Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Opening Paragraph III

So the opening of a book should capture the reader's attention and tease the imagination. A lot of us novice writers often strive to shock for the sake of being shocking, and agents/editors surely see plenty of death, dismemberment and debased sex in the samples that pummel them daily. There's probably a million different approaches you could take for the first few paragraphs, but I enjoy an author who creates the expectation of something i haven't seen before. Here's the first 7 lines of "The Unseen" by Montana scribe T.L. Hines:

Perched on top of the elevator, Lucas peered at the woman below and created an elaborate history in his mind.

Elevators and their shafts were easy places to hide. Easier than utility chases. Much easier than ductwork, popularly portrayed in movies as cavernous tunnels through which a man might crawl. Lucas knew better; most ductwork was tight and narrow, and not solid enough to hold 150 pounds.

I know a little about urgan explorers and creepy-crawlers who get a thrill from spying out secrets and riding elevators in office buildings. But this excerpt promises more - a character (possibly the protagonist) who makes up imaginary biographies about those he watches (stalks?). I just got this book for Christmas, so I'm not deep into it yet, but so far the writing lives up to the tease.

I hope my fan hasn't heen holding her breath waiting for my entry in Nathan Bransford's most excellent first-paragraph contest. Sometimes anticipation will whet the appetite, but there's only so much you can do with peanut butter and stale bread. Anyway, I've had an idea bouncing around in my cranium about a college-age dude with some geeky roomies who've logged copious hours of internet porn but don't know the first thing about women. The dude is something of a smooth operator, mostly because he genuinely enjoys being with attractive, funny, intelligent women. To do well at that pasttime, he's learned to pay attention to them and decipher the code behind some of the words and behaviors.

The dude realizes that there are hundreds of thousands of nerdy guys in the same situation as his roommates. A guy could get rich by videotaping pretty college girls talking about their preferences in men, dating and sex. Then splice in some soft porm that illustrates what the dude has learned, and, the trickiest part, find somebody to distribute the DVDs nationally. He recruits some beauties who are willing to talk about their sex lives if the pay is right, but has to deceive them about the commercial use he has in mind. Naturally, he falls for one of the girls, yada yada yada, then quits his lothario ways, and rides off into the sunset with the love of his life.

Well, that didn't turn out to be the one-sentence summary I'd envisioned. Following is the opening paragraph that hopefully hints at a shallow dude with possibilities and the future object of his affections. For emphasis, I've since split out a sentence in the middle as it's own paragraph, but it was originally spliced together as one fat stream-of-consciousness paragraph:

She sits on the other side of a small table littered with ashtrays and highballs, entrancing him the way her perfect features twist imperfectly as she talks. God knows she talks nonstop, pausing nano-momentarily to knock back some scotch and milk or puff on a Kool. Sometimes the tip of her tongue pokes out the corner of her mouth for no apparent reason, causing a tingle to run up his cock for no apparent reason.

Are they having A Moment?

Like two comets flirting with the same star though never colliding, they’d been hanging out at Jack’s and screwing their way through the denizens for a couple months. By now she knows his playbook. He suspects it’ll require honesty and spontaneity to nail her but he’s not sure it‘s worth the risk.

Have a wonderfull New Year, and keep on writing.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Opening Paragraph II

My previous rant was about literary agent Nathan Bransford's excellent search for the best first paragraph. My only disagreement with Nate's approach is that a paragraph is an artificial construct which readers don't pay much attention to. For example, if the book starts with dialog, the opening paragraph will be the bit of conversation from Character One, perhaps just a couple words. When Character Two speaks, or there is physical action by anybody but Character One, a new paragraph will start.

As readers, we don't automatically shut the book at the end of paragraph one, and either put it back on the shelf or carry it to the cash register. We browse for a while, maybe 15-20 lines of text, to see if it has any appeal. Sometimes that's all it takes - Grisham's "A Time to Kill" had me hooked from the first few lines - or sometimes it starts us flipping pages to see if whatever interested us can be found later on.

So that's the scientific test: does the prose intrigue us? Does it set up a dramatic or humorous situation, a unique character, or a fascinating locale? Does the author have a Voice that grabs us by the collar and won't let go? Is there some intangible quality to the writing style that we've admired in other books?

I'm going to push back my own feeble entry in Nate's contest, and instead inflict upon you the opening lines of my crime thriller, "Montana in Flames." I don't have enough emotional distance to know whether this is good or bad, but I've tried to intrigue the reader with an interesting locale, protagonist and situation.

Paul Longo eased his lanky frame into a chair at the New Accounts desk and waited for the statuesque blonde –- Elizabeth from her nametag -- to get off the phone. Her shimmering emerald dress clung to all the right places. Paul didn’t mind the wait.

He looked around the lobby. A small bank for a small town. Some of the windows had the bluish, dimpled look of antique glass. The pressed tin ceiling looked authentic, suggesting the building was a hundred years old or more.

The kid pushing through the copper-and-glass doors didn’t look the slightest bit authentic. A little guy, maybe five-foot-four and 130 pounds, who looked full of meth. Bulging eyes flicked nervously around the lobby, and one cheek twitched a furious beat. Still had prison pallor from his most recent stint. Both hands jammed deep in the pockets of a down vest, despite the unusual autumn heat.

Detective Paul Longo slipped the 44 caliber Super Redhawk from its shoulder holster and dangled it behind his chair. The end of its nearly ten-inch barrel touched the floor.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Opening Paragraph I

Yikes! I've been a bad, bad blogger, ignoring my responsibilities to my fan. It's been a crazy spring, summer and fall, full of soccer, college visits for my equally disorganized son, and lots of writing. Just not the blog type of writing. My novel is finally close to being sent out into the world, for better or worse, and I've been doodling with a lot on potential follow-up concepts.

Aside from my infamous "positive rejections," my critique group has been having successes. Jake has an agent for his western (and it is a western, Jake - it's got horses, gunslingers and a saloon) and Angie is having some of her books e-published. This is truly a profession where you never fail, as Dennis Foley says, but you can choose to give up.

While you're poking around my blog, be sure to check out the link to Nathan Bransford's blog, the most entertaining and educational one I've found on the business of publishing. Nate has recently been conducting his second "first paragraph" contest. Over a four-day period, any unpublished author could post the opening paragraph from a work in progress. By the time I got organized there were already over 1,100 entries, and 1,364 comments had been posted before the contest string was shut down. Some of the posts were deletions of accidental duplicates, and a few others were snarky comments or gratuitous sucking-up, but roughly 95% were actual submissions.

It was an eye-opening experience to scan the first 500 entries (poor Nathan had to personally read every single one to come up with his top six). There were a lot of romances, historicals, sci-fi and fantasies, YAs and crime stories. Not many tales for younger children, erotica and memoirs. Quite a few dead parents, failed relationship, and stumbling upon bloody corpses. Of the 500, I read about 30 that would've made me take the book straight to the cash register, and an equal number that would've had me flipping pages to see what the rest looked like.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of poorly-written crap, along with plenty of decent attempts marred by preventable flaws - misspellings, poor grammar and cluelessness about the meaning of "one paragraph only." Since I enjoy reading offbeat works, none of the topics made me squirm but some of the language was off-putting. Phrases such as "nether regions" and "anal leakage" spring to mind (although the latter would be a great name for a punk band, if such groups still exist).

Imagine your typical struggling editor or literary agent, forced to wade through knee-high garbage all day at work, then dragging a stack of it home to pollute her home. What a thrill it must be to discover a writer who can actually tell a coherent stort with a flair for drama, humor or tension, an interesting voice, and some understanding of craft. Every day she receives unsolicited, handwritten manuscipts on lined paper. The agent or editor gets: phone calls about submissions that were mailed three days earlier; query letters on lavender, scented stationery with a photo of the author's children/cat/grandmother; and knick-knacks, boxes of candy and the occasional $5 bill in the hope these will entice her to look more kindly on the submission.

Well. My Old Year's Resolution is to not only dedicate myself to selfless blogging, but also to enrich the lives of agents and editors everywhere by submitting works that will bring smiles to their faces and a ka-ching to their bottom line.

Next blog: my thoughts on an opening few paragraphs, and what I submitted for Nathan's contest.

To all you authors out there, keep the faith and keep writing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Technology Must Die!

So should the wannabe Famous Author query agents and editors by email or snail mail?

Do the results differ? Truth be told, I haven't been at this querying business long enough to tell. With about 30 queries out there flapping their wings on my behalf, only a half-dozen have come home to roost. My very first e-query flew back within 12 hours with a request for a partial MS. Omigawd, the future is bright. Grisham labored in obscurity for years, selling his first self-published novel out of the back of a station wagon at swap meets, and here I've struck gold with my first effort. Before shopping for a Mercedes, I thought it might be prudent to research my new best friend. Oops. Google came up dry. Other than the brief entry on First Writer that led me to him in the first place, I found nada on the usual literary agent databases. I emailed Mystery Agent to see if I should send the partial by email attachment or snail mail, and also politely asked whether he had a website or blog. Since then, silence reigns.

My first query, and I get VaporAgent.

By the way, check out the link to Lit Agent X for actual examples of wacky, clueless queries that will make you feel incredibly smug.

The rejections I've received so far have all been professional and polite, usually along the line of "not for me" or "not a match." That's fine because I understand that this business is about art, not science.

Sometimes I have the same reaction as a reader. I had heard good things about Middlesex by Eugenides and grabbed it off a bargain table at Borders. I fought my way through the first 20 pages before giving up. Just "not for me," despite what Oprah thinks. I'd also heard about Spaceman Blues: A Love Song - supposedly cutting edge, awesome prose. I tracked down the first chapter on the author's website and it blew me away. Absolutely for me.

But I've noticed that replies to e-queries tend to be very minimal and safely-worded, whereas those returning to my mailbox sometimes have more positive, even helpful comments scrawled on the letter. One snail mail rejection came back yesterday from a prominent NYC literary agent and actually had nearly 100 words of feedback - my synopsis was a "compelling presentation" and he couldn't see any obvious flaws, but didn't feel the necessary "connection" to take me as a client. Wow! (Why hadn't the girls back in high school let me down like that, instead of telling me to buzz off? Virginity would have been ever so much more palatable.) That rejection will keep me motivated for months to come. I'm thinking it's suitable for framing.

As I said, I'm still new to querying and with some of the most successful agents only accepting e-queries, maybe that's the best way to go. I admit to getting a minor tactile thrill from folding up an SASE and slipping it into another envelope along with a crisp piece of stationary with my brilliant, well-researched query. But I don't get creepy over it.

I have important reasons for dragging my query letters down to the post office and dropping them through a slot, reasons that have nothing to do with the odds of success or failure or helpful comments. Once a query is mailed, there is Hope for a period of time. That Hope helps me glue my butt to a chair and tap out more queries, rewrite my old nonsense, and create gawd-awful first drafts of future nonsense. The fact that there is no scientific or logical basis for this Hope is inconsequential. It's the best buzz I've gotten since I threw Jim Beam out the back door.

On the other hand, last night I emailed a carefully-crafted, well-researched query to an agent who's supposedly waiting breathlessly for a thriller to represent. The rejection showed up among my incoming emails before my morning coffee break today.

Technology must die!

Almost forgot - thanks for checking out this blog, and keep on writing.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

I doubt you woke up on a Tuesday morning and decided, "I think I'll be a novelist." It was a more gradual process. Telling bedtime stories to the little ones. "Daddy, would you write that down so I'll always have it?" Then sending your creation to a local mag just for the helluvit, and the thrill of publication. Followed by a couple more credits, an invitation to write reviews of kid-lit for a regional journal, a couple dopey mystery stories and an unfinished YA wizard's apprentice novel.

Finally you lost all control and spent years (or 6-7 weeks, if you're my friend Angie) purging and bleeding over reams of perfectly good paper before birthing The Great American Novel. An ugly truth gradually emerges - nobody will ever knock at the door to see if, just by chance, you have TGAN ready to rush off to the presses.

Damn. You have to grovel before the money changers and promote your masterpiece in the marketplace. Worse yet, you've got to write the two most miserable, despicable, slit-your-wrists-if-you-don't-get-it-right-this-time documents: a query and a synopsis. Somehow you summarize TGAN into an 8-page synopsis only to be told: "Cool! Now condense it to 1,000 words - better yet, 500 - and then shoehorn it into one measly paragraph for your query letter."




Okay, I'm back now. Just had to double-check that 'shoehorn' is one word, not hyphenated.

Crap. Had to check 'double-check.'

Any questions why I'm not the speediest author alive? Okay, below is the synopsis for my novel Montana is Burning. I don't claim it's the world's greatest synopsis (still a bit of the passive voice, eh?). I just hope it conveys the flavor of the work and shows I can tell a coherent story so, if the agent or editor is partial to that kind of story, hopefully she'll ask to see some more. Anyway, here it is.

Tall and weathered, with a nose right off an Indian-head nickel, Detective PAUL LONGO worries his new job in Montana with the Mullen County Sheriff’s Department won't last long. Seeking solace in the Rockies after accidentally killing a child during a crack house bust in Phoenix, now Paul finds he has alienated his new co-workers, who mistrust his city ways. His first day on the job, he kneels to pray with a dying holdup man who requests last rites, and Paul’s profane, hard-drinking co-workers stick him with the nickname The Pope.

Elections are near, with the Department split between loyalists of incumbent SHERIFF CLYDE FRYE and the Chief of Detectives. Paul is the only fence-straddler. When an abortion clinic catering to wealthy out-of-staters in the town of Kintla is firebombed with a Molotov cocktail, the political hot potato is dumped in his lap. Paul must contend with vicious local politics, over-zealous federal agents, a newly-formed militia group bent on blockading the county, a former lover trying to connive an exclusive interview, and an approaching forest fire.

Three bodies emerge from the abortion clinic wreckage, one being DR. SUSAN SEWARD from the clinic. An adult male victim goes unidentified -- unthinkable in such a small, close-knit community -- and an autopsy reveals the third, badly-charred corpse is a large dog. But whose?

A remote-control bomb explodes on the route of a local peace march two days after the clinic’s destruction, killing four. Paul’s heroism prevents more deaths but while he’s hospitalized over-night for a concussion, the investigation spirals out of control. On returning, he finds Sheriff Frye has caved in, ceding power to the FBI and ATF. Paul fails to convince the feds to look for two different bombers -- a Molotov cocktail bomber and a high-tech copycat.

His lone consolation is a budding relationship with Deputy JANET BAREFOOT, who is half Native American, making her another outsider in the Department.

A second remote-control bomb, discovered outside Kintla’s high school, is disarmed before it detonates. Paul remains convinced this technology doesn’t fit in with the primitive Molotov cocktail used against the abortion clinic.

The investigation eventually centers on SONNY, a Religious Right fanatic. Sonny flees into the teeth of the forest fire, only to be blocked by scores of armed militia. A gun battle erupts, with Sonny and most of the militia wiped out.

Everyone else celebrates the end of the case but Paul Longo worries it's too neat. He digs into the background of Dr. Susan Seward, and discovers her husband DR. JACK SEWARD assumed another doc’s identity years earlier. Paul goes to Seward’s remote home in the path of the advancing fire. Seward admits firebombing the clinic and says the unidentified bodies were a hitchhiker Susan had seduced and the man’s dog. Despite being wounded in a face-off with his prey, Paul kills Seward after a chase through blazing, smoke-choked woods.

A chance comment by the phony doctor leads Paul to suspect Sheriff Frye’s involvement. Frye gets the drop on Paul the next day and disarms him, bragging that he secretly set up the militia in order to eventually squash it, spring-boarding himself into the governor’s mansion -- maybe the White House. As federal agents close in (Paul is wearing a hidden wire), Frye takes Janet Barefoot hostage and bolts.

Paul tracks them into an abandoned gold mine. The Sheriff and Paul struggle deep in the pitch black tunnels before Paul plunges a knife into Frye’s chest. Paul's a hero, Janet's rescued, and Frye heads for the infirmary in his own jail.

After a night in the local hospital, Paul awakes sore and woozy but feeling redeemed. He finds Janet waiting. She tells him he’s turned a corner on his tormented journey, headed in the right direction at long last. If Paul doesn’t mind, she’d like to walk alongside him.

Thar she blows - critique away and we'll see how much humility I can handle.

Thanks and keep on writing.