The First Page

First Page

Guilt

You and I are guilty of many things. We eat the last doughnut. We skip to the end of books and movies. We forget to water  mom’s favorites plant when she’s out of town and sometimes we’re guilty of asking a co-worker when they’re due when all they did was eat one to many pizzas.

It is true, not everyone is guilty of such things and for those of you who have never experienced such drama I applaud you.

But there is one thing we all have in common.

We all judge books by their cover 

I am a sucker for old book stores. Give me an old building crammed full of books, a creaky floor and walls in dire need of a paint job and I’m hooked.

Thankfully Eugene, Oregon is full of books and old buildings. The town is also full of people like me in search of the perfect story.

I am a sucker for dazzling book covers and equally dazzling openings. I have no doubt the greatest book I have yet to read is hiding in a nearby bookstore wrapped in a lifeless book jacket along with a poorly written first page.

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The Ever Important First Page

It is not fair to the author that there are so many people like me. All of us should look beyond the cover and the first page. A book is a relationship between reader and writer and like all relationships time and patience is a necessity.

But life isn’t fair is it and that is why a writer needs to be at the top of their game on that very first page.

A writer needs to concentrate on the one thing they can control: Their writing. In that first page they need to grab the reader and hold them just long enough to capture their curiosity.

As a reader walking around a book store we’ve all been there. An opening line catches our attention. We turn the book over and read the back. We hesitate and hold it a little longer. We walk around looking for something better and if it doesn’t happen, we buy it.

If you listen closely you can almost hear the author celebrating.

Last Sunday morning I played a little game. I grabbed random books off my shelf to see what exactly it was that caught my eye. I’ll have to be honest, some were a mystery. How they made their way to my shelf I’ll never know, but the ones I’ve included below were a no-brainer.  

Below is a list of some of the books I picked. I included the author, title and the first line or paragraph. I also added my two-cents to it all.

Check it out:

Stephen King – IT: The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end, began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.

This read like a first person account…..so far as I can tell…which immediately caught my eye. The word terror and paper boat caught my curiosity. But the biggest one of all was at the very beginning….if it ever did end….I had to know.

 Stephen King – The Gunslinger – The Dark Tower 1: The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

I’ll be honest, I am not a fan of the Gunslinger series but aside from that this is the best opening line I have ever read. One sentence. One comma break. The entire story is told. Incredibly hard to do but the master did it.

M.K. Martin – Survivor’s Club: Subject 12 had forgotten her name. She’d forgotten her boyfriend and her dog, her parents, her friends, school. The only thing she remembered was that horrible day.

There was no first name, just Subject 12. Why? She forgot her life. Why? The final three words sold me…..that horrible day. Perfect!

Lawrence Sanders – McNally’s Puzzle: She slapped my face.

It made me laugh and I don’t know why. I didn’t know if this was a comedy a drama or what. Those four words drew me in. I wanted to know more.

Keven Wilson – The Family Fang: Mr. and Mrs. Fang called it art. Their children called it mischief.

It seemed backwards to me. Shouldn’t the children be full of mischief? What exactly were the parents calling art and why were their kids embarrassed?

J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. They were the last people you’d expect to be involved in anything strange or mysterious, because they just didn’t hold such nonsense.

I did not want to do Harry Potter. I didn’t buy the series, my kids did. But there it was, within reach so I looked at it and I’ll be damned, JK hooked me. It was so real and honest. This was the Dursley’s voice. I could feel the uncomfortable tone in their voice and I had to know why. What strange and mysterious event happened to them?

Tori Carrington – Dirty Laundry: One of the great things about being a private dick – aside from saying those words and presuming to lay ownership to something possessed only by men – is that it gets you out of going to Sunday Mass.

I’m sure some people would have found this offensive. I’m not one of those people. This is one of my favorites. It was so good I was afraid to put it down. I just knew the other people in the aisle would grab it.

Robert McCammon – Boy’s Life: I want to tell you some important things before we start our journey.

I knew this story was about an eleven year old told in his words. The important things he had to tell me drew me in.

Tim Dorsey – The Stingray Shuffle: Uh-oh. Lenny slipped me LSD. That can be the only exception.  

Clearly something happened and it wasn’t good. Obviously it was Lenny’s fault. Or was it? The main question for me – What happened during the LSD trip?

 So there you have it. Put everything you have in that first page. It could be the difference between a dusty shelf in a bookstore or a reader’s home.

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SPONTANEOUS FRIDAY

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Young and Dumb

A long time ago when I was a kid I liked people just like me. If you were loud and obnoxious and just a little rude you belonged in my circle. But if you were none of those you did not exist. The world included me and my kind and nothing more.

Yes, I was young and dumb, but one day it all came to a crashing end.

 

Moving Objects

I was working at a restaurant full of people just like me. We were loud, obnoxious and for reasons I’ll never understand – Employed.

I had been there for almost a year. I remember faces coming and going. Those who were in my cycle I missed when they let but those who were not I barely noticed.

For many they were nothing more than moving objects. Their lives non-existent. Their names a mystery.

One evening while on a break I announced with my usual excitement that a movie was coming to town that I wished to see. Figuring my circle of friends would join me I began making plans for an evening of fun.

To my dismay all of them said no.

How could they, I asked. Clearly we were all the same. Not only did we eat the same food, laugh at the same jokes and work at the same place, we obviously liked the same movies.

 

Quiet and Polite

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Grumbling and mumbling I began to face the reality that I would be going at it alone. The mere thought of doing anything alone was shocking and saddening. But the movie had to be seen. I was told it was a classic and the experts were never wrong.

Without warning a soft voice appeared to my right. She was about my age or maybe a little younger. I was pretty sure we worked together for a long time or did she just start? Do I know you, I wondered. You look familiar.

She was quiet and polite and sort of invisible. Another one of those moving objects I told you about. I glanced at her name tag and remembered we worked the same shift.

We saw one another 30 hours a week but for the life of me I had no clue who she was.

 

The Unexpected Date

Overhearing my complaints she too was counting the days for the movie’s arrival. She confessed she was going alone and suggested we go together.

Guessing we’d have nothing to talk about but at the same time not wanting a solo trip I agreed.

Looking back the movie was forgettable but the company was not.

Thanking her for coming along I suggested we treat ourselves for a quick pie and coke at a nearby restaurant. I figured our conversation would be just as quick.

Three hours later I paid the bill.

 

The Amazing Evening

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This quiet and polite person who I saw, foolishly, as an object was funny, curious, and smarter than I’ll ever be. I realized than it was I who was the object not her and a dumb one at that.

It wasn’t long before I began to question the circle I was a part of. Thoughts begin to surface – Is there more to life than what I know?

Her father was a minister. Her mother a teacher. I was not the religious type nor all that interested in advanced education. Keep in mind I knew all the answers. Why would advance education apply to me?

But as our friendship grew so did my interest in other things.

 

Branching Out

How many others like her are out there, I wondered. Could it be that the quietest person in the room is the most amazing person I’ll ever meet?

I can still remember the thrill just thinking about that.

I started branching out. I learned religion, farming, planting trees, hanging out with people who were nothing like me. At one point I learned the proper way of handling baby chickens. Trust me, there’s a system.

And my circle? Let’s just say it crumbled.  

I cannot remember the movie we saw or the others that followed but I do remember the lessons I learned.

We kept in touch throughout the years. The last I saw of her was just before I moved away. Looking back she had a lot to do with the way I am today.

Amazing how one person can change things especially when they were once viewed as nothing more than an object.

Was I really that young?

As for you, my favorite reader, the next time you’re out at a gathering search for the quietest person in the room. Don’t be surprised if they are secretly the life of the party.

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Happy Friday Everyone!!!

What We Learn by Watching Movies

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Have you ever watched a movie and asked why it was so good or in some cases why it was so lousy?

Every now and then I’ll catch myself asking these questions. Most of the time I’ll do it because I cared about the plot or the characters. This is true for the ones I didn’t like.

Last week I dug out a movie I hadn’t seen in years. The movie was Splash. A 1984 comedy/romance staring some new guy named Tom Hanks.

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I was in the mood to watch an oldie but goodie and after watching it I started to remember just how good it was.

The 1980’s had a handful of classics – Amadeus, Platoon and Driving Miss Daisy – but comedies were slim pickings. Sure, there were some great ones but in most cases the writers tried too hard for laughs. The storyline was weak or the casting was wrong.

But Splash was different. It could have been a disaster, instead it was one of the best movies of the decade. At least I thought it was.

Curious as to why I thought it succeeded I broke it down and gave the movie a closer look.

I’m glad I did.

The writers created a wonderful balance between comedy and drama. One seemed to feed off the other. They were a team. Not once did I feel one needed the spotlight more than the other.

Tom Hanks played the lonely hearts brother. A responsible business owner going through a recent breakup. The other brother, played by John Candy, was the comedy portion of the team. He was immature, careless and had no boundaries.

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The writers could have messed this up. They could have gone over the top, forced the story line with punchlines, creating phony scenes and empty characters. Instead they took their time. We got to know the brothers by watching how they handled good or bad situations. We understood through their dialog and interactions who they were. Nothing was forced.

 Daryl Hannah played Tom Hanks love interest.

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She was part mermaid part human. It would have been easy and tempting to focus on the mermaid’s side of the story. The writers could have given us endless backstory or side characters in her underwater world. Instead, they focused on the moment. It was as though they were telling the audience to come up with their own answers.

For me this is why I liked her. The mystery drew me in. Where, if I were told everything, I might have become less interested.

At first she struggled to interact with humans but as the story unfolded we learned she was a quick learner. It was never explained and it didn’t matter. The writers challenged us to figure it out.

As I thought about it a lot of it had to do with Tom Hank’s character. We were struggling right alone with him and because we liked him and we wanted him to succeed, we were fine being confused and searching for clues just like him.

Eugene Levy, one of my favorites, played the antagonist. Or so we thought. His goal was to expose the mermaid’s true identity but grew frustrated when nobody believed him.

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At first Levy’s comedy approach turned his character into a clown. This could have been a deal breaker but the writers were one step ahead of us. As with John Candy’s character, the writers could have gone too far. They could have turned the viewer off and slowed the pace. Instead, they turned Levy’s character from the antagonist to one of the heroes.

As a viewer the writers did two things that turned this movie into a success:

  • When the mermaid was exposed and taken into captivity John Candy’s character grew. He realized in that moment how happy his brother was with her in his life and understood what really matter.
  • Levy’s character experienced the same thing. He saw the hurt that he created and took responsibility. Immediately the audience went from hating him to caring about him. We now had four heroes instead of two.

I will stop here just in case some of you have never seen the movie. Check it out sometime and when you do use it as a learning tool like I did.

Splash succeeded by concentrating on the characters first, plot second. The writers went below the surface and tugged at our hearts. By doing so we were allowed to see their faults. We saw tiny bits of ourselves which gave us more reason to care.

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Every now and then I’ll watch a movie that works. Splash doesn’t work for everyone but for those like me it not only worked but taught me as well.

Someday when you have time to kill do what I did and find one of your favorites. But this time, instead of watching it break it down and discover why it worked for you. What did it teach you as a writer that you didn’t know before?

The results may surprise you.  

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Puzzles and Novels

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The other day I had an idea. It was an idea I had never tried before but one that I wish I had. What if I took my scribbled chapter outlines and turned them into the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle?

When you think about it all we’re doing is creating a puzzle. As the reader turns the page the puzzle we create becomes clearer and clearer. Pretty cool, if I say so myself.

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Going with that thought I took each page and placed them on the floor in order that I wrote them. At the time I didn’t think much of it. I knew each page by heart and figured I’d be reading them at a different angle.

But that wasn’t the case.

Once I laid them out something strange begin to happen. A movie of sorts immediately clicked in my head. Within seconds, like someone turning on an old movie reel, my scribbly notes began to move.

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I could see my characters in action. Talking, walking living in the world I gave them. They were coming alive in our only room with carpet.

It wasn’t the little things that I saw. No highlights or bit parts or the epic ticking clock complete with bad guy vs. good guy….spoiler alert! No. It was everything.

Including the stuff that didn’t work.

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Identifying the bad stuff I made a note on the pages and took them out and rewrote them. I experimented with a few pages, placed them back where they belonged and presto….

The movie I had created looked a little clearer.

Like you, I’ve read all kinds of advice. Some I’ve used, most I have not. But one thing I have never tried is this. I’ve heard writers talk it but it always sounded kind of nutty.

Why would I physically arrange notes on the carpet? The cats would have a field day. But cat field day or not, as you can see, it worked.

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As I look at it now it all makes sense. I’m a visual person. Give me directions full or words and I’ll probably get lost. But give me a google map, now we’re talking.

So much of what we do is planning. Even the pantsers are planners in some way, but all of us can agree a game plan is always in the mix in one way or another.

Starting a novel is exciting and grueling….mostly grueling. But what if we discover something to ease the pain? I think we can all agree a little pain easing is worth a try.

I’m now planning on giving my notes a once over. I’ll make them a little tighter. Maybe shift the story a bit and see where it goes.

Whatever I do I’ll continue to playout my little movie. Hey, it works for me and let’s face it – This writing thing is hard and if we can find something that works, good for us.

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Most of all if that something involves cluttering the carpet with pages of scribble so be it. Who needs all that gruel?

 

Happy 4th!!!

To all of my American friends please have yourself a fun and safe 4th of July. To my other friends from around the world I will see you next week. The 4th of July celebration is taking me out of town through the weekend.

Safe to all and I’ll see you next week.

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