In the Beginning: The First Sentence

“They’re out there.”

You don’t have to be paranoid to see this sentence as a warning of some kind. That’s the opening line of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. When you discover that the next few paragraphs describe a patient in a mental ward you are not surprised.

That first sentence sets expectations for the tone of a book.

Though it should probably be one of the last items you finalize before your book or short story is finished, it can be the most important sentence in the entire work. Potential readers usually glance at the first page and, if I can judge by my own actions, decide then and there whether or not to buy the book.

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

This line starts with a little sarcastic humor and suggests that this story will lead to some kind of romantic adventure. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice delivers the goods, admittedly mostly to women. But it’s a great book.

“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

A little bit of humor, a touch of confusion and dismay, and you have the first sentence in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. And it seems perfectly logical that, within the next couple of paragraphs, the bitter protagonist is speaking to a doctor.

Some writers can start immediately with that surefire hook the minute they put pen to paper – or fingertip to keyboard. Some of us work our way up to that sentence, once we’ve written a few pages or gone deeper into our protagonist’s character.

Of course, your story can take the exact opposite tone of what your first sentence implies, but that’s like smashing your reader in the face with a pie. It might be funny for a second, but it just hurts and makes him angry.

I usually go back to the first page (75? 100 times?) and revise the first sentence and paragraph as the story matures. It’s also important for me to compare the tone of that first sentence to the last sentence – but I’ll talk about that in another post.

And lastly, I can’t resist, had great fun with this one!

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

 

 

Joseph Campbell, an Inspiration to Creative Writers

Writers are, typically, curious beings, so we find inspiration in many places, people, television, movies, books, history, even newspapers. For me, one of the most profound sources is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, first published in 1949. I purchased my latest copy a few months ago (not sure how I lost the first one I had) at a used book store. I also own several other books by Campbell. I can’t help myself.

As described on the Joseph Campbell Foundation Web site, Campbell was a traveler, professor, editor, writer, public speaker, philosopher, and, more importantly, the bridge between myths and our own lives. For The Hero With A Thousand Faces, he won the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contributions to Creative Literature. And there were many more awards to follow through the years.

Ever heard the phrase, “follow your bliss?” That was Joseph Campbell. Do you know where George Lucas’ inspiration for Star Wars came from? That was The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

He was brought into the spotlight in 1988, after his death in 1987, through the PBS program, Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. (I’ve got the DVD!)

I have always loved reading myths, Greek, Roman, Native American, Irish; but it wasn’t until I started reading Joseph Campbell that I realized why these narratives so resonated with me. Campbell’s description of the “monomyth” (a word he borrowed from James Joyce after contributing to A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork), is a universal pattern that is the essence of, and common to, heroic tales in every culture.

And those tales continue today through creative writing, whether we write mysteries, science fiction, romance, fantasy adventure – all influenced by myth and inspired by Joseph Campbell’s need to know, understand, and share the art of “following your bliss.”

Four Steps to Structure Your Book

When I began writing my first book (now out of print, working on digitalizing and republishing), I didn’t know that it would be a book. At the time, it was a fun story about characters in a Dungeons & Dragons game I made up.  A few of the players who created the characters weren’t happy about the “embodiment”, if you will, of their characters. Choosing to play a character one way in a live game and then seeing those actions on the printed page created quite a discussion when I presented the story. And some of it was not happy talk. I, on the other hand, had a whole lot of fun.

It finally dawned on me, “Hey! I can do this! I can make this a BOOK.” And off I went on a very bad start. Some of the bad stuff was still there when the book was published. But thanks to prompts from a friend, I got seriously organized. That organization and structure were the secrets to my completing the book.

  1. The first thing I did was get index cards, and create a character card for each main character, a city/place card for every important location, a racial/ethnic card for each race (yes, it’s a fantasy book and I was enamored of Tolkien’s multi-racial world), a term card for each key “foreign language” word I invented (no way do I have the talent of Tolkien, so words only, no real languages).
  2. The second thing I did was draw a map – using a few colors – adding rivers, lakes, mountains, cities, islands, etc. I used lined graph paper (I know I’m dating myself, but this was just at the dawn of the digital age) to help with perspective and taped several pages together to help see my “world” in one piece. I knew where characters were going and how they had to get there.
  3. The third thing I did was create a time line on a very large accounting tablet. The time line began before the book’s starting point, so I created back story for the main characters in a way that I could see what happened to Character A at the same time a specific incident happened to Character B. That book contained a LOT of exposition. Knowing what I know now, I would have used that information source to hold back a lot of the exposition. I would have doled that history out fewer times and in much smaller bits – and held back a lot for the sequel. It was a fantasy/adventure book, of course I planned sequels.
  4. The last, and most important, thing I did was actually follow the plan to maintain consistency throughout the book. The combination of time line, which was really the plot line, map, and detailed cards WERE my book. Everything, everyone was there, just waiting for me to pull them together in print.

Don’t get me wrong, I ended up changing a couple things; I still struggled with character development and dialog; I still worried about what I should or should not keep in the story; and I still made mistakes. I couldn’t get an established publisher interested. I lost money on co-publishing. I had to pay to get my materials back and return the copyright to me. I have no idea how many people actually read the book or liked it.

But I did it. I finished a book that followed a multi-character,  structured  plot line.  And I was proud of it. Still am.

You can do the same – even using digital versions of my pencil and paper treatments!