First Sentences: Introduction

The accumulated editorial wisdom suggests that the first sentence of a novel should be carefully crafted. As a beginning blogger and novelist I have decided that one way to help both myself and other writers is to devote a set of posts that investigates published first sentences. Though the first sentence doesn’t need to be the entire “hook” that catches a reader it is an important part of it.

K.M. Weiland in her new book Structuring the Novel (which I will do a review on soon) indicates that the first sentence needs to at least create some questions in the reader’s mind. Ideally it should show a character in action in a setting. She provides an example from one of her professors: “Hitler invades Poland.” (Actually it is type set like this: “Hitler. Invades. Poland.”) but I turned it back into a single sentence. So I want to explore a lot of first sentences.

My method is going to be to snag books, lots of books, many of which I have never read and probably will never read wherever I can find them (my own library, friend’s homes, bookstores and libraries to start with). Then when I have copied the first sentence and perhaps the first paragraph I will start writing blog posts to analyze and investigate that first sentence.

Here is the first sentence for Richard Paul Evan’s book

James Kier looked back and forth between the newspaper headline and the photograph of himself, not sure he should laugh or call his attorney.

The sentence fulfills at least 2 of Weiland’s suggested guidelines. First we have the character James Kier and second he is both reading and “looking back forth” in the newspaper. We don’t really get a direct look at the setting but combined with his first name and his quick willingness to consider legal action we can at least speculate that he is in North America.

We know a bit more about James as well. He has some level of importance in his community since there is a headline line story about him along with a photo. He has “his attorney” which leads us to suspect that he is probably reasonably wealthy since most people in his situation would have thought something like, “Should I call an attorney?” Apparently James has enough legal business to need a regular, ongoing relationship with a lawyer.

We know from the title of the book that the time frame is sometime reasonably close to Christmas so at least within the last quarter of the year. Most importantly James is trying to decide between laughing or angrily calling his attorney so there is an emotional charge even though we don’t know what the content of the newspaper article is all about. We can guess that the content is in some way negative since you don’t call your attorney if the paper has written a positive article about you.

What do you think of the sentence? Do you want to keep reading? Has Evan’s created enough curiosity that you will read the first paragraph and perhaps the first page?

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K.M. Weiland, Outlining Your Novel

Weiland’s outlining process is a combination of guided free writing exercises and a short course in the elements of a good novel. The key advice is that you need to give yourself permission and time to really explore your story world and characters without any of the pressure of writing a “first draft” of your novel. You can do the work using your computer but Weiland suggests, as she does, that you go back to pen and coiled notebooks because you have more freedom to mess around. I am not going to provide detailed notes on her process it is worth buying the book for that, but I will share some of the key ideas that have really helped me.

The first step is to try and get down in one sentence — the premise sentence — what the story is about. It should “convey the characters, setting and central conflict”.  Weiland then suggests that you start writing out and exploring “what ifs” that come to mind and let them take you where they might. A few more triggers that Weiland suggests for exploring your ideas:

  • list things that a reader might expect to happen in the story, then try to turn each expectation on its head, insert the unexpected wherever possible
  • list and write about 4 or 5 big moments in the plot and develop at least 2 complications for each of them
  • consider and create main characters that have at least 2 major problems or anxieties, then explore how these will affect the story

There is a lot more and her writing tone is both encouraging and fresh, think about buying the book.

Much of the book then provides a guide to take this mass of ideas you are generating and turn them into a novel. Key ideas covered include:

  • plan the book scene by scene, start with a scene list that includes everything you can think of currently and then add to it
  • make sure that there is conflict that is supported by realistic character motivation
  • develop character arcs for the main characters, they have to change as the story develops
  • work on the theme through character development

I have read the book twice now and have taken 15 pages of handwritten notes that I turn to constantly. As it turns out a lot of that note taking was direct quotes from Weiland and I now find that they are a perfect supplement to this blog (not an initial plan at all) and the quotes will show up in the “Writer’s Quotes” section in the sidebar to the right.

If you can only afford one book this is the one you should buy. And while we are at it ignore or forget all the babble about outlining making the actual writing of the novel a dead and constricted process. This is NOT the essay outlining you may have been exposed to in school with main topics in upper case Roman numerals, then indented topics and sub topics and sub sub topics with first lower case Roman numerals, then the lower case alphabet and finally numbers. Instead it is a dynamic, creative, fascinating write yourself into insights and discoveries you never expected all interacting with each other and generating even more ideas.

Following Weiland’s approach the spectre of writer’s block is almost completely banished because your scene list provides the needed prompts and if one scene isn’t working you have lots of others to work on and then get back to that problem one. Of course there will be changes as you write, whole new scenes will emerge as well as unexpected characters or very different actions from the ones you planned. However you will be thoroughly grounded in your story world and your character’s lives and the novel has a much better chance of being published.

 

 

It all started when …

So there I was 65 years old, still actively farming which can consume all of your time if you let it, struggling with this story that just won’t leave me alone. I have written over the last year several fragments of the story, the one’s that just had to get down on paper and I wasn’t unhappy with it but I just couldn’t make the whole thing into a novel.

Having committed myself to write I realized that I had never really researched or investigated how professional novelists go about their business and there was my Kindle just waiting for more content from Amazon Whisper Net. For whatever reason I chose to first read KM Weiland’s Outlining Your Novel: Map Your Way to Success published in 2011 and at that point available for the Kindle reader. This was a crucial and important moment and I have not looked back since then. I have since picked up something on the order of a dozen writing books but Weiland’s is still the best book in my opinion for a writer wanting to get down to real work.

Her major contribution for me was the simple comment that her “outlining” phase could take several months of notes on ideas, characters, setting, back story etc. before she ever settled into the actual writing of the novel. This idea took root and spread in my brain like Canadian thistle, prickly ideas constantly springing up and written down in the first coil notebook. It is now more or less 4 months since I became serious about writing my novel and I have filled almost 2, 300 page coil notebooks with ideas, notes on writing, the social structure of my story world, the basic religious practices, the fictional history of my heroine’s ethnic group and those around her and a lot of historical notes about what was really happening in the world starting from 1000 BCE.

I am going to create a “Reviews” page that will contain formal reviews of books that I have worked through and that I think are worth buying. I will build that probably tomorrow morning since I have also decided that from 5-6:30 in the morning is my social media work time.

I started this project in late May and have now managed, as noted above, to really explore (without any need to control what I am writing, without any need to think about plot, or character development, or grammar for that matter) my story world and my characters. There is a separate notebook, the Character Bible, that is slowly filling with basic outlines of each character’s appearance, psychology, goals, wishes, dreams and weaknesses along with interviews with all the more important characters. The story that I initially wrote that I thought was the start of the novel turned out to be the “initiating event”, something that irrevocably commits the heroine to a course of action that she follows for the rest of the novel and occurs about a third of the way into the novel.

So that’s the start. Simply write every day for an hour or more about ideas that come. My first entry was about the religion since the Mother (who is God) has encouraged my heroine to re-establish the ancient faith of her people that has been drowned out and overcome by the patriarchal male Gods for whom dominance over women is one of the first tenants of faith.

OK, more about all of that later, be patient, you’ll get the one sentence elevator pitch in a day or two.