The Writers' Loop

For Readers and Writers


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Write the First Line of Your Novel Like a Country Song

By Peggy Morehouse

Why is Snoopy working so hard on the first line of his book? Is it really that important?

Here’s how literary agent, Michelle L. Johnson answers that question in an interview on Chasing the Crazies blog, “I can’t stress enough how important it is to give a great first line. A good first line should catch the reader off guard and set up the tone of the book.”

Like Snoopy, writers trying to break into the publishing industry are acutely aware about the significance of an extraordinary beginning to their story. Literary agents receive between 100-to-200 query letters per week from debut authors seeking their representation. Most agents sign-on between two and ten new clients each year, and the vast majority of publishers won’t look at an author’s book without that agent.

Yup! It’s competitive in  the book world. That’s why a writer has to grab an agent’s attention with the first line. Talk about pressure. You could have written the next Gone with the Wind, but without a sizzling opening a potential bestseller could be tossed in a slush pile.

What makes a great first line? Lucy told Snoopy to use, “Once upon a time.”

What does Michelle Johnson say? “The most important thing to me is to connect with the main character. If I care about the character quickly and deeply and that character feels real to me, I will want to read the entire book. If the character is intriguing but the writing not polished, it will quickly eliminate my desire to read on.”

Let’s see how some recent bestsellers from my bookshelf start:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:   “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”

Wild by Cheryl Strayed:   “My solo three month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings.”

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline:   “Through her bedroom wall Molly can hear her foster parents talking about her in the living room.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce:   “The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday.”

The first thing that came to mind about these beginnings is originality. I haven’t read lines like this before, so I’m assuming the author is creative. The second thing is I find myself asking why.

  • Why does the man (Nick) in Gone Girl think of his wife’s head when he first looks at her?
  • Why did Cheryl Strayed’s trek have many beginnings?
  • Why is Molly in foster care and what are her foster parents saying?
  • Why did the letter change everything for Harold Fry?

These authors have enticed me to move on to line two. Hopefully, the intrigue will continue to the end (and it did for me in all of the above books).

Some of the best beginnings I’ve come across haven’t been in books, however. They’re hiding in country songs. Check out these opening lines:

“In a bar in Toledo, across from the depot, on a bar stool she took off her ring.” from Lucille by Kenny Rogers.

“Fifteen minutes left to throw me together for Mr. Right Now, not Mr. Forever.” from Settlin’ by Surgarland.

“I’m on the side of the road with a car that won’t go and the night won’t even give me a moon.” Brokedown Cadillac by Brokedown Cadillac.

If those lines were written at the start of a book, I’d be instantly hooked. Instead of Lucy telling Snoopy to begin with Once upon a time, she should have advised him to turn on the radio. Lots of powerful examples are just a song away.

What are some of your favorite opening lines from either a book or a song? Did the remainder of the story live up to the expectation?

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The Challenge of Shifting From Writer to Reader

By Peggy Morehouse

I’ll never forget the first time I took my son, Max, to see the ocean. He was seven months old and we were vacationing on the outer banks of North Carolina. The morning after our arrival, I dressed Max in his cute little sweat suit and told him that he was about to meet one of nature’s most spectacular scenes. I carried him up a weathered wooden staircase a few yards from our house rental and voila, the glistening green sea and pristine white sand greeted us. Instead of bursting with squeals of excitement like I imagined however, Max screeched, gripped my shoulders, and buried his face into my neck.

It never occurred to me that this massive body of water with its crashing waves would frighten him. I assumed Max would view it with a sense of wonder not like a monster that might swallow him whole. We both witnessed the same sight, but we viewed it differently. I’d walked and played on hundreds of ocean beaches on the east and west coast during my life and regarded the shore as a place to contemplate, relax, and enjoy. Max reminded me that it also had ferocious side. I changed my plan of strolling toward the surf and instead, sat on the top step and comforted him with a gentle hug and soothing words.

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Max’s view of the ocean.

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My view of the ocean.

A shift occurred as I took the perspective of my young son. That is exactly what I needed to do when I  left the writing phase of my novel and entered the editing phase. It was no longer all about the story I wanted to tell. I needed to examine it from a reader’s viewpoint.

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As I read the story, I asked myself questions like:

  • Do I understand the main character’s motivation?
  • Do I find myself rooting for the character?
  • Do I laugh a little?
  • Do I cry a little?
  • Do I feel scared at certain points and happy at others?
  • Am I ever confused?
  • Am I ever bored?
  • Do I want to continue reading at the end of every chapter?
  • Do I feel I’ve changed a bit when I reach the end?

And on and on. Personally, I didn’t find shifting from being the writer to the reader to be all that simple. After a few rounds of fine tuning, the story seemed clear to me, but it was my creation. I found it impossible to be objective so I hired a professional editor.

I sent my manuscript off to Ms. Editor on December 15 and she returned it on December 26 with a developmental evaluation, a line by line edit, and her compliments for a job well done. Of course she made some grammatical corrections, which I expected. But as I reviewed her notes I was amazed at some of the other things she found.  Just like I was surprised at Max’s reaction when he first saw the ocean, Ms. Editor found shortcomings  that I totally missed.

For example, in one instance she questioned why a certain character suddenly appeared in a scene, asking, “Where did she come from?”

My response: I mentioned she was coming along in the previous chapter.

Not good enough. The reader doesn’t remember every detail, like the writer. They need reminders without being repetitive. A one sentence cue at the beginning of the chapter like, “Lani glanced at Paige who was thumbing through a magazine…” is all the reader needs to indicate that Paige did indeed come along.

Ms. Editor was also intrigued by a side character that I almost cut from the story. She even suggested that I include her in at least one more scene.

Luckily my list of content edits was short. I will be ready to start querying literary agents by the end of next week. With Ms. Editor’s guidance I added the subtle touches that will keep the pages turning.

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Like introducing a child to the ocean, a reader must be led through a story with sensitivity and  precision. Details must be carefully woven, reminders must be subtly given, and the pacing has to seamless. A writer must be acutely aware of a reader’s perceptions. As with Max on the seashore twenty-five years ago, I sensed when his body relaxed as I held him on the steps that led to the ocean. I noticed when he lifted his head and looked out more in awe than fear. I felt his hands lift off my shoulder and saw his feet flutter in anticipation. It was then that I knew he was ready to inch toward this new wonder.

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For the sake of clarity, a writer would say, “The water reached his neck.” or “The water reached his ankles.”


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Hitting the Writer’s Wall

By Peggy Morehouse

One day after running in yet another 5k, you decide you’re bored. You need a bigger challenge.

Maybe a half marathon?

Nah.  Half is never quite satisfying enough for me. A half a bowl of ice cream. A half a cup of coffee. A half-dozen roses. Half just leaves one yearning for more. So, you pick a really cool city and decide to run in its full marathon the following year. You find a group to train with. You log your progress. You rise early each morning and jog, jog, jog through heat and cold and rain.

After several months of focusing on your goal, you’ve finally arrived at the big event where you’ll dash 26 miles to the finish line.  Crowds will cheer, bands will play, beer will be poured, food will be served, and it’s all just for you. Then bam! Somewhere around the 20th mile you hit the wall. Your foot stops mid-air, but somehow manages to land on the ground. You can’t take another step. You wonder if limping across the finish line counts or if your medal will be denied. You wonder why you wanted to run in this stupid race anyway. You look around for one of those water stations that also hands out gel packs and a pep talk. It’s in sight, but your leg is cramping. You want to pull out your cell, call for a ride, and head to the beach. Your leg never cramps at the beach.

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I’ve never run in a full marathon although I know several people who have. They all have a story about hitting the wall when they’re so close to finishing. Almost implausible after all that training, but I get it because I’ve hit the writing wall with my novel. I’ve spent two years with these characters on the Big Island of Hawaii and I’m tired. Tired of getting up at 4:00 a.m. to get my writing in before work. Like Bruce Springsteen sings in Dancing in the Dark, “I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book.”  I find myself leaving my laptop and looking out the window wondering what else is going on in the great big world.

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But like the marathon runner who hits the wall at the 20th mile, I must break through. I’m on chapter twenty-two of my final re-write and it’s due to my editor on December 15. Am I really going to give up now to explore what’s on the other side of that window? For a bit of motivation, I looked up what one of my favorite authors, Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl, Sharp Edges, etc.) does when she hits the writing wall:

“Whenever I kind of have writer’s block, I don’t let myself stop writing, but I’ll back away and kind of approach things differently, like those old-fashioned college-writing-class exercises.”

Flynn went on to say that she wrote the beginning of Amy’s popular cool girl rant in Gone Girl to propel her out of a bad case of writer’s block. She also uses grilled cheese sandwiches to encourage her to the finish line. And, it seems like most marathon runners somehow manage to find the edge that makes them put one foot in front of the other until they can finally say, “The end.”

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Yay! they made it past mile 20!

Well, okay. Close the blog. Bring on the grilled cheese sandwich. I’m off to chapter twenty-three.

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