The promise of a killer opening line.

A killer opening line almost always sells it for me. A striking cover, a favourite author’s name, a tight, sharp blurb are all vital enticements, but the one thing that seals a book sale, is a great opening line or paragraph. It’s a hard-working little collection of words but because its job is so important, it can be tricky to pin down.

So let’s examine some of the things that make up a killer opening line:

  • Voice: a compelling authorial voice creates an intimate connection with the reader. The reader knows what the style, tone and theme of the story is going to be and they willingly go along because the voice has authority.
    • For example:

‘No living organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.’ – Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House.

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Why this works: Jackson’s voice is instantly recognisable. The Gothic tone and themes are delivered in a style that has a rhythm and precision that is hers alone.

  • Invitation: a great opening line invites the reader in. As Stephen King says, a killer opening line should say, ‘Listen. Come in here. You want to hear this.’
    • For example:

You’ve been here before. Sure you have. Sure. I never forget a face.’ – Stephen King, Needful Things.

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Why this works: the conversational tone creates an intimacy with the reader and the language hints that this story is about small town life. The sentence, ‘You’ve been here before.’ tells the reader that the narrative is both familiar and cyclical. For many of King’s ‘constant readers’, it’s a shout out that they’re once again entering the story-rich town of Castle Rock. Not bad for thirteen short words.

  • Hints at the central story engine: a good opening line should hint at what the main theme of the story is going to be.
    • For example:

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.’ – Richard Matheson, I Am Legend.

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Why this works: the novella is essentially about Robert Neville’s struggle to survive as the last man standing after a vampire plague. The opening line reveals that he doesn’t yet fully understand his dangerous situation, and that the threat is something that only comes out at night. The use of the word ‘they’ hints at his loneliness. All in all, the opening line creates a sense of foreboding and isolation.

  • Poses a question: an unanswered question or mystery is a terrific hook that can make a reader want to keep turning the pages.
    • For example:

‘What should have happened was this:

We got a taxi home.’ – Kaaron Warren, Slights.

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Why this works: the reader immediately wonders what did happen instead. The question is posed in the main character’s matter-of-fact, off-kilter point of view, letting the reader know that the answer may not be something that will sit comfortably.

  • Starts where the story begins: the first few chapters in a draft are usually the writer finding their way into the story. Think about cutting to the moment where the trouble really starts for a strong opening scene.
    • For example:

‘Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.

Jack Crawford looked at the pleasant old house, saltsilvered wood in the clear light. “I should have caught you in Marathon when you got off work,” he said. “You don’t want to talk about it here.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anywhere, Jack. You’ve got to talk about it, so let’s have it. Just don’t get out any pictures. If you brought pictures, leave them in the briefcase – Molly and Willy will be back soon.”‘ – Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs.

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Why this works: Thomas Harris juxtaposes the idyllic family setting with the jarring horrors of a serial killer on the loose. This is the point in Will Graham’s life where he can no longer pretend he isn’t good at what he does – criminal profiling- and has to descend once again into the profession that almost killed him. This is essentially where all the trouble starts for him.

 

These are just some of the elements you can use to strengthen your opening line. Don’t worry if you don’t nail it straight away, there’s a good reason why writers spend time working and reworking the first few chapters of a novel. An opening line is a way in to the story for both the reader and the writer. The opening line captures the spirit of the story, its voice and intent and can help remind the writer just what they’re trying to say.

Above all, the most important thing an opening line can do, is make a promise to the reader. It’s a promise made by the author that they know where they’re going and what their story – their real story – is about.

Have a look at the opening line of your current WIP. Does it have any of the elements listed above? Post it up as a comment if you’re feeling brave. I’d love to read it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A mythic spine to your story.

I love myth. It is the lie we tell ourselves to bring order to our disordered world. It is the very untruth of it that makes for such great story fodder.

Myths, legends and fairy tales have survived through the ages because they capture fundamental beliefs that are as real today as they were centuries ago: don’t go out after dark; stay on the path; be careful what you wish for. Follow these rules and you’ll stay safe. What beautiful and dangerous lies, and what rich grounds for stories to spring from.

The drawback is that myths and legends have survived precisely because they’ve been told and retold so many times. How do you create something original from such well known forms?

The secret is to take the theme, or the spine of the myth if you will, and string it through your own story. Take the vertebrae that make up the structure of the myth and click them into your narrative. Understand the fundamental belief the myth is built on, and use it as a skeleton for your own plot. Those bones will sing to the superstition and mythic belief in your reader.

The idea for my short story, A Special Breed, was triggered when a mother next to me in the line to a jumping castle commented that the carnival workers were ‘a special breed’. I got to thinking how different their world might be from mine, and wondering what they did when the carnival was over.

That night, I happened upon the story of the Apis bull, a deity in Egyptian mythology that was believed to have the power of prophecy. A calf was selected according to markings on its hide. It would live a pampered existence, with every need catered for, until a new calf was found. When the old bull died, it was afforded a burial worthy of a god.

The unfortunate part was that the old bull was not always dead before a new calf was found, and so it would be taken to the river and drowned.

I took the spine of the Apis bull myth and laid my story with the two mothers by the jumping castle on top of it. It helped me find the shape of the narrative, led me to an ending more powerful than I’d anticipated, and brought out imagery that echoed throughout the piece.

So if you find that you’ve started a story and have gotten lost somewhere along the way: you’ve run out too many plot lines and don’t know how to tie them all back together, have a think about what myth might help to shape your narrative. What theme is the backbone of both narratives? You may find that the spine of the myth and the spine of your story will align and knit, helping you to create a story that deserves to be told and retold many times over.

 

Done is better than perfect.

This kid knows what’s what: sometimes, you just have to let it burn.

A few months ago, a friend said something that struck a nerve: ‘Done is better than perfect’. My brain exploded. Now I know how other people cram so much stuff into their lives.

One of my friends writes tens of thousands of words a week. I think she hit half a million words in nine months. Half a million.

Another decided she no longer wanted to work for an employer and launched her business last year. By all accounts, it’s a thriving success.

Another works full time and has a family. He’s published three books and is making inroads to placing them in libraries and local bookshops.

How? They did it by getting comfortable with ‘good enough’ and not waiting for ‘perfect’.

That ‘good enough’ could be the timing of an opportunity, or the rewrites of a competition entry, or a manuscript. If you spend all your time endlessly fiddling or tweaking, aiming for perfection, you’ll start to believe that nothing you produce is ever going to be good enough, or that the timing isn’t ever right. You’ll have all your hopes pinned on one opportunity, and if it falls through, you’ll have nothing else.

I’m not saying send out work that’s slapdash and written the night before a deadline; that disrespects the reader and shortcuts the all-important rewriting process. Take your time. Rewrite. Impose on your beta readers. Make it as good as you can.

Then be brave and launch it out into the world. If it crashes and burns, so be it. But by that time, you’ll have moved on to something else, you’ll be writing another story, you’ll be working to get better.

You’ll be so busy getting stuff done that you won’t have a second thought for perfect.

A Special Breed is ALIVE

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The Darkest Depths anthology was launched in November and celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Vision Writers Group.

Vision was founded by Marianne de Pierres and Rowena Cory Daniells in 1996 to develop Australian speculative fiction, and continues to cultivate talented, committed writers.

I’m happy to say that my short story is part of the festivities.

A Special Breed tells the tale of a travelling show and the legend of the Apis bull. It was one of those stories that was triggered by something I overheard; and from there, the characters muscled their way on to the page, demanding an ending that surprised me, even as I wrote it.

I hope it surprises you too.

Darkest Depths can be purchased from Amazon. Simply click here.

 

How to remember that you love writing.

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Towards the end of 2015, I fell out of love with writing.

It broke my heart.

I’d gotten caught up in the circus that accompanies a writer’s path to success: creating and maintaining a web presence, networking, courses, attending conventions, participating in writers groups; the list seems to grow longer and longer.

In all that ‘busyness’, I’d forgotten the most important thing: to play; to write because of the lovely, quiet absorption I get from finding and unearthing a story. I’d become so focussed on the goal of success that I’d forgotten the reason I write in the first place.

So this year, writing and I are taking some time to get reacquainted. We’re going to shut out some of the clamour and simply spend some time together, happily, quietly, stringing one word on after another.

I think it will work out, don’t you?

 

 

 

 

 

Play Things & Past Times

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For some, childhood is a rosy memory, filled with sunshine and daisy chains.  For me, childhood is a murkier thing, with large, booming characters, unspoken mysteries and shifting shadows in the corner of the eye.

The Pontianak’s Doll’ is a little short horror story I wrote, looking back through my own childhood and capturing some of those feelings and moments.  I’m very excited to say that it has been published in the PLAY THINGS & PAST TIMES anthology by KnightWatch Press and is now available through Amazon or via the KnightWatch Press site.

http://knightwatch.greatbritishhorror.com/play-things-past-times/

 

 

 

 

How to Suck the Very Marrow out of a Writers’ Festival

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There’s plenty of advice out there that will tell writers: you should be networking, and the best place to network is at a writers’ festival.

Ergo, the way to get the most out of a writers’ festival is to network your little heart out, correct?

WRONG. This is the best way to have a terrible time.

If you go to a festival with the words I MUST NETWORK stamped on the front of your brain, you’re missing the point.

I just had the time of my life at the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Not just because Vision, my writers’ group presented.

Not just because I had the privilege of reading out one of my short stories.

Certainly not just because Tony Owens, a fellow Visionary called me one of his favourite horror writers ever. (All right, yes, I’ll admit, that was a highlight.)

I had the best time because I spent three days immersed in story; being exposed to unexpected and delightful ways of thinking; and meeting new and experienced storytellers.

I have discovered that I am insatiably curious about other writers – how they work, what they’re writing about, who they are, how did they get to this point. I struck up conversations with people I sat next to, people waiting in lines to the toilet, festival volunteers, presenters; anyone who would talk to me, who didn’t give me a wary look and sidle away.

I may have startled a few.

They reminded me of myself when I first began attending writers’ festivals. I remember then, being in a state of hyper alertness, fearful of a missed opportunity, terrified that everyone I met could be a potential publisher or someone important, and the moment I opened my mouth, they would realise that I had no business being there. I kept my eyes down and spoke to no one.

When I met writers like these at the last Brisbane Writers Festival, I wanted to hug them, and shake them, and tell them that, ‘Everything’s okay! Relax! Have fun!’.

Granted, that would have made things worse, but I wish someone had done that to me at my first festival. If only I had known then that we’re all passionate about words, we all love big ideas, we’re all just people and we all put our pants on the same way. If I’d have known that, my festival fun quotient would have been a lot higher.

So, if you ever have the opportunity to attend a writers’ festival, put those networking worries out of your mind. Smile at strangers; talk to people simply for the sheer delight of getting to know a fellow writer; ask questions; buy books – lots of them; thank your favourite authors; try new authors; learn; soak it all up; suck the very marrow out of those days when you can be all about writing.

Go forth. Go forth and play. You’ll have a ball.

I guarantee it.