Knock ’em Dead: “How does this sound for an opening sentence?”

canstockphoto18799595Hey JC,

How does this sound for a kick ass opening sentence for my book: “The terrified onlookers huddled together beyond the outlying perimeter fence and looked up at the treacherous military drones pointed down at them, operated by a government that was now corrupt and malevolent.”   

My writer’s group really criticized it but I thought it was a great kick-off to the story. It has action and fear, and it sets up what’s going on in the story to follow. It’s the kind of memorable opening sentence that makes you want to keep reading. I’m only asking because I found your post on Google about opening sentences.

So what do you think? Any advice?

Sincerely,
Knock ’em Dead with the First Line

Dear Knock ’em Dead,

Thanks for reading “Some attention grabbing, knock ’em dead first lines.” Although that article was about memorable first lines, I don’t believe every book must have a memorable first line. Sometimes a book just needs an attention grabbing opening scene. Something is unfolding in the first few paragraphs that grabs the reader. Without a doubt, you’re on the right track. This opening scene has fear and suspense and drama. The problem is that it’s all squeezed and packaged into the opening line.

In fact, there’s too much going on and it’s telling me the story, not showing me. I don’t feel the terror the onlookers feel. I’m not yet disillusioned by a corrupt and malevolent government.I don’t understand the treachery of the drones — which is kind of a human attribution assigned to a piece of military hardware.

There’s another problem: the opening line is blatantly telling me what to feel. Right off the bat, the word choice is telling me I’m supposed to feel sympathy for some huddled onlookers. I’m supposed to know (and agree) that the government is bad. I’m supposed to believe the drone is treacherous. The adjectives are working against the story telling.

Don’t rob me of the experience of reading your book. I want to feel all these emotions as the plot unfolds. Give me that “Oh, my God! I can’t believe he just did that” moment when I learn that drone is not the cute, loving military machinery I thought it was. That really sucks for the reader.

I suggest taking one character in the huddled onlookers — hopefully one of the central characters of the book — and having him or her look up at the drone. Let the reader see what that character sees and feel what that character feels. You won’t have to state it’s “treacherous” or “intimidating” or even “terrifying.” The reader will know that through the eyes and emotions of your main character.

Next describe the surroundings. Who are these huddled onlookers. Why are they beyond the outlying perimeter fence? How many are there? If there are government personnel on scene, let their actions show me that they are “corrupt and malevolent.” Give me that “I can’t believe that just happened” moment.

Good luck and keep writing,
JC

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Got a question for me? Hit the contact button at the top and send me an email. Or do you disagree with my advice? Let me know in the comments. How would you respond to Knock ’em Dead’s problem?

Death of a Murder Mystery Novel

canstockphoto8528152The Librarian stepped around the corner of the bookshelf and froze. She raised her hands to her cheeks and screamed. Still, she couldn’t look away. Beaten, battered and ripped apart, it lay in pieces at her feet.

Clearly, the book was dead.

When the police arrived, the librarian pointed them to the gruesome scene. Two detectives approached the book, lying open on its spine. Its cover spread eagle. Black ink spilled off its earmarked pages and pooled on the carpet.

“Another discarded book,” Detective Barnes said, leaning down on one knee to get a closer look at the corpse.

“Like yesterday’s garbage.” The other detective, Noble, took a pen from his jacket and used it to close the book cover. “It was a mystery novel.”

Together, Barnes and Noble stood and walked toward the librarian. She cowered near the checkout counter, trembling.

“You hear about this kind of thing happening,” she said, looking up at Detective Barnes. “You just never think you’ll actually witness this kind of horror.”

“Just tell us what happened.” Barnes slipped a hand inside his jacket and pulled out a pen and note pad. He nodded toward the Librarian. She took a deep breath and looked back in the direction of the crime scene.

“Several people started the book.” Her voice was barely a whisper, as if she was frightened of what she might say. “Some would read a few chapters, others just a few pages, but the outcome was always the same: The readers would just lose interest, shut the book, and discard it.”

“And do you know why?”

She closed her eyes, scrunched her face. “The book was a murder mystery, but after a hundred pages, there was still no victim. No murder. No crime scene.”

“You mean the murder in the book didn’t occur within the first three chapters?”

“That is correct. And nobody knows exactly when the murder did occur because…” She stopped suddenly, sighed, and brought a hand to her face. It looked as if she might faint. “Because every reader gave up on the book before the mystery began.”

“Well, that’s crazy.” Barnes shut his note pad with a huff and dropped his pen. “The crime and the ensuing questions are what hook the reader. As with any fiction, but especially in a murder mystery, you want to do that as quickly as possible.”

Standing beside him, Noble nodded. “Mystery readers pick up a book for the blood, and they want it sooner, rather than later. They won’t wait a hundred pages for something to happen.”

The Librarian reached for Barnes, grasping his forearm and squeezed. “Wait,” she said. “It gets worse.”

The Detective shuddered. “You mean?”

“Yes.” The Librarian shrank back toward the edge of the counter and gripped it to support her weight. Her legs were wobbly. Her face flushed. Looking down at her feet, she spoke slowly, deliberately. “The beginning chapters were just pages of set-up and back story.”

Both detectives looked away in shame. There were some cases that were so ghastly, so incomprehensible, that it made their stomachs turn. Detective Barnes’ eyes burned, and he squinted to hold back the tears. “Readers are just sort of left in suspended animation, waiting for the murder to occur so they can participate in solving it.  It’s the whole point of a murder mystery.”

“We’ve seen it a hundred times,” Noble said. “That book lived dangerously. It broke all the rules. It was bound to get discarded like that.”

5 Books Every Writer Should Read

The Tampa Writer’s Alliance recommended five books that should be on very author’s bookshelf (or in their Kindle). I’ve read Stephen King’s “On Writing” and Renni Brown’s “Self Editing For Fiction Writers.” I’ve refer to both often as I write. I’m currently reading “The First Five Pages.” I’ll be checking out the last two soon.

Any other suggestions? Post in the comments.

 #1.

first 5 pagesThe First Five Pages: A Writer’S Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile
by Noah Lukeman

The difference between The First Five Pages and most books on writing is that the others are written by teachers and writers. This one comes from a literary agent–one whose clients include Pulitzer Prize nominees, New York Times bestselling authors, Pushcart Prize recipients, and American Book Award winners. Noah Lukeman is not trying to impart the finer points of writing well. He wants to teach you “how to identify and avoid bad writing,” so that your manuscript doesn’t come boomeranging back to you in that self-addressed, stamped envelope. Surprise: Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts for fun; they are looking for reasons to reject them. Lukeman has arranged his book “in the order of what I look for when trying to dismiss a manuscript,” starting with presentation and concluding with pacing and progression. Each chapter addresses a pitfall of poor writing–overabundance of adjectives and adverbs, tedious or unrealistic dialogue, and lack of subtlety to name just a few–by identifying the problem, presenting solutions, giving examples (one wishes these weren’t quite so obvious), and offering writing exercises. It’s a little bizarre to think about approaching your work as would an agent, but if you are serious about getting published, you may as well get used to it. Plus, Lukeman has plenty of solid advice worth listening to. Particularly fine are his exercises for removing and spicing up modifiers and his remedies for all kinds of faulty dialogue. –Jane Steinberg, Amazon.com Editorial Review

#2.

self-editing_for_fiction_writersSelf-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself Into Print
by Renni Browne and Dave King

Hundreds of books have been written on the art of writing. Here at last is a book by two professional editors to teach writers the techniques of the editing trade that turn promising manuscripts into published novels and short stories.

In the completely revised and updated second edition, Renni Browne and Dave King teach you, the writer, how to apply the editing techniques they have developed to your own work. Chapters on dialogue, exposition, point of view, interior monologue, and other techniques take you through the same processes an expert editor would go through to perfect your manuscript. Each point is illustrated with examples, many drawn from the hundreds of books Browne and King have edited.

 

 

#3.

On WritingOn Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft
by Stephen King

Short and snappy as it is, Stephen King’s On Writing really contains two books: a fondly sardonic autobiography and a tough-love lesson for aspiring novelists. The memoir is terrific stuff, a vivid description of how a writer grew out of a misbehaving kid. You’re right there with the young author as he’s tormented by poison ivy, gas-passing babysitters, uptight schoolmarms, and a laundry job nastier than Jack London’s. It’s a ripping yarn that casts a sharp light on his fiction. This was a child who dug Yvette Vickers from Attack of the Giant Leeches, not Sandra Dee. “I wanted monsters that ate whole cities, radioactive corpses that came out of the ocean and ate surfers, and girls in black bras who looked like trailer trash.” But massive reading on all literary levels was a craving just as crucial, and soon King was the published author of “I Was a Teen-Age Graverobber.” As a young adult raising a family in a trailer, King started a story inspired by his stint as a janitor cleaning a high-school girls locker room. He crumpled it up, but his writer wife retrieved it from the trash, and using her advice about the girl milieu and his own memories of two reviled teenage classmates who died young, he came up with Carrie. King gives us lots of revelations about his life and work. The kidnapper character in Misery, the mind-possessing monsters in The Tommyknockers, and the haunting of the blocked writer in The Shining symbolized his cocaine and booze addiction (overcome thanks to his wife’s intervention, which he describes). “There’s one novel, Cujo, that I barely remember writing.”
King also evokes his college days and his recovery from the van crash that nearly killed him, but the focus is always on what it all means to the craft. He gives you a whole writer’s “tool kit”: a reading list, writing assignments, a corrected story, and nuts-and-bolts advice on dollars and cents, plot and character, the basic building block of the paragraph, and literary models. He shows what you can learn from H.P. Lovecraft’s arcane vocabulary, Hemingway’s leanness, Grisham’s authenticity, Richard Dooling’s artful obscenity, Jonathan Kellerman’s sentence fragments. He explains why Hart’s War is a great story marred by a tin ear for dialogue, and how Elmore Leonard’s Be Cool could be the antidote.

King isn’t just a writer, he’s a true teacher. –Tim Appelo, Amazon.com Review

#4.

How_To_Read_A_BookHow to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading
by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren

Writers are defined by their readers.

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Also included is instruction in the different techniques that work best for reading particular genres, such as practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science works.

Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list and supply reading tests you can use measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension, and speed.

#5.

birdbybirdBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
by Anne Lamott

Think you’ve got a book inside of you? Anne Lamott isn’t afraid to help you let it out. She’ll help you find your passion and your voice, beginning from the first really crummy draft to the peculiar letdown of publication. Readers will be reminded of the energizing books of writer Natalie Goldberg and will be seduced by Lamott’s witty take on the reality of a writer’s life, which has little to do with literary parties and a lot to do with jealousy, writer’s block and going for broke with each paragraph. Marvelously wise and best of all, great reading.

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.'”