How to grab your readers with a killer opening line

Call me Ishmael, but I figure the oldest and dumbest cliche in the how-to-write industry has to be the one about opening lines.

William Shakespeare, the 'Flower' portrait c1820-1840, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Was it the proud sail of his great verse”? - public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, that’s because opening lines work. They drag the reader, kicking and screaming, into the words. And it’s true for all writing, not just novels. Journalists have to master the technique from the get-go. So do bloggers.

The opening line has to grab the reader – emotionally. It can do that by posing a question, or creating a sense of unfinished business. ‘In a hole in a ground lived a Hobbit…’

What’s a ‘Hobbit’? When that line floated into J. R. R. Tolkien’s mind, around 1930, he didn’t know either. He had to write the novel to find out.

However, that experience of having a killer opening line first off isn’t too common. Usually they have to be wrestled into existence. That, I figure, is also why writers often sit there with blank page, or a lone cursor winking at them on screen, and – don’t start.

Part of the problem is that we’re not often told how to write one. Recently I pointed out that advertisers have a lot to offer.

But there’s also the fact that – often – the writer won’t yet know exactly what they’re drawing the reader into. Tolkien didn’t – he had to write The Hobbit to find out. Most of us, though, have ideas when we start, but can’t quite figure out the way that translates into the starting words. So try this trick: don’t write one. Today’s age of word processing makes it easy to start writing without that first line, then back-fill. Often the line will pop into mind as you go along. Indeed, that first line might be the last thing you write into the work.

What does an opening line demand? It must:

1. Grab – by posing that question, often perhaps built around an emotion. The book opens with a character crying. Why?

2. Hold – by making that question compelling. Why should we bother with this character crying? What’s different?

3. Draw – pull the reader on. This means the second line has to be equally as ‘grabby’. And the first paragraph.

The trick is to make all this happen in ways consistent with the style and tone you’ve chosen for the book – not to have that first sentence hanging out there as an over-written, over-constructed device. Even though it is, when it comes down to it, exactly that.

Do you ever have trouble with opening lines? Have you ever read a book and been hooked from the get-go? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

 

And now, some shameless self promotion:

It’s also available on iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/nz/book/bateman-illustrated-history/id835233637?mt=11

Nook coming soon.

You can still buy the print edition here: http://www.batemanpublishing.co.nz/ProductDetail?CategoryId=96&ProductId=1410

Re-discovering the writers’ magic treasure box

I suppose it’s true of every writer. Somewhere, out in the back shed, lurks a box of dusty, damp manuscript pages.

Yes, like a geeky Tolkien fan I had to pose in the entrance, such as it was - you could circle it, just like the door Aslan made to get rid of the Telmarines in .Prince Caspian'.

My writing treasure box has a lot of stuff inspired by various SF and fantasy authors (and that’s me, 40 years later…)

Maybe they’re typed sheets. Maybe it’s hand-written notes. Maybe something scribbled in an exercise book.

The painful teenage expressions of aspiring authorship. Stories that never made it. Letters to your future self.

Stuff that you’d be embarrassed to admit to writing – but which tells a deeper tale of hopes and dreams. Personal treasure.

Do you have that magic box of manuscript pages, out there in back-shed land? I know I do.

Have you had the courage to open it? And if you have – what did you find? Were you inspired? I’d love to hear from you.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, more geekery. Watch this space.

Don’t complain about J K Rowling. Follow her lead instead.

The other day a novelist complained that J K Rowling was making it harder for other authors, and why didn’t she just stop?

By her own admission, this critic had never read a word of ‘Harry Potter’.

To me it came across as a ‘she’s had her turn, now it’s mine’ kind of argument.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comIt’s common enough in writing. I had something similar happen many years ago when I was working as a professional historian in Hawke’s Bay. A local history enthusiast rang up the local newspaper editor and actually told him I’d had my turn. Then she proceeded to gather up her enthusiast friends and conduct a public crusade against everything I did.

Not the worst display of malice I’ve been subjected to as a result of writing history, but the attitude was clear – ‘You’ve got my slice of pie, and I’m going to destroy you.’

Never mind that the targeted author actually created the slice that the rival author covets.

This is where ‘academic jealousies’ come from too. Ultimately, such selfish ambition highlights the darker side of the human condition.

It’s also entirely wrong. You see, the writing pie grows with its authors. We all have something to contribute. And if someone does so – spectacularly – then that’s good for all. Rowling is a case in point. There are kids who discovered reading through Harry Potter. She opened up a new world for them – a world where other writers get to add their part.

The same’s true for Rowling’s adult books. The publicity around them raises the profile of all books for all authors. ‘Hey guys – writing’s out here!’

See what I mean about the pie growing? It’s all to do with attitude. The people who get angry and want to destroy the success of others are the losers – they don’t realise that success is made. It isn’t handed out. And it isn’t a limited resource that must be taken off whoever has it.

Of course, human nature being what it is, that’s all too often what seems to happen. I’ve used writing as an example here – but it’s generally true.

My take? Don’t complain about people who’ve created something – knuckle down, do the hard yards, and join the fun, making sure you put your own original thought into what you’re doing. There’s more for everybody. And everybody wins.

Get that? Everybody wins.

A proverbial good thing. Isn’t it? Certainly better than jealously smashing something in order to deny it to its creator.

What do you figure?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014
Coming up: More writing tips, thoughts, science geekery and more.

When a US President came under New Zealand command

It is seventy years, this month, since Operation SQUAREPEG – the New Zealand assault on Nissan Island, the largest atoll in the Green Islands Group, west of the Solomons.

Green Island and the battle plan. Public domain. From  http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-WH2Paci-_N81633.html

Nissan Island and the battle plan. Public domain. From http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/ tm/scholarly/ tei-WH2Paci-_N81633.html

The island was needed as an air base for operations against the main Japanese naval bases at Rabaul, but it’s become one of the forgotten sidelines of the Pacific Campaign – even in New Zealand memory, playing second fiddle to the North African and Italian campaigns.

For my family, though, it is a piece of history. The effort opened with a commando raid – a reconnaissance in force – ahead of the invasion. My grandfather was on that raid. Some years ago I pieced what happened together from his letters home and official material. The story forms part of the book I wrote in 2003 on the Pacific War.

My grandfather went ashore with 321 others. under Colonel F. C. Cornwall, around midnight on 30 January 1944. They landed at Pokonian plantation at the north end of the lagoon. Here they established a perimeter from which to begin a day’s reconnaissance. All went well until mid-afternoon when the perimeter came under attack from Japanese forces.

My grandfather emptied his pack out on the beach and filled it with grenades, then joined a group of others on a Higgins boat, intending to flank the attackers. When the boat got out into the lagoon it came under fire from half a dozen Mitsubishi ‘Zeroes’. Amidst the drama, Bill Aylward – sitting on the thwart next to my grandfather, turned to one of the pintle-mounted machine guns and returned fire. Soon everybody on the boat was joining in, using machine guns, rifles – and drove off the marauders. Afterwards, my grandfather wrote that Aylward certainly deserved a medal. He wasn’t alone; and Aylward was awarded the Military Medal for his actions.

pacwarThe incident put paid to any thought of staying, and the commando was pulled off to their boats, awaiting pickup that night. In the scrabble, my grandfather wasn’t able to pick up his mess gear. But they had the information they needed. What they didn’t realise was that the garrison had almost surrendered to them. None of that stopped the main New Zealand invasion force taking the island on 16 February. US Marine engineers were clearing jungle for a runway even before fighting stopped, and the first aircraft made an emergency landing there on 5 March.

My grandfather was stationed on Nissan Island for some time, with the other New Zealanders and a small US force. The whole came under New Zealand Divisional commander Major-General H. E. Barrowclough – including the American contingent, which was led by a young Lieutenant by the name of Richard Milhous Nixon.

Yes, that Richard Milhous Nixon. It’s the only time that a US President has served under New Zealand command… albeit a quarter century or so before he became President, but hey…

Do you have any family stories from the Second World War that you’d like to share?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science, history and more. Watch this space.

Welcome to 2014 in M J Wright blog-o-land

It’s 2014 – and I’m rolling into the new year and new blog posts. I’ve got a full programme lined up for you kind folks this next few months.

MJWright2011There’s ‘Essential Writing Skills’ – a regular weekly series outlining what writers need. It’s backed by my 30 years in the business as a published author, publisher and journalist. You’ll discover what writers need to write well, effectively – and get results. Everything from editing to proofing to writing to content to viewing the projects as a business to approaching publishers and agents – and more.

There’s ‘Write It Now’ – musings on writing, books and the industry, including where it’s going, why it’s going there, and what we can do about it.

I’ve got more weekly science and sci-fi geekery, spiced with history and other cool stuff. And more fun stuff – humour, commentaries, thoughts and more. Why? Because life needs to be fun.

For the next few months, the schedule is:

Mondays NZT (Sunday EST) – Write It Now
Tuesday or Wednesday NZT (Monday or Tuesday EST) – Fun science or fun history. Or something similar.
Saturday NZT (Friday EST) – Essential Writing Skills

Watch out for surprise stuff on other days.

Needless to say I wouldn’t be doing this blog without you – it’s thanks to you kind folks that I keep posting. And that means the blog’s really about you – about interaction, it’s about having a conversation. About cool stuff. About fun stuff. About serious stuff.

And if there’s something you’d like me to blog about – ask!

Let’s get talking.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: See above… ☺

The irresistible list of four fun weird things

Ever wondered what might happen if Charlie Brown grew up and became a cyborg mercenary in a post-apocalyptic dystopia? No? Me neither.

But a guy named Jason Yungbluth did. Hitting No. 1 on my weird list (and maybe yours…)

1. Weapon Brown.
Published here: http://www.whatisdeepfried.com/  Warning – it’s a graphic novel, and it’s seriously graphic (no pun intended) – mostly OTT violence. Not safe for work. Or home. Or possibly anywhere. But very funny. It is, needless to say, parody.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

Conceptual artwork by Pat Rawlings of a Mars mission rendezvous from 1995. NASA, public domain, via Wikipedia.

2. One-way Mars flight with reality TV
Then there was the Dutch plan to send people on a one-way ‘trip of a lifetime’ to Mars – funding it by (wait for it) turning the venture into reality TV. I have to say, a one-way trip to Mars would be the LAST trip I’d ever make.

3. Total physics geekery with custard
Although I’ve made a name for myself by writing history, my real enthusiasm is for physics – and I’ve found out about a way of measuring the speed of light using a microwave oven and a bowl of custard. I’ve got a post coming up…be warned. And get that custard ready.

4. A slightly odd German lexicon
Finally, anybody remember Blackadder Goes Forth? The scene where Blackadder insists the Germans have no word for ‘fluffy’? Of course I had to look it up, and I believe there are at least seventeen German words referring to ‘fluffy’. They include flaumig (fluffy feathers), flockig (fluffy snow), kuschelig (fluffy fabric), locker (fluffy hair), fusselig (fluffy), duftig (frothy/fluffy), oberflachlich (fluffy thinking), schaumig (fluffy egg whites), stofftier (fluffy toy), pluschtier (fluffy toy), not to mention fluffig, which means…er…fluffy.

Ok, so that was probably a load of quatsch … but hey…my German vocab is otherwise limited to ‘Achtung!’ (which I accidentally said in the departure lounge in Frankfurt airport, one time), ‘Panzer’, ‘Messerschmitt’ and ‘mein Luftkissenfahrzeug ist voller Aale’.

Did you find out anything funny or just plain berserk in 2013? I’d love to hear from you!

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: Christmas greetings, more science geekery and some end-of-year fun.

A bit of fun with Bram Stoker’s favourite word

I’ve often thought it kind of odd that vampires can only be killed by being staked through the heart.

Cydrean_Vampire_darkgazer_svg_medIn Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel Dracula, the eponymous vampire was actually slashed to – er – death with Bowie and Kukri knives. So much for Buffy’s “Mr Pointy”.  Which brings me to the (ahem) point of this post, which is actually how English changes. Know what Bram Stoker’s favourite word was? It wasn’t ‘stake’ or ‘vampire’. Let me give you some clues from Dracula (1897):

“the bright voluptuousness of much sunshine”
“the ruby of their voluptuous lips”
“a deliberate voluptuousness”
“a soft, voluptuous voice”
“voluptuous wantonness”
“a voluptuous smile”
“with a languorous, voluptuous grace”
“the bloodstained, voluptuous mouth”
“the voluptuous lips”
“voluptuous beauty”
“the voluptuous mouth”
“so exquisitely voluptuous”

Fred Saberhagen put a good deal of time into lampooning Stoker’s over-use of this particular adjective in The Dracula Tapes.

Curiously, though, the modern meaning – let’s say ‘a full-figured and attractive woman’ – isn’t the one Stoker actually used. Its earlier meaning was closer to the Latin, volupas (pleasure) – and meant something pleasurable or given to pleasure or gratification. It could mean sunlight, as Stoker indeed used it.

The lascivious overtones were there, to some extent, but not in the way they are today. I’m not sure Stoker’s book was responsible for the transition, either.

For me it underscores one of the most interesting things about English. It changes – and often without intent on anybody’s part. That says a good deal about human nature – about the way we interact, for it is only through those interactions that the language can change.

The English language is – well, how can I put it? Voluptuous.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

NaNo Writing Prompt No. 4

This week’s writing prompt is a photo I took near sunset one evening on Rarotonga.

Tropical islands have a magical feel for writers. There were many reasons why Robert Louis Stevenson spent time on Samoa. One of them was the inspiration he felt in the tropics. Rarotonga isn’t very exotic for New Zealanders – but it is for a lot of other people. What do you think of when you see this scene, with the lagoon lapping against coral sand and the glorious sky as the sun sets? Could you imagine characters from a novel in a place like this?

I took this near sunset on a day when it wasn't raining, just outside our little unit.

I took this near sunset on a day when it wasn’t raining, just outside our little unit.

This is the last NaNo writing prompt – and I hope your writing goes well for you.

Watch this space for more writing prompts in the next little while. 

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

NaNo Writing Prompt No. 1

Welcome to NaNo Writing Prompts, a short weekly series I’m running through November.

What story might lie behind a grassland like this? Who might live there? What sort of characters would be shaped by a landscape like this? And what lies just over that hill?

Rohan. No - central Otago. No, Rohan...oh, I give up...

Rohan. No – north Otago. No, Rohan…oh, I give up…

If you think it looks like Rohan out of Peter Jackson’s The Lord Of The Rings, there’s a reason – but that’s another story.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: More writing tips and tricks, getting to that 50,000 word goal, ‘Write It Now’, and more…

Some 3D Viewmaster nostalgia from 1960s America

Does anybody remember the Viewmaster, that higher-tech version of the Victorian-age stereoscope? It was invented in the late 1930s by Wilhelm Gruber and Harold Graves to use 16mm Kodakchrome film and flourished for decades, initially allowing vicarious travel, later carrying a wider range of story reels for kids.

I remember them well. We had one, and a lot of reels. Here’s a picture of some of them.

I had a 'Tom Corbett' adventure, too - don't know where that got to.

This is the Sawyer Model G Viewmaster I used as a kid with some of the reels.

I have to explain the selection. The 1960s set the space age exploding across the world. Every kid wanted to be an astronaut – well, I had ambitions of being an astronomer, actually. Space was cool. Space was neat. It was the future. I was five. And although we lived in import-restricted 1960s New Zealand, my mother had a penfriend in Minneapolis who was able to source and send some of the Viewmaster titles that just couldn’t be got in New Zealand. Hence the reels on Minnesota. I also had a Tom Corbett adventure, which wasn’t in the box I found – though you can check it out online these days (naturally).

Today they’re period pieces, the photos reminders of a bygone age. One that we imagine was simpler, but of course it wasn’t to those who had to live through it, Yet the slides – real Kodachrome film – have stood up well, they’re still rich and bright, still filled with that same exaggerated 3D I remember as a kid. Supremely cool. I’ll blog another time about why stereoscopic 3D looks phony – there are good scientific reasons.

Did you ever have a Viewmaster – and what do you remember watching on them?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013