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The Importance of Reading Ernest

I tried reading Hemingway when I was in high school. It was a forgettable experience. But after I read The Paris Wife, the novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage, I became intrigued and somewhat obsessed with the Hemingway legacy. I have an endearing habit (I think it’s endearing; my family has other words for it) of becoming obsessed by details of things that interest me. So, I spent much of my free time learning about Hemingway, sharing the fascinating information with anyone who happened to be in the room with me. I was often alone in those days.

I decide to give him another chance and read his first novel, The Sun Also Rises. After all,  Ernest was a big gun. He literally changed the soul of writing. What better ammo to put in my writing arsenal? And in all honesty, I had some tabloidish curiosity. The characters were thinly veiled snarky sketches of his real life friends (ex-friends would be more accurate) that appeared in The Paris Wife. 

I bought the book, eager to read this minimalist style I kept hearing about– the lean, taut prose of Hemingway. On the very first page, (It wasn’t even an entire page. It began 2/3 of the way down) I encountered these words: painfully, thoroughly (twice no less), really very, promptly, permanently, certainly.

EIGHT adverbs. What’s up with that? Weren’t adverbs those awful beasts that pave the road to hell? Wasn’t Hemingway himself the icon of  lean, kill-the-adverbs prose?

I read on, a deep furrow between my brows. After a few pages, I had the feeling that I’d read this type of writing before. Then it hit me. It sounded like something my thirteen-year-old had written. And the shallow characters bewildered me. I was confused and disappointed. Lest you think I’m also arrogant, let me say that I knew the problem was with me. I tried dissecting each sentence, phrase and word to better understand it. My confusion only got worse.

The Muses for The Sun Also Rises.

My brother, a huge Hemingway fan, had come for visit and noticed the book right away, drawn to it by invisible tentacles. He picked it up while telling me how brilliant it was, then he made the mistake of asking how I liked it.

“I don’t,” I whined. “He uses ‘then’ and ‘and’ way too much and he’s so wordy. Blah, blah blah. Where’s all that lean prose?”

My brother put on his patient, let-me-explain-this-in-a-way-you’ll-be-able-to-understand face. “Before Hemingway, prose was very wordy, descriptive and long. You need to be familiar with what came before so you can see the differences.”

The dim light bulb went off somewhere in my head. “And after Hemingway, writers imitated his style. That’s why it sounds so ordinary to me.”

My brother nodded, already immersed in the book.

“But what about the adverbs and the ‘thens‘ and ‘and’s?” I was slightly less whiny.

In  scary unison, my brother and oldest daughter pointed out that I was over-analyzing it. “Just read it and enjoy it.”

My daughter was compelled to continue because she loved analyzing me. “You have this bad habit of over-analyzing everything. Remember when we watched The Prestige and Inception? You ruined them for yourself.”

So, I confiscated the book from my brother and started over—just reading it and not paying attention to mechanics like adverbs or length. That made all the difference. Without all my hang ups peering over my shoulder, I really enjoyed the book. Funny how brilliance is more obvious when you’re not looking for it. I even found myself imitating it, saying things like, “I rather like that song,” or “Oh, rather.” instead of plain “Yes.” My family stayed out of my way until that fad wore itself out.

This is a revised post from August 2011.

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The Pen Is Mightier Than the PC

I enjoy writing longhand. Let me qualify that. I enjoy writing longhand if I have my favorite pen and the perfect notebook. Few things are worse than writing with a pen that doesn’t flow with my hand. And the quest for the perfect notebook results in a time consuming trip to the local Target or office supply store. I’m never sure what kind of notebook I’m looking for, but it’s like love at first sight, I know it when I see it. I once dropped twenty bucks on a Moleskine because I had the brilliant notion that a quality notebook would inspire quality writing. It didn’t.

A touch of weird writer OCD going on here?  You bet. But I’m not alone. These guys have it too:

Amy Tan, Neil Gaiman, Tom Wolfe, Jhumpa Lahiri, Joyce Carol Oates, John le Carré and J.K.  Rowling.

JK Rowling

They write at least some portion of their work longhand, eschewing keyboards, delete buttons, and copy/paste clicking for ink pens and paper. There is something about writing longhand that fosters creativity and bashes the dreaded writer’s block.

Many studies link movement, especially hand movement, to increased problem solving. It also creates new ideas and stimulates the imagination. (Sorry, wrist movement over a keyboard doesn’t quite do it.) But for a writer, there is more to the muse of longhand than firing up neurotransmitters.

Sublimely Sensual: The Writer’s Tools

Chris Hilton says some writers prefer longhand over electronic technology because “…they feel there is an intangible relationship between mind, hand, implement and creation.”

J.K. RowlingFor some reason, I prefer a black pen to a blue one, and in a perfect world I’d always use narrow feint writing paper.

Neil GaimanI’m writing my novel with two different fountain pens (a Lamy 2000, and a regular Lamy) filled with two different coloured inks (a greenish one and a reddish one), and I’m alternating pens each day….

Quentin TarantinoMy ritual is, I never use a typewriter or computer. I just write it all by hand. It’s a ceremony. I go to a stationary store and buy a notebook – and I don’t buy like ten. I just buy one and then fill it up. Then I buy a bunch of red felt pens and a bunch of black ones, and I’m like, ‘These are the pens I’m going to write Grindhouse with.

John SteinbeckFor years I have looked for the perfect pencil. I have found very good ones but never the perfect one. And all the time it was never the pencils, but me.

The famous Blackwings of John Steinbeck: Courtesy of Pencils.com

The famous Blackwings of John Steinbeck: Courtesy of Pencils.com

The Pace

Writing in longhand is obviously more time consuming than typing. The slower pace of writing by hand gives us time to contemplate and consider before we commit anything to the page. There are advantages to this. Many times, the scenes I’ve written in a notebook need less revising than usual first drafts. If they do need revising, those revisions flow easily as I type what I’ve handwritten into an electronic file. But again, there’s more to it than mechanics. Lee Rourke sums it up perfectly (he was probably writing longhand) when he says, “For me, writing longhand is an utterly personal task where the outer world is closed off, just my thoughts and the movement of my hand across the page to keep me company. The whole process keeps me in touch with the craft of writing.” Exactly!

I have lost the sense of rush with which I started, and that is exactly what I intended to do.
Steinbeck on writing longhand

The next time inspiration eludes you, power off the electronics and take out a notebook and pen. Then get out of the way while your brain tells your hand what to write. You may be pleasantly surprised. As for me, I’m off to check out Rhodia notebooks. That name comes up often among the longhand big hitters. Could be that they’re the perfect notebook.

Sources:
Gavin Zanker 
Mike Shea 
Psychology Today 

8 Comments

Chicago Style: I’m Not Talking Pizza.

 

Wrong Chicago style.

Not this Chicago style.

I was a comma neurotic.

neu·rot·ic : often or always fearful or worried about something : tending to worry in a way that is not healthy or reasonable. Merriam-Webster.

Comma rules eluded me. If I couldn’t manage to remember a handful of them, how would I ever memorize the entire comma canon? I wondered if this lack of comma knowledge would affect my writing professionally, as in with potential agents and editors. “Don’t worry about it,” a friend reassured me. “Publishers have editors to do that for you.” I breathed a sigh of relief and went on my merry way.

But I soon learned that, although grammatical perfection is not required in submissions to agents and editors, near perfection should be the goal. Melissa Donovan sums it up perfectly in her post, “10 Reasons Why Writers Should Learn Good Grammar”:

How will you get that short story, essay, or blog post published if you don’t know the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Sure, some managing editors will go over your work and clean it up for you, but most reputable publishers have enough submissions that they can toss grammatically weak work into the trash without thinking twice. Writing Forward

And Kate S. has a logical answer to the question “Do you have to be good at grammar to get published?”:

The problem is that there are so many people out there trying to get published who ARE good at grammar. If an editor is looking at your MS and at an MS with an equally good story, characterization, writing style, etc., but with better grammar, the editor is going to chose the story with better grammar. Stack Exchange

At least I didn’t need to memorize the comma rules. They were all over the place. I could use the Gregg Reference manual that I’d picked up years ago, or I could Google how to use commas.

There came a point when I began to suspect that I was not, in fact, comma deficient. My memory wasn’t the problem (so much). The problem was that comma rules varied depending on the source, and there were many sources.

If that wasn’t confusing enough, writer friends began dropping words like Oxford comma, AP, and Chicago style. A one-time journalist turned fiction writer was always disparaging one of them, but I could never remember which one. Then to add to the chaos, my daughter’s college courses required her to use the MLA (Modern Language Association) style. Exactly how many styles were there? And which was correct? It was enough to give me nightmares.

The_Chicago_Manual_of_Style_16th_edition

 

To prevent others in my situation from having nightmares, here are the three most common style guides and what type of writing they’re used for:

  • MLA (Modern Language Association) style is most commonly used to write papers and cite sources within the liberal arts and humanities.
  • The AP Stylebook is the prime reference for those in the news and public relations fields.
  • The Chicago Manual of Style is the guide for authors, editors and publishers of books, periodicals and journals.

Easy enough. I’m an author so the CMS would be my guide. But the debates were so intense (violent in some cases) that I decided to check with the experts, my editor friends on Twitter. Only after they agreed that the CMS was the style book for writers, did I rush to order my very own Chicago Manual of Style.

If you’ve never seen one, you cannot imaging the information bursting from its lengthy 1026 pages. It’s amazing. Let me tell you, this baby is not only about grammar and punctuation. Who’d ever heard of rectos and versos, much less knew what they were? It’s fascinating reading (for a little while).

Novelists everywhere owe The Chicago Manual of Style their gratitude. It’s an unsung hero of our times.

Chicago Manual of Style, celebrate

 

 

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John Steinbeck and the Magic Formula

If you’ve been searching for that elusive magic formula for writing great stories, search no longer. The secret can be found in a letter John Steinbeck wrote to his creative writing professor forty years after taking her class. It was used as the preface to her book, Story Writing.

March 8, 1962

Dear Edith Mirrielees:

… Although it must be a thousand years ago that I sat in your class in story writing at Stanford, I remember the experience very clearly. I was bright-eyed and bushy-brained and prepared to absorb from you the secret formula for writing good short stories, even great short stories.

You canceled this illusion very quickly. The only way to write a good short story, you said, was to write a good short story. Only after it is written can it be taken apart to see how it was done. It is a most difficult form, you told us, and the proof lies in how very few great short stories there are in the world.

The basic rule you gave us was simple and heartbreaking. A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to reader and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, you said, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all—so long as it was effective.

As a subhead to this rule, you maintained that it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about. As an exercise we were to try reducing the meat of a story to one sentence, for only then could we know it well enough to enlarge it to three or six or ten thousand words.

So there went the magic formula, the secret ingredient. With no more than that you set us on the desolate lonely path of the writer. And we must have turned in some abysmally bad stories. If I had expected to be discovered in a full bloom of excellence, the grades you gave my efforts quickly disillusioned me. And if I felt unjustly criticized, the judgments of editors for many years afterwards upheld your side, not mine.

It seemed unfair. I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done, thanks to your training. Why could I not do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike. Over the years I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced that there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.

It is not so very hard to judge a story after it is written, but after many years, to start a story still scares me to death. I will go so far as to say that the writer who is not scared is happily unaware of the remote and tantalizing majesty of the medium.

I wonder whether you will remember one last piece of advice you gave me. It was during the exuberance of the rich and frantic twenties and I was going out into that world to try to be a writer.

You said, “It’s going to take a long time, and you haven’t any money. Maybe it would be better if you could go to Europe.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in Europe poverty is a misfortune, but in America it is shameful. I wonder whether or not you can stand the shame of being poor.”

It wasn’t too long afterwards that the depression came down. Then everyone was poor and it was no shame any more. And so I will never know whether or not I could have stood it. But surely you were right about one thing, Edith. It took a long time—a very long time. And it is still going on and it has never got easier. You told me it wouldn’t.

John Steinbeck

 

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The Flip Side of Writing

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. 
—Stephen King

Those words were everywhere: If you’re going to write you need to read. I heard them from writers. I read them in books. I saw them on blogs. And I promptly rejected them. I had my reasons.

  • Hello, Mr. King, not all of us write for a living. My free time is a precious commodity. If I ever want to finish any of my writing projects before the next millennium, I need to spend all of my precious commodity WRITING.
  • Reading someone else’s writing would change my unique voice and I didn’t want to distill it with the flavor of another author. (Besides, that sounds slightly unsanitary.)
  • As a recovering reading addict, I was on the wagon. I knew what would happen if I fell off.

My “reasons” turn out to be excuses in disguise. While my free time is a precious commodity, it doesn’t always go toward writing. Copious amounts of it are sucked into the vortex of the internet never to be seen again. As for flavor, my writing has never been compared to John Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath, John Green or Dr. Seuss. And the recovering addict thing? Well, that is its own story which you can read here.

Sylvia Plath, reading, books

Sylvia Plath

…will I stick to my damn stuff and practice? Read and think and practice? I am worried about thinking.
—Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

The case for reading is much stronger than the one against it.

Reading provides endless inspiration for writers. The writer who creates magic with words exhilarates us and dares us to make our own word magic. And reading something horrendously written, besides giving us a headache, motivates us to write because we know we can do better, and we’re going to prove it.

We also need to be pragmatic. If we want our work to be read by others, we have to be familiar with what’s out there. It gives us a feel for readers’ likes and dislikes, what’s been done to death, what’s new and fresh, and what may be missing. I know, we’re supposed to write our story and not write to trends. But if we’re writing for an audience of more than one, knowledge is power. Don’t use the information to write to the trend; use it to your advantage.

A few things about reading:

Don’t snub the classics. They’re classics for a reason.

Don’t just choose books of your genre. Be generous with your reading. Give every genre the opportunity to wow you. You’d be surprised.

Turn off the inner editor. Read for enjoyment. After you’ve finished the book, tear it apart. What did you love? Hate? What did that writer do that you can learn from, good and bad?

The Issue of Time

Time is a precious commodity for everyone, even the Stephen Kings of the world. How can you possibly add another to-do to your list? First of all, don’t consider it an assignment or chore. It’s actually a gift from the writer to you. Here are a few ideas to add reading to your day.

  • Finding time to read will be easier if you’re reading something that grabs you by the collar and won’t let you go.
  • Don’t waste time finishing a book you don’t like. Once upon a time, I took pride in the fact that I finished every book I started, even the ones I hated. Now, I don’t waste the time or the pride.
  • Get an e-reader such as Kindle or Nook. Books are available to you 24/7 (that can be dangerous for some of us) and samples can be uploaded before purchasing. You can find books in a variety of price ranges and many sites have free ebooks.  The Gutenberg Project offers over 50,000 free ebooks, mostly classics.
  • Much of a writer’s life is spent waiting. Put it to good use. Have a book with you at all times. Read while you’re in the waiting room, at a restaurant waiting for your meal, waiting in the parking lot to pick your kids up from basketball practice, waiting on hold, waiting to hear from an agent…
  • When writer’s block kicks your butt, don’t waste time staring futilely at a computer screen. Get comfortable and read. It may feel like you’re procrastinating, but it’s actually time well spent.

NYC-subway_book_readers_02

Helpful links:

Why Writers Need to Read if They Want to Be Good @ Goins, Writer

Want to Be a Better Writer? Read More. @ Huffington Post

The best advice for writers? Read @ The Guardian

9 Comments

An Idiot’s Guide to Writing

Famous Last Words.

I'm going to write a book

Don't Sweat It Second Drafts

12 Comments

Confabulating with Eric Smith

Eric Smith is a man of many hats, both literally and figuratively. He’s a literary agent with P.S. Literary Agency AND author of the popular YA novels Inked, and The Geek’s Guide to Dating which was named an Amazon 2013 Best Book of the Year (Humor). I met Eric recently at a writers’ conference in Michigan and was fortunate enough to drive him to the airport after the conference. Eric really does rock.

Me: Eric, thanks for taking time from your busy schedule to answer a few questions.

Eric: Sure! Question away!

Me: First, a question to give us some insight into what makes you tick. What was your favorite Halloween costume as a kid?

Eric: By favorite do you mean, the one I had to wear all the time and had no choice in the matter? Because if that’s the case, it was this M&M costume my parents bought me one year. I wore that thing like five years in a row. Sometimes added sunglasses to be a “cool M&M.”

One year my parents bought me this crazy shark costume, that like, cover my entire body. My head stuck out of the mouth, and the nose shot up in the air. It had rained that Halloween, so I just hid inside my costume when it got bad. That thing was definitely my favorite, but was quickly retired after the storm.

Me: Do you always wear a newsboy hat or do you change hats with seasons?

Eric: Hahaha, I do! It’s my thing. I have a couple different flatcaps, but ever since my good friend Jess bought me my first cap for a “tweed ride” in Philadelphia (where folks dress up in old-timey clothing and bike ride around the city), that’s been it. I wear one always.

Eric Smith literary agent PS literary

Me: Which is easier agenting or authoring? Why?

Eric: Oooh, that’s tough! Both involve a lot of waiting and anxiety, for that yes or no. In my case, I think I’ll say authoring is easier. Mostly because hey, those are just my books. Not someone else’s. And it’s actually more heartbreaking for me when a client’s book gets a no. I just care about my authors so much, and want to see them get out there. At least when someone says no to one of my books, I have my dog here to cuddle.

Me: What’s the biggest misconception about your career as an agent?

Eric: Hm, that I have a big office in a building someplace, or a bunch of colleagues working around me? I’m basically solo in my apartment and/or the local Starbucks, while Gchatting with my amazing coworkers. It’s a pretty solitary gig. Thank goodness for social media and Internet toys.

Me: What is your most memorable (good or bad) moment as an agent?

Eric: Signing my first client, Alan Orloff. He’s an author I’ve actually read before, so it was mind blowing that he wanted to work with me, this total newbie. He’s been great throughout the whole submission process, and constantly has new ideas.

Me: If you could hijack the Tardis, where and when would you go?

Eric: Hahah, oh man. Amiens, France in the late 1800’s, when Jules Verne was living and writing there. His books had a huge influence on me, and France is awesome. I would have loved to hang with him for a week.

Me: Where’s your favorite spot to read?

Eric: My hammock. J I’ve got one setup in my backyard. Hop in there with my dog and a soda? Life is perfect.

If it’s raining though, or it is way too cold or hot out, I’ll just go to my favorite local coffeeshop. There’s a place called Coffee Bar here in Philadelphia that I’m constantly in. I also like visiting the Barnes & Noble for their café, and then browsing books afterwards.

Me: What’s something you should have gotten in trouble for, but didn’t get caught.

Eric: Probably the liquor my roommate and I kept in a rotating bookcase in college? Ah, those were the days.

Me: Favorite way to let your hair down (figuratively speaking).

Eric: Video games, hands down. Few things relax me more than either jumping into an awesome story (ie: Dragon Age, Final Fantasy type games) or just blasting away at bad guys with some pals (ie: Halo, Destiny).

Me: What do you want for Christmas?

Eric: Is it cliché to say nothing? I started agenting this year, my first YA novel came out in January, I got married, my wife bought me a dog… I’m good. If any of my friends read this, instead of gifts, donate a book someplace. ❤

Me: What’s on your Manuscript Wish List?

Eric: You can check out what books I’m looking for over on my blog! Bam. http://ericsmithrocks.com/mswl/

Quickies
Favorite:
Color Black
Season Fall!
Book High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
Music Anything by Jimmy Eat World, Third Eye Blind, or the Gin Blossoms.
Superhero Constantly changes, but maybe Gambit?
Holiday Thanksgiving
Ice cream flavor Mint chocolate chip.
Beverage Root beer.

Least favorite:
Subject in school MATH KILL IT WITH FIRE
Food Sushi. Sorry.
Season Summer.
Candy Raisinettes. Get outta here with your raisins in my chocolate.

Me: Thanks for stopping by, Eric. It was fun getting to know you better.

Eric: This was fun, thanks!

 

Eric Smith, literary agent, PS Literary

Eric Smith is an associate literary agent at P.S. Literary, with a love for young adult books, sci-fi, fantasy, and literary fiction. A frequent blogger, his ramblings about books appear on BookRiot, The Huffington Post, and more. A published author with Quirk Books and Bloomsbury, he seeks to give his authors the same amount of love his writing has received. Which is a lot.

Eric is eagerly acquiring fiction and nonfiction projects. He’s actively seeking out new, diverse voices in Young Adult (particularly sci-fi and fantasy), New Adult, and Literary and Commercial Fiction (again, loves sci-fi and fantasy, but also thrillers and mysteries). In terms of nonfiction, he’s interested in Cookbooks, Pop Culture, Humor, essay collections, and blog to book ideas.

Check out his website, EricSmithRocks.com or follow him on Twitter @EricSmithRocks

 

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Polish Up That Happy Dance

Once, there was a girl who was inspired to write a book. So she did. She spent many late nights nurturing it. She cried with it, laughed with it, and loved it. When it had grown into a novel, she queried thirteen editors because if Stephenie Meyer could do it, this girl could too.

Only, it didn’t work that way. The editors weren’t interested. So the girl threw back her shoulders, lifted her chin and queried literary agents. Lots of them. Then she revised her book and queried more agents. Over a period of years, and various query revisions, the girl queried hundreds of agents (unfortunately, that is not an exaggeration for dramatic effect). Not just any agents. The girl knew better than that. She did much research and only contacted agents who represented her genre, the way all good girls do.

And when she began to despair that her beloved novel would never be published, her husband (she was a grown-up girl) suggested she write another book. And if that got published, maybe her dearly beloved first book would have a better chance.

So, she did.

And when this book had grown into a novel, the girl found herself in the query trenches once more. Requests, rejections, requests, rejections trickled in. And the girl learned that the life of a writer is measured not only in words but in waiting. So she waited and waited. Then she queried again and waited some more. But the girl did not give up. After writing seven different query letters and querying seventy agents for her second novel, the girl received an email from an agent she really wanted to work with. She closed her eyes, said a prayer and opened the email. Then she read:

“I’d like to work with you and so to extend an offer of representation…”

She read the email again. The words she’d been waiting years to hear (read) were right there in front of her. The dream had come true. And her first thought went like this: “Huh? I don’t know how to react. Should I scream? Jump up and down? Do a happy dance?”

She bounded down the stairs to her husband’s office and proceeded to jump up and down, not with a happy and merry bounce as you would imagine, but heavy and hard like an elephant being dropped from a helicopter. And she began to yell (not cry out in a joyful voice as you would expect), “YES. YES. YES.”

And her husband wondered what in the world was wrong. And her children up in their bedrooms heard the noise and thought the girl had fallen down the stairs (but none came to check on the poor woman who’d given birth to them, to see if she had indeed fallen down the stairs). The girl’s attempt at a happy dance failed.

Despite that, she signed with the agent.

And the girl is sharing her story with you because no matter where you are on your writing journey, no matter how many rejections you’ve received, how many dead-ends you’ve reached, or how many hours, days, years, you’ve spent waiting, don’t give up. And be sure to practice your happy dance often. You never know when you’ll need it.

celery man meme, Paul Rudd

5 Comments

An Inconvenient Truth

If you’re from Michigan.

Cool Michigan

If you’re not.

Cancel date

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Casting a Spell With the First Line

I was invited to write a guest post at All the Way YA, just in time for Halloween.

All The Way YA

I spend a ridiculous amount of time Googling the best first lines in books. I study each one in the hope that I will absorb something, anything, that will allow me to spit out some synthesis of my voice and their brilliance in my own first lines.

In the book, Wired for Story (the best book I’ve ever read on writing), Lisa Cron says, “What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing…it’s about to reach critical mass. This means that from the first sentence we need to catch sight of the breadcrumb trail that will lure us deeper into the thicket.” Amen, Sister.

But it has to be more than that. Stephen King says “With really good books, a powerful sense of voice is established in the first line.”

Boromir first line

Very easy to say. But how do you write the elusive, perfect first line? First of…

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