, because, well, it’s kinda scary. Which is exactly why I determined it was past time I found out what it’s all about.

So here is what I learned and some things to consider if you are thinking about taking the jump and going to your first writing conference.

1. Pace yourself

The PWC is three days long. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. That is a lot, even for a seasoned pro. I wanted to do it all so Friday I was booked from 9:30 am – 8:00 pm.

That was too much. Too much information. Too much nerves. Too much sitting in chairs without back support. Too much time around too many people.

By the time I went to the agent and editors buffet, nearly every writer I spoke to was saying the same thing. “I am burnt out.”

And so was I. In the future I will be a little more discerning about the classes I sign up for and the length of my day.

 

2. Talk to new people

There’s a stereotype about writers being introverts. I would never say it’s true across the board, but it definitely is there for a reason. A lot of writers wandered around, looking a little lost Friday morning, including myself. As soon as someone at a table spoke up, everyone gratefully introduced themselves.

At lunch, I realized I had no idea where to get food and wasn’t sure about which direction to walk to find the nearest restaurants. I grit my teeth and walked up to a group of people and asked them and ended up getting invited to lunch with a lovely writing group.

Everyone, and I mean everyone, was so friendly and willing to make friends. Any time i started to feel shy or awkward, I’d see someone else sitting alone, and end up making a friend. Frequently we bonded over how shy and awkward we felt.

 

3. Get Business Cards!

This didn’t even occur to me and I really regret it now. All these awesome people I met and none of us thought to share our contact info. Even if you don’t have a book or blog or website, print up some cheap cards with your social media accounts and give them out to the people you meet.

 

4. Look into everything the conference offers

I arrived late and frazzled after getting stuck in traffic coming into the city. Everyone was in for the opening speaker so I mulled around, trying to get my bearings and happened to see the sign up table for agent and editor pitch sessions.

I had assumed they cost extra and they would be filled up before I got there. But I asked. Apparently very few people had signed up and they were free. So I got an unexpected five minute pitch session with a really awesome agent. (and also rambled like a nervous idiot a bit). It was uncomfortable, but really really helpful, and I might have missed it completely if I hadn’t checked.

 

5. Remember that Writers are awesome

The writers and editors leading the conferences, the agents, the attendees, were all super cool. By the end of first day, I was burnt out, but I also realized that I had no reason to be nervous about the people. We all just love to create. We all love the written word. We all want more of it.

 

6. Bonus Tip for Introverts.

Find somewhere you can go be alone for a few minutes, through out the day, especially if you are not used to being around people all day long. I took a few breaks in my car, in the parking garage. scrolled through my phone, adjusted my uncomfortable conference-ey clothes, and took from deep breaths any time I started to feel overwhelmed. It saved the day.

 

Any conference tips of your own? Please share in comments!

Occupation: Writer?

I remember staring at the blank space on the preschool enrollment form. Mother’s Occupation: ____________.  In the past I’d used my old job. Graphic Designer. Then I resigned myself to “Home maker” but it made me feel a little uncomfortable. Not because being a home maker isn’t a real job. Let me tell you, it is a full time job and a half, but because it’s not a “job” I do exclusively, or alone. My husband and I make our home together. For a little while I aggressively wrote in “Mother” because psh, that IS a job that I do 24/7. That’s true for every mother, by the way, not just ones who don’t work full time jobs for money.

But it is not my professional occupation, any more than home making is. Any more that graphic design has been since I left my full time job after my first child was born.

So I wrote it, on that line.

Mother’s Occupation: Writer.

After a moment of intense self doubt I also added /Homemaker.

It took me a while to be comfortable writing this in. Because I do not make anything close to a living writing, yet. Yet I don’t get paid to cook, clean, or parent and I have no trouble listing those things as my occupation.

I spend a significant portion of my time writing or doing writing related things. I edit while my daughter watches morning cartoons. I research while I wait for spaghetti to boil. I do social media work all day in stolen moments. I write at night between baths and bedtime and the five times my kids need something.

Writing is my occupation. How much money I make for it doesn’t make it any more or less valid. I am building my career and every moment dedicated to it is precious.

So if you are struggling with the same thing, cut yourself a break. Money does not define the value of your job. It does not define you. If you are lucky or motivated enough to be able to dedicate your time to writing, you are a writer and you rock.

Chris Bauer’s Thriller “Jane’s Baby” is out Tomorrow! Check out the podcast about it and pick up the book

 

The good folks at Philly Liars Club let me join their “oddcast” last week. So here is 30 audio minutes of me blabbering about the thriller JANE’S BABY plus using controversial issues as thriller topics, the use of humor when dealing with controversy, and quirky characters, and me giving the listening audience an incorrect website […]

via Liars Club Oddcast Podcast — Chris Bauer

Art to support your art

Writers can be a fickle bunch. We immerse ourselves in our story, falling in love with our characters, daydreaming about our settings. Then we see something shiny in the distance, a new story idea, a really good book, even (gasp) something happening in our own real life and our make believe world can fall away, once again as flat as the pages it’s written on.

This is a good thing. Because a little obsession can help you complete a project, but a lot of obsession makes you a little creepy. And in every author’s life there is a time when they have to let their book, their characters, their make believe world go, whether it’s to the world or a folder on computer, so that they can create something new and life their own lives.

But if you want to get back to that space, whether you’re trying to pick up a story you haven’t completed yet or edit a manuscript that you have left to simmer, sometimes it is not so easy. Sometimes the words don’t flow, the excitement doesn’t pop. Your story remains flat to you and you can’t immerse yourself the way you need to do get the job done.

There are lots of little tasks, projects, challenges you can set yourself, but one of my favorite methods for getting back into a story is to come at it through different mediums. Sketch your characters or landscapes. Write a theme song. Build their setting with blocks or playdough or whatever you have lying around.

Cook the foods your characters eat. Wear the colors your characters wear. Write a poem. Design a logo. Whatever you want!

You don’t have to be good at it. Your characters can look like stick figures and your song can sound suspiciously like “Rebel Yell”, but you are creating withing your world again. And the world will open up to you.

And if your attempts at other art are really getting you down, make a vision board and a playlist (with “Rebel Yell”). Make a pinterest board. Cast the movie of your book with real life actors.

Have fun and let that healthy obsession with your work take you away.

Talent and Time

There’s two things that can make authors cringe to hear.

“I wish I was talented so I could write a book.”

and

“Oh, yeah, I could write a book, if I just had the time.”

Please stop.

You can write a book, without time or talent. We writers know this because we started out with neither.

We weren’t born with a magical power that allowed us to string words into a story that was a delight to read.

We didn’t come by our “talent” because we were constantly faced with an abundance of free time.

Our first stories sucked. Our first twenty stories sucked. My first one hundred stories sucked, hard.

I wrote them between homework, during class instead of paying attention. I wrote them when my friends were outside playing. I wrote them in college when I could have been at parties. I write them now, late at night when the rest of my family is sleeping.

A writer makes the time and they develop the talent. Because we love it. Because we have to. Because it is a priority.

If you want to write a book, by all means go for it. Get up earlier than usual. Stay home instead of going out Friday night. Take a writing class after work on Wednesday. Read books during your spare time instead of scrolling through your phone.

Your talent will develop slowly. It will take years. But it will come.

If you want to write a book, stop making excuses, and projecting your weird insecurities onto us writers who have done it. You have a high stress job that doesn’t allow you the time? Honey, I work with doctors and lawyers, single parents and CEOs. They make the time, they put in the work. Because they have to get their stories out. Because they love it.

It’s okay if you don’t. Just stop using it to mildly insult us who have done it.

Should you outline your project?

Currently working on a new manuscript I outlined a year ago. Amazing how quickly the story comes when you got it all figured out ahead of time, but to be honest, I still write seat of pants style too.

L.C.W. Allingham

The short answer is yes. But I understand your hesitation. For years I resisted outlining, preferring my stories evolve organically. And this worked for me… kinda. Really interesting twists would show up, characters were able to define themselves on the pages and I wasn’t trying to force anything to conform to a preconceived idea. But this method came with it’s own set of problems and the largest was that I would write myself into a corner and have no idea where to go.

I started keeping a separate notes document a couple years ago and it helped alot, but I would still run out of steam or lose my train when writing. Halfway through the Silent Apocalypse I realized I wasn’t sure where to go and I really wanted to finish it.

Enter my first outline, old school skeletal model, with a lot of empty points that I still hadn’t…

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Learning to write short stories to improve your long stories

Writing short stories has always been a challenge for me. My ideas are usually too complicated and require a lot of set up and character development.

or so I thought.

Recently I’ve realized I am not doing myself any favors by refusing to refine this form of writing. After all, just about all my favorite writers got their start publishing short stories. There are so many more opportunities to publish a short story than a novel.

My first attempts were pretty bad. Even with “shorter” ideas, my stories were too complicated, too convoluted, and really pretty boring.

Then I came across an anthology with a theme that I was already writing a novel about.

And a lightbulb went off.

Because I already had the backstory, the world building, the set up in my head, I used this opportunity to write a short, side story about a minor character in my novel. A character that I would have liked to have given more attention, but it would have bogged down my novel.

As a short story though… it worked.

But I still had to edit, clean, and cut down words to make the word count.

Unfortunately the anthology was cancelled, but I did receive an encouraging reply.

So I kept trying. And I kept getting better. Ideas for short stories came easier. Keeping them short came easier.

And then something pretty cool happened.

I had to do some major edits on a novel manuscript. And that came easier. I had an easier time finding run on sentences, cutting out words, making everything clearer and more concise.

Learning how to write short stories made editing my novel easier.

Since this glorious revelations I have shared this discovery with some writing friends of mine. Most of them haven’t believed me. Like me, they feel that they are just no good at writing short stories. I hope they change their minds because I’d love to see what they come up with.

Everyone will find their own path.

Just don’t sell yourself short.

Do you write short stories? What is your best method? Please share in comments below.

The most destructive inclination

It’s been written and rewritten. Hours and days and months years of work and now you really really like your story.

There might be a typo you missed. Maybe an awkward phrase you never noticed, but damn it is good, and you are tired of it. An agent or editor will understand. Nothing is ever perfect, right?

Only a writer knows how much work goes into even a short piece of fiction and how freaking redundant it gets to keep editing.

But while the writer may be DONE with a story, often times the story is not done.

In our exhaustion and our excitement, our inclination may be to release it into the world when we hit this point. What will be will be.

That inclination would be wrong.

Not only wrong, but counterproductive. If you submit work that isn’t up to par, your work will be rejected and that source will never again be available for it. If it’s bad enough you may be putting future submissions with that publication as risk as well.

No matter how done you may think you are, you need a second, third, forth and maybe even eight set of eyes. Because no matter how hard you have worked, your eyes are not objective. Typos and misspellings will hide from them. Plot holes and confusing sections will be filled in by your brain and elude your edits.

No matter how much work you have put into your manuscript, you will be blind to flaws. No matter how long you have done this, you need help. No matter how excited you are about the piece, you have to be patient.

Writing is a long game.

Rushing to submit will only make it longer.

If you have made it as perfect as you can, if you feel like you are literally going to scream if you have to work on it any longer, by all means, take a break! Send it to some trusted readers. Go work on something else.

But stomp on your inclination to release it to the publishing world. It could destroy your chances completely.