Saturday, July 27, 2013

Start Your Novel Like a Country Song


Why is Snoopy working so hard on the first line of his book? Is it really that important?

Here's how literary agent, Michelle L. Johnson answers in an interview on Chasing the Crazies blog. "I can’t stress enough how important it is to give a great first line. A good first line should catch the reader off guard and set up the tone of the book."

Like Snoopy, writers trying to break into the publishing industry are acutely aware about the significance of a extraordinary beginning for their story. It is rumored that literary agents receive between 100-to-200 query letters per week from debut authors seeking their representation. Most agents sign-on  between two to ten new clients each year, and the vast majority of publishers won't look at an author's book without that agent.

Yup! It's competitive in  the book world. That's why a writer has to grab an agent's attention with the first line. Talk about pressure. You could have written the next Gone with the Wind, but without a sizzling opening a potential bestseller could be tossed in a slush pile.

What make a great first line? Lucy told Snoopy to use, "Once upon a time."

What does Michelle Johnson say? "The most important thing to me is to connect with the main character. If I care about the character quickly and deeply and that character feels real to me, I will want to read the entire book. If the character is intriguing but the writing not polished, it will quickly eliminate my desire to read on."

Let's see how some recent bestsellers from my bookshelf start:

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn:   "When I think of my wife, I always think of her head."

Wild by Cheryl Strayed:   "My solo three month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had many beginnings."

The Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline:   "Through her bedroom wall Molly can hear her foster parents talking about her in the living room."

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce:   "The letter that would change everything arrived on a Tuesday."

The first thing that came to mind about these beginnings is originality. I haven't read lines like this before, so I'm assuming the author is creative. The second thing is I find myself asking why. Why does the man (Nick) in Gone Girl think of his wife's head; Why did Cheryl Stray's trek have many beginnings?; Why is Molly in foster care and what are her temporary parents saying?; Why did the letter change everything? The authors have enticed me to move on to line two. Hopefully, the intrigue will continue (and it did in all of the above books).

Some of the best beginnings I've ever heard haven't been in books, however. They're hiding in country songs. Check out these opening lines:

"In a bar in Toledo, across from the depot, on a bar stool she took off her ring." from Lucille by Kenny Rogers

"Fifteen minutes left to throw me together for Mr. Right Now, not Mr. Forever." from Settlin' by Surgarland

"I'm on the side of the road with a car that won't go and the night won't even give me a moon." Brokedown Cadillac by Brokedown Cadillac

If those lines were written at the start of a book, I'd be instantly hooked. Instead of Lucy telling Snoopy to begin with Once upon a time, she should have advised him to turn on the radio. Lots of powerful examples are just a song away.
What are some of your favorite opening lines from either a book or a song? Did the remainder of the story live up to the expectation?


Here's the entire version of Settlin' by SurgarlandA winner from beginning to end:


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Writing Wisdom From Author Carol Fragale Brill

Several years ago I took a creative writing course at a local college. The instructor asked me how I chose the books I read. I honestly replied, "I'm a front of the book store kind of buyer." She gaped at me in horror. I forgot exactly what she said, but I remember receiving a polite, but irritated lecture about mid list authors who create brilliant works.

I mulled over the instructor's point and decided to broaden my literary experiences. After all, reading only bestsellers is liking only going to arena concerts featuring superstar musicians while some of the best talent is performing at coffee houses, pubs, and intimate theaters.

Changing my habit was challenging. It's not easy finding an "I can't put it down" relatively unknown book. Right now there are over 8.5 million books offered on Hmmm. Which one should I pick?

Amazon Warehouse
No wonder they're pushing the Kindle!

That is why I'm a frequent user of the online book club, Goodreads. It makes the task of finding that perfect book so much easier.  One author I discovered on Goodreads is Carol Fragale Brill. She wrote a provocative debut women's fiction novel called Peace by Piece

Here's are the first four sentences from the back cover description:
Six years after Thomas's unfaithfulness in college, Maggie has nearly given up on love. Enter Izzie, a motherless eight-year-old, and every maternal instinct kicks in. With Izzie's dad, Maggie waits for the magic: a spark, a quiver racing up her spine. The thrill never comes, but the ordinariness of his kisses and marriage proposal make her feel safe.
You can just imagine the rest!
Who is Carol Fragale Brill and how did she embark on a novel journey? Read on...

 Carol Fragale Brill
Carol's fiction received recognition from Poets and Writers and was a readers' favorite for The Best of Philadelphia Stories. Her work has also appeared in Wide Array, New York Journal of Books, the Press of Atlantic City, and various e-zines and business journals. She earned a MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickson University. In her "day job" in Leadership Coaching and Organizational Development she frequently uses stories in training.  
Carol answers to few questions about her novel quest:
1. Your novel, Peace by Piece, explores many facets of love. Where did you get the idea for your story?
I’ve been a sucker for love stories ever since my parents read me bedtime fairytales when I was five or six—my favorites where always the ones where the girl overcame obstacles and got the prince.
I read a lot of women’s fiction, and rarely see realistically portrayed characters with anorexia and bulimia. I felt women were ready for a character like Maggie, but didn’t want her to be simply a character with an eating disorder. I wanted women to recognize themselves in Maggie’s desires and relationships and to identify with her daily struggles. We all have loves, relationships, and challenges. For Maggie, one of those challenges just happens to be an eating disorder.
2. Do you have a favorite character? If so, who and why?
As the point of view character, Maggie is the character I know the best. We lived in each other’s heads for years trying to tell this story just right. I guess that makes her my favorite. But Lilly—for her unwavering friendship, Nan—for her spirit, and Rose—for her sense of humor, are all women I’d pick as friends.
3. Have you always wanted to be a writer? What helped you the most when studying creative writing? 
I look back now and realize there were signs when I was pretty young that I wanted to be    a writer, but I misread them. As a child, I spent hours browsing in the library, and by age ten had joined my first reading club, kept a diary, and acquired a pen pal. Maybe the biggest hint of my desire to write was that more than anything, I wanted a typewriter for Christmas when I was twelve. At the time, I thought it meant I wanted to be a secretary! Now I know my heart knew I wanted to write even though my head hadn’t gotten the message yet.
What helped me most on my writing journey is absolutely the support of other writers. Like you, Peggy.
4. Writing a novel is a major undertaking. What made you sit down the first day and begin your book? How long did it take from first word to finished product?
Sometime in my twenties, I began saying I wanted to write a book. I had no idea whether it would be fiction or non-fiction. It took me another twenty years to finally join a creative writing group. Empty-handed at my first meeting, the other writers urged me to draft something to read at the next meeting. Two weeks later, I timidly read the three handwritten pages it had taken me hours to write. Our meeting host, Herb asked, “Where do you want to go with that?”
I blurted out, “I want to write a book!”
Now mind you, I had just read three dreadfully over-written, scribbly pages—if they had been typed, they would barely have filled one double-spaced page.  Yet, Herb didn’t laugh, or say you must be kidding, or (and this would have been warranted) your writing stinks. He smiled reassuringly and said, “Good, you’ve got a start. Now, one page at a time, write your book.”
That was fifteen years ago. Since then, I’ve written countless drafts of Peace by Piece, earned an MFA, and written a second novel, Cape Maybe which will be published later this year.
Developing as a writer, completing my novels, and facing down the publishing process has been daunting at times.  More than once, I have asked myself, “If I knew then what I know now, would I have even tried?”
I will always be grateful for Herb’s simple words of encouragement, inspiring me to page by page write Peace by Pieceand nudging me, word by word, to become the best writer I can be.
5. What is one of the most rewarding factors of having a book in print?
Over the years of my marriage, I caved in to pressure at work to keep my name simple and reluctantly dropped my maiden name. I don’t have children, nor do my brothers or male Fragale cousins, so our branch of the Fragale family ends with our generation. I am thrilled to see my full name, Carol Fragale Brill in print and know that in a small way, Peace by Piece will carry on our family legacy.
6. What advice do you have for people who want to write/publish a novel or memoir?
When I started writing creatively, I had no idea there were so many elements to writing craft. Put in the time to study craft—characterization, plotting, show don’t tell, creating a sense of time and place. Once you start to understand craft, grab a few books in your genre and read them like a writer, dissecting how the author uses craft to create emotion and drama. Also, the support of other writers has been so valuable to me. Find critique partners, join a writing group, and open yourself up to feedback.
Perhaps the most important lesson is learning that writing is just the beginning, rewriting is where the story becomes what it is meant to be.
Thank you Carol! I know I'm inspired. Feel free to leave a comment or question for Carol. Also, please share the name of a book/author that you loved, but hasn't made it onto the NY Times Bestseller List--YET!
Check out Peace by Piece by Carol Fragale Brill at:


Saturday, July 13, 2013

An Almost Ghost Experience

A ghost is featured in my next novel. It/she (Does a ghost have a gender? Hmmm) isn't the main character, but it/she does have a significant influence on the decisions my protagonist makes. That creates a small problem. Even in fiction, a riveting story needs to be believable. A popular example of this is Harry Potter. Magical trains really don't appear in stations and boys don't turn into wizards, but J.K. Rowling made millions imagine that these scenarios were possible, if only for a moment. What a wonderful magical escape!

Creating a realistic ghost character may not be too difficult. After all, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of reports of actual sightings.

I'm not sure where this photo was taken, but I wouldn't want to see that image on my staircase when I wander into the kitchen at night for a glass of water. Are there actual facts about ghosts? Things they all have in common?

Almost as soon as I pondered that question, a friend told me about Lily Dale, NY, a place of pilgrimage for many Spiritualists and others interested in the paranormal. A large population of mediums and Spiritualist healers reside here and they host numerous events for visitors. I Googled it and saw that Lisa Williams was holding a two day workshop at Lily Dale. Here's her bio from the site, "Lisa  has been able to communicate with the dead from a very young age.  But it was Merv Griffin who launched her extraordinary career with her own show, Life Among the Dead.  Two hit series, Voices from the Other Side and Lisa Williams Live followed, and all three are now airing around the world. Lisa has enjoyed sell-out international tours of her live show.  She has also appeared on Oprah, Good Morning America, Larry King Live, and Jimmy Kimmel Live.  Lisa is the author of two bestselling books, Life Among the Dead and Survival of the Soul. Her workshop was entitled, Connecting Beyond.

From the HBO series 

I figured I could get some good material for my novel, and I love an adventure, so decided to go.  Like I always say, the joy is in the journey.

When I told my husband about it he said, "Don't go weird on me."

I said, "Too late."

When I told my girlfriends, they pleaded to come along. I would have loved the company, but it was the weekend after July 4th and most had plans. They sent me out as the guinea pig and made me promise that we'd all venture to this spiritual hot spot another time.

I've never even been to a psychic so was a bit nervous about making a trip to the unknown by myself, but my curiosity ruled. I rose at five o'clock the Friday morning of the event and was on the road by six. My GPS suggested a travel itinerary, but as usual I disagreed. I chose a slightly longer route, but with fewer traffic lights. Before I drove onto to the interstate, I stopped for a cup of coffee and selected a summer music playlist on my iPod. I was off to explore the world of ghosts.

The cruise control was set at sixty-five miles per hour and Kenny Chesney was singing about having a beer in Mexico when the unexpected happened. An adult deer leaped in front of my car. Before I had a chance to react, we collided.

No human was hurt, but the poor deer, and my car is in the body shop for at least two weeks. Instinctively, I pulled over to the side of the road and glanced at the dying animal. I thought I would be sick. I must have been in a bit of shock because I didn't even check the car. When I was on the road again, I realized that was a mistake. Fortunately, a rest area was only a mile away so I stopped, inspected the damage, and reported the incident to the state police.

I never made it to Lily Dale. Although my car was still drivable, the passenger door wouldn't open and the headlight was smashed. The obvious next step was to head home to deal with my grief and take care of business.

When a freak accident happens, it makes me wonder about time. How a mere thirty seconds can change everything. If I had made my coffee at home, if I had followed the GPS directions, if I had driven in silence instead of connecting my iPod, I would not have hit that deer. I would have gone to Lily Dale and who knows what would have happened. Something is telling me that my trip wasn't meant to be.

Will I try to go again?

Maybe with friends. It has the potential to be a fun trip. Then again, there are a lot of books written about ghosts, and really, can't a ghost be anything you want it to be. Like John Grisham said when he was questioned about inaccuracies in The Broker, "It's all fiction, folks."

Warning:    Motorists hit over 80,000 deer on New York roadways between last July 1 and June 30 2012, according to estimates from the nation’s leading automobile insurance company.
State Farm used its own claims data and state licensed driver figures to compile the statistics.
New York drivers struck an estimated 80,262 whitetails during that period – the third highest figure in the country, behind only Pennsylvania (115,571) and Michigan (97,856).

Be Careful Out There!
One of my all time favorites, Practical Magic by one of my favorite authors, Alice Hoffman. If you feel like a getaway into a magical world, this is the novel for you.

      “There are some things, after all, that Sally Owens knows for certain: Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can.”
—Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic


Friday, July 5, 2013

To Tweet or not to Tweet?

Around this time last year, I was thrilled to learn that Northshire Bookstore of Manchester, Vermont was going to build a second store on Broadway in my hometown of Saratoga Springs. Besides their shelves of eclectic books, a knowledgeable staff, and cozy cafe, Northshire hosts events featuring authors like Chris Bohjalian and Jodi Picoult. They also support debut and less known writers with signings, offer print on demand services, and stock critically acclaimed self-published books. Clearly, this shop will be a welcome addition to our literary starved main street.

To kick off their move to Saratoga Springs, Northshire celebrated by having Neil Gaiman, author of numerous bestsellers, his latest being The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Although I had heard of Neil Gaiman, I hadn't read any of his books. Still, I wanted to attend the interview, reading, and signing to help support Northshire and encourage more events like this. I bought two tickets for $45.00, which included a signed copy of Gaiman's new book. Wow, I thought. An author who actually can charge money for an appearance. Most simply hope that someone shows up when they do a signing.

Neil Gaiman (right) being interviewed
at the Saratoga Springs City Center

I suggested to my husband, Keith that we arrive at the City Center early to get a good seat. He wasn't convinced that was necessary and was quite surprised when a ballroom-sized hall was half-full an hour before Gaiman was scheduled to appear. At show time it was filled to capacity. Fifteen hundred fans gathered to hear words read by the author, then many waited hours for Gaiman's up close and personal book signature.

Capacity Crowd for a
Meet & Greet with Neil Gaiman

As a new author, I couldn't help but wonder how a writer goes from creating comic books to bestsellers. Of course, outstanding writing is part of the formula. I just finished reading, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Gaiman's engaging story and clear, vivid prose kept the pages turning. He truly is a master of his craft. But there are so many outstanding novels that never see the top one hundred on any reading list. What's his secret?

Talent, persistence, and luck?

Absolutely, but what else?

Ask a question then count on Poets and Writers Magazine to provide the answer. When I received my copy, none other than Neil Gaiman was on the cover. The article was entitled:  Locked in the Sweetshop: Seven Questions for Neil Gaiman. The one that really caught my attention was:

You're engaged with your fans on social media in a way that not many best-selling authors are. Do you think every writer should be on Twitter?

I was intrigued by this question, because new authors are pressured to be active not only on Twitter, but Facebook, Linkedin, Goodreads, the blogosphere, etc. In fact, it is rumored that literary agents and traditional publishers consider a potential client's social media activity before signing them on. So between a day job, family, and creating an online presence, when does a writer have time to compose stories? How does Gaiman answer: Should every writer be on Twitter:

"No. Absolutely not. I do it because it's fun. People who are interested are going to sign up and stick around because I'm obviously enjoying it. If you are not enjoying it, for God's sake don't do it." He continues by saying that writers should not tweet just to promote their books. "If you want to do it, you join Twitter. Talk to people. Talk to friends. Talk to famous people. Talk with anybody you like. If you want to get something read: Establish, be there first, and then say to people who are interested and like you, 'By the way I've got a book coming out,' and people will go, 'Oh, we'll go check it out then.' As opposed to coming on and going, 'The book, the book, the book, I hate this. Are we done.'"

Gaiman has a point. How often do people go shopping for a book on Twitter or Facebook? They go there to connect with people. If someone they're communicating with and like happens to be selling a book, they just might take a look.

For me, I'm not a big fan of Twitter, but I do enjoy Facebook, blogging and Goodreads, so I'll stick with those forums, not because I'm a writer, but because it's fun for me. If selling a book happens because of it, so be it.

Some recent Tweets by Neil Gaiman on Twitter:

"Took my Clarion Class to see a preview of Pacific Rim. We stumbled out happy from the adrenaline rush of a perfect monsters v robots film."

"Happy Independence Day. Buy a book to read this summer. It's like getting a whole world as a present, only somewhat more portable."

"I have just learned that drunk frat boys group-shouting "SWEET CAROLINE AH-AH-AH" is worse than Born in the USA, in case you were wondering."

Book of the Week:

“Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. Truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane   
What's your favorite social media forum? Your least? Have you ever bought a book because you saw it on Facebook or Twitter?