Is the first sentence the charm?

We’ve all been told that we have only a couple of pages to hook a reader. I think that’s wrong. I think the hook comes in the first page. The first paragraph. The first sentence.

Last weekend, I was at a workshop devoted to the first 100 words of a novel. That’s right – 100 WORDS.

I think that first paragraph can hook a reader not just into one book – but into an author’s storytelling and writing style. One sentence can turn a first time reader into a lifelong fan. It has happened to this reader – more than once.

I remember my first encounter with the great Mary Stewart. I was about thirteen and dreaming of escaping small town Australia to have adventures in the big wide world.

How outdated the cover seems now - the writing dates too, but it's good enough to overcome that.

How outdated the cover seems now – the writing dates too, but it’s good enough to overcome that.

I opened a battered second hand copy of The Moonspinners.

It was the egret flying out of the lemon grove that started it.

Everything about that sentence is wrong – Any writing tutor (myself included) would tell you never start a book with a passive sentence. And certainly not with ‘It was..

But there was something about this opening line that spoke to me. I could see the bird flying low over the lemon grove. I could smell the fruit and feel the sun. My mind’s eye watched the bird fly past and wanted to go with it.

I could no more have put that book down that fly with the egret.

From that first line, I was an avid fan of Ms Stewart. I had read and re-read her books – and she has never let me down.

Of course, that’s important too. A really great opening line has to be the beginning of a great book. And I’ve usually found that it is.

In the first place I suppose it was my parents’ fault for giving me a silly name like Gianetta.Wildfire at Midnight – also by Mary Stewart. Another line that beaks rules but totally works.

Of course – she’s not alone in writing great first lines. So many books call to me from the bookshelf…

Last Night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.  Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Another of the world's best opening lines - and a book I have re-read a dozen times.

Another of the world’s best opening lines – and a book I have re-read a dozen times.

To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black.Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas.

Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin.Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.1984 by George Orwell.

It was the day my grandmother exploded. The Crow Road by Iain M. Banks,

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit – I really don’t have to tell you who that was, do I?

OK – I’ll stop now, but my point is this…

These lines transport me instantly to that other time and place – and whether it’s a child’s mind or a dystopian nightmare, I am instantly caught up in the story. My mind and heart are opened to whatever the writer want to tell me next. And it doesn’t matter that I have read the book before, or read it ten times before – the magic never fades.

Writing styles, like fashion, change over time. But a good opening line never fades.

Have you even sat up all night just reading the first lines of all your favorite books? I tried. I really did – but who could possibly read…

I suppose that my mother could have been a witch if she had chosen to…

or

Not every King would care to start his reign with the wholesale massacre of children.

… and then close the book? (Yes – they are both Mary Stewart again.)

I just went back and looked at the opening line of my next Coorah Creek book (due for release in June).

The huge yellow machine inched forward on wheels that were twice the height of the watching men.

Hmmmm…. Not quite to Mary Stewart’s standard, but then she set the bar pretty high. I start edits on the book soon. You never know, by the time you see it, it may just keep you up all night reading, as Mary Stewart did to me so many times.

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Fear. Has it halted your writing dreams?

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So what is stopping you from being an author?  Or, if you’re one already, what offers your greatest obstacles?  No, it’s not Time.  If your passion calls loudly enough, you can always squeeze hours from the day, no matter the siren call of Facebook or the demands of work and family.  The problem is another voice is calling louder:  it’s Fear.

Oh my, the terrors of creativity!  Where to start?  There’s that inner critic that says you’ll never be good enough, that it’s crazy suicide to stick out your head, only to have it shot away.  It sneers at your aspirations, mocks your dreams.Wim_van_den_Heuvel_en_Yoka_Berretty_(1961) (1)  What if you write total crap?  What if you have no talent? Or for some the reverse might paralyze. What if you become successful beyond your wildest dreams? Will your friends still love you? Will you be able to handle the heat?

At twenty-one, working for literary agent, Carol Smith, I yearned to write short stories for our women’s magazine contacts.  (These being my disastrous dating days I had a wealth of tragi-comic material.)  But Carol’s encouragement couldn’t quell my nightmares, imagining someone reading my work and hating it.  Worse yet, hating me.  Thinking I was stupid, boring, totally worthless.  I’d have stayed in that hellish limbo if our new secretary hadn’t produced her own story within days of being hired.  Nothing like a competitive panic and the fear of left behind to spur you over an artistic hurdle!  Plus, I realised, by using a pseudonym no one would know I was the authorial culprit unless I confessed.  Oh yes, I was very brave.

Eventually, as we writers do, I started a novel, pouring into it all my angst: hundreds…thousands…of words.  It went on and on. I showed it to a couple of editors who suggested, unsurprisingly, major cuts. Shamed and crippled by 320px-Frightthe suspicion I may have exposed some tormented aspects of my psyche, I bolted to South America instead.  Years later, my sister Pam and I entered the novel-writing arena, knees shaking, hand in trembling hand, as we together we dared the rejection trail.

As they progress, authors discover tricks to overcome creative anxiety, for what else is writer’s block?  Write anything, they say.  Just put words on paper, ignoring the internal editor that shrieks you’re spouting rubbish.
A few pages of total garbage are sometimes enough to shake loose true inspiration.  My trick when I’m stuck is to scrawl a rough draft with pen on a yellow legal pad. Or – lazier –  pass the stubborn bastard over to my writing partner, Pam.   For some, writers’ groups help.  Still, the one time I joined such a group, I found myself sweating buckets, the only person present (and the only published author besides) who absolutely refused to read her work aloud.

Five novels on I can affirm it gets easier.  I know my enemy.  I know the only way to defeat him is to write, although beginning any new book tends to awake the monster.   The bad news: publication is half the battle in a never-ending war.  Today’s authors need to become publiScared_Girlcists as well.  For a shy reserved writer, what could be worse than having to blow your own trumpet, fight against the self-effacing little girl inside that wants to shriek, ‘Don’t bother reading my work, it really isn’t very good!’?

Instead, you put yourself out there like a nightclub stripper, shaking your stuff all over the internet, luring in new readers, inviting reviews, good or bad.   You grow a thicker skin.  Tell yourself the writers of glowing five star reviews are amazingly intelligent souls with exceptional good taste and those who slapped you down with one or two stars can go take a running jump.

What’s the bottom line?  For Pam and I, it comes down to this.  If you want to write, write.  Ignore the naysayers, the loudest of which will probably be buzzing about your brain.   Accept that, just as with new acquaintances, for all those who think you’re brilliant, there will be others who vehemently disagree.  And remember that many famous authors like Hemingway and Mark Twain discovered their own prescription for courage.  Whisky. Lots of whisky.512px-Scotch_whiskies

 

 COMPETITION:

3D Million Dollar QuestionWe’re offering a paperback copy of our latest book, Million Dollar Question to one Take Five Authors reader who signs up for our newsletter here then tweets using the hashtag #TakeFiveAuthors

We’ll choose the winner on 10th March.

Best of Luck!   And let us know what sparks your personal terrors!

What goes into running a writing course?

I’ve never been sure why people ask me to run writing courses, as I don’t have a teaching qualification. It began when I was telling someone about writing short stories for magazines. The then-chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association overheard and asked if I’d say it all again in front of an RNA meeting.

Love Writing final version-1 smallerThen I was asked to repeat it a couple of times at other events.

Then someone rang and asked whether I’d be prepared to run a residential course … it has snowballed from there, and I’ve run workshops and courses for libraries, writing groups, conferences, local education and universities, I’ve run residential courses in the UK, Italy and France, and if you look at my events page you’ll see that I have a few lined up. I’ve also written courses and taught them for the London School of Journalism, I’ve written a ‘how to’ book, Love Writing, and adapted it to be an online course for DigitalSea.

Screen Shot 2016-02-11 at 21.29.43Yesterday, I ran a one-day workshop for Writing East Midlands in Nottingham, Writing Romantic Fiction, so I thought I’d use it as an example, to give you some idea of how these things evolve.

  • Aimee from Writing East Midlands contacts me via my website to ask if I’d be interested in running the course. We email back and forth about fees, expenses, the length of the course, the venue, participant numbers, and course content. We’ve worked together before and quickly reach agreement.
  • I add the details to my events page on my website and events sidebar on my blog.
  • I’m asked to fill out a two-page course information sheet, including course outline, strapline, my bio, and confirmation of the points we agreed via email. I send an author photo and jpegs of my book covers.
  • Aimee has an event page created on the Writing East Midlands website and Facebook page.
  • The event is included in WEM’s paper brochure for distribution. I appear on the front cover and feel a little swollen headed at the idea of landing on people’s doormats.
  • I mention the event from time to time on social media, talk to anyone who shows interest, and those responsible at WEM handle the major publicity push.
  • Aimee emails to let me know that a new contact, Clare, will be taking the course admin on from here.
  • Time goes by …
  • Suddenly it’s a week before the event. I try and remember who has taken over as my contact at WEM and fail. I check my diary – didn’t write it down there, either. I email Aimee, who copies in Clare, my new contact, (Of course it’s Clare! I knew that!) and all’s well. (This lack of organisation isn’t usual for me, but I thought I’d be honest.)
  • I chat to Clare. She gives me participant numbers (12) and answers my questions about the venue, arranges for me to have a flipchart, and says Aimee will meet me on the day to introduce me to the participants. She tells me who to invoice and I tell her what my expenses will amount to.
  • I spend an hour on Wednesday evening (2 days before the event) putting together cards and bookmarks for goodie bags for the participants.
  • On Thursday, the day before the event, I spend a good chunk of the day preparing material. I have written A LOT of workshops and handouts and I select the most appropriate and revise as needed, writing a course plan as I go. All’s well. I’m in control, I have time in hand. Until I begin to print the handouts … The printer suddenly becomes the spawn of Satan. It sucks up three sheets at a time and prints right across all three. I fan the paper madly and reload the tray, I try different paper, yet it proves impossible to get pristine copies. I fold and staple grimly, swearing continuously under my breath, and threaten to throw the printer onto the patio.
  • I break off to attend a charity literary lunch. I can no longer spare the time because of the Satanic printer, but I go anyway because friends are hosting it, I promised, I’ve bought tickets, it’s for charity and I’ve promised a raffle prize.
  • Prize … prize … I’d intended to create a little prize draw for anyone who signs up for my newsletter or street team at tomorrow’s workshop. I buy some chocolates at a garage en route. I’m late to pick my friend up but we get to the lunch, which is lovely. It overruns and I’m late home.
  • The printer’s mood hasn’t improved by being kept waiting. I print out newsletter and street team sign-up sheets, Satan is still in the printer. I moan and whine and shout at the printer, I staple and fold a few more sheets together. The printer twinkles its lights at me maliciously and makes a mess of the rest of the handouts.
  • Aimee emails to tell me she has a family issue and may not be able to meet me at the venue but the Waterstones events manager, Dan, will do so. I completely understand. As long as she doesn’t print herself over three sheets of paper, I can cope.
  • I collate my lumpy handouts and printouts of my forthcoming events, bookmarks and cards, and stick them in the goodie bags. The printer and I are not speaking.
  • I book my train ticket.
  • I go to iMaps to get directions from Nottingham train station to the venue. Print them. The printer, under my baleful glare, behaves impeccably.
  • I bag up my teaching materials, goodie bags, map and prize, ready for an early start on the morrow.

*Truthfully, I can’t tell you how the workshop went because I’m typing this just before bed the night before, as it has to be scheduled to post on Saturday morning. I won’t get home from Nottingham until about 7.30 on the evening of the workshop and will by then have to catch up on emails etc. Aimee has just emailed me an update (it’s 22.23) so she’s still working, too!

But I will enjoy the event, as I enjoy every workshop, enjoy meeting other writers and talking about writing, one of the loves of my life. I may get a new printer with the fee.

Does rejection make you depressed or determined?

Like most authors, I’ve had my share of rejection slips. I suppose I’m lucky in that most of mine were what is rather sweetly termed ‘rave rejections’. In other words, they generally took the line of ‘We love your writing, but in the current marketplace … risk of signing a debut novelist …overcrowded women’s fiction market …’ and so on.

I take a little consolation in knowing that ‘twas ever thus. The list of writers who were serially rejected is huge. Gone With the Wind was rejected 38 times. (It has sold 30 million copies.)

Agatha_Christie

Agatha Christie, via Wikimedia Commons

Agatha Christie had to wait years before she was accepted for publication – now she is the biggest selling author of all time, excepting William Shakespeare. JK Rowling was rejected by 12 publishers (who must be bitterly regretting their decisions now). I can go on – Stephenie Meyer (Twilight, rejected by 14 agencies), Kathryn Stockett (Help, rejected 60 times), Jasper Fforde (The Eyre Affair, 76 times), James Patterson, a dozen publishers.
When I interview authors on my blog, one of the standard questions I ask is, what are your top tips for writers. Without exception, they say, persist, keep writing, believe in yourself.

It’s hard though. If I’m honest, I found the effect profoundly depressing. For a number of years – despite being signed successively by two agents who were strongly supportive of me – I couldn’t get my work out to readers. I began to doubt my skill. If it hadn’t been for the support of fellow writers (including three lovely bestselling authors who always believed in me) in me, I might have given up. Then I was signed by the lovely Accent Press, I was lucky enough to be given an editor who loves my writing, and as a result, my creativity and confidence have blossomed.

We might think that it’s all the fault of editors – and surely we must query some judgements? I’m not sure that history records how Rudyard Kipling reacted to being told he didn’t know how to use English language, or John le Carré to the announcement that ‘he didn’t have any future’. Louise May Alcott was told to ‘stick to teaching’. But editors are readers, like the rest of us. They have their own loves and hates, they may be rooted in what has worked in the past, or under instruction to play safe. Thankfully, there are other ways to reach the reading public now, and many an author who has started out by self publishing has been subsequently been snapped up by a trad publisher later (or continued to success as an indie).

Cecily

But can you learn from rejection? Some authors certainly believe so. Sylvia Plath said, ‘I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.’ CS Lewis became more and more determined to succeed through the years of rejection.  David Mitchell received a rejection from an editor at Harper Collins that ‘shredded my first-born novel, laughed at my phrasing, twirled my lacy pretensions around and gobbed into the seething mosh pit of my stolen clichés’. He tore up the slip – but took the criticism to heart and used it to progress. And Beatrix Potter showed her self belief by eventually publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit herself. [This illustration Beatrix Potter (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons].

Rejection can sapping and demoralising, but do try to turn the negative energy into positive energy, find support where you can, and keep writing. You may be the next multi-million bestseller.

COMPETITION!

6The latest result of my persistence is making it to the bookshelves this month. Between Friends is set in Edinburgh and revolves round three women whose lives, careers, marriages and friendship are threatened by the return into their lives of a man from their past. Only by pulling together can they survive – but is the man too clever at sowing distrust?

I’m offering a free signed paperback to one Take Five Authors reader who signs up for my newsletter at http://jennyharperauthor.co.uk then tweets using the hashtags #BetweenFriendsComp and #TakeFiveAuthors. (Don’t worry – there’s always an option to unsubscribe later – though I hope you won’t!).

I’ll choose a winner on 25th February. Good luck!