HOW TO START A NOVEL

How to Start a Novel: A Checklist Posted by Laura DiSilverio

Great opening lines

Consider the following . . .

“All this happened, more or less.”  Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”  The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

“‘What makes Iago evil?’ some people ask. I never ask.”  Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion

“The snow in the mountains was melting, and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.”  The Secret History, Donna Tartt

“I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault.”  To the Hilt, Dick Francis

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Did these first lines draw you in, make you want to go find the books and read them? Look what a single sentence can do!

No one will deny that a novel’s beginning is key to its success. Some might argue that its ending is even more important, but we’re not here to have that debate. Instead, we’re going to talk about how to start a novel—specifically, how to craft a stellar opening line and great opening paragraphs.

The writer’s goal for page one

Before we can discuss the specifics of how to start a novel, we need to talk about a writer’s goals for a story’s opening paragraph. Your primary goal is to make the reader keep reading. Sounds simple. But we know from our own experiences as readers, that it’s not so simple. How many times have you pulled a book off a library shelf, perhaps intrigued by the cover, read the first line or three, and re-shelved it? Hundreds of times, right? Do you read two or three pages, or an entire chapter while standing in the bookstore? I don’t. If a writer hasn’t snared me by the end of the first paragraph, I don’t pull out my Visa.

What keeps a reader reading?

Books and articles on how to start a novel sometimes list dozens of things that will keep a reader reading. In my experience, they boil down to only two reasons: a compelling character (not necessarily “likable”) and/or getting swept into the action. Both of these hinge on evoking curiosity, making the reader want to know more about the character or find out how the action turns out, and setting up conflict. (There is a special, third way to start your novel, that I’ll discuss at the end.)

How to start a novel with a compelling character

No one technique will snare all readers, but we can make some generalizations. For the purposes of this section, let’s consider the opening paragraph, only three sentences, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.*

Raise questions.

If your opening line or opening paragraphs raises questions in the reader’s mind, she is more likely to read on to discover the answer. The immediate question Gaiman’s first line brings to mind is “What did Shadow do to end up in prison?” We keep reading, hoping to find out.

Introduce a multi-layered, interesting character.

Shadow’s a big, apparently tough dude in prison, but he’s teaching himself coin tricks, of all things, and he loves his wife. These front-and-center contradictions pique a reader’s interest (and all promise conflict). As a bonus, he’s sympathetic. We tend to be drawn to smart, curious people (teaching himself coin tricks), and people who love their family members, so we’re pre-disposed to like Shadow, even though the first thing we learn about him is that he’s in prison.

How to start a novel with action

In his book The Watchman, Robert Crais opens with the kind of action that keeps a reader reading. (Note: This great opening paragraph is only two sentences.)

The city was hers for a single hour, just the one magic hour, only hers. The morning of the accident, between three and four A.M. when the streets were empty and the angels watched, she flew east on Wilshire Boulevard at eighty miles per hour, never once slowing for the red lights along that stretch called the Miracle Mile, red after red, blowing through lights without even slowing; glittering blue streaks of mascara on her cheeks.*

Engage the reader in the action.

Confess—you don’t want to keep reading this to find out who the woman is as much as to see if she crashes and what happens then. Will she die? Will she kill someone? Crais has roused our curiosity and promised conflict with “the accident” and what we think is an impending crash. Book beginnings like this make us keep reading.

Introduce a character.

Any character. Even when opening with an action sequence, you still need a character. There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about a screenwriter pitching a producer on his script. The screenwriter describes in great detail an opening sequence featuring a Mercedes speeding down the road, skidding off a cliff, and bursting into flames when it hits bottom. The producer asks: “Yes, but who’s in the car?”

Part of the reason we keep reading The Watchman is because there’s a woman, and she’s got fanciful ideas about the city, and maybe she’s crying (the mascara on her cheeks). She is by no means compelling (certainly not like Shadow in the earlier example), but she’s there and she’s got the hubris to think of Los Angeles as “hers.” It’s enough, in concert with the action, to make us read on.

How to start a novel with the power of language

I know I said that readers keep reading only if you arouse their curiosity by introducing a compelling character or involving them in action, both of which promise conflict. There is, actually, a third method, less often used because it requires a master’s hand, that I call “the power of language,” that does neither of those things. It can be a descriptive passage, a ruminative nugget of interior dialog, or some other bit of narrative that bowls the reader over with the beauty of the language and the narratorial voice. Consider this opening from Alice Hoffman’s The River King.

The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start. That very first year, when the whole town smelled of cedar shavings, there was a storm of enormous proportions, with winds so strong that dozens of fish were drawn up from the reedy shallows, then lifted above the village in a shining cloud of scales. Torrents of water fell from the sky, and by morning the river had overflowed, leaving the school’s freshly painted white clapboard buildings adrift in a murky sea of duckweed and algae.

There’s no character here, no action. It’s a description of a past storm and its effects. Put like that, it’s not very compelling, is it? The only whiff of present-day conflict lies in “had proven disastrous from the start,” which seems to foreshadow more disaster in the story ahead. But Hoffman’s description, her use of conflict-laden words like “precarious,” “disastrous,” and “torrents,” and that one beautiful image of a shining cloud of scales, reel us in. We want to lose ourselves in this language, in the world Hoffman is creating, and so we keep reading.

You cannot spend too much time getting your first line and opening paragraph right, making them great. Here’s your checklist for how to begin a novel:

Does it raise one or more questions?

Does it promise conflict?

Does it introduce a compelling character?

Does it sweep the reader into the action?

Does it exhibit the power of language?

If you have included one or more of those elements when you are starting your novel, you’ve probably got a great opening paragraph. (If not, you may have veered into some of the classic ways not to start a novel.)

What’s your favorite opening line of all time? Tell us on our Facebook page.

 

LAURA DISILVERIO is the national best-selling and award-winning author of 21 (and counting) novels, including standalone suspense novels and several mystery series. Her teenagers coaxed her into writing a young adult novel, and the result is the dystopian Incubation Trilogy, an Amazon bestseller. She is a past President of Sisters in Crime and a frequent keynote speaker and teacher at writers conferences and events.

 

 

A Halloween Poem: The Witch of His Dreams!

THE WITCH OF HIS DREAMS

She comes to him at Midnight,

The Witch of his Dreams,

Her eyes a forest green,

Her hair, dark and long,

Her voice, a sweet magic,

Calling out his name,

He could not help but watch her,

Dance among the flowers,

Beneath a waxing moon,

She whirls and cast her spells,

Upon him,

A haunting chant she sings,

And soars into his soul,

On gossamer wings,

She whispers things he longs to hear,

Of secret longings in his ear,

She enchants him with delights,

Though she must fly into the night,

She tells him of her love,

And casts her spells upon him,

To love him evermore,

Though never shall she return,

For she was only ever,

The Witch of His Dreams.

Composed by K. D. Dowdall October 2017

An Interview With Judy Rumsey Bullard, Book Cover Designer, This Saturday, October 20th!

 

 

 

 

 

As writers and authors, we know or should know, the importance of creating a book cover that shines. The cover should also represent as much as possible what the novel is all about. On October 20th, 2018, I will be interviewing Judy Rumsey Bullard, a very talented Book Cover Designer, who will talk to us about Book Cover Designing. She will be displaying 6 more of her great designs, and will talk to us about what it takes to be a successful Book Cover Designer! Here are three Book Cover designs that she designed for three of my novels and I love each one!

 

Anwen and Aodhan, A Celtic Short Story by K. D. Dowdall

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(this is a previous post I did from 3 years ago)

The year is 500 A.D. in the wilds of Ireland where Druid kings rule and the Gods and Goddesses speak to the high priests in each tribe throughout the land. It is a time when lives depended on the spirits in Oak trees, Standing Stones, and nature’s creatures to guide with wisdom, each of the lives of every member of each tribe. Through the magic of Runes, each inscribed with ancient symbols, the future is foretold.

Anwen, a Celtic maiden, named for her beauty, as custom demands, is assigned at birth to marry a local Chieftain. She grew up to become a beautiful and desirable maiden. Anwen did not wish to marry the much older Chieftain of her tribe, Cathal, a powerful warrior. This was not because she was childish or selfish. It was in a dream she was told of her true love that existed somewhere in the land of her ancestors.

Her years went by and still she dreamed, although by now, she had married the older chieftain and bore him a son and a daughter. Anwen, now the healer of the tribe with powers given to her by the Goddesses dutifully went about her healing with love and care, yet inside, her deep loneliness cried out to the Goddesses to grant her the power to see her true love that she had dreamed of all of her life.

On a star-filled Beltane evening, with all the neighboring tribes celebrating together the rituals of fertility and renewal, they gathered around the high priest and the great wooden tower of fire to give prayers to the Gods and Goddesses for a bountiful year. Suddenly, as Anwen watched the Beltane fire as though the flames would reach the stars and out shine them, she felt a knowing, a certainty. Her true love was near, and her heart fluttered with joy.

Aodhan, a Chieftain from the farthest reaches of the land, arrived with his fellow tribesmen and women to Celebrate Beltane and unity with all the other tribes. Aodhan, a widower with no children, was father to all, in his small tribe in the far away mountains by the northern sea.

For Aodhan, named for Ireland’s ancient spirits of fire and light had the power of knowing, this, his gift from the Gods. He watched the other tribal revelers be enraptured by the tower of fire, as the flames roared and filled the night sky, Aodhan felt the terrible power of this omen, of things to come. Aodhan, looked at the moon, as a flicker of blood red crossed its path, foretelling brutal future. It bodes ill for the coming times.

Aodhan turned his back to the celebration and saw the most beautiful maiden that made his heart beat wildly. She was smiling at him as though she knew him, had known him and he felt this longing, a life time of longing and knew she was that need in him, his true love.

Aodhan approached her as though he had known her since the heavens formed the sky and starlight was born. He held out his hand and she hers. They held each other knowing without saying a word that they had at last found each other. The Goddesses had answered Anwen’s prayers.

As they held each other and gazed deeply into each other’s soul, memories long forgotten of centuries passed filled their being, knowing they had lived and loved before and that they would again one day, in another life. Their lips touched, but once, and their souls embraced and for that moment, they were one, Anwen the beautiful and Aodhan of fire and light.

The night hurried by as they sat on a hillside, looking at the stars until the morning sun crested the Celtic hills with colors of lavender, pink, and gold that bloomed across the sky. Anwen and Aodhan’s fingertips parted with the dawn light and both slowly turned away from each other, knowing their time would come in whatever future the Gods and Goddesses deemed for them. It was enough, this gift of knowledge, knowing that a future life would bring to them, an eternal embrace until the end of time.

Why We Celebrate March 14th – Happy Pi (TT) Day !

 Pi Day spotlights one of math’s most seductive numbers! by Dan Rockmore.

Why do we celebrate the number pi (π) on March 14? Because it’s the fourteenth day of the third month of the year, and 3 and 14 are the first three digits of pi’s decimal expansion. If you really want to show you’re a pi aficionado, you can start your celebration at 1:59 p.m. and 26 seconds, because with those five additional digits you have pi’s first eight digits: 3.1415926.

Those eight numbers are just the beginning of pi’s true value. Unlike most numbers we encounter in everyday life, pi has digits to the right of the decimal point that go on not just for a long time but forever — and in an unpredictable way. The Swiss mathematician Johann Heinrich Lambert proved that in 1761.

The short way to say this is that pi is an irrational number, one that cannot be represented as a fraction and thus has an infinite and never-repeating decimal expansion. And since the 19th Century, pi has been known to be transcendental, meaning that no combination of its powers can add up to a whole number. This distinguishes it again from more familiar irrational numbers like the square root of two (whose second power is equal to two).

REAL-WORLD REFLECTIONS

You don’t have to be a mathematician or even a “math person” to find pi fascinating. We all learned as students that pi represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, or, as we might put that mathematically, π = c/d. But not every student fully appreciates the fact that the ratio stays constant no matter how big or how small the circle.

Pi is an ideal. It characterizes the relationship between measurements of a perfect circle in a Platonic world. But we see its real-world reflection all around us. It’s present in coins, plates, those circular irrigation ponds you see from airplanes, and other familiar objects — pi is embedded within them all. The same is true for three-dimensional objects like spheres and cylinders. As long as something is round, pi applies.

And pi isn’t just about round things. Famously, it’s a piece of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, which quantifies the level of precision one can obtain when making measurements at the subatomic level. Closer to home, pi is part of a formula used to price investment risk. Pi both leaves nothing to chance and helps measures chance.

ANCIENT ORIGINS

Pi is as timeless as it is unchanging. Our ancestors knew about pi at least as far back as 4,000 years ago, even if a Greek letter wasn’t used to denote it until 1647. The Bible contains an implicit reference to pi: A cylindrical vat used by Hiram in the “Book of Kings” is said to measure 10 cubits across and 30 cubits around. (30/10 = 3, which at least gives the first digit of pi.) The ancient Egyptians and Babylonians made their own estimates of pi’s value, and Archimedes famously used a clever geometric argument to place the value of pi between 22/7 and 223/71.

While both of those fractions come close to representing the actual value of pi, we’re always coming up with better ways to express pi’s value. Recent attempts tend to rely not on geometry but on mysterious formulas like the one often taught in first-year calculus:

 Mathematical formula

And this is just one of many “infinite series” representations for pi.

The Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan — you may know him from the 1991 book and 2015 movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity” — owes his fame, in part, to his pursuit of elaborate formulas for the reciprocal of pi, or “one over pi” in the common parlance. Ramanujan’s formulas reveal mysterious connections between pi and patterns in prime numbers — whole numbers like 2, 3, 5, and 7 that are divisible only by themselves and one.

GOING TO EXTREMES

Fascinating as they are in their own right, formulas like Ramanujan’s provide the starting point for the “extreme computing” efforts to calculate pi we’ve all read about in recent years. In 2016, computer whiz Peter Trueb made headlines when he used an ingenious computational configuration to calculate pi to mind-blowing 22,459,157,718,361 decimal points.

Related

While some people use computers to calculate ever-more-accurate values for pi, others memorize pi to thousands of digits and then recite them aloud in a public setting — as if reciting a sonnet for robots. The current Guiness Book world record holder here is Rajveer Meena from India, who in 2015 recited 70,000 digits of pi before stopping.

So while we differ in the ways we think about pi and work with pi, we can all come together today to celebrate the seductive powers it has over our minds. So on this March 14, take a moment to contemplate this remarkable constant — maybe over a slice of pie. Here in Dartmouth’s math department, we’ll have a nice selection — and we’ll start at precisely at 1:59 and 26 seconds.

Just for good measure.

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A Review: Wicca Girl, The Flowering

 

 

 

 

 

This story is a heartfelt journey of the present and past world of wise women, often referred to is Wicca Healers that were mercilessly hunted, tortured and executed for witchcraft. Califia Montalvo, the author, weaves a story rich with complex characters, mystery and suspense. The protagonist is Simi, a young girl who is mystified at the supernatural events that occur and appear to be connected to her. As she matures into womanhood she learns to harness this ability to create forces that can change people’s lives. She eventually learns of a surprising explanation of why hers is a life always at the forefront of what appears to be mysterious paranormal events.

There are journeys in this engaging story that relate to the present, in times past, throughout history, that enfold into the story regarding the treatment of women healers during the time of the witch trial executions that lasted over a hundred years, where tens of thousands of women healers were burned at the stake. This historical matter adds to the complexity of the story in a well-thought out manner.

Montalvo’s story is a plethora of fascinating details regarding the women that were persecuted for their intelligence, their communion with nature, and what others saw as inexplicable knowledge deemed mysterious, even evil, as they used their ability heal others. I found this novel to be well-written with interesting details that made me glad I did not live in an early time when any woman could be charged with witchcraft. I highly recommend The Wicca Girl, the Flowering.