David O Selznick ignored Mitchell’s first line.
Yesterday I saw a silly pickup line on the internet. You say to someone, “You smell upsexy.” Then the person responds, “What’s upsexy?” And then you reply, “Not much. What’s up with you, sexy?” I thought I’d try it out on my husband that evening, just for laughs. So that night, I say, “You smell upsexy.” He looks at me like I’m crazy and then responds, “What does that mean?” Well, there goes my joke–although I actually laughed harder at my script’s going awry than I did at the actual joke.
What does a lame pickup line have to do with writing? Only this: I challenge you to think of the first line of your novel or story as a pickup line. Except not a lame one, of course. One that will get readers’ attention and make them want more…just as a pickup line is supposed to get someone’s attention and entice him/her into a larger conversation.
One of my all-time favorite first lines is from Gone with the Wind.
Many people believe that the enduring power of Gone with the Wind lies in its characterization of the heroine and/or the complexity of the love triangle. While all that is good stuff, consider the first part of the book’s irresistible first line: “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it….”
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Hollywood overlooked this first line when they cast the gorgeous Vivien Leigh as Scarlett. And while I can’t imagine any other actress in that role thanks to Leigh’s outstanding performance, I think the first few words of the book have a great deal to do with the novel’s power. Scarlett, though attractive, was not so beautiful that she didn’t have to rely on her wits to get what she wanted. And ultimately, it is her charm and cunning that drive the novel’s plot. I think every woman on the planet would like to know the secret Mitchell teases at in that first line. You mean this woman Scarlett wasn’t a beauty but somehow she made people think she was? How’d she do it? Can she teach me how to do the same thing? Hasn’t this promise in some form or another been a cover tease on every women’s magazine cover every month for the last…forever?
What’s your favorite first line and why?
When I was in grade school, one of my favorite teachers did an exercise with us called, “Let’s Get Rid of ‘Said’!” The idea was that “said” is a boring, generic way to tag a writer’s dialogue. She was totally right. And yet, she was totally wrong.
Yes, “said” is a boring, generic word. But guess what? That’s exactly what you want. Other than an occasional “replied,” all your dialogue should be tagged with “said.” Anything else is the mark of a novice. Professional writers do not want their characters to state, announce, assert, claim, declare, disclose, reveal, pronounce, utter, or, for heaven’s sake, chortle. Therefore, step away from the thesaurus.
“But that’s so many ‘saids,'” you say. You’re right. But it’s OK. The idea is for the reader to gloss right over the dialogue tags and pay attention only to the dialogue itself. And gloss the reader does…as does the agent reading your work while thinking, “Thank goodness I’m dealing with someone who knows to use ‘said.'”
Trust me. Just use “said.”
There. I said it.
Rejections. Every writer has gotten them. But how do you know when to keep trying and when to take a hint? Here are a few hallmarks of what I’d call “good rejections”–the kind that should encourage you to keep going.
1. There’s some outright encouragement. Did the editor mention that he/she enjoyed certain aspects of your manuscript? Remember that an editor has to fall head-over-heels in love with a book in order to take it on. Just as we don’t fall in love with every attractive person we meet, editors don’t make an offer on every good manuscript.
2. It’s not the right fit. If you get a rejection that says something to the effect of, “It’s not right for our line,” that isn’t an insult to your book. Remember that book imprints have a brand of their own–readers expect certain types of projects from them. Your book may be great but not in line with their brand. Continue reading ‘Six Rejections That Should Make You Keep Writing’
One of my favorite writing instruction books, but it can’t teach voice.
Years ago, my editor-in-chief at Sweet 16 magazine (a moment of silence for that awesome publication!), told me she liked my voice. It was a compliment that meant a lot to me, but what she said after that made a real impression, too. I’ve never forgotten it. “You know,” Mary Lou said offhandedly. “Voice is the one aspect of writing that can’t be taught.”
I thought about that long and hard. I’d taught English for years and had taken pride in helping writers grow, but had I ever TAUGHT voice? I realized I hadn’t. Mary Lou was absolutely right. I could teach sentence variety, I could build vocabulary, and I could help students learn to organize their thoughts, but I couldn’t teach voice. Continue reading ‘Voice: If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It (Because You Can’t Teach It)’
Stuff I don’t know how to use #424.
“I didn’t know you were a drummer!” said my agent. She’d just finished my manuscript about a middle-school girl drummer who starts a rock band.
“I’m not,” I said. “At all.” Fact is, I lack both coordination and rhythm–things that are kind of important for drummers.
So what was I doing writing a book about a drummer? Isn’t “write what you know” one of the unbreakable laws of writing?
Nope. Continue reading ‘Breaking a Law of Writing’
Less scary than a blank piece of paper? (photo from levelupliving.com)
For a short while in my teaching career, I taught public speaking in addition to teaching writing. I loved teaching public speaking, mainly because the students seemed to take it so much more seriously than they did writing instruction. Most kids are perfectly willing to slap some words on a piece of paper in study hall seconds before a writing assignment is due and think nothing of it–after all, who cares if the teacher is impressed? But it’s an entirely different matter to present ideas that are unorganized and ill-conceived to an entire room of one’s peers. I found that the students who took public speaking took all the instruction about getting attention, staying focused and organized, and using relevant examples to heart and were better writers because of it. Good public speaking skills translate into good writing skills. But there are some things public speakers can do that writers typically should not. (Note: The list below does not apply to technical writing, where all bets are off when it comes to style.) Continue reading ‘Four Things Public Speakers Can Do, But Writers Can’t’
Remember the 80s hair band Cinderella? Sure you do. Their lead singer had that awesome screeching voice and everything they did was so marvelously loud. They rocked! And do you also remember when all the metal bands went through the power ballad phase and Cinderella sang that one about writing called, “Don’t Know What You Got (Till It’s Gone)”?
OK, that song wasn’t really about writing. But it could’ve been. Because that’s the song that has been playing on repeat in my head the past few weeks as I search for old copies of Writing! magazine. Continue reading ‘In Which I Juxtapose a Metal Power Ballad and Writing Instruction’
In college, I had to read a scholarly work called The Anxiety of Influence by Harold Bloom. The gist of it was this: poets need to read other poets, but how do you make sure that you don’t wind up sounding like them and thus lose your own voice? I always thought Bloom’s argument was spot on, probably because all through college and my early twenties, I was doing some very bad JD Salinger writer-karaoke. Shortly thereafter, I immersed myself in so much Faulkner that I could barely carry on a normal conversation without sounding like I’d just ridden into town from Yoknapatawpha County. Continue reading ‘Harold Bloom Was Really Talking about Alice’
Today I’m blogging about creating complex villains because as a professional writer, I am an expert on the subject. Ha! Quite the opposite. I chose this topic because it’s super hard and I’m trying to learn more about it myself. I’ll make a deal with you: I’ll share with you what I’ve picked up, and maybe you can offer me some tips, too. Yay, teamwork! Continue reading ‘Getting to Know Villains’
I was thinking about doing a blog post on naming characters, and in said post, I was going to discuss how important it is to choose suitable character names that don’t date the writer. Like, for example, if you’re writing a contemporary teen fiction, you probably don’t want to have characters named Debbie, Cindy, or Judy, because when is the last time you met a girl in this generation with one of those names? They’ve just fallen out of fashion. I started teaching in the early 90s, and of all the students I’ve ever taught (and as Billy Collins pointed out in one of his poems I love, there have been enough to populate a small town), I don’t recall ever teaching a Debbie, Cindy, or Judy. (Lots of Madisons, Taylors, Jordans, and Morgans, though.)
But when I started thinking of this blog post, it occurred to me that one of the most successful teen girl movies ever has an anachronistic main character name: Regina George in Mean Girls. Regina? Really? Does she hang around with Deloris and Betty? Teen girls today just aren’t typically Reginas. So why Regina when that name is so dated? Continue reading ‘What Kind of Name is Regina George?’