Tag Archives: writing

Challenge: Happy Stories in 3 Words

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A friend of mine challenged me to write a happy story in three words. This challenge snowballed.

  1. She said yes.
  2. It’s a girl!
  3. I graduated college!
  4. It is done.
  5. This is fun!
  6. Let’s go home.
  7. Come here, boy!
  8. Let’s do lunch.
  9. It is finished.

What happy stories can you write in three words? What’s the least cliché, happy story that you can write in three words? I’m curious: What stories do these three-word stories of mine evoke for you?

Highlight below to find out what I was imagining when I wrote these.

  1. A proposal is accepted, probably a marriage proposal or a request for a date.
  2. A baby is born.
  3. A relieved college student has graduated, just received the notification that she has passed all of her classes and will be allowed to graduate perhaps, or perhaps has walked and now has the ceremony and diploma to prove it.
  4. Someone has completed a long project.
  5. Something someone is doing is fun.
  6. Someone is finally going home.
  7. A pet is found.
  8. Someone’s either going to meet someone for lunch (a happy conclusion on its own) or is perhaps about to have an exciting business meeting.
  9. That’s the Christ story.
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Challenge: Legal Theft: The Creation of the Vatrin (292 words)

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Vofa looked down on the world that he had created, a world of green trees; gray rock; rich, dark earth; and red clay, where the gentle doe moved silently between branches, soft sheep grazed in fields, the wolf paused to sniff the air, and the dove flew bright as a sunray over all.

My world, Vofa thought, is wide. It will be good if I have some on this world who can carry my flame and aid those whose flame flickers and weakens in sickness.

Once more Vofa bent to the earth. From a mountain’s peak—this mountain’s peak—he scooped up a handful of stone. This stone he molded. He gave the creature nibble hands that he did not need to use to walk, leaving them always free to direct the fire as Vofa’s hands did. He gave him a sharp mind and a conscience bent towards compassion.

Into the other creatures, Vofa had sent a spark that burnt within the creatures as if on a wick, tethered to the creature and finite. In this, he thought, I will need more. He will need fire that he can siphon off to use to help others. His fire must be more than what is needed to sustain him alone.

He hollowed out the stone as he had with the others. This time he did not touch his finger to the wick and set alight the creature, but poured forth his fire into him, letting it fill up the empty spaces between the organs as water seeps between rocks in a jar. He left it to flow freely inside the creature like the creature’s blood. That firelight flickered in his newly opening eyes and exhaled on his breath.

The creature smiled at Vofa.

This has been a legal theft challenge issued by myself.  Legal theft has gone through a mutation.  The nature of challenge is no longer confined to a first line.  Last week’s (which one day I hope to catch up on and do) was to use two dogs.  This week I challenged my friends to write me a creation story (because I’d earlier threatened to do so, and I knew I had several in my back pocket that just had not been written).

My friends were good enough to accept that challenge.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Honey Wine and Sweet Iron” (442 words).

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Khaalida, The Necromancer.”

C.C. at Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers wrote “Reaper.”

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “It Started With A Wish.”

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Legends” (206 words).

Challenge: Legal Theft: For the Worst Days (519 words)

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Every woman in Evanston over the age of twelve owned a red dress. It was loose. It had sleeves that could be taken off. It was one of the most practical pieces of clothing that any woman owned.

And everyone older than twelve knew what it meant.

Priscilla had given Talya hers. She had shooed Darryn out of the house and had told Talya to sit. Talya had thought that she might be in trouble—or that Darryn might be—for the older woman, usually gentle, affectionate smiles, had looked unusually solemn.

Priscilla had handed the folded dress to Talya and explained what she could expect to happen to her—maybe not this year and maybe not the next, but she would feel it eventually.

When a girl wore the dress, the villagers treated her a little more gently. They realized that she was already working, sitting down or even lying down, even when she seemed to be lazing. She was working on something more painful, more precious than ordinary, everyday work.

Everyone, Priscilla had explained with a smile, sometimes put on the dress even when they were not bleeding. Everyone had days when they needed to be handled more gently, when life just seemed too hard, when they were hurting. The trick of it was not to put the dress on too often.

Talya had put on her dress the next day. It had fit her perfectly—perfectly for a red dress, hugging only her breasts and loose and breezy everywhere else. It had tickled the tops of her feet. Of course, Priscilla had made it, and Priscilla knew her size.

Mr. Crowe had started when he had seen her come down the ladder in the dress. He hadn’t barked at her to do any of her chores. She had worn it out into the village. The world had been a little kinder to her.  Amira had given her a roll so fresh from her ovens that the butter melted to yellow grease that dribbled down Talya’s chin. Gitta had swept her into a hug of hello. Garock had frowned at her but had said nothing.  Talya had grinned all day in the dress.

She had worn it again the next day.

And the next.

Priscilla had pulled her inside that day, shooing Darryn out again. She had reminded Talya that she couldn’t wear the dress all of the time. The dress was for her worst days, the days that were hardest, and that couldn’t be every day or the dress would stop feeling special, people would stop noticing when Talya wore it, or they would turn mean instead of kind because she wore it. Priscilla wished that every day the villagers were their gentlest. Some things would be easier then. But they were human. They were all human. And if Talya made every day her worst day, it would be hard for others to have their worst days too.

Talya had pouted. She loved the dress.

But she hadn’t worn it the next day. She hadn’t worn it again until the day that the blood showed.

The line this week is mine.  I’m not entirely pleased with the execution of this piece, but I am thoroughly tickled by its subject.

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Firelight Woes” (619 words).

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Crimson” (328 words).

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “But Mostly, They Danced.”

CC at Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers wrote “Stains.”

Challenge: Legal Theft: An Education (507 words)

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She had only heard gunshots at a distance. Sometimes an explosion echoing through a tranquil wood, a wild fire in a distant part of the forest, the question of life or death for sport. Sometimes a sound that might have been a shot or might have been a car backfiring or might have been a transformer blowing and shutting down power to a block that wasn’t hers, something that she had chosen to believe was anything but while the question lingered. Mostly she knew the sound of gunfire from films, depictions of violence after which actors stood up, unhurt, and walked away, blank rounds and a bit of gunpowder to make a light like a firework maybe if the era or the drama called for it.

What news footage she had been forced to witness by well-meaning teachers, she had suppressed or lost to the doldrums of busywork and summers where she didn’t have to learn.

What she knew of gun violence was not firsthand. She knew people who knew people but had never known anyone. She had seen what it had done to those who knew people. She knew enough about human experience from fiction and experience to know what it did to people who knew people, even before she knew people.

She remembered a day in middle school when too many lives had stopped and the world had tilted and flung weeping students into teachers’ arms and shook out flags, when breaths were short and quick, and tumult had come crashing down like airplanes out of the sky, like a set of buildings.

That day seared.

That day years later anytime could still be conjured in stark-shadowed Baroque and flashbulb image. Images and camera footage kept resurfacing on anniversaries and in unexpected places.

That day could still cause horror and anger—anger for the hurt caused, for the hurt that could be caused again by a simple illustration, a brief reminder, for the unthinking reminder.

Then another day. More questions. A lone gunman this time. A gunman in a school. A day that had to be gotten through when others’ days had been ended too soon. Every child a reminder, every parent and child another whiplash, a ghost of a similar embrace lost that day. A tiny town struck silent while a nation, while a world turned eyes that couldn’t yesterday have found it on a map, and a president who could pronounce names like Tehran and Kabul fumbled the name in a speech in a town he would never otherwise have visited.

Now a day. Two dead. One hurt. One running. Questions. Where? Here? A clip unloaded, a clip uploaded, a clip gone viral. Everywhere. CNN? BBC? Everyone talking. What will happen? What did happen? What have you heard? What do you know?

The schools locked down all over. Grief counselors coming into schools because of two people the students never met.

Students too young to understand, and all the parents’ talking. All the news channels showing.

Are they thinking?

What do they remember?

There is an oft quoted and misquoted and misattributed quote: “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”  (Quote Investigator attributes this quote to sportscaster Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith.)  This is one of those pieces.  It poured out of me after cutting a vein, and I’ve not edited it much sense spilling it onto the page.

And then I made it the legal theft line of the week, a tricky challenge.

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy used the line to write “Shots and Seconds” and made some interesting observations about gunshots.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Succeed” (877 words).

C.C. at Creatures, Critters and Crawlers wrote “Reunion.”

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Making a Name.”

And Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Robbery” (256 words).

Challenge: Legal Theft: Unasked (861 words)

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From a distance, no one would be able to tell that the towel tied over her skirt was not part of the dress. That was easy enough to smuggle to the creek. The soap cake she dropped in her pocket. It was too easy. The trickiest part would be getting down the ladder without loosing the towel from around her waist.

She was halfway down, one hand holding steady the knot that had indeed started to slip from the cotton, when Darryn announced himself with soft footfalls on the hard earthen floor. He spared no time on a greeting, but asked, “Is now a bad time?”

Internally, she cursed him using several of the colorful phrases she’d learnt in the fishing town of her childhood. She could tell him that it was a bad time, tell him to leave. He would do it. But if he ran into Mr. Crowe and Mr. Crowe asked after Talya, Darryn would tell him exactly where to find her—or where he thought Mr. Crowe would find her—in a bathtub that Mr. Crowe would quickly find empty. Darryn was a terrible liar, and Mr. Crowe was like a bloodhound. Asking Darryn to lie might be worse. She could tell him the truth, but he might worry that her actions were just illicit enough to get them both in trouble.

Any way she likely got in trouble.

She got down off the last rung and turned to face him. Truthfully, she said, “It is a bad time.”

The deities hadn’t been good to her, but she would have to hope that someone would watch out for her—just this once.

“I’m sneaking off,” she continued, “and I need you to as well before Mr. Crowe finds you. Before anyone finds you.  Don’t tell Priscilla where I’ve gone either. Don’t tell anyone.”

“You’re sneaking off,” he repeated, “with a towel?”

“Yes.” Her voice snapped more sharply than she’d have liked.

She liked Darryn. He found the good in people and in situations where Talya saw only bad, and he was unwaveringly loyal to those he liked best—Talya among them. He couldn’t lie, so he was honest even if he didn’t want to be, sometimes betraying secrets he hadn’t meant to betray, but always apologizing profusely if he did, so Talya always knew it was not willfully done. Usually he was easygoing, he was always eager to please, and he was not wont to complain—or if he did complain, it was because he sought to protect, because he saw dangers.

To soften the harshness of her bark, she explained, “I want a bath. But I don’t want to haul water, and Mr. Crowe’s forbidden me to use the raincatch water for anything other than drinking water for the animals till after the next rain.”

Darryn frowned. “So you’re going to creek.”

“And I’ll be careful. I’ll go to the forest’s edge.” In fact she planned to venture just beyond the first trees to keep from being spotted, but Darryn feared the woods and wouldn’t want to know that. “Any soap will be washed downstream and away from Evanston. No one needs to know.”

Talya waited while Darryn thought this over. She knew he wouldn’t like it. Technically it was a violation. No one was supposed to use soap in the creek. It had to be clean to drink—but she’d thought of that, found a way to keep her actions from hurting anyone else. Still Darryn wouldn’t want her in trouble—and she could still get in trouble. He would want to stop her, talk her out of it, but he would know that he couldn’t.

“I could come as your lookout. I’d keep my back turned.”

She would trust him to mean to do it too. Watching her, glimpsing her would be another form of violation. He wouldn’t mean to look, but something would startle him, and he’d turn, and somehow she didn’t want him to see.

To soften the refusal she smiled. “No.”

“Then,” he was clearly faltering, coming to the same conclusion she had done: that the best thing that he could do for her was keep out of sight himself until she was safely back.  “Then I’ll get the water for you.”

“What?”

“You don’t want to haul water, but,” he smiled, “I think the day’s been kinder to me.”  He pointed at her. Dirt, hay, and hair all clung to her sweaty skin and tangled in her mussed braid.

“I can’t ask you to—”

“You’re not asking.” He walked past her and into the storage area at the end of the barn aisle. He emerged with two buckets. Of course he knew where they were. “Find the tub,” he said coming back up the aisle. “Set it up wherever you like. I’ll fill the tub for you and be gone. Leave you to become a girl again or whatever’s hiding under that dirt.”

“Darryn Tvorec, you—” But though she knew many colorful phrases, she couldn’t bring herself to shatter him with the acerbity of any of them.

“You’re welcome,” he called as he headed out the barn doors.

This week, the line stolen was mine.

With it, Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “No Happy Hour Tonight.

Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master wrote “Sunrise Kiss” (545 words).

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “A Mom Solution” (259 words).

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad wrote “Theater Traditions.”

And welcome to the thieves’ ring C.C., who used the line to write “Not on My Watch,” which you can find on her blog, Creatures, Critters, and Crawlers.

Check back for more posts later.

Sitting Room Chat: With Author Karoline Barrett

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Karoline Barrett and I talk genre, being published, and getting published.

I am super excited to bring you the first of hopefully many sitting room chats!

I have been blessed with some talented friends, and it’s one of my dreams to have a bookshop where I can invite them to show off their wonderful works to the public. I haven’t got a bookshop yet, but it occurs to me that I have a blog that can stand for now as the sitting room for my salon, inviting in a larger audience than any sitting room that I could ever want to have to tidy or clean.

I know a lot of my readers are aspiring writers. Today, these questions are for you as much as they are for me and for my first guest, who I hope will be kind and patient with us as we hope to learn from her experience.

Today, I’m introducing Karoline Barrett. With a book out already, her second book—the first in her Bread and Batter series—is due in November.

Let’s start with the question that I know I most hate being asked. Pitch me your books. What are you writing? What are they about?

Thank you so much for inviting me to be on your blog, Kathryn! Right now, I’m writing book three (as of now unnamed) of my Bread and Batter cozy mystery series.

I came to write cozy mysteries at the suggestion of my agent. I was floundering around, trying to figure out what to write next, when she asked me what I like to read. I replied, “Mysteries!”  She suggested I write a cozy mystery.  I immediately began what is now named Bun For Your Life. I have to say it’s been a lot of fun, from getting to know my characters, to deciding where to place my series, to all the research.

Maybe I should explain a few things about a cozy mystery.  I’ve come across a lot of people who have no idea what that term even means.  Think Murder She Wrote. Cozies usually feature a female amateur sleuth who lives in a small town. Most of the plot takes place after the murder.  There is no profanity, bloody gore, or explicit sex.  There often is, however, a lot of humor, of which I am a big fan. And lots of interesting plot twists and turns!

My series centers around Molly Tyler, who along with one of her best friends, Olivia Williams, owns Bread and Batter Bakery in the small fictional upstate New York town of Destiny. Bun For Your Life centers on the death of local orchard owner, Calista Danforth. Strangled to death with a Bread and Batter t-shirt, Molly is named a prime suspect. Now Molly and Olivia must whip some answers quickly before the future of their bakery crumbles.  It’s due out November 2015 by Berkley.

Wow. You foresaw a lot of the questions that I’d had for you. I’ve heard the term “cozy mystery” thrown around, but I’ve never known what characterized the genre, so thank you for your description. You say that you weren’t sure what to write next. Was your first book a cozy mystery as well or were you working in another genre? Did your first book help you find your agent? Or did you have an agent before getting your first book published?

18515738My first book was The Art of Being Rebekkah and is women’s fiction. Yes, it did get me my agent; however, when she was unable to sell it, she formed her own publishing company (E-Lit Books) and published my book as well as others!

That’s fabulous. It must be fantastic to have an agent willing to go to such lengths to get you published. Does the “E-“ in E-Lit mean that her books are (and by extension your book, The Art of Being Rebekkah, is) currently available only in e-format?

I know a bunch of us are dying to know, how did you find such a dedicated agent? Did she also help you get your contract with Berkley for the Bread and Batter series or did you query Berkley on your own?

And too…“women’s fiction” is another of those genre titles that I’ve heard bandied about but for which I’ve never had a definition. What would you as a writer in the genre say characterizes women’s fiction?

My questions are coming hard and fast now, and I apologize for that, but you have answers to a lot of questions that I’ve wanted to ask. I hope you don’t mind terribly.

The Art of Being Rebekkah is available both in e-book and “regular” book form from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and you can also order it through Indie bookstores.

Finding an agent was a long process!  I had already queried 120 agents when I found her. “Her” being Frances (Fran) Black of the Literary Counsel. And yes, she is very dedicated to her authors. She is always very encouraging and inspirational!

Yes, Fran did get me my two-book cozy mystery book deal with Berkley. I’m working on book three of the series, so I hope everyone loves the first two, and Berkley asks for more!

Women’s fiction to me means books that focus on a woman’s life journey. The books are primarily written for women, although I’ve had two or three men read The Art of Being Rebekkah.

120 queries shows a lot of dedication on your part. What advice do you have for writers beginning the quest for publication? How did you keep from becoming discouraged? Are there any resources that you found particularly helpful as you were starting out and looking to get published—or do you have favorite resources that you use now as you’re writing?

My advice to writers beginning the quest for publication is polish your work and don’t give up. Rejections are a part of being a writer, but don’t give up after one or two rejections. I started out writing short stories. I kept submitting them until they all found a home. Make sure you submit to the right publisher, or agent, for your work. If you have a young adult novel, don’t submit it to an agent who is looking for historical romance. Make sure you follow the submission instructions perfectly—it could mean the difference between “Hey, we love your work and we want to publish it” and “Wow, this person can’t follow directions.”

Feeling discouraged is also part of being a writer. The trick is not to stay discouraged! Sometimes, that means working on another writing project, or taking a day for yourself to unwind. Study other writers and their voice. What do you like about their writing? What makes it shine? Write something that is totally out of your comfort zone. I tried poetry for a while. It wasn’t bad, actually.

My biggest resource when I was starting out were the two courses I took from Long Ridge Writers Group. It’s a school in Connecticut, but you take the courses from home. I did their Breaking Into Print Course and their Novel Writing Course. They were both awesome and I learned so much. There are also tons of agent and writing websites out there that are immensely helpful. Right now, I keep it simple. I write in Word. Sometimes I outline, sometimes not.   

I didn’t realize that you’d published short stories before your first novel. Where can we find those? How long have you been writing? How did you find the writing and publication process for short stories and novels similar or dissimilar?

I started writing around 2001 (I think!!). I started with short stories then went on to novel writing. Here are a couple of my short stories if you’d like to share:

“Aunt Felicity and James Dean”

“Life Running By”

I find novel writing completely different than short story writing. I much prefer the novel writing experience. It gives you a bigger canvass to paint on. There is much more character development, more sense of time and place, and the reader is more invested in your characters.

How did you come to writing? What were you doing before? What was the worst job you had to do prior to finding your writing career? (This last question I’m borrowing from Writer’s Digest’s interview with Patrick Rothfuss because I found it really reassuring to hear that even a really successful writer had first to work an uncomfortable job.)

I’ve always been an avid reader and writing comes naturally to me. One day, I got a card in the mail for a class at Long Ridge Writing Group and the rest is history!

I actually don’t have a “before” my writing career. I am not making (yet!) enough money to stop working full-time yet, so I sadly cannot call writing my career. Someday, hopefully! My day job is being a pension administrator. I’ve been doing that for thirteen years now. Math is not my favorite thing, so don’t ask me how I fell into that! I don’t really have a “worse” job. My working history goes back to 1978, so I won’t bore your readers with all of that…

I think that’s one of the myths that get perpetuated among aspiring writers: “If only I can get this novel published then everything will be okay. I can quit that job I don’t like, and I won’t have to worry again about paying rent.” I’m hopeful—I think many of us are hopeful—that that’s how writing a book ends. Were you expecting that to be the case?

Now, you have an agent, do you also have an editor or do you handle all the edits yourself? How do you personally know when a piece is ready for publication?

When my first book was published – The Art of Being Rebekkah – I wasn’t sure what to expect. I did a lot of book signings and blog tours, but the sales haven’t been enough to let me quit my day job, unfortunately.  I hope my Bread and Batter series will do much better. For that series, I do have an editor at Berkley. I should be getting edits back for Bun For Your Life from her soon. I can’t exactly explain how I know when a piece is ready for publication.  For me, it’s instinct. Often, I write the ending while the story is still in the middle stages!

And I think I have just one more question for you: You’re on several social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads, besides having your own website and blog. Several agents I’ve found want to know upfront what promotion you can do on your own for a potential book. Which sites have you found most helpful in promoting your books and why?

My favorite social media is Twitter because it’s short and concise. For my first book, I used Facebook and Twitter for promotion and did a few guest blogs and virtual book tours. Hoping to do the same for my mystery series.

Karoline, thank you so much for joining me! Thank you for answering so many questions for me.  And thank you especially for agreeing to be the first of my interviewees.

Readers, I hope this has been helpful for you all too. Support Karoline by following her on one or more of her many social media sites and hear more about her writer’s journey. Buy a book. Tell your friends.

We’ll do this again. I hope.

Challenge: Legal Theft: Accommodation (288 words)

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PG-13!  Potential TRIGGER WARNING for survivors of sexual assault.

They gave her a suite of rooms, all her own, large, elegantly furnished, and with a guard stationed outside the door. The guard was a woman, and she never came in. Justus only came in after knocking and asking for her permission. Most of the time she was alone.

She spent most of the time in just a corner of the suite. The bed alone was nearly as large as the whole of the van. Walking to the room where she was expected to tend to necessities seemed a formidable trek. She tried to remember the layout of her home and couldn’t. She suspected that these rooms were at least as large—and she knew that they were nicer, richer, stronger.

They were safe rooms.

But she still didn’t feel safe.

Justus came, and he tried to wheedle her into conversation. He brought her books. She had learnt to read before she had left home. Or learnt to read a little. The books he brought were full of strange words that she didn’t understand, and she read more slowly than he seemed to expect. He’d ask her opinion about the ending when she was hardly a quarter of the way through the story.

He never touched her. He had promised that he would not. He had promised that no one would. But she kept waiting for him to. She waited for him to force his lips to hers and suck her dry. She waited for him to force himself between her legs and leave her wet. He never did. After days of this, she wondered if he even wanted to. Was it possible she had been found by someone who did not? Did he like her so little?

I’m teetering on the edge of apologizing for exposing this character’s pain and subsequent confusion.  She hurts.  She’s hurt for a long time.  I do not find her to be emotionally healthy, but I love her to her core.

I stole this line from Gwen at Apprentice, Never Master, who wrote “Black Sun” (1697 words).  It’s late, but she knows why.  I wrote this section of the story in time for at least Sunday.  I had every intention of returning to it to make it into more of a story, but I seem to have misplaced this thread and my motivation, and I promised to update by midnight tonight.  Perhaps later there will be a Part 2.

Kate Kearney at More Than 1/2 Mad stole this line to write “The Right Fit.”

Trebez at Machete Diplomacy wrote “Protection.”

Bek at Yeah. But So What? Everybody’s Weird wrote “Big Secret” (450 words).

First Lines: A Study: Part 2: The Most Memorable Lines

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Well, I did that first study, and I thought to myself, These books may merit five stars, but some of these first lines do not, so it seems only fair to remedy this with a post of five-star first lines.

I’ve decided to exclude from this study any first lines from texts meant to be experienced orally because those are intended to be memorized, seeming to give them an advantage over those meant to be read in print.

Excluding those mediums, five first lines of fiction I have memorized or all but memorized. These seemed to merit highlighting here. If I of doubtful memory can retain a first line verbatim or even near verbatim, the author has probably struck some heartstring. It is possible though that these books have the advantage of being among some of my favorites and of having been reread. I have read every book the first line of which is on this list at least twice.

This makes me suspect that this study is less objective than I usually hope that I am with book reviews or as I was able to be when my lines came from the merit of the books as a whole. I went through my shelves and read and rated first lines of each book that I’d read and that I owned. There were some certainly that deserved honorable mention, but I could not rate them as highly as those that I had memorized; they just did not have the same pull upon me.

My roommate, Eileen, owns a mug from the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild of “Great Literary Openings.” These will be on my mug:

This line introduces a character and begs a question, creating a hook.

The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C. S. Lewis.

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

What awful things has the character Eustace Clarence Scrubb done to deserve such a name? Read on to find out, or put down the book and never know. Talk about a hook. We’re also introduced to our opinionated narrator. A narrator’s voice isn’t discussed enough in creative writing classes.

This hook introduces characters and hints at setting.

The Dark Is Rising Sequence, Book 2: The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper.

“ ‘Too many!’ James shouted, and slammed the door behind him.”

I’m hoping that the unnecessary comma here is merely the symptom of the post-publication editing that occurred to compile all five books together for my edition of the sequence. (It’s also possible that in 1973 when this text was first published, this was still an acceptable comma.) Grammar aside, this line leaps the reader into a conversation between the speaker and another character, sets us near a building, and begs the reader to question as Will does in the next line, too many “What?” That question will lead the reader into the conversation, and the conversation into the relationships between the characters, and through the relationships, into the stakes of the novel.

This one gives us characters and setting, but we’re told a lot with just a little. Specificity can be helpful.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J. K. Rowling.

“Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

We are introduced to married characters, the Dursleys, male and female. We sense the sort of stuck up, feather-ruffled personalities that accompany the Dursleys’ normality from the “thank you very much” and from the “proud,” maybe even from “perfectly.” We are further dropped into a setting: number four, Privet Drive. We are not told where (yet) to find Privet Drive, but we can make some guesses as to the sort of neighborhood where we might be. Privet is a type of hedge used often to create boundaries between neighbors and—as its name may suggest—to create privacy screens. Number four has neither a whimsical or a grand and an ancient name associated with it, but does have a standalone address (not an apartment number), giving us both a notion of the Dursleys’ middling status and their displeasure for whimsy. Another clue to the middle class status is that they are not ashamed to own the address. The “thank you very much” is a brief dip into second person that helps to draw the reader in. The reader herself has offended the Dursleys by suggesting that they might be anything other than normal or suggesting that they would wish to be anything but normal.

This one is a promise of future action and drama, gives us genre, and hints at least at setting.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 5: The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan.

“The end of the world started when a pegasus landed on the hood of my car.”

This sentence forecasts an exciting, climactic event that promises us adventure and gives us reason to tolerate the backstory that opens the story. Riordan’s works are always fast-paced adventure, and by his fifth book, I think he knew that his readers expected and wanted that fast pace. He was able to more gently ease himself into the action, spending a little more time on relationships between the characters, by appeasing us with this promise. This model should be used with care. One can give away too much of one’s story in a promise. This being the last book, the series having been building towards an epic battle, we knew to expect apocalypse, or at least the possibility of an apocalypse. Later books in The Heroes of Olympus series use similarly modeled sentences (“Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day” (Book 1: The Lost Hero)) to forecast the first conflict of the novel, usually a struggle that happens within the chapter and even within pages of the first line. Some forecast an event that happens within paragraphs. This one from Book 4: The House of Hades drops us right into the action by citing the “third attack”: “During the third attack, Hazel almost ate a boulder.” Breaking the line from The Last Olympian down farther, the “car” puts us in a modern setting (20th century or later). “Car” further is the American word, “auto” being the British. “Pegasus” lets us know that this is a fantasy novel. In modern fantasy, the pegasus as a magical creature has become more pervasive, but it has its origins in Western and specifically Greek mythology. This series of course happens to be about Greek mythology specifically, but I would hesitate from the isolated line, at this point in literary history, to suggest that that might be the case. Putting both “car” and “pegasus” together tells us this is low fantasy, fantasy set in our world.

This also may be a promise, but more certainly is a “universal” statement that refuses to be denied.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Comma usage was different in Austen’s day, I think, marking a breath instead of following a rigid set of rules. In some ways, this famous first line also forecasts later events: We are promised that at some point this will become the story of a man wanting a wife. I say this, of course, with over 100 years of 20/20 hindsight. We all know now that this novel is about the romance of Elizabeth and Darcy, and so when I say that we are promised a man of good fortune seeking his wife, it may be that I just know this as certainly as I know the novel from which this first line comes. The line itself however, more objectively, accepts no challengers. Let’s talk about the narrator’s voice here. We are forbidden from denying the truth of her statement about men. There is strength in these words.

Honorable Mentions

Having reread with a mind towards this study all the first lines of the books that I own and have read, these in particular stuck with me, even though I don’t have them memorized:

This line gives us a character, makes us sympathetic towards her, and gives us setting.

A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama by Laura Amy Schlitz.

“On the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic.’”

A promise of what’s to come, a character with a full name, a setting (an American outhouse), and an attitude of defiance that I think likely to make most readers sympathetic to Maud immediately—as if being locked in an outhouse were not enough to do so. Still, the singing transforms my sympathy from “Poor Maud” to “Rock on, Maud!” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” is an American song, more widely known now, I’m sure, but it hints at an American setting, and tells us that we are post-1800. The chorus as we know it developed around 1850 and the lyrics as they are best known in 1862. It is a markedly Christian song. Look at all that detail!

This line is sneaky second person, a hook, and humor.

Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers by Grant Naylor.

“‘DESCRIBE, USING DIAGRAMS WHERE APPROPRIATE, THE EXACT CIRCUMSTANCES LEADING TO YOUR DEATH.’”

This is a sneaky, sneaky use of the second person to capture the reader, because you find out shortly after that this first line comes from a pamphlet being read by a third person character. Readers are of course encouraged to ask what were the circumstances of this death. There’s an element of dark humor here too in the exam question that pertains to “my” death. And one wonders how it is possible to answer questions pertaining to one’s own death.

This line gives us character, setting, and the character’s physical state—and makes use of poetic technique besides. (This last book I haven’t actually read, but it is among the books that I’ve bought based on their first few pages (I am one of the readers that cause editors to suggest a first five pages hook). I have recommended this book, this series, and this author almost solely on the strength of this line and its following first few pages.)

Beyonders, Book 1: A World Without Heroes by Brandon Mull.

“The prince dangled in the darkness, shoulders aching, ancient manacles digging into his wrists as he tried to sleep.”

The poetry! The alliteration! The pain. So there’s a character, a prince—a male from a monarchal society and the highest socioeconomic class then—who is chained in darkness (presumably in a dungeon—presumably in an ancient dungeon if the manacles within it are ancient, so there’s our setting), trying to sleep, so maybe it’s night, or maybe he has nothing else to do, or maybe he’s exhausted from previous acts. We also get the character’s physical state: in pain, aching, possibly exhausted. Then of course the question, why is this man in the dungeon? Who’s holding him?

From this study we might actually be able to draw some conclusions: The best lines are ones that multitask. A line like “Elizabeth was a beautiful princess” or “It was night again,” while succinct enough to be memorized are not of the type that one feels compelled to memorize. Many of these memorable first lines include a hook: either a question posed or drama promised. Several of them use second person cues to help to draw in the reader, but I’m not sure that I would recommend this; such use of the second person has always seemed a bit of a cheat to me, much like using first person; I like a challenge. Many of these too include memorable details, and it’s probably those details that make anchors in my memory, helping me to recall the line later.

There are, of course, no real rules. What works on me won’t necessarily work on all readers, as perhaps is proved by the fact there is only one line that overlaps between my survey and the Unemployed Philosopher’s Guild’s. The previous study proves too that the best books do not necessarily have the best first lines.

Still here are some examples to consider when trying to craft the best sentence, wherever it might appear in whatever you’re working on.

What first lines do you have memorized?

First Lines: A Study: Part 1: The Five-Star Books

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Gwen and Neekers recently posted on Apprentice, Never Master a challenge where each tried to guess a book from its first line alone. I was intrigued by this challenge and inspired to study the first lines of my favorites. Only “favorite” is not very quantifiable, so in the interest of science, I am naming my favorites only those that have received a five-star rating on this blog—though there are others that are favorites even while I recognize that they do not objectively deserve five stars. I think it best to exclude primers because of the nature of their text. The books in this study must have a first line that is in fact a complete sentence. To narrow the list further I’ve just grabbed the titles from 2014.

Some lines establish setting:

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury.

“First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”

The time of year is established in this sentence. It’s possible to guess that we are on Earth, in a culture that uses the Julian calendar.

The Kingkiller Chronicles, Book 1: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.

“It was night again.”

Rothfuss, man, you’ve let me down. “I demand poetry, and when I want it, and I want it now” (A Knight’s Tale). I suppose this line does establish the time of day.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Book 1: Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede.

“Linderwall was a large kingdom, just east of the Mountains of Morning, where philosophers were highly respected and the number five was fashionable.”

This first sentence begins to draw a map. We are in Linderwall. It is a kingdom, so a monarchal government and probably a patriarchal society, though sadly, I think most of us would be a touch confused if a writer chose to establish a “queendom.” Word’s dictionary does not even recognize “queendom.” So either this is a patriarchal society or we as readers are limited by our patriarchal language. Linderwall is large as kingdoms go. It has mountains to its east. Does the sun rise in the east over Linderwall? Is this why the mountains are called Morning? Learning and wisdom and particularly those who question conventions are valued in Linderwall. The number five is fashionable. We do not know why. In fact, I’d not noticed this tidbit before and now want to reread the series looking for instances of “five.” Of these three examples, this sentence probably works hardest.

Some lines introduce a character:

The Paper Bag Princess by Robert N. Munsch.

“Elizabeth was a beautiful princess.”

Elizabeth is female, a princess, and beautiful. We’re given a character, her name, her title, her status, and a little bit about her physical appearance, though most of that is left to our imagination. She is from a monarchal country, and of the royal line. We can assume something of her family and upbringing, though we might later be corrected about our notions.

Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton.

“Bon Agornin writhed on his deathbed, his wings beating as if he would fly to his new life in his old body.”

A male character, Bon Agornin, is dying, probably in pain, and he has wings! So again, a character, a name, a little bit of a physical description, and now too the character’s present health (or lack thereof).

This is dialogue (and in fact the book contains nothing but dialogue), and so establishes the existence of two characters, but tells us very little about either. (For the purposes of this study, pretend there are no illustrations.)

Waiting is Not Easy: An Elephant and Piggie Book by Mo Willems.

“GERALD!”

Here is the speaker and Gerald, presumably male because of the history of the name Gerald.

Some pull double-duty. This one establishes a character and a setting:

The Kiss That Missed by David Melling.

“Once upon a Tuesday, the king was in a hurry as usual.”

We are in another monarchal society. This time the king is the acting character. He is in a hurry. This is a usual occurrence for him, so we can reason that either he keeps a busy schedule or is perpetually late or both—or he may just be one of those people who always hurries, never stopping to enjoy life. It is Tuesday, so we also get a day of the week, and again, the impression of a Julian calendar. There’s also an echo of the fairy tale opening “once upon a time” that hints at genre.

This one opens on an event, but also introduces a character:

Penguin and Pinecone by Salina Yoon.

“One day, Penguin found a curious object.”

The character, Penguin, finds… something. That something piques his curiosity.

The second person narrator is weird. She speaks directly to the audience.

Wherever You Are My Love Will Find You by Nancy Tillman.

“I wanted you more than you will ever know, so I sent love to follow wherever you go.”

This sentence, though, establishes the narrator’s feeling towards the audience, and then personifies love giving it mobility beyond its usual ability. There may then be a touch of magical realism to this story. Also it rhymes, and in the book is printed:

            “I wanted you more

            than you will ever know,

            so I sent love to follow

            wherever you go.”

My sample here is really too small to draw any conclusions, but we have done a short survey of some of the openings that authors employ, and let us content ourselves with pondering on that.

Thoughts? What’re some of the opening lines of your favorite books? Share in comments below! I’d be interested.