Tag Archives: 52 Week Writing Challenge

How to Write a Killer First Sentence

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How to Write a Killer First Sentence

You’ve probably heard that the first sentence of your book is the most important sentence. Your first sentence can persuade an agent or a publisher or a potential purchaser to keep reading, so it’s very important to craft that sentence with the utmost care.

Woman typing on laptop

With that in mind, let’s take a look at the first sentences from some of the books on my bookshelves:

  • “Dr. Kay Scarpetta moves the tiny glass vial close to candlelight, illuminating a maggot drifting in a poisonous bath of ethanol.” From Blow Fly by Patricia Cornwell

  • “The bottle was dropped overboard on a warm summer evening, a few hours before the rain began to fall.” From Message in a Bottle by Nicolas Sparks

  • “Altogether, it was ten years, easily ten, from the hot August morning when Beth put the envelope full of pictures into the drawer until the cold fall afternoon when she took them out and laid then one by one on her desk.” From The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard

  • “My sister Kwan believes she has yin eyes.” From The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

  • “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” From Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

  • “I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice—not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God; I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.” From A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

  • “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.” From To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

  • “What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died?” From Love Story by Erich Segal

  • “It happened every year, was almost a ritual.” From The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

  • “I’m pretty much fucked.” From The Martian by Andy Weir

  • “Life changes fast.” From The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (nonfiction)

These first sentences succeed because:

  1. They cause the reader to ask Why? Or How? Or What does that mean? Why is Dr. Scarpetta examining a maggot? How did Jem break his elbow? What are yin eyes?
  2. They hint at what will happen in the story, promise the questions will be answered.

Surprisingly, I had to open at least fifty books to find those eleven great openers. Some of my most favorite books’ opening sentences were meh.

first sentence

 

Fiction writers are told to begin in the midst of exciting action. Not one of the above examples does that, and yet the books were best sellers. And the books I didn’t quote included backstory in the first sentence, which writers are told to avoid; yet they were best sellers as well.

That’s good news, and also bad news.

The good news is that if people are familiar with your work and like it, they’ll buy your book even if the first sentence is boring.

The bad news is publishing has never been as competitive, expensive, and unprofitable as it is today. Publishers only want to acquire guaranteed moneymakers. And if you don’t already have an impressive sales record, convincing a publisher your book is a moneymaker has to happen with the very first sentence, with a subject and a predicate that will grab the reader and never let go throughout all the suspenseful plot twists until the satisfying surprise ending. In other words, if you’re not famous, your first sentence must be even better than some of the examples above.

No pressure.

So, how do you write that all-important compelling first sentence?

Easy. Write the whole book.

Most of us, when writing our first draft, start with the first sentence and go through to the end (if we’re lucky, or persistent). Don’t get bogged down with the first sentence on the first draft. Write the best one you can for the time being, but know it’s going to change.

During the subsequent drafts, you develop a better idea of what your true theme is. Your protagonist’s journey gets better-defined. All your characters grow more interesting. Your plot changes in ways you couldn’t predict. You cut some of the scenes you once thought were most necessary. You may even ditch the first few chapters.

In non-fiction, your plan may change from your original outline. Your research may open up whole new avenues to explore.

When you’re pretty sure your book has grown up and is close to its final form, go back and really examine that first sentence. Does it knock the reader off balance by introducing an element of mystery? Does it hint at your theme? Does it promise the reader a thrilling odyssey to your book’s destination?

The first sentence is the most important sentence of your book. Make it spectacular.

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Let There Be Light

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Let There Be Light

When I was in college, mood lighting consisted of a candle stuck in the mouth of a wine bottle. (Preferably a chianti bottle, the kind with straw tied around it, and covered in the the drips of many different colored melted candles. Check Pinterest if you can’t picture it, but you have to have a Pinterest account to be able to see this link.)

By the time I got married, one of the classiest gifts you could possibly give someone was a silver candelabra like this one:Silver

Whole aisles in supermarkets and department stores were devoted to tapered candle displays, featuring every imaginable length and color. Today, nary a taper is to be found, except in specialty stores. Today’s candles are pillars, votives, and tea lights.

I visited one of my favorite art sites, Etsy, to see what sort of candelabras are available, and most of them are described as vintage. (For purchasing information about the examples pictured, click on the links below the photographs. Click on small images to enlarge them.)

Left: Antique; Right: Art Nouveau

I love these two Mid-Century Modern ones. Left: Articulated; Right: 1960s

Left: Black filigree; Right: Black Dansk

Left: Wall branch; Right: Driftwood

Left: Wavy brass; Right: Brass trio

Left: Cherub twins; Right: Cherub double holder

Left: Chrome; Right: Glass

Flower

This one reminds me of Capodimonte ceramic flowers, so popular in the 70s and 80s.

Left: Weightlifter frog; Right: Tulips

Himalaya salt

My first impression was that these look like glazed donuts, but they’re actually made of Himalaya salt.

Left: Mercury glass; Right: Steel

Mexican

Beautiful Mexican tree of life.

Roccoco

Scary Rococo candelabra. Seeing this flashed me back to a super-baroque double vase my mother had. I haven’t thought about it in decades.

Left: Ornate; Right: Twisty

Left: White with onyx; Left: Wooden

Trees

Light in the forest. Look at the lovely shadow pictures it throws.

What about you–do you have any pretty (or ugly, or unusual) candleholders at home? Which is your favorite? Share with us in the comments below.

 

The Joy of Childhood Poetry

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The Joy of Childhood Poetry

One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading Mother Goose books to me. I know that even as a little tot I had a large repertoire of rhymes that I could recite by heart. In kindergarten we learned lots of songs that were essential nursery rhymes set to music: Jack and Jill, Baa Baa Black Sheep, Old King Cole, London Bridge is Falling Down, and many others. Mother Goose nursery rhymes were a passage of childhood for my generation, as they had been for hundreds of years.

mother gooseWhen our children were young, we continued the tradition, buying different collections of rhymes and reading them to the kids over and over so that they soon knew them by heart. There’s something about rhyme and meter that imbed themselves in the unconscious, and even more so if they’re combined with a tune. I think you could sing the first line of a Mother Goose rhyme to an Alzheimer’s patient, and he’d be able to finish it for you.

To my sorrow, I found during my second teaching career (2006-2014) that most of my elementary school students weren’t familiar with nursery rhymes. In elementary general music, many activities start with a well-known rhyme. Since my students didn’t have a shared knowledge base of rhymes, I had to teach them a rhyme first before we could use it as the basis of a music experience. Sigh.

Back in the day, memorization of poems was a popular classroom activity. Few teachers today are able to spend time on this pursuit, because it’s usually not measured on standardized tests.

However, I still partially remember four poems I learned from Mrs. Susan Westerfield when I was in second grade, more than fifty years ago. Since they are in the public domain, I will share them with you. (Please forgive the improper formatting. I am a dunce when it comes to code.)

SwingThe Swing
By Robert Louis Stevenson

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

Up in the air and over the wall,
Till I can see so wide,
Rivers and trees and cattle and all
Over the countryside—

Till I look down on the garden green,
Down on the roof so brown—
Up in the air I go flying again,
Up in the air and down!

ShadowMy Shadow
By Robert Louis Stevenson

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow-
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an errant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

Gingham by JeromeG111 CCLic

Photo by JeromeG111, used under Creative Commons License

The Duel
By Eugene Field

The gingham dog and the calico cat
Side by side on the table sat;
’Twas half-past twelve, and (what do you think!)
Nor one nor t’other had slept a wink!
The old Dutch clock and the Chinese plate
Appeared to know as sure as fate
There was going to be a terrible spat.
(I wasn’t there; I simply state
What was told to me by the Chinese plate!)

The gingham dog went “bow-wow-wow!”
And the calico cat replied “mee-ow!”
The air was littered, an hour or so,
With bits of gingham and calico,
While the old Dutch clock in the chimney-place
Up with its hands before its face,
For it always dreaded a family row!
(Now mind: I’m only telling you
What the old Dutch clock declares is true!)

The Chinese plate looked very blue,
And wailed, “Oh, dear! what shall we do!”
But the gingham dog and the calico cat
Wallowed this way and tumbled that,
Employing every tooth and claw
In the awfullest way you ever saw—
And, oh! how the gingham and calico flew!
(Don’t fancy I exaggerate!
I got my views from the Chinese plate!)

Next morning where the two had sat
They found no trace of the dog or cat;
And some folks think unto this day
That burglars stole the pair away!
But the truth about the cat and the pup
Is this: They ate each other up!
Now what do you really think of that!
(The old Dutch clock it told me so,
And that is how I came to know.)

Wynken by Crossett Library

Photo by Crossett Library

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod
By Eugene Field

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we,”
Said Wynken,
Blynken,
And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—
Never afeard are we!”
So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
Wynken,
Blynken,
And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam,—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home:
’Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ’twas a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea;
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
Wynken,
Blynken,
And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock on the misty sea
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three,—
Wynken,
Blynken,
And Nod.

I even remember drawing illustrations for Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.

What about you–did you learn nursery rhymes as a child? Did you memorize poems in elementary school? What are some of your favorites? Share with us in the comments below.

Experimenting with Poetic Forms

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Trying to get away from straight free verse to incorporate some structure into my poetry, I’m experimenting with acrostic, haiku, and etheree. Definitions of these terms can be found at one of my favorite online resources, Shadow Poetry.

writing-helloquence

Characterplay-stone-1744790_960_720

Courageous
Honorable
Authentic
Rare
Accountable
Conscientious
Trustworthy
Earnest
Recommendablecalendarpict3

 

Overscheduled

Multiple demands
Much to do, so little time
Passes in a blur

 

Center

Pointferris-center
In the
Middle of,
Equidistant
From every point on
The circumference or
Surface of a circle or
Sphere; or the primary site where
An activity or a business
Originated or is headquartered.

The last poem is in response to a Daily Post Daily Prompt.

How to Write Funny

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How to Write Funny

One of my goals for 2016 was to put humor into my writing. (Still working on that.) I asked my critique group if anyone knew a book on writing humor, and my friend Betty offered to lend me her copy of How to Write Funny, edited by John B. Kachuba.

Sticky notes and tabs stuck out of Betty’s book, passages on many pages were either underlined or highlighted, and the margins held scribbled notes. I began reading with a notebook and pen close by. After I’d read two pages, I already had a page of notes. I knew then I needed my own copy.

funnyToday, my book is heavily annotated, adorned with different colored stickies, and whole sections are starred for further review and reference.

How to Write Funny is a collection of twelve essays by different authors, some of whom I’m familiar with, and others I’d never heard of. Also included are fifteen interviews and a roundtable panel. Jennifer Crusie also contributed a comedy “workshop,” complete with exercises I’m planning to try.

To give you an idea of the scope of the book, here are some random quotes I underlined in my copy:

  • “The comic point of view is essentially that of the stranger or alien.” (David Bouchier)
  • “…people laugh at two things: surprise and misfortune.” (J. Kevin Wolfe)
  • “Exaggerating the literal truth, if it’s done well, shows us the emotional truth of a situation.” (Connie Willis)
  • “Humor observes, analyzes and comments on the human condition.” (Esther M. Friesner)
  • “…the day I walked the entire length of the English Department at Ohio State University with my skirt caught in my panty hose, wearing no underwear. And nobody I passed said a word.” (Jennifer Crusie)
  • “…column humor comes in only five forms: 1. The anecdote 2. The one-line joke 3. Overstatement 4. Understatement 5. Ironic truth” (Mel Helitzer)
  • “At its best, humor evokes humane laughter at the universality of worldly frailities.” (Patricia Case)
  • “You can probably skewer a politician or personal injury lawyer with abandon, but you should be gentle when mocking the common man.” (Dinty Moore)
  • “…imagine what’s in the cupboard of a serial killer.” (Lee K. Abbott)
  • “Jokes are poetry…a joke is always succinct.” (Sherman Alexie)
  • “…real humor has to come from the same place your passion, your fear and your obsessions come from: your parents.” (Tom Bodett)
  • “…people laugh when they have the shock of recognizing the familiar under an unexpected light.” (Andrei Codrescu)
  • “For me, humor can fail if it’s ‘mean,’ if [it] is vengeful or sexist or defensive.” (Denise Duhamel)

The authors of the segments mentioned some of the same humorists over and over: S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse, Calvin Trillin, and Erma Bombeck. I bought some books by each of these authors, and I found them dated and unfunny—even Bombeck, who delighted me in the 1970s and 80s. How to Write Funny came out in 2001. I guess 16 years is old in comedy years.

Nevertheless, I recommend this book for writers who wish they were funny.

What about you–do you use humor in your writing? Do you have any hints you’d like to share? Have you read this book?  Respond in the comments below.

Fairy Doors?

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Fairy Doors?

While looking through some old emails from Etsy.com, I saw a link for fairy doors. I didn’t even know they were a thing, but apparently they are. Researching them online, I discovered there’s even a website devoted to them. They were first found in Ann Arbor, Michigan, but then started popping up all over. Apparently, while you are doing home renovations, you might discover one (or more) in your home. And if you don’t have any, you can buy them. And you can install them inside your home, or out in your garden (or even on a pumpkin). Under each door is a link to the purchasing info.

fd-arched-castle

Castle.

fd-freeform

Freeform.

fd-celtic

Celtic.

fd-frozen

Frozen.

fd-pumpkin

Pumpkin.

Some of the doors open, some don’t; some can only be opened by fairies. Some are wood, some are resin. They range in price from $9.45 on up. (And if you just want the illusion of a fairy door, you can buy a decal instead.)

fd-garden-kit

Garden kit.

fd-goblin

Goblin.

fd-pink

Pink.

fd-seaside

Seaside.

fd-stone

Stone.

fd-heart

Heart.

fd-hobbit

Hobbit.

fd-tardis

Tardis.
fd-tree

Tree of life.

fd-leprechaun

Leprechaun.

fh-wings

Angel wings.

fh1

Front porch.

fd-welcome

Welcome.

fd-vine

Vine.

If you fairy door is mounted above a wide moulding, your fairy might need a ladder.

fd-ladder

And, of course, fairy door enthusiasts need matching jewelry.

Pendant. (Yes, the pendant doors open.) Bracelet.

So, were you aware of the fairy door phenomenon? Do you have one at your house? Share in the comments below.

For Bloggers: How to Post Every Day

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For Bloggers: How to Post Every Day

In 2016 I published at least one post on ARHtistic License every day.

I’m not bragging. I’m just saying it’s doable.

Is it necessary to post every day? No.

Then why do it?

  • Because I’d like to reward my loyal followers by giving them something new to see every time they show up.
  • Because meeting a daily deadline documents an established consistency.
  • Because posting everyday has made me a content-generating ninja.
  • Because I want my blog to stand out. (Most of the blogs I love and follow regularly—see “Blogs I recommend” in the right-hand sidebar—post new articles daily.)

Isn’t it time consuming? Yes, but you can learn to work efficiently.

blogging-15968_1280

Steps to daily posting:

  1. Determine the purpose of your blog. The innovators who invented the web log (blog is a contraction of those two words) in the early days of the internet conceived it as an online diary. However, bloggers soon realized that the medium has limitless potential. It can be used to transmit ideas, information, and opinions. It can also be used to sell stuff. In my case, I use ARHtistic License to connect with other creative people. Also, I’m hoping to establish a following of readers who enjoy my writing and might want to buy my future books.
  2. Kristin Gallant color-creative-ideas-design-illustration-brain-colorful-7c6fc3d21551e01f7804e2e675f2a63e-h

    design by Kristin Gallant

    Choose a theme. What is an area that interests you, that you wouldn’t mind working on to achieve a degree of expertise? Although you can post about anything you want, even if it doesn’t apply to the theme, having a focus will help “brand” your blog, and can attract the readers you’re hoping to reach. ARHtistic License’s theme is the arts and the creative process.

  3. Create an editorial calendar. Here is the first secret to daily posting: not every post needs to be a major undertaking. A post can be 10 words—or 2000. 500 words is a good length—quickly readable, and long enough to achieve some depth. Occasionally a topic might call for 1000 words, but online attention spans are short, so don’t make long posts a habit. That said, how many major posts a week do you want to write? For ARHtistic License, it’s two. That keeps me challenged, but leaves me a little bit of time to work on my book projects.

On other days, I post a photograph I’ve taken, or a quote, or a meme, or a video. Many other bloggers are happy to share their work as a guest post if you give them proper credit and include a link back to their site (check with them to make sure). If you can’t reach the author, most bloggers appreciate links to their work being included in your related posts, or in round-up articles.

Here is the editorial calendar for ARHtistic License:
Sunday—Weekly feature: From the Creator’s Heart (a scripture quote); also, a snippet of my work in progress for Weekend Writing Warriors.
Monday—Weekly feature: Monday Morning Wisdom (a quote, usually relating to the arts or the creative process)
Tuesday—my first major article of the week
Wordless Wednesday—a photograph
Thursday—Video of the Week; also, a guest post
Friday—Weekly feature: In the Meme Time (it used to be one I found on social media; now, I usually make my own); Weekly feature: Creative Juice, a round-up of interesting articles about the arts and creativity I found online
Saturday—my second major article of the week.

You know those calendars businesses or charities give you? Devote one to your blog. (If you don’t have one, buy one, or google printable calendars and print one.) Use it to keep track of what you’ve already written and scheduled for your blog. It will help you quickly see what you still need, and help you plan your writing time wisely.

typing-on-computer-deathtostoc

  1. Work ahead. This is the second secret to successfully posting every day. It takes a lot of pressure off you if you don’t have to come up with something for the next day. I try to work a month ahead. For example, I started this article on December 28, 2016.

And those little quickie features, like photos and memes and quotes—I create those posts as soon as I come across them, and schedule them for a future date (you can do that on WordPress; I don’t know about the other platforms). I also save links to articles I read online that I like, and then I use those for guest posts and round-up articles.

I actually already have some posts scheduled for every month in 2017…

So, you see, using these strategies, you really can post on your blog every day without losing your sanity.

What do you think? How often do you currently post? Are you satisfied with that frequency, or do you want to ramp it up a little? Share your thoughts in the comments below.