Sunday, August 30, 2015

how to write the opening line

At a recent conference, Hank Phillippi Ryan addressed the issue of the opening sentence--the line that immediately captures the reader's attention...or loses it.

Image result for hank phillippi ryan--truth be told

She told us it should accomplish three things:
  1. It should foretell the plot of the story.
  2. It should set the tone for the book (humorous, scary, exciting, mysterious, etc.).
  3. It should set the stakes for the protagonist.
The first line should pose a question that compels the reader to keep turning the pages in order to find the answer. Hank writes legal thrillers, but the same is true whatever you write--literary fiction, fantasy, memoir, and even short stories. 

The problem is Hank didn't tell us exactly how to write that opening line. This is something you learn by reading, and then practicing forevermore. Pick up a book at the library or bookstore, or check out its first pages on Amazon. You'll get the idea. Either you're motivated to read on...or you're not.

Here are some examples of great first lines:

"In the middle of the night, when I was, above all, Hugh's wife and Dee's mother, one of those unambiguous women with no desire to disturb the universe, I fell in love with a Benedictine monk." from The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd. The reader is left to presume that the relationship between the narrator and the monk does somehow disturb the usual course of events and reads on to see how this unlikely relationship is going to work out for them.

"It's so hard to talk when you want to kill yourself.": from It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini, a book written as a novel that was more likely a fictionalized autobiographical sketch, as several years after the book was published, the author committed suicide.

"They say that one of the reasons for tragedy is that you learn from it.": from Range of Motion (literary fiction) by Elizabeth Berg. The reader has to wonder what the tragedy was, and what it taught the narrator.

"My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.": from The Liars' Club (memoir) by Mary Karr. The reader is led to believe that something bad happened and wants to know why it was so important to the author. It was a rape.

"Two days after my father had a massive stroke my mother shot herself in the head.": from The Last Bridge (literary fiction) by Terri Coyne. 'Nuff said...

"The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping.": from Lila (literary fiction) by Marilynne Robinson. What has happened to this child and what will become of her?

"Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle's living room asking for the statue back.": from Run (literary fiction) by Ann Patchett. What is the importance of this statue and why do her sisters want it back now?

Image result for run ann patchett

"Chet Moran grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren't supposed to get polio anymore.": from Travis, B., a short story by Maile Meloy. The opening line suggests that Chet Moran did, in fact, come down with polio. Then what?
Image result for both ways is the only way i want it

The opening line of your book should be memorable, not just a knock at the door, or a phone ringing in the middle of the night, or a storm sweeping in, but why we should care about it. In the first line.
"An opening line should invite the reader to begin. 
It should say:
Come in here.
You want to know about this."
~Stephen King~
Summer is winding down albeit with an oppressive heat wave. Nevertheless, signs of autumn are nudging her out.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

be still my heart

There! I just sent my nonfiction book proposal off to an unsuspecting agent at a major Christian literary agency. I felt a momentary pang of anxiety just before I hit "send"...

...and then, I let out a huge sigh of relief. Done.

You may have had a similar experience even if you're not a writer. Perhaps you remember what it felt like when the school bus door closed behind your kindergartner on the first day of school.

You worried about her. Was she safe? Would she get to her destination? How would she get along there?

Or, you may have felt a surge of self-doubt when you submitted your resume for that job you've always wanted.

Or, perhaps it happened when the doctor called you back in to go over your test results.

As well as we prepare for things, as important as they are to us, they slip so easily out of our control. And that can be scary.

I picture my proposal arriving in the agent's in-box today and moldering there for an indefinite period of time. It could be months. Years, actually. During that period of time misgivings will haunt me. Until I know for certain what her response is I will obsess over it. If she rejects it, I'll have to go through the same process again and again. If she accepts it, I'll have deadlines and edits to face. All of it part of the journey.

So...if you're sending you children off to school this month, or off to college, I hope it goes well for them--that they like their teachers, make new friends, and enjoy learning. I hope you get called in to interview for the job you want, or need. I hope your doctor has good news for you. Then you, too, can breathe a sigh of relief.

Remember: Uncertainty and expectation sow the seeds of hope that only you can keep alive.

Now that my book proposal has gone in, I hope I can catch up on the laundry. I hope to get in an afternoon nap, and to make plans for the weekend. I hope my book is safe.
"It doesn't hurt to be optimistic."
~Lucimar Santos de Lima~
I hope you have an optimistic week!

Sunday, August 9, 2015

off topic

This week I’ll be in Pittsburgh taking care of my daughter's Great Dane, the one-and-only Zara.


Last month, I had BK, my son's Pittie, for a week.


And, earlier this summer, I kept my other daughter's dog, Cooper.


Even so, I miss my dog, Famke…


...which is why I enjoy spending time with my grand-dogs. It leads me to reminisce about all the dogs in my life and their stories. That’s why this week’s post is off topic for a writing blog. Except for the dog story part.
As a child, our first dog was a curly haired, black cocker spaniel named Fluffy. I don’t recall how we came to adopt her but I’m pretty sure we didn’t pay good money for her. Back in those days you did someone a favor when you took an unwanted dog off their hands. Fluffy was sixteen years old and losing her sight when she died. I was sixteen, too. My parents and brother were away for the week on a college tour so I was alone when someone hit her right in front of the house. I called my best friend…whose father was a hunter…because I knew what had to be done. He arrived within minutes, took aim, and pulled the trigger. He was kind enough to take old Fluff away, while I broke the news to my family by phone. It's as though it happened yesterday…

Then there was the gorgeous Irish Setter I picked out at the SPCA and named Penny. She was the intrepid wanderer. We would find her miles from home after getting a phone call from a total stranger in town, or after a random search of the area. So, it came as no surprise when she met the same fate as Fluffy on the highway leading out of town. The same exact fate.

Skippy was a happy mutt that wandered into the yard one day and just decided to stay…after I slipped him a bowl of good cold water and a bite to eat.

Then one day, he just moseyed off and we never saw him again.

Elsie was the orphaned Bassett hound my father brought home from the local bowling alley one cold January night…out of the goodness of his heart. Who doesn’t love a Bassett? But, alas, a week or so later, the owner showed up and back she went.

Then I grew up and got married. And got another dog, a Springer Spaniel we named Paco. As he grew older, he lost his sight to the point where he would just randomly walk into trees in the yard. We did the merciful thing with him in the end. His ashes are on the shelf…

…along with the ashes of Brandy, our first Golden. She lived a long life, too, but her demise was especially painful for us. We were on vacation and she was at her usual kennel for the week when they called to say she was sick—weak and short of breath. They took her to vet for us where the diagnosis was heart failure. A few days later they called back to say she was worse--suffering--and there was nothing more they could do for her. So, my husband asked them to put her down. He was kind enough not to mention it to the rest of us so we could continue to enjoy vacation. All week long he held it in, until we were on our way home.

Next came Macey, another Golden. 

In her day she could outrun any tennis ball and snag it out of the air with the accuracy of a stealth missile. She lived to the age of sixteen, eventually crippled with arthritis…just not a happy soul. We had to let her go just a couple of months ago.

And, at some point, we took in Max, our son's black Lab when he ended up in an apartment that didn’t allow pets. How rude!


Like Penny, Max was a wanderer. I spent many hours tracking him down in the fields around our house, and bailed him out of the pound one day when he got caught. He suffered a torn cartilage in his knee that never healed properly so the pain eventually got to him. He had a couple of aggressive episodes that forced him over the proverbial rainbow bridge when he was just five years old.

Last but not least was my Great Dane, Famke. 

Haunted by the demon of an abusive puppyhood she never got over, she unleashed her pent-up fear and anger on Zara one day. The vet offered testing, medication, and behavioral training in an effort to explain it away, and to prevent it from happening again, but I knew it was too big a risk to take, so Famke followed in Max’s paw prints. After all, we had a grandchild on the way…


A dog is a furry pile of energy and affection. A protector. An entertainer. A listener and a healer. When you invite one into your life, you invite both laughter and heartache. When you lose a dog, you lose a little bit of yourself.

So…thank goodness we have Zara, BK, and Cooper now.

"C'mon, girl. Let's go for a walk."

This blog is dedicated everyone who has ever loved and lost a dog.
"Properly trained,
a man can be a dog's best friend."
~Corey Ford~

Sunday, August 2, 2015

how to prune a manuscript

This week was "re-pot the house plants" week for me. Their roots needed a little room to stretch and a shot of plant food for encouragement. The problem is they went from this:

...and this: this:

...because if you want your garden to flourish you have to trim it back every so often. Then the new flowers will come in fuller and thicker, and the plant will be stronger and better than ever. It was a painful process...cutting off all those blossoms with nothing but wishful thinking for the future.

It occurred to me that this is a lot like revising a manuscript, especially when it seems to be coming along just fine. Before you submit it, you have to uproot the whole thing, chop out passages that you think are perfect just the way they are, cut away the beautiful literary rhetoric, and then wait to see what develops.

Hopefully it will come back stronger, fuller, and tighter than ever. Your critique partners will "ooh" and "ahh" when they see what you have done. It will have been worth the time, effort, and loving kindness you put into it because, like your garden, your writing will be better.

"To plant a garden 
is to believe in tomorrow."
~Audrey Hepburn~
I was tempted not to blog today because it was just so beautiful outdoors and I was really busy this weekend:

But I couldn't help myself...

Have a great week!