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.