Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Killer Opening: In Search of a Story's First Sentence

By Shaun McCoy

Sometimes you want to sneak up on your reader. You stay carefully understated as you suck them into your narrative, inch by inch. At other times you want to smack them in the face with a double shot of verbal espresso—and for that you need a Killer Opening.

When the world was young, writers could begin with their stories with their search for inspiration.

Sing to me, Muse…

No longer. These days we have to keep that bit private. The first thing our readers get to see is our actual inspiration, and it had bloody well be inspired.

As a brief refresher we'll go through a short history of good openings.

Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son, Achilles.

From the hag and hungry goblin, that into rags would rend ye

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…
-Charles Dickens

Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.
-Margaret Atwood

So how do we create such interesting openings? Practice. Trust me, anything can be practiced.

One way you can come up with a good opening is by creating a formula. One of my favorite formulas is to add an idea that evokes strong emotion to something that causes personalization.

Cannibalism+Personalization="That's right, I ate him."

Love+Personalization="I love Richard Pilkington more than I love frosted flakes."

You can even go "hog wild" and add everything together: Love+Cannabalism+Personalization="I loved Richard Pilkington. I loved him more than frosted flakes. That's why I had to eat him."

That exercise is pretty easy because your opening can be about anything. Creating a high caliber, rock 'em sock 'em beginning with this method can be problematic, however, when you've already got the story in hand. While starting the plot of a story in medias res is ok, learning your literary skills on the fly is just going to waste material. It would seem wise, then, for a writer to get good at such openings before they commit one to paper.

So how do you practice making a Killer Opening for your pre-existing story? I often daydream about how I would open stories that were already written.

F#$@k the Muse's hundred epithets, Achilles was pissed, and he wanted my head.

The first time I saw a man more angry than a god was on that day when Achilles fought the river.

Like anything else in writing, there is skill involved in finding a good opening. After some work a writer can get the knack of creating a sentence that immediately inspires intrigue. To get a better understanding about what word combinations can be exciting you can also flip through your previous writings and take your own sentences out of context. Do any of them work well as an opening? For an example we'll take one from this article.

Trust me, anything can be practiced.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why I Write

By Deborah Wright Yoho

At an age too young, striving to please my parents, teachers and peers, I lost myself. My writing is about finding my way back, to reclaim what I've always known to be true. Truths about the shifting world, about relationships, about the power of time and memory. Most especially, about the power of my own voice.

To my surprise, this process has been peaceful rather than disturbing, serendipitous rather than deliberative, full of ebb and flow rather than effort. I write for myself but also for another, searching and reaching in the hope of finding a mind capable and willing, even desiring to understand me.

For me, there is no greater luxury than being understood, because true commonality is rarer than a blade of grass in the desert. Yet I remember the feeling. I remember seven-year-old Scott, giggling with me under his jacket on the school bus, cocooned in a private conspiracy. As a teacher, I live for the moment when my eyes lock with my learner's in a flash of insight as together we discover a new idea. As a young woman, I remember my own unconditional trust flashing back to my heart from the eyes of my first love.

It is not approval I seek. I write pursuing a sense of rest, of slowing down my thoughts, so that one mind can understand another's by capturing authentically on paper mental images, emotions, and yearnings. Converting mental energy to black and white squiggles on a page becomes a tangible and permanent record of my connection to others, like a musical composition or a visual work of art.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Will a Desperate, Bloody, Evil Title Hook Readers?

By Bonnie Stanard

Would you buy a book with “darling” in the title? “Beauty?” I’ve been thinking about a title for my antebellum novel for over a year. “Inside Slave Quarters” is the working title and one I think describes the story, but my editor says it sounds like nonfiction. My husband says it’s dry and uninteresting. So how do you find a title? Is the title important?

In looking over my collection of antebellum fiction I find such titles as Black April, Beulah Land, and Jubilee. Obviously I’ll steer clear of previous titles and look for something unique. In 2006 two Civil War books by different authors came out with almost identical titles: March and The March. I wasn’t the only person to confuse these two.

A couple of books I treasure have titles so weak I’d never have chosen to read them had they not been on a best seller list: Property and The Known World. A couple of outstanding titles that perhaps helped to propel books to the national scene are The Confessions of Nat Turner and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Actually, if I could come up with something like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I’d expect big things from my book. Then there’s Gone With the Wind. Would the book have been as popular titled “Pansy” or “Tote the Weary Load”?

Actually “gone with the wind” comes from a poem by Ernest Dowson. Choosing a title from a well-known text (or not so well known) seems to ground a book in a literary past. Examples of titles taken from the work of other writers—For Whom the Bells Toll; Grapes of Wrath; A Time to Kill; No Country for Old Men; The Skull Beneath the Skin; and Things Fall Apart. I keep my eyes open when reading poems for impressive lines.

As a way of getting ideas, I checked the NYT best seller list to see what is selling. Titles run the gamut from dramatic (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) to silly (The Art of Racing in the Rain). From boring (House Rules) to very boring (Private). If something like The Island makes the best seller list, you have to wonder if titles matter at all.

Recently I got as gifts two books with engaging titles, Swamplandia and Water for Elephants, and they are proof that a good title will only carry a book so far. Conversely, a captivating book can overcome a bad title, as White Teeth and The Reader demonstrate. Bastard Out of Carolina, in spite of its title, is a well written novel about a serious subject.

A friend recommended the book I’m reading now, Cataloochee. Its title comes from a place. I’m not saying I like the title, but place names figure prominently as titles (think of James Michener’s novels). What about “St. Helena Island” for my title?

Google and Yahoo have introduced other considerations in choosing titles. It’s all about keywords and meta description tags. Writing titles for search engines puts more pressure on us to find compelling words that accurately signal the subject of the book.

* A web site that generates titles is
* Find projects to inspire you at
* General info on titles at:

Sunday, April 3, 2011

When the Publisher Comes to You

By David Sennema

I had no concept of the significance of the day the publishers came to me. Well, they didn’t exactly come to me….but they came to a postcard show at which my wife and I were dealers. We bought and sold antique postcards as a retirement business for many years after retiring in 1996.

We had a booth at the show along with many other postcard dealers, but we were the only ones from South Carolina, which turned out to be advantageous. There were representatives of Arcadia Publishing, with their own booth just down the row from us, displaying a sign inviting any and all who might be interested to talk with them about writing local histories illustrated with postcards.

Arcadia grew up in England and had just opened an office in Charleston, South Carolina, after having some success with an office in the New England states. The company was moving into the South and was eager to sign authors for its local history series.

Having recently retired, Marty and I had the time, and we also had what we modestly claimed was the world’s best and most extensive collection of Columbia, South Carolina view postcards. After the Arcadia reps explained what they needed and what the arrangements would be we signed a contract that very day and went to work on our book, Columbia, South Carolina – A Postcard History.

As Marty loves to tell people, the book pretty well occupied our dining room table for the next year as we went about selecting 220 postcards from our collection, researching and writing labels, acknowledgements, an introduction, an explanation of old postcards and an index.

The book hit the market in 1997, and we love to note that it made the local best seller list of The State newspaper on October 12, 1997. Since then we’ve done two revisions of the book, and Arcadia has updated the cover on two occasions. It can usually be found in the local Barnes and Noble stores and is available from them and others via the internet.

Until I started writing fiction and discovered how difficult it is to be published, I never appreciated the ease with which that postcard book came into being.