First Sentences

My favorite opening line in a story is from The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley. “She scowled at her glass of orange juice.” It’s such an immediately unusual thing to read, and yet not very out of the ordinary in terms of situation. I mean, who hasn’t scowled at a glass of orange juice, especially when it’s got pulp in it? And yet, as far as I can remember, Harry Crewe is the only character I’ve read who does it — and McKinley lays out the reason why over the next few pages. It’s a subtle hook but it’s there, and I’m delighted every time I read it.

Another favorite opening line (or lines) comes from Dust by Joan Frances Turner. “My right arm fell off today. Lucky for me, I’m left-handed.” A lot less subtle than Harry Crewe, but it’s so casual that it becomes funny, and the best way to snag a reader is to make them laugh. I know it worked for me.

Opening lines are pretty hard to write. There are whole Books On Writing dedicated to how much they matter. You have to give some exposition, but not too much or you’ll bore the reader. You have to get them interested, but don’t start the action too suddenly or you’ll overwhelm the reader. There are so many do’s and don’t’s that it’s pretty difficult to navigate. So when you’re trying to write that perfect opening line, what do you do?

Practice and study. It’s all we can do.

And I know that my particular method of writing, at least so far, means that I have to churn out a first draft of a first chapter just to scrap it. I can feel it while I’m working on this new project. It isn’t a bad thing, though. Sometimes you just have to write crap so that you can even get to the good stuff. And once I have the first draft of the beginning done, then when I go back after finishing the whole thing, it will make a lot more sense, and I’ll know how to properly start it. And that’s exciting.

But okay — you practice and practice, but what kind of opening line do you write? It sounds like a platitude to say “whatever fits your story,” but there you go. A lot of writing advice sounds like something you get from a fortune cookie. Still — I suppose the real advice is, write something that would make you the writer want to read it. If you think you’ve written a genius line, but writing it bored you to tears, scrap it. I’m pretty sure that readers can sense when you’re having a difficult time. (I know my editor can.) So write something that you like. Don’t copy, but draw inspiration from the books you already love. After all, reading is what makes a writer.

The Long Game

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” “I want to be a writer!”

The term “writer” signified to me, at the age of six or seven, being able to live in a big white house with a huge backyard and wear a nice bathrobe while you worked, possibly sipping from a mug of cocoa and looking out at the wide forest just beyond the edge of your property. There would be dogs of course, and at least one cat, and a parrot who could talk, and a snake in a big terrarium. In short, it was more about being filthy stinking rich than actually doing the work of writing. I wanted to be a writer the way some kids want to be astronauts.

Now I am slightly older and slightly wiser in the ways of the business, and I still want to be filthy stinking rich, but I want writing to be the thing that gets me there, and for specific reasons, not just because it’s a way to wiggle out of doing an honest day’s work.

In short, even when I said to myself, “self, we are going to be a psychologist” or “self, we are going to be a French translator” or whatever else I decided I wanted to do, I was still writing as a hobby. Not finishing a lot of drafts, mind you, and a lot of it derivative (that’s the fancy word for fan fiction, folks), but still I was writing. I liked doing it. Tapping on a keyboard isn’t just a way for me to yell into the void, it’s a way to share experiences and memories and ideas, to convey what’s rattling around in my head and make it rattle around in someone else’s, too. That’s a really cool thing.

It is work. Seven year old me just thought that inspiration came like a divine stroke of lightning and created the characters fresh on the page. Well, sometimes inspiration comes and punches me in the face, but that isn’t reliable and it can’t be relied upon if you’re going to make writing into a business. You have to sit down, get the fingers on the keyboard, and write whether inspiration comes that day or not.

And the other thing is that it is a business, which means you have to treat it like a business. Tax forms and IDs and bank accounts and paperwork, so much paperwork, dear God save me from the paperwork. But it’s all stuff that has to get done before you can start reaping even the smallest of rewards.

That sounds horribly unglamorous, I know. But the cool thing is that, at the end of it, you’ve made something that is uniquely yours, and not the gift of some weird bolt from the blue. You made those characters, you made an entire world for people to play in and visit over and over again. And you get the satisfaction that comes from knowing you worked to create something — it might not be physical, but it’s still affecting the world we live in just a little. Which is way better than just lounging around in a bathrobe drinking coffee all day.

I’ve just started out in this game. I am a complete novice out in the wide world. Watching the royalties trickle in makes me fidgety, to be honest. I want to be where the big guys are. But just because this is where I am now doesn’t mean that this is where I’ll be in five years — or that that’s where I’ll be in ten years, or twenty. I’m young and I’ve got a long ways to go, and all the time in the world.

Finding Time

One of the things I miss about college is the fact that I could rearrange my schedule to basically whatever I wanted. The classes in my major I couldn’t really do anything about, but I could pick other classes to suit whatever timetable I liked, so I had nice comfortable lunch hours, or my day was over promptly at 3:20 in the afternoon. If I then wanted to spend my time goofing off on the internet — I mean, uh, conscientiously studying and doing my homework — then I could. If I wanted to go poking around town with my friends, then I could. If I wanted to write a whole series of books, then I could. (I didn’t.) The world was my small-college-town-sized oyster.

But I’ve got an actual real-person job these days — ladies, gents, distinguished guests, I am a nine-to-fiver. Part and parcel of the gig is having to plan the rest of my day around that big chunk of time. By which I mean, time management becomes a crucial factor for the writing process.

So while I was reading Books On Writing and marathoning the Mad Genius Club blog during one of my dry spells earlier this year, one of the posts that I found was this one by Larry Correia. The dude is ridiculously successful. He is rolling in money. And he started out writing while he had a day job, and worked hard enough that he could quit his day job, and now his day job is writing. I aspire to be where he is now, and I respect his work ethic; which means I’m trying to have a similar work ethic.

Which is one of the reasons why I decided to buckle down and actually finish that darn draft. And that meant coming home from work and pounding out a few thousand words every day until the draft was done. I described the process to one of my friends — earbuds in, big mug of cocoa, and squeezing as much writing as possible into two or three hours so I could get to bed on time, wake up, go to work, and do it all over again. She was nonplussed, to say the least. She didn’t have the time to spare to do something like that.

But my question is, how are you ever going to get a project finished if you don’t find the time? Heck, make the time. Wake up earlier if you have to, or stay up later (and find a strong alarm ringtone on your phone). I mean, it helps that I don’t have a romantic relationship to maintain at the same time, and that my closest friends live at least 45 minutes away. But even if my situation was different, writing is still important to me, and it doesn’t magically stop being important just because I have an S.O.

And having a finished, polished manuscript is a pretty good feeling.

Moral Ambiguity in Antagonists

One of the first things you read in any book on writing, aside from the fact that adverbs are the Devil’s handiwork, is that characters need to be three-dimensional. Our hero needs to have a few flaws in addition to his many sterling qualities; and our villain needs to have some traits aside from a penchant for sinisterly twirling his mustache and drowning kittens. I think when it comes to heroes, or at least protagonists, they need to be relatable above all else. If the hero is pure of heart, a gallant warrior, etc etc, that’s great — but if he cusses a blue streak when he stubs his toe, well then! He’s human! And I am much more interested in him as a character.

But villains seem to be a trickier business. To wit:

There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities, so we act as though they don’t exist. (“Wonderful” – Stephen Schwartz)

We say that we want three-dimensional villains, and then we protest that the genocidal maniac was just brainwashed into committing genocide (cough Loki from the Avengers movie cough). We say that we want interesting bad guys and nuanced good guys, and then we claim that the brainwashed victim was actually the villain (cough Bucky Barnes cough). Show me an antagonist who laughs when he murders people and then has tea with his daughter, and I’ll show you a slew of people who say that he’s just misunderstood. Or alternately, show me a protagonist who does his best in a horrible situation to protect his family, and I’ll show you a crowd who howls for his head.

It’s black-and-white thinking. The same stuff that says “anyone who isn’t perfectly pure and good-hearted is an evil sonovasomethingorother and deserves to roast on a spit.” Sorry? Last time I checked, people were humans, and humans make mistakes. It’s kind of built into the programming.

And our main characters should be the same way — making mistakes, I mean. Big goof-ups that make the plot twist and tangle, little goof-ups that make you laugh, and goof-ups all in between. Which means that bad guys need the chance to occasionally do something good, too.

Yeah, it’ll make us as readers uncomfortable to think that such a bad person can care about family or a stamp collection or gardening. But it reminds us that bad people are people, just like us. And more importantly, that it doesn’t stop them from being bad.

Fiction doesn’t have to be haughty literary stuff in order to tell uncomfortable truths.

Writer’s Block and Books On Writing

I’ve read approximately thirty different books about the process of writing. Whether it’s formatting in order to snare a publisher, literary devices and the erasing of adverbs (fight me, I love a good adverb), or the characterization of villains, I’ve probably read more words about writing than I’ve finished in first drafts.

Which is, of course, the problem.

Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. I’ve learned this the hard way. NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) tends to encourage the worst parts of my procrastination habit, and going indie means I’m accountable only to myself; I don’t even have the artificial deadline of a month. On the one hand, I make my own schedule! On the other hand, if I’m not feeling like staring at a screen for hours at a time, I can easily pick up a book someone else has already written and just fantasize about how awesome my book is going to be. I’ll be a New York Times bestseller, just you wait! … I just have to actually do the work first.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, when it comes to my own writing projects, Books On Writing are resources that are only to be used for specific instances. If I need a technique for first-person narration, maybe I’ll crack open The Elements of Style for that one chapter. But it does me no good to sink deep into a book about editing when I haven’t even finished the first draft; and it definitely does me no good to read a book about independent publishing when I haven’t even finished the first chapter yet.

So reading Books On Writing is one thing to avoid when I’m actually trying to, you know, write. Or when I know I need to write but I don’t feel like it. That particular state of wretched boredom is how I think of Writer’s Block. It’s not that I can’t write; I can; I just would rather do anything else at the moment.

It’s hard going when you don’t feel like doing it. There were long stretches where I didn’t write a word at all. But getting into a routine helps (mug of cocoa, earbuds, movie playing in the background, and go!). So does telling a few people that you intend to finish this one, so that they can help you hold yourself accountable. And rereading the last bit you wrote can help you get back into the mood of the story. But mostly what you have to do is just put fingers on the keyboard and put something down. Anything. It’s a first draft, it doesn’t have to be good — but it does have to be done. And you’ll be surprised at the freedom that gives you.