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Archive for June, 2010

I wish I had time to go back and do the research to prove my point in this posting. But I don’t. I’m trying to do one last revision of Laps before tossing it out there into the big ocean of agents and seeing if it gets picked up or sinks. So going back to re-read or scan through several different books is simply not possible at this time. If it were, I’d be able to give you exact numbers and references.

Nevertheless, I have been amazed of late how many of the novels (and manuscripts) I’ve recently read feature the word “tendril” more than once. Suzanne Collins used it several times in both The Hunger Games and its sequel, Catching Fire. I believe I came across it more than once in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and Carol Lynch Williams’s The Chosen One. I’d have to say, however, that the winner is the novel I completed on Sunday. Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott must feature that word at least five or six times.

How about you? Are you finding this word used more and more frequently? I actually used to like the word but, as they say, “familiarity breeds contempt.” What’s wrong with saying a “lock” of hair? Must it be a “tendril?” After all, tendrils refer more to plants, but the way I’ve seen it used (or shall I say overused) lately, I shouldn’t be surprised if its meaning slowly evolves away from the plant kingdom.

“Tendril” is not a common word, or at least it didn’t use to be. And that is precisely why it stands out so much to me in a story, particularly if used repeatedly. I suppose writers find it a touch poetic and so it appeals to them on that level. But I believe it’s reached the point of saturation.

How about you? Have you noticed it much in your readings? Do you like to use it yourself? Speak up, all you tendril-loving writers! I’m open to a discussion of its merits, as well as its weaknesses.

In the meantime, I’ve begun to read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel,  A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., and The Red Pyramid by Rick Riordan (this latter one with my son). You can be sure I’ll be keeping count of each and every “tendril” I come across.

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A few days ago, I posted about the importance of using strong nouns, verbs, and adjectives in 1-sentence pitches…then extended the idea to opening lines of novels.

As a test, I quoted the opening sentences from eleven novels I’ve read over the past year (throwing a couple of my own opening lines into the mix…even though the first sentences of The Reckoning and Laps were written long before this past year), and asked readers to vote on their three favorites. (If you missed your chance to vote, read no further and, instead, read the previous post and give your responses. I can always update the results later.)

While I didn’t get quite the response I’d hoped for, here are the results, as well as the names of those novels:

The winner, with 3 votes, was the opening line from The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

Now here’s the weird part (to me, anyway). Tied, with 2 votes a piece, were my own opening lines for The Reckoning and Laps:

“It hovered like a fly trapped inside her skull, crowding out the squeaking of sneakers, the banging of the basketball.”

“If Daphne believed in any god, it was the god of water–the pool his holy sanctuary, the daily swim her prayer.”

(This is why I wanted a lot more people weighing in here. I’m sure those results would have changed had 30+ readers voted.)

The following opening lines got 1 vote each:

“I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air.” (Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins)

“Heck Benham welcomed the New Year of 1935 by presiding over the death of a pig.” (Counting the Cost by Liz Adair)

“Unrepaired and swollen with rain, the gate in the orchard wall refused to move until Cameron put his full weight against it and pushed, hard.” (Ghostwalk by Rebecca Stott)

“As soon as James Owen heard the Spanish priest’s final amen, he stepped back from the makeshift altar in the Colorado meadow and made his legs carry him to the edge of the forest.” (Ride to Raton by Marsha Ward)

The four remaining opening lines were as follows:

“Lord Everett Spencer, the Earl of Whittington, arose in a sweat well before first light.” (Dawn’s Early Light by Laurie LC Lewis)

“Jessica stood alone in the silent space, contemplating the Long Gallery in front of her–a beguiling, empty corridor of oak floorboards.” (The Language of Others by Clare Morrall)

“After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks.” (The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski)

“Harris walked out the back door and down through the dark garden past the antler pole, chicken coop, rabbit pens, and fruit trees.” (The Tree House by Douglas Thayer)

Most of you have probably heard of Wroblewski’s book. It was on the NYT Bestseller List for quite a while. Morrall’s book isn’t as well known (at least on this side of the Atlantic), but she was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2003 for Astonishing Splashes of Colour, which you may have heard of.

So, what does this prove? A great opening line is possible for any writer and, sometimes, even the best writers can come up a little short? Maybe. Maybe not.

The only thing this proved to me is that my thesis wasn’t necessarily borne out. The sentences that grabbed didn’t necessarily have the strongest nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Sometimes, they just had the strongest idea.

What do you think?

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Another nugget from the “webinar” last Thursday with Rachelle Gardner:

Your 1-sentence pitch (which I describe in more detail over on my website) should reflect the best of your writing, showing off strong nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

She provided three examples of good pitches, two of which were from rather well-known books–Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Help. I’ll quote the former here so you can see what she means.

A boy wizard begins training and must battle for his life with the Dark Lord who murdered his parents.

What are the strong nouns? I believe “wizard” and “Dark Lord” certainly count in that category. The strong verbs would definitely include “battle” and “murdered.” Also, I suppose you could make a case for “Dark” in the reference “Dark Lord” being actually a strong adjective.

But this got me thinking not only about 1-sentence pitches, but about opening lines of novels. Here’s a sampling of opening lines from novels I’ve read over the past year or so (I’ve also snuck in the openings of my two novels). Some novels were better than others and you may even recognize a few. You tell me which of the following are the most effective opening lines. I wouldn’t be surprised if the winners are the ones with…you guessed it…strong nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

“I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air.”

“Heck Benham welcomed the New Year of 1935 by presiding over the death of a pig.”

“Lord Everett Spencer, the Earl of Whittington, arose in a sweat well before first light.”

“Unrepaired and swollen with rain, the gate in the orchard wall refused to move until Cameron put his full weight against it and pushed, hard.”

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

“Jessica stood alone in the silent space, contemplating the Long Gallery in front of her–a beguiling, empty corridor of oak floorboards.”

“If Daphne believed in any god, it was the god of water–the pool his holy sanctuary, the daily swim her prayer.”

“It hovered like a fly trapped inside her skull, crowding out the squeaking of sneakers, the banging of the basketball.”

“As soon as James Owen heard the Spanish priest’s final amen, he stepped back from the makeshift altar in the Colorado meadow and made his legs carry him to the edge of the forest.”

“After dark the rain began to fall again, but he had already made up his mind to go and anyway it had been raining for weeks.”

“Harris walked out the back door and down through the dark garden past the antler pole, chicken coop, rabbit pens, and fruit trees.”

I’d love to hear your top three finalists based solely on the opening sentence. Pretend you’re an agent with little time to spare. Which three really grab you? (I’ll let you know all the sources and the results on Friday.)

In the meantime, I’m re-thinking my opening sentence of my yet-to-be-published second novel.

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