Why Your First Sentence Needs to Sing

Whether you are writing a picture book or a novel, your first sentence needs to sing.
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Every now and again over at the Gutsy Great Novelist, host Joan Dempsey challenges us to post the first sentence and the first sentence only of our works-in-progress.  Some people explain why they can’t do that, and then post the first paragraph, the second sentence, or whatever.

But what they often fail to realize is that they’ve just failed.  Why?  Your first sentence has to sing because it has three important jobs to do.

Because I don’t like to pick on other people, I’m going to throw down my own first sentence to see if it passes the test.  This is the opening for my SF middle grade, working title: Air Stream.

With a gentle sigh, warmed air moved through the compartments and passageways for the first time in twenty-five years. 

Hook Your Reader

I don’t always manage to pull this one off on the first try but I do feel like this sentence will hook the reader.  Hopefully they’ll want to know what has happened and what is going to happen.  Why wasn’t their any air?  Why do we need it now?  It sets up anticipation.

Reflect Something Important in the Story

My story is science fiction.  That’s reflected in the compartments and passageways of the first sentence.  But that 25 year gap that I mention is vital, a central part of the story.  And I managed to work it into sentence #1. 

Do It Succinctly

An opening sentence that is 6 or 8 lines long is an awkward thing.  I should probably admit here that when I shop for greeting cards, I flip them open and see how long the text is.  Too long and I put it right back on the shelf.

Yep.  And most often I feel the same way about the first sentence challenge.  I like the sentences that are short and sweet.  I want to be intrigued but I’d rather you get to it pretty fast.

Now off to get some work done.  I’m beginning to suspect that that amazing first sentence was something of an accident! 

–SueBE

3 Reasons to Type Out Your Mentor Text

Retype your mentor text.
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A friend of mine has been studying early readers to get a feel for how to shape her own story. “But I just can’t get it right! My story is still way too long.” My advice for her was to type out her mentor text.

Her: But I read it.

Me: Now you need to type it.

Her: But I studied it.

Me: Now you need to type it and this is why . . .

Feel for the Structure

Whether you are writing a picture book, an early reader or a chapter book, retyping all or part of your mentor text is a great way to get a feel for the structure of the writing. You’ll come away from it with a better idea of how long your sentences should be, how many sentences go into a paragraph and more.

Feel for the Details

When you retype your mentor text, you also get a good feel for the types and numbers of details that the author included. Detail makes a story sing. It’s what makes Mrs. Putter’s good dog Zeke vs Mudge. But if you include too much detail or the wrong detail you just weigh the story down and understanding this is vital. Which is great because retyping the text will help you . . .

See What Has Been Left Out

One of my favorite authors for strong characterization is Sharon Shinn. But it wasn’t until I really studied her work that I realized how much of what I learn about the characters comes through action. There’s no mooning in front of a mirror or while staring into a pond. Physical details are few and far between but delivered in such a way that they carry weight. Type out the mentor text to see what the author leaves out.

I don’t entirely understand why, but I never get as much out of reading a mentor text as I get out of retyping it. Why not give it a try?

–SueBE

3 Cozy Mystery Quirks

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I had to laugh at this meme when I saw it. Cozy mysteries are quirky in a lot of ways and that’s something to keep in mind if you are going to write one.

Quirky Characters

If the main characters in a cozy isn’t quirky, one of the secondary characters is. I’ve read books where a character casts spells, at first accidentally, by cooking for people, sees ghosts, or can read characters emotions through touch. There are twins that complete each others sentences, early-modern characters who specialize in poison, and those with unusual professions like book binders, spinners, and more.

Quirky Settings

Cozy mysteries can also have quirky settings. They range from decaying manor houses to towns where every business is pet friendly. One is set in a mall with Asian American themed businesses.

Part of the setting can be an event such as a history themed festival where everyone, and everything, is just a bit too much.

The Crime

A cozy doesn’t have to involve a murder although many of them do. When I saw that meme I started thinking about contemporary ways for a character to die. Someone could sip a craft beer laced with cyanide craft beer. Or they could use tainted CBD oil. What about essential oils? Or someone with an all natural proclivity who misidentifies a vital plant? There’s virtual gaming and the various ways something could go wrong while a character is wearing a VR (virtual reality) helmet. Or a murder that actually takes place on Zoom!

Obviously, I’m having more than a little fun with this. But it also has me thinking. In my story, the victim gets shot. I could try to make it more . . . interesting. The killer could do something that implicated a specific character. A poison muffin would frame the local baker. A tainted taco the local food truck.

Think, think, think…

–SueBE

Why I Love My Library

Florissant branch of the St. Louis County Library

That photo on the right is my local library branch. It is the library that I rode my bicycle to when I was a young reader. I’d check out a basketful of books and then bike home. As I think about it now, my mother who always caught an earful about how tiny the basket was probably did that on purpose. The majority of my exercise was riding back and forth to the library!

We live between two branches but this one is MINE. Seriously. I’m more than a little possessive.

And today it reopens.

Not long ago, a discussion moderator asked what we would all do once we could move around freely. What would be the first writer thing we would do. “Go to the library!” I didn’t even have to think about it. She questioned this as my top priority but every single introvert in the group agreed. Library ahoy!

During the pandemic, the library closed for a while. Completely closed. Then they reopened but only for curbside pickup. You could request items and then pick them up. And not just books! I saw people checking out musical instruments and telescopes. Then you could make an appointement. They’d let 10 or so people in at a time.

Now they are reopening. Yes, we have to maintain distance. Yes, we have to wear a mask. But we can go browse graphic novels. And movies.

And I can thank them for all the things they did while they were “closed.” Working with other groups, they gave out food, diapers and feminine products. I don’t know this for a fact, but I think they are also serving as a tutoring hub judging by some of the people I saw going in and out.

My library is an awesome place full of dedicated, devoted pros.

–SueBE

Social Media Marketing

Attempting to access my marketing super powers.

Some time ago I took a social media marketing webinar with Ania Marcos. One of the things that she encouraged us to do was figure out the what, why and how of what we write. From that, everything else would flow.

As an example, she encouraged us to look at Apple’s corporate motto.

“Everything we do we believe in challenging the status quo; we believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use and user-friendly. We just happen to make computers. Want to buy one?”

Why they do what they do: Challenge the status quo. Think differently.

How: Design, ease, user friendly.

What: They make computers.

If you want to see more about this, it is the Golden Circle as presented by Simon Sinek. I get it when Apple does it. I get it when Marcos explains it.

But I struggled to apply it to my own work. And then I read “‘Start with Why’ Is Bad Advice’ by Ben Sands. His premis is that starting at why is pointless because most of us would fill it in the same way. We all think we are challenging the status quo.

I definitely challenge the status quo. After all, I write about race, social justice, and women’s history. But a lot of children’s writers challenge the PTB.

I can’t say that I entirely agree with Sands but he shook up my thinking and I could finally develop something in my own voice.

Why do I do what I do?

My super power is identifying uncomfortable truths.

How?

By asking questions that challenge the way we think and what our society thinks it knows.

What?

By writing books irreverant, cheeky books.

I think I like it. I’m going to sit on it for a few days and then I can use it to fine tune my site and my social media presence.

–SueBE

My Work Routine

Me at my standing desk.

One of the things that I’ve realized as a working writer is that how I write best changes. What worked five years ago is not ideal today. When you have a deadline, ideal may be less important than laying the words on the page.

But the reality is that I have sciatica. It isn’t really bad but one of the things that irritates it is sitting for long periods of time.

Because of that, I have a standing desk. I cannot always stand and write but I try to stand and write at least 90 minutes a day. Lately it has been more like 3 hours a day.

And that’s okay. But I also have a anti-fatigue mat which means that I can stand without that causing problems.

Ideally, I don’t like to listen to music while I write but my husband has been working from home for the past year. We share my office. My son is taking college classes from home and working as a tutor in the room next door. And it is spring. One neighbor is getting a new roof. Another is getting a new wooden fence. Lawns are being mowed. Kids are outside playing.

Fortunately my husband got me a set of bluetooth headphones. I can’t listen to rock. I can’t listen to nature sounds. I can’t listen to anything with vocals.

But I can listen to Back cello concertos. Not piano. Piano is very distracting. But cello is ideal. It is complex but smooth. I can’t hear people over it. That said apparently I do sometimes sing to it.

What has amazed me as my husband and I share space is that he can totally ignore me. He ignores when I sing with music (vocals or cello). He ignores when I take my Spanish class and watch webinars. Zoom meetings don’t even bother him.

What works for me may not work for you, but I’d like to encourage you to find something that works right now. You may have to update it tomorrow but if I can find a writing routine, you can find a writing routine.

–SueBE

Why Writers Need to Talk to Each Other

One Saturday in April I was talking to some of my writing friends. I don’t get to visit with these ladies often because we are in Arizona, Nevada, etc. You get the point. We are each in a different state! But we were on Zoom.

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One of my friends told about a frustrating experience she had had where she was asked to write the first chapter of a book on spec (speculation). She did the research and she worked her tail off. Then they gave the assignment to someone else. She didn’t even know they were auditioning someone else for the book.

Wow, said another friend. That sounds a lot like what happened to me. After she related her story, I asked them the name of the publisher. We had all tried out and all been turned down.

We’re professional writers so we’re used to rejection. And it isn’t entirely about writing for speculation. That’s basically what we are doing every single time we don’t have a contract in hand when we write something. We’ve all been there.

But this publisher had head hunted all three of us. They told us that they had seen our book lists, seen our writing, and knew that we could do what they needed. And then sent us on our merry way. None of us will be “trying out” for this publisher again.

How is this different from what I do for Redline? When I start a new book project, I come up with an outline and write the first chapter. Before I’m done, I get the contract. That right there? That makes the whole thing different. I get the contract and then I turn in chapter one and the outline. Once I have my editor’s feedback, I write the rest of the book.

Incidentally? I found out about Redline by talking to a writer friend.

The only way you can find things like this out is by talking to your fellow writers. Get to know other writers in your area. Join a critique group. Talk to each other.

I remember being at an SCBWI conference and during her presentation an art director commented that now that writers and illustrators discuss payment at SCBWI events, we creatives have a much better idea what we should be making.

When we talk to each other, we learn what is fair and what may be a little fishy. As new writers we might have felt compelled to try out once again with that publisher. As established writers? We can peddle our elsewhere.

–SueBE

Books In Translation

I’ve been thinking about books in translation a lot lately. About a month ago, I listened to an audiobook a friend recommended, Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People. The book is set in a small town in Sweden. As I listened, I knew that there were things that I wasn’t entirely understanding such as when people used the term “Stockholmer” as if it meant something very, very specific and not just someone who lives in the capital.

But that’s okay because it was obvious that I was reading, or at least listening, to a book set in another country. I loved the feel of being somewhere else in story form.

Then I listened to another Swedish book. This one came recommended by my cousin. I’m not going to name drop here because I was a little baffled by parts of the translation. Early in the book, one of the characters refers to an ancient Suomi curse. My son’s godmother is Suomi so I know that happens to mean Finnish, but I really wondered why on earth the translator left that as Suomi. Then later in the book the characters are in a thunderstorm. There is a flash of light and then the POV character starts to count. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.

Seriously? I somehow doubt that people count Mississippi’s in Sweden. I mentioned this to a friend who is from Oregon. She grew up saying one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. So Mississippis aren’t even universal in the US. I would love to have known what they count in Sweden!

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Then Friday I picked up my library books. I had requested The Immortal Boy by Francisco Montaña Ibáñez. It was translated by a writer I chat with on Twitter, David Morales. Guess what I didn’t realize? You can read it in English or, flip it over and turn it around, in Spanish! Both text are included in one book!

I tried to photograph the book descriptions so you could see one in English and one in Spanish but the shiny paper made it impossible. Still I love that readers can choose either language or both.

What was the most recent book that you read in translation?

–SueBE

3 Ways to Recognize a Hoax

Hoaxes and scams can take writers in.

Last week I got a message from a reader who had seen my post, “Scams, Cons, and Things to Watch Out For,” over on the Muffin. Unfortunately there are always people trying to take advantage of writers.

Oh, let’s be real. There are always people trying to take advantage of people.

I decided to write this post because the scam that inspired my Muffin post is still going around. My reader just got it and I’ve gotten it again too.

This time around, the scam arrived at my door in an e-mail. My reader got a message through her website. That’s how I got it the first time too. The message reads something like this:

“My name is Lynn, an academic consultant. I have a speech distorting condition called Apraxia. I got your contact information online, and I need your service. Can you write an article on a specific topic for an upcoming workshop? The article, printed as a handbook, will be given to the attendees of the workshop. I have a title for the article and an outline to guide you. Please contact me for more information.”

When I googled the message, I found a blog post on overpayment scams. The way it works is this. The scammer agrees to pay half the total fee up front. When the check comes on the weekend, it is for the whole fee. The scammer tells you to hurry up and deposit it. Then they contact you and ask you to return the excess. Surprise! They sent you a counterfeit check on a fake account. This means that come Monday or Tuesday, the deposit will not go through. But what you repayed them? That goes through and they get your money. Sneaky!

Fortunately, there are ways to recognize a hoax.

  1. They contact you to write something you don’t do. I don’t write whitepapers. I don’t write on apraxia.
  2. They ask you for money. Some scammer ask for money to send materials to you. Or they need you to pay for an editing service. If you are working for them, you shouldn’t be sending them money. Or they overpay you and ask for a refund.
  3. They pepper the message with odd details. Granted, some people give out too much information, but scams often include odd, unessential details. This level of detail often convinces people they are telling the truth.

Any time you are suspicious, do a google search. You will be surprised what you turn up online! Don’t let yourself be scammed.

–SueBE

Passive Voice: The Best Test Ever

“Eliminate passive voice whenever possible.”

My editor is so polite. He doesn’t have a fit when he finds passive voice in my work. But as soon as he mentions it, my mind goes blank. Sometimes I’m like that when you put me on the spot.

I think the big problem with this is my grammar education was limited. I learned more about grammar and parts of speech in English studying Spanish than I did in all my English classes put together.

So I feel like it is a struggle to find passive voice in order to eliminate it. Thank goodness for the Zombie Test.

If you don’t feel like watching the video, in an active sentence the subject is doing something.

Amber eats the apple.

Amber (the subject) eats. Yep. That’s active.

In a passive sentence, the subject is acted on.

The apple is eaten.

The apple (the subject) is eaten. Definitely passive.

But not all sentences that contain a “to be” verb are passive. Sometimes it is a linking verb.

The apple is fruit.

Not sure you can tell? Add the phrase “by zombies.” If the sentence makes sense, it is passive.

Amber eats the apple by zombies.

Nope. That doesn’t work so it is definitely active.

The apple is eaten by zombies.

That makes sense so the sentence is definitely passive. The Zombie Test. Learn it. Use it. Eliminate passive voice whenever possible. Your editor will be happy. And, no. That is not passive. In that case, it is a linking verb. Isn’t grammar something special?

–SueBE