Friday, January 28, 2011

First Lines and the Birth of a Story

Writers know the importance of first lines. We have to hook the reader from the very first words. And not just the first words in the story or book, but the first lines of each scene, each chapter. The last lines of scenes and chapters are pretty important, too. We want the reader to have no choice but to turn the page and keep reading, no matter how late it is.

I came across a journal called The First Line. It was a freebie in my Crime Bake tote bag. It took me a month or two, but when I gave it a closer look and then found the journal's web site, I realized how intriguing the premise was: they publish stories from all genres, and all must start with the same first line. Hmm. So what was the line for the next deadline, which turned out to be February 1? "Sam was a loyal employee."

I had just had an experience arriving at work that was kind of creepy. I wanted to use it in a story. I now had the first line. The deadline, several weeks away, was my opportunity. I drafted a bit more than half the story and ran it by a friend while I was on vacation. She gave me some ideas for several endings. I finished the story. Asked a fellow author to critique. Revised. Read it in my writers' group. Revised some more. Sent it in this afternoon. I came in 100 words under the 3000-word limit and with three days to spare on the deadline.

My second sentence in the story is, "She always came to work hours before anyone else." Yes, Sam is a she. Why not? I'm hoping that will help to hook readers in, make them want to keep reading. The journal says they let submitters know within a few weeks. And if they don't want it? I'll be fine. There are other contests, other journals. And more stories to give birth to.

What about you? Would you like the structure of an assigned first line? What would your second sentence be?

Friday, January 21, 2011

On Early Quaker Activism

Lauren Rousseau, the protagonist in Speaking of Murder, is member of the Religious Society of Friends, also known as Quakers. I also happen to be a long-time Friend. I've been reading the journal of John Woolman recently and have been much inspired. Woolman was an early American Quaker activist, who ventured forth from Philadelphia (a hotbed of Quakers) to visit neighboring colonies as part of his personal ministry. Many of the beliefs that he described in 1760 resonate even today.

Woolman spoke for equality and counseled against slavery. He felt that that if those who had much would live more simply, the oppressed would not have to work so hard. He refused first-cla
ss passage on a ship to England because the luxury had been created on the backs of others. He wore a natural-dyed hat so that hat makers wouldn't have to work with toxic dyes (and then worried about how others would view his 'singularity' in wearing it).

an strived that the way he lived his life would be in alignment with his spiritual beliefs. One of the things he did to earn a living was writing wills. But when a client wanted to leave his slaves to his children, Woolman refused to write that section of the will and tried to gently persuade the owner to instead free the slaves. He was never condemning, never angry, always patient. And always firm.

I admire Woolman's spirit and, frankly, his bravery. I know I could be doing more to stand up for my own beliefs and the Quaker testimonies of peace, simplicity, equality, and integrity in public and in my dealings with the government. I do a pretty good job in my personal life, but John Woolman never limited himself to that sphere. Does Lauren Rousseau? How do you live out your personal beliefs in the public domain?

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My mother's memoir - "Our First Car"

My mother, Marilyn Muller, has participated in a memoir-writing group in her residence. The following is a guest post by her.

Our First Car

Marilyn M. Muller

When I was first married in 1946, we had neither the money nor a pressing need for a car. We rode to work on the Red Cars (Pacific Electric) and could occasionally borrow my in-laws' car for something special (we lived with the in-laws near Pasadena, California, until we found an apartment).

The chance to buy a 1934 Ford Coupe at a price affordable for us arose one day. It was in good running order, and had class and personality -- curb feelers, too. We loved it.

In my mind it was special because I learned to drive in it. It had a manual choke that needed mastering on cold mornings, and a shelf right behind the seat backs. Padded, that was the perfect place for the baby to ride on, after we had one.

One year we took the Ford camping to Lake Tahoe, and it had no problems at all on the mountain roads. Then there was the time we packed it full to move our little family from Pasadena to the Oakland area. My husband preferred to load the car while I transferred things outside. He would ask for a package that was "just the right size." For example, "I need a non-fragile box less than 9 inches square," or "something soft to fit on top in the trunk."

The radiator overheated during the move, luckily near a gas station. The cause was probably the spare tire that was fastened on the front of the car over the air intake because there was no room for it in the trunk. Everything else went well on the road, and nothing was broken when we arrived in Oakland.

Since the veteran's housing we lived in had no garages, we had to park on the street. We looked out our window a lot to verify that our car was still there. Eventually we deemed renting a garage necessary -- not only to foil thieves, but to keep the engine warmer for easier starting on cold mornings.

When we traded up to a newer sedan, traveling was more comfortable. We had a back seat and a car seat for the toddler. But it was seldom more fun than the Ford.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

E-books, E-readers

So the new wave of publishing is here. (Some might say it's been here for a while.)

Writer friends are publishing their books for Kindle, for iPad. Some are publishing only in e-formats, like John Urban with A Single Deadly Truth. Some are putting their out-of-print books up there, like LI Bartlett with her Jeff Resnick series.

JE Seymour just e-published two short stories that feature the same character as in her newly published (paper) book, Lead Poisoning, which she has also put up on Smashwords in all e-formats.

Authors make more money from an e-book than from a printed book. When the struggle to find an agent or small press has failed and you really just want to get your many-times revised and edited work into the hands of readers, it's much more feasible to publish an e-book yourself than to publish it in printed form. And apparently it's not that hard to format the copy for e-publishing, although reports have it that some hair-pulling and perhaps hair-greying is involved. You get some cover art and off you go.

Now, I don't even own an e-reader. I can get the software for free for my netbook, but have hesitated to do so. Maybe because I work on a computer at my day job for way too many hours. When I get home, I want paper, not more screen time. But Sylvia, a frequent-traveler friend, delighted in her Kindle purchase, because omitting 5 books per trip lightened her luggage considerably. I don't think that print will vanish. I very much hope it won't. (And let's not even get into reading a book on a telephone! Or should we?)

What do you think? Do you mostly read on paper or on screen? Should I take the plunge as a reader and then see how it goes as a writer?