INTRO BY RICK: This week we have a special treat for our faithful blog readers. The first of our promised guest posts is by noted sci-fi and fantasy author Robert Vardeman, whom we thank for taking the time to share his insights.
As I looked at the Wikipedia article, I found it interesting that he was involved with the Tom Swift III and IV series. Part of my misdirected youth was spent reading the Tom Swift Jr. series (II), and I still have the complete set of 33 books. Those books, along with the novels of Andre Norton were a strong influence in my interest in science and later in writing sci-fi and fantasy.
I’d also like to note that I was planning on doing a series of posts on openings, so Robert’s guest post on openings came as a very pleasant and timely surprise.
SCOTT’S NOTE: I, too, have been enthralled by some of Bob’s work. Back in the mid-80s, I read two of his series: The War Of The Powers, and The Jade Demons. And when I say I read them, I mean I read them so many times the covers fell off. Literally. I bought new ones recently, when he and I began communicating by email. I want to add what a great thrill and an honor it is for me, as a relatively new author, to be able to work with someone as established in the art as Robert Vardeman.
–Rick & Scott
Now, without further ado, please welcome Robert Vardeman to “Write Well, Write to Sell.” We hope you enjoy the post by this distinguished author.
Too Outrageous for Words
by Robert E. Vardeman
“He ate my two-headed rattlesnake. I know he did but I can’t prove it.”
That is the way I started my short story “Me and Mr. Jones.” I wanted it to be attention grabbing, pose a question about what was happening and, most important, hint that more was going to happen and if you, the reader, weren’t along for the ride you would miss something fun.
Too many stories (and novels) begin with dreary descriptions or dry recitation that will turn off the reader. If the description is unusual, it might be fine, but it had better be really out of the ordinary. Posing a question that makes the reader curious works. Starting with action is also good–but it ought to be in the middle of the action. The protagonist already ought to be thrown to the wolves, settle the matter, then go back and explain how this came about. By then your reader is well into the story and is hooked.
That’s the word you want to keep in mind for that first sentence, the first paragraph, probably the first page. You want the reader to commit the time and effort to getting so far into an intriguing story that it would be a shame to stop there. Grab the reader with a dynamite title, then startle and astound, bewilder and question and thrill with the hook–that first sentence. In today’s world of choices, you need to make your story more attractive by promising a rousing tale. You are in competition with all other books (direct competition) as well as video games, movies, and TV (indirect competition).
One advantage of ebooks is the ability to sample the first couple chapters. If the title (and cover) appeals, a reader starts reading and gives you the first (and maybe only) chance to clinch the deal.
Some of my favorite opening lines. Stuart Kaminsky’s Murder on the Yellow Brick Road starts: Someone had murdered a Munchkin. [I defy anyone reading that not to read the next paragraph to find out what’s going on (and it is a good mystery!)]
Robert Howard’s The Road of the Eagles: The loser of the sea fight wallowed in the crimson wake. Just out of bow-shot, the winner limped away toward the rugged hills that overhung blue water. [The action is past, but who lost and what must the injured winner face?]
Angela Carter’s The Loves of Lady Purple: Inside the pink-striped booth of the Asiatic Professor only the marvelous existed and there was no such thing as daylight. [This sets the scene, hints at things beyond the ordinary, and yet gives some description.]
Or from my favorite s-f books, Dune by Frank Herbert: In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul. [This introduces a lot of the background and yet confounds with why the crone has come to see Paul. You don’t need to know who the characters are, but you find out soon, and the incongruous images come into focus.]
It might be an overstatement to say the first sentence is the most important in the story, but it is undeniable that great effort should be put into crafting it. Otherwise, the reader will never get to the parts that are, to you the writer, the most important.
If you want to read the entire story “Me and Mr. Jones,” you can snag it for free at my online store. (www.robertevardeman.com)