And The Winner Is …


The title of this post is a little misleading because no one is actually winning anything. However, I did want to share the results of the “It’s All In The Opening” poll since I mentioned it with some frequency last week, either here or at other social media venues. According to those who voted, there was a clear front runner and a solid second place, with the other four books lagging behind.

Not only do I want to give you the results, I want to do the Big Reveal: who wrote each of those excerpts. In other words, who did you all end up voting for based solely on the writing of their first one hundred or so words?

So, after 90 votes and an unknown number of abstentions, here are the books, the authors, and the results in the order in which they appeared in the poll.

– – – – –

Choice A The Opposite Of Art by Athol Dickson (Howard Books, A Division of Simon & Schuster), *9% of the vote.

Sirens called him from his dreams. When the racket stopped, he rose and crossed the little bedroom of his hotel suite to lean out into the night, trusting his life to the freezing wrought iron railing just beyond the window so he could gaze down into the alley where a couple of New York City’s finest had thrown some guy against the bricks. Even from five floors up, even in the dark, Ridler recognized the lust for violence and the fear down there, but that was nothing compared to the play of the police car’s lights on the wall across the alley.

– – – – –

Choice B The Realms Thereunder by Ross Lawhead (Thomas Nelson), 10% of the vote.

“And I say that you’re a fool, Addison Fletcher!” the brawny man declared, striking his ale mug against the bare wooden table for emphasis.

“God smite me where I sit if I tell a lie, Coll Dawson!” Addison protested, his eyes flicking heavenward for the briefest of moments.

“Ah, but — did you not say,” declared Coll, cocking an eyebrow and pointing a finger. “Did you not say that you got this account from another –”

“From Rob Fuller,”piped a voice from the end of the table.

“Aye, from Rob Fuller. And who’s to say that a tale told by Rob Fuller is true or false? Swearing oaths upon secondhand tales is not wise.”

– – – – –

Choice C The Monster In The Hollows by Andrew Peterson (Rabbit Room Press), 39% of the vote.

It wasn’t a sound that woke Janner Igiby. It was a silence.

Something was wrong.

He strained into a sitting position, wincing at the pain in his neck, shoulders, and thighs. Every time he moved he was reminded of the claws and teeth that had caused his wounds.

He expected to see the bearer of those claws and teeth asleep in the bunk beside him, but his brother was gone. Sunlight fell through the porthole and slid to and fro across the empty mattress like a pendulum, keeping time with the rocking of the boat. The other bunk’s bedclothes were in a heap on the floor, which was typical; Kalmar never made his bed back in Glipwood, either. What wasn’t typical was his absence.

– – – – –

Choice D The Bone House by Stephen Lawhead (Thomas Nelson), 8% of the vote.

From a snug in the corner of the Museum Tavern, Douglas Flinders-Petrie dipped a sop of bread into the gravy of his steak and kidney pudding and watched the entrance to the British Museum across the street. The great edifice was dark, the building closed to the public for over three hours. The employees had gone home, the charwomen had finished their cleaning, and the high iron gates were locked behind them. The courtyard was empty and, outside the gates, there were fewer people on the street now than an hour ago. He felt no sense of urgency: only keen anticipation, which he savoured as he took another draught of London Pride. He had spent most of the afternoon in the museum, once more marking the doors and exits, the blind spots, the rooms where a person might hide and remain unseen by the night watchmen, of which there were but three to cover the entire acreage of the sprawling institution.

– – – – –

Choice E The Button Girl by Sally Apokedak (unpublished manuscript), 20% of the vote.

The lantern, dangling from Repentance Atwater’s upstretched hand, cast a pool of yellow light around the village midwife, as she stooped beside Joy Springside’s sleeping mat. The rest of the cave lay in darkness.

“Push, now, Joy!” the midwife commanded.

Joy, her face scrunched with the effort, pushed.

The baby came finally, all purple-skinned and slick with blood and screaming his protest at the world.

Screaming his protest.

A boy!

It wasn’t fair! Lantern light splashed up and down the walls as Repentance’s hand shook.

She grimaced, as the babe’s squalling bounced off hard stone walls and bruised her raw nerves. She should never have agreed to this.

– – – – –

Choice F Pattern Of Wounds by J. Mark Bertrand (Bethany House), 12% of the vote.

A uniform named Nguyen is on the tape tonight. The flashing lights bounce off the reflective strips on his slicker. He cocks his head at my ID and gives me a sideways smile.

“Detective March,” he says, adding my name to his log.

“I know you, don’t I? You worked the Thomson scene last year.”

“That was me.”

“Good work, if I remember. You got a line on this one yet?”

“I haven’t even been inside.” He nods at the house over his shoulder. A faux Tuscan villa on Brompton in West University, just a couple of blocks away from the Rice village. “Nice, huh? Not the first place I’d expect to be called out to.”

“You think death cares where you live?”

“I guess not. Answer me one thing: why the monkey suit?”

– – – – –

So what I’m wondering … after seeing the book covers and learning who the authors are, would you change your vote?

Something to think about.

* Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number.

It’s All In The Opening


In the last couple weeks, I received four new books in the mail! Whooo-hoo! It almost felt like Christmas.

As so often happens, when the new books come, I immediately grab them up and read a few pages, never mind what other books I might already have started. Inevitably I have to re-read those pages to recapture the story, but I don’t mind. I think I’m more in tune with what’s happening the second time around. You see, it’s pretty hard to capture my attention right off. I’m the one who had to start The Hobbit three times before getting into it.

Just for fun, I thought it might be interesting to give you the openings of the books I received and let you vote on the ones that captured your interest. I’ll make it multiple choice so that you can choose more than one answer if several (or all) hook you. I think I might throw in one or two others, too, just to spike the punch. 😉 So here they are, in no special order:

Choice A

    Sirens called him from his dreams. When the racket stopped, he rose and crossed the little bedroom of his hotel suite to lean out into the night, trusting his life to the freezing wrought iron railing just beyond the window so he could gaze down into the alley where a couple of New York City’s finest had thrown some guy against the bricks. Even from five floors up, even in the dark, Ridler recognized the lust for violence and the fear down there, but that was nothing compared to the play of the police car’s lights on the wall across the alley.

Choice B

    “And I say that you’re a fool, Addison Fletcher!” the brawny man declared, striking his ale mug against the bare wooden table for emphasis.

    “God smite me where I sit if I tell a lie, Coll Dawson!” Addison protested, his eyes flicking heavenward for the briefest of moments.

    “Ah, but — did you not say,” declared Coll, cocking an eyebrow and pointing a finger. “Did you not say that you got this account from another –”

    “From Rob Fuller,”piped a voice from the end of the table.

    “Aye, from Rob Fuller. And who’s to say that a tale told by Rob Fuller is true or false? Swearing oaths upon secondhand tales is not wise.”

Choice C

    It wasn’t a sound that woke Janner Igiby. It was a silence.

    Something was wrong.

    He strained into a sitting position, wincing at the pain in his neck, shoulders, and thighs. Every time he moved he was reminded of the claws and teeth that had caused his wounds.

    He expected to see the bearer of those claws and teeth asleep in the bunk beside him, but his brother was gone. Sunlight fell through the porthole and slid to and fro across the empty mattress like a pendulum, keeping time with the rocking of the boat. The other bunk’s bedclothes were in a heap on the floor, which was typical; Kalmar never made his bed back in Glipwood, either. What wasn’t typical was his absence.

Choice D

    From a snug in the corner of the Museum Tavern, Douglas Flinders-Petrie dipped a sop of bread into the gravy of his steak and kidney pudding and watched the entrance to the British Museum across the street. The great edifice was dark, the building closed to the public for over three hours. The employees had gone home, the charwomen had finished their cleaning, and the high iron gates were locked behind them. The courtyard was empty and, outside the gates, there were fewer people on the street now than an hour ago. He felt no sense of urgency: only keen anticipation, which he savoured as he took another draught of London Pride. He had spent most of the afternoon in the museum, once more marking the doors and exits, the blind spots, the rooms where a person might hide and remain unseen by the night watchmen, of which there were but three to cover the entire acreage of the sprawling institution.

Choice E

    The lantern, dangling from Repentance Atwater’s upstretched hand, cast a pool of yellow light around the village midwife, as she stooped beside Joy Springside’s sleeping mat. The rest of the cave lay in darkness.

    “Push, now, Joy!” the midwife commanded.

    Joy, her face scrunched with the effort, pushed.

    The baby came finally, all purple-skinned and slick with blood and screaming his protest at the world.

    Screaming his protest.

    A boy!

    It wasn’t fair! Lantern light splashed up and down the walls as Repentance’s hand shook.

    She grimaced, as the babe’s squalling bounced off hard stone walls and bruised her raw nerves. She should never have agreed to this.

Choice F

    A uniform named Nguyen is on the tape tonight. The flashing lights bounce off the reflective strips on his slicker. He cocks his head at my ID and gives me a sideways smile.

    “Detective March,” he says, adding my name to his log.

    “I know you, don’t I? You worked the Thomson scene last year.”

    “That was me.”

    “Good work, if I remember. You got a line on this one yet?”

    “I haven’t even been inside.” He nods at the house over his shoulder. A faux Tuscan villa on Brompton in West University, just a couple of blocks away from the Rice village. “Nice, huh? Not the first place I’d expect to be called out to.”

    “You think death cares where you live?”

    “I guess not. Answer me one thing: why the monkey suit?”

By the way, if you think you know who the author is, feel free to leave a comment and give us your guess. However, if you’ve read the book and actually KNOW who the author is, please limit your comment to a hint but don’t spoil the chance others have of guessing.

Remember, vote for all the beginnings that hooked you. The poll will remain open for a week.

Published in: on September 8, 2011 at 6:14 pm  Comments (31)  
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First Lines – A Random Sampling


I continue to be intrigued by the opening lines of novels. What is it that captures a reader’s attention? What are the necessary components? What makes a first line memorable? What makes it great?

I decided to take a look at a variety of first lines. To be honest, most of these books are ones I haven’t read yet. Some are Christian fiction, some are not. Some you may recognize, some may be from unpublished works.

What I thought might be informative is if I put out this random sampling, then based on comments, select the top five and create a readers’ poll to see what we think is the best open line. Or maybe we can vote on something else—like whether we favored lines showing action or dialogue or thought or description.

I also thought it might be interesting to let visitors add favorite first lines—either your own or ones you’ve read—and tell why you like them.

For the sake of time, I’m not going to give title and author of each sample. Suffice it to say, each is the opening line of a novel or a novel manuscript. The question is, which ones, by themselves, make you want to read more?

Looking forward to hearing what you think.

    1 –
    This is it, we’re here.
    2 –
    My mom was freaking out.
    3 –
    My discovery of terrorist cells operating in Canada coincided with Stephanie’s request that I move out.
    4 –
    I’m wearing dark clothes on a moonless night.
    5 –
    I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I’m old, and you said, I don’t think you’re old.
    6 –
    “No, Mr. Covenant,” she repeated for the third time, “I can’t do that.”
    7 –
    Any photographer would have loved to capture the scene.
    8 –
    A magnificent viscorcat paws at the trunk of the coil tree, yearning for a summer sun spot up in the branches, his black fur glossed from grooming.
    9 –
    Paige Woodward sat in the Christmas Eve service, staring at the giant cross that hung above the pulpit of her parents’ church and silently pleading with God.
    10 –
    Word got out.
    11 –
    Listen!
    This is the tale of how, at last evil returned to the Assembly of Worlds, and how one man, Merral Stefan D’Avanos, became caught up in the fight against it.
    12 –
    Hand over hand, Oblivion climbed.
    13 –
    Rivka woke from a light sleep, her heart thudding.
    14 –
    Attending this funeral on Easter Sunday seemed especially sad to me—but fitting, nevertheless.
    15 –
    It was the stillness.
    16 –
    “We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them.
    17 –
    Rough stone tore Rathe’s palms as he stumbled through the gaping maw of the cave.
    18 –
    Jim understood the insinuation—his brother thought he was a loser.
    19 –
    It first appeared as a gentle glow, almost like a child’s night-light.
    20 –
    I remember well the first time I saw the magic of the Plains-people.
    21 –
    The storm had broken.
    22 –
    Every morning, before the sun rose to gild the white marble columns of the monastery with flecks of gold, the High Priestess went to the Chamber of the Watchful Eye to perform the Rite of Seeing.
    23 –
    A hot, sticky evening in Los Angeles.
    24 –
    On Monday, I uncovered a drug ring in South Minneapolis.
    25 –
    Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn.
Published in: on April 20, 2010 at 3:08 pm  Comments (21)  
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Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1


After years and years of subscribing to Writer’s Digest, I just added The Writer to my writing resources. So far I’m not sorry.

One article in the October issue chronicles the worst mistakes in mystery writing. Some points were unique to the genre, but many were not. Some I’d already filed away in my mental folder of Things to Avoid, including coincidence or an act of God, narration masquerading as dialogue, a superfluity of viewpoints, and stereotypical characters.

Another point was “false starts.” At first I didn’t know what that referred to—prologues, maybe? As it turns out, this was in part also in my Things to Avoid list. The point of emphasis is that readers need to keep reading, so the first scene should intrigue. Readers should be asking, What happens next?

Pitfalls that dampen the intrigue are glumps of backstory, over-the-top “gore, profanity or explicit sex,” and the “flash forward,” usually formatted in, yes, a prologue.

I was familiar with the flash forward itself. The author of this particular article, Hallie Ephron, says the flash forward is a device writers are tempted to use in order to begin with an exciting scene when the actual beginning seems to lack pizazz.

The real point of this “false starts” issue, I think, is that readers need to keep reading. But that speaks to more than the beginning. If readers love the first five pages of a book, only to be bored silly in the next ten, I doubt seriously if they will feel the Need to Read.

And that’s the goal writers should have—make those readers care, make them want to keep going, make them impatient to pick up the book again if life forces them to put it down.

Is there a trick writers can use to pull this off? Yes. First we must create characters readers care about. One of the best writers I know creates quirky characters that are hard to connect with, which I think is an automatic strike against the story. Other books I’ve read have bland characters that are floating through the life of their story. These have a strike against them too because it’s hard to care for a character who doesn’t care.

But the engaging character is only one part. The other is to put tension on every page, as Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, says. It’s so easy to think the reader will “get” that the character description and backstory is vital for their understanding of what’s about to take place, and that they will surely stick around to see just how great the story really is.

This one, I’ve learned the hard way, just isn’t so.

Published in: on September 15, 2008 at 1:02 pm  Comments Off on Writing – What’s after the First Five Pages, Part 1  
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Confusion or Curiosity


So I’ve determined my new writing goal: Create no reader confusion. And I’ve also deduced that creating reader curiosity is not the same as confusion. In fact, the former is desirable and a key factor as to whether or not a reader will continue on with my story.

Like so much in life, then, there is a tenuous balance between what information a writer gives and what he withholds.

Maybe one way to look at this topic is to consider what causes confusion. In her comment to yesterday’s post, Sally Apokedak said that a writer creates confusion by providing conflicting facts. I agree, but I think there is more.

I think confusion results from improper motivation—when the reader isn’t given enough to understand why a character is acting as he is.

Another cause for confusion, in my opinion, is when the writer does not ground the story in something concrete. Playing off Steve Almond‘s examples in his Writer’s Digest article, I’ll offer one of my own to illustrate this point.

He didn’t know why she said it, but more importantly why she said it about him.

Does this create confusion or curiosity? The answer to this question can only be determined by what comes next. If the reader doesn’t start getting some answers (who is he, who is she, what’s the relationship between the two, what did she say, and why did she say it?) in the next little bit, I suggest confusion sets in.

The author does not need to give all the answers, perhaps not even complete answers, and probably not answers without introducing new questions. But the point is, unanswered questions or long-delayed answers are a cause for confusion.

A third cause, in my opinion, is the appearance of that which has not been foreshadowed or outright introduced in a scene. If a character is confronted by villains on the right and another baddie on the left, even as the true antagonist closes in from behind, what’s the hero to do? Well, he’ll hide in the barn, of course. The barn that the reader had no idea was in the scene. Above all, this kind of manipulation breaks the trust of the reader. He no longer feels confident that the author has told him all he needs to know.

But just how much should an author tell the reader? Almond’s answer to this dilemma is helpful:

The reader should know at least as much as your protagonist … [Readers] are happy to open with a scene, so long as they get the necessary background. And they don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Helpful guidelines, I think.

Published in: on June 17, 2008 at 10:49 am  Comments (2)  
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What’s in the Beginning


I keep changing my mind about today’s topic! First an announcement. Recently agent Rachelle Gardner ran a fun contest, which she does with some frequency. This one was a 100-word story based on a writing prompt—a picture of a young girl seated on a small suitcase. Today she posted the finalists, and wonder of wonders, my story made the cut. Thing is, Rachelle’s blog visitors are voting on the winner, so if you’re inclined to read 600 words (6 finalists), I encourage you to click on over to Rachelle’s site and vote for your favorite teensy-weensy story.

Actually, the finalist thing plays into what I finally decided to talk about today. I read an article in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest, and the author, Steve Almond reiterated what he considers to be the writers Hippocratic oath: “Never confuse the reader.”

Even at the beginning.

Initially this may seem to clash with the advice I’ve heard, often from those with literary leanings, that writers don’t need to put everything up front, that readers are far more patient than we think, and, in fact, enjoy being led into a story, enjoy figuring things out rather than having all handed to them.

In other words, one sign of an amateur is too much description, too much back story at the beginning. But Almond’s article is saying that a sign of an amateur is to leave the reader in the dark.

Are these two points in opposition, as they appear to be? I don’t think so. I think there’s a huge difference between being confused and being curious. The best story piques a reader’s interest. I don’t think that will happen successfully if the writer gives too much information. Neither do I think it wil happen if a reader is confused.

So what about it? Take a look at those shortest of stories (you can read all contest entries here). The ones you liked best—did the writers ground you quickly in the what and wherefore? Or did they leave you wandering—and therefore wondering—a bit?

Published in: on June 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm  Comments (5)  
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