Hook, first line, and sinker…

Some writing advice will tell you that the very first line in your story is tremendously important.

That’s not true at all.

What is important is your first page — you need to grab your readers and make them interested enough to continue reading. You want to get an image into their heads with a question that needs answering, and which can only be discovered by turning the page.

That doesn’t have to be done in the first line. Some of the greatest stories ever written don’t do that in the first line. Don’t feel so pressured by the thought that you have to grab the reader quickly that you give up, frustrated at a near-impossible goal. For that matter, don’t pressure yourself to have such a powerful first line that you put one in that doesn’t fit the feel or theme of the story just because you think you have to hit your reader over the head the second they start.

However…

… if you can grab your reader in the very first line, you’re a step ahead of everyone else. It’s a great feeling when you read a story and the very first line makes you go “Whoa. This is cool. I have to keep reading…”

So I decided to look back on the anthologies I have edited and co-edited to pick out my favorite first lines. Mind you, these aren’t necessarily my favorite stories in those anthologies. But you have to admit, these make you want to keep reading, don’t they?

George was absolutely certain he hadn’t been holding a sword a moment ago. – Kenneth Schneyer, “Foursomes,” Across the Universe

In the investigation that followed, it was determined the entire affair might have avoided if the mission planners had been a bit less clever in programming Bai Juyi’s AI network. – Allen Steele, “Come Together,” Across the Universe

It was still two days before the next big storm would hit, but the artificial islands that could afford to come in already were taking all the best sound-side spots, all along Seattle’s drowned edge, and surrounding the Space Needle’s raft settlement. – Cat Rambo, “All You Need,” Across the Universe

Hello, I’m Paul, and I’ve died 62 times. – Patrick Barb, “When I’m #64,” Across the Universe

Katie Spillane took the elevator down to the front security desk at 2:00 a.m. with a cup of coffee in each hand and her ulterior motive in the front pocket of her hoodie. – Matt Bechtel, “Cracking the Vault,” Release the Virgins!

I questioned my life choices when the address I arrived at for my job interview turned out to be a Dunkin’ Donuts. – Alex Shvartsman, “The Coffee Corps,” Release the Virgins!

The first thing Watson noticed was that the victim’s eyeballs had exploded. – Derek Beebe, “A Study in Space,” Baker Street Irregulars 2: The Game is Afoot

Normally, finding a dead cat is a bad thing, especially when it’s nailed to your front door. – Bernie Mozjes, “The Mystery of the Dead Cat in the Darkness,” Tales of Fortannis: A Bard Day’s Knight

Other than the guest of honor, everyone enjoys a good hanging. – Mark Mensch, “Thieves Among Honor,” Tales of Fortannis: A Bard Act to Follow

Of the stories I’ve written, I guess my favorite opening line is from a story that has yet to be sold, but maybe I’m biased because it’s the most recent thing I’ve written:

Killing Jesus was an accident; deciding to take his place was the mistake.

But most of my short stories have first lines that are not quite as catching:

I knew that expression.

Irad poked at the lifeless body.

“Braaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnsssssss.”

I felt seasick.

Darvin stared at the floor.

The novels seem to be a bit catchier for some reason.

Stage fright consumed me as I peered through the curtain, fist clenching my lute. – “Arch Enemies”

The shock of hearing one’s own name conspiratorially whispered is a great awakener. – “The Axes of Evil”

Cool water rolled slowly down her neck, curving between perfect breasts, caressing her
stomach.
– “Bloodsuckers: A Vampire Runs for President”

“God has no need for dynamite!” – “Big Stick”

The point is this: If you can come up with a great first line, wonderful. But you don’t need it. Don’t stress over it.

Eating Authors!

Writer Lawrence Schoen has gathered 100 science fiction authors and asked them to write a short essay about their most memorable meal, which makes for a fascinating collection! It includes my story about a memorable (and funny) anniversary dinner I had with my wife and our encounter with a very apologetic yet clueless manager of a Red Lobster.

EATING AUTHORS is now available as an e-book or a paperback.

And better yet, all the proceeds go to charity (fighting cancer).

The collection includes famous writers like Steven Barnes, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Myke Cole, Gregory Frost, Chuck Gannon, Laura Anne Gilman, Sally Wiener Grotta, Joe Haldeman, Sharon Lee, Jonathan Maberry, Jack McDevitt, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., James Morrow, Robert J. Sawyer, Alan Smale, Bud Sparhawk, Allen Steele, Michael Swanwick, Harry Turtledove, and many more (including me!).

Order your copy here!

The Eye of Argon (50th Anniversary)

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first publication of The Eye of Argon in a small, mimeographed fanzine, ConTinual asked me to moderate a panel to discuss what many consider the worst fantasy story ever written.

Well, come on, it was written by a kid, so give him some slack.

Writers Keith R.A. DeCandido, Gail Z. Martin, Hildy Silverman, Ian Randal Strock, and I discussed The Eye of Argon — But we came to praise, not bury.

We shared hilarious stories about its performance at various science fiction conventions and talked about the history of the story and its creator.

At the end, each panelist reads a section and the viewer can read along as well to enjoy it and see all the mistakes and typos. (If you want to try to read the whole thing, here’s a link.)

Watch and enjoy! (And if you want to see a performance done at a convention years ago with guest author Peter David, click here.)

Why the Electoral College has to go

With the election on everyone’s mind, I’ve been answering a lot of questions about the terrible Electoral College. So to make things easier, here I am reading the chapter from my book HOW TO ARGUE THE CONSTITUTION WITH A CONSERVATIVE explaining the concept and why we need to get rid of it (including a discussion of the Wyoming Plan).

Science Babe Talk!

I had a great time chatting with my old friend Yvette Ross (“Science Babe”) about the Constitution, the 2020 election, and politics in general, and hey, so far this has been viewed over 16,000 times on Facebook. Check it out!

Capclave 2020 (online!)

Capclave is a convention I usually attend but like all conventions this year, it has switched to an online version only. It will be held on the weekend of October 17th and 18th.

There are some great guests who will be “present,” including Neil Clarke, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Charles Gannon, Walter Hunt, Nancy Kress, Ken Liu, Gail Z. Martin, Sarah Pinsker, Hildy Silverman, Connie Willis, Catherynne Valente, and many more!

Because it’s online and therefore there aren’t as many things scheduled, and because there are so many guests, I’m not on as many panels as I usually am, but I will be doing a reading from my novel BIG STICK at 10 am on Saturday, and then will be on a panel called “Laughter with Bite: Satire and Other Funny Stuff” with Alex Shvartsman, Charlotte Honigman, and James Morrow at noon.

Here are some pictures from previous Capclave conventions! (Click on a picture to see a larger view)

Eating Authors

Author Lawrence Schoen has gotten 100 famous science fiction and fantasy authors (and me!) to write about their most memorable meal. It’ll be a fun book, full of great stories.

Among the authors are some of my favorite writers: Steven Barnes, Gregory Benford, David Brin, Myke Cole, Gregory Frost, Chuck Gannon, Laura Anne Gilman, Sally Wiener Grotta, Joe Haldeman, Sharon Lee, Jonathan Maberry, L. E. Modesitt, Jr., James Morrow, Robert J. Sawyer, Alan Smale, Bud Sparhawk, Allen Steele, Michael Swanwick, Harry Turtledove, and many more! I’m honored to be among this group!

There are also perks you can get when you order your book. Check it out!

Interview with author L. Penelope

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing L. Penelope! Penelope has been writing since she could hold a pen and loves getting lost in the worlds in her head. She is an award-winning fantasy and paranormal romance author. Equally left and right-brained, she studied filmmaking and computer science in college and sometimes dreams in HTML. She lives in Maryland with her husband and furry dependents. Sign up for new release information, exclusives, and giveaways on her website: http://www.lpenelope.com.

Let’s start by talking about your latest release.  Give us the details.

L. PENELOPE: CRY OF METAL & BONE is the third book in the Earthsinger Chronicles series. It’s epic fantasy with a touch of dieselpunk, set in an alternate 1920s world. In this entry, the two countries of Elsira and Lagrimar, which have been at war for centuries, are now entering into a tentative peace, and Lagrimari refugees are flowing across the border seeking better lives in Elsira. A terrorist attack by those not so keen on the new state of affairs occurs and the king and queen put a team together to investigate and prevent more deaths. Among them are a legendary rebel with incredible power, a streetwise smuggler, and a socialite with a debt to repay.

VENTRELLA: Was this originally planned as a series?

PENELOPE: The first book in this series, SONG OF BLOOD & STONE, was the first book I ever completed, so at that point I hoped it would be a series, but I was just focused on actually writing one complete novel. Then, during the editing process, once I was fairly certain that this was something I could do again, I conceived of the other books in the series. The overarching story arc became more clear to me and I figured out what I wanted to say with these books.

VENTRELLA: Do you expect you may write more in the series?

PENELOPE: I’ve just turned in the fourth and final book in the series to my editor. There are also three novellas that go in-between the main novels, and the last one of those is with the copyeditor now and will release in November. I’m looking forward to having a break from this series, which I’ve been working on for seven years, but at some point in the future I may go back to it with spin-offs for some of the characters.

VENTRELLA: Romance plays a part in many of your stories as well. How important is that for a story?

PENELOPE: I honestly don’t see myself writing a story without a romantic element in it any time soon. It may happen eventually, but part of what I love to read the most are stories about people finding love and how that changes them. I miss finding that in the occasional book I read without so much as a romantic subplot. Reading about falling in love allows you to experience it over and over again on a micro scale, and that’s honestly what I want to be doing with my free time.

VENTRELLA: What themes do you see yourself visiting in your stories?

PENELOPE: I find myself returning again and again to the same themes: identity, finding one’s place in the world or society, and finding something to believe in. It’s definitely not conscious, but every time I have a new idea, these things seem to be present, so I’ve accepted it.

The Earthsinger Chronicles deals with issues such as racism, xenophobia, a refugee crisis, and civil unrest – but ultimately I think these are outgrowths of my main personal themes as well. They’re rooted in specific experiences that I’ve had but they’re also universal. I think everyone knows how it feels to be isolated or not fit in and be looking for a soft place to fall. So those are stories that most people can relate with.

VENTRELLA: Unlike many fantasy novels, yours has technology comparable to early 1900s or so. Why did you make that decision?

PENELOPE: Trying to balance my love of fantasy with my love of modern technology is most likely what led me to set my novels in their early 19th century feeling world. I was inspired initially by THE SCORPIO RACES by Maggie Stiefvater, a YA novel that takes place in an unspecified time period that feels like the past but has cars and telephones. I was so struck by how unique it was and the kind of mood that the setting helped create that I wanted to try my hand at that as well.

Also, I’ve never been drawn toward the traditional medieval fantasy setting where everyone is homogenous. In order to make things a bit more interesting for myself as the author and hopefully keep things fresh for readers, using a different time period just felt like the right thing to do. It helped that my first image of my main character was her standing on the porch with a shotgun in her hands. So the story needed firearms at the very least, which helped me with the timeline.

VENTRELLA: Did you have any training to be a writer and do you think that is necessary?

PENELOPE: I’m a writing craft junkie, so I sought out classes and workshops because I love to learn. In one such class (a highly recommended one called “Write Better Faster” with Becca Syme) we take personality tests along with the Gallup Strengthfinders test. My top two strengths according to that system are Intellection and Input—my number 5 is Learner—which really explains so much.

While I’d written all through childhood and worked on literary magazines in high school and college, I got back into writing as an adult through workshops and classes at a local writing center when I lived in Virginia. From there, I explored longer classes and attended a few week-long workshops: VONA/Voices, where I studied with Junot Diaz one year and Marjorie M. Liu the next, and the Hurston-Wright Writer’s Week where I worked with Dolen Perkins-Valdez and David Anthony Durham.

But while I love diving deep into the craft, I don’t think it’s strictly necessary. Some people write very intuitively and will never need a craft course. However, those people are quite rare. Most writers can benefit from a book on craft or an online course, at minimum. There are a lot of books that I DNF due to issues that could probably be fixed had they focused a bit more on training before hitting publish.

VENTRELLA: Do you think fiction writers should stay away from political messages in their stories?

PENELOPE: While I can certainly understand the motivation behind the advice to stay away from polarizing topics and political messages, writers should understand that that is a privilege. Recently, an organization for historical writers took down a blog post on their website on the topic of people of color living in the Regency period of England, saying it was “political.” As a Black American, if the mere discussion of people who look like me existing in a time period is political then it would be impossible for me to stay away from such messages. But I also don’t feel the need to.

Writing “what I know” necessitates writing about topics that might make people who’ve had different lived experiences feel uncomfortable. It might turn some folks off from reading my work, and I’m okay with that. I believe that fiction represents the worldview of the writer whether we want it to or not. I also believe that fiction creates empathy and, at its best, can show people how to live harmoniously with one another by imagining themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Ultimately, we have to write what we feel comfortable with. But comfort isn’t everything and pushing a few boundaries, encouraging people to view things from a different perspective, is why I wanted to become a writer in the first place.

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to just use your initial instead of your first name?

PENELOPE: My use of the name L. Penelope wasn’t in any way to hide my gender. I studied film in college and had come up with that nom de plume (which is just my first initial and middle name) way back then for when I was a famous director. I ended up on a different career path and will, alas, never be the next Scorsese, but my family and friends all knew that name for my creative endeavors. My father passed away when I was in my mid-twenties and when I began publishing a decade later, I felt that using the name I’d told him about was a way to still connect with him. If there’s a way for him to be aware of what I’m up to now, I didn’t want any barriers.

VENTRELLA: What writing projects are you working on now?

PENELOPE: Now that I’ve finally finished my long series, I have several new projects that I’m excited about. I’m doing research for a historical novel—a heist story—this time set in the real world—a big departure for me. And I also have a contemporary fantasy and a series of short fairy stories that I’m working on.

*  *  *

I recently had a nice chat with Leslye and Gail Z. Martin about inserting romance into your stories. Check it out!

Free writing advice

I’ve been using this blog to discuss writing advice (which is why it’s called “Learn From my Mistakes”), and lately I’ve been doing zoom chats with writers, editors and agents for my group the Pocono Liars Club.

They’ve all been recorded, and are very entertaining. We do these approximately every two weeks, and the schedule and videos of the previous chats are all here.

Here’s the most recent.

Ranting about the Constitution

Hey! Wanna hear me rant about people who don’t understand the Constitution? Check out this podcast with Mark Arnold!

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