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Why Stephen King Spends ‘Months and Even Years’ Writing Opening Sentences

Friends,

Books (1)A wonderful, informative piece from Joe Fassler, a columnist for The Atlantic for writers (and readers) on first sentences:

Stephen King brings us two new novels in 2013 — one on shelves already, and the other forthcoming. In June, Joyland was published by Hard Case Crime, an imprint showcasing classic and contemporary crime writers in paperback editions dressed up like vintage pulps: Stylized covers feature ominous taglines, brooding private dicks, and draped-out femme fatales. Though Joyland’s story is haunted by a terrifying killer of young women, the book mostly chronicles the yearning rhythms of one adolescent summer — carny talk and plushie toys, boardwalks and broken hearts. In The New York Times, Walter Kirn aptly compared the book to a fair ride — it’s brief, thrilling, and sweetly quaint.

King’s second book, Doctor Sleep, which will be published in September by Scribner, is everything Joyland isn’t. On his website, the author calls it a “return to balls-to-the-wall, keep-the-lights-on horror.” This long-awaited sequel to 1977’s The Shining revisits traumatized child psychic Danny Torrance — he goes by Dan, now — all grown up and still struggling to understand his frightening gift. “It’s a good book, a scary book, but I wonder if some people won’t like it as much as the original,” King told me. That book’s pre-Kubrick readers are 35 years older now. “I can hear everyone saying, ‘That wasn’t so scary. The first onereally scared me,” he said. “Well, that’s because you read the first one when you were 13 fuckin’ years old, hiding under the covers with a flashlight!”

When I asked him to share a favorite passage for this series, King couldn’t choose between two favorites; both, we noticed, were first sentences. So, he analyzed both his choices as part of a broader discussion about opening lines — a topic not addressed at length in his memoir-as-craft-manual,On Writing. King paid tribute to Douglas Fairbairn and James M. Cain, looked back on favorite intros he’s written, and explained how he approaches a book’s first moments. Stephen King spoke to me by phone from his home in Maine.

When I asked him to share a favorite passage for this series, King couldn’t choose between two favorites; both, we noticed, were first sentences. So, he analyzed both his choices as part of a broader discussion about opening lines — a topic not addressed at length in his memoir-as-craft-manual,On Writing. King paid tribute to Douglas Fairbairn and James M. Cain, looked back on favorite intros he’s written, and explained how he approaches a book’s first moments. Stephen King spoke to me by phone from his home in Maine.

Stephen King: There are all sorts of theories and ideas about what constitutes a good opening line. It’s tricky thing, and tough to talk about because I don’t think conceptually while I work on a first draft — I just write. To get scientific about it is a little like trying to catch moonbeams in a jar.

But there’s one thing I’m sure about. An opening line should invite the reader to begin the story. It should say: Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this.

How can a writer extend an appealing invitation — one that’s difficult, even, to refuse?

We’ve all heard the advice writing teachers give: Open a book in the middle of a dramatic or compelling situation, because right away you engage the reader’s interest. This is what we call a “hook,” and it’s true, to a point. This sentence from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice certainly plunges you into a specific time and place, just as something is happening:

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious.

This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do. In “They threw me off the hay truck about noon,” we can see right away that we’re not going to indulge in a lot of foofaraw. There’s not going to be much floridity in the language, no persiflage. The narrative vehicle is simple, lean (not to mention that the book you’re holding is just 128 pages long). What a beautiful thing — fast, clean, and deadly, like a bullet. We’re intrigued by the promise that we’re just going to zoom.

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Posted by on July 26, 2013 in Featured Guest blogs

 

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An Excerpt from THE ELEMENTS Book I

Friends,

Today I wanted to share a brief excerpt from Book I of my upcoming, alternative Earth fantasy – THE ELEMENTS, which I began in 2003 after seeing the news coverage of the beginnings of the war in Iraq. I have talked about my fictional writing mostly on my website, but I wanted to share some it with you all. Enjoy! 
Zuri, the flesh must be divided evenly,” instructed Leena, pointing to her too generous cuts of the meat given to them by the recently returned warriors. 

 “You mean less the largest portion which goes to the Queen,” The young woman stopped cutting the flesh in front of her, took a deep breath and started dividing the portions already cut into smaller pieces.

 “I hear she doesn’t even eat it,” said another.

 “She doesn’t. She doesn’t like the meat from wild beasts and says that it smells bad. I tell her that it’s all of the meat we have now. She just drinks the muthi and makes me take the stew away most days– I give it to the those in need of it,” said Olufemi. 

 “You give it to Wasswa,” teased Nia as she walked by Olufemi carrying a basket full of fruit that somehow she had to divide between so many. 

 “We give the best to the King’s family while the people are starving. It isn’t enough and it never is,” said Olufemi. 

 “You can ignore me all you want Olufemi but I see the way he looks at you…and you he,”

 “He is a warrior and I am a servant, bound to the king and his family. These eyes wander no further than the Queen’s izindlu,” said Olufemi without looking up from her task.

 “We do as we are told and we are lucky to have this much meat. The days of hunger will end and we will have rain again. King Nkosana has shared this from the ancestors, that we will suffer for a short time and the Kishnu will kneel at our feet. It is prophesy!”

 “Yes, Leena of course,” said Olufemi, nodding her head in agreement.

 “Leena, you are old and sound just like the King. Do you have any thoughts that are your own? I’m tired of the prophesy and I want to eat everyday. I’m tired of hearing about the ancestors, what about the living? Why can’t we till the soil or go fishing in the sea for ourselves? Why must only Nkosana provide?!” asked Nia for the third time since the last rain.

 Without warning, the elder cook rushed to the girl, raised her right hand up above her,slapping her left cheek with so much force the girl staggered backwards. All of the others stood where they were, speechless. The young cook’s pride alone was enough of a dam to keep tears from her face. She raised her hands to the left side of her face for a moment, then dropped them and faced Leena as if she was ready to strike her back. 

 “Nkosana comes from a line of kings too great in number for you to count, child. He has always provided us with food even when the land refuses to. We don’t have to sweat in the hot sun or suffer the dangers at sea like Kishnu women – faces painted black, climbing trees,weapons in hand like men, with not a trace of themselves left recognizable, except for bosoms. Your tongue is a young child running ahead, beyond the reach of your father’s spear, into the jaws of a lion. Our duty is to prepare the food given to us by our king. Never again let Nkosana’s name pass your lips unless followed by praise or gratitude!”

Nia, wait! Don’t leave!” yelled Olufemi as the girl turned and rushed out of the room so quickly a breeze tickled each of them.

 “I’ll go after her,” announced Olufemi while cleansing her hands with water from a potjiepot in front of her.

 “No. There’s too much work to be done and every hand is needed. She wants you to come after her as you always do when she’s in trouble. Leave her to her anger. It will have abandoned her by night fall,”

Leena, she’s my sister. She is young and needs me. Let me go to her. I’ll bring her back to finish the cooking,”said Olufemi.

 Leena turned to Olufemi and embraced one of her shoulders by extending one of her arms.

Olufemi, you’re loyal to your sister and that is good, but now your duty to Lungizwe requires your loyalty. You cannot share it. Let her be,”

 “Yes, she’ll be fine. She always is,” said Olufemi with a faint smile. By now the others were listening but had returned to their respective duties. Leena and Olufemi returned to theirs, all in silence.

 

Excerpt from THE ELEMENTS Book I Copyright 2012. All rights reserved. www.theelementsbooks.com

 
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Posted by on May 20, 2013 in Fictional Writing

 

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If I Could Give New Writers Advice, I’d Start With…

I’ll cut to the chase:

1. READ, READ, READ – You learn from the great writers. For dialogue I learned from Hemingway, figurative language from Richard Wright & to name a contemporary author, Janet Fitch. The point is that certain authors have certain strengths & you can learn from them by reading, from Shakespeare to The Odyssey to Zora Neale Hurston. READ!

2. WRITE, WRITE, WRITE – I have observed many writers focusing on marketing, discussions on social media about writing, illustrations, maps, plot synopsis (over & over again) – just write the book already. Write it without continuously editing it as you write (even I have trouble with this). Get it out of you, then worry about other things. Marketing is meaningless if you wrote & published a crappy book.

3. Find a great, supportive but honest critique group. Develop thick skin. If you put out a sample chapter for people to read be ready for any level of criticism. Do you want people to lie to you & pat you on the back or help you make it better? Decide. If you want the lie, please don’t ever ask me to critique your work. Also, give & take in critique groups. In other words, you should not be receiving more critiques than you give. It should be balanced.  Nothing annoys me more in critique groups than members who always want others to read/critique their work but never do the same for others.  The basic Golden Rule principle comes to mind here. Scribophile is a wonderful site for having your excerpts critiqued because they work on a karma point system & you can’t present your work to others unless you first gain karma points by helping other writers first.

4. DO NOT under ANY circumstances, publish a book that has only been edited by you, no matter how good you think you are. You’ll never catch all of your own errors.Some editors don’t catch every single error. Hire a good editor who is able to give you references & is familiar with your genre. It is my personal opinion that editing speculative fiction (for example) is different from other genres, so I advise getting an editor who has worked with authors in the genre you are writing in. Everyone may not agree with that and yet, the world turns. Don’t go for the “full editorial services for $99-$199” type of people – no serious, credible editor will edit an entire manuscript for so little money because it’s not worth their time – it’s a scam that too many writers fall for. Real editors don’t troll & spam potential clients to the point of ad nauseam, clients come to them.For those cheap prices, they’ll do little more than a spell check, which you can do yourself.

5. If you don’t have the money to pay for editing, wait until you do to publish the book or present it to literary agents and/or publishers. The same can be applied to self-publishing.Now some will disagree with that, citing the fact that an agent or publisher could see potential & offer a contract, even if the manuscript is not perfect. While they might have a point, I say, if you care about your work, you invest in it to polish it as if you only have one shot. If you are in the one percent of querying writers whose partial and/or full manuscript is requested (keywords: one percent), it needs to be error free as much as possible.  Why would an agent or publisher choose your story with errors when Jane Doe submitted a story in the same genre with an equally compelling plot & proper editing? You are competing with every other writer for the coveted 1%. It amazes me how many writers think that if they just put the book out there without professional editing (usually for .99) it will catch on. They think it will sell enough copies to pay for the editing for the sequel or make them rich. Shullbit. Amanda Hocking’s story is rare & most .99 books don’t turn writers into millionaires. Most regularly priced books don’t turn writers into millionaires.Get an extra job, ask your family for the money, sell an egg…or sperm, start cutting grass for $$$. Don’t sell crystal meth in a basement lab in your home. Or, do what I did – I raised money via Indiegogo. Fellow writer Dianne Gardner is doing the same via Kickstarter now. It’s worth the wait.

I’ll be back next week with more advice for writers.

#myrantfortheday

Consevative blogger Talitha McEachin

Talitha “TK” McEachin

TK McEachin is a political/cultural blogger and up & coming writer of fiction. Her first novel, THE ELEMENTS is the first in an epic fantasy series.To learn more about her fictional projects visit www.theelementsbooks.com. You may donate to her campaign on the home page as well, if you missed the deadline for her fundraising campaign.

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2013 in Fictional Writing

 

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Introduction to The Elements

Introduction to The Elements

Some of you who have only followed my political & social writings may not know this, but I am writing a fictional (fantasy) series consisting of four books (so far that’s the plan) entitled The Elements. I started writing it in 2003 and Book I is due for publication in early 2013. When Kgosi, ruler of the Kishnu people refuses to halt his invasion of the neighboring villages of the Lungi people, and Nkosana, ruler of the Lungi people has ordered an act which unintentionally offends a foe that neither ruler could possibly defeat, Baba, the elder Kishnu sangoma or diviner takes drastic measures to preserve both indigenous tribes of the Earth.

The Elements is a story that takes place millions of years ago on Nchiyamolekuli or as we call it in modern times, Pangea, the massive land mass on earth before the division into seven continents. After a major battle in which many lives are lost and the environment is devastated, Baba, the wisest and most trusted adviser to King Kgosi, first exhausts diplomatic means then urges both rulers to leave their lands to seek refuge elsewhere. Baba has learned that the angered foe is Paytah, leader of the Nootau – One of the four elements (Earth-the Onatahi, Wind-the Makani, Water-the Iscindri & Fire-the Nootau) who live within their respective elements on the Earth and at times among the people disguised as human.

After months of failed crops and fishing expeditions do not produce enough food for the people on both sides; they are forced to follow Baba’s recommendation to leave for Kisiwachamani, a large distant island whose indigenous people may be helpful in supplying the people with food as well as medicine and shelter. In both the Kishnu and Lungi mythology, the island and the body of water between it and Nchiyamolekuli is the resting place for all souls before they are judged and returned to this life through the womb of a woman or animal, depending on their favor or lack of it with the ancestors. Warnings not to go into the waters or visit the island have been passed down for generations but; with the barrenness of their lands and the danger of attack from the Nootau known only to Baba, they are left with no choice.Once there, the Mwilimmoja – the island’s only inhabitants led by Nangaza and his wife Ina, agree to aid the Kishnu and Lungi. They only require that the Kishnu and Lungi follow their strict dietary laws and agree to be “prepared”. Nangaza explains that this involves drinking ugolo, a fermented beverage made from the forbidden waters, which will remove all illnesses from the people, thereby preventing the spread of illness to the island’s inhabitants. This is only partially true as the “preparation”also links all of the Lungi & Kishnu people physically in a symbiotic manner causing everything done by individuals to affect the whole population, regardless of their tribes. The Mwilimmoja after hearing about the war from Baba, which drove the people to the island in the first place, unanimously decide this must be done as they have done to themselves for centuries to prevent violent wars and maintain a peaceful society.The two kings and their people are so desperate that they agree without question, not having full knowledge of what preparation really is, nor the freedom or bondage that comes along with it. In Book I we follow this story from the invasion of Lungizwe, the main village of the Lungi, by the Kishnu, to the initial encounter with the Mwilimmoja of Kisiwachamani.

As I approach the publication date I will be posting updates and excerpts from Book I of my series. The irony is that I started writing fiction long before I started writing about the current political climate, from a Conservative Libertarian perspective, so it’s my first love. Writing & Reading great fiction is a passion of mine and I look forward to introducing you all, as well as the entire world with this beautiful story about peace & human nature. Please feel free to send me your name as well as your email address to be added to my mailing list for The Elements here.
From The Elements Book I Copyright 2012 All Rights Reserved
 
 

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