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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.

Wonder Woman

Warning: spoilers ahead for the movie.

When practically the first piece of exposition is a tale about how all the Greek gods were killed except Ares, I was pretty skeptical that this would turn out better than another Wrath of the Titans movie (or that awful Gods of Egypt thing). Having extensively read Greek mythology as a child, movies like that tend to make me cringe. The Greek gods can’t, don’t, die. That’s kind of the whole point. So the first few minutes I was just a little bit waiting to see how bad it was going to be.

The interactions between Steve and Diana were everything I could have hoped for. The culture clash was interesting and sometimes quite funny. Walking away from the movie, I was glad we finally got a superhero movie where the female character is the main focus and not the sidekick; and especially where the female character is just as well developed as any male protagonist. But mostly I thought about the antagonists in the story.

On the one hand, Hades was refreshingly absent as the bad guy; on the other hand, Ares was the bad guy, and Ares in the original myths is actually a pretty chill dude for being the god of war. Okay, substitute one stereotype for another. War is bad, rah rah, men are all good hearted if it weren’t for the devil’s sorry I mean Ares’ influence, rah rah. You know the drill.

The movie set out to fool you. Clearly David Thewlis and his mustache were not the bad guy. Clearly the fellow with the German accent was the bad guy, especially when he breathed the weird blue fumes. See? Evil comes in a little glass vial, or behind an unsettling mask. I do have to admit I was a little disconcerted when he revealed himself and went full armor mode but still had the signature Thewlis mustache. I’m sorry, dude. I can’t take you seriously anymore. All I can see is Creepy Remus Lupin in a metal suit.

It’s a study in assumptions. Diana makes a lot of them through the movie — part of that previously mentioned culture clash. The part where she declares that the Germans are all good people when out from under Ares’ influence made a lot of people in the theater cringe, and made Steve cringe too. The world is messy and imperfect and you can’t always win. And even when you do win, there are losses. I’ll admit that on a storytelling level I appreciated why Steve didn’t make it, even if on the audience level I was disgruntled.

It was an interesting movie with good characterizations, an interesting premise, and a lot of explosions. All in all, not darn bad, even with the skewed Greek mythos.

Keep Making Progress

The number one best marketing tool for new writers is to write the next book. Every single Book or Article On Writing (for indies, that is) stresses that quantity is nearly as important as quality: the more books you have out, the more opportunities there are for people to discover your work, and the more likely you are to actually be successful in the business. You still have to be good — or at least, good enough to sell — but the backlist sells the frontlist sells the backlist, and it accumulates sales like a snowball.

It’s something of a science by now. I’ve heard varying accounts, but the big break for indies seems to be somewhere around the tenth book. I look at that figure, and I look at the publishing schedule I have worked out, and that’s not going to be for another two years. I can only imagine how much my writing techniques, and the length of my books, will improve during that time. Ten books. Yes, I’m a novice in this business; I have so long to go before I even reach journeyman status. It’s a little daunting.

But as they say, the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Which is why this evening when I come home from the day job I’m going to put fingers to keyboard and start writing up the first draft of book two. And which is why I have a publishing schedule worked out of ideas to turn into books. I’ve got a whole series or two basically mapped out. Nothing that emerges in the skull actually turns out exactly the same way on the page; that doesn’t make the end product bad, it just makes it different. So probably things will end up differently than I anticipate. But having a map for those ten books, and beyond, helps that ten-book-goal seem a little less daunting.

I don’t know for sure that I’m going to take off as an indie writer. The week between publishing the last one and starting the next one has thoughts (mostly worries) rattling around in my head. If I sell x number of copies in a month then I’ll be making y in royalties and that means z after taxes, etc etc etc … Shh, self, stop. Of course if I only have one book out it’s not going to sell that well. Who are we, some kind of one-hit-wonder? That might have worked for the childhood daydream, but not for real life. Just focus on the next book, and stop worrying. Well, all that means is that I need to make the gap between finishing and starting smaller next time!

Made progress — good. Now continue making progress.

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Life is tangled and messy and sometimes that’s the joy of it, and sometimes it decides to be that way whether you expected it or not. Which goes to say, I promise an extra long post later today — this morning my brain is slightly fried. Thank you for your patience!

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.

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

“Too much traveling on the railway could turn you into a philosopher, although, he conceded, not a very good one.” (Sir Terry Pratchett, Raising Steam)

I’ve been traveling by plane, train, or car since I was very small. I don’t remember a lot of those childhood travels — cassette tapes were a big factor on long car trips, as I recall, and that’s about it. But as a slightly older person I remember a lot more, not least because I wrote some of it down.

The first time I was on a plane I was too young to have even the slightest shred of a memory. But the first time I remember being on a plane was for a family trip down to Florida with the grandparents. It was a two-hour flight, and the sheer novelty of being able to see the tops of clouds was amazing. If I had had a camera phone, I’m certain I would have taken a million pictures. (And later, on a plane with a smart phone, yes, I’ve taken a million pictures.) On one level, the fact that a whole bunch of people have been crammed into a giant tin can and are zooming through the air at high altitudes might be ho-hum; after all, we’ve been doing it for just over a hundred years.

It’s interesting to think about all the technology that we’re used to, that people two hundred years ago would have boggled at. But the fact that we’ve constructed these tiny worlds that go far faster than we ever could, on pavement or on rails or in the air, I think that’s pretty neat. I think, however we get used to it, we shouldn’t forget a little of that wonder.

All of which goes to say two things. The first — whatever you write, put some kind of wonder into it, no matter how familiar you are. The second — this post is a little abbreviated because, well, guess who’ll be flying in a tin can in a few hours?

See you on the flip side!

Gross Corporeality

I write my blog posts after workouts in the morning — part of that whole time management thing I was going on about earlier. So here I am, trying to stop sweating in time to go take a shower and maybe smell better than the inside of a goat.

It’s gross. It’s grossly corporeal, mostly. This is my body at work, the one that I’m living in, with sweat rolling down my temple and sticking my hair flat to my scalp. I don’t really think about typing, except for the words that I’m trying to write, because my body is mostly stationary; but boy do I think about the rest of me when I’m working out. You’ll notice that it sounds like I haven’t worked out much in my life — that’s true. I’m good at stationary. I’ve been stationary most of my life (usually because I thought reading, writing, drawing, etc were more interesting than anything else out there), much to the consternation of my sister, who is the very opposite of stationary. It’s only pretty recently that I’ve decided to do a lot of things, consistent exercise being one of them, except that writing and exercising make me aware of my body — the way I take up space, the way my physical form exists in the world, I mean — in very different ways.

I’m sure, if you’re reading this, you’ve seen at least one amusing comic strip about the various ways that writers or readers configure themselves in order to properly go about their business. (My favorite is the RubyEtc comic.) How many times can I sit cross-legged on a couch and not have my leg fall asleep? How many times can I sit cross-legged on a couch, then go to stand and promptly sit down again because all of my leg has fallen asleep? The answer may surprise you!

But writing is still my body, stationary. Sitting curled up on a couch, crouching over my laptop and reaching out every so often for a mug of cocoa, that’s one thing. Cardio with sweat pouring down my face, or climbing a huge flight of stairs and feeling my legs start to holler at me, is something else entirely.

Honestly? The main satisfaction that I get from working out is the fact that I’m doing something to actively affect the world around me, specifically the organism that people call by my name. Digging a hole in the dirt to plant a flower is similarly very cool, because I was able to physically affect my surroundings. Groundbreaking! (Holding a printed proof of my book was really cool, you guys. I made this thing, and it’s out here in the world. I can only imagine the heady feeling Michelangelo felt.)

It’s little stuff, I know, but we only live once in this weird wide world, and every little bit counts. So get out there. I know how comfortable it is inside, but go. Do something. Make something. It’ll be messy but maybe it’ll be fun, too.

Mark It Up

Ebooks have a lot of good things going for them, not the least of which is that they are portable. The same library that would be several pounds’ worth of print books, bulky and taking up valuable room in the luggage, is easily stored in my tablet or phone; and if I’ve downloaded them to my device instead of leaving them in the cloud, the books are just as accessible, if not more. I call that pretty useful.

I do like print books. Most of my life I’ve read books printed out in paperback or hardcover, occasionally getting crumbs in the spine when I just couldn’t put them away for a food break. My copy of Good Omens has a cracked spine from the fact that I’ve opened it to my favorite scene so many times (the drunk conversation between Aziraphale and Crowley, by the way). There’s a sensory feeling tied to print books that you just can’t get anywhere else.

But maybe because of that singular sensory feeling, I can’t bear to so much as dog-ear a page. The idea of scribbling notes in the margins of pages, let alone highlighting or underlining, makes me wince. The only non-textbook that I’ve done that to is Les Mis, and that’s because I’ve argued about his characters often enough that Victor Hugo can begrudge me some blue highlighter.

Ebooks, on the other hand, don’t offer that sensory experience — so I feel no compunction about marking them up. I highlight my ebooks in blue and pink and orange, I yell at characters in the notes or groan at puns, I bookmark favorite scenes. And if I’m in the mood for a particular book but I don’t want to read the whole thing, I can skip to the “notebook” function (handily available in the Kindle and Google PlayBooks apps) to reread my favorite parts.

That’s something that I missed, before. It’s an amazing kind of freedom to be able to yell at characters and plotlines and fill a note with exclamation points when I see the foreshadowing in a reread. (Can you tell I’m the kind of person who talks during movies?) Listen, I love interacting with media. It’s all sorts of fun. Whether you scribble in your print book or not, that’s great — you do you. I’ll be over here with my phone and the highlighter tool.

Having published a book, I think being able to read the finished product in ebook form is pretty darn neat. Somehow I know I won’t believe it’s  real until I’m actually holding a print copy in my hands. But I don’t care whether you mark up the copy in print or in the ether of the cloud; just so long as you mark it up.

Write What You (Don’t) Know

That “write what you know” adage is a mixed bag of cats, in my opinion. The technical word for it that they whip out in English classes is verisimilitude — the feeling of truth in fiction. That’s well and dandy, but some people seem to think that means you can’t write about anything that doesn’t happen in real life.

Sorry, what?

I remember reading a picture book with my second grade class full of vocabulary words. It was a retelling of the Cinderella story, but with dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! It was the best thing in the world. (It’s called Dinorella: A Prehistoric Fairy Tale. Talk about a blast from the past, eh? Wink wink, nudge nudge.) It was fantastic, in every sense of the word.

Speaking of, there are entire genres, thousands of stories, devoted to turning “verisimilitude” on its head. Do you think Tolkien ever met an actual, scaly, fire-breathing dragon? He wrote five or six of the darn things. I have never been on an intergalactic spaceship in my life, but darned if I’m going to let that stop me from writing a space opera. I’ve never met a fairy from the Summer Court, but I wrote a book about them. So what if these things aren’t real right now? That’s the thing about words. You can do anything with them. If you want to write a book about cowboy aliens feuding with mermaids, you can do that. If you want to write a book about a cactus’s search for love, you can do that. It’s your brain, dude. Go nuts.

But now that you have your crazy cool world, it has to be relatable. This is what I mean by a mixed bag — there’s got to be some element that the readers can recognize and identify with. I don’t care whether your protagonist has tentacles. Maybe blue spots lighting up on his face is the alien equivalent of a blush, and he can’t stop glowing when he sees the other alien down the hall. Or maybe the protag is a dragon who’s trying to outdo that green-scaled idiot across the mountainside in a contest on whose lair is the most bedecked with jewels.

And not just the characters, the setting, too. Even Mars has crunchy sand underfoot that gets everywhere and annoys the crap out of your characters. Playing in fantastic genres is a lot of fun, but it won’t work if the only cool thing is the genre itself.

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.