First Lines

I think almost every author will agree with me when I say that first lines can be the hardest thing to write. I can’t count how many times I’ve wanted to start a story, known what I wanted to say, and just stared at the empty document because I couldn’t figure out how to begin.

Unfortunately, first lines are also vital. A brilliant first line hooks the reader, leaving them wanting more. An okay first line at least leads them to read the second, hopefully the third… and so on.

I believe that pressure is one of the things that leads to the trouble of coming up with the first line. We look at brilliant first lines from famous books, and feel self-conscious, trying to come up with one just as good.

Honestly, I think some first lines are considered good because of what story they are from. Take the opening line of ‘Moby Dick’, “Call me Ishmael.” Definitely iconic, but I think that ‘Moby Dick’ made the line iconic, rather than the line making ‘Moby Dick’ a classic. Other stories, the first line is undeniably good. I remember reading a book where the first page left me wishing I had written it. Ironically enough, I still haven’t finished reading the book, meaning a great opening is not the end all and be all of catching a reader’s attention.

What makes a good first line? The ideal first line gives a small sense of situation, place, and/or character, while raising questions in the reader. The first line must make the reader want to read the second. Modern readers don’t have the patience to read a few chapters before the story gets good. You have to have them by the end of the first page.

Your story doesn’t have to start with a bang. No one has to get shot, or murdered. Nothing has to be stolen. The ancient gods don’t have to rise up against mortals or the space shuttles flee a dying earth on the first page. You can start with that, if that’s how the story demands to be written. But there are a few caveats.

When you write a story, you are entering in an implied contract with the reader. You are telling the reader that your story is worth the money spent buying it, and the time spent reading it. To be fair, you have to let your reader know what kind of story they are getting into as quickly as possible. A tender love story should not start with a brutal murder. A thriller romance on the other hand, can. However exciting your opening is, you have to top it later. A high tension opening should lead to a high tension book. Not that the tension won’t relax in places, but the tension should remain high and even increase.  Other genres expect a slower build. Some romances, literary fiction, etc. won’t expect, or even want a high impact beginning. Fantasy and Sci-Fi are more versatile. Good stories of both genres have been written with high tension beginnings or lower tension beginnings.

Two, keep in mind that we don’t know these characters yet. Even if this is a series, consider that some readers may not have read any previous stories. This could be their introduction. Putting a character in danger only works so well if the reader hasn’t had time to care about them yet. No, putting them in danger won’t make a reader care. Yes, we all feel something when we see the baby stroller start to roll into traffic, but it won’t be nearly as much as we feel if you show us first the parents, who had struggled to have a child for years, and are so overjoyed to finally have one, even as they grieve that the doctors say they can never have another. That, and unless you are writing a very dark story, we all know that the baby will be fine. TV Tropes calls it ‘Infant Immortality’. (possible NSFW language). If you are writing a story that dark, I recommend letting the readers know before something happens to the baby.

Back to openings. With all this pressure, how do we ever begin? Well, one exercise I enjoy doing is to open a blank document and writing ten sentences that could begin a story. Don’t hold back, don’t censure yourself. Don’t even worry if they don’t make sense. Don’t limit your genre either. It’s actually surprising the way a story can twist. The same sentence can lead to a comedy, a tragedy, or even more.

After I’ve written my sentences, I like to pick one and see what kind of story it leads to. Sometimes I find that my first sentence doesn’t remain my first sentence, and that’s fine too. Others, I haven’t written, but I hope to someday because I really want to know where they go.

One sentence I came up with was I don’t bleed anymore. I’ve written a story with that, almost two. The first version, which I enjoyed, was a rather pulpy style monologue of a woman transformed into something who was confronting her killer. The first paragraph went like this:

I don’t bleed anymore. Never thought I would miss it either. I do though. Not so much the blood itself. But what it means. When I bled, I was human. I breathed. I felt pain. I don’t do those things anymore. I don’t know what I am, either.

Personally, I think that’s a decent opening. Possibly better than the opening in the second draft, which focused more on a man who woke up in the middle of the night to find something that accused him of killing her. The first paragraph went like this:

Jacob Reaves woke up and stared at the ceiling through bleary eyes. It was a few minutes before he was able to think past the headache, and nasty taste in his mouth to realize the slightly familiar ceiling wasn’t his bedroom ceiling. Shuttering his eyes, he reached out with a leg. Yup, he’d passed out on the couch. Again.

Maybe you think the second opening is better, I don’t know. Actually, I would love to know which opening you prefer. So, why did I change it? Because I believe the second version of the story is better. The reader finds out more about the characters for one. Not everything is left to the reader’s imagination. That said, I am still fond of the first version. Perhaps someday I’ll put together a collection of short stories and include it as a bonus.

Other sentences I haven’t done anything with, but am curious to see what will happen. This is the story of how I drove to work and ended up three states away with an angry possum in the back seat. Or how about: I decided to quit chocolate the day the emus robbed the store. Personally, I really want to know how those are connected. Then there’s Helios bridled his horses, wondering again if it was time to retire. I don’t think that’s a retelling of the formation of the Milky Way, but I suppose it might be.

There are others, but that’s not the point. The point is that this exercise can give you a starting point. A way to play creatively. This exercise can also be done as a group. Maybe have everyone write three to five sentences and pass them to someone else. That person has to pick one and use it as a starting point for a story.

Most of all, remember that with writing, anything can change up until it’s published. Just start. You can come up with the perfect gem later.

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Creating a Story Bible

There’s a common adage that a story is like an iceberg. What the reader sees is only ninety percent of what the writer knows. While that is more a rule of thumb than an absolute rule of writing, there is a fair amount of truth to it too. Not everything you dream up is going to make it into the story, or at least, it shouldn’t. I know I certainly don’t want to read three hundred pages of backstory to let me know the current political climate of your world. There’s a good chance I wouldn’t be interested in three pages of political backstory unless you can make it interesting and important to the story.

But you as the writer, need that information. And no matter how much you claim you won’t forget it, you will forget certain details. That is why it is important to write down what you want to remember. I can’t count how many times I’ve looked through old notes of stories of mine and been, ‘Huh, I had forgotten I planned that.’ Sometimes it was semi-absorbed anyway, sometimes it wasn’t.

That is what a story bible is for. What is a story bible? Essentially, it’s your notes. All the work that goes into your story. This is where you keep the master record of everything from how you spell a character’s name, to their bios, to maps, and how the world works. All the info you came up with, and what you need to know to write your story. What your research has found, and maybe where you got it from. A bible is particularly necessary if you are writing a series, a television series, and/or writing a collaboration with others.

Why should you keep a story bible? Isn’t is a lot of unnecessary work? It’s not like anyone else will read it anyway, right? It is work, I won’t lie. But I argue that it is both useful and necessary work. I tend to brainstorm while making notes. I come up with ideas on where to take the story, and how to give the story more depth. Re-reading through notes can sometimes help with writer’s block. It’s also useful to double-check small details like eye color, hair color, etc. without having to search through your story. Particularly if you are writing a follow up book or story.

Will anyone else read it? Well, that’s up to you. If you become popular enough, people might actually be interested in your notes. And while you probably won’t share your bible wholesale, you can put some of your notes and snippets on your website or Facebook page. Maybe even Twitter. It could be a useful bonus for your fans, or a way to get people interested in your works.

What format should this bible take? Should each story or series have its own bible? What about short stories? How long should they be?

That is very much up to you. I’m very disorganized, and frequently just open a new word document and start freewriting. Sometimes I write in notebooks or journals. (I strongly recommend making a point of carrying around a notebook. I have a nice pocket sized one.) But that’s why I’ll find my notes years later and be surprised at the differences. It’s something I need to work on especially since I have times I have to check multiple files to find the information I’m looking for. Other people are much more organized and have sections for characters, plot, world, etc.

Length? As long as it needs to be to work for you. While it isn’t uncommon for a comprehensive bible to be longer than the book it is for, that also isn’t necessary. Though the further your story is from reality, the more notes you’ll need, and the longer your bible is likely to be. Longer stories will require more extensive notes than shorter ones. While you may not wish to make separate bibles for each work, I do recommend separating stories into different sections unless they are connected.

However you take your notes, be they electronic or paper, make certain to safeguard them. Have backups. Some years ago, my computer was stolen from me. Due to various computer problems, I had gotten into the habit of emailing my completed stories to myself. But I lost all my notes. Well over a hundred pages of it. It was a severe blow, and I still haven’t made up for it

I’m almost reluctant to include this, but I feel it’s only fair. When searching for a link to a good definition for story bible, I found this blog post which covers this topic, probably better than I did. In my defense, I did write this post before I found the one I just linked to.

Diversity in writing

The world we live in is a rich, diverse place with people who come in different genders, from different national and cultural backgrounds, and different races. (Yes, we are all of the human race, but it still makes handy shorthand). That doesn’t even consider different sexual orientations, political factions, or religious affiliations. So, shouldn’t our writing reflect that?

This year’s Oscar nominees are the most diverse group yet, and I applaud that. While at the same time, I wonder why we aren’t further along. I can’t change the world, but maybe I can do a little to help, and so can you.

Your main characters are going to have to fit the story. Everything about them, from their age, gender, nationality, religious, and political leanings can be important and plot relevant (but might not be). But not every character should be a clone of your main character (unless this is a story about clones, which would still get boring and confusing if you can’t differentiate them). What about other characters? If your protagonist absolutely must be a white male Republican for the story to work, don’t try to force it by making the protagonist a black female Democrat. But unless the story takes place exclusively in a club for white male Republicans, shouldn’t some of the characters he interacts with be different? Maybe his neighbors are from China, and his best friend is a Democrat who likes to debate politics with him. Maybe his wife is a Polish immigrant who runs a daycare with her best friend who happens to be black. Perhaps there is a synagogue a block away that throws the absolute best book sale twice a year. All of this is perfectly possible and can add flavor and depth to the story without changing the character from who he is.

This can be taken too far. If your story takes place in a sixteenth century Irish monastery, the characters should be predominately white and male and any deviations should have a logical and relevant explanation. But even if you are writing a historical fantasy, that doesn’t mean you have to stick to white male characters. Even back then, women did do things, and people did travel, though not as much as they do now.

I like to try to throw in some casual diversity in my stories. For Moon Fox, I made Todd’s best friend and his sister Jamaican immigrants. At first it was just to throw it in, but it did offer me some plot opportunities. In Pawn’s Play, one of Violet’s friends, Denise is mentioned to be darker skinned and from the Bahamas. That hasn’t become plot relevant yet, but it might be at some point. Both stories take place in schools, so of course, some of the professors are female and some are male. Violet definitely has a more diverse list of professors, including a troll, a medusa, a leprechaun, and others. Liska’s professors are all humans, at least.

One book I’m still writing, I have a pantheon of nine gods, four male, four female, and Death which is neither. The main characters are a group of four, two male, two female, with one of them being half one minority, and half another minority. They spend the book traveling and rarely interact with others. I was quite pleased with the balance of the book. Then I realized they had gone at least five chapters without so much as mentioning them seeing another woman. Since the land is mostly gender equal (though definitely not class equal) that was a problem. One I hope to fix more in the rewrite. But I am trying to be more careful going forward. There is no reason they can’t get a blessing from a priestess instead of a priest. Nor any reason that shopkeeper can’t be a female. And why in the world should they be the only travelers on the road? I mean, excluding the fact that travel is extremely dangerous and time consuming.

Can your story pass the Bechdel Test (language warning)?  Do you have two named females who talk to each other about something other than a man or men in general? How about going further. Do you have two named minorities who talk to each other about something other than a white person, or white people in general? How about (if relevant to your story) two named non-humans who talk to each other about something other than a human or humans in general? While passing the test doesn’t mean you have a good story, and you can have a good story without it; you may want to ask why it can’t.

Can your female character pass the sexy lamp test? If your female character can be replaced by a sexy lamp, you don’t have a character. She’s just there for fan service. If she’s just there to give information, that substitute a sexy lamp with a post-it note. No, I didn’t come up with these tests. But I try to use them. One fanfic author summed up the first Harry Potter book with Harry Potter substituted with a Mr. Potato Head doll. The story worked scarily well. If your character, major or minor, can be replaced with an inanimate object, or an inanimate object with a post it note, you may have a problem.

Now, not every character has an important role. Sometimes you need a character that fulfills a specific role, and moves on, never to be heard from again. First body for the Sly Ferret god to possess. The shuttle pilot who just ferries the characters to Mars. Mr. Exposition. Fine. Don’t try to make them as important as the main character. But why not make them a little more interesting? Yes, it could be considered unfortunate implications (language warning) if only your bit characters are females or minorities, but why shouldn’t some of them be? Not to mention some of your more important characters?

‘But can’t make this unpleasant character a woman, minority, etc. People will think I think they’re all like that.’ Yes, they will. If that’s the only one. But why should it be? Okay so, if you make the hysterical, paranoid teacher a black woman, shouldn’t there be at least one or more calm, competent black women as well? They can be flawed in different ways, like every character should be.

Write the characters your story demands, but don’t forget that our world is rich and your characters can and should be too.

Another Update

Okay, so apparently ‘update tomorrow’ means ‘update a few months from now’. Sorry about that. I’ve been busy, but who hasn’t. Since my last update, I’ve put out a book (The Pawn’s Play, now available on Amazon and CreateSpace); had two adventures while trying to drive home in a tropical storm (it’s a really bad idea to lock your keys in your car while it’s running in any case. Doing it at midnight, during a tropical storm, while your phone is in said car is worse.); bought a new (used) car and accidentally rear-ended my Dad’s car while trying to take it home (no injuries, no damage to his car, mine was drivable but the headlight was damaged and it was weeks before I could get it fixed); gotten a new addition to the family (in the form of an awesome cat); been snowed in for days (see my previous driving record, I am not driving on ice!); and been a panelist at Marscon (don’t think I made too much of a fool of myself, and I sold twenty-two books out of thirty.).

Anyone here who found out about me/my blog from Marscon? I’d love to know. I’m also working on writing a newsletter. I’m trying to set up a widget where you can sign up on this blog and my website to be added to my mailing list, but if that’s not set up, then you can email me at hjhardingbooks@gmail.com and request to be added. First newsletter will hopefully be out by the end of next week. Judging by the frequency of this blog, newsletters will not be overly frequent, so don’t worry about being spammed.

For anyone interested in knowing, I plan to attend Ravencon, but I did not sign up in time to be a panelist or even to reserve a table. I may have a few copies of my own books to sell, but more than that would not be fair to those who did pay to reserve a table. I would however be more than willing to talk about my books to anyone there.

The sequel of Secrets of the Moon Fox is not out yet. I was hoping March, but since I’m less than a quarter of the way through revising, it might be later still. The sequel to The Pawn’s Play, titled Knightfall, is through revision and should easily be available in the spring. Still needs to be professionally edited and any changes from that, but I’m not expecting any holdups.

First chapter of The Pawn’s Play can be read here for free. Please check it out. Like I did for Secrets of the Moon Fox, I would like to propose a contest letting a reader win a free autographed copy (by the way, the contest for Moon Fox is still open, details are at the bottom of the post on the link). The Pawn’s Play is a more tongue in cheek book than Secrets of the Moon Fox. It was actually supposed to be humor (sort of), and was inspired because my sister asked me to write a vampire school book. That didn’t happen either. But all the buildings that are named at Hyde are named for people who have something in common. The name could be first or last, real or fictional. First person to correctly identify what they have in common and the name behind each building gets a free autographed copy.

  1. King Library
  2. Shelley dorm
  3. Price dorm
  4. Griffin Infirmary
  5. Victor Science Building
  6. Addams dorm
  7. Barker Central building
  8. Meyer dorm
  9. Stevenson History building
  10. Poe Humanities building

Some are easier than others, but there are no tricks and no one is named twice. Either leave a comment or email me.

Monday I’ll have a writing blog. Promise. (I think. Fingers crossed.)