I've been a bit slack lately. Dropbox didn't play nicely with my school laptop so I have a few weeks' worth of lessons to upload here.
Lesson 4: Opening Lines.
Writing a good first line is the most important thing for any writer, especially a debut novelist.
The opening line is what entices the reader to carry on. Since that first reader is typically an agent or publisher, it can mean the difference between your novel being published or not.
Even if you self-publishing, that first line is arguably the most important in the book. It can be the difference between a potential reader buying your book or skipping past the link and buying something else.
But what it MUST do is make the reader hungry for more.
Students were given a list of opening lines, taken from a list of 100 compiled by the Editors of the American Book Review (see the attached document) and asked to choose their three favourite lines. They then shared these with the class and explained what they liked most about them.
Students were then asked to write their own opening line. At this stage there was no need to worry about the story behind the opening, just to write a line that enticed the reader to want more.
As always the students rose to the challenge magnificently - with a wide range of lines encompassing all manner of genres.
Of course, that opening line is only the first step. The real trick is to continue the momentum of that first line and to keep the reader hooked. As an illustration, I used the opening paragraphs of Aldous Huxley's 'Brave New World' and J.M. Barrie's 'Peter Pan' to show how the next few lines are equally important.
Students passed their opening line to another person. That person then continued the story by writing another paragraph. Again, there was no need to worry about the over-all story, just carry on writing. The fun of this activity is that the person continuing the story will invariably have a completely different idea about the direction to take the story in. The look on students' faces when they hear what their classmate has done with their opener is brilliant.
Finally, just for fun, I've included a list of the worst opening lines. These were all entries into the Bulwer-Lytton Prize, which invites writers to come up with the worst possible opening lines. Although I have to say, some of the lines are so hilariously bad, I just might be tempted to read on... A more complete list can be found here:
As always, feel free to download and use the resources, but please leave my email address and twitter on the first slide.
Any comments/suggestions/improvements appreciated, please use the box below.
Free for non-commercial use.
(c) Paul Gitsham 2013
Thomas Leo Clancy
April 12, 1947 – October 1, 2013
The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.
Four years ago, I finally got around to trying a Tom Clancy - and I've never looked back. Over the next few years, I hoovered up his Jack Ryan series as well as all his self-authored stand-alones. Clancy's novels are not for the faint-hearted. 800-1000 pages apiece they've even shrunk the font to squeeze more in! In a time when publishers are often strict about word-length, Clancy bucked the trend.
For sure, his prose was not the most pretty -business-like rather than literary, but he could certainly tell a story. He wore his politics proudly, yet you didn't feel he was ramming them down your throat. Jack Ryan, his most famous protagonist, was - by the standards of American politics - decidedly centrist.
And then there was the detail. .. submarines were his first love and despite having no military experience, his ability to place you at the heart of those mighty vessels was a masterclass in immersion. Despite the sometimes overwhelming use of jargon and acronyms, his stories were pacy, exciting and epic.
Any good novel needs strong characters and Clancy's were expertly written. His primary protagonists grow believably over the course of a novel or even a series. If you want to start reading his Jack Ryan series I would urge you to read them in order. The middle-aged Jack Ryan in the middle books is not the same man as the young Ryan we meet in the first book or the older, wiser we see in latest. He has grown and evolved, whilst remaining true to the ideals set out in that first story.
And lest you think he may have neglected his secondary characters, fear not. I just finished reading the stand-alone cold-war thriller Red Storm Rising. The book is mid-eighties WW3 paranoia at its finest. Yet the Soviet leads are as nuanced and 3-dimensional as the Western allies. Sure, there are a few bits of cringe-worthy dialogue from the Brits (something he got better at over the years), nevertheless you felt these were real characters, with real histories, not just a cardboard cut-out doing the boring bits whilst the primary characters had all the fun.
So farewell to a wonderful writer. It's been a blast and in tribute, your latest bed-side table crusher has moved to the top of the to-read pile. Shouldn't take more than a couple of months to plough through...
Today I taught my first 6th form creative writing elective. Electives are extra-curricular activities chosen by students and run for an hour by staff who have a passion for something that may or may not be related to their subject specialism. A flattering 19 students turned up, a mixture of familiar and new faces.
After a brief course intro and brainstorming session about what a good story needs, we got down to two activities. Odd numbers meant I had to take part also :-)
1) A day in the life of...
In pairs, students had two minutes to interview each other about a typical day. I deliberately asked them to sit with someone they didn't know very well.
When the two minutes were up, they then had ten minutes to write up what they had just heard. The catch? They couldn't ask any more questions - if they didn't know something they had to make it up...
Results were quite amusing and imaginative to say the least...
2) Condense a story to 3 lines of 3 words. We did this as a small group activity. Students then read them out and the rest of the class had to guess the story.
Girl goes dancing
Girl loses shoe
Girl gets prince
Students did Braveheart, The Hunger Games and the entire Harry Potter series - that's less than 1.3 words per book by my maths... eat your heart out JK!
Next week we start with our book rota - students take it in turns to bring a book and tell us why they love (or loathe!) it, the aim being to make them read more critically.
As always, big thanks to my tutor Danielle Jawando from whom I have shamelessly pinched ideas.
Topic for the next lesson: The Narrative Arc.
I have just spent a wonderful weekend at the National Association of Writer's Groups' Annual Festival of Writing, held this year at the University of Warwick.
Despite missing the opening workshop on the Friday evening due to horrendous traffic on the M5 - a particular blow as I had hoped to use some of Steve Bowkett's creativity tips in my sixthform creative writing class - the weekend was full of fantastic ideas, fascinating people and lots of laughter (oh and I won a copy of Linda Lewis' "The Writer's Treasury of Ideas" in the raffle!).
Of course it wasn't all hard work!
There was entertainment in the form of Simon Brett. In addition to a workshop on comedy writing that unfortunately clashed with another talk that I was attending on crime writing, he kept us roaring with laughter with his brilliantly funny one-man show lampooning the myriad clichés of the police procedural. Playing multiple parts - each with their own voice - he left us laughing and also mentally tallying just how many of them we are guilty of...
Saturday night was the Gala Dinner. After an absolutely delicious 3 course meal with silver service - spent chatting with new friends, swapping stories and even helping each other solve tricky plot holes - our guest speaker Gervase Phinn took the stage.
Gervase is a former teacher, headteacher and OFSTED inspector as well as being the writer of many comedy books, mostly about schools and the wonderful pupils he's met over the years.
He had us in absolute hysterics and as a teacher myself I loved his vividly portrayed anecdotes, read from the little black note book that he carries everywhere. If you ever get a chance to hear Gervase speak, do it, it was one of the most entertaining half-hours I've ever enjoyed.
After presenting the numerous writing prizes won by NAWG members over the previous year he stayed and chatted whilst he signed copies of his various books (I got a copy of his autobiography for my Mum!)
All-in-all, my first Writer's Festival was an absolute pleasure. Apparently NAWG have booked Warwick for five years, so it will be held there again next year, probably in the last weekend of August, I'll keep you all posted. I'm definitely going - but I will be avoiding the M5!
What did writers do before the internet?
I mean seriously - where else could I find a tool for calculating times of death or pages of forensic science lecture notes that I can use to correctly describe a dead body and probable cause of death?
And without access to the web, how else could I peruse the Journal of Homicide and Major Incident Investigation, published by the Association of Chief Police Officers, without presenting myself at my local police station and asking to spend some time in their reading room?
The author Ian Rankin (Rebus) proved that taking that more direct approach can be rather dangerous.
The story goes that when he was writing his first novel (Noughts and Crosses) as a student, he hit upon the bright idea of turning up at his local police station and asking them for advice on how they would approach the solving of a murder, such as the one in his book.
The two detectives were very enthusiastic about the idea and even proposed treating him "like a suspect" so that he could gain an insight into the process. Wow! As a crime writer, that would be a dream come true and Rankin set about taking copious notes as they interviewed him.
However had he read the local newspaper recently, he would have realised that the detectives were in fact trying to solve a murder remarkably similar to the one that Rankin had just enthusiastically outlined to them...
When they asked him to account for his whereabouts on the night in question (he couldn't - he was drunk) the penny finally dropped...
Of course the internet isn't always a boon for writers and I offer up the following page from Wikipedia as evidence.
Have a good day,
The late Elmore Leonard who died this week.
Picture taken from his website.
BBC Radio 4 has just finished broadcasting an excellent series on writing called "The Sins of Literature"
It's archived on the BBC iPlayer site and you can find it here:
The Sins of Literature
The series features contributions from lots of leading authors and gives an insight into the working lives of many prominent writers.
The three programmes include:
1) Thou shalt not bore
How to avoid writing 'the bits that readers skip'
2) Thou shalt not hide
A look at how isolation can be both a help and a hindrance to writers
3) Thou shalt not steal
A discussion on plagiarism - with different viewpoints, some of which are actually rather surprising...
The timing of the shows is rather poignant as they feature heavily the "10 rules of writing" as laid down by the great crime writer Elmore Leonard, who passed away this week.
This link to the New York Times article that he wrote explains them in detail.
But here is a summarised list.
Of course the fun of the list is seeing just how many of these 10 rules you can break and get away with. Many famous writers proudly state how many rules they break and that's OK, because when all is said and done, not all of us want to be Elmore Leonard.
Rest in Peace, Sir.
PS I've broken at least 5 of those rules :-)
Many writers have been inspired by the sea.
They've written poems inspired by the sound of the crashing waves, heard voices in the screams of the seagulls and felt themselves transported to far-away lands by the smell of the salt-air.
Each to their own. I've just written two murders.
Hello and thank you for stopping by.
As you can probably tell, it's early days here but lots is happening behind the scenes.
Stay tuned for some exciting news to be announced soon.
In the meantime, my writing continues. DCI Jones is whispering in my ear, with stories itching to be told. If only I could type faster!
Welcome to the musings of Paul Gitsham, creator of DCI Warren Jones.
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