10 Opening Lines From a Random Bookshelf

This blog has been active for one year!

A few posts about opening lines have been coming my way, that I happened on in Facebook from someone I don’t know personally but somehow ended up being a Facebook friend of mine. Can’t remember how that happened.

The best opening lines were determined, from all genres of books, the idea being that you should hook the reader on the first line, go on to further hook with the first paragraph, first page, first chapter. And no backstory until at least the second chapter, after you’ve sufficiently hooked the reader.

I thought I’d do the opposite and take ten books from my bookshelf, all of which I have read, and examine their first lines and dissect them, whether they are bad or good and issue them a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

 1.       Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

This is pretty good, I think. There is enough detail that I am intrigued. I know that Sauniere is a curator, and the fact that he is “renowned” probably puts him at middle age or beyond. The fact that he “staggered” is a curiosity, and it puts me in a museum, probably a section of which is devoted to fine arts, (the “Grand” Gallery). I am most interested in why he staggered. Something has happened to this old guy, let’s find out what. Thumbs up on this one, although I found the rest of the book tedious.

 2.      The day Shelley told me she was pregnant, I laughed.

Back to Me Again by Gretchen Hirsch

I think laughter as a response to someone announcing a pregnancy might not be appropriate, so I would like to know why that happened. But other than that, I’m not sure I liked the opening line. It sounded flippant. This book was self-published by a woman who gave an interesting time management talk to aspiring writers. As part of the deal, she wanted to read a portion of her manuscript to the audience and get their feedback. I liked what she wrote, so I bought her book. It was good, I’d say it was really good women’s fiction. The author is an accomplished writer of non-fiction and this was her first attempt at fiction. I thought she did a really good job of it, but her publisher wanted nothing to do with fiction, which is why she self-published. Liked the book, not the opening line. Thumbs down.

3.      The day was too beautiful to take a cab.

A Trip to the Inn by Dave Cunningham

This book was written by the son of a friend of mine. I believe it was his first, and there were parts of it that I liked a lot and found very thought provoking. Most of the characters were evil; there were almost no good characters in the story, they were all out to get each other. Which is fine, I don’t believe you have to identify with, or like, characters, but not everyone agrees with that by any means. The premise of the book was excellent, in the way of the movie, Fargo, where one bad event happens and it gets covered up, and more characters get involved, so the cover ups go on and escalate until it’s a real mess of a situation. But the opening line didn’t do it for me. Thumbs down.

4.      Reece Gilmore smoked through the tough knuckles of Angel’s Fist in an overheating Chevy Cavalier.

Angels Fall by Nora Roberts

This tome was left behind by someone, and wouldn’t have ended up on my bookshelf otherwise. But in the spirit of diverse genres, I read it. I wasn’t disappointed, in that, I got just what I expected. I did like part of it, but mostly it’s formulaic in content. The opening line tells me nothing much except she is probably in some sort of financial trouble, but by the sound of her name, I would guess it is a temporary situation. This author is a bazillionaire, has written hundreds of books and has fans that will probably do themselves in if anything ever happens to Ms. Roberts. I thought “smoked through” and “tough knuckles” were iffy in their credibility, but I guess this author can now say whatever she wants and no one will dare to suggest she do it otherwise. Luckily she won’t happen upon this post, so I can be safe in saying, thumbs down.

5.      I was six years old the first time I disappeared.

Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult

Good. This is a great hook, at least for me. I have no idea what is going on here, but that line seems poetic to me. A lot of Ms. Picoult’s sentences are poetic, and I always start one of her novels so hooked I can’t put the thing down. Unfortunately it doesn’t carry me to the end. She does a great job of hooking, but not a great job of sustaining. By the end of the book, I didn’t really care much what happened to the characters and there were events included that I thought should be cut, that they did very little to add to the story, if anything. But the first sentence is definitely a thumbs up.

6.        For the weekly docket the court jester wore his standard garb of well-used and deeply faded maroon pajamas and lavender terry-cloth shower shoes with no socks.

 The Brethren by John Grisham

Ah, John Grisham. His books are well-written, exciting, entertaining. He is also a bazillionaire. And getting what you expected, in this case, is a good thing. Not literary by any means, kind of like going to a movie of this same genre, it’s fun while you’re there but you don’t take anything away from it other than the fact that you had two very pleasant hours watching it and the popcorn was delicious. I can’t say I know anything about what the book will be about with the first sentence but it seems like he spent a lot of time on it, and while it piques my curiosity, I can’t say it hooks me. Thumbs down.

7.       When I telephoned Thomassy that morning in March of 1974 and asked him to lunch, I counseled myself to muster a casual voice.

 Other People by Sol Stein

Mr. Stein writes fiction and also how-to-write books for amateur authors. In On Writing, he says that he wrote this novel using first person POV. That’s not unusual except that he skipped from person to person and there were several characters, each with a chapter headed with his or her name so you knew whose head you’d be inside at any particular time. He said this was hard to do, and wouldn’t recommend it to us newbies. I was curious and read it. I liked it, and I liked the first line, which tells me in what time frame the story takes place, and that the caller is very anxious, or nervous, or upset and wills himself to be calm when speaking to Thomassy. I liked it, thumbs up.

 8.       I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Apart from the punctuation, what’s not to like about this? It sets the time and place and the idea of being born twice – what’s that all about? I want to know, and maybe I have an inkling, but it sounds like it will be an interesting unraveling of the facts. And it was. This was an Oprah Pick, and I like this first line and give it the thumbs up but could do without the colons and semis.

 9.      All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

This is on everyone’s list as one of the greatest first lines of all time. It is one of the best books ever written about nineteenth-century Russia, and social scandal. Men are allowed a certain freedom to dally, but not so with women. The men might have to deal with irate wives. The women throw themselves under trains. The beauty of this book is the translation. (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky). I have seen other versions that do not compare to this one. It made me wonder, is it the writing that is wonderful, or the translation? Guess we won’t know for sure, but this first line is naturally a thumbs up.

 10.     After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wrobleski

I did like this first line but I’m not sure if I can explain why I do. It’s conversational, as if the author is about to tell me a story. And I do want to know where he is going. The style makes me think this book will be beautifully written in an understated way. Of course I don’t know that to be true after reading just this first line, but it did turn out to be true. Thumbs up.

5 Punctuation Tips for Writing Humor

I recently resurrected a basket to use for a small paper recycling bin, since I am an earth-lover (those who recycle) as opposed to an earth-hater (those who throw glass, paper and plastic in with their other waste products). It was a magazine rack kind of thing and had some items in it which I needed to clean out and/or discard, a couple of old magazines, a half-finished knitting project from a few years back, and at the bottom was a book which had been given to me years ago (nearly twenty) called Idiot Letters by Paul Rosa, which I had not read.

Mr. Rosa got the idea for the book when he received a letter from Pizza Hut which said it had been a long time since he had ordered from them. This “concerned” them, because Mr. Rosa was the “kind of customer they’d like to see more often”. Mr. Rosa wondered just what kind of customer wouldn’t they like to see more often? He decided to ask that question.

That started the whole project, the idea of chronicling the letters he wrote to companies regarding products he used regularly and the responses he got back. I found myself LOLing (which we all know means Laugh Out Loud and NOT Lots of Love, as some would have us believe). And it brought to mind a question. What was it about Mr. Rosa’s writing that made it funny? I noticed a few tricks he used which seemed very effective.

I have listed the 5 punctuation tips below, which brings me to one slight diversion before I progress. I recently attended a Webinar (do you “attend” a Webinar?) and incorporated knowledge received from it regarding writing eye-catching titles for blogs, which might cause people to click more often than if it were titled in some other (lame) way. The Webinar (The Copyblogger Headline Clinic) was very informative and said that one good template for a blog title which appears to work is a numbered list. Examples: 10 Reasons Why Your Mother-in-law Hates You, or 16 Ways to Retrieve a Cork that has Fallen Into a Bottle of Wine, or 21 Tips and Tricks For Removing a Squirrel from the Top of Your Dryer (this actually happened to me).

The following is what I noticed about Mr. Rosa’s book of letters:

  • Exclamation points! These little darlings of punctuation are frowned upon when writing serious literature, and should be used very sparingly, but for humorous writing they work really well to indicate a certain dorky enthusiasm. Take this example, from Idiot Letters, where Mr. Rosa writes to the Oil-Dri Corporation of America congratulating them on the effectiveness of Cat’s Pride Kitty Litter:

For the first ten years of my cat’s life, it was a living hell trying to get her to use her litter box!

  • Quotation marks. Quotation marks have been said (by serious editors) to be like Christmas tree lights, that they are mere decorations. I “respectfully disagree” when writing humor. Using quotes sets a phrase apart, draws attention to it, as if the writer is standing next to the reader, giving him a nudge and a knowing look. Just between you and me…  Mr. Rosa says the following after telling the letter reader that he began using Cat’s Pride on the advice of a friend:

Well, we were delighted, nay ecstatic, when Jesse — without hesitation — stepped in the litter box and “unloaded”.

  • Italics. This method of altering a font shows emphasis and stressing certain words is funny, because it portrays an ebullience that may be uncalled for. In the same letter, for instance, the idea that anyone can be so charged up about kitty litter is in itself, funny, but the italics make it more so. Mr. Rosa says the following after telling the letter reader that he wonders at the wisdom of the name “Cat’s Pride” for kitty litter:

When Jesse is heaving and straining in her box, I don’t think pride is one of her sentiments.

  • Ellipsis. Mr. Rosa used the ellipsis (…) in order to disguise an activity, in a way that the reader knows it was disguised and further, knows exactly what that activity is:

We were often woken from a sound slumber, or interrupted during … Matlock.

  • Parentheses. Whenever a thought is an aside, and could be separated from the text with commas, it is appropriate to surround that text with parens. This should probably not be done in serious literature in most cases, but is most effective when writing humor. He also names the cat, the friend, the wife and even his mother by putting the name of the person in parentheses. Here are examples:

Whenever she would get the call from nature (night or day), she would howl until someone would let her out.

We were actually tempted to give her away, but simply love her too much — she was a gift from my mother (Irene).

The excerpts from the letter, the random sentences probably don’t do the letter justice when taken out of context, so I am including it here in its entirety:


Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a review of Idiot Letters. I liked some of the the letter exchanges quite well, but some were a bit over the top for me. I will be using some of these tips in my next novel (which is supposed to be humorous in parts) because I think they work.

National Novel Writing Month 2011 Ends

National  Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for 2011 is over now, and a lot (thousands? millions?) of writers have accomplished the 50,000-word goal. I completed mine, with a few hundred words to spare, and even though I didn’t write every day, and even though I didn’t make the daily wordcount every day, I had enough inspired days where I wrote twice the number of words to make up the difference.

It’s a way to encourage authors, both first-time and those who’ve done it before, (I will refrain from using the term “experienced”) to get it down on paper, whether or not it’s ready for prime time. And it’s likely that it won’t be ready, when writing under a deadline like that.

I’ve been writing on a deadline for several months now, with this blog, so I was fairly used to it, and I have come to realize that yeah, it’s probably going to suck, the first time you scratch it out, but it will get better and better as you go along, easier for the words to flow onto the page. And the bad stuff can be changed later.

I had a head start anyway, because my novel, Perigee Moon, was already in outline form. I pretty much knew what would go into each chapter, yet I did find that some chapters needed to be split up, as I was writing. I completed 17 chapters out of 38 so I’m nearly half way, and I’m aiming for a 120,000 word count or less, so it fits.

Going into December, my personal goal (without the NaNo people to keep urging me on) is to do the next 50,000 words and wrap up the first draft by early January. I’m aiming for completion at the end of January in order to submit it to the ABNA, in which I will once again no doubt be thrown out in the first round, because my short descriptions are never any good.

One thing that is troublesome, is that once again, the story is chronological, and I fear that may be amateurish, to have a story start at the beginning and end at the end. It’s one of those baby boomer stories too, and so it goes on for a really long time. But I wanted to chronicle a relationship that began very early (age 9) and develop it through the years, and couldn’t see how to do it other than as it happened, step by step.

I really enjoy writing, and thinking about the people I’m constructing makes me happy, but I seriously wonder if it’s not just a hobby. There are just too many great authors out there, and it’s too easy to get a book onto a Kindle or into print, for me to ever make a difference in the literary world.

Perigee might be my last effort, or I might take one more on, at the suggestion of a couple of friends, and write about a group of us, and the different directions of our lives with some fictional intrigue to make it more interesting. Kind of a joint effort, basing characters on real people. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, I’m plotting on.

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) Search Terms

Every day I check my blog stats. Okay, make that several times a day. They tell you how many hits your blog had, not who, just how many. Here they are, and I am happy to say they have continued in an upward, positive trend since February 2011.

Here are blog stats from January through October, 2011:

I seem to be getting a lot of traffic from search engines, but when I checked the search engine terms used to find my blog, many times I couldn’t figure out how it ever ended up on the first page or pages of search results produced from the particular input criteria.

While I am very pleased to think that my SEO (Search Engine Optimization) techniques, which include pertinent keywords, accurate titles and labeled images, appear to be generating traffic, sometimes I confess, it’s a real head-scratcher to understand how it works, based on the content of my blogs. Here are some of the most bizarre:

  • wally moon – Who is Wally Moon anyway? Any relation to Perigee?
  • little kid on a treadmill – All you little children, stay away from treadmills. You don’t need these until you’re older – much older.
  • beer background design – This does not sound like a good background picture to me but maybe on a Beer For Dummies book it would be.
  • punctuation takes a vacation what is bothering mr wright – Racking my brain for whatever would be in any post I have ever written that would cause a blog about writing women’s fiction to appear using these search terms. Punctuation? Vacation?
  • dental photography black background – Dental photography? Keep this away from me, please.
  • kitap kapak tasarımı – Is this Pig Latin?
  • chains black background – Whenever I see “chains” I get suspicious.
  • spine flower – Probably wanted to find information about tattoos?
  • uneducated successful businessman – This might be an oxymoron, oh wait, probably not.
  • can’t find romance novel about memory loss and love – No? Bummer. Neither can I.
  • mild indirect – This seems bland to me, should I take warning from this?
  • why i don’t feel creative – Wow, neither do I. Welcome to the Let’s Suck at Creativity Club.
  • desain sampul buku – More Pig Latin, with a Mid-eastern flair?
  • soap liquid background – Cleanliness is next to, um, I forget.
  • toast treadmill walker – Let’s see, first you have your toast, then you get on the treadmill, then you need a walker. It’s all I can figure.

I doubt that the individuals using these search terms are interested in a blog site dedicated to baby boomer issues and women’s fiction but you never know where you might find readers, so I’ll take it as a good sign that the stats are improving.

It puzzles me, how search engines work. I can’t imagine that they can search through every piece of information on the internet, examine the content of each one, and deliver a results list at the speed they do, but maybe that’s exactly how it works. I know that many of the terms used above were not in my titles, nor were they in the body of the posts. Apparently, greater computer minds than mine ever was are at work here.

And the really odd part is, when I search for these terms, I don’t see my blog in the results list returned. So what search engine are these folks using? I researched this very issue, and came up with a few blogs that addressed the subject, but none of them provided a good answer. They mostly said, your results could be located on page N (insert really big number here) but that some people actually go deep into many pages while searching.  I find that hard to believe. If it doesn’t show up on the first page, I seldom go any farther. But maybe.

And I still don’t understand “kitap kapak tasarımı”.   

How I Found My Voice

Voice is the distinction that makes your writing unique to you. When writing women’s fiction, it’s everything. Readers can forgive a lot, if you tell a story in that particular voice they have come to expect.

There are four authors that I have talked about before, reviewed their books, what I liked or didn’t like. They are (in alphabetical order), Elizabeth Berg, Jonathan Franzen, Scott Spencer and Anne Tyler. These are all authors of great fiction, women’s fiction or everyone’s fiction, and if presented with a paragraph from any of these authors’ writings, I believe I could tell you which of the four wrote it, because I’ve studied each one, and can recognize his/her voice.

Voice comes from that unique combination of environment, and time, and geographic location, along with a bazillion other things that make each writer different from the next. Add to that, the traits of each individual, how one might be introverted and a deep thinker, one might be gregarious and the life of the party, and varying degrees of each of those traits. One is artistic, one is pragmatic, one is a story teller, one is a good listener. One is beautiful, one is plain, one is brilliant, one is of average intelligence. On and on.

Add to that the difference in values over time, the changes in attitude, over the course of, say, the last fifty years. The generation of our parents (“our” being the baby boomer generation), from their constricted you-made-your-bed-now-lie-in-it values to our free love “me” generation. From before women’s lib to after. You can see how the voice of an older person might be way different from the voice of a person thirty years younger.

Each person’s unique experiences add to their voice: the dialects of their birthplaces, the way they were brought up, their education, friends, spouses, children, pets. Their attitudes and beliefs. When you think about that, how every person has a unique set of experiences and traits and environmental factors, then it’s safe to say that every person has a voice, and that voice is different from any other’s.

You just have to find it.

With practice, I believe writers find what works for them and what doesn’t. The first novel may not express it, the second may be a bit better, hopefully by the third, the writer can identify the sound that identifies his or her unique sound, without trying to mimic others. Their tone, cadence, rhythms, choice of words and expressions. Their politics, internal thoughts, hangups and peculiarisms.

I think I have identified mine. From my third novel Perigee Moon (I dropped the “The”), this is a paragraph about Abby, who has recently reconnected with Luke, and they have just had their first, wonderful weekend together, discovered they live within thirty miles of each other, and he has asked her for her contact information. And so she waits for him to call, because she is a product of her time. Who among us women of a certain age can’t remember that angst, waiting for a call that may or may not come?

Abby wishes she’d have asked Luke for his numbers too. It is 2011, after all and women are allowed to call men. She works outside in the garden for an hour or two each day, then goes inside. Maybe he’s called. She checks voicemail, checks caller id for a number which could be his. Monday goes by, then Tuesday. How long did he intend to wait? Maybe he’s had second thoughts, which was always the problem, people had second thoughts, decided no, that hadn’t really been such a good idea after all. By Wednesday, she decides, figures out, that he probably won’t call — if he’d been serious, surely he’d have done it by now — but still she hopes, and when the phone rings after dinner and caller id says “Private” she feels hopeless but answers it, just in case. It’s possible, people could be “Private” too, isn’t it? But it isn’t, it’s the Democrats asking for donations, time or money. No, no! She wants to yell at them. Leave me alone, just don’t ask me about this stuff right now, I can’t think about it. She feels like crying, she’s that disappointed. She pours a glass of red wine, lights several candles in the bathroom and soaks in the big tub until the water goes cold, so she lets some out and adds more hot, something she would never have done, under normal circumstances. Normally, she is conservative, about everything except politics. Conserving water, and heat, and gas, so she doesn’t consume  more than necessary. Recycle, recycle. Recycling is a way of life, preserve the earth, leave it in as good shape as possible, don’t be conspicuous in your consumption of anything.

My style would be longer complex sentences, that sometimes dart off in directions, as sometimes people’s thoughts do, mixed with shorter sentences. I wanted to show the internal conflict of Abby, and how she keeps hoping while feeling it’s pretty much hopeless. She thought he’d call right away, but since he hasn’t she thinks he probably didn’t feel about the weekend the way she did. The author’s voice (mine) comes out because these are things I have thought, and so I think it’s a good example of the disappointment, confusion, and a bit of politics thrown in, to describe Abby and what kind of person she is.

I liked this paragraph after I wrote it. It’s me, it’s my voice. If others don’t like it, that’s all right. People who read different genres may alternately think it’s too brittle, or too sappy. But I’m guessing there are a few who will like it. And that’s what I’m counting on.

10 Problems with Romance Novels

In my new book, The Perigee Moon, one of the characters will be a romance novelist. Mostly it’s for comic effect, but also the premise is that the author loves what she does, and only hopes to help a few romance-starved ladies be a bit happier because of her stories.

I wanted to research romance novels, and strangely couldn’t find any that were written in the 60s and 70s. Apparently these are out of print, and you can’t find them in the library, nor on Amazon. The only place I could find them was eBay.

Here are a few facts I found about romance novels when searching:

  • Many romance novels have the word “Love” in the title. I would guess upward of 40%. The word may also appear in regular  fiction, but not with the same frequency.
  • Romance novels are written according to a formula which must include conflict and sex. If it doesn’t have both, forget it, it will never be published. There are a minimum number of sex scenes allowed and a minimum of crisis points allowed.
  • Romance novels always have a Happy Ending.
  • There are sections at the library, specifically reserved for romance. A red heart on a pink background designates it at a  romance, at least at the library I visit.
  • Romance fiction is the largest share of the consumer market.
  • During economic downturns, the sale of romance novels goes up.
  • It has been identified that many women are addicted to reading romance novels, in the real sense, such that they neglect  their work, their families and ruin marriages.

While waiting for my decades-old romance novels to arrive, I researched a modern romance, thinking that it must be a lot like the older ones, but with more sex. I discovered I don’t really like them very much, at least the one I selected, which I did at random since there were about a billion to choose from.

And besides, an author can learn a lot about writing just from reading, not limited to what is liked but what is not liked. Here are a few things I noted while reading my chosen novel. I only got to Chapter Ten, I had had quite enough by then, and put sticky tabs on the pages where I noted some fun things to blog about.

Names and specifics have been changed to protect the identity of the novel.

1. Show vs Tell. Always, it is taught, show through narrative and dialogue what the character thinks. Don’t tell us. Here are a couple of examples of Telling Extraordinaire. This is common in romance novels in order to set up the conflict that must be there. That’s why romance novels don’t have to conform to the rules of other literature, because they are the soap operas of novels, and we know soaps are never subtle.

  • She shuddered as she felt the full force of feelings she thought she’d buried so deep she would never have to face them again.
  • He realized that he was standing at the bottom of the escalator, lost in memory, blocking other people from getting off…
  • Because he had walked away from her all those years ago, it had cut her too deeply, too completely, for her to risk passion again.
  • His intense nearly black eyes narrowed and he looked at her as though seeing her for the first time, hearing the wistfulness and sensitivity so unlike her usual manner.
  • She was the only woman whose mental and physical response to him had made him reach down to the deepest parts of himself, satisfying needs that were less tangible and more enduring than lust.

2. Overused back story. It’s always convenient for anyone who could have helped out or intervened in a situation in order to make it less  traumatic for the heroine, to disappear. In this case, our heroine is left without either parent at the same time she is left by the bad guy hero and has just learned she is pregnant.

Then her parents had stepped on the wrong airplane and died in the kind of crash that left little to be buried except her own childhood.

3. Lazy descriptions. Yet again, a beautiful woman. Not a subtle way to describe our heroine. It should have been much less obvious. Let’s ix-nay the grimace. And also the rainwater eyes. And who likes pixies anyway?

She grimaced. She didn’t need a mirror to know that she was small, slender, and appealing if you liked pixies. With her pale blond hair and rainwater eyes, she made great photo material….

 4. Too unrealistic. Here he is thinking thoughts that wouldn’t have been in anyone’s head as they contemplate death. He returns  to the story, so he obviously didn’t die, and would more likely have been thinking about how to get out of a rather, um, precarious situation.

When he’d hung head-down over a chasm, looking at his own grave two thousand feet below, it had been her face that came to him, her voice that he heard. He regretted losing her more than he’d ever admitted to himself until that moment, when it was too late.

5. Too convenient storyline. Obviously, the hero doesn’t know about the child, and the heroine isn’t about to tell him, so it’s just a little bit too easy that the kid just happens to be away for a week, thus allowing our hero to remain uninformed as to the existence of his offspring. And the “Oh wait! Now I remember!” is a bit of an eye-roller.

A quick glance at her watch told her that she still had plenty of time to pick up her daughter at the ranch, which served as a school bus stop. Then she remembered that Annie was spending the week with her closest friend, at the ranch.

6. Sappy metaphors, or putting Thesaurus.com to good use. The following is after the heroine has poured water on the seats of a  hot Jeep that has sat out in the Arizona (or some Southwestern state) sun in mid afternoon.

She wished she had something as useful to pour on her smoldering memories.

7. Typical sex scenes. Romance novels describe sex in more detail than other literary works, which allude to it (preferred) rather  than expound on it. It’s also common practice to use cute phrases for body parts like “button”. Romance novels are not explicit like erotica, but impart way too much information. We all know how it’s done, we don’t need it ‘splained. I especially like “pouting promise”. Ah, alliteration.

  • He’d kissed her then, a kiss that had narrowed the world to the heat and hunger of their joined mouths.
  • He wanted to pour himself into her, filling her until she overflowed and turned to him with her own need, her own demand that he be part of her until they were one and that one burned with an endless fire.
  • Finally, lured by the pouting promise of her breasts, he pulled his mouth away from hers.

8. Conflict that is too extravagant. The whole premise of this story is trumped up to make the differences between the couple so drastic there can’t possibly be a solution.

  • (Our heroine reflecting on the hero leaving years ago) Then he’d walked away without a backward look, never calling, never writing, tearing out her heart and leaving her to bleed in silence.
  • (Meanwhile this is what our hero is thinking) Emotion shook him, a fury he hadn’t felt since he’d discovered that she had aborted their baby.
  • Hate him. Hug him. Scream at him. Soothe the lines of exhaustion from his face. Take a piece of muddy rope and strangle him. Kiss him like the world was burning down around her.

 9. Dialogue that is unbelievable. This is said by another guy to our hero for the sole purpose of informing the reader that the hero is one smart guy! It’s the author’s attempt to show through dialogue I think, but it doesn’t ring true. No one would say this.

I’m a real fan. You’re the only writer I’ve ever found who was as accurate as he was exciting to read. The story you did on the discrepancies and order of precedence between drawings and specifications was nothing short of brilliant.

10. Men saying or thinking things that, in the real world, they never would.

My God! Did I hurt her so badly that she refused to trust anyone after me? Did she really mean it when she cried out her love in my arms?

I hope I do not offend any romance novel lovers with my critique. Likely, there are good and well, not so good, ones. The one depicted here is in the latter category.

What do you think about romance novels?


NaNoWriMo – Writing on a Deadline and The Snowflake Method

NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) occurs every November, for the entire month. I’ve signed up for it, which doesn’t mean much really. No one is watching how much I produce, but the idea is to write 50,000 words in the month of November.

It’s all about quantity not quality. Mostly, experts agree that it is good to first get the story down on paper without paying attention to editing or making sure it’s “pretty”. That comes later.

50,000 words is a novella length, most books are over 100,000 words in length. My two books were upwards of that, 138,000 for Whatever Happened To Lily? and 150,000 for Second Stories. These books would both be considered too long by industry standards. An agent wouldn’t even look at a manuscript over 110,000 words. That would be for a non-classic: a romance novel, a cozy mystery, chick lit, contemporary fiction. But, of course, if you’re Jonathan Franzen, or some other extremely successful author, there is no limitation on the number of words you are allowed.

My next book will be more than 110,000 words so I’m hoping to write even more than the 50,000 words recommended by NaNoWriMo. To help me do that, I’ve been using the Snowflake Method, and if I can get all my outlining done, and notes written by the end of October, I’m going to try to write 2,000 words (average) per day.

Taking out one day when I have to babysit for my six-year-old grandson, and Thanksgiving, when I will be cooking and/or eating, it leaves 28 days of writing. That’s 60,000 words in 28 days, or over 2,100 words per writing day. I’ve had days when I’ve written over 4,000 words, so I think it is doable.

The Snowflake method has worked out well. I haven’t blogged about it as I said I would, each step at a time, but thought I’d talk a bit about it and how it works. Randy Ingermanson, who developed the system is both a java programmer and an author so that works for me. It’s a thirteen tab application, Welcome, General Info, Author Info, Steps 1 through 9 and Proposal.

The first three tabs are general information about the book and the author, there are nine steps for creation of the outline of the novel, going from general to most detailed, and then a book proposal is generated based on the information entered.

Step 1 is the short summary or the “elevator pitch”. The premise is, if you were in an elevator with an agent or publisher and were asked, so, what’s your book about? You should be able to give him/her the spiel, before s/he (or you) reach the desired floor, such that the whole novel is summed up in one sentence. It should be less than 25 words, so you can memorize it.

Step 2 is the long summary which expands on the short summary, and is one paragraph in length, five sentences. This would be good for the description on Amazon, or for including in a website.

  • What the book is about
  • The first act, up to the first disaster
  • The first half of the second act, up to the second disaster
  • The second half of the second act, up to the third disaster
  • The third act, the resolution, and perhaps The Happy Ending

The word “disaster” can mean a lot of things depending on the genre of the book. In the case of women’s or contemporary fiction, it will be the major events, the crises, the realizations, the epiphanies. I constructed my novel in this fashion.

The third step is creating a list of characters and specifying how they interact, how they are related, why they are in the novel, and what their personal goals might be. Some are there to be a supporting character, some are the main characters, and some are there merely for comic effect. I identified thirteen characters, family and friends.

The fourth step goes back to story development, and the long description is written here. For each of the five sentences of the long summary, a paragraph is written. I found Steps 1, 2 and 4 to be very thought-provoking. Once these steps are completed, an author has a pretty good idea of how the story will be structured. This was all done in my head for my previous two novels, and I’m sure some good thoughts got lost in the brain chaos.

Back to characters, Step 5 is a synopsis of each of the characters defined in Step 3. What makes these characters act the way they do? What has happened to them, in their early lives, and later on? It’s a way of getting to know each of them. This is very important because each character needs to be consistent and well thought out, and not do or say anything that seems contradictory. This step is for the author, it doesn’t go anywhere, it’s an exercise to get you thinking about each person and what role he or she will play.

Step 6 is the long synopsis of the story, expanded from the long description. We started at one sentence, then to one paragraph, to one page, to now several pages of story description. Four steps in ever increasing detail. There are more specifics in the long synopsis, we can now see where the chapters, and then scenes might evolve from this.

Step 7 goes back to characters, and this is also for the author’s benefit, to more fully understand each one. There is a set of pre-defined questions to answer: physical descriptions, character descriptions, favorite things (color, music, books, etc.), and how each character will change, what are his or her epiphanies, values, goals. More “getting to know you”.

Step 8 takes the long synopsis and formats each sentence into a scene. These can be added to or deleted as necessary. A one-line description of every single scene in the novel. Great!

The final Step 9, expands on Step 8, and creates an empty space to fill in notes about each scene. These notes can then be used as the starting point for the actual writing, which will happen next. I’m in Step 9 now, and that’s what I want to finish up in the month of October. I’m always about goals, small and large, what I will accomplish by noon, what I will accomplish by 5:00, what I will accomplish by October 31. It doesn’t always work out but it helps to have them.

Here’s to NaNoWriMo and the Snowflake Method!

The Cliché Finder

I submitted an entry for the Fourth Annual Life Lessons Essay contest from Real Simple magazine, which is about the only mag I read. I like the format of it, the non-busy pages, the photography, the good ideas.

The rules for submission are, maximum of 1,500 words and you are given a topic to write about. As I was preparing to send off my entry, I reread the website and there is a section with helpful suggestions, and one is “don’t use clichés”. I did an earlier post on clichés. Not too unusual, many blogs have done the same thing. Clichés are a drag. I can really spot them now, and unless they are deliberate, or twisted in some way, I tend to quit reading when I find one.

It occurred to me that a really neat idea would be to develop a little webpage which a user could paste his text into and check that text against a database of common clichés. But wait! It has already been done. The Cliché Finder will check your writing and highlight offending phrases. Of course, who knows how current, or comprehensive that database is? How often is it updated? Anyway, it’s a good idea.

This is what happened when I clicked the button:

An  Unhandled Exception. As an ex-IT person, I can tell you this is not a good thing. This is sloppy programming. Obviously it didn’t like something about my text but instead of telling me what was wrong, it just croaked. I experimented to find out what the problem was. I put in one paragraph and it worked. I put in the next paragraph and it didn’t work.

The difference? It did not like the apostrophe in a contraction. Don’t, wouldn’t, can’t, didn’t, etc. Really? That seems pretty basic and is something the programmer should fix. Also, further down, I noticed it didn’t like quotes either. So the phrase “back home” (quotes included) caused it to blow up. There could be other things that offend the Cliché Finder too, but I didn’t spot them.

If this happens, I wonder how good the tool is. But it is a very good idea. Maybe some sort of interactive site where users could comment on what problems were found, and also add entries to the database as needed.

And guess what? My entry did not point out any clichés, when I removed all the apostrophes and quote marks. Cool.

Literary Crushes – Who is Yours?

Enough time has gone by, that I’m treating myself to another Scott Spencer novel, although this time I am not quite so enamored. The title is “Willing”, and it is about a man who goes on a sex tour to a few relatively obscure foreign countries, and is paid a rather handsome sum to write a book about it. I’m guessing that such an assignment might not be unappealing to a number of male writers.

I think, to read Mr. Spencer, one must not be sexually squeamish, as there is something in every one to send a few shock waves. But the way he talks about such things, so naturally, I can’t help but get a picture of the kind of person Mr. Spencer might be. I’m guessing, the quiet, introspective type, much like Jonathon Franzen, that the outward persona does not match the man inside.

My author friend Benison O’Reilly coined a term (at least I think she is responsible for it, so I am giving her due honors here), “literary crush” and mine is on Mr. Spencer. Hers is on Mr. Franzen. But that is not to say I haven’t had literary crushes on women too, and two of them are Anne Tyler and Elizabeth Berg, who write in a way in which I could only hope to come close.

I would have to use the term “envious” when it comes to these three authors. It’s what I would want for myself, to write in such a way. Recently, I read an interesting post which examined the difference between “jealousy” and “envy”. Jealousy is when you want what another person has and you attack it in a negative way, the I-am-just-as-good-as-that-writer so poor me, why am I consistently ignored and kicked around? Envy is when you see what good things others have done, and want the same for yourself, but in a positive way, it allows you to strive for more, for better writing, for lovelier sentences, for better hooks and dialogue and characters, by seeing the good in others.

Back to Willing, Mr. Spencer breaks a lot of rules with this one. There is not one quotation mark in the whole novel. The dialogue is intermixed with the narrative. We are told in the How To books to put each person’s dialogue in a separate paragraph. Nope, he doesn’t do that either. So we have dialogue, which we aren’t always sure really is dialogue, and two or more people speaking in the same paragraph, so we aren’t always sure who is doing the talking. But somehow it works. There are pages with hardly any whitespace, another faux pas. Lack of whitespace makes readers weary, shorter paragraphs and single lines mix it up visually and the reader is less intimidated by droning on and on, so they say.

I am only two thirds through the book, and I have only found a couple of sexual reference that might be construed as troubling, even though one would think there would be more, given the subject. But I have found (so far) six editing errors, five which were duplicate words or wrongly phrased such that I knew it was   unintentional, and one punctuation error. I always feel a little compensated when I find errors in the works of “real authors” (if I dare use that term), as if – see, we are all fallible!

So, even if this is not my favorite of his novels, the writing is still all there, superb, funny, gripping descriptions of characters (of which there are a great number). Take this description of himself, on the first page, written in first person POV:

Physically, I was of the type no longer commonly minted, a large serious face, a little heavier than necessary, broad shoulders, sturdy legs, hair and eyes the color of a lunch bag.

Gives you a pretty good idea, right? I especially loved the reference to a lunch bag.

Or this description of someone encountered at one of the stops:

One was a heavyset guy with a shaved head who looked like the world’s most enormous baby, with a nose like a knuckle and dark little eyes the size of watermelon seeds.

The book is crammed with stuff like this. On every page, there are great thoughts and descriptions. This author understands people, he gets it so right. Humorous, witty, and insightful.

And yes, I am envious.

Writing a Novel Using the Snowflake Method

There are several blog posts about using Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method for developing novels. I thought about doing yet another post on it, but maybe in a little more detail than some of the other bloggers, as I develop my storyline and characters for The Perigee Moon. Step by step. This will be the first, and Step 1.

You can tell by the diagram that it starts out very general and is refined over time, until the whole novel is conceptualized and the writing of that first draft becomes easier, and it is more unlikely that there will be unwanted gaps or errors or inconsistencies with characters or storyline.

This is the first time I’ve used this methodology. I bought the Fiction Writing for Dummies book (also by Randy Ingermanson). An aside here, who came up with the phrase “for Dummies” anyway? I don’t think a person who wants to write a novel but doesn’t know how to go about it, is necessarily a “dummy”. I wonder if there is a book called “Rocket Science for Dummies” or “Brain Surgery for Dummies”. But from a marketing perspective, it sure works, I have a lot of these books, Quicken 2011 for Dummies, Unix for Dummies, Excel for Dummies, Photoshop for Dummies, to name a few. The characteristic yellow and black cover for every Dummy book makes it instantly recognizable and the common formatting of the interior is kind of soothing to me. I know what to expect, and the books are usually tinged with humor, or at least a valiant attempt at humor.

The Snowflake Method is used in Mr. Ingermanson’s software called Snowflake Pro, and I’m using it and it is easy to understand. By that I mean the software is easy to understand, what you need to do to design your novel isn’t necessarily.

In the beginning, I witnessed the full moon in February of this year while on Clearwater Beach. The full moon, over the water, with a few clouds that would temporarily obstruct the moon, or part of it, or where you could see part or all of it shining through, was breathtaking. I took pictures of it and a story idea started.

Sometimes that stuff happens to me, I looked at that moon and just let my mind take me wherever it wanted to go and a novel idea (pun intended) was birthed.

The Perigee Moon was in March, so back in Ohio, I took pictures of that, with the moon through the trees on the exact night of the full moon. I think I have the cover designed already and the title is set, although I also like February Moon. Even though the actual Perigee moon happened in March, I doubt anyone will care about that detail, to point out that the month is off by one.

I started using the software and have completed Step 1.

Step 1: Summarize your storyline in one sentence. This isn’t easy to do, but is a valuable exercise. It should be no more than 25 words, closer to 15 is better. I got mine down to 19. In the beginning, I thought it would be the story of a guy who is in a bad marriage, and how he finds a new relationship and the problems he encounters along the way. And it is still about that, but upon dissecting the character, Luke, I discovered a lot more about him. That it’s not just the marriage, but his whole lifestyle that he wants to alter. The corporate job, the commercialization, the fact that you can drive for twenty minutes and not see anything that isn’t ugly.

Remember Bonnie in Second Stories, who laments what America has turned into by describing gas stations and fast food restaurants? It’s like that, only a whole book about it, more or less, and his marriage and his job, how nothing in his life seems right. Classical mid-life crisis stuff, only on a grander scale, as he contemplates turning into a minimalist. And I expanded it even further to include the notion that he wants to be more spiritual, he wants to grow things, understand what he’s only touched on before. He desires serenity, he wants to contemplate, explore ideas, read, learn, experiment. And he wants to give up his day job to do it.

This sounds heavy, and parts of it will be, but I hope to make this book funny, with hints of sarcastic humor which I do pretty well I think (shameless non-humility). I know a bit about big corporations, and dead end jobs, and the desire to do something else. Along the way, there will be the breakup of a long-standing relationship, and the start of a new one, and family issues to take care of, and a bit of suspense, as some psychotic behavior is observed from the woman who no longer wants Luke, but doesn’t want anyone else to have him.

Here’s the final summary sentence:

One man’s struggle to cast the urban corporate lifestyle behind him and pursue a life of serenity through spirituality.