Sunday, October 18, 2009

This and That

I'm back! The storms are gone...for I'm able to get back on the Internet. The Central Coast of California is a beautiful place to live, with the aquamarine ocean sparkling in the sun, and the rolling hills that turn from pastoral green in the spring to brown velvet in the summer and back to green/gold in the fall. It is wonderful to watch the countryside complete its yearly fashion show, as it shows a different face each year, much like the runway models we see on television.

There are just a few things on my mind today, as I get back into the realm of writing. A little bit of 'this' and a little of 'that.'

First, let's talk about "first lines." This seems to be a big deal in publishing. Remember what you mothers used to tell you when you were only get one chance to make a first impression? That holds very true for things like query letters and fiction, when we're either trying to get the attention of agents, editors, or our kid readers...or all three.

Here are some of the classic first lines in children's literature:

1. "Where's Papa going with that ax?" said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. ( Charlotte's Web, by E.B. White)

2. All children, except one, grow up. ( Peter and Wendy, by J.M Barrie)

3. It was a dark and storm night. ( A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle)

4. Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. ( Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, by J.K. Rowling)

We are told we need a 'hook' to grab the reader's attention and draw them into the story. This hook should give an indication of what is to come, and make them want to keep reading. And this is true of both the first lines of a query letter and of fiction We want our first lines to make the reader ask questions about the story: Who is this character? What is happening here? How is this going to turn out? If the reader is an agent or an editor, we also want them to say: I need to find out more about this story; I am interested in who this person might be or what her story is all about.

How can we be sure that we have intriguing first lines? That's easier said than done, right? One way is to start with something happening that makes the day different from the rest; something that arises from action on the part of the MC, from dialogue between the MC and the secondary character/s, or from some narrative that immediately brings the reader into the story and makes her/him want to ask questions and get answers.

In the novel I just finished, my opening line is: "AJ, why isn't your father ever around any more?" Jaime asked as she applied bright red polish to her toes. What questions does this arouse in your mind? Who is AJ? Why is Jaime asking such a personal question? How is AJ going to answer it? What is happening with AJ's father that he isn't 'around' any more? Hopefully, these and more would be questions my reader would ask, and want to read further to get the answers to.

In my WIP, an historical novel of the Civil War, the first line reads: Whup! Whup! Whup! Screams shattered the morning quiet as the sickening thud of a whip lacerating bare skin snaked through the mist. This first sentence doesn't tell you anything about the MC, but it does make you ask questions, right? Who is this happening to? Why is it happening? Where is it happening? Is there anyone around who is going to stop it from happening? At least, these are some of the questions that I hope my readers will ask.

The point is, opening lines must make the reader either ask questions about that line and where it is going to lead, or it must make her/him feel drawn into the story immediately and want to know what is going to happen from that point on. First lines don't come easily to anyone, but they are possibly the most important line in every storyline we write.

I guess the above was the 'this' and now I'm going to talk about the 'that.' In my last post ( I think it was the last), I said I would talk about how to keep track of non-fiction notes and information.

The Note Card System:

This is probably the system most people use ( I don't, but I'm not as organized as I should be !) Here are the steps that you can use:

The Saber Toothed Tiger: First packet of 5 x 7 cards:

1. Upper left hand corner, put in a code for your subject and the type of source your using, e.g book, internet site, journal article, etc.: let's say for this one its STT: jnl art. ( Saber tooth tiger, journal article.)

2. Upper right hand corner: author of journal article, date of publication, name of article, name of journal article is in, page number/numbers you are using information from.

3. Body of card: put the quote, thought, or text of information used.

You need to use separate cards for each bit of information you gather, and from each source: (a) book; (b) journal article; (c) internet site; (d) magazine/newspaper; (e) historical societies; (f) personal diaries, quotations from historical figures; (g) information from libraries, archives and museums.

Arrange your cards in a card file, with dividers indicating each source, e.g., book, journals, etc. Some people...who are WAY more organized than I am...can actually arrange their cards according to where they think the information will go in the NF they are writing: e.g., 1st page, 2nd paragraph; middle of article; last page, 1st paragraph, and so on. Sorry, that's way too efficient for me !

This card method is probably the most popular, and it is very efficient. I, on the other hand, do something very different. First, I make out my bibliography...and I use EasyBib ( for this, it is easy, it is accurate and it is free. Then I go back to each of my sources and take handwritten notes in a notebook. Then I transfer those notes to the computer, print them out, and write my NF article. Not the most efficient way, I admit, but it's just the way I do it. I'm not suggesting anyone else do it, although I do suggest you use Easy Bib for your bibliography. It sure saves a lot of work on your part.

Hope this has been of some help...see you later!

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