Friday, April 23, 2010

That first paragraph...

I just started reading A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire. As I read the first paragraph, I was reminded of how important that paragraph can be when you're trying to hook the reader/agent/editor. Here is the first paragraph of A Lion Among Men:

"The time came for her to die, and she would not die; so perhaps she might waste away, they thought, and she did waste, but not away; and the time came for her to receive final absolution, so they set candles upon her clavicle, but this she would not allow. She blasphemed with gusto and she knocked the scented oils across the shroud they'd readied on a trestle nearby."

This paragraph accomplishes quite a lot. It begins in a serious tone but soon alerts us that there will probably be a dash of humor (albeit black humor) sprinkled into the mix. I wonder who "she" is? She's dying and wasting, but still has enough spunk to knock things around. A religious rite seems to be involved (she's receiving final absolution), but she blasphemes "with gusto."

I'm eager to read on, but I realize not everyone would be. Maguire already has a following, but if he didn't, the publisher who picked up this book would have to believe that a large group of people would find this opening paragraph compelling.

Do you have an opening paragraph from your own work that you would like to share? It can be published or unpublished, finished or unfinished.

Here is the first paragraph from one of the chapters in my book More Than Petticoats: Remarkable North Carolina Women, a nonfiction book containing mini-biographies of women whose lives had an impact on The Tarheel State.

"The young man on the makeshift operating table was in bad shape. Dr. Mary Sloop held her breath as her husband, Dr. Eustace Sloop, made an incision. She stifled a gasp of dismay. Angry red inflammation and signs of infection told her the patient's appendix had ruptured; his condition was even more serious than she had feared."

Come on, somebody, start us off!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Books on Writing: Who Needs 'Em?

Like many writers, I have a shelf or two of “how to write” books in my vast library. I just ordered another one today: 179 Ways to Save a Novel: Matters of Vital Concern to Fiction Writers by Peter Selgin.

I have a writer-friend who has no use for “how to write” books. She feels that reading good writing is the best way to learn the craft. I can’t really argue with her. She has a literary agent, and her first novel will be published by a major publishing house in the near future. So her approach seems to have worked very well for her.

Although I do believe reading good writing is essential to becoming a good writer, I also find “how to write” books to be not only interesting reading but helpful to me. The topics mentioned in such books often cause me to look at aspects of my own writing that I might not have considered without being prompted.

Below are the titles of three books on writing that I have found particularly enlightening, encouraging, and engaging:

Write Away by Elizabeth George
On Writing by Stephen King
The Art of Fiction by John Gardner

How do you feel about “how to write” books? If you read such books, which one(s) have you found to be well worth the time and money you invested? Why?

Do you feel that there is a certain "stage" of a writer's career where such books are helpful, and that good writers eventually "outgrow" that stage?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Let the Search begin!

In addition to being a writer, I have worked as a copy editor for fifteen years. I worked exclusively for one publisher, and they had a Style Manual that I consulted. For things that weren't in the style manual, they wanted me to use the Chicago Manual of Style.

When I first started working for them, I would receive hard copies of the text to copy edit. I had to mark changes in red and attach sticky notes to direct queries to the editor, design people, or author.

Once we moved into the digital age, I received text on disk or as an email attachment. At this point, it became much easier to catch the most common errors because I could do a Search for the wrong thing and replace it. For example, this particular publisher wanted to use contractions to impart a sense of informality. Instead of "you will" they wanted "you'll." Instead of "that is" they wanted "that's" and so forth. So I would search for the un-contracted forms and change them.

This is something we can all do as writers. There are words that we tend to over-use or misspell or misuse, and a search will point these out to us. Past perfect construction (using "had") is undesirable, so do a search for "had" and evaluate each case to make sure you really need to use it.

Do you have trouble with "its" versus "it's" or "there" versus "their"? Do a search for each of those and evaluate whether you have used them correctly (have the "rules" right next to you so you can consult them if you need to). 

Search for the letters "ly" to see if you are using too many adverbs. (Not all adverbs end in "ly" of course, but it's a start.)

If you want to make the best possible impression on editors or agents when you submit your work, it pays to fine tune some of the "little things."

I'd love to hear what the rest of you writers search for (or realize you *should* search for) in your manuscripts!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Going Forward

Although I enjoy my LiveJournal account and will continue to use it, I find their system for posting Comments to be unfriendly. If you don't have a LiveJournal account, you have to comment as "Anonymous" or log in with "Open ID." The reasons for this have been explained by LiveJournal and they are not planning to change.

I'm ready to make this blog -- Writing Tips, Tricks, and Tactics -- an active part of my life. I am hoping to hear from you!

To kick off the resurrection of this blog, I would love to hear from fellow writers on the subject:

What is the best tip (or one of the best) you have received on how to be a better writer?