Monday, September 30, 2013

A great opening line. . . ?

I just saw someone recommend this opening line as a REALLY GREAT opening for a novel.

"Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Four shots ripped into my groin, and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life. But first let me tell you a little about myself." -- Max Shulman, SLEEP TILL NOON (1950)

Max Shulman is the genius behind "Dobie Gillis" (yes, showing my age again, but I saw the show on Superstation KTVT in reruns, not during the original run! Still think Dwayne Hickman is hot.) He knew better than to start a book with something this ridiculous--but I believe he did this to make fun of the Mickey Spillane-style openings that are always being touted by a segment of the publishing world. Shulman knew this was an outrageously ridiculous opening, and that is why he used it, winking at his audience because he knew they'd understand. To open with something whizbang and then go immediately into a flashback of complete boredom . . . is bad. To open with gunshots without establishing why we should care and whether this is the good guy or the bad guy . . . bad. To EVER write, "and I was off on the biggest adventure of my life" is . . . wait for it . . . bad. Amateurish. Straight out of a junior high school "What I Did Last Summer" or "How I Lost on Jeopardy!" essay.

I'm perfectly serious. Shulman already had a following. They understood he was yanking their chains. You could not use that as a "straight" opening for a book today, even if you had a following, IMHO.

However, there are people who insist a book of any stripe should begin with what they feel is a REAL GRABBER. It doesn't matter whether the book is going to be a thriller or something else, you should always grab 'em with something outrageous, even if it has nothing to do with the rest of the story. "They'll forget," say these writers with confidence. They don't see a book with a last line that circles back to its opening and completes some sort of cycle (giving closure or illuminating some aspect of the eternal human condition--or just some aspect of a small personal life event) as being "better" or even "good." They believe what the workshop people have told them about having things open with a WHAM.

Why do I open MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS, the first Ari French mystery, with a scene between Ari and her big sister? They're bickering as they cooperate on a project, and the phone rings with the news that Ari's fiancé (who has been missing for a few weeks) has been found dead and that she has inherited everything. She accepts the invitation to come out to Marfa, Texas, and settle up Aaron's affairs. Her sister warns her not to go ("You don't know these people or anything about them. What if it's another one of his scams? What if it's someone who has Aaron and now is going to get YOU as well?"), but Ari is determined to go and tells her sister that these thoughts are paranoid. She'll fly in the morning.

Okay, WHY do I open the book this way? Some contest judges and judgmental types who have learned Da Roolz scream. "This is throat-clearing! You should open with her landing in Marfa and being met by the preacher!"

I could have done that. But this is not a thriller. It is a traditional/cozy that kicks off a series in which the two sisters sleuth, and their relationship is an ongoing part of the series. By opening with them together, readers are promised that they'll continue to experience this relationship and also get some background that they'll soon need in order to understand Ari's behavior and inclinations. If I hadn't done this, it would have been abrupt to have Zoe appear in Marfa a few days later (after she grows concerned about Ari's safety). I needed to set up their relationship and the protective sort of approach that Zoe takes. Also, Zoe becomes a hostage near the end of the book, and if she had been a drop-in ("Oh, yeah, I have a sister"), there would not have been any emotional investment on the reader's part. Many readers tell me that they like Zoe better than Ari and wish she were the POV character. This reveals that I did things right in getting that emotional investment early.

(In a previous journal entry, I explained why Zoe would be a particularly BAD POV character. She is a foil to Ari. That's why people like her. If she were the one observing the scene and making caustic remarks, she'd turn people off. There wouldn't be a big enough "save the cat" to rescue the book from that point on. Foils can be the ones who are abrupt, abrasive, funky, crazy, opinionated, and so forth. They are amusing and entertaining as well as informative. They reflect the hero/heroine in a better light. But if you were inside their heads, you wouldn't like it much, I'll bet.)

Never promise something in the first few lines of a novel that you do not intend to deliver. Had I opened the book with a BANG, people would have expected me to continue ramping it up. Pretty soon there's nowhere to go because you started at the top of the rollercoaster. If you are writing a cozy, promise the readers a cozy. That's your audience for the book. "The promise of the premise" in this book is that Ari will come to terms with Aaron's death (the ultimate abandonment of her after his earthly disappearance had already upset her) and that the sisters will stick together throughout these events. The solving of the murder and identification of the perp is there, but is secondary to the larger set of character arcs (including those of a few of the various suspects.)

Readers are smart. Trust them to understand what you are doing. If you know what you are doing, stick to your (um) guns and don't feel that you have to ZAP 'EM immediately. As long as you're entering the story on the day things changed, you have a little leeway to show the ordinary world before the heroine receives her call to adventure.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Female archetypes of the 21st Century?

I was intrigued by a remark made by a fellow author in a review of a mystery novel (not one of mine, though).

She said:

"In our twenty-first century American culture, we have a dearth of female archetypes. I have heard it said that we have only the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene."

I'm not sure I agree with that at all. I suppose you could amend it to say, "ADMIRABLE female HEROINE archetypes," and I could agree a bit more. But I think there are many female role models/archetypes around today. We aren't constrained by the gender roles of the 1950s/60s and before. In the "olden days," the ultimate achievement for a female was to be the prettiest so that she could marry the rich boy and make babies, like Cinderella. Even Madame Marie Curie is never mentioned without strong discussion of the love of her life, Pierre, who helped her in her work but was not the rescuing Prince by any means. But now we have Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Wonder Woman, Roseanne, and all those other strong women who model independent womanhood. (LOL!) Seriously, we must have examples of the Domineering Little Old Lady With Wisdom (commonly termed the Crone) and Middle Manager Mama and so forth that we would instantly recognize.

Who are the female archetypes of this century, do you think? I don't mean that you need to come up with people who are of the stature of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, but really . . . Mother Teresa? And to get away from the religious perspective, haven't there been others like . . . I don't know, Rosa Parks, Hillary Clinton (however you may feel about her, she has broken through the glass ceiling in many senses), Sandra Day O'Connor?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Review a book? I don't DO book reports. Here's help--

(* EDIT: I do not mean to imply that people should go review MY books with these suggestions, but ANY book that they adore or appreciate. If you want to review one of mine, I'll cheer and shout, but that was not the entire intention of this post. Some people have perceived it that way, and I don't want that to happen, so I'll point out that you should review only the books you really love. These are merely suggestions. And you only have to choose one or two of the questions to answer, not all of them. Remember, this isn't a school book report! Sorry for any misunderstandings. *)

So many people tell me that they're not writers and they didn't like it in school when they had to do book reports, and therefore they have NO intention of doing any book reviews. Or they say they'd be willing to do reviews of books they really like, but don't have any idea where to begin.

Well, now there's help!

You SHOULDN'T think that you have to do a summary or synopsis of the book. Everyone else has already done that, and it isn't really what book-review readers want to know. No? No! What they want to KNOW is. . . .

What did the book make you experience? What did it make you feel? What was your reaction to the characters? Do you remember any of the characters after closing the book? Would you read a sequel or another book by the same author? Did you feel the book was derivative, or was it original within the confines of its genre, or was it _sui generis_ (a thing all its own)? Were there typos and howlers, or was it clean? Did you like the author's style--or at least note that it was original, even if it was a bit off-putting (or maybe it wasn't off-putting but charming)?

Did the setting entice you to plan a vacation to the place? Was there a profession or hobby (such as bird-watching, ham radio, hot-air ballooning, hacking) that got explored such that you learned a lot or were intrigued by something you'd never read much about before? Did one of the characters appeal to you, or seem TSTL, or make you laugh?

WHAT DID YOU GET OUT OF READING THIS BOOK? Did you learn something? Did you feel a sense of closure at the end? Or did you close the book thinking, "Why did I waste my time? Why did the AUTHOR waste his time? Is that all there is?"

NOTE: YOU DO NOT HAVE TO ANSWER ALL THESE QUESTIONS! Choose one or two that appeal to you. Whatever it is that spoke to you while reading the book.

These are the sorts of things we can only learn by reading your review. We don't need another CliffsNotes-style summary. We want to know if we will like the book or should give it a try, and we're trying to figure that out from reading what you thought.

So the next time that someone has sent you his or her book for review, don't panic.

Here are some things that people have said about my books:
(I include them here so you can steal them or modify them as you like. Use these sorts of phrases in your "happy" reviews, and you'll make authors very happy.)

This book satisfies on every level. Nuanced and filled with subtext, unlike most popcorn reads of today.
I came for a funny romp and a puzzle to solve, and I got more.
The sisters' relationship made me wish for a sister of my own, and there is a lot of philosophical stuff.
One strength I noticed about the book is that the sleuth and others actually mourn the victim(s). In so many books, no one mourns or even blinks an eye. Often no one even tries CPR or anything, simply rushing over to the fallen victim and declaring, "He's dead, Jim." This book handles it far more realistically in terms of replacing the functions that the victim served in people's lives and so forth.
The story is very well written. I enjoyed the turns of phrase and interesting metaphors. Great voice.
I laughed out loud. Parts of it were like an "I Love Lucy" episode with the sisters pulling a fast one.
I liked it. But then I used to date the author.

You don't have to write a masterpiece of a review! And you don't have to do a piece of fluff that's obviously from a friend of the author ("This book will change your life! Unputdownable! This author is too wonderful! Treat yourself to a copy today!") You can write an honest, balanced review by answering a couple of the questions I suggest above, and your review will not be cookie-cutter. Isn't that a good idea?

"This book was as much fun as Paul McCartney on a skateboard!"

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Unity in fiction. (Aristotle's idea!)

A brief post for the Labor Day weekend. I had nothing better to do than work today (heavy lifting around the house, cooking, and writing a few pages here and there) because I don't watch pseudo-thons without my beloved Jerry Lewis, so I thought I'd blather here a bit. About writing, I suppose, because not very many people here have asked for posts on classical piano playing or my other specialty, number theory and superstition. AND WHY NOT, I MIGHT ASK?! But anyhow, that's what I know.

You think you have finished your novel? Great! It's wonderful! You're going to let it lie for a week or two, preferably even longer, before you go back to read it over and start editing and polishing.

When you do, think about your theme.

Figure out your theme or message, and then work back to front to make sure every scene illustrates that message. This means cutting or editing anything that doesn't show the pros and cons of embracing the story message (theme). Scenes that illuminate character should also show how the character arc intersects with the graph of the function plotted for the theme of the tale and how the character comes to know or believe whatever it is he/she was supposed to learn with this episode in life.

First you take the desired result of the events in the story (how your character ends up feeling, thinking, believing, acting). Then work backwards to find out which of the major choices or changes resulting from the inciting incident and following string of cause/effect events has brought about the character change. Especially look at the climax, dark moment, and turning points. Observe how every scene illustrates some aspect of this theme, if possible.

Let's say that our theme is: LOVE comes to us when we stop looking for it in such a desperate and clawing fashion.

A story with this theme begins with someone who feels unloved and lives inside herself. Perhaps her before worldview is something like, "When I am worthy, I will be loved. I will be worthy when I am famous for my sculpting."

You can see what a mess this is and will continue to be unless she lets go of this. She could be the best sculptor around and have all sorts of hangers-on who want to profit from her successes, but she won't necessarily be loved for herself. The events of the story will reveal this to her, and the resulting pressures and insights will lead her to choose or accept what she really NEEDS, which is often the opposite of what she starts out thinking she wants. What is her heart's desire? Does it change over the story arc? Then we're doing it right.

I tend to write episodically sometimes. Today's trend/rule is to have cause leading to effect1 which leads to effect2 which is the immediate and direct cause of effect3. I often set up dominoes and let them build to a higher level before they all begin to topple and we see the way that this has all come about. So I have to fight all the time to prove I am not writing a picaresque. But anyhow, if you don't define your theme and fulfill the promise of your premise, you can end up without a meaningful character arc with change and also without UNITY. This means reader confusion and anger. This leads to books being thrown against the wall.

So go look at your theme and how it builds a character arc for each of your main characters. Everyone has a character arc--anyone who has more than a bit part, at least.

But that's a rant for another day.