The secret to a critique group

Joe’s Post #80

We had a chance today to go over our stories with the 5/5/5 group, today. Everyone brought their ideas. Everyone shared their thoughts, suggestions and advice. Each story was better off for the grilling. Way better.

It’s what makes our group work.

evolvedNot that we have great insights, probably a lot of writers do, but the real success is that we evolve.

I think that’s the toughest thing for a writer’s group to achieve. Longevity. Too often, they fade away. Sometimes they explode. Sometimes the one person, the driving force, leaves and the rest lose interest.

heartbreak ridgeBut we’ve survived because we adapt. We overcome. We improvise. (To quote Clint Eastwood from Heartbreak Ridge.) So, I wanna say we’re kinda like marines, but, you know, with less tattoos and missing limbs.

When we first got together, we looked at 30 page submissions. In all honesty, I learned as much from doing the critiques as receiving them.

Then we came up with the brilliant idea of 5 writers getting 5 books written in 5 months. Then added to that fun by critiquing the books. The whole books.

Now, it’s time for us to morph again.

Time to shake it up.

We’re all ready to start new novels. But if we do 30 pages, again, it could take 2-3 years for us to finish one.

Should we try another book in 5 months? We proved we could do it, but was it the best book we could write?

We could do more work on the outlines, but that would also postpone the actual writing we were all so keen to get started on today.

So we evolve.

We’ve learned that deadlines work for us.

So we’ll have those.

We’ve learned that we need to meet more than once every 4 months.

So we’ll meet more often.

We’ve learned that our books are always better for having the others take a look at them. But we write at different paces and not everyone has time and energy to pound out one if 5 months.

So we’ll all bring writing to every meeting. We’ll all be working on our next book. But what we bring and what we want from the group will be different for each person, for how fast they are writing, for what problems they are having, for input into what’s working and what’s not.

Maybe we’ll need to know if the opening works and get the group’s input. Maybe we’ll brainstorm a sagging middle. Maybe everyone will look at me and ask, why are you writing 50 Shades of Joe? Who knows? But the writer will dictate the focus of the group.

And hey, if it doesn’t work, we’ll evolve, again.

Next time, though, I want to evolve to be taller.


Blogs written: 3 this week.

Blogs posted: 1 (the other two are lurking, waiting for me to post when you least expect it!)

Great Blogs to Check out: Janet Reid – Agent

Outlines Done: 1 Big and messy. Like me.

Queries Done: 0 (If this is 0 next week, someone kick my sorry ass.)

rabbitHoroscope: The more I work, the more money I’ll make.

Number of Teeth Removed: 4

Date For New Braces: Feb 3rd

Number of Tickets Bought for Spamalot: 2

Number of Months with the Amazing Blue-eyed Girl: 11

Group dynamics

Karalee’s Post #64

This Friday our group is coming together loaded with ideas and outlines and ready to brainstorm. Coffee will flow almost as fast as our mouths, and lunch provided by Helga (thank-you!!!) will be quick so we can continue with our meeting.

It’s no small feat to get five people together to review five entire outlines of each one of our books, or at least a multitude of thoughts about a book idea in some organized fashion. We haven’t seen each other since last fall either, so we have some catch-up chatting time to fit in too. 

In effect in all probability the timer will have to come out again.

We’re not a group of down-to-the-last-second and you’re cut off kiddo, and then on to the next writer, but we are respectful of each other and are cognizant of everyone having their equal time on stage.

And what a stage it will be. It’s like being invited to a large party where you only know four people yet you anticipate being introduced to all the others and feel compelled to remember their names.

And no, name tags won’t help.

Some of the guests will be nasty people that you can spot a mile away and others that are so sneaky you think they are okay, but you have no idea what their motives are so you don’t really trust them. Others will be genuinely nice and some not-so-nice, but you put up with them because you like their friends or family. Then there are the strong-willed people that want to be in the spotlight and take over the show and you feel compelled to stand up to them and fight for your own space.

Now those ones need to have a timer on them too.

If we had a whole weekend wouldn’t it be fun to let our characters loose to mingle and see what story they come up with? We could add stress and conflict by not providing coffee, not allowing them to sleep, playing the music loud, burning the popcorn, throwing in a few weapons, turning the heat up high and locking the doors.

Of course we would call in the cops when chaos breaks out.

What fun we could have!

Happy writing!

Serial monogamy


Paula’s Post #61 – Whew! It’s still here! I feared my draft post might have ‘disappeared’ into cyberspace while I was frantically trying to shut down my computer to board my flight from Palm Springs to Vancouver.

There… and then ‘poof’… not there.


I spent the entire flight up from California thinking up a version of ‘my dog ate my homework’ excuse for not having a post up today.

I felt a measure of relief when I checked email messages on my phone while riding Skytrain in from the airport and discovered Silk had posted today, filling our pages with a post I’m sure is fabulous. (Sorry Silk, I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, but I will. I promise).

Imagine my even bigger sense of relief when I arrived home, fired up my laptop and discovered my draft post was – thank you – still here on the WordPress dashboard.

So, back to business.

Time to post. My post today is short. Just a few musings (okay, ramblings) on story and genre, sparked by Helga’s offering of last week. As my 5writer colleague so ably demonstrated, the simple act of just flipping through the headlines inevitably generate a wealth of story ideas. For me, the problem is not finding a story I love. For me, the problem is trying to narrow all these ideas down to one true love.

To find that one story idea to not only fall in love with, but stay in love with.

Because I usually have the opposite problem. I usually have too many ideas percolating through my brain, zinging around like meteorites. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to be just a flirt. I want to fall truly, deeply in love. Really I do.

But with a few years of writing behind me now, I’ve grown wary of commitment. I now understand the need to find the elusive perfect match, to find a story I can stay wedded to for long enough to make it through not just the first draft, but the arduous process of crafting second and third and many, many subsequent drafts.

The dilemma: how to commit to the kind of serial monogamy our craft demands?

So, having a story idea is really just the start. Being confident you’re the right person to TELL that story. Being confident you’ll have the old-fashioned gumption to be able to stick with that story? Well, aye – there’s the rub. 

For me, the question of genre must, at this point, now come into play.

In our 5month novel-writing challenge, I stepped out of my comfort zone and crafted the first draft of a YA thriller. A fun exercise, to be sure, but not really where I want to be as a writer.

Seriously, how would you feel if you hit the mark with a genre you hated, (or even had a love-hate relationship with), destined to be pigeon-holed into a particular section of the bookstore, virtual or otherwise, for what seems like eternity? Your agent and publisher scowling and clucking at the very idea of venturing into another genre? is an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture. Although The Millions has been featured on NPR and noted by The New York TimesThe Los Angeles Times, and The Village Voice, among others, I have to admit I’d never heard of it before researching this post.

My bad.

Check it out for yourself and you’ll see what I mean. Today, I stumbled upon a little gem by Kim Wright. In her 2011 article about why so many literary authors were shifting into genre fiction, Wright noted:

The good ship Literary Fiction has run aground and the survivors are frantically paddling toward the islands of genre. Okay, maybe that’s a little dramatic, but there does seem to be a definite trend of literary/mainstream writers turning to romance, thrillers, fantasy, mystery, and YA. Justin Cronin has produced the vampire epic The PassageTom Perrotta is offering The Leftovers, a tale of a futuristic Rapturesque apocalypse. And MacArthur-certified genius Colson Whitehead is writing about zombies. It’s enough to make my historical mystery about Jack the Ripper look downright pedestrian.

What’s going on? Is it a mass sellout, a belated and half-hearted attempt by writers to chase the market? Are they being pushed into genre by their agents and publishers? Are the literary novelists simply ready for a change, perhaps because even the most exalted among them have a minuscule readership compared to genre superstars? Or are two disparate worlds finally merging?

What do you think of Wright’s comments?  Are these literary authors selling out?

I answer with a resounding ‘no’.

If what we have to look forward to is a more ‘literary mystery’, or ‘literary thriller’, to me that means only that genre fiction may be blessed (hopefully) with a quality of writing that isn’t always found in the latest commercial offerings

I know, I know, at this point I should offer up some good examples of more literary novels crossing into genre fiction, but unfortunately, as I’ve noted, I’m typing this out at the airport, waiting for my Westjet flight to be called, and the internet access here is so painfully slow I had to give up before I even started.

Maybe you can supply some genre bending candidates you love?

I’m just happy I’m winging my way back to Vancouver, excited to meet up with my 5writer colleagues this coming Friday at a meeting where we hope to exchange ideas on our next project.

For my part, I’m absolutely thrilled to announce I’ve fallen in love.

Fired up about my idea for my next novel.

Genre, you ask?

Well, that’s a good question.

A mystery for sure. Only, as my 5writer colleagues will confirm, I have a penchant for historical fiction, particularly the interwar years from 1918-1939, so take that as a hint.

Not only do I like cross-genre stories, I also find it more fun to interweave a modern-day story with a story from the past, letting readers guess how the threads are connect. So, I guess I could describe my idea as a contemporary historical mystery. Sort of.

I haven’t written a full outline yet. I’m way behind on that homework assignment. But I do have 8 or 9 characters envisioned, some of their story outlines quite fully fleshed out. I’ve also nailed down some settings and started filing away research notes into my StoryMill program, a few snippets of plot percolating away in my mind.

A start.

For me, the most important thing is that I’m excited again. Excited to get these ideas down on paper. Excited that all I can do is think about my story and how to tell it. I’m starting with character first. I agree with Helga on that point. Next, setting. as I think a well-developed setting can take on a ‘characterization’ all its own.

Plot ideas and scenes are bursting forth like exploding kernels of popcorn. Maybe our looming Friday meeting deadline had something to do with this sudden inspiration. Who knows? All I know for sure that in the months to come, my story may change, more cross-genre ideas may be woven into the story, my story may take on a life of its own.

If I can keep the characters fresh, the setting rich enough, and – wait for it – conflict on every page, I think I can manage to stay in love with this one, and go the distance.

All the way to the end. I can’t wait to share my idea with my 5writer colleagues.

For  now, got to run. My flight is being called!

The series game has one rule


Mea culpa – yes, I’m a day late again this week. Sorry to intrude on Paula’s Tuesday again, but the good news is that you may be getting two-posts-for-the-price-of-one today!

Silk’s Post #70 — Does anyone writing genre fiction even think about writing a stand-alone novel anymore?

Series. That’s the holy grail. The brass ring. The magic word that rolls off the tongue like the sexy serpent in the Garden of Eden. SSSS-e-r-i-e-s. Or, visualized another way:


But listen up, fellow emerging writers (aka the great not-yet-published hoard): if writing one novel – and getting it published – is a mountain climb, then writing a commercially successful series is like climbing every mountain in the Hindu Kush.

So, if this is what you’re up to, sharpen your pitons, load up your backpack that weighs as much as a small horse, and prepare to experience some oxygen deprivation. Best I can advise you if you’re afraid of heights or doubt your fitness for this trip is: don’t look down, lean forward, and just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Truthfully, aren’t all genre writers — especially those of us who lust to see our names on the mystery-suspense-crime-thriller-legal shelves — really dreaming of series?

Who are our idols, if not James Patterson, Scott Turow, Sue Grafton, Ian Rankin, Elizabeth George, John le Carré, James Lee Burke, Jeffery Deaver, Patricia Cornwell, Donna Leon, David Baldacci, Sara Paretsky, Jo Nesbo, Tom Clancy, Anne Perry, Walter Mosley, Robert Crais, Janet Evanovich, Lee Child, P.D. James, Harlen Coben, Robert B. Parker, Peter Robinson, Elmore Leonard, Kathy Reichs, John Connolly and Michael Connelly?

And who were their idols but Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Erle Stanley Gardiner, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, Dorothy L. Sayers, Rex Stout, Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald … even Carolyn Keene and Franklin W. Dixon, who hooked them on mysteries at a tender age?

You can add your own favourite names to these lists, but it’s a good bet that most of them – like these – will have two things in common. First, they are authors of series. Second, they created famous protagonists – memorable characters who returned the favour and made their authors famous.

And that is the one inviolable rule in this business of series fiction. A great protagonist.

To climb the mountain, you need to invent an intriguing, enduring alter-ego to accompany you. Not just accompany you, but lead you through the snowdrifts of saggy middles, rescue you from the trackless wilderness of boredom and obscurity, and pull you up over the precipice when you’re dangling by a thread. A protagonist who is strong enough, smart enough, complex enough, resourceful enough, engaging enough, vulnerable enough, and likeable enough to climb to the heights, fall to the depths, recover and triumph. Again and again. Evolving somehow with each new story, but always solid at the core.

You can certainly have a memorable protagonist in a stand-alone book (for instance, it’s hard to believe that Dashiell Hammett’s larger-than-life Sam Spade appeared in only one full length novel, The Maltese Falcon). But it’s hard to pull off a series without a memorable “anchor” protagonist (it takes a talent like Scott Turow to establish a multi-protagonist series like his Kindle County stories, and even so he knits them together with recurring characters).

But remember: you will have to live with this protagonist for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health – possibly until death do you part. So you better love and cherish him or her if you want your readers to do the same.

Once you know that character to the bone, you can drop plot after plot on his or her head, and your protagonist will come alive and spring into action – and action is the lifeblood of story.

Okay, now to the fun part! Can you pair these famous protagonists with their authors? Answers are shown at the end for those who can’t guess whodunnit …



1-p; 2-o; 3-q; 4-t; 5-w; 6-y; 7-d; 8-l; 9-c; 10-r; 11-v; 12-g; 13-u; 14-b; 15-j; 16-k; 17-i;
18-n; 19-x; 20-h; 21-f; 22-z; 23-e; 24-a; 25-m; 26-s.


the-lineupFor an extremely insightful and entertaining look into the hearts and souls of some of the most beloved detective protagonists and their creators, read The Lineup edited by the legendary Otto Penzler, in which “The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives”… in their own words and style. Published by Back Bay Books, an imprint of Little Brown, this book is a gem that belongs on every crime writer’s shelf.

Character is plot, plot is character

Helga’s Post # 68:  Much has been written during the last several posts about ‘Outlining’. This is, after all, the main agenda item for the 5 writers upcoming meeting next week. For each of us to come equipped with outlines for a spanking-new novel.

All good and useful stuff. What hasn’t graced the pages of this blog is the topic of what comes PRIOR to drafting our respective outlines. And that is, how to find and then commit to a story. What genre? What topic within that genre? Does the novel take place in the present, or the past? Where does it play out? Who are the main characters, and what motivates them? And a multitude of other questions and their sub-questions, and the sub-sub-questions, and so on and so forth.

With that formidable task in mind, I thought it would be fun to play the mind game of finding a topic for our next novel. As good a place as any is to scan the headlines of newsworthy stories and then let the mind loose with the proverbial ‘What if?’

So, without any further ado, here are some reported news clips and stories that caught my eye. All from the last few days. No geographical or other restrictions. I am adding a ‘What if’ just to play out how the story could become a plot. Feel free to use them in your own writing.

boatfullblog_Alt_Antarcticasunken boat

Image courtesy: boatfullblog

How do you find a Ghost Ship? Out in the endless grey of the Atlantic Ocean, a vessel drifts alone. The only sound in the dining room is the wind. The only smell in the galley is rust. The cabins that once held 100 passengers lie empty; there’s not a soul aboard. The only living beings are disease-ridden cannibal rats. Along the bow, a row of drip-stained letters spells its name: Lyubov Orlova. How can a 100-m long cruise ship just disappear?… and how can you locate it again? Right now, a huge object worth a million dollars is somewhere in the ocean – and according to the law of the sea, the salvage bounty could be yours if you can find it.

‘What if’: Our protagonist comes upon the ship while sailing. He calls the coast guard. They will send one of their vessels. But instead, a private ship approaches through the fog. Our hero and his wife are hi-jacked, their sailboat sunk. What can they do to stay alive?…

Fast Food, Fat Profits: One out of every three Americans is obese. One in three are expected to have diabetes by 2050. How did the situation get so out of hand? What changed from ‘we eat to live’ to ‘we live to eat’? What caused government to pay farmers NOT to grow certain foods? Bribes are routinely being paid to members of Congress, lobbying them heavily.


Image courtesy:

‘What if’ our protagonist, volunteering at her son’s school cafeteria, is shocked that the kids’ food  is pre-packaged, laced with sugar and salt and chemicals she never heard of. She’d expected food cooked from scratch. She starts lobbying the government. Why are you feeding our children this garbage? You are perpetuating a culture of junk food that is literally making kids sick. And then the threats come, of course….

Fool’s Gold: With global investments delivering little returns, the eyes of many investors have turned to the old favourite. But the new gold rush has come with a big rise in scams and confidence tricks. They now represent a major threat for companies and individuals and many of them take place in Africa. Ghana, the second-largest producer of gold on the continent, is now home to a large network of gold fraudsters. Investors have lost millions at their hands.

‘What if’: Our protagonist, an ambitious investigative journalist, digs into the story. Her career will take off like a rocket if she can name, shame and jail the crooks that are duping foreign investors. What she learns is that those crooks are not in Ghana, but sit high up in the ivory towers of New York and L.A. And they are not just driving around in their Ferraris, waiting to be exposed by our protagonista ….

Magic and Murder: The killing of so-called child witches is a practice that continues in the African republic of Benin. While murder is of course illegal in the country, making the allegations of witchcraft that lead to the deaths of children is not. The belief in sorcery is all pervasive and often seen as fundamental to the country’s heritage and national identity.

‘What if’: Our protagonist can’t have children. She and her husband decide to adopt and travel to Africa when a child becomes available. They had hoped to return to Canada with their new child. Instead, they are ensnared in a case of sorcery-related infanticide, and fingers of blame are pointing at our couple. Benin still has the death penalty. The method of execution is beheading….

Colombia’s Gold Rush: Gold fever is sweeping across South America. Nowhere is it more lethal than in Colombia, where the gold rush has become a new axle in Colombia’s civil war.

‘What if’ our protagonist is working for one of these mining companies, in the comfort of a Western office. When reports keep arriving of the unrest he wants to see for himself and arranges an assignment to the mine. What he finds in Colombia is unlike any scandal, intimidation and violence he’s ever heard of, read of, or seen on TV. He has no choice but get involved. But he hadn’t counted on how far the owners of the mines will go to defend their profits….

The Calderon Dynasty and FBI undercover ‘stings’: Catching politicians red-handed: Calling public corruption its ‘number one criminal priority,’ the bureau’s tactics are sometimes controversial. Bribe money has been handled by politicians in which political favors are peddled for hard cash. But in each instance, undercover FBI agents have supplied the money and the recipients — all public officials — have been caught in carefully orchestrated “sting” operations.

‘What if’: Our protagonist, in love with a woman who likes the good life that he can’t afford, yields to the temptation and accepts a bribe. Then he finds out the love of his life is cheating on him behind his back. Will he use his bribe to take revenge on her and her lover, who happens to be a famous politician?…

World’s 85 Richest People: They own as much as half the world’s population, according tB9tBUKto a recent report by Oxfam. The world’s elite have rigged laws in their own favour undermining democracy and creating a chasm of inequality across the globe. Many of these 85 world’s most powerful are gathering for the World Economic Forum at the picturesque resort of Davos, Switzerland.

‘What if’: Our protagonist is a member of a revolutionary underground group intent to expose the economic and political power of this elite. Not only expose. They are committed to take whatever action is necessary to level the playing field. Including blackmail, kidnapping and worse. With that in mind, our protagonist has managed to start an affair with the daughter of one of the 85 richest men. But he hadn’t counted on falling in love…

These are just a few crazy ideas. There is so much more that’s happening every day in real life that can be mined for fiction. In the end however it all comes back to this: regardless of the cleverness, cause, or evil of the plot, we have got to nail it with our characters. And make sure that their opposition or enemies are equally strong, clever and interesting to make it really hard for our heroes. Ray Bradbury, author of ‘Zen in the Art of Writing’ puts it very well:

“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”

So simple, isn’t it?

I wished!

So what are some of YOUR methods that make you decide on a plot idea? Or do you have your protagonist worked out in your head and are looking for a plot to deploy him or her?

Shhh – great secret revealed

Joe’s Post #79

secretsOk, get the kids out of the room. Close the blinds. Stop looking at Pinterest (seriously, stop looking). It’s time for a secret to be revealed. It’s the secret of how to keep writing in the face of daunting obstacles, both real and imagined.

This secret is so secret it doesn’t have a name. At least before now. Now, I shall call it the Reset Secret.

So, for any of you out there, me included, my 5/5/5 partners included, this is for you. For you, too Stephen King. And James Patterson. I know you have your dark moments, too.

One of the things that drags us down as writers (hey, even as non-writers, though I know not how you people thinketh), is the past. For writers it’s I didn’t get anything written last week or I had a lot of rejections or the dog at my outline.

Worse, we go farther back. I didn’t get a novel written on time. I have some many rejections that I could publish a novel of rejections. The dog ate my hard drive and peed all over the portable back-up.

It piles up and piles up until we’re so heavy with guilt or regret or disillusionment that we stop writing.

So, why not do what any child would do in any video game that locks up?

resetRestart. Reboot. Reset.

It’s simple in theory. Harder to do in practice.

But it can be done.

Today is day 1. Throw out all the old mind-f*cking junk. It’s day 1. It’s not the 30th day you haven’t written. It’s the 1st day you have a chance to write.

You’ve just come back from vacation and can finally sit down and write.

You’ve just got your computer repaired and can finally write again.

You’ve stopped for a moment in the coffee shop and have a few minutes to write.

Reset your mind. The past if full of things we cannot change (at least until I get my time machine in my basement to work). The future is full of possibilities yet unrealized. So, we have only the present that we really live in. In the present, we can write.

Living in the present is how I survived the death of my wife. The past had been devastated and the future looked hopeless and full of pain. Only in the present was there any sense of peace.

And there were bad days. Make no mistake. Many of them. But I tried to start each day as if it were day one.

As if I’d reset my life.

zenSo that’s what I do now. In my writing life. Reset. Today is day one. What can I get done today?

It’s the secret to the long struggle that is, for most of us, the writing life. At least for me.


Blogs I’ve read that are awesome: Blurt . Funny and cool.

My opinion on unicorns: They are the Kardashians of the mythical equines.

Number of blogs written: 2 – Parenting and Hockey.

Number of times I felt smug: 2

Number of times I nearly had a heart attack while watching the SF vs Seattle game: 35

Number of queries done: As of 9am, 0. RESET!

Number of short stories sent out: As of 9am: 0 RESET!


Revving up to write

Karalee’s Post #63

I’m not writing Part 3 on outlining this week as I’m still in the process of working through the process, so it may be another week or two before I get there.

On the other hand my story is quite consistently in my thoughts now as I continue developing my characters and more plot points come to mind. To me this is what revving up to write feels like. I start to live and breathe my characters and their world becomes part of my world. My mind buzzes and  ‘what if’s’ are still churning away.

This is my feeling of being a writer.

All I can say is thank goodness the human brain can keep the real and fictitious worlds alive and separate at the same time, otherwise writers would have a class of mental illness all to their own!

Characterization and scene building is well underway for me and the next layer to add is setting. I know the big locations of where my story takes place in general, but all week  I’ve been toying with what my protagonist’s and antagonist’s place should look like, where they sleep, eat, dine, who their neighbors are, the weather, the seasons, etc.

I am also envisioning my final climatic scene and if I want it to take place at my protagonist’s or my antagonist’s workplace. Whichever one, I also need to consider that the setting must challenge my protagonist to rise up and meet one of her fears head on. 

It is becoming clearer to me that outlining is crucial in establishing, or at least making me consider, not only where my characters live, but also what the setting needs to provide in order to show who my characters are as well as challenge them in some way.

Nothing solid has come to mind yet. I often find that sleeping on it a couple of nights helps and keeping my mind open during the day as I research and think about it.









You may want to check out this site: Images for weird houses. It’s good for a few laughs and who knows, it may jump start some ideas.

Happy writing!

Famous first words


Silk’s Post #69 — Like Helga I’ve experienced a bit of deadline slippage this week, but fortunately Paula – who claims she’s having a spell of not writing – saved the day by writing her Tuesday post right on time. Ah, the irony.

My topic is an admitted quick cheat to make up for missing my post date. I don’t wish to barge too heavily into Paula’s Tuesday, so here’s a light evening post – and a challenging puzzle – for those of you with not too much to do on a Tuesday night in January.

The topic is a novel’s opening line. The door into your story. If it doesn’t invite readers in, nothing else you write really matters. It won’t get read.

There are countless articles, books, blog posts, workshops, courses and whatnot to help you craft that irresistible first line. For instance, here’s the link to an excellent article titled “7 Ways to Create a Killer Opening Line for Your Novel” on the Writer’s Digest website.

Opening lines can be incredibly powerful. Some are so memorable they literally become clichés, repeated and riffed upon forever.

An example: “In the beginning …” is the beginning of one of the most famous opening lines in literature. Even people who have never read the Bible can usually complete the sentence “… God created the heavens and the earth.”

From the sublime to the ridiculous: “It was a dark and stormy night …” is an actual opening line of an actual book, although most people would be hard pressed to tell you the book, the author, or the words that come next. This opening line has become, as Writer’s Digest described it, “the literary poster child for bad story starters,” an example of a style so overwrought, it owes its fame only to the countless parodies it inspired.

For the congenitally curious: the name of the dark-and-stormy-night novel is Paul Clifford, written in 1830 by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Here is the full text of the first sentence (which demonstrates not only a penchant for purple prose, but a fondness for variety in punctuation marks):

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents – except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

A final, and undoubtedly the most beloved, example of the opening line archetype must also be mentioned. “Once upon a time …” stands alone in literature. These are the first words most children hear when they’re told their first story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this opening has been in use since at least 1380. The words are as much lyrics as they are words to write down on paper – an enduring artifact of our oral tradition which has become embedded in our storytelling DNA.

So, now to the fun part. Perhaps the following 25 examples of famous first words will inspire you. They all sound so familiar … but can you name (from memory!) the books that begin with them, and the authors who wrote them? Answers are at the bottom for cheaters …

1. “Call me Ishmael.”

2. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

3. “A screaming comes across the sky.”

4. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

5. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

6. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

7. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

8. “I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.”

9. “All this happened, more or less.”

10. “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”

11. “It was a pleasure to burn.”

12. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”

13. “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.”

14. “You better not never tell nobody but God.”

15. “To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

16. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”

17. “In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.”

18. “Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.”

19. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”

20. “They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.”

21. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

22. “They shoot the white girl first.”

23. “The sky above the port was the colour of television, tuned to a dead channel.”

24. “It was love at first sight.”

25. “All children, except one, grow up.”


Okay, cheaters, here are your answers:

  1. Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851)
  2. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
  3. Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973)
  4. Charles Dickens,  A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  5. George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
  6. J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  7. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850)
  8. Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground (1864)
  9. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  10. Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep (1939)
  11. Ray Bradbury, Farenheit 451 (1953)
  12. George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
  13. Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
  14. Alice Walker, The Color Purple (1982)
  15. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)
  16. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  17. Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
  18. Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye (1988)
  19. J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
  20. Jean Rhys, Wide Sargasso Sea (1966)
  21. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  22. Toni Morrison, Paradise (1998)
  23. William Gibson, Neuromancer (1984)
  24. Joseph Heller, Catch 22 (1961)
  25. J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan (1911)

PS – Confession time. I could maybe get half of these right without looking them up. Okay, a third. Maybe. Fun, though, to see how many of these obviously highly successful opening lines break the “rules” of writing we’re often taught.

Reflections on my ‘Not Writing’ Life

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Paula’s Post #60 –

I’m not writing.

There. I’ve said it.


Actually, I feel pretty good, getting that out in the open.

Despite the best of intentions, the truth is, I am not writing. At least not much. Sure, I’m still dutifully pounding out my 5writers blog post once a week, but fiction? Stories? Rewrites?

Not happening.

In this year of upheaval, my life does not seem ‘settled enough’ for me to sit down and write. Something ‘else’ always seems to be happening (or just about to happen). And while I regret I am not writing, I’m not as bothered by what I think of as this phase in my writing life as one might think. Rather, I feel like I am in transit, waiting, waiting, waiting… on the writer’s equivalent of a subway platform, (or perhaps an airport departure lounge is more apropos). Waiting to arrive at that ‘settled place’, where my old friends creativity, productivity, enthusiasm and hard work will be lined up in the arrivals lounge, waiting to greet me.

Realistically, I do not think my train will pull into the station until at least mid-May of this year. Perhaps even later. But May is when we move into our new home in Gibsons, British Columbia, after almost a year of rootlessness. So, for me, May stands as a bright beacon on the horizon, a place where boxes will be unpacked, pictures will be hung, crockery nestled onto pantry shelves pet beds laid in the corner of our new kitchen and my ‘writing corner’ set up with iMac and printer, writing books and photos of my dogs and my husband.

Only then, do I believe I will feel ‘settled’ enough to start writing again.

So, instead of getting discouraged about this, waiting for the pages of the calendar to flip over to May,  I’m trying to be philosophical about my own personal episode of writer’s block.

Not writing does not mean that I am not actively engaged in ‘The Writing Life’. Whether actively engaged in the process of writing a novel or not, I am still a writer and that means that even when I am not writing stories, I can still work on my craft.

So I am enjoying reading (something I often find difficult to do while in the midst of  working on the first draft of a novel). I’ve just discovered Louise Penny, the author of the award winning Inspector Gamache series.

How the Light Gets In

How is it possible that until this year, I don’t actually recall being aware of this author? I must have heard her name before, I’m sure, but not until her latest novel, How the Light Gets In came out in the autumn and debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List did I get around to googling Penny, only to discover she is:

– Canadian

-A former journalist with the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation)

-Winner of multiple awards for fiction, including the British Dagger, American Anthony, Canadian Arthur Ellis and 5 – count ’em – 5 Agatha Awards.

-Translated into 25 different languages.

Discovering a new series author is a delicious experience. For all of you who are fans of Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovich, Patricia Cornwell, Elizabeth George, Michael Connelly, or Ian Rankin, you’ll know the joy of discovering someone new to follow. For me, I hope this may be Louise Perry, especially since How the Light Gets In is actually her ninth in a series which starts with her debut novel, Still Life, number one in the Inspector Gamache series. Nine lovely books to look forward to. Much as I’d love to find out what all the buzz is about with How the Light Gets In, I’m of course starting right at the beginning of the series.

So if, like me, you’ve somehow missed Louise Penny, I invite you to explore this author and her books. She has a lovely biography on her website, under the heading ‘about Louise Penny‘ that you can read for yourself, but I wanted to reproduce a small excerpt from that page where Penny writes:

Since I was a child I’ve dreamed of writing and now I am. Beyond my wildest dreams (and I can dream pretty wild) the Chief Inspector Gamache books have found a world-wide audience, won awards and ended up on bestseller lists including the New York Times. Even more satisfying, I have found a group of friends in the writing community. Other authors, booksellers, readers who have become important parts of our lives. I thought writing might provide me with an income – I had no idea the real riches were more precious but less substantial. Friendships.

Well, I haven’t won awards, don’t have a world wide audience and have not, as yet, ended up on any bestseller list, New York or otherwise, but I can say that Louise Penny’s words resonated with me. I, too, have found a group of friends in the writing community who have become such a very important part of my life.

So be patient friends, I promise I’ll get back to writing soon. In the meantime, please allow me the precious time to indulge in exploring new authors, new genres, new characters and new ideas.

I have a feeling that in the end, I’ll ‘come back a better writer.