Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Call me Ishmael"

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

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board."

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

"Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

"It was the day my grandmother exploded."

"It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not."

"124 was spiteful."

"It was a pleasure to burn."

"You better not never tell nobody but God."

I've been giving a lot of thought to opening lines lately.  When I first met my husband, he told me that when he picks up a book, it isn't the cover that makes it or breaks it for him--it's the opening line.  He reads one sentence and then makes a decision.

I thought he was nuts.  After all, if I'd stopped after "I am an invisible man" and considered it too obvious, I may never have breathed through the masterpiece that is Ellison's novel (and one of my husband's favorites, by the way).  What if I had indeed dismissed it by the first line?

Yet the truth is that, like it or not, opening lines matter.  For some novels, it's all the majority of people know about it (Moby Dick comes to mind); for others, it is the line that continues to resonate long after the cover has been closed.  The opening line sets the tone, the narrative voice, and the style.  A lot hinges on those carefully chosen words.

The opening line of Sweet Divinity reads: "One of my earliest memories of my mother involves pot leaves and sprinkles of dirt raining from the heavens".  At various points it was: "One of my earliest memories of my mom involved pot leaves raining from the sky" and "When I think of my mother, I see pot leaves falling from the sky."

Miranda begins this way: "It is an uncommon sight to observe a young woman vanish into the sea."  It originally read something like, "It is a sight uncommon to watch a young woman disappear into the water."

Visions and revisions...searching for the most precise words, for the appropriate tone, for the exact voice one hears in her mind.

Different tones, different voices, different novels.  All made clear by the opening lines.

As I begin work on my next project, I'm keenly aware that the opening line matters. And so I will craft, and recraft, until it is just right...until my husband says he would definitely read that book.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Time's Ticking Away

I'm in a slump.

I'm reading a lot.  That's positive.  So far this summer I have read mystery, science fiction, literary fiction, chick lit, young adult literature, memoir, and literature in translation.  I think I'm up to eleven books, and I'm deep into two others at the moment.  You can find me on GoodReads if you'd like to keep up with my frenetic bookshelf!

I've also signed up for a cooking class where I will be learning to bake sweet summer treats and make ice cream.  I'm hoping this will be a great experience so I will be driven to sign up for another class that involves entrees...but we'll see.

I've been traveling this summer.  I went to Tampa overnight to the U2 Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary tour (one of the best nights of my life, hands down), journeyed to St. Augustine with the hubby and kids where I toured a pirate museum, ate too many donuts, and single-handedly kept the Rita's Italian Ice open.  I also read five books that week.

I just returned from Georgia where a trip to our family's farm for my grandmother's birthday turned out to also include the surprise wedding of my mother (yes, that's right, a surprise wedding).  While there I did some outlet shopping and went on long walks through the fields with my son.

Back home, I've taught a college essay writing camp and tutored several kids in a variety of areas involving writing.  I've had the opportunity to catch up with some amazing former students.  My family and I have been tearing through our "Summer of Fun" jar, including travelling to a city in North Carolina we'd never visited, and having the worst best-looking-burger I've ever encountered.

All along, I've been editing Miranda, and it's coming along quite well, but I haven't had the time to write fresh words.  Which has me thinking, is it in fact that I haven't had time, or is it that I haven't made time?  I've never been one of those writers who sets a daily quota or schedules time to write.  I'm someone who can be going along with her day and suddenly it hits me: that turn in my stomach and tinge of pressure in my's the story trying to get out.  And when that happens, I write until I cannot possibly write one more word.  It just flows out of me like a purge of emotion and life.  It's an amazing experience.

And yet I think I've been ignoring the feeling, setting it aside in order to do the other things I feel compelled to accomplish (or to binge-watch episodes of Friends while working jigsaw puzzles...a mindless pleasure).  My arms are aching as I write this post, because the sequel to Sweet Divinity is inside me, and it so badly wants to live on the page.

So maybe I'll second guess the scheduling and quota.  You can't force good writing, that's for sure, but I'm beginning to think I should spend a little time setting the mood.  Maybe I'll lock myself away and light some candles.  After all, I clearly have a love affair with words.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


The summer has been busier than I anticipated.  Though I read five fantastic books while at the beach, I'm way behind in my reading goals.  In addition, I've been sloughing through my manuscript, which is all well and good, but I'm so thirsty for new words!  My writing goals have also been suffering as a result of the tutoring and essay camps that have been filling my days, and I may have been giving into temptation a little more than usual when drawn to the playroom where a jigsaw puzzle and every episode of Friends are waiting at night (that is one fantastically written show!).

I've had several ideas for new manuscripts marinating in my mind for quite a while.  I find that my greatest struggles as a writer are finding the narrative voices.  For example, several years ago I experienced a horrifically difficult time in my life.  A piece of my extended family was fractured and then permanently disconnected, a piece that I had emotionally relied on for years.  When I came out on the other side of that mess, with the help of my husband and an amazing counselor named Alice, I was able to see that my story was one that needed to be written.  When it was happening, my husband and I used to joke that if someone wrote this story in novel form, publishers would laugh and decry it as "unrealistic"; it was more soap-opera worthy than literary fiction.  But I kept notes, my husband kept artifacts, and I allowed the story to sit on the back burner for a while.

I tried to outline a manuscript that developed the story, and I even wrote an opening paragraph once, but it just wasn't ready.  And any writer worth her salt knows you can't force it and expect art.  And yet this summer, as I was relaxing by the ocean, watching the tide come crashing in, I found it.  Or rather, perhaps it found me.  The narrative voice arrived in all of its complexity and emotional toil.  I always sought the voice in a modern day library or bookstore, or maybe in a small, country town.  And yet when she arrived, she arrived from the past, from the turn of the century in fact, and she arrived from the coast.  Whereas in Miranda, the protagonist disappeared into the water, in this new piece, she was emerging from its depths.

When I looked at him, all I saw was a shell.  The eyes were wide open and darting about, and yet the body was emaciated; the vitality melted away from the bones and through the sheets.  There were no more doctors, no more pills, no more antidotes and trials.  Death had won the war.  And though the eyes in those sunken sockets were desperately searching, I knew the look they conveyed.  It was fear.  Fear of a life ill-lived.  Fear of an eternity of wandering.  Fear of demons denied.

And thus we begin again...