Showing posts with label openings. Show all posts
Showing posts with label openings. Show all posts

19 May 2020

Where To Start?


"You're starting in the wrong place" is something I've told many an editing client. Sometimes authors start their books or short stories too early in a scene, trying to show too much of the normalcy of the world we're entering. It's a good goal, but you can't do too much of it or else you risk the reader becoming bored, waiting for something interesting to happen. So if you start your story too early, you might need to chop off the first few pages. Or chapters.

I recently told a client when I read her sample pages that I didn't know where her story started, but I suspected it wasn't in the first two chapters I had read, which were all backstory. I told another short story author a few years ago that the reader didn't need to see the main character growing up. Let us learn about the relevant parts of her life when they become necessary to the story, but start the tale where the action is. She lopped off the first seven pagesthe first seventeen years of the character's lifeand the story was all the better for it.

Starting in the wrong place is not a problem I usually have myself. I just looked at all my published stories, and in none of them did I ever have to cut off the beginning pages to start the story in the right place. So imagine my surprise when I realized that in the story I'm currently trying to writethe story I began a couple of weeks ago, but the opening scene just hasn't been workingI'd started in the wrong place. I hadn't begun too early in the scene or in the main character's life. I'd started in the wrong place literally. I had the wrong setting.

It was a lightbulb moment. The opening scene hadn't been working because I'd felt the need to show several aspects of one of the main character's personality because of where the action was happening. In that setting, he definitely would be reacting by thinking several thingstoo many thingsand that was causing the pace to be too slow. But now that I've figured out a better setting, I can trim away all those extraneous thoughts and allow the meat of the story to come so much sooner. By starting in the right place literally, I am allowing the story to start in the right place for storytelling purposes too.

As SleuthSayers columns go, I know this is pretty short, but I hope my insights will be helpful to you as you write. And I'd love to hear your thoughts about starting out your stories, both how you decide where in the storytelling to start as well as where to set that opening scene.

22 May 2017

You Come Here Often?


Tell me what these sentences have in common:
Where have you been all my life?


What's a girl like you doing in a nice place like this?

If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?


You got it. They're all horrible opening lines. One of my favorite pieces of advice on openings is the tagline of the film Crossroads, from back in the eighties: Where second-best never gets a second chance.

More often than not, the opening is the last part of a story I polish. I need to get the rest of the story right (hysterical laughter from off-stage) and figure out where I'm going before I understand the best place to start. Three of my novels (four, if you count Hit Somebody, currently in final fixing) picked up a new opening along the way. In two, it was a completely new scene and in another it was a prologue--something editors tell you they hate--that also demanded an epilogue for a frame story. In the other case, I moved a different scene to the beginning.

Hallie Ephron offers solid advice for openings. Don't worry so much about a brilliant hook because that risks becoming a gimmick. Instead, try to present the idea that something is "wrong." It doesn't have to be huge, but suggest dissonance right away, sort of a "what's wrong with this picture?" ambiance.

Right now, my growing list of favorite openings/hooks stands at 34, and 26 are from novels. Others might qualify as novellas: Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," Cornell Woolrich's "Rear Window," and Kafka's "The Metamorphosis." Some other are comparatively old, like O. Henry's "The Ransom of Red Chief."

What should a good opening do? Well, let's look at some that work.

The Grandmother didn't want to go to Florida.

This is from Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find," and right away we see that the story is in 3rd person POV, and the Grandmother, presumably an important character, has a conflict. Someone wants her to go to Florida against her wishes. Calling her "The Grandmother" makes her a specific grandmother, but not using her real name turns her into an archetype or symbol. The tone is detached. We get all this from eight words. It also makes us ask why she doesn't want to go, and O'Connor answers that in the following sentences. The early pay-off encourages us to keep reading until we reach the final pay-off, which, if you've never read the story, is worth it. The opening scene even sets up the ending, too.

That's a pretty good opening, wouldn't you agree? How about this one?

They throw him out when he falls off the bar stool.

That's from Laura Lippman's The Most Dangerous Thing. These eleven words tell us the story (or at least part of it) is in present tense, detached third-person POV, and the unnamed male is probably drunk in a bar. This sets up many potential problems: drunks get into fights or accidents. Maybe he will have a black-out and not remember important details later. We don't know the man's name, but is a safe bet that he will be the protagonist or a victim, maybe even both. The lack of a name (again) adds distance and detachment. If you're like me, you want to read on to see what happens to this guy next. We're pretty sure it won't be good.

Let's try one more. In the spirit of blatant self-promotion, this is from my roller derby novel, The Whammer Jammers.                        

Kevlar makes Hendrix itch.

Hendrix, the protagonist, is (present tense again) wearing a bullet-proof vest, which suggests he's not going to a backyard barbecue. We can infer there may be shooting (which there is), and it will lead to further problems.

The first sentence is important, but most people will read beyond that. Even agents will give the MS a page, but they expect something in return. These openings all show us the story's essential style (vocabulary, point of view, tone or mood), the presumed protagonist, and some tension or conflict. All these elements draw the reader into the story.

If you're writing a novel, you have more time, but begin your story as close as possible to the important action (inciting incident ) as you can without any back-story. Get the ball rolling before you slow down to explain. If you need to explain something, do it through action, not exposition. Look at the first ten minutes of the James Cagney classic White Heat (1949) for a great demonstration of how to do it. It's all car chases and shooting, but we understand the relationships of major characters without a lot of chatter. If you can't begin with conflict, at the very least introduce the element that will cause it. O'Connor does that in the grandmother example above.

O'Connor's opening sets up her ending, too, another good trick if you can do it. Songs end on the tonic chord, and your story can repeat or refine an image from your opening. If you're writing a mystery, this can be as general as suggesting that there will be a solution, preferably not the one the reader sees coming, or the lovers with end up together...or not. But that's another reason to polish your opening in your final draft...when you know where you're going.


18 February 2017

As the Credits Go By




In a column I posted at SleuthSayers several months ago, called "Crime (and Other) Scenes," I listed a hundred or so of my favorite movie moments, and the first category was my pick for the ten "best opening sequences." What I didn't mention, there, was that the music accompanying the opening credits can be as important as the images. Examples: The Magnificent SevenStar WarsThe Big CountryTop GunThe Pink PantherA Fistful of DollarsSuperman, and many others. And while that opening music piece often has the same title as the movie, like "Jaws Theme," "Goldfinger," "The Great Escape March," "Theme From A Summer Place," etc., sometimes the director uses a song with its own name, and occasionally one that wasn't originally written for the film.

Which brings us to today's post, and my challenge to you. Can you name the movies whose opening credits used the following fifty pieces of music? The first half are fairly easy; the rest of them, not so much.
(Warning: No Googling allowed. The Shadow knows.)


Here are the songs. Their movies are included below. Good luck!

1. "The Sound of Silence" -- Simon and Garfunkel
2. "Stayin' Alive" -- The Bee Gees
3. "Up Where We Belong" -- Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes
4. "Gonna Fly Now," -- Bill Conti
5. "Suicide Is Painless," -- Johnny Mandel
6. "When You Wish Upon a Star" -- Cliff Edwards
7. "The James Bond Theme" -- John Barry
8. "Born to Be Wild," -- Steppenwolf
9. "Everybody's Talkin'" -- Harry Nilsson
10. "Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin'" -- Frankie Laine
11. "The Circle of Life" -- Elton John
12. "The Windmills of Your Mind" -- Michel Legrand
13. "Nobody Does It Better" -- Carly Simon
14. "The Deadwood Stage" -- Ray Heindorf
15. "One Tin Soldier" -- Coven
16. "Holiday Road" -- Lindsey Buckingham
17. "Real Gone" -- Sheryl Crow
18. "Moon River" -- Henry Mancini
19. "Little Green Bag" -- The George Baker Selection
20. "Also Sprach Zarathustra" -- Richard Strauss
21. "The Rainbow Connection" -- Kermit the Frog
22. "All-Time High" -- Rita Coolidge
23. "You've Got a Friend in Me" -- Randy Newman
24. "Seventy-Six Trombones" -- Ray Heindorf
25. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" -- Marvin Gaye
26. "The End" -- The Doors
27. "As Time Goes By" -- Jimmy Durante
28. "I Can See Clearly Now" -- Johnny Nash
29. "Way Out There" -- Carter Burwell
30. "Misirlou" -- Dick Dale and the Del-Tones
31. "Come Softly to Me" -- The Fleetwoods
32. "Best of My Love" -- The Emotions
33. "The Times They Are A-Changing" -- Bob Dylan
34. "Rock Around the Clock" -- Buddy Holly
35. "Hound Dog" -- Elvis Presley
36. "What'll I Do?" -- William Atherton
37. "Tomorrow Is the Song I Sing" -- Richard Gillis
38. "Wish Me a Rainbow" -- Gunter Kallman Chorus
39. "I'm All Right" -- Kenny Loggins
40. "Sixteen Tons" -- Eric Burdon
41. "The Man Comes Around" -- Johnny Cash
42. "Across 110th Street" -- Bobby Womack
43. "For What It's Worth" -- Buffalo Springfield
44. "The Heat Is On" -- Glenn Frey
45. "The Immigrant Song" -- Led Zeppelin
46. "The Puppy Song" -- Harry Nilsson
47. "Summer in the City" -- Joe Cocker
48. "Dies Irae" -- Renny Harlin
49. "Gimme Shelter" -- The Rolling Stones
50. "It Had to Be You" -- Harry Connick, Jr.


Okay, that's it. Please put your pencils down and step away from your desks.


Answers:

1. The Graduate
2. Saturday Night Fever
3. An Officer and a Gentleman
4. Rocky
5. M*A*S*H
6. Pinocchio
7. Dr. No
8. Easy Rider
9. Midnight Cowboy
10. High Noon
11. The Lion King
12. The Thomas Crown Affair (1968 version)
13. The Spy Who Loved Me
14. Calamity Jane
15. Billy Jack
16. National Lampoon's Vacation
17. Cars
18. Breakfast at Tiffany's
19. Reservoir Dogs
20. 2001
21. The Muppet Movie
22. Octopussy
23. Toy Story
24. The Music Man
25. The Big Chill
26. Apocalypse Now
27. Sleepless in Seattle
28. Grosse Point Blank
29. Raising Arizona
30. Pulp Fiction
31. Crossing Delancey
32. Boogie Nights
33. Watchmen
34. Blackboard Jungle (and, later, American Graffiti)
35. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
36. The Great Gatsby (1974 version)
37. The Ballad of Cable Hogue
38. This Property Is Condemned
39. Caddyshack
40. Joe Versus the Volcano
41. Dawn of the Dead
42. Jackie Brown
43. Full Metal Jacket (and, later, Lord of War)
44. Beverly Hills Cop
45. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
46. You've Got Mail
47. Die Hard With a Vengeance
48. The Shining
49. The Departed
50. When Harry Met Sally


Please grade your papers. And remember what happened to #6 when he didn't tell the truth.

Here's the deal. If you failed to answer any of the questions correctly, you need to get out more. My mother's almost 91, she probably hasn't watched an entire movie since The Sound of Music, and I think even she could've answered one or two. If you got 10 correct, that's pretty good, but you're still not up where you belong. If you got 20 right, I'm impressed. (All I had to do was pose the questions--I'd hate to see how few I could've answered without the cheat-sheet.) A score of 30 correct is excellent in anybody's book, and if you got 40 right, please send me your email address so I can get some movie recommendations. And if you correctly answered all 50, you are a certified, card-carrying cinema fanatic, and I'm seriously worried about you. To paraphrase the Soup Nazi on Seinfeld, no more Netflix for you, one year! Get thee instead to a psychiatric ward.

A final question: Can you think of other opening songs for the list? And how about songs that play over the ending credits--I didn't even get into those. Or the openings for TV shows. ("Those Were the Days," "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," "Movin' On Up," "Runaway," "Harlem Nocturne," etc.) Quizzes for another day, maybe.


This kind of discussion makes me want to pop something like Escape From New York into the DVD player, put on my wireless headphones, crank up the volume, prop up my feet, and escape from more than just New York. Love that movie music.

No sounds of silence for me.






07 May 2016

Shoot the Sheriff on the First Page


Much has been said at this blog about the openings of stories and novels, and how we writers try to make them as effective as possible. There are also a lot of rules about how to do that--as well as rules about how not to do it: don't start with character description, don't start with the protagonist waking up, don't start with backstory, don't start with cliches, don't start with (according to Elmore Leonard) the weather, and so on and so on.

Like most rules, some work and some don't. Starting with the weather didn't hurt The Red Badge of Courage ("The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting") or Raymond Chandler's "Red Wind" ("There was a desert wind blowing that night"). I do, however, like the idea of beginning with action ("They threw me off the hay truck about noon"--The Postman Always Rings Twice) or implied action ("The grandmother didn't want to go to Florida"--Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find"). Most of all, I like openings that are intriguing enough to make the reader want to keep reading.

I'm paraphrasing here, but I remember what the late great writing instructor Jack Bickham once said, describing a conversation with one of his students about story openings:
TEACHER: Your problem is, you started your story on page 7.
STUDENT: What? No I didn't--I started it on page 1. See?
TEACHER: No, you started typing on page 1. You started your story on page 7.

Bickham believed that you should start as far along in the story as possible. That way you can begin with something happening, and let the preliminary information seep in later, as (and if) needed. Author L. Sprague Decamp is credited with the quote "Shoot the sheriff on the first page." In fact, if the story's short, shooting him in the first paragraph might be even better. Or in the first line.

As for first lines, here are a few from my own short stories. Alas, I doubt these opening sentences will ever show up as case studies in the writing classes of the future, but they do suit my purposes for this column, because I can remember exactly what I was trying to convey when I came up with them:



Jason Plumm lay on the beach for five hours before he was found.
--"The Blue Wolf," AHMM
Here, I wanted to introduce all kinds of questions. Why was he there? What had happened to him? Where was he, that was so isolated he wasn't discovered sooner? What will happen to him after his rescue, if indeed the purpose of those who found him was to rescue him?

Ed Parrott was cleaning his gun by the campfire, a hundred yards south of the herd, when the stranger stepped from the shadows.
--"The Pony Creek Gang," Reader's Break
One helpful hint about openings is to try to inject "change" of some kind into a character's life, whether it's death, divorce, marriage, relocation, a different job, the arrival of a new face in town, etc. We as human beings are wary of changes: If the protagonist feels threatened (and if Parrott doesn't, he ought to be), the reader will also feel that tension.

Susan Weeks had never seen a monster before.
--"The Wading Pool," Spinetingler Magazine
I've never seen one either, but I can imagine perfectly the one Susan saw in that story. Here I just wanted something scary, right away, to happen to my protagonist.

At 8:40 on a clear night in July, Jesse Pratt escaped from Building A at Crow Mountain State Penetentiary, stole a pickup from the staff parking lot, and promptly drove it into a lake fifty yards away.
--"Weekend Getaway," Pages of Stories
Another rule of story beginnings is to try to quickly identify as many as possible of "the five W's": what's happening, who's it happening to, why's it happening, when is it, and where is it. In this one, I think I managed to cover all of them in that opening sentence.

"What I can't figure out," Nate said, as he lay in the dirt behind a clump of cactus near Rosie Hapwell's house, "is why you married that idiot in the first place."
--"Saving Mrs. Hapwell,"  Dogwood Tales Magazine
More questions. Who are these people, and why are they hunkered down in the desert? Are they hiding? Who from? Rosie's husband, maybe? If so, is Nate a relative? A good Samaritan? Her lover? Hopefully, the reader will want to find out.

Sara Wilson was almost asleep when she heard her roommate scream.
--"Poetic Justice," Woman's World
One last "tip" that I try to keep in mind: whenever possible, start with action. Things are happening, and the plot is already moving forward. The obvious question here is What caused her roommate to scream?




Great first sentences set the stage for what comes next, and some are so powerful they'll be remembered forever. Here are twenty that won't be remembered forever (they're more opening lines from my own stories), but I like 'em anyway:


All things considered, Jerry thought, it wasn't a bad day to die.
--"The Last Sunset," Dream International Quarterly

Dave Cotten sat on his back porch with a .38 revolver in his lap, staring at nothing in particular.
--"Blackjack Road," The Strand Magazine

Rudy Tullos was in love with his neighbor.
--"The Garden Club," Eureka Literary Magazine

At three a.m. Alice Howell jerked awake.
--"The Range," Mystery Time

The two brothers lived together in the city at the end of the valley at the foot of the great blue mountains.
--"Custom Design," Lines in the Sand

Lou Rosewood stepped into the laboratory, closed the door behind him, and locked it.
--"A Place in History," T-Zero

Rose Cartwright was sipping coffee and knitting a blue sweater for her grandson when she heard the tinkle of the bell on the front door of the shop.
--"Rosie's Choice," SMFS Flash and Bang anthology

Jimmy should be back by now, Karen thought.
--"Night Watchers," Short Stuff

Hank Stegall saw her as soon as she stepped out of the building.
--"Ladies of the North," Phoebe

Tom stood alone in the hallway, staring at the number on the door in front of him.
--"Vital Signs," Red Herring Mystery Magazine

Catherine Munsen was less than thrilled about her job.
--"A Thousand Words," Pleiades

"Get in the truck!" Morton said, as he pushed through the door of the quick-stop and marched toward his pickup.
--"Lost and Found," Writers on the River

"I know you have my grandpa's gun," Eddie said.
--"The Early Death of Pinto Bishop," Writer's Block Magazine

Jack Hollister woke up in a room he'd never seen before: two doors, three windows, bare walls, no furniture.
--"High Places," After Death anthology

The dead woman lay in a pecan orchard fifty yards from the road.
--"Oversight," Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine

Around nine a.m. Billy Roland saw the water tower and the first cluster of buildings in the distance, steered his rented Ford to the shoulder of the road, and stopped.
--"Saving Grace," The Saturday Evening Post

For once, the Swede was speechless.
--"Greased Lightnin'," The Atlantean Press Review

Sheriff Lucy Valentine trudged up the muddy slope to find the first rays of the sun peeking over the horizon and an ancient purple gas-guzzler parked beside her patrol car.
--"Traveling Light," Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine

The scariest day of my life--and the most wonderful--happened when I was ten years old.
--"The Winslow Tunnel," Amazon Shorts

The old man was popping the last of the breakfast biscuits into his mouth when the door crashed open.
--"Newton's Law," Western Digest



Enough of that. Here's the good stuff--a dozen of my favorite opening sentences from both novels and shorts:



I turned the Chrysler onto the Florida Turnpike with Rollo Kramer's headless body in the trunk, and all the time I'm thinking I should have put some plastic down.
--Gun Monkeys, Victor Gischler

Fedship ASN/29 fell out of the sky and crashed.
--"Beachworld," Stephen King

What was the worst thing you've ever done?
--Ghost Story, Peter Straub

The magician's underwear has just been found in a cardboard suitcase floating in a stagnant pond on the outskirts of Miami.
--Another Roadside Attraction, Tom Robbins

He rode into our valley in the summer of '89.
--Shane, Jack Schaefer

You better not never tell nobody but God.
--The Color Purple, Alice Walker

The Rutherford girl had been missing for eight days when Larry Ott returned home and found a monster waiting in his house.
--Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Tom Franklin

I was fifteen when I first met Sherlock Holmes.
--The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King

Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
--"Until Gwen," Dennis Lehane

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
--1984, George Orwell

Every time they got a call from the leper hospital to pick up a body, Jack Delaney would feel himself coming down with the flu or something.
--Bandits, Elmore Leonard

We were about to give up and call it a night when somebody dropped the girl off the bridge.
--Darker Than Amber, John D. MacDonald



How could a reader NOT keep going, after those?



Okay, what do you think, about all this? Do you find opening lines easy to write? Difficult? Are there specific things you try to do in an opening, like start with action or dialogue or a catchy situation? Do you try to introduce your main character, call him Ishmael, have her dream of Manderley, make his last camel collapse at noon, and get the plot rolling? What are some of your favorite opening sentences, from your own work or that of others?

In an interview with The Atlantic, Stephen King said first sentences are "a tricky thing." But he added that he was sure about one thing: "An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this."

King's good at doing that. Here's an example:

"The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed."

So did millions of readers.

27 July 2015

The Last Camel Collapsed at Noon


Several years ago I was invited to give a lecture at a Rice University summer workshop for writers. I was given the assignment of discussing hooks or opening lines – which led to one of the more enjoyable research studies I've ever done. My research consisted almost primarily of pulling out every mystery on my bookshelves (and believe me there were a lot then and even more now) and reading the opening line or paragraph. Then trying to figure out why it worked. If it did. Sometimes it didn't. Hook me, that is. And that was the entire reason for my lecture. How do you hook a reader, how do you keep them reading your book beyond that first line, paragraph, page or chapter? There's got to be a hook.

I entitled this essay “The Last Camel Collapsed at Noon” because, to me at least, Ken Follett's opening line in THE KEY TO REBECCA is one of the greatest. Why? Because you learn so much from those six simple words: You get a vague place – not a lot of camels on the streets of Manhattan – one is to assume this is a desert area, and one can also only assume that these people are in very deep doo-doo. 
 
But I found so many more wonderful opening lines, and all of them so different that it led me to do my own classification of openers: Slap in the Face, Character, Travel Log, and Puzzler, among others. Here's the short list, honed down from a much, much larger one, that fits perfectly in these categories.

Slap in the Face: PRIMARY JUSTICE, William Bernardt – “'Once again,' the man said, pulling the little girl along by the leash tied to his wrist and hers. 'Tell me your name.'” DEAD BOLT, Jay Brandon – “His child was on the ledge.” And one of my all time favorites, SHOTGUN SATURDAY NIGHT, Bill Crider – “Sheriff Dan Rhodes knew it was going to be a bad day when Bert Ramsey brought in the arm and laid it on the desk.” In all three of these examples, I dare the reader not to read on! These opening lines grab your attention and keep you riveted.

For a really good example of a character opening I go way back to one of my favorite writers, Raymond Chandler, who wrote these opening lines for TROUBLE IS MY BUSINESS: “Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said, 'I need a man.'”

Sharyn McCrumb once honored me by using my book, CHASING AWAY THE DEVIL, in a class she was teaching as an example of how to hook the reader. When she told me that, I had to go back to the book and read that opening paragraph to figure out why. I knew I didn't kill anybody in that first paragraph, knew there wasn't any great action. So why did she single out this opening?

The third week in November is Pioneer Week in my home, Prophesy County, Oklahoma. There's nothing in this goddam world I hate more than Pioneer Week. They make us deputies dress up for it. In chaps. And cowboy hats. And boots. And spurs. And real-live six-guns on our hips. It's goddam ridiculous.” I had to read this a couple of times before I realized that this, like Chandler's opening paragraph above (although unfortunately not nearly as classic) is a character opening. Milt Kovak's personality is smeared all over those few sentences. The reader knows, right off the bat, what kind of person he/she's going to be sharing the next several hundred pages with.

Travel Log: THE JUDAS GOAT, Robert B. Parker – “Hugh Dixon's home sat on a hill in Weston and looked out over the low Massachusetts hills as if asphalt had not been invented yet.” Marcia Muller often opens her books with vivid descriptions of northern California. But her opening lines for PENNIES ON A DEAD WOMAN'S EYES – “At first they were going to kill me. Then they changed their minds and only took away thirty-six years of my life” – is a good example of the Puzzler category. Others are Joseph Wambaugh's opening line in the THE ONION FIELD, “The gardener was a thief,” Barbara Michaels' opener for THE DARK ON THE OTHER SIDE,The house talked,” and Jonathan Kellerman's first line of OVER THE EDGE, It was my first middle-of-the-night crisis call in three years.”

A book does not necessarily start at the beginning of the story. A writer can always go back and pick up the chronological beginning of the story – a beginning that may not be overly dramatic. Of course the beginning of the story needs to be there – but not necessarily on page one. Page one should be reserved for the hook.


While writing FAT TUESDAY, Earl Emerson wrote these words on page 127, chapter eight: “I was trapped in a house with a lawyer, a bare-breasted woman, and a dead man. The rattlesnake in the paper sack only complicated matters.” He said it took him weeks to junk the book, re-plot the story,and regain the momentum of the narrative, but he was able to move those lines to page one, chapter one. Now that's a hook.

In journalism they teach that the lead (or hook) must grab a reader by the lapels, must punch him in the nose to make him read the story. Seize his attention and don't let go. The hook in a good mystery should punch the reader in the nose while at the same time seducing him. The hook shouldn't answer any questions, but ask them. A good mystery opener should seduce the reader into believing that the answers to those questions are worth the wait.

17 June 2015

Opening bottles and books



She was the most interesting thing that barroom had seen in a long time.

Well, I had only been there an hour, but the look on the bartender's face told me had been waiting for a woman who looked like that for  a whole lot longer.  Maybe his whole life.

Her clothes were a little skimpy for March.  Nothing to shock the church ladies, if such existed in Portland, Oregon these days, but enough to get a man's attention.  I happened to be a man.

The only thing that spoiled her appearance was the thirty degree tilt to her frame that came from the heavy vinyl sack over one bare shoulder.  Since it said LEFT COAST CRIME I deduced that it was full of new mystery novels.She shifted the bag onto the floor and climbed onto a stool a few seats away from me.  The bartender came up with an eagerness he had not shown when I ordered my white wine.

"Martini," she said.

"Gin or vodka?" asked the barman.  He had a face like a burlap sack full of grapefruits.

"Steve," she replied.

He frowned -- much shifting of citrus- - and went down the aisle, presumably to consult his drinkology manual.

After a moment she turned my direction and gave me a careful lookover.  A more thorough one than the subject deserved, really.

She smiled and batted her long eyelashes.  Then she said: "Starting on the day Charlotte Mayhew murdered her husband -- October 23, 1985 -- she became very suspicious of cats."

I don't have the equipment to bat my eyelashes but I can blink.  I did so.  "Excuse me?"

"I said, 'Starting on the day...'"

"I heard you.  But why did you say it?"

The bartender had arrived with a drink - whether it was a Steve Martini I am not prepared to say.  She gave him a smile which threatened to turn him into a puddle on the duckboards.

"It is the opening line of a story by Jane Haddam," she explained.  "Crazy Cat Ladies."

"I remember," I said.  "I read it in Ellery Queen last month.  But why say it now?"

She turned that smile on me.  "It's a great opening line, isn't it?"

I nodded.

"I had an insight when I read it.  It occurred to me that an opening line is like a pickup line."

"How do you figure?"

"They have the same purpose, don't they?  To attract someone's attention.  Pique the curiosity.  Convince someone to spend some time with you.  In other words, to seduce."

At the other end of his dog run,  the bartender dropped something. It tinkled.

"I never thought of it that way," I admitted.  "So you're a mystery fan?"


"Death is my beat."

 "Michael Connelly.  The Poet."

She shrugged.  Her shoulders, specifically.  "It's one of the great romances, isn't it?  The writer and the reader?'

"Older than that," I said.  "The storyteller and the listener."

She nodded enthusiastically.  "But it's usually a fling, right?  Even the best book doesn't keep us forever."

"I suppose not.  But just like a love affair, one can change your life, and stick in your memory all your days."

She gave me her sleepy grin.  "You're a romantic."

"I'm too much of  a realist not to be."

A frown.  "What does that mean, exactly?"

"Beats me, but it sounds good."  I did a quick drag through the shallow river of my memory.  "I saw her entrance.  It would have been hard to miss."

Her eyebrows rose.  "Why, how sweet!  Lawrence Block, isn't it?"

I nodded.  "Eight million Ways To Die."

She finished her drink.  "Wanna go somewhere and discuss literature?"

I shook my head.  "I'm meeting my wife in a few minutes."

She sighed.  "Happy families are all alike."

"Anna Karenina," I said.  "Not mystery fiction."

"When I drink I get promiscuous."  The bartender was staring at her.  "In my reading, I mean.  Stout, please."

He nodded.  "Pale or dark?"

"Rex," we said together.

"Enjoy the rest of the conference," she told me as I paid my bill.

"You too--" I frowned.  "Your name isn't Velma, by any chance?"

She shook her head.  "Call me Ishmael."

"No, I don't think I will."

Note: In searching for more openers to put in here I discovered that Fran Rizer had had the same insight as my mysterious friend. 

26 August 2014

The Long of the Short of It


 "It was a dark and stormy night..."
"The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning."
"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills." 
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much."
"I write this sitting in the kitchen sink." 
"Call me Stephen."

The above might give you the impression this little piece is about opening sentences in books. Nope, it was just a nice way to start. This is about book beginnings, but it's only about the beginning of one book: my book. Like many writers of short stories, I too am working on a long story. I've been working on it for several years, and part of the reason I've been working on it all that time is because it started life as a short story.

I wrote a nice little story back in 2005: a thriller/mystery. It clocked in at about 6000 words, and I sent it out to the usual suspects. There was no sale. After nine rejections, I moved the story into a new folder on my PC labeled THINK, and there it sat (for several years). I wasn't concerned, I knew it would be a hard sell, but more importantly, I had the feeling there was a better story that could be had from it. This has actually become my preferred working method: Think up an idea, get some way into plotting or writing it, and then put it to one side for cogitation. And to be honest, most of the time an idea gets put to one side is because it's hit a roadblock. But that's another story altogether.

I returned to the short story several times and made improvements. I widened the plot and added a new main character (previously it had been shared between three). I rewrote the story in first person. I twice changed the main character's occupation. I tried different settings and time periods (the original had been set in New Zealand in 1969). I rewrote it set in Germany in 1950. I then went back to third person and tried it out in England in the 1930s. For three months, I thought of adapting what I had as a screenplay for a locally-set TV drama. For three months after that I thought it might make for a decent novella. Then, finally, I slammed my head into my desk and surrendered. What I had was a novel.
I had been thinking that all along, but I had kept putting it off for the fear of commitment. Writing a novel is a serious undertaking. It's like joining the Foreign Legion for a tour of duty, or flying to Mars. Once you sign on for the ride, it's you and the devil, baby.

I spent the summer of 2012-13 mapping out the novel's plot (Summers in New Zealand are over Xmas/New Year). I moved the story back to 1969 and its setting to California. I then tweaked that by bringing the story into the present day. Despite the story's original setting and time period, for the bigger story that had evolved, it was a perfect fit. And frankly, there are commercial considerations here. I'm not writing this book to print it out on my dot matrix to pass it around friends. I'd like to sell it, and I want to give it the best chance it has in the marketplace.

Books set in foreign countries are fine, but in my experience, trying to sell a book (to a publisher) in the US, that isn't set in the US, is like trying to climb the Chrysler Building in nothing more than flippers and a bunny rabbit onesie. Short stories, by contrast, can be set anywhere, as long as you know the setting and can bring it to life for the reader.

So, I devised a decent plot for the book a year and a half ago, why haven't I now finished writing it..? Because I've been working on the book's opening.
Stephen's Writing Flowchart

I define "opening" as a book's first quarter. For me, it's the most important part of the book, as everything that occurs in the following three quarters must have its roots back in the first. Shotgun over the fireplace in the first quarter -- someone pulls its trigger in the last quarter. To most writers, this is a no-brainer. I'm a slow learner.

I've written the book's opening about six times. I say about, because I've lost count. And with every new draft, I had the sense I had finally gotten it right. However, a little voice inside me kept saying: "No" (like that "little man" inside Edward G Robinson in the movie Double Indemnity).

The first problem was the story's origin as a short story -- it took me a long time to break free of it. The first draft of the book retained it almost entirely intact, with scenes simply added in and around it.

Little voice said: "No."

I expanded the beginning and wrote a new, and what I considered to be a perfect, first chapter. The three people who read it remarked the same thing: That's a nice first chapter, Stephen. But it still didn't work. And despite my knowing it didn't, I hung onto it like the pair of us were hooked up to mutual life support.

Little voice said: "No."

The chapter didn't work because it was a prologue. It described events that happened thirty years before the rest of the story. Subsequently, chapter two felt like the book was starting all over again. A brick wall for many readers. Eventually, I incorporated the events of the prologue into later chapters, where they were actually relevant to the progressing story.

Another problem I had was that I was holding too much back from the reader about the main character. It was as though I didn't want anyone to know anything about him. He's the MAIN character; we should know something about him! We should know his thoughts!

Little voice said (with a hint of weariness): "No."

A rereading of Stephen King's On Writing kicked me back on course on this one. To paraphrase King: Don't keep secrets from your readers. As a side note, I've read a pile of books about the craft of writing, and King's book is the one I keep coming back to. So, after another restart, my main character is now more engaging -- he actually does things, and we get inside his head -- the book flows a lot more smoothly as a result.

Today (late August 2014), I'm about two weeks out from finishing the book's first quarter, and almost everything in the first quarter of the book now takes place before the events in the short story, with almost none of the short story (as it was originally written) making it into the book.

I've learnt a couple of valuable lessons in the last year and a half. Be ruthless with your writing. Kill your darlings. Give them a pair of cement slippers and row them out into the harbor at midnight. And don't write a book in denial of the truth, especially when the truth is right under your nose. So, when will this book be finished? Now that my writing pocket watch has come off glacier time, hopefully within the next year. I have a rough draft already for most of the rest of it (I didn't spend all of that year and a half entirely on the first 20,000 words).

Little voice says: "Och, we'll see about that, laddie!" (my little man is a Scotsman).

On my tombstone will be engraved either Tenacious, or Fool. Or as a friend cheerfully suggested: Both.

Be seeing you!

Bonus Quiz: Can you name the books each of the opening sentences (at the top of this piece) are taken from?

19 March 2012

What's My Line?


I think there was an old television show called "What's My Line?" but I'm not sure. I'm either too old or too young to remember it. Too old if my memory is slipping; too young if I was just a toddler then.

Lines fascinate me, almost, if not more, than words. When a songwriter comes up with a great line, it usually becomes the hook in a chorus. When single folks come up with a great line, it sometimes helps them get "lucky." When I hear a great line, it goes into my little black notebook of ideas and may later appear in a story or novel.

Flipping through the notebook's pages, I found this: In response to, "How are you?" the answer line is, "I'm always good; sometimes I'm excellent!" (Ask Velma to read that to you. I'm sure she'll know exactly the right intonation!)

Some of you might be relieved if I didn't share with you the best "line" a guy ever used to get a date with me, but I'll tell you anyway. I was in my forties, had gained ten (okay, fifteen) pounds, and attended a rockin' wedding reception. This man kept talking to me, politely hittin' on me, and being overly charming. I said, "This place is full of younger, beautiful women giving you the eye. Why are you hanging here with me?"

His reply: "Women are like cars. Depends on whether a man wants to drive a Pinto or a Mercedes. You, my dear, are a Mercedes." (Yes, I did date him for several years, and if men are also like cars, he was a Jaguar.)

Since the general emphasis of SleuthSayers is writing books and short stories, let's turn our attention to what I consider the most important sentence in either: the first line.

One of my favorite books since second grade has been Huck Finn. I learned recently that Twain changed that first line three times before settling on:

"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

Other favorites include:

"Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show."
— Charles Dickens - David Copperfield

"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

"Through the fence, between curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting."
— William Faulkner - The Sound and the Fury

"Mother died today."
— Albert Camus (tr. Stuart Gilbert) - The Stranger

"All this happened, more or less."
— Kurt Vonnegut - Slaughterhouse-Five

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it."
— C. S. Lewis - The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish."
— Ernest Hemingway - The Old Man and the Sea

"Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eyes is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me."
— Gunter Grass (tr. Ralph Manheim)-The Tin Drum

"Call me Ishmael."
— Herman Melville - Moby Dick

I've read that many people consider the opening line of Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens as the greatest opening line of all time.

"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." The problem is that those twelve words are not the opening sentence of the book. The opening line goes on for about fifty words more than that last "times," which is followed by a semi-colon, not a period.
— Charles Dickens - Tale of Two Cities

My two favorite opening sentences are both short and a bit gritty.

"The guy was dead as hell."
— Mickey Spillane - Vengeance Is Mine

… and …

"Elmer Gantry was drunk."
— Sinclair Lewis - Elmer Gantry

Closer to Home

All this thought led me to take a look at my own first sentences.

A Tisket, a Tasket, a Fancy Stolen Casket - "Eager to pump up my new underwear, I dashed into my apartment just as the phone rang."

Hey Diddle, Diddle, the Corpse & the Fiddle - "The sweat trapped in the bottom of my bra was making me crazy."

Casket Case - "Melvin Dawkins floated facedown in the steamy, bubbling water of the hot tub." No underwear in the first paragraph but she does mention she's not wearing any in the second paragraph.

Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, There's a Body in the Car - "A fly sat on the old geezer's nose." What? No underwear in the first paragraph? Nope, but Callie mentions fanny-padded panties on the first page.

What about you? Do you have a favorite opening line (short story or novel) from your or another author's work? Please share it with us. Meanwhile, I've got to check with Liz to see if Callie's tendency to open with statements about underwear show any deep, underlying psychosis in her creator.

Until we meet again… take care of you!