Monday, January 11, 2021

Thinking About First Lines


People can often quote famous opening sentences from novels. They ring in the ears, with rhythm, intrigue and portent. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. “ “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last.”

You may well think – so what? These are like proverbs or pithy quotes. We remember them because they strike a chord. But your first sentence, if it’s a real winner (or a hook, or startling in some way), will entice your reader to keep going. And if your second sentence is just as good, and your third pulls the reader right into your story … well, who’s going to argue with that? Off to the checkout they go.

What does a first paragraph, made up of all those stunning sentences, actually achieve? Not just capturing your reader’s interest. Your first paragraph also does these things:

  • ·        establishes point of view
  • ·        creates the tone of the novel or the voice
  • ·        brings the main character on stage (not always, but usually)
  • ·        presents either the beginning of the story problem, or something intriguing that leads to it
  • ·        establishes setting, era, genre
  • ·        hooks the reader with story questions

Phew. Hardly surprising that writers rewrite their first page/first paragraph/first line so many times!

Let’s take something familiar as an example. The Three Little Pigs is a good example – whose point of view are we hearing? What kind of voice is it? What does the narrator tell you in just a few words? (My day improved immensely as soon as I saw those three plump little pigs being kicked out of their house by their mean old mother.)

You could start with the youngest pig (My favorite TV show had only just started when the old witch pulled me off the couch, yanked the pizza out of my hand and shoved me out the door!) or the mother (Those assertiveness classes were the best thing ever – finally I got the gumption to throw those lazy kids out). Every story has possibilities for how to start, and each possibility changes the story into something new.

If you have already written the story, you know everything that is about to happen. You already have your point of view character, you may even have their voice working well, but it can take a whole novel to get this right. Now you go back to Page 1 and start again.

There are a few things not to do. I see writers start with dialogue that has no identification of speakers and goes on for several lines, and they think they are being mysterious. Or they start with lengthy character description, so you'll know up front who this person is. If you start with setting description, you’d better have a good reason, and you’d better do it well!

The art of a stunning first line is a challenge to every writer, no matter what you write. David Sedaris starts one of his essays with:

"Well, that little experiment is over," my mother said.

Stuart MacBride starts Blind Eye with:

“Waiting was the worst bit: hunkered back against the wall, eyes squinting in the setting sun, waiting for the nod.”

What do great first lines have? A sense of place and character, even if not spelled out. A sense of tone, a smidgin of description. But very often they have a story question - a real one, not one that is trying to trick the reader. Joe Abercrombie starts Before They Are Hanged with:

“Damn mist. It gets in your eyes so you can't see no more than a few strides ahead.”

(OK, so it's a fragment and a sentence.) It's setting and tone and character all together - what kind of character says 'no more' and 'strides' rather than 'any further' and 'feet' or 'metres'?

I always feel like that first paragraph is a promise. It's no wonder people stand in bookshops and read first paragraphs and first pages. The first line draws them in, and the next lines keep them reading. As a writer, that’s your challenge. How can you make your first line, and then your next, and your next, something that will totally draw your reader into the story?

The truth is, great first lines are really hard. You might have to rewrite yours 20 or 50 times. But the bonus of getting it right is that the second one does become a little easier, and then so does the third. It’s as if you’ve managed to set up the essence and heart of both character and plot, and now you can start adding the bones and then the flesh.

Learn from the best, and perhaps even model your own on them. What do they contain? How does the writer achieve what they do? Yes, there are plenty that are mediocre. Yours doesn’t need to be. It shouldn’t be. Pull books off your shelf and compare, take notes, analyse.

What's the best first line you've read recently?

You can read more of my articles on various aspect of writing at The list is here or go to @sherrylclark.

Monday, June 08, 2020

Book review - "Monstrous Heart" by Claire McKenna

The initial appeal of this novel for me was the krakens – having studied mythical creatures a while ago, I was intrigued to see what the author would do with this as the centre of her novel. The world she creates is fantastical indeed, with a bizarre mix of old and new – we have characters with talents called sanguis (my trusty Latin dictionary defines it as blood), elektrification as a new technology and petro mechanics of different kinds. The mix did at times seem a bit too odd but mostly I tried to go along with it.

Arden Beacon is about to become the Lightmistress of the lighthouse in Vigil, which is in Fiction – it was clear from the start that there was going to be a lot of language play in this novel. Some of it worked, some jarred for me. I found the most irritating bit was the use of real names and terms that were mishmashed together. The world building felt disjointed and illogical at times. Arden is an interesting character, a woman with a past, whose talent is too small to be of real use or value, so she has been told. This post is her final chance to get her piece of paper she needs to be established. Standing in her way are many people around her – the lecherous Coastmaster Justinian and the manipulative Harrow, as well as the mysterious Lions. Nobody is as they seem, including Jonah Riven who is hated by all for mistreating and (supposedly) killing his wife.

There are multiple little twists and turns in the plot, many configured around the constructed world the characters live and function in. Everything seems wrecked or broken or rotting, including the Justinian mansion. The kraken features mostly as the skin Arden’s coat is made out of, which has magical properties of its own. It would be a spoiler to describe its appearance towards the end. I decided the main thrust of the story was, in the end, the romance between Arden and Jonah, although romance seems too wussy a word. Obsession? 

The novel started to really engage me about halfway through, but I suspect other readers will get into it much more than me. The language is ornate, at times too ornate, but what really kept pulling me out of the story were the multiple errors of grammar and meaning. Surely you remonstrate with someone (first line)? When describing the girth of something round and thick, span is not the right word. And so on. I itched to copyedit the whole novel as there were these kinds of little glitches every couple of pages and held me back from enjoying the novel a lot more. (I read a published copy provided by HC, not a proof copy, so can’t blame the errors on that.)

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Talking to Finn Bell about crime writing and publishing

After reading The Killing Ground, and then looking up Finn Bell out of curiosity, my curiosity got worse! It seemed a bit incomprehensible to me that after four books, Finn was still self-publishing. Sure, other people like Hugh Howie had started self-publishing but then were offered contracts by traditional publishers. On the other hand, writers who'd started with trads had turned back to self-publishing for various reasons.
I was really pleased when Finn agreed to an email interview, and this is it!

Why novel writing? Why crime? Has it been a longtime aim or something fairly recent?
I couldn’t, with any measure of certainty, really tell you why my mind does any of the things it does when left unattended and writing is no different. It started as a way of coping (mostly with myself and my previous career) and has slowly grown into something bigger.

I probably write crime fiction because crime is what I’ve known and when I sit down in front of a blank page that’s what comes out of its own accord. But I don’t think it’s a distinguishing feature of what I do – any story – in any genre – will have something of wrongness, sickness, or brokenness that changes through the pages, I think that’s why reading has utility, has use for the reader, doesn’t matter which genre you’re in. (That’s the point of stories, though right? If a book doesn’t change anything, or make itself (or you) better for reading it, why bother?)  
What do you enjoy most about the writing?
There’s almost nothing about it that I don’t like. What do I enjoy most? Probably the sense of completion, a sense that things could have been better, ended better, and the story is how. Or maybe that there is a way of understanding something you don’t want to be real but is. All my books are based on my past career (so old case files, court reports, prison interviews and so on) and all of them involve actual unsolved crimes (at the time of writing a given book). 

That’s where my writing started - from diaries, journals and notes of unsolved crimes that lead to writing plausible (but fictional) endings to real unfinished stories. I guess it’s a way of trying to reach across from how things are to how they ought to be (it’s part make believe but it’s still hope even if only a worn, dirty kind). 

You’ve set The Killing Ground in Riverton – is it a problem using a real small town in NZ? Have your neighbours read the books?
All my books are set in the South Island of New Zealand in real locations, like the crimes and events the stories are based on, almost everything is real or as near to true as I can legally make it. It hasn’t been a problem yet. 

Did you decide to self-publish right from the beginning? Or did that come after some rejections? What led to you doing it yourself?
I didn’t intend to do anything as a writer of any kind. I started writing to cope, to help me sleep (there was no plan behind it). All of the publishing questions came later, my partner talked me into publishing the first few books as ebooks only, and I looked at the content and decided on self-publishing because I honestly didn’t think what I was doing was mainstream enough for traditional publishers to be interested in, I never even approached any before releasing the first 2 books. 

This was back in 2016. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to win some awards, gain some fans and sell a few books and have gone from self-publishing ebooks to self-publishing audiobooks, but still nothing on paper. After about a year we did approach agents in traditional publishing but there was no interest (which hasn’t surprised me).  (My note - it surprised me!)
How did you go about getting the books ready to publish? Did you have an editor? What help did you get (if any)?
For the text I employ a professional copy editor (for correcting grammar, spelling and punctuation only) and a professional voice artist for the audio books but everything else is me. Plain and simple.

How did you tackle the marketing? What worked for you? What didn’t work?
That’s a big question and one that so many people can answer much better than I can. There’s nothing original or special about what I’ve done. And at first, I did very little, I wouldn’t look to me as a good example, I think almost all my success has come from a strong response from readers and isn’t down to anything I’ve done.

What did you do about reviews and entering awards?
Nothing much really (again I’m not a good example to point at). I got asked online whether I would like to enter the Ngaio Marsh Award a few months after published my first 2 books (the thought hadn’t occurred to me before then) and then I was lucky enough to win the Best First Novel Category. That led to other competitions either contacting me or being referred to me. The same has been true of reviews, it has mostly grown because of word of mouth from reader to reader and has had very little to do with my own efforts as far as I can tell.  

After reading The Killing Ground, I was astounded that you haven’t found a traditional publisher or agent. What's happened with this?
As I mentioned earlier, it hasn’t changed. I’m releasing my fifth  book soon and there’s been no interest from traditional publishers or agents. I’m ok if it does happen one day and I’m ok if it doesn’t.

Do you feel it’s worth it? Are you selling enough to feel it’s working? (I think you should put the price up but that’s just me!)
Do I think it’s worth it? Yes. Am I selling enough? No. Should I put the prices up? All my books are (at the time of writing this) the lowest price I can make them on (which is 0.99 US $). I did this to support (in a small way) all the people stuck in the pandemic lockdown around the world. (If you read as much as me, cheap ebooks make a difference and I wanted to help, not profit). I’ll raise the prices (probably back to 2.99 US $) once we’re out of the woods and the world gets back to normal.

What next?
We’ll see. My fifth book is done and heading to my editor. After that, probably book 6.

My note - so far I've only read The Killing Ground (have bought the next one and looking forward to reading it), but I suspect Finn's growing readership, despite his lack of super-duper marketing skills, is because the novels are damn good. That's why I wanted to do this interview and let you know about them.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Book review - "The Killing Ground" by Finn Bell

I came across this book on the New Zealand Crime & Mystery Writing Facebook page – it sounded good, it was on special so I thought I’d give it a go. Besides, it was set in NZ, my home country, and I love reading crime fiction set there. What could go wrong?

Well, nothing. In fact it all went not only right, but fantastically well. It was one of the few books I’ve read this year that I really didn’t want to put down. The main character, Finn Bell, is a broken man, literally. He’s in a wheelchair after smashing apart his life and then smashing up his car, and we meet him in the opening chapter jammed upside down over a beach full of deadly rocks. How he got there, and why, is the story that unfolds, moving back and forth between the cliff and the beach in the present, and five months before, when it all started. This dual narrative is handled skilfully and kept me guessing all the way.

The Zoyl brothers are the villains, but they’re clever and cunning and seem to have got away with quite a few crimes over the years, including murder. Why nobody has been able to find enough evidence to convict them is the conundrum. Finn, in his bid to run as far away from the wreck of his life as possible, has ended up in Riverton in the far south of the South Island. He’s bought a cottage with a history, one that involves the murder of two people, and he inevitably becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to them.

There are a number of well-drawn supporting characters in the story, and one of my favourites was his no-nonsense therapist, Betty Crowe. That the author has been a forensic psychologist shows, not just in Betty, but also in his keen insights into the characters and their motivations. I think this is one of the biggest strengths of the book, and you tend not to see it in a lot of crime fiction. I was as engaged in Finn’s internal changes and growth as I was in the cleverly twisting and turning plot. (And yes, the main character has the same name as the author – it’s the result of losing a bet, and Finn Bell is also a pseudonym. Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter!)

I was curious about who published this and the three other titles Bell has written, and was quite astonished to discover in an interview he’d done that, even after winning the NZ Ngaio Marsh First Novel award, plus a bunch of others, he still wasn’t able to get a traditional publisher. I’ve already bought the second book and can highly recommend The Killing Ground. (Original title was Dead Lemons, which isn’t quite as catchy.)
Buy on Smashwords or Amazon or your favourite e-book store.