Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Oh, That First Line!

This post is about first lines and hooking the reader, but it is also about editing.  I am in the middle of the fourth major rewrite of the beginning of my middle grade fantasy novel.  Each time I rewrite it, I get a little further with the level of response I receive from agents and editors who see it.  That alone should spark my enthusiasm for sitting in my chair and getting it done.  Right? 

During all these rewrites, among seven other revisions I have completed on the entire novel, I have made a study of beginnings and first lines.  Chersti Nieveen is conducting a first line contest on her blog and, for all you writers out there, you have two more days to participate.  The winners have opportunities for a valuable query critique with literary agent Mary Kole or a five page critique from author Martine Leavitt.  You can find the contest details here.

I heard a Random House editor and a literary agent speak about first lines at an SCBWI conference, and my favorite no-no example was, "She stood there." 

Wow.  I am amazed at how much this first line does not  work.

Who is she--this elusive main character that must be so important to the story that the author chose to begin the story about her?  Why do we care about this faceless she?  The author hasn't given us anything of the character to interest the reader. 

Next: the verb.  Stood.  Okay, this verb works when it needs to, but not here.  We have no conflict--nothing exciting, nothing intriguing, nothing of concern.  Stood is so plain and passive.  Now, if the character decided to simply stand and it showed defiance or meant she was risking something by standing, then we have something to work with.  Not all first lines have to be fraught with peril, but they must peak the reader's curiosity. 

Finally: there.  Again, we have no clear picture in our minds of what is happening, where it is happening, to whom, and why we should care.

As I have read first lines of published fiction as well as first lines of other writers' works-in-progress, I look for three things.  This post is getting long, so check back on Thursday for the three things.  What three things do you look for as a reader?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Character Names With a Twist

Character names carry such weight in a story's perception.  I mean, can you imagine if Wilbur's friend, the remarkable spider who weaves webs in the barnyard, was called Helen?  Or, what if the pig, whose life she saves, was named Dillon?  No offense meant to all you Helens and Dillons out there--but you don't have names that fit E.B. White's classic tale.  You probably don't mind, do you?  I grew up with a Charlotte who loved her name but didn't enjoy its connection with the literary arachnid. 
I have been working on a children's picture book and the starring characters are two cats.  Since character names, whether human, mermaid, pixie, or animal are so important, I researched cat names on some pet websites.  Wow!  As a pet owner still new to the world of cats, I was amazed at the different culture of cat-naming compared with dog-naming.  Here are a few of the side-splitting favorites:
Mista Meanor
Mighty Moe
Maizie Alice Skippypaws
and...my favorite...Wilfred Pudding.

You can check out more here. When we got our first kittens last spring, we named them on the side of conservative--Patch and Milo.  Had I considered the potential to be...well...amusing, we might have dug deeper.  So, I made up for it with delicious and fun names for the cats in my story.  I'll tell you what they are when I get ten comments on this post.