Thursday, July 25, 2013

More On First and Last Lines

After finishing up the Five (or so) Mistakes Thriller Writers make, Thriller Guy is instituting some new changes in the blog. TG is going to try and make the entries shorter and more varied and post much more often. He is also going to allow AdSense to put up ads as it should prove at least mildly interesting as to what they choose. If what they do annoys TG, he will take them down. TG wants everyone to know that he is in no way asking you to click on anything you aren’t interested in.

In the last several posts, TG has addressed the difficulties and possibilities of the opening and ending lines of a manuscript or book. Several interesting additions came in over the last several days. Yesterday, TG listened to Bob Edwards interviewing Clive Cussler on
Edwards’ XM Radio show. Clive sounded like what he is, a mega-selling thriller writer who’s been around a lot of years who simply tries to give readers the types of stories they like to read. He answered a question I’ve been interested for a while: How does he work with the writers who write his books with (or maybe for) him? He said he first has the writer come to his place and they hash out a plot and an ending to aim for. Note the itals: “and an ending to aim for.” So if you want to make money like Clive, it’s way smart to have your ending before you even start writing.

Stephen King has a new article in The Atlantic titled: Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences. TG recommends the article to all writers and offers a couple of quick quotes.

“An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You
want to know about this.”

“But for me, a good opening sentence really begins with voice. You hear people talk about "voice" a lot, when I think they really just mean "style." Voice is more than that. People come to books looking for something. But they don't come for the story, or even for the characters. They certainly don't come for the genre. I think readers come for the voice.”

“My favorite example is from Douglas Fairbairn's novel, Shoot, which begins with a confrontation in the woods. There are two groups of hunters from different parts of town. One gets shot accidentally, and over time tensions escalate. Later in the book, they meet again in the woods to wage war -- they re-enact Vietnam, essentially. And the story begins this way:
“This is what happened.”
For me, this has always been the quintessential opening line. It's flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we're dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I'll tell you the facts. I'll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there's an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know.”

“When I'm starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I'll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I'll word and reword it until I'm happy with what I've got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I'll know I can do the book.”

“A book won't stand or fall on the very first line of prose -- the story has got to be there, and that's the real work. And yet a really good first line can do so much to establish that crucial sense of voice -- it's the first thing that acquaints you, that makes you eager, that starts to enlist you for the long haul. So there's incredible power in it, when you say, come in here. You want to know about this. And someone begins to listen.”

All this talk about first lines got TG – or rather his alter ego, Allen Appel – thinking about his own first lines. So he went and looked up the first chapter and the first line of the book he’s now writing, the sixth book in his Pastmaster Series. Here it is:

“Alex Balfour stood at the second-story window and watched as the one woman and three men who were about to die were walked out into the courtyard and up onto the scaffolding where they would shortly hang.”

Not bad. It will probably get some tweaking on the many rounds of rewrites coming up, but all in all it fills the bill for an evocative first sentence and an indication of the voice of the writer. What do you think? Any comments? Any first lines of your own or other favorite writers?

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