Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

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

Sunday, October 31, 2010

First Lines

Michelle McLean, one of the fine ladies blogging for Operation Awesome, recently had a post about how first lines can captivate us:

I recently finished reading Rick Riordan’s The Lost Hero. Aside from really enjoying the book, I was struck by how many awesome first lines he had. The first line of the book was amazing:

Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day.

My inner editor immediately stopped to admire that incredible bit of writing. As first lines go, that is made of total win (at least imo).

But it didn’t stop there. Several times throughout the book, I’d turn the page to start a new chapter and got blown away by that chapter’s first line. Here are a few of my favorites.

1. Leo wished the dragon hadn’t landed on the toilets.
2. As soon as Jason saw the house, he knew he was a dead man.
3. Leo’s tour was going great until he learned about the dragon.
4. After a morning of storm spirits, goat men, and flying boyfriends, Piper should’ve been losing her mind.
5. Jason would have died five times on the way to the front door if not for Leo.
6. When Leo saw how well Piper and Hedge were being treated, he was thoroughly offended.
7. The plan went wrong almost immediately.
8. Leo hadn’t felt this jumpy since he’d offered tofu burgers to the werewolves.

In my work in progress, Assassin’s Club – Doing Good by Being Bad, the first sentence doesn’t exactly slap you in the face, but I’m pretty proud of the first 20 lines.

The man fights his way through the surf. A giant wave crashes over his back, knocking the air from his lungs.

He struggles to stand upright, his arms and legs heavy as lead. He doesn’t remember much. He vaguely recalls thrashing around in the cold water and turning around in time to see the stern of a sailing ship as it glided toward the horizon, jaunty carnival tunes in its wake.

Did I fall from that? Or get pushed?

The water tugs at his legs like a needy lover. Finally he finds himself on hot, dry sand and falls to his knees. He has a pounding headache and blood on his hand from when he touches the throbbing knot on the back of his scalp.

Where the hell am I? Who am I?

The voices in his head provide no answers.

A hazy figure appears far up the beach and so he walks in that direction. The sun feels good on his back. Overhead, seagulls circle and chatter in their private language. After a few minutes he can make out some details of the approaching figure – a tall woman in a flowing white gown with sunflower-gold hair. She walks with her head down as if overwhelmed by a great sadness. Or maybe just looking for pretty shells.

A terrible fear jolts his heart.

She’s in mortal danger. Something awful is about to befall her.

Close now, she looks up and laughs at him. “Jesus, you’re naked!”

So that’s who I am.

The first line of chapter two (which was originally chapter one, until I decided my serial killer needed a friend to play with) was more successful, I believe:

Tyler Goode didn’t know the man’s real name until he read the obituary three days later.

Writers can engage the reader without needing an exploding helicopter in the first paragraph, but the opening should at least raise the reader’s curiosity about the dramatic, humorous or informative material to follow.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Opening Chapter

Nate Bransford is a literary agent in California, and is both a brilliant and dedicated blogger. This week he has a guest blogger, Valerie Kemp, who did an insightful post on the characteristics of a novel's first chapter. Here's an excerpt from that post:

The Hunger Games - In the first chapter of The Hunger Games we get to see Katniss' everyday world. We learn about the Hunger Games and the Reaping and the high chance that Gale and Katniss will be picked. We see that Katniss is responsible and protective of her sister, Prim, whose name is in the Reaping for the first time. And in the very last sentence of the chapter there's a shock as Prim's name is called.

This is a GREAT end of a first chapter. As a reader we're left with a sense of dread. We know what Katniss must do, and we know that we're in for an exciting ride because we're going to experience the Hunger Games with Katniss. We're also introduced to the mechanics of Collin's writing - cliffhanger chapters. Both with story and with structure, she has shown us what to expect, and how to read her book. And she delivers.

Now imagine if The Hunger Games started differently. What if the first chapter was an ordinary day at school for Katniss, followed by time at home with her family, and hanging out with Gale. Suzanne Collins could've started there and gone into greater detail about Katniss' troubled relationship with her mom, given us more history on the District, how life in The Seam works, etc. She could've had the Reaping happen in chapter 3. By then we might be expecting the book to be a family drama or something else completely unrelated to a reality show about teens fighting to the death. If Collins had started her book this way, she probably would've lost a lot of readers. I know I would've been flipping back to the cover over and over again, wondering when these supposedly awesome Hunger Games were going to start. I probably would've put the book down before the action started and picked up something else.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Old Farts Club excerpt from "Montana is Burning"

At the 2010 Flathead River Writers Conference, I had a very encouraging talk with Gordon Warnock from Andrea Hurst Literary Management. However, he informed me that my (supposedly) completed novel is about 30,000 words too long for a first-time author. Ouch. So I must say goodbye to some (in my opinion) wonderful chunks of verbiage that develop characterization, establish mood, and plant clues. I need to do those things with greater brevity, it appears. So here's a chapter that's being lopped out:

Ole’s CafĂ©, Kintla, Montana

Saturday – 10:00 a.m. (The morning after a nearby abortion clinic was firebombed)

Surely every coffee shop on the planet has one, a large table where the Old Farts Club gathers each morning to complain about the world going to hell in a hand basket. The round table in Ole's Cafe in Kintla had eight oak chairs.

Ralph Morrissey, the town's funeral director, walked into Ole's and saw several reporters forced to stand at the counter, even though there was still an empty chair at the big table. It was gratifying, he thought, to see that some things in this world could still be depended upon.

He took the vacant seat between banker James Otto and rancher Duke Overbeek. Everybody nodded at the mortician and Otto flipped over a clean cup for him. As usual, at least three different conversations were going on, with some fellows jumping from one to another depending on which topic caught their interest. Morrissey jumped in with the group discussing last night’s firebombing and was immediately interrupted by Huz Brandt, the local accountant.

“You missed a couple great jokes, Digger," Brandt said. "You know what you get when you cross a Mormon with an Indian?"

“A basement full of stolen canned goods," blurted insurance agent Jay Aster.

Despite having heard the joke minutes earlier, the table erupted in laughter. Morrissey, who had both LDS and Native American friends, sat stony-faced. He noticed Bobby Jones looked like he'd gotten a whiff of something rancid.

Jones spoke before Morrissey could think of a comeback. "I heard there's no humor without an element of truth. Maybe we oughta change that to humiliation."

"Lighten up, Bobby," Brandt said. "Don't tell me you didn't bust up some prairie niggers off the Rez when you were carrying a badge down in Missoula."

A muscle twitched on the retired deputy's square jaw. "Naw, I was too busy writing DUI's for members of the Chamber of Commerce."

Brandt's cheeks turned crimson. Everybody at the table knew the CPA had recently picked up his third drunk-driving ticket. They all looked around at nothing in particular, hoping somebody would change the subject before things got even more unpleasant.

Bobby Jones jumped in again to change the subject. "I almost made my first taxi trip yesterday. This college kid got busted at St. Joseph and the Border Patrol confiscated his daddy's Mercedes. He hitched a ride into town, then showed up on my porch with his sad story. 'Just some seeds, Man. Just some seeds,' he says."

"What happened?" Brandt asked. "No money?"

"Naw, he showed me more'n enough for the trip. I told him to come back at six and we'd go to Edgerton after supper. Musta got another ride, because he never showed."

Overbeek leaned forward. "Speaking of no-shows, did you hear Chief Holland ducked out of the limelight and put that new detective in charge of the arson investigation? You know, the religious nut.”

"Paul Longo is his name," Jones said. "I bumped into him at the courthouse last week. Didn't seem like a nut to me."

Huz Brandt sneered. "There's a lot of local boys coulda done the job just as well. They know the valley better than some kid just rolled into town."

"He’s no kid, Huz," Jones laughed. "Trouble is, you think anyone not drawing Social Security is still in diapers. And just because he doesn't swear every fifth word, that doesn't make him a Jesus freak."

"It's all just politics," Overbeek said. "Frye probably hoped Holland would stub his toe on this abortion clinic thing, so Holland put one of the Sheriff’s boys in charge of solving it.”

"Then the Chief’s got the wrong guy," Jones said. "Longo's no politician. Hell, he’s the only one on the force who’s not up to his butt in the election.”

Meanwhile, a discussion across the table about forest fires had evolved into a diatribe against government is general and Congress in particular. Jay Aster, the coffee klatch’s token Democrat, was taking a merciless ribbing from the other men. He turned to Morrissey after a few minutes of this abuse.

"Hey, Digger, I've never seen you this quiet before. Business can't be all that bad, I hear people are just dying to get into your place."

"Oh, I'm busy enough but the cremations are killing my bottom line. The only bright spot is the folks who choose a box-and-burn job are usually cheapskates like you who’d stiff me on the bill anyway."

James Otto, the banker sitting next to him, cleared his throat. “Wake up on the wrong side of the embalming table?”

"I’m fried over those nuts that bombed the clinic," Morrissey said. "What with them and this new militia group people are whispering about, plus the morons we send to the legislature, I'm ashamed to call myself a Montanan."

"Didn't you move here from Oregon?" Brandt needled.

"I'm serious here," Morrissey said. "The more I think about it, the more steamed I get. There's not one Montanan in a thousand who thinks murder is the way to win a political argument."

"Damn right," Overbeek said.

The funeral director brought his fist down on the table, rattling coffee cups and saucers. “The rest of us have to stand up to the pinheads responsible for this terrorist act and let them know we won't tolerate such an outrage.”

“I'm with you a hundred percent so far,” Jones said. "You got something in mind?"

Morrissey stood up. “You bet I do. Come over to the mortuary chapel at one o'clock and bring a couple friends.”