Showing posts with label Deadly Southern Charm. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Deadly Southern Charm. Show all posts

07 May 2019

The Importance of a Solid Beginning

by Barb Goffman

 "Will you walk into my parlour?" said the spider to the fly; "Tis the prettiest little parlor that you ever did spy."

--"The Spider and the Fly" by Mary Howitt

I spent the last few days at the Malice Domestic mystery convention, learning about new mystery novels and stories, catching up with old friends, and listening to panels about books and writing. One topic that particularly interested me was the importance of first lines.

I was reminded of some research results I learned in journalism graduate school nearly three decades ago. If I remember correctly, the average newspaper reader first looked at the photo accompanying an article, then at the headline, then at the cutline (caption) under the photo, and then, maybe, started reading the article. If the author didn't grab the reader in those first ten (or was it thirty?) seconds, it wouldn't matter how good or important the rest of the article was; that reader was never going to know what it said.

I don't know if these results would still be the same today, though I'd guess readers probably spend even less time considering whether to read an article, especially because sometimes all they see is a photo and the headline; then they have to decide to click if they want to read more.

And this all brings me to this question: how do these results apply to reading novels and short stories? Before buying or borrowing a book, do readers look at the cover (akin to the newspaper photo), then the headline (the title), then the cutline (perhaps a blurb on the cover), and then check out the first sentence or first page before deciding whether to buy or borrow a book? I'd bet that a lot of readers do.

My approach is to look at a book's cover and to consider its author. If I'm intrigued by the cover, if it has the right mood, or if the book is written by an author I've enjoyed before, I might decide to read it without gathering any additional information. If I'm still unsure, I'll read the book's description and maybe some reviews online. I don't usually check out the writing--the first line or first paragraph--before before deciding whether to move forward. Maybe I should do that because the quality of the writing will definitely affect whether I ultimately read to the end or give up early. If a writer has lured me in, like the spider with the fly, I'll probably keep turning those pages. But if I don't care about the characters, I might stop after two or three chapters. Sometimes I'll flip to the end of a whodunit to see if my guess about who the bad guy is was right. But sometimes I don't even care about that. As the saying goes, life is too short to waste time on bad books.
How's this for an anthology
cover that lures the reader in?


I take a more lenient approach with short stories, perhaps because the short story is my preferred medium. Unless the writing is poor or the story is particularly boring or way too dark for me, I'll usually read the whole thing. But that doesn't mean that a solid first line or first paragraph isn't important. Indeed, that opening can sometimes make or break the "is this boring?" decision.

That said, thinking about the openings to my own short stories, I hope other readers are even more lenient than I am. For while I sometimes write openings that, I hope, make readers react, luring them in with a splash, at other times, I use the opening to bring readers into a particular setting, where they might see something important. It might not seem exciting, but it sets the stage for all that comes. And at other times, the opening is all about setting the mood.

Here are some examples:

  • Murder's always a sin. But it especially feels like sacrilege when I get called from church on a Sunday morning because a body's been found. 

"Till Murder Do Us Part" in Chesapeake Crimes: Fur, Feathers, and Felonies

This is a mood opening, as well as an opening with a bang. I hoped this beginning's mood would lure the reader in, as would the knowledge that the reader is embarking on a murder case with a caring, honest sheriff.

  • Looking back, I should have known something was wrong when the pot roast disappeared.

"The Case of the Missing Pot Roast" in Florida Happens

With this first sentence, I aimed to convey that something odd--and funny--was happening, something that the main character was overlooking. That, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

  • It was the night before Thanksgiving, and Garner Duffy stood just inside the entrance of the community center, scanning the large room. He knew exactly what he was looking for.

"Bug Appetit" in the November/December 2018 issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine

By using an opening similar to that of Clement Clark Moore's famous poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," I hoped to get the reader into the mood to read a holiday-related story. And I hoped the second sentence would make the reader wonder what Garner was looking for and read on to find out.

  • "The defense calls Emily Forester."
  • My attorney squeezed my hand as I rose. If anyone noticed, they probably viewed it as a comforting gesture. I knew better. Bob was imploring me to use his plan, not mine. Too bad, Bob. This was my murder trial, and we were doing things my way.

"The Power Behind the Throne" in Deadly Southern Charm

This opening drops the reader into the middle of the action and, I hoped, intrigues the reader to want to see what happens next with this headstrong defendant.

  • They say appearances can be deceiving. No one knows that better than me. Everyone's always thought I had it made. Only kid in the richest family in town with a steady supply of cool new clothes and fancy vacation plans. Never had a worry.  

"Punching Bag" in the Winter 2019 issue of Flash Bang Mysteries

This opening is more of a setting-the-stage opening. There's no pounding action here. Instead, the reader is invited into the life of a minor--the character's age isn't clear yet. There's the hint of secrets. Of a family unraveling.That something is definitely wrong. All of this, I hoped, would intrigue the reader to keep going.

Do these opening work? Do they achieve their goal of luring the reader into the story? Of letting the reader know that something interesting, something enticing, something the reader *must* know  about is happening? I certainly hope so. Because as I learned in journalism school nearly three decades ago, if you don't lure the reader in, it doesn't matter how good the rest is because a lot of people won't bother to read it.

Do you have any favorite opening lines? Please share in the comments and include why you think that line works so well.


16 April 2019

How the College-Admissions Scandal, Gilmore Girls, and My Newest Short Story All Tie Together



by Barb Goffman

I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburb in Long Island in the 1970s and '80s. I attended school in a (then) top-rated public school system. At age 15, my mother informed me my career choices were doctor (which she knew was a no-go as I can't even talk about blood) or lawyer. Before I graduated from high school, my three siblings were all practicing attorneys. My path was clear, even if I didn't want to take it. (The fact that I ultimately didn't take it for a few years is a little miracle in itself. But I digress.)

When I was a teen, if I needed a tutor or an SAT prep class to ensure my future, I got it. If I had to participate in a gazillion extra-curricular activities to round out my college applications, I did it. If taking a bunch of Advanced Placement (AP) classes would help me stand out, I took them. I wasn't atypical. This is how it was for many kids where I grew up, and likely many kids in similar neighborhoods nationwide. If you didn't get all A's you must not have tried hard enough. Failure was not an option. Success was expected, even though perfection is a pretty hard standard to meet--one I rarely did. (If you think I'm exaggerating, then feel blessed that you never brought home a test with a score of 97, the highest grade in the class, but instead of receiving praise, you were asked why you didn't get 100.)


So when the college-admissions scandal broke a few weeks ago, I wasn't surprised. Three decades have passed, but people haven't changed. The parents involved appear to be just as goal-oriented as many of the ones I knew growing up, doing whatever they think is necessary to ensure their kids succeed. Except they have a lot more money than the families in my old neighborhood, and perhaps fewer ethical qualms, so instead of (or perhaps in addition to) pushing their kids to obtain success through legal methods, these parents paid people off to ensure admissions or to raise key test scores. They took competitive parenting to the extreme.

What drives parents to do these types of things? I'm no psychologist, but I've given this mindset a lot thought over the years, and I think it's at least partially a combination of vanity and fear. Parents who want others to think they are successful use their kids' "achievements" as bragging rights. That's the vanity at work. As for the fear, that's where the old idea of keeping up with the Joneses comes into play. When it seems everyone you know does something to give their kids a leg up, you feel you have to do it too, or else your children will fall behind, and maybe they won't live in as nice a house as you have when they grow up; maybe they won't have as nice a life as you do. And that just won't do. It's a failure on your part. (And vanity raises its ugly head once again.)

It was with competitive parents like these in mind that I created the main character in my newest short story, "The Power Behind the Throne." It appears in the anthology Deadly Southern Charm, which is officially published today by Wildside Press. (How timely, right?) The book includes 18 crime stories about strong southern women written by members of the Central Virginia Chapter of Sisters in Crime.

When friends read early drafts of this story, they thought my main character, Emily Forester, was crazy. Her priorities seemed so skewed. But Emily is just a competitive parent who focused her energies on her husband (as well as her children). She needed him to achieve. She feared what would happen if he didn't. And she wouldn't let his desires divert them from the path to success that they were on.

Maybe Emily didn't seem so crazy to me because of my own past. And maybe it's because she resembled another fictional Emily whom I love: Emily from Gilmore Girls.
Kelly Bishop played
Emily Gilmore


Think about it. Emily Gilmore had her standards. She knew how things were supposed to be. She was a corporate wife, and her job was to help her husband succeed. She was the ultimate power behind the throne. Granted she never paid off someone to promote her husband, but she certainly did everything she could behind the scenes to help him move up the corporate ladder, including throwing the right parties, doing charity work with the right people, and having him accompany her to all the right events. In the end, Emily Gilmore isn't that different from the parents I knew growing up and those 1% parents in the news now. She knew the path to take to success, and she and her family were going to take it come hell or high water. (At least until Lorelai had a baby and ran away. But that's another story.)

My character Emily Forester is the modern-day equivalent of Emily Gilmore. The only difference is Emily Gilmore's husband appreciated her efforts (mostly). Emily Forester's husband ... not so much. And that's why their marriage took a deadly turn.

To find out what happened to Emily Forester, and to truly understand her mindset--it's so much more fun, I think, to be in her head than have me try to explain it--you'll have to pick up the anthology. I hope you will. It's available in trade paperback at Amazon and in trade paperback and e-book form directly through the publisher. It should show up in e-book form on Amazon any time now, and you should be able to order it from any bookstore.

For any of you on Facebook, several authors with stories in the book will be on the Lethal Ladies Write page from 7-8:30 p.m. tonight ET to talk about the book. Please stop by. And for any of you going to the Malice Domestic mystery convention in two weeks, you'll be able to buy the anthology in the book room at the convention. Several authors with stories in the book will be participating in a group signing on Friday, May 4th, at 4 p.m. at Malice. We hope to see you there!

***

Speaking of Malice Domestic, all attendees will be able to vote for this year's winners of the Agatha Award. If you haven't read all five nominated short stories, this is the perfect time to do so. You can find links to them, including my "Bug App├ętit," on the Malice website. Happy reading!