Writing 401—#2, Opening Lines

I came right out and asked her one day. I’m talking about the literary agent who landed me the contracts for Airwaves and Only His Kiss, and the question every writer wants to answer with such prowess and proficiency that failure is impossible.

What made my manuscript stand out from the others stacked on your desk?

I might have hoped for any number of replies—that the characterization was stellar, the plot kept her guessing, that the writing was superb. Nope; what she gave me was four words:

“The three-second test.”

What’s the three-second test? The amount of time she spent looking at each manuscript submitted, the amount of time it took her to read the opening line. (But no pressure, of course.) If it didn’t hook her, she tossed the bundle of pages to the “discard” pile, and moved on to the next one.

“It’s a girl, sir.”

That was the opening line that convinced her to keep reading, to give me another five seconds, the time it took her to read the next paragraph of the manuscript that became my second novel, Only His Kiss.

The hook has to accomplish one of two things.

1. It must ignite a question—What’s going on?

The opening line must make the reader curious enough to part with the money to buy your book and to part with the time to read it. (If you just mumbled to yourself that you don’t care if they read it, only that they buy it, please close the door behind you.)

2. It must promise rich beauty.

The writing must be poetic, lyric; experiential. If the words were scenery, they’d compel the reader to snap a photograph every thirty yards. If they were musical notes, their journey would make the reader’s chest ache and their throat close with emotion. As an assemblage of words, the opening lines make them nudge the nearest human being, and say, “Listen to this. Let me read you this line.”

Above all, opening lines must be so quotable, they are memorable.

This one sparks curiosity. “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home.” Such is the beginning of S.E. Hinton’s young adult novel, The Outsiders. She was all of sixteen when she penned it. Since the book’s publication in 1967, it’s sold more than fourteen-million copies.

The first two words in this opening line are the first and last name of the primary character, a great launch for an epic novel, don’t you think? “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were,” — Gone With the Wind, by Margaret Mitchell.

This one is lovely. “There is a legend about a bird which sings just once in its life, more sweetly than any other creature on the face of the earth,” — The Thorn Birds, by Colleen McCullough.

And this one is just plain fun. “The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him ‘Wild Thing’ . . .” — Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak.

There’s no such thing as spending too much time on the opening line of your novel or short story. Remember to fuss over, nearly as much, the opening lines to each scene. Because the opening line sets the tone. The opening line leads the team. The opening line weighs the anchor. The opening line is a fanfare. The opening line turns the key.

Writing 401—#1a, Point-of-View (POV)

Before a writer can type—or pen—even the opening line of any work of fiction, they must first make a decision regarding the point-of-view (POV). That is, Who’s going to tell the story?

Generally, there are three options.

  1. Omniscient
  2. Third-person Limited
  3. First-person

1. Omniscient

  • Simple to manage.
  • An anonymous narrator tells the story.
  • The anonymous narrator reveals the thoughts and feelings of key—or even all—characters in each scene.

2. Third-person Limited

  • Challenging to manage.
  • One to three key characters in the book tell the story, each scene being limited to the POV of one character.
  • One key character in each scene conjectures the thoughts and feelings of the other characters based on what they say, do, or reveal through their body language or facial expressions.

3. First-person

  • Simple to manage.
  • The primary character tells their own story.
  • The primary character conjectures the thoughts and feelings of the other characters based on what they say, do, or reveal through their body language or facial expressions.

Readers of fiction invest their time in order to experience and to feel. Their hope is to discover a story so well crafted that they can engage with its characters. They want to step inside the characters’ heads with such abandon that it’s as if they become those characters.

In order for that to happen, the writer must make the story’s world—its characters, setting, and plot—so convincing, the reader can’t help but become immersed in it. It’s a sales job, and it involves two things—engaging the reader, and insulating the reader.

To engage the reader is to get them so emotionally involved in the experiences and feelings of the story that the real world around them fades away. Then, once you have them, insulate the reader from any intrusions or interruptions that could jar them back into reality. In other words, make the reader forget they’re reading.

I believe the omniscient POV gets inside the heads of too many characters. If a story is 300 pages long, and there are three points of view, that sifts down to 100 pages per character. If there are only two points of view, each character has 150 pages in which to engage. The fewer the points of view, the more easily—and the deeper—the reader connects.

On the other hand, the first-person POV has too few points of view. As the primary character tells their story, the constant reminder is that this is their story. Did you get that—their story. It may be more easy for the reader to engage emotionally, but I believe it’s more difficult for the reader to become the character, to disengage from the real world around them.

I write in third-person limited because it’s a challenge. Each scene is limited to one character’s POV. Since I write love stories, my novels contain only two viewpoints—the hero’s and the heroine’s.

The first challenge is in selecting the best POV for each particular scene. I usually write the scene through the eyes of the character whose life or emotions are going to take the biggest hit by what’s happening. But sometimes, after I finish the scene, something tells me—you know how that is—to start over and rewrite it through the other character’s eyes. I’m never disappointed; that second shot at it always ends up being the one with the emotional punch.

The second challenge is to not slip-up by revealing something a non-POV character is thinking. If it’s not their scene, I can’t take the reader inside their head; I’m limited to what the other character says, does, or expresses through body language or facial expressions.

But then, I don’t take the easy way when I write. I enjoy stretching myself, approaching a challenge and crafting my way through it. I prefer to push the limits—especially my own.

Writing About Men

A reader of Airwaves—a repeat reader, much to my delight—recently commented that I “do a wonderful job covering the guy side of things.”

I’m so pleased to hear that!

I have to credit my ex-husband for it. He was reading an early version of Airwaves and reached the scene (spoiler alert) in which Colin is asked to resign his position as the program director and morning-drive DJ at KDMD-FM. The scene had Colin arguing with Sterling Barclay, the general manager, in an effort to keep his job.

“No way,” said my Ex. “A guy wouldn’t do that.”

Okay. What would a guy do?

I rewrote the scene to have Colin simply hand over the key to the front door, leave Sterling’s office, and begin emptying his desk.

As my husband explained it, a man wouldn’t argue. As my research into masculine behavior has taught me since then, men are too stoic to admit such an injury as being fired. As well, they don’t engage in battles they can’t win. Colin isn’t going to talk Sterling out of this, so he protects his dignity, clams up, and accepts his fate. If Sterling doesn’t trust him, he doesn’t want to work there anyway. He was looking for a job when he found that one; he’ll find another.

Years ago, I started reading a Christian romance novel in which a young woman from the city has come to stay on a cattle ranch. She’ll eventually develop a relationship with the foreman, whom she meets when he rides up on his horse. The scene is in his point of view (POV), and he regards the woman with some derision because she has a fancy car and a name-brand designer purse.

Wait a minute! The ranch foreman—a super masculine guy—knows the brand of her purse, yet he only notes that she drives a fancy car? Nope! This guy wouldn’t even notice her purse, but he’d know the make, model, and year of that car. He’d know the size of the engine, and he’d have a pretty good idea of the horsepower.

My disappointment in what I’d hoped would be a good read served as a lesson to me. Since then, my apprenticeship in authoring has expanded beyond studying writing, to studying men, particularly how they typically react in given situations, and what motivates them. Their thinking is nothing like that of women. It isn’t superior, and it isn’t any less effective; it’s just different. I’ve come to admire their sense of duty and responsibility; in one way or another, they are all providers.

I wish I’d known this stuff when I was married; things might have turned out differently.

Men are amazing. I love writing about them. They make the world a better place. They deserve to be well represented, with accuracy and respect. I give it my best.

Where Do My Book Characters Come From?

Who knows the moment book characters are born? I don’t. They’re not like a spark of thought I can trace back to a beginning, such as that moment when you drive past the park and see a woman laughing as she tries to train a Pug puppy to walk on a leash. You smile and you think to yourself, “That looks like fun. I think I’ll get a dog.” Or even that moment when you first met someone who became a lifelong friend. Part of the friendship is the memory of how you met, of that second in time when you learned their name. Book characters aren’t like that; you don’t invent them, and you’re not introduced to them. First, they’re not there, and then they are—not only in your head, but in your heart as well.

If my book characters have any beginning at all, it sounds like, “What if there was this guy, and he was ‘stunning, flawless, absolutely traffic-stopping gorgeous.’ (Colin Michaels in Airwaves.) And what if he was the morning-drive DJ at a radio station in . . . Missoula, Montana. And what if he was also the program director, and he hires this young woman—Emily—and he falls in love with her. But he’s a womanizer, and she’s a sweet young thing . . . and he wishes he were good enough for her.”

So why isn’t he good enough for her? That’s the Inner Conflict. I’m the one who comes up with their wound, the pain in their past that influences their Present and steers their Future. I’m the one who crafts the events that help them make peace with their injury. But the rest, all the stuff that makes the character three-dimensional, they—and here’s where it gets weird—actually tell those things to me.

It usually happens at about chapter three. Up to then, I’m struggling. I don’t know these people. I have a setting and a couple of opening scenes, I have a wound, and I have a name and a general description—and that’s it. I’m faking it, writing each scene for its purpose—to either advance the plot or develop the character—but I’m pretty much guessing what the character will say and how they’ll react as the scene moves along. But then—and it’s a monumental moment—it’s like they suddenly . . . inflate. They go from two-dimensional, like a photograph, to three-dimensional, and the little buggers take over. Now they’re telling me what they’re going to say and how they react. It’s the craziest thing, and I—a wordsmith, a professional—have no words to describe how it happens, much less what it feels like. I, the writer, become like the reader, getting to know the characters as they tell me their story. It’s a magical experience, and it’s mystical.

If the final paragraph in any piece of writing must answer the question asked in the first paragraph—Where do my book characters come from?—the answer must be, I haven’t a clue.

Airwaves, Revised Edition

11 November 2020

It was never my intention that my authoring would cease with the publication of Only His Kiss in 1999. It’s my own fault that there was no novel written and published in 2000 . . . or 2001 . . . or any other year. You see, I forgot who I was; I allowed myself to become distracted with things that seemed a good idea at the time.

Be careful, lest you mis-place your purpose.

The new cover of the new Airwaves, Revised Edition — to be released on Kindle in December 2020.

There is a third book written; its copyright is 2011, and it’s been waiting nine years for the final edit and release; I believe you’ll love it. So I’m back now, my butt firmly planted in the chair.

But I’m a born organizer and things must be done in order. When all rights on Airwaves reverted back to me from my contract with the publisher — and I realized I not only should, but could, make the novel available as an eBook — I decided to take the opportunity to fix a few things, to smooth the writing that in places made me cringe. No, not change the story—Emily and Colin wouldn’t stand for that—but Airwaves was my first novel, and I’m a gooder writer now.

I’m also really busy setting up my new life and lifestyle (if you’re curious, read posts under the Wanderings category), but I plan to release Airwaves, Revised Edition on Kindle on 1 December 2020. Only His Kiss, my second novel, needs no revisions, but it will require a new cover and I’ll have to reformat the manuscript. So look for its release in May of 2021. (Note: This hasn’t happened yet; I’ve been too busy working on Book #3.) And that should put Book #3 ready for you in about September 2021.

Isn’t this fun? I have great adventures planned for you. (I’m a writer; there’s more where that came from.) Thank you for reading, and please stay in touch!