Thursday, March 29, 2007


"A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it."

**Stanley Fish in the New York Times


Stanley Fish was in Maureen Dowd's spot in the Times...and had a wonderfully thought-provoking column.

It was about how he can pick a good mystery in the airport bookstore--really fast--as they're calling his flight.

He says: the only "sure fire" method? Not the cover, not the jacket copy, not the blurbs. He says it's to read the first line.

He has a clunker or two--but offered this as the one from the book he bought:
"Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride."

He says "it's efficient, dense, and free of self-preening."

So--you all--what think?
**Does your first line pass the Stanley test?
(I'll tell you mine if you tell me yours...and I must say, after two years of working on my first novel, the first line in the soon-to-be published book never changed.)

**Does your favorite first line pass the Stanley test?

**What book is he quoting, anyway? Anyone know?

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again." Wait a minute, that's not mine. I must have dreamt I wrote that. That, of course, is the compelling first line of Rebecca. I saw the movie many years before I ever read the book, or even knew who Daphne du Maurier was. How could you not be drawn in by that opening? I have changed the first line to my first book (BSP, Pushing Up Daisies, St. Martins Feb 2008) so many times that I don't exactly remember it - not a good sign, I suppose!! Omigod, just reread it for the first time in months, and it's too late to change so don't say anything mean..

"My first guess was heirloom silver, or maybe the family jewels, buried and forgotten years ago by some light-fingered servant or paranoid ancestor."

Needless to say, the wisecracking amateur sleuth's first guess is wrong.

I think all the rewriting was a good thing, Ro. I really, really like that opening. I'm hoping that everyone adopts Stanley Fish's method for choosing a book. I don't think I've ever had an especially catchy opening line in my previous books, but I'm fond of my opening sentence in Yesterday's Fatal. (May 2007) Short but sweet.

It's not that fatals are beneath me.

That's my protaganist, Hallie, talking. The next graph is more dense, explaining that she's newspaper reporter and that she's talking about fatal car accidents. It sets up some of the changes, attitude and politics in the newsroom, and of course the fatal she's about to stumble upon.

Anyway, I did some rewriting as well. Originally, it was simply, Fatals are beneath me. But this was tongue-in-cheek, and I realized that most readers wouldn't be able to interpret it as such -- especially the ones who had never read Hallie before.

So it evolved, like your opening Ro.

So it's your turn, Hank, let's hear it!

Between the hot flashes, the hangover and all the SPAM on my computer, there’s no way I’ll get anything done before 8 o’clock this morning. I came in early to get ahead, and already I’m behind.

(No, that's not my explanation of why I'm late with this blog entry. That's the first line--two, really--of PRIME TIME.)

And it is pretty fascinating, you have to admit, that you can tell instantly from our three lines exactly what kinds of stories you're about to hear.

In Ro's, someone digs up something sinister, buried long ago. And you're compelled to read on--because what's her second guess? And then, what was reality? And since your main character is a master gardener, that makes "digging" even more meaningful.

Jan's has a more world-weary tone, instantly. And obviously someone is dead.
And "fatals" instantly means reporter. And it instantly sounds like "Reporter who has to do something she doesn't want to do." All in 7 words.

And mine: she's busy. She's crazed. She's of a certain age. She has a job where there's some pressure and tension. Something is at stake. In the next line--you hear about "downstairs in the newsroom...."

Well, I'd love to hear more first lines...and talk about makes them work. Or not...


Funny this should come up - I've just been trolling for great first lines as part of my research for a nonfiction project. My fellow Jungle Reds have great opening lines, sadly mine are fairly pedestrian novel openings (sorry, it's the truth...a problem when you're a writer and a critic). The best I've done is from DELUSION: "I woke up craving watermelon."

Here are some that are choice. Read them and see if you can guess the book...answers at the end of my blogette:

1. When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from his unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.

2. There once was a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.

3. If you want to find Cherry Tree Lane, all you have to do is ask the Policeman at the crossroads.

4. Nobody could sleep.

5. My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.


1: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka - 2: Silent Spring by Rachel Carsons - 3: Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers - 4: The Naked and the Dead - Norman Mailer - 5: Liar's Club: Mary Karr

Monday, March 26, 2007


"You can't judge a book by its cover." Willie Dixon (and Thomas the Tank Engine)


RO: This week I was asked to write jacket copy for my first book. No probs, I shot back in an email. I even made a joke – “How about if I say it’s the most significant book since the Bible?” Piece of cake, right? After all, I’d written the book – how hard could it be to bang out a few paragraphs? Well,…not that easy.
The art department has designed a gorgeous cover. In the bookstore your masterpiece is in someone’s hot, little hands, they flip open the cover, and in 5 seconds will decide if they are going to spend a weekend with your baby or not.
I rewrote the copy ten times. I tortured my husband and forced him to read it every time I changed two words. The irony is that the publisher probably won’t even use it, but I felt like I had to give it my best shot. Jacket copy isn’t a book report, or a synopsis. It’s a last little sales pitch. Or not? What do you think?

HANK: Well, you just won me over. Now I can’t wait to read what you finally wrote. Which, of course, is exactly what you’re going for in the jacket copy. And you only have one chance.
But, say, you’ve got an indecisive hero, surrounded by people he can’t decide whether to trust, feeling alone, missing his father, struggling to understand his role in a world he can’t escape. You got Hamlet. You also got Gilligan’s Island. The jacket copy has to be the true essence—it’s what gets people in the front door of your world.
I love that introductory moment, that audition moment at my local bookstore. The cover creaks a little, that nice ‘new book’ feel. The cover’s what attracts me first, of course. (And we’ll certainly have to talk about that later since, BSP, the cover for Prime Time (June 2007,Harlequin Books) is supposed to be ready in a few weeks. I love to see a picture of the author. You guys? Picture yes? Or no?
But Ro, you will not have worked in vain. It’s the inside jacket copy that gets me. Are there key words that mean probably yes? Literate. Clever. Innovative. It’s easier to think of the ‘no’ words: Cowboy. Bodice. Titillating. But hey, not always.
It would be fascinating to watch on surveillance camera, don’t you think? Watch what people pick up, what they read, what they discard and what they take home?

RO: What's wrong with cowboys??

JAN: I think there’s only one thing worse than having to write a synopsis of your own novel, and that’s having to write your own jacket copy. I had to write it for Final Copy (2001, Larcom Press) and it was stilted. Too bogged down by the author’s own reserve. I know I should want to have input, but frankly, I was relieved to have found the jacket copy for Yesterday’s Fatal( May 2007, St. Martins Press) on Amazon one day. St. Martin’s obviously employs skilled copy writers, why wreck their work with my clouded thinking? And not to denigrate the importance of jacket copy, which I know everyone else reads. But personally, I buy most of my books on a friend’s recommendation. Sometimes I don’t even look at the jacket copy until I’m a hundred pages into the book, when I flip back to figure out what the book was supposed to be about again.

HALLIE: Ah, jacket copy – as crime fiction book reviewer for the “Boston Globe,” I can only say, it matters! And sadly the words and phrases that either pump or torpedo your novel are going to be different for each reviewer. Jacket copy gets me started reading. Wondrous prose and plotting and characterization are what get reviewers to the finish line.

A novel’s opening paragraphs are as important as the jacket copy. I’m not at all interested in Westerns but this opening from Steve Hockensmith’s “Holmes on the Range,” nominated for an Edgar for best first novel of 2006, hooked me good: ”There are two things you can’t escape out here in the West: dust and death. They sort of swirl together in the wind and a fellow never knows when a fresh gust is going to blow one or the other right in his face.” Voice! That’s what it’s all about. (See more on this topic in my article in the March, 2007, issue of Writer Magazine.)

And in the “A little learning is a dangerous thing” Department: I’m working on a psychological suspense novel and if I think too much about the opening paragraphs or jacket copy, I get completely paralyzed.

Ro: After all this, I have to admit, that I have never bought a book solely because of jacket copy. I’m a first page kind of woman. If the first page gets me, I’m in. That said, like Hank, I have snooped on a lot of people in bookstores and the first thing everyone seems to do is read the inside front cover. Hopefully, what I’ve written will get them to turn the page….

Thursday, March 22, 2007


"I remember a sentence I opened one story with, to show you how bad I was: 'Monsieur Boule inserted a delicate dagger in Mademoiselle's left side and departed with a poised immediacy.' I like to think I didn't take myself seriously then, but I did."
--Eudora Welty

* * *

It was supposed to be so easy. After all, I'd been writing stories for television for, um, thirty years. Chasing criminals, confronting corrupt politicians, racing out to a fire or some other disaster, then racing back to the station, banging out a story, and putting it on the air. As an investigative reporter, the stories got more complicated, more researched, much longer.
As I began thinking about writing a mystery novel,I knew it would be different, of course, but I still figured it was all about story- telling. Words on video, words on a page. I love words. I could do it.
I clicked open a brand new Word file, and, with fingers poised with immediacy over the keyboard in anticipation of my certain-to-be-successful brand new career, typed the title of my first mystery.
TIME CODE. I burst out laughing. My first two words. Stunk.
Did you all keep what you first wrote?

If, as Hemingway supposedly said, "everyone's first draft is sh*t, I am certainly no exception. There is nothing in my past to compare with "poised immediacy" though. I think Eudora gets top honors for that.
No, my writing doesn't generally lean towards purple prose - I'm more likely to write something fabulously exciting like "I saw the body, then called the cops." Lean, to the point of emaciation. With only one book under my belt, I'm still learning to find my place between Elmore Leonard's economical style and Wilkie Collins' heavily descriptive style. Pretty nervy, huh? I defy any of you ladies to drop as many names as I did.

Like you Ro, overwriting isn't generally my problem. The bad writing was generally not in the prose but in my early attempts at storytelling. Especially short stories. I wrote about a dozen of them, and they all start out with potential: strong characters and a unique situation. It's just that not much happens after that. The revelations are all minor or trite. The conclusions appear to be missing.
For example, I wrote a short story about two women in a health club trying to lose weight. One of them is young and really gung ho to change her life, the other one is older, forced there by her husband and really just trying to sell the other woman a ton of overpriced makeup. The interesting thing about the story is it shifts perspectives and you see the underlying agendas and conflicts. The silly thing about the story is that it ends with one of the women writing the other a bad check. A BAD CHECK??? Was that supposed to be metaphorical? Or just kind of mean.
Not sure. But there's an unmistakable sense of "is that all there is?"

Ah, the 'is that all there is' question - my sister Delia, a many times published author, read my early-early essays written when I was just getting up on my pins as a writer. I grew to dread that question, only her version of it was, "So, what's the point?" If someone asks that after reading something you've written, you know you've written it wrong.
My earliest attempts were essays, most of them about why I'd been so reluctant to start writing, most of them boring. But it was stuff I need to put down (and get rid of)--issues around coming from a family of writers and being overwhelmed by the sheer talent everyone else possessed. It wasn't until I was well past 40 that I started writing fiction. By then I'd decided that it was okay to try and fail; it was not okay to fail to try.
My first attempt at writing a crime novel was true crime - the story of the murder of the brother of a dear friend and the impact of his loss on the family. I finished the manuscript and put it in a drawer. I would have felt like a carrion crow, sending it out. I learned that true crime is too hard; for every murder victim there are many surviving "victims." That's why I admire Kate Flora's wonderful book, FINDING AMY, that was just nominated for an Edgar. She managed to pull it off with the support of the murder victim's family.
I've been writing fiction ever since. The psychological suspense novel I'm finishing is inhabited purely by my own nightmares.

I agree. The sister of a friend of mine was murdered, and for the briefest of moments I wondered if I might use something from her story, but I couldn’t. Strangers are different. I'm constantly tearing articles out of the paper.
Since I now have access to this wealth of information (meaning my fellow bloggers) I have a question. I handed in the final version of my manuscript 2 weeks ago and I've been up nights thinking "Oh, I could have done this or that better. " Once you've finished, do you generally think you can go back and make something better?

I think second-guessing yourself--third and fourth and fifth guessing--means your brain is working. I had a reporter pal once, nice guy but mediocre on TV. He was watching a reel of his TV reports, trying to put together a resume tape of his best work. I stopped and looked over his shoulder, and said: "Doesn't it drive you crazy to see your old stuff? Don't you wish you could change a million things in every story?"
And he looked at me, utterly baffled. "Not at all," he said. "In fact, I was just thinking about how good I was." He wasn't.
Me? I can ALWAYS go back. Always. But don't they just say at some point--it's done? Let it go?