Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Waiting For Fall

Ah, summer.

I hate it.

Okay, there are a couple of nice things about summer, I suppose. I admit them if pressed. I like it when I'm in Yosemite and the air smells of heat and pine and dust. I like long evenings on the porch with wine and fresh tomatoes. I like swimming in the lake and drying off on the bank. I like....

Whoops. I ran out of things.

I hate heat -- my naturally sunny disposition turns sour as soon as the mercury soars anywhere above a brain-melting 72 degrees. Too much sunshine gives me a headache, which then turns into a migraine, from which I try to hide in the bedroom with too much light, in a house with no air conditioning. And I whine, and whine, and whine.

See? Summer makes me annoying.

Give me a cool, fall day, when the edges of evening are crisp like the top of an apple crumble. Or a stormy winter night when you worry if the roof can take the weight of the water. Or a drizzly spring morning when you wonder if it will ever dry out enough to mow the newly happy grass.

I know I'm an odd duck, but I love the problems of inclement weather. I like worrying about oil slicks on the highways, and whether my windshield wipers work. I like making sure my umbrella still opens (although I never want to carry it). I love it when the house is too cold when I get up to write, when I have to stumble around the house making coffee while wrapped in layers of wool, waiting for the heater to fire up and take off the chill enough to put my fingers on the laptop and start working.

Heat ennervates me. I have no brain. No creativity. Certainly no drive. On really hot days I lie in my front of my fans in a wet dress and turn my sound machine to the rainstorm option. Over the rain, there's a computerized plink-plink that I can just imagine is a stubborn drip hitting a bucket outside.

I spend summer writing storm scenes and waiting for fall.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Way Summer Ought To Be

by Sophie

School's been out for a couple of weeks and I'm crazy thrilled to have my kids home. I'm not so thrilled about all the driving, arranging, scheduling...the sports camps, the music camps, the reading ahead for fall semester...not even about the charitable project one of the kids is doing (yeah, yeah, yeah, it builds character - um, mine. Moms ought to get the f'ing Eagle badge or whatever it is, just for getting through all the nagging and prodding and encouraging without turning to drink. It is ironic that the project involves something called a "Peace Pole"...conversations about its completion date are far from peaceful...)

When I was a kid, summer was a do-it-yourself affair. My mom didn't work, but I don't believe it ever occured to her that it was her responsibility to amuse us. The first she expected to see of us was dinner, as long as we got our chores done.

Needless to say, that led to a certain amount of creativity.

My favorite summer project was one I undertook with my brother. Mike made a brick mold out of scrap wood, and we started turning out bricks made from Missouri clay dirt. While we waited them to harden to a construction-ready consistency, we got some of the neighbor kids to help us dig a hole in the woods next to our house. If you're familiar with midwestern soil, you'll know that excavating sufficient rocks, roots, and clay and shale deposits to create a hole big enough for four kids to crouch in was a considerable effort. Our fingernails stayed black and our bare feet built up calluses that would send any self-respecting manicurist screaming. Many days later, we were ready to cover the thing with an old piece of drywall boosted from some dad's workshop. We made a bunch of Ritz-and-peanut-butter sandwiches and hunkered down there waiting for the apocalypse.

Drywall isn't really good for exterior walls, as the next storm proved. The bricks - whose possible use eluded us - melted back into mud. We found something else to do.

Fast forward to 2009. I'm knocking myself out to meet my deadlines while my kids turn to Resident Evil Five for company and wait for me to get hungry enough to take them to Subway. Meanwhile, on the other coast, the Best Niece Ever has found her way back to summer as it was meant to be, summer filled with imagination and magic and stories in her head.

Evidently she took a long look at her dad's Shamus plaque and thought to herself....well, this is what she thought up:

And her dad didn't help. He just....let it happen, like parents from the Olden Days.

Today's report from my brother is that my nephew now wants to get in on the action. "The pistol inspired him to make his own: 24 lego handguns, in various colorful colors. He then lined them up on the front windowsill and announced that he was opening his own gunshop."

Ooooh....I'm getting a little misty. Now that's what summer ought to be.

Friday, June 26, 2009

making babies, making readers

This week’s guest is Pamela Groves, a youth services librarian for the Princeton Public Library in New Jersey. Also an essayist and novelist, Pamela shares her love of reading by fostering literacy in the youngest among us.

Want to meet some great characters? Come to infant or toddler storytime at your local public library! When last have you quacked like Duck or gobbled like Turkey or snickered gleefully as Itsy Bitsy gets washed down the spout again and again? Wouldn’t you have wanted a lamb just like Mary’s little one? Or a pocket-less bear named Corduroy?

If you’ve never attended a baby or toddler storytime, go, even if you have to steal a baby to get in. They are unique gatherings, sorted by age—newborns, infants, toddlers, preschool—accompanied by their caregivers, who come together weekly to listen to age-appropriate stories, sing songs, chant nursery rhymes, and play with puppets. The librarian knows not only the rhymes and songs, but also the importance of using words to promote mental development and the acquisition of language. He or she is conducting the storytime as a fun activity for all, while teaching and modeling critical family literacy skills.

The goal is to show parents and caregivers --often older brothers and sisters-- what they can do to help their children become aware of and comfortable with books and language. Often we think that children will learn literacy skills in school, but these skills develop long before children enter school.

Here’s how I see it: What does every writer want? What does every writer need? Readers, of course! As a Youth service librarian I am in the reader-making business. People make babies (I helped make two beauties, myself) and if the baby and family are lucky enough to have someone like me in their life from birth, they will benefit greatly because my job is to help get them ready to read. This is the philosophy that forms the foundation for a new undertaking in my home country – creating a storytime project in rural Jamaica.

When Mama or Papa can’t read (Jamaica has a high illiteracy rate) how do they help their child? Storytimes help to counteract intergenerational illiteracy, and offer a wonderful opportunity for partnership as all ages come together to experiment with words and language. It is easier to learn when you are actively involved; therefore “fun” is at the heart of family storytimes. And just like when one writes, a storytime shows rather than tells how much fun and joy there is in reading and rhyming.

On my last trip to Jamaica I did a family storytime for all ages in a cute little fishing village on the south coast. The Coast is made up of a series of small fishing villages with silky grey volcanic sand and fossilized rock. There, the wind (Jamaicans diminutively call it a “breeze”) is an almost constant companion; you either make it your friend or you’ll find yourself grumbling a lot. It’s only a part-timer resident though...which is good because it can start to feel like you’re being bounced, battered and dried out. I can still remember feeling sand behind my eyeballs. At my age one doesn’t welcome dryness easily, no matter where it appears.

Before leaving the U.S. I spent hours scouring Amazon and my library’s shelves to find characters that would appeal to rural Jamaican children in general and the children I would be reading to in particular. So, who traveled with me to Jamaica – risking confiscation because if you can believe it, the Jamaican government recently instated a tax on people bringing in books?? (I confess I didn’t tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth at Customs…)

I had to take at least one trickster tale: Anansi’s Party Time by Eric A. Kimmel: a hilarious story of wit and wisdom in both Anansi and Turtle. Big Friends by Margery Cuyler: Set in the wide expanse of Eastern Africa, two giants meet at their respective campsites and become great friends. Every household, with or without a child, should own I Ain’t Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont, Hush Little Baby, illustrated by Brian Pinkney, and Itsy Bitsy Spider by Iza Trapani.

I love picture books that can be sung – singing engages everyone and being able to have a book open brings the words on a page, music and images together beautifully. Other titles were Duck Soup by Jackie Urbanovic, Dear Zoo, a clever pop-up by Rod Campbell, and Nanta’s Lion by Suse MacDonald, set in Africa where what the lion Nanta cannot find appears by the end of the book through clever diecuts. Aesop’s fable The Contest Between the Sun and the Wind was perfect for the windy village.

The books were a whopping success. I had everyone engaged in call and response, singing, answering questions and a lot of laughter. What the books had in common was their universality. They were darned good stories with universal themes and, most importantly, universal characters. The audience of about two dozen, (half adult, one elderly, a couple teens and one infant) most of whom had never left their village could still relate to Itsy Bitsy’s perseverance, or Angelina’s sadness at leaving home.

I invite you to sit in on storytime and meet Little Angelina who has moved to the Big Apple from Jamaica and misses her island home until she finds a way to make Manhattan island her island in the sun. VIDEO

Yes, I write --and love it-- but I must tell you that making readers is a bit like making babies: A helluva lot of fun and always rewarding.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Characters Alive on the Page

by Gigi

I have a trick I use to figure out if a character in a novel was a great one. When I think back on a scene, if it takes me a moment for me to remember whether I read about that character on the page of a book or if I saw them on the stage or the screen, that was a great character. If a character is drawn effectively, I can visualize them effortlessly, and that image sticks with me.

Now, I'm not talking about great books here. Though it's often the case that vivid characters end up in great books, I don't think they always go together. As a lover of mysteries, some of my favorite books involve the cleverest of plots that leave me wonderfully satisfied at the end—and yet I can't remember a single character.

(This happened to me recently when I picked up a second book by a Clayton Rawson, an ingenious mystery plotter from the '30s. I must have been halfway into the book before I realized one of the main characters was a recurring character from the first book.)

But if a book has both? Yeah, those are the books that will stick with me.

So if it's characters who come alive that we're looking to create, where does that magic come from? For me, I was involved in theater long before I ever imagined writing a novel. In high school, I wrote, directed, and acted in plays and short films with my school friends. (And yes, my first failed attempt at writing a novel involved a cast of characters from a theater production.)

With this theatrical introduction to storytelling, I learned to approach a story visually, looking to actors—with very few props and bare-bones sets—to engage the audience. Character was the most important tool we had.

When I started writing more seriously, I found I was in danger of letting my love of characters sabotage my plots. These characters of mine had lives of their own. This is a great problem to have—up to a point. It's the reason I tend to write in intense bursts, rather than a little bit each day. When I'm successfully getting into characters' heads, they end up taking over. At some point I have to remind them who's the one who's alive and doing the typing.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Martha Is Ready To Kick Character's Ass

I'd like to share a sample of my recent editorial rejection letters.

"...the characterization didn't ring true for me..."
"...I didn't understand [the character]..."
"...I never fully connected with the characters."

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch. Ow. And take the knife out of my gut, please.

The editors are on target. Character is the last thing I think about. My process goes:

1. Themes/Concept
2. Plot Points
3. Paranormal World, Rules, and Setting
4. Major Character Arcs (in line with theme)
5. Character (the actual person filling the role)

To be honest...I just...don't....get..people. We're strange and crazy and bizarre. Justifying and motivating actions with psych 101 bullcrap, particularly by conveniencing my 1st-person present-tense narrator with a rich internal monologue, feels trite.

I don't have a tidy way to sum up this post. I haven't found a fix for my problem although I did complete a major agent-sanctioned revision which focused on character. I'll be attending summer writing conferences and stalking every session on emotional and feeling and other hand-holding-kumbaya topics.

I absolutely have to tackle and beat this shortcoming to the ground. If you know the secret to writing awesome characters, fill me in. I'm in need.

Note: We've just added another term to the Sophie Littlefield challenge, my friends. In addition to a bounty for the first person to find use of the word "gasp" in her novel, an additional bounty is being offered for "muse" used as a verb. Let's find it, people!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Character Study

I am a perpetual student--always learning. I take online classes. I read books on writing. I attend workshops. Using all that information--packed into the tiny crevasses of my brain--I love to analyze books. Umm, not the plot structure (makes my head hurt!) or sentence structure (because no, parsing sentences is not my forte). I don’t do grids or Hero’s Journey outlines. But I do examine why a novel does or doesn’t work for me.

And before I go further, I’m talking about fiction–primarily romance or mystery. I love the payoff. I want a happy ending where the girl gets the boy, the hero(ine) gets the villain, or even better both occur.

A novel’s strength (for me) comes down to character. In my opinion, character is the single most important element the writer should labor over. Because without a memorable character–someone who makes us root for them, bleed for them, and even condone behavior that goes against our moral code–the story, the plot, the setting, the theme becomes unimportant.

Great characters are the key to great fiction. A high-octane plot is nothing without credible, larger-than-life highly developed en-actors to make it meaningful. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass.

The best novels marry both intricate and deep character with a plot that will bring them the most heartache yet ultimately the most satisfaction. And when the character triumphs and vanquishes their enemy or overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles to true love--the reader is rewarded richly.

True Character can only be expressed through choice in dilemma. How the person chooses to act under pressure is who he is-the greater the pressure, the truer and deeper the choice to character. Story by Robert McKee (this is a brilliant book–to be read over the course of months because there is so much material to absorb)

Human beings are flawed. I doubt there are many people out there who would say they are perfect. I absolutely doubt there is anyone who would not change one single thing about their personality (and if you find one, they are lying! :) )

Most people want to be a higher form of themselves (and no I’m not talking about being skinnier or richer). They want to be more honorable, more generous, more kind, more forgiving, more honest, more heroic...more something.

Through works of fiction we get to experience that higher form of ourselves, making choices, performing sacrifices which will have a profound impact, without the fear of actually making the wrong decision and screwing things up. The author has already worked out the perfect course of action to make that ending the best and most creative and most rewarding for the character and ultimately for us, the reader.


Monday, June 22, 2009

Real and Imagined

L.G.C. Smith

My books almost always have characters based on real historical figures. Occasionally I lose track of what’s generally known about them as opposed to what I’ve made up to make a strong story.

I’ve spent a good portion of the last few years in the imaginary company of a handful of 7th century Anglo-Saxon kings. This started as a ‘what if?’ question that arose while I was in England, near Chester, indulging one of my favorite hobbies, the study of English place names. In the process, something else entirely caught my attention.

In the early 7th century, there had been a dramatic battle in which Æthelfrith of Bernicia, the pagan king of what would become Northumbria, faced off against a coalition of British and Anglo-Saxon kings. According to Bede, more than a thousand monks from the nearby monastery at Bangor surrounded the battlefield to pray for his opponents’ victory, Æthelfrith ordered his men to kill them all.

This was a vicious act on an extreme scale even in a brutal time. I kept wondering about the character of a man who would do such a thing. What if, I thought, Æthelfrith, or any of the dozens of warlord kings of his time somehow landed in our lives? Here. Now. What place is there for men like this? If they didn’t land in jail, the only places I could see them fitting in would be military contexts.

It was only a hop and a skip to making up stories about exactly that happening, which left me having to flesh out the character of men about whom very little is known. Because they were real, and because there’s not a great deal I can infer about them aside from the handful of facts that have survived the centuries, I had a lot of work to do.

First, I had to know more about 7th century Britain. A lot more. As I read – history, archaeology, landscape studies, mythology, Anglo-Saxon literature, Old English linguistics, hagiographies, manuscript studies, ecclesiastical development, and more – I kept Æthelfrith and his colleagues in mind. I built a sense of their world. A limited sense. Unquestionably. I can’t know a character without knowing their world in as much detail as I can muster.

This is more of a limitation than not. Many, if not most, writers come to know their characters in more universal human terms, I think. Emotion is key. Unfortunately, I come to emotion slowly. I seem unable to leave my training as an ethnographer behind me. I want to know the contexts in which my characters lived before I can fathom how they dealt with feelings.

Once I get a developing vision of that context in place, I still don’t have enough on my 7th century warrior kings for any of them to carry a novel. So I write in what I imagine to be their voices. I have them tell me about themselves: the things they've done; the things of which they are most proud, and most ashamed. At this point, I draw not so much on anything directly related to my historical characters as figuring out what a certain personality type might have been like in another time and place. This is where the fiction starts.

I am aware of two characters as I do this. One is shadowy but real. The other grows ever clearer in my mind, but is made-up. They bear the same name, but they aren’t the same. My Æthelfrith was broken by his victory near Chester when he slew so many unarmed monks, though he would not admit as much. Shortly thereafter he lost everything he had worked a lifetime to achieve, his children scattered in exile, a hated foe claiming his crown.

But was the real Æthelfrith a broken ruler at the end of his life? There’s no way to know. It’s possible he was a sociopathic butcher who had no finer feelings whatsoever. I have a few arguments I could make against that, but I will never know. I only hope that if I ever hie myself off to an early medieval conference where there are people who know about the real Æthelfrith and not my character, I will remember how I learned so many details about him – I made them up.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Channeling Her Inner Captain Kirk: Dana Fredsti on Character

Our guest today is Dana Fredsti, author of the Murder for Hire mysteries but perhaps more importantly, the lovely star of Princess Warrior...a truly schlocky viewing experience.

From Dana Fredsti:

When Juliet Blackwell asked me to write a post about character for Pens Fatales from the perspective as a writer and an actress, I pushed thoughts of impending deadlines to the back of the old brain pan and said 'yes.' Various writing related blogs talk a lot about creating characters: the pros and cons of pulling them from real life; how to make them realistic and/or interesting; what to name them; and so on and so forth. Lots of diverse advice and -- like a salad bar -- writers can pick and choose what works for them.

Actors have a lot of choices as well (and boy, will some actors talk your ear off about those choices if you give them half a chance) when developing a character. The choice of which way to turn can be a huge issue. I actually had an actor in my Murder for Hire troop argue with me when I told him he had to exit left. He objected, saying his character would stride forward, not turn. I pointed out the only off the stage and back to the dressing room in this particular venue was to the left.

We did not get along well. Ah well, such real life anecdotes, while annoying as hell at the time, gave me much grist for the writing mill when I wrote Murder for Hire: The Peruvian Pigeon.

Sometimes the choice is as simple as following orders; some directors are very particular about performance specifics. Writer/directors are even worse. But at least when you combine the two, you don’t feel like you’re being Pushmepullyou’d.

Some actors build elaborate back-stories for their characters, even when the part is a walk on with one or even no lines. You’d be amazed at how many background characters could tell you details ranging from their first kiss to what their favorite brand of ice-cream or underwear is. And again, if you ask them, they would be delighted to enlighten you.

I worked with one actor who played the villain in CAUSE OF DEATH, a low budget movie put out by the same people who produced PRINCESS WARRIOR (my claim to low budget, fashion terrorist fame. More on PW in a sec). D had a list of demands he gave us before production started, including (to name but a few): Several pairs of expensive leather gloves; certain designers for his wardrobe; and (my favorite) NO Rollo’s in the craft service area. Rollo’s, in case you’re not familiar with them, are little pieces of milk-chocolate enrobed soft caramel. He insisted these demands were necessary to help him fully immerse himself in his character. I wanted to immerse him in a large body of water and hold him down for a few minutes. He got what we gave him and I made sure to have a constant supply of Rollo’s on set. D ate most of them. Go figure. He managed to find his character. Actually D found more character than needed. Some truly glorious over-acting occurred.

For me, I never thought a lot about background, etc., when I was cast in a role. I mean, Eliza Doolittle is pretty much Eliza Doolittle. And Kate from Taming of the Shrew is a no-brainer. Although I chose (augh! I made choices and didn’t even realize it!) to make her sympathetic as opposed to an uber-bitch out to screw with patriarchy just because it was fun.

My best and favorite role was Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives. In case you’re not familiar with the play, it focuses on a divorced couple who discover that they are honeymooning with their new spouses in the same hotel. Realizing they still love each other and regretting having divorced, Elyot and Amanda abandon their mates and run off together to her apartment in Paris. Before long it becomes clear that while Elyot and Amanda cannot live without each other, nor can they live with each other. They argue violently and try to outwit each other, just as they had done during their stormy marriage. During the course of the play, Amanda breaks a record of Elyot’s head.

The actor playing Elyot happened to be my ex-boyfriend. We’d broken up right after we were cast in the roles. When I went into rehearsals, I was still in love with him. He brought his new girlfriend (who he moved into his apartment the day I left) to all the performances. By the end of the play, I was over him. In between, I thoroughly enjoyed breaking records over his head.

Finding the character was amazingly simple in this case and it is honestly the best performance I’ve given in my life.

Then there’s PRINCESS WARRIOR. Juliet has seen it. I know she’s snickering while reading this and she is right to do so. It is a terrible movie, known for having the longest and dullest wet T-shirt contest in cinema history. I used the experience in a book (not finished) about low budget Hollywood, and include here an excerpt that is very close to my real life experience. I’ve changed the names of the director/producer to protect the guilty.

"So you're here to read for our villainess, Daggerette. Let me tell you a little bit about the story so you'll have some context for the scene. By the way, are you comfortable with the sides? Do you need more time?"

The only correct answers to those questions were respectively 'yes' and 'no', so that's what I said. Besides, it was the truth. My stage fright had subsided and the butterflies in my stomach had regressed into nice calm cocoons. I was ready to channel my inner Captain Kirk.

"Great! Okay, so Curette and Ovule are sisters, princesses on a planet in a galaxy somewhere far, far away." He grinned, pausing, so I gave a 'hah hah, aren't you clever' laugh in response. "Their mother, the queen, is dying and passes on the royal Seal of Power to Ovule even though Curette is the older sister 'cause Daggerette's evil."

Of course she is, I thought. She's brunette.

"So Curette tries to kill Ovule, who escapes to present day earth in a teleporter. She transports into a strip bar and meets our hero, Darren. He thinks she's crazy, but falls in love with her anyway and helps her hide when Curette and two of her evil minions follow in the teleporter. So it's basically a classic tale about good and evil, very black and white, no shades of gray. Any questions?"

My only question was how he gave that entire rundown without taking a breath, but it didn't seem relevant so I shook my head.

"Great! Don't worry if you make a mistake, you can read it more than once if you want. It's a short bit, so the main thing is to have fun with it. I see Curette as an old fashioned bad guy, black and white, she's bad and she loves being bad! So have fun and be bad! Don't be afraid to think outside the box."

Okay, so this called for evil Captain Kirk, possibly Turnabout Intruder, 'I'm really a woman' Captain Kirk. I could do that.

"Great! Okay, whenever you're ready."

I took a deep breath, thought "I'm captain of the Enterprise!" and dove right in.

"Have you ever seen what a white hot spoon does when inserted into a human mouth?" I asked, enunciating and rolling the words out with relish. "It sort of...cleaves to the roof of the mouth and the tongue." Pause for evil – yet subtle chuckle. If I had a mustache I would have twirled it.

"Let me make myself very clear, sister." I stared at both James and Manny and narrowed my eyes. "And if you don't give me the Seal of Power, sister, your precious boyfriend will be something short when it comes to the more… pleasures of life." Pause. "No? Very well." Dramatic pause with evil smile. "Bulemia, hand me the spoon!"

Dana kicking some Uvula butt as Curette, Princess Warrior (in her earth clothes)
The end result? I gave great white hot spoon. And I got the part. My performance is somewhere between a female Tim Curry a la Rocky Horror Picture Show and generic villainess from hell. My motivation? Mom always loved Ovule better. If you’d like to read more about the making of Princess Warrior, go here (www.danafredsti.com/Skeleton_wore_fishnets.pdf) If you want to watch it with MST3K type commentary, come on over to my place! Just bring a bottle (or three) of wine ‘cause I can only stand to watch it while tipsy.

I’ve done a few projects where I wrote or co-wrote the scripts. Murder for Hire is a good example, as is a horror/sci-fi film called PALE DREAMER. We cast it, made a trailer and got a lot of interest in the project, but the film never did get produced, more’s the pity. Although the part of Jeanette was not originally written for me, I knew I wanted to play it even while we were writing it. Strong, ornery women are the most fun to play and I was cast opposite Ken Foree (if you’re a horror geek, you’ll recognize his name as the lead in George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD). Also cast were Josef Pilato (another Romero favorite) and Brinke Stevens (former Marine Biologist turned Scream Queen). I was in heaven. Yes, I am a horror geek. Anyway, the trailer (co-directed by Brian Thomas – also co-writer – and Jeff Varga – also the producer) is linked here for your viewing pleasure, http://movierich.com/Squeezed/pd_Custom.mp4 .

I could blather on about character, acting and writing for hours, so I’d better stop here. Besides, if I give away all my stories, there’s no point in anyone reading my books. I do tend to draw on real life quite a bit. Anyway, thank you, ladies of Pens Fatales, for having me as your guest!

Note from Juliet Blackwell-- check out the Pale Dreamer trailer. Classic!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Odd Ducks

--Adrienne Miller

Write what you know.

I hate that adage. Cause the things I write about I have never experienced. I have never waltzed at a ball. I have never worn a corset. The closest I have ever been to Scotland is the local Highland Games at the fairgrounds--and no, I won’t eat the haggis.

What I do have is access to a fantastic library system, a high speed connection to Google and a bucket load of imagination. I’ve always thought that was enough.

Turns out, I thought wrong.

This weekend I listened to two authors I admire speak at my local RWA chapter. One question they asked stuck in my head.

What special expertise do you bring to your work?

Well, crap, I thought. I don’t. I drive a Toyota Avalon to work everyday; I don’t ride in phaeton through Hyde Park. I don’t have any expertise on the little details of my characters daily lives. Lots of resources, yes. Real expertise, no.

But as I was driving home, obsessing over my shortcomings as a writer, it hit me. I may not know off the top of my head what kind of material my heroine’s nightgown is made of, but I do know her. We have a connection, her and I.

You see, I don’t write regular heroines--or heroes either, now that I think about it. Mine are not the graceful, slender beauties of society. Nope, I’ve got a smart-mouthed pickpocket, and an unsophisticated but wickedly clever lady’s companion. There is one very rich heiress who keeps poking around my head, but even she insists on wearing pants.

I write about odd ducks, because I am one. That’s what I know. That’s my area of expertise. I know what it’s like to be a little different than everyone else. I know how it feels not to neatly fit in either column A or B.

This is what I bring to my characters. They aren’t weird for weird’s sake. They just are who they are. And since I throw them down in the middle of England’s Regency period, with all its social rules and expectations, I usually don’t have to search very hard for conflict.

So in a way I do write what I know. But I still hate that saying.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Characters Behaving Badly

--by Juliet Blackwell

For the past week, my characters have been behaving badly.

Here's the scenario: I'm writing along, following (more or less) the outline that I was contractually obliged to turn in to my editor months ago --long before I had a clue what the book was actually going to be about-- and then some character pops up and goes an entirely different way than originally intended, veering off the outline and careening into brand new, uncontrolled territory.

What the hell?

I'm a reasonably intelligent person. I realize only too well that these characters -- in fact, this whole fictional world-- is a product of my mind, and my mind only. So how on earth can a character decide to disobey my demands... act and say things that are NOT part of my script? This makes no logical sense.

I used to be a social worker, so I jump up and consult the DSM-III-R (which, if you're in the field of psychology, gives you an idea of how long ago I trained -- I think they're on the DSM-X by now). This is the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic Statistical Manual, which is supposed to help in the diagnosis of disorders.

*Frantic flipping through pages...*

Hearing voices in my head...yada yada yada...Yup. I must have a multiple personality disorder. But don't we all? According to a great literary name, Mel Brooks:

Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, personalities and have them relate to other characters living with him.

So maybe all fiction writers are just schizophrenic, living with multiple characters within us. This idea frightens me because I write murder mysteries. I hang out with people who write about murderers, assassins, and serial killers...these people enjoy nothing so much as talking about gruesome, inventive ways to kill someone. Does these mean they're just waiting for the right moment to let their inner Hannibal Lecter out for a spin? Should I become a romance writer instead? After all, I'd rather be romanced than...ya know...killed and eaten.

Maybe I'm becoming a romance writer already, whether I like it or not. Because the character that I said was behaving badly, the one who inspired this post? The one in a perpetually bad mood, who smokes, wears motorcycle boots, a black leather jacket, and a scowl? He just hit on my protagonist, right out of the blue.

He was supposed to be a bit character with a simple walk-on role, and now this.

The real problem is... my protagonist kissed him right back. I cannot keep that scamp under control.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dating Your Characters

by Rachael Herron

I like my characters. When my characters talk, pull out a chair and watch the fireworks. Sometimes they get the best of me, and leap off the page and run around and have their own little party under my desk, and it's damn hard to round them all up and herd them back into my computer.

(Plot? Suspense? And the dirtiest of all words: Conflict? Yeah, I'm way more comfortable with characters. More on that dilemma another day.)

Of course, my characters don't start off as real, and I think one of the best things I've learned in recent years is not to try to force anything on them. The longer I write a character, the more real they become, without me trying to make them Be anything or Act Certain Ways because they should (they hate that).

It's kind of like dating. On page one, you go on a blind date with your character.

Let's call this blind-date/new character Anna. (See? I just spent less than a second naming her. That's another thing I don't get hung up on. I name them, and if they tell me their real name later, that's a perfect time to sit back and enjoy the magic of Find and Replace. Last names are really fun: I use Oakland city streets for all my main character's last names: MacArthur, Harrison, Bancroft.) Anna doesn't have a last name, though. She's just Anna. Or maybe Anna Pensfatales (pronounced pen-fet-ahl--I know you were wondering). I like that name.

So I take Anna Pensfatales out for a spin. First page = first date. We know nothing about each other. I'm horrified to learn she doesn't eat cheese, and she thinks I'm crazy for having four cats (well, she's right. So I've learned she's smart).

By the second chapter I've learned that she's a little bit snippy first thing in the morning if she doesn't inject caffeine straight into her veins. In the third chapter, I put her in a lace negligee and she gets so annoyed that it takes me the next four chapters to figure out that there's no way in hell she'd ever get into a negligee of her own volition, and she's still ticked and that's why she's being such a donkey.

By the end of the book, though, I know her. She's mine. I get to go back and fix all the times I screwed up, changing her sentences to lines she'd actually utter, changing her actions to things she'd actually attempt and carry out. And by now, she likes me, too, and she's willing to work with me. A little more, anyway.

(Now, crazily, I'm a bit fond of this Anna and may give he a little walk-on part in the novel I'm editing now. See? She suckered me!)

Yep. Characters are just people, and I am very like Kenneth on 30 Rock who stated, "There's only two things I love in this world: everyone and television." Amen, Kenneth, amen.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Names from the Sky

by Sophie Littlefield

Your first introduction to a character in a book is usually his or her name, so there's a lot of pressure on a writer to get it right.

Writers spend many frustrated hours trying to come up with monikers for every walk-on with a bit part. Last weekend I went to a signing where a well-known author confessed to taking names from household products and people walking past his door when inspiration refuses to strike.

Not me. I’m acquainted with plenty of varieties of writerly angst, but names are no problem for me. They fall from the sky, fully formed and insistent, whenever I conjure up a new character.

Since I often write about rural settings, and since the rural haunts of my past were populated by people with odd and creative nicknames and family names, I’m unrestrained by convention.

Sometimes names get a little stuck, like bits of flotsam lodged in a downed tree in a creek. A while back I named both a dog and an 8-year-old boy Bullet – one was in a novel and one was in a short story. I used Cass –the name of my across-the-street childhood tormentor – for both a male hop-head and, years later, a hot-blooded heroine.

The heroine of my mystery series, Stella Hardesty, was named after a dog. Our beloved canine Stella died of old age this year, before the first book was released, so it seems like a nice tribute.

When I wrote romance, my linguist friend Lynn (our very own LGC Smith) helped me understand why we are drawn to certain names and how to order consonants to invoke, for instance, alpha-style masculinity. I used these lessons to name my romance heroes Griff and Mac, among others.

Sadly, good technique is largely lost on me. Despite knowing the proper way to do many things, I always revert back to my old undisciplined ways, which are fueled by equal parts intuition and stubbornness - the plucked-from-the-ether, don’t-know-where-that-came-from method. As a result, in the last two years I’ve named men Goat, Roy Dean, Pitt, Ollie, Dimmit, Buster, and Earl…for gals I’ve got Silver, Gemma, Sabine, Novella, Shirlette, and Darla Jane.

(In case you are wondering whether I named my own children this way – why yes, I certainly did. However, my husband didn’t much care for the result, and vetoed both Hank “Buddy” Littlefield and Ruby June Littlefield….)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Please welcome Pens Fatales guest...Maya Banks :)

Given that I’ve known the topic of this week for uhm quite a few weeks and the fact that I had absolutely nada in the way of inspiration, I think I’m with Martha on the importance of a first line. I read a lot of books. I mean a lot. I wracked my brain to remember any snappy first lines and I came up blank. I’m sure plenty of authors had them, but it’s not what I remember about their books. I remember characters, a great plot, a really yummy romance, a great hero…but not their first lines. Telling huh?

So instead I looked through my books to see what I’d used as a first line since apparently I don’t place a whole lot of emphasis on them. And yeah, after looking, I can see that I don’t *sigh*

No guts, no glory, no orgasm. –from “What She Craves” in the For Her Pleasure anthology.

It was a damned miserable day to day. –from “Her Majesty, My Love”

Sir Rodrick Castleton fled as if the hounds of hell were nipping at his heels. –from “Beyond the Night”

He had to have pissed off a hell of a lot of people in a past life. It was the only explanation he could come up with as to why he’d drawn this pussy-ass babysitting job. –from as of yet unnamed Kelly book 3 (Garrett’s story)

And sometimes you need the first couple of lines to set that all important first scene.

She had the look of a woman on a mission. Eli Chance recognized a sexual predator
when he saw one. And damn if he didn’t want to be her next victim. –from “Into the Mist”

So yeah, while it’s nice to have a snappy, memorable first line, the truth is, even if you do, I probably won’t remember it. But a really good story? Yeah, I’ll remember that.

Guest blogging today...Maya Banks

Hello Pens Fatales readers,

Today's guest will be the amazing Maya Banks. Maya was the impetus for us to stop talking about doing a group blog and get organized. We are so pleased to have Maya as our guest. She will be blogging later today, so stay tuned!!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Gigi Conducts an Experiment

When the topic of first lines first came up, I couldn't recall a single first line from any of my favorite books. Strange. Perhaps I had been traumatized by my personal first line experience, during which every single one of my early readers told me that my lovingly crafted first line had to go. (They were right.)

Hmm… An experiment was in order. I went to my bookshelves and pulled out several of my favorite mysteries. A wonderful group of books, full of other memorable lines I can recite off the top of my head, but none of their first lines seemed all that special.

"When I first set eyes on Evelyn Forbes-Barton, she was walking the streets of Rome."
-Crocodile on the Sandbank, Elizabeth Peters

"So still and silent was the fog-wreathed form that it might have been an angular, black boulder."
-Old Bones, Aaron Elkins

"Before I tell you about Hannah Schneider's death, I'll tell you about my mother's."
-Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl

"Detective Superintendent Peter Diamond was suffering in the rear seat of a police car scorching towards Bath along the Keynsham bypass with the headlamps on full beam, blue light pulsing and siren wailing."
Bloodhounds, Peter Lovesy

The Houdini Specter, Daniel Stashower

And a favorite Golden Age mystery:
"To the murder of Professor Grimaud, and later the equally incredible crime in Cagliostro Street, many fantastic terms could be applied—with reason."
The Three Coffins, John Dickson Carr

Granted, you get a hint that many of these are mysteries from their first lines (a detective here, a murder there) but presumably you already knew that when you picked up the book. What makes these first lines special is the strength of the stories that follow.

So are these great first lines? Maybe. But are these great books? Definitely.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Martha Thinks Firsts Are Overrated

The first line of this blog sucks.

You still reading? Good. Because I don’t care about first lines. Or even first paragraphs. As a reader, I expect to do some work, pull a little weight of my own, and that includes getting past a first page or even first chapter without needing to be dazzled every second of the way.

I want to be drawn in, seduced – and in my experience (with books) that happens best when it happens slowly, bit by bit.

If I were going to judge an entire book by one line – it would be the last. I want a line that makes me exhale or even gasp*. A line that makes me caress the back cover as I close the tome. One that sends me back to the beginning to rethink every plot twist and the characters’ journeys.

“After all, tomorrow is another day” means nothing without Scarlett’s stubborn resistance to Rhett.

“He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance,” while beautiful on its own, is even lovelier because of the pain Frankenstein and his creature endured.

A first line is a blank slate, but a last line brings with it the baggage of the last hundred pages. It must deliver on tens of thousands of words of promises. By a book’s last line, you’re ready for payoff. You’ve cried at the character’s sorrows. Laughed at their moments of joy. By the last line, the story no longer belongs to the writer. It’s yours.

* Sophie is a gasp-hater, folks. She absolutely detests the verb gasp. Thinks it has no business in a novel. So I'm putting this on the line. The first person to buy Sophie's book, A Bad Day For Sorry (Aug 09) and find the word gasp in it - email me with the page number @ martha@marthaflynn.com. There's a $25 amazon.com gift certificate in it for you. If the word gasp isn't in that book, then it's $50 to the person who finds it in her second release, a YA novel for Fall 2010. If not there, then $75 to the third book. I could do this all decade, people. All. Decade.

** Do you want to know the winner of Ellen Hopkin's 30 page critique? Well then...take a look below.....
Christina Farley, come on down! For a take on why Christina's win is extra serendipitous, read my post on the raffle drawing.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

What Makes A Keeper?

I just want to say that I am not a person who remembers details. When I’m in the midst of working or planning, of course, I can pick random details from my brain at will. But once the project is over, most details get relegated to some nebulous part of my gray matter where they can be yanked back out (if need be) with a visual, or sometimes oral, prompt.

When this topic was mentioned, I could only think of one first line I knew immediately.

Gracie Snow was having a bad hair month. Heaven, Texas by Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

This line has stuck with me through years of reading and writing. Probably because the sentiment is universal, everyone has bad hair days. The idea of a whole month of them is horrifying.

But here’s the thing...even though this line has stayed with me, Heaven, Texas was not one of my favorite books by Phillips. There are countless other SEP books which I prefer over this one...they may or may not have spectacular first lines, I don’t remember.

The only other first line I remember...It was the best of times, it was the worst of times from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. At the risk of insulting English teachers everywhere, I’m pretty sure I stopped reading by page two.

So does the first line make or break a book? I took a scientific approach (yes, I am a nerd) and did a random sampling from some of my favorite authors and a few books that I just read. These stories have pretty cool beginnings.

A funeral always made for a bad day. Falling Awake by Jayne Ann Krentz.

One hundred and fifty-four fucking inches of rain a year–and this little corner of the Colombian jungle was getting it all tonight. Crazy Kisses by Tara Janzen.

Gwen Davies had a license to steal. Take Me Two Times by Karen Kendall.

I was recruited by the NSA at fifteen. Blowback by Lisa Hughey. (Currently under submission with several publishing houses, keep your fingers crossed :) )

Many of my keeper, re-read at least once a year, books by authors like Elizabeth Lowell, Cherry Adair, Linda Howard, Suzanne Brockmann, surprisingly do not have killer first lines. However the stories kicked ass.

So while that first line may hook the reader, it doesn’t always guarantee a place on the keeper shelf. But having a great (and memorable) first line surely doesn’t hurt.


ps. Ironically, after I wrote this post, I saw that Heaven, Texas was just re-released so if this put you in the mood to read about Bobby Tom and Gracie head to the bookstore

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Book's the Thing

L.G.C. Smith

First lines. Sometimes I hear them in my head, but I never seem able to work them onto the first page. The first line I heard for the book I’m working on now was “Where the hell is my warlord?”

Not bad. Spoken by a British intelligence bureaucrat who can’t find the Anglo-Saxon warlord he’s spent millions dragging fifteen hundred years out of the past, it’s fairly punchy. Not subtle or nuanced, but this isn’t a subtle novel.

Alas, I’ll be damned if I can get it smack at the beginning. It would be a decent first line if it weren’t on page 11.

I don’t worry about this too much anymore because I realized I don’t remember great first lines from the books I love. I appreciate them when I read them, but they aren’t sticky. Whoosh. Off they go into the blue.

Visual images stay with me: the faded map of Cornwall from a shop in Truro, the name Frenchman’s Creek handwritten alongside a narrow finger leading to the Helford River; Pip in the churchyard on the edge of the tidal marshes, caught by a filthy man in leg irons, threatening to eat him; Ruck on the road to Avignon with a troop of pilgrims, desperately trying to hush his hysterical young wife, Isabelle, before the other travelers turn on them. Stella Hardesty getting ready to plug an old trailer full of bullets.

I know Sophie’s “A Bad Day for Sorry” opens with a killer first line. It would be nice if I could remember it. As for du Maurier’s “Frenchman’s Creek,” Dickens’ “Great Expectations,” and Laura Kinsale’s “For My Lady’s Heart” -- well, none have compelling first lines, but I’ll never forget those opening images. I can’t count how many times I’ve reread them, or measure the enjoyment they’ve brought me.

That said, a zinger of a first line never hurt a reader, especially when followed by a top-notch read. Karen Marie Moning begins “Darkfever,” the first book in her current paranormal series, with the hard to ignore “My philosophy is pretty simple – any day nobody’s trying to kill me is a good day in my book.”

Like my own example, we’re not talking subtlety and nuance here. This is a conk-you-on-the-noggin, you-want-to-buy-this-book-don’t-you first line designed to slam straight into your story-lusting heart. It’s the sprinkle of toasted pecans on a black and tan sundae. Not necessary, but really nice.

That killer first line is always the ideal. In my imperfect reading practice, however, I don’t need one, and I won’t remember the gems I do find. I drive myself crazy searching for them in my own work, but in the end, I reconcile myself to the best I can manage. Then I make sure the book gets better as it goes.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Our First Guest!!! Karin Tabke

I'm so very pleased to announce our VERY FIRST grog guest: Karin Tabke. Karin spent two years as the President of our local RWA (Romance Writers of America) chapter. During her tenure, she offered words of wisdom, unflagging encouragement, and occasionally a shoulder to cry/whine on.

We're going to interview Karin asking the hard hitting, tough questions you've come to expect from the Pens Fatales (okay, maybe not so much hard hitting, cause really, we are so very nice)

Our subject for the first two weeks is First Lines so we're going to start in theme....

PF: What's your most favorite first line from a book? Do you have one or many?

KT: First of all I want to thank all of the grog ladies for having me today! I feel so special! Your first guest!!

So, fave first lines? I have a few and no surprise, I wrote them!

Here’s the first line from my debut hot cops series GOOD GIRL GONE BAD, “Are you trying to tell me Sergeant Jamerson, you didn’t lay one finger on Jesse Rivera?”

In SKIN, the first line is, “Strip.”

In JADED the first line is, “Touch me again, Mr. Townsend, and I’ll cut your balls off and shove them so far down your throat you’ll choke to death.”

Snerk all of these first lines are spoken by the heroines. Hmm I think I see a pattern.

I mix things up in the historicals, they are more atmospheric. From MASTER OF SURRENDER, book one in my Blood Sword Legacy series the first line: The pungent odor of urine, the copper tang of blood, and the stench of terror blended in perfect union with the ailing moans and strangled screams of the multitudes of prisoner begging for merciful death.

For me the first line has to hook. It has to make the reader want to read the second line to see what happens. Each subsequent line should whet the reader’s appetite for more. I’m very conscious of how each of my books begin. It’s not easy to cast the bait, hook the reader than reel them in. Each word counts.

PF: You run a "first line" contest on your website, can you tell us more about that?

KT: Of course! I will admit the first, First Line Contest was done purely as a promotional tool to drive readers to my website and hopefully encourage them to buy my book. But it has evolved into something far more important. (Don’t get me wrong! I want to sell books!). Let me back up a bit. When I cannonballed into this writing thing many moons ago, I did it with wild abandon and high hopes, and the expectation I would sell right off the bat. So, we all know how that goes. When the realization sunk in that I needed help, there wasn’t much out there. And god forbid I ask a published author to recommend their agent or plague upon plague, ask them for their editor’s snail mail addy to submit to. One would think I had asked them to kiss a canker sore infested frog. So, you get my drift. Amongst unpublished authors, there was an outpouring of support. Published authors? Nada. So, I vowed when my time came, I would pay forward.

That is what my First Line Contest has become. I stalk an editor and hold her hostage until she agrees to be my final judge, which is the hope of all of us, to get our work in front of a bona fide editor who can buy our story! My past final editor judges are Editorial Director at Pocket Books, Lauren McKenna. Then Kensington editor Hilary Sares, St. Martin’s editor Hilary Teeman, and this past contest, Senior Grand Central editor, Amy Pierpont.

Here’s the gist of the contest. I open it up to the first 100 commenters on my blog who post a first line. Each week I have an anonymous published judge cull five entries. Each Monday the lines that make it go up as a blog post and they have until Friday night to post their next line. Back to the next judge, until after about 15 weeks we have ten first lines that are now 15 lines. Those top ten go to five judges who then give me their five faves. Those five are my finalists. They have two weeks to write a cover letter and the first ten pages of their story that begin with their original first line. It goes to the editor, she ranks them, but the hope is she falls in love and requests more. And hope of all hope she buys! No sale yet, but lots of requests, and not only from editors but agents who follow the contest. It’s a huge amount of fun!

PF: What is the first line from your most recent release,
Master of Craving, from Pocket out NOW?

KT: “Push, milady, push!” Jane the royal nurse urged.

And now that we've hit the highlights of our theme, we are going to move on to more general questions.

PF: What made you start writing?

KT: Daydreaming in high school. I was smitten with Rod Stewart and the only way I could have him all to myself was to write our love story.

PF: What does your writing schedule look like?
KT: I have no schedule. I write during the day, at night, in the wee hours of the morning. It’s all over the place. But always in my office, and when I’m under deadline I write every weekday.

PF: What's the best or most inspiring fan letter or blog comment you've ever received?

KT: I’ve had some really nice reader emails over the years, but for me the biggest thrill came from RWA National when they awarded me the Pro Mentor of Year Award last year. Don’t get me wrong, I love it when readers tell me how much they love my stories and characters, but my biggest inspiration comes from making a difference in a writer’s life.

PF: What advice do you offer to aspiring writers out there?

KT: If publishing is truly your dream: Never, ever, EVER quit. I’m a goal orientated person, and I set my goal on New York. I wasn’t going to stop until I had achieved my goal. Now my goals are to stay employed with a New York publisher!

One final question, because really we all had so much fun (uh, sort of, maybe, okay, this was really hard but fun) coming up with one fun fact about ourselves, which can be seen on the Jungle Red grog, http://www.jungleredwriters.com/ post from May 29th when they invited us to tea.

PF: Tell us one "Fun Fact" about yourself.

KT: I think I’m a rock star but can’t carry a tune.

Karin can be found on her website, http://www.karintabke.com/, click the blog link to her personal blog The Write Life, a cozy fun place to hang out. She also blogs every other Friday at http://www.murdershewrites.com/ you can follow her on Twitter and friend her on Face book, both under Karin Tabke. Myspace too! She gets around! Or if you have any questions always feel free to email her at Karin@KarinTabke.com

Oh, and before I forget, to celebrate the release of MASTER OF CRAVING, book three in my Blood Sword Legacy series, Karin’s publisher, Simon & Schuster is offering A KNIGHT TO REMEMBER a free read. Just click on the link!

She is also giving away a signed copy of MASTER OF SURRENDER, book one in the Blood Sword Legacy series!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Humbling Revelations

--Adrienne Miller

Of all the rash and midnight promises made in the name of love, none, Boone knew was more certain to be broken than “I’ll never leave you.” - Cabal, Clive Barker

Let’s get this out of the way right now. I will never write this well. Never. Not if I studied every craft book that’s ever been written. Not if I wrote everyday for the rest of my life.

The first line of Cabal has stayed with me. I memorized it almost immediately. It is the gold standard by which I judge all other first lines--my own especially. And I am well aware that, in my own mind, I will never produce anything that surpasses its simple beauty.

In a strange way, this revelation has been liberating. I mean, if the best first line has already been written, the pressure is off. RIght? No need to sit on my butt for hours, staring at the awesome intimidation that is a blank document page and waiting for pure genius to pour forth from my fingers.

Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.

Don’t get me wrong. I still have a lot of work to do, a lot to live up to. I have to hook you. Pull you in. Not let you go until its 2 a.m. and you’re cursing me, yelling, “For Heaven’s sake, I have to get up in the morning.” That’s a tall enough order without having to worry about if my first line will make you weep.

So, if the trophy for best first line has already been awarded, I’m cool with that. Let’s just agree not to get into the contest for best last line of a novel. That shiny little beauty is still up for grabs as far as I’m concerned.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Unrequited Search for a Kick-Ass First Line

"On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all life was hopeless, and that I would eat myself to death.” –Anne Lamott, Plan B.

Great line. Great first line, to be more precise.

I’d like to say that first lines aren’t important; certainly they don’t make or break a book – most of us count amongst our most beloved novels those that start out with a tepid whimper but end with an unforgettable bang.

But like most writers, I’m also a voracious reader. And I do what most readers do upon picking up an unfamiliar novel:I glance at the back cover, then open it to the first page and peruse the first few lines.

I remember standing one summer in Booksmith in the Haight, San Francisco, and looking for the perfect airplane book: Paperback, not too stupid, but not too worthy, either. I don’t like to have to think a lot on airplanes, much less in airports.The young woman standing next to me-- sporting a nose ring, two eyebrow piercings, and an intricate tribal tattoo that ran around her neck-- told me Laurell K. Hamilton’s vampire hunter series was “hecka tight”.

I was skeptical. I’m not really a vampire-hunter kind of gal. I had never watched Buffy, and the last Dracula movie I saw starred Frank Langella as a young and sexy bloodsucker. Now the man plays Nixon.

Still, the young woman was so much cooler than I could ever hope to be that I picked up the book and took a look. The back cover blurb didn’t move me –and I’m far too cynical to be swayed by enthusiastic endorsement quotes-- but I flipped to page 1 and read:

Willie McCoy had been a jerk before he died. His being dead didn’t change that. He sat across from me, wearing a loud plaid sport jacket…He was a slime bucket, but he was an undead slime bucket. – Laurell K. Hamilton, Guilty Pleasures.

I bought the book.

As an author, I’m not sure I have yet managed to write that kind of “gotcha” first few lines, though I do try.

Our eyes met. I tried to keep a poker face. I failed. (Feint of Art)

“Anthony, that body is not part of your exhibit,” I said for the third time, my voice rising in desperation. (Shooting Gallery)

The sweet-faced boy, one arm curled around his cocker spaniel puppy, paid no attention to the swaying and bobbing of the sagging helium balloons near the doorway. (Brush with Death)

And now my latest, but the very first line in a new series:
Witches recognize their own.
(Secondhand Spirits)

Nope. Haven’t written my best opening line yet. I know it's in there somewhere. The sentence that makes you buy the book because you absolutely, positively need to read the next 335 pages. The line that makes you laugh, and recognize yourself, maybe even weep.

Okay, I’ll admit it. The first time I heard this week’s topic, I thought of nothing so much as the lines on my face. The first ones were a bit traumatic. But now they are numerous, and I forget which ones came first. I like to think of them as marks of experience, a well-lived life, and if I’m very lucky, plenty of laughter.

And unless I decide, like Anne Lamott, that life is not worth living and I must eat myself to death, I expect my lines to be with me the rest of my life.

Much like a really kick-ass first line of a book.

--Juliet Blackwell

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

First Lines Suck

Rachael Herron

The first line of my novel-in-progress is "'I need excitement,' Lucy said."

I hate it. It's an awful first line. I've hated it since I wrote it more than ninety-thousand words ago. But that's okay. It's a trick I play on myself. I want to hate my first line, because there's no way it's making it through the second draft alive. It's a constant reminder, every time I open the document, that changes will come, that revision is good.

Right up there with killing your darlings (I scream louder than they do), I believe in killing that first scene after the book is written, after you know what you were really writing, not just what you intended to write. After all, it's the first time those characters have breathed since their invention, and they tend to be a little asthmatic when they hit the light.

So if I start with a dud of a first line, I have no qualms about slicing it out later, no sense of regret that genius didn't shine on the work from day one. Heck, no, it didn't. There were days during the writing of the first draft when it felt like I was rearranging random words out of the dictionary and that perhaps my border collie could do it better.

The magic comes when that final scene is written, when I type "The End."

It's a lie, of course. It's not the end. It's the just the beginning. The first draft being finished means only that I know a little more about where the book should go, about who the characters might end up being. Now I can go back and revise the first line.

I'm in the second-draft of my novel-in-progress now, and my first line is "'Nothing ever happens here,' said Lucy." It's still not good, and it won't last to round three, but Lucy has a real voice now. She would never say "I need excitement." It's not in her quiet, careful nature, something I didn't know when I sat down for the first time at the blank page. So I'm getting closer. The first line eventually has to be perfect. It just doesn’t have to be perfect right now. Thank God.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Bring On The Sparkle

by Sophie Littlefield

So it begins – eight writer friends gathered under one virtual roof, long on enthusiasm and ready to roll. Many thanks to the Jungle Red gang for getting us started with yesterday’s raffle. Congratulations to Edith Maxwell, who won her choice of BRUSH WITH DEATH or SHOOTING GALLERY by Juliet, aka Hailey Lind - and welcome to PensFatales!

Every couple of weeks we’ll toss out a topic and see what comes up for the eight of us and our guests. We’ve already discovered that our little band is full of renegades, so expect creative interpretations and occasional side trips.

For instance: we’re starting with a discussion of first lines. I love a sparkly sentence as much as the next reader, but it doesn’t need to be in the first paragraph or page or chapter of a book to stop me in my tracks. For me, the most memorable lines often seem to be found when characters are being developed and revealed.

Or maybe it’s just that, for me as a reader, character is everything. A plot’s nice, I guess, but show me the inside of someone’s soul and I’m hooked. Do it with a pretty turn of phrase and you’ve got me forever. I tend to just breeze through all the parts of the book where stuff actually happens (no, really…it’s a problem) but get to the heart of a character and I’ll wallow happily in your narrative.

Early on, when adolescence wasn’t working out very well for me, I found Flannery O’Conner, who was like boredom repellant. She could define not only a person but an entire relationship in a lean paragraph:

“She was plain, plain. The skin on her face was thin and drawn as tight as the skin on an onion…She was pregnant and pregnant women were not his favorite kind.” (“Parker’s Back”)

Adulthood, as it turned out, was distracting on its own, but after a couple of decades of that, boredom set in again and I went looking for something new to read. At first I didn’t stray too far from my roots, wallowing in authors who seemed like they might have fed from the O’Conner trough:

“The coffin looked like a birthday cake, flocked pink. We had ordered it by phone. I knew Lyle would have ordered the cheapest for himself, so I ordered the second cheapest.” (James Galvin, THE MEADOW)

Age honed my tastes, and I found I liked my thrills more thrilling, my emotions assaulted with force rather than subtly nudged, and I steered straight into genre. Daniel Woodrell is the perfect gateway, as he himself isn’t sure if he writes literary or crime or what, but heaven help us can he write a sentence that hits you on the head:

"He's the kind of fella that if he was to make it to the top based only on his looks you'd still have to say he deserved it. Hoodoo sculptors and horny witches knitted that boy, put his bone and sinew in the most fabulous order…If your ex had his lips you'd still be married." (TOMATO RED)

Wouldn’t you have killed to write that?