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What makes a great opening line?

What Makes a Great Opening Line

I don’t think you’ll find anyone, reader or writer, who will disagree that opening lines are important. It’s third in a series of first impressions (more below) and a reader is looking for any excuse to put your book down and pick up another. So I spent a lot of time pondering my opening line. I read a lot of them (and wrote about what I thought to be the 15 greatest opening lines in fiction), and I decided on one thing:

All my favourites were teasers.

Take a look at the post and you’ll see what I mean. Each opening line raises questions and encourages you to read the next one and the next one until you get some answers. So I began to think that this was the sole purpose of the opening line: get them reading. I saw it as the third act in the drama of book selling:

1) The cover makes you pick up the book.

2) The blurb makes you open the book.

3) The opening line makes you read the rest of the book.

Those are your first impressions and those are your opportunities to hook the reader. So I thought I had it sussed and sorted. That’s why The Fey Man opens with: “The Easterners were arriving that night but Thomas Rymour didn’t care.” Who are the Easterners? Why doesn’t this Thomas Rymour care about their arrival?

Then other people began to tell me about their opening lines.

It’s about setting too.

Check out Jaye Nolan’s opening lines and you’ll see that plenty of them are about setting the scene. They create an instant image in the mind. I would say these are less about intrigue and more about welcoming a reader into the book’s world.

And never forget the power of humour.

Which is something I did forget. This isn’t the preserve of humorous titles such as Pratchett or Holt; while it’s easier for them to start with a joke, there’s room for humour in even the bleakest of stories. And if you make someone laugh, they’re more likely to like you and your book and keep on reading.

These are definitely viable goals for an opening line (and I’d love to see one that managed all three!) But what do you think? What is the purpose of the opening line? What should it be telling (or not telling) the reader? Leave a comment and let me know.

The Greatest Opening Lines in Fiction

I was recently directed to this story about the best opening lines in fiction. And they all sucked. Every single one. Well, except Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And Barrie’s Peter and Wendy. And Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Okay, so it’s possible I was exaggerating slightly when I said they all sucked. But I wasn’t a fan of a lot of them. Don’t get me wrong, novels like Wuthering Heights, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Jane Eyre are all excellent. But “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.” does not a great first line make.

So I rummaged through my library to dig out my own list of 15 fantastic examples of opening lines in fiction:

1. The Turn of the Screw, Henry James

The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happen to say that it was the only cast he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.

2. Buddha Da, Anne Donovan

Ma Da’s a nutter.

3. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

I had been making the rounds of the Sacrifice Poles the day we heard my brother had escaped.

4. Madame Doubtfire, Anne Fine

All the way up the stairs, the children fought not to carry the envelope.

5. Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie

All children, except one, grow up.

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

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

7. Dune, Frank Herbert

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul.

8. Frankenstein, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

9. State of Fear, Michael Crichton

In the darkness, he touched her arm and said, “Stay here.”

10. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.

11. Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk

Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is you have to die.

12. Neuromancer, William Gibson

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

13. Singularity Sky, Charles Stross

The day war was declared, a rain of telephones fell clattering to the cobblestones from the skies above Novy Petrograd.

14. I am Legend, Richard Matheson

On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.

15. The Hobbit, J R R Tolkien

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Pretty good, aren’t they? Now I dare you to do better. Find a better opening line. I bet you can’t.

The Best Books of 2013

Another year, another pile of books to reflect on. The Internet is awash with “year in review” posts and this blog is no different. But, as with previous years, I haven’t read many new books. Mostly because I usually only read paperbacks (it’s cheaper that way) but also because I let word-of-mouth lead me to books. And that takes a little while. So this is what I read in 2013 and what I recommend you read too.

Turin Shroud: How Leonardo Da Vinci Fooled History by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince

Don’t let the subtitle fool you. Yes, the authors try as best they can to draw a grand conspiracy theory around the idea that Da Vinci created the Turin Shroud to fool the world. The truth is that no conspiracy theory is needed. The notion the Da Vinci created the Shroud is fascinating enough, and there’s enough evidence to convince you that this might indeed be the case.

Bad Blood by Ginny Lurcock

I am very over vampire romance. Kind of over vampires in general. But Bad Blood was an absolute joy to read. It’s written incredibly well, with a tongue firmly in cheek and it pops the tragic vampire romance balloon before it can inflate. Even if you’re tired of vampires, trust me: you’ll enjoy Bad Blood.

A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver

I watched the TV series and was fascinated. Ancient Britain isn’t taught much at school so it’s easy to be left with preconceptions perpetuated by lazy writers. Oliver’s book goes beyond the series and shows a remarkably advanced and civilised world that we’ve all forgotten about. Worth a read and great for fantasy writers!

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin

I enjoyed the second book in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series more than the first. While the first was a brilliant set up, the second kicked into high gear. Battles and intrigue and, of course, more Tyrion Lannister. What’s not to love?

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

A sombre entry, this. It’s written from the perspective of a ten year old boy whose older sister has died. The boy is living with his dad – his mum has left – and is starting a new school. He makes a new friend, but the shade of his sister means his dad might not let him be friends with a Muslim girl. Sad and heartbreaking but full of hope at the same time.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Friends and family have told me that Aaronovitch’s work reminds them of me for years so I finally read it. I see what they mean. It’s a bit facetious and sarcastic and weird. But it’s great for it. “Magic is real” is an old idea but Aaronovitch mixes it with the boring reality of real police work and it works. You can tell it’s his first book – the story wobbles in places – but I’ll definitely check out his others.

What were your best books of 2013? Anything I should read in 2014? Leave a comment and let me know!

Has Amazon Ruined Goodreads?

It’s a burden being right all the time. Not too long ago I wrote a post stating that Amazon needs to embrace social media. And what happened? Amazon bought Goodreads, the leading social media site for book readers. Did I call it or what?

Well, not really. I had imagined Amazon introducing some homegrown social solutions. But I forgot the Golden Rule: when you’re as big as Amazon, you don’t have to make your own products; you just have to buy other people’s. So Amazon saw what Goodreads had created and got them some of that. But is this a good thing for readers?

Otis Chandler, one of the founders of Goodreads, claims that he sold the site to Amazon for three reasons:

• Greater reach – Amazon can extend Goodreads services to all of its customers now;
• Ereader integration – Amazon can now bring social interaction directly into the reading experience;
• Independence – Amazon will keep their hands off the wheel.

Yeah, I’m not buying that last one.

That Goodreads was an independent entity was what made it so great. It fostered a truly open environment and encouraged free discussion. Goodreads was somewhere you could go to talk books online without a salesman taking notes over your shoulder. But now it has a vested interest in making you buy from Amazon. Cue heavy advertising, links aplenty and pretty soon features will be exclusive to the Kindle. And Goodreads will exist solely to build up Amazon and break down its competition.

Are there any upsides to the deal? I’m not counting all these social reading ideas; reading will always be a solitary experience no matter how many buttons you add to the ereader. But Amazon will bring money and resources to the party. That might help Goodreads develop their mobile app, for instance, or improve the online interface. And it’s unlikely that Amazon are going to mess much the site, other than channeling buyers to their site. So the Goodreads we know won’t go anywhere any time soon.

But the data belongs to the Mighty Zon now. That will be a bitter pill for some people to swallow.

But perhaps I’m being too negative. What do you think? Is Amazon going to break Goodreads or can things only get better?

Books Don’t Need Reinventing

I recently watched a fascinating presentation by Mark Waid called Reinventing Comics. If you like comics it’s worth a watch (I believe it’s a preview of the future), but today I’m writing about books. Because while comics might need reinventing, books do not.

A lot of the comments I read on this video said things like “now someone needs to do this for novels” and “when will this be done for all books?” I was surprised because it’s been tried and people are still trying.

Reinventing books is an old idea that isn’t gaining any traction.

Apple released software that makes it easy to create interactive ebooks with video, audio, multi-touch models and more. Booktrack lets you add effects and a soundtrack to ebooks. And now Socialbook wants to make reading a social experience, letting your friends scribble notes in the margins of your book, highlight portions, pull out quotes and even re-arrange the content.

But none of these gimmicks have revolutionised books which remain, largely, words on the page. And for one very simple reason:

Gimmicks are distractions from the narrative.

I downloaded the Charlie Brown’s Christmas app last year. I was all hopped up on Christmas chocolate and wanted to try an interactive book. And while it’s not an awful little app, all the interactive elements were just…naff.

•Voiceover? Switched off; I like reading, not being read to.
•Tap the pictures to make them move? Why? All they do is wiggle to a sound effect.
• Play the music along with Schroeder? All that does is remind me I’m no good at music.

And all of these things stopped the story from flowing and yanked me out of the narrative again and again. No-one likes being interrupted while they read, but in this case I had paid for the interruptions to be part and parcel of the book itself.

Trying to cram in interactivity and video and the social media isn’t reinventing books.

It’s creating a bastard of book and app, a Jack of all trades. It removes focus from the key element, the words, in favour of bells and whistles. But people who want bells and whistlea buy apps. And people who want words buy books.

So to the people who think that books need to enter the 21st Century, I have only this to say: keep all your bells and whistles. A good book needs only the words and a quiet place to read them in.

And letting your friends rearrange the content of your book? Are you high?

Why Amazon Needs To Be More Like Facebook

Amazon’s review system is broken and open to abuse. Certain writers were posting damning reviews on competitors’ books and glowing reviews on their own. Others were paying strangers to leave reviews. And readers were swarming good books with bad reviews because they didn’t like what it had to say and wanted it to fail. It’s all bad voodoo and something needs to change. So Amazon decreed that no writer is permitted to review books in their own genre. But that punishes every writer for the sins of the few. And it doesn’t stop the swarming problem. So what are they to do?

Easy. Make Amazon more like Facebook.

Sounds strange? Not at all. There’s three good reasons for my cockamamie scheme.

1. Transparency

A major problem with Amazon reviews right now is the anonymity; anyone can create multiple accounts and hide behind a username. Obi1 can swarm a book and drag down its star rating. lukes88 can post fake reviews of his book. But Facebook demands your real name. And a picture. There’s nothing to hide behind.

2. Conversation

Furthermore such a system wouldn’t even require formal reviews. Each product page could collate conversations about the product. So sending a public message to a friend suggesting they check out a book pops up as a “review”. And though these people are strangers, a shopper can see someone making the effort to recommend the book. That’s a strong review in and of itself!

3. Judge and ye be judged too

Doing all of this will also mean that when I review a book you’re better equipped to judge me as well as my review. After all you can see my activity. You can see I’m a writer, for instance. You can also see that I have a hardcore devotion to Michael Jackson. And look, I’ve liked a page called “Vote down this Michael Jackson book”. My review probably isn’t legit…

If this all sounds like an extreme solution to the problem, it shouldn’t be. If readers can’t trust the reviews on Amazon then Amazon itself becomes viewed as unreliable as the reviews it allows to remain on its site. And the same applies to others; Goodreads, for instance, has suffered from swarming as well.

Trustworthy reviews are vital to any online book seller. Removing the anonymity and adding a social element can go a long way towards restoring them. And then I can review books again.

Would you like to see Amazon become more like Facebook? Or would you avoid that like a big, corporate plague? Please let me know; I’m interested to hear what people think!

Review: Terry Pratchett’s Nome Trilogy

“They say things like ‘How are you?’ and ‘Have a nice day’ and ‘What do you think of this weather, then?’ What these sounds mean is: I am alive and so are you.”

No More Books 2012 didn’t just mean I couldn’t buy new books; it meant I couldn’t reread any I already owned. That was tougher than I originally thought. I didn’t realise how often I reread my favourite books and I missed it terribly. So one of the first things I did this year was reread one of my favourite trilogies.

Terry Pratchett’s Bromeliad Trilogy is, in a word, brilliant. It tells the tale of the nomes, little people that live amongst us unnoticed. This group is led by Masklin who wants nomes to be able to go home and be safe. And he learns that home is another planet.

Made up of Truckers, Diggers and Wings, these are kids books written in the best way possible. They don’t talk down to the reader and there are plenty of jokes for the adults too (although some of them are a little groan-worthy).

“Do you not even remember that you are shipwrecked?”
“I’m Masklin,” said Masklin. “I don’t know who shipwrecked is.”

The nomes are very literal-minded and don’t quite understand the human world (not unlike children themselves) which grants Pratchett carte blanche to make fun of anything and everything. He has a gift for picking out the ludicrous in our lives and ‘explaining’ it in the most hilarious way. He doesn’t hold back here. Nor does he shy away from big ideas. I’ve reread these books a dozen times each and they’re still making me think!

Humans were big and stupid, that was true enough, but there was something unstoppable about them and they seemed to be controlled by bits of paper.

If you’ve ever thought of reading a Terry Pratchett book, you couldn’t find a better introduction. Short, hilarious, a great story and it will even make you think a little. I cannot recommend these books enough. The fact that I’ve reread them a dozen times tells you everything you need to know.

Year in Review: Books of 2012

With 2013 around the corner and that Mayan nonsense finally disproven once and for all, it’s time to look back at 2012. Of course, just as my review of 2011 was hardly timely, being unable to purchase new books means this is more a list of good books you’ve probably already heard of. But you should still read them. Here’s the best of No More Books 2012 (in no particular order):

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Purchased purely because of all the fuss being made over the series and read purely so I could watch said series, I must say I did really enjoy this. I found myself tearing through it. Martin manages to create an enormous and grounded world without needing to refer to maps or requiring you to memorise a thousand place names. It’s a remarkable feat. He draws characters well, too. I found myself very attached to a number of them (although perhaps not as many as he’d hoped; there’s dozens of viewpoint characters!)

It is very dark, however. The good guys never seem able to catch a break. That said, I’m not entirely certain who the good guys are.

Parasite Rex by Carl Zimmer

This is the non-fiction I dream about. This is a book so fascinating, so endlessly interesting, that for weeks after finishing it I was talking about it to anyone who would listen. Parasites seem so uncommon in the Western world yet not only is this a mistaken belief but they have also had a much greater effect on us then we’d like to believe. Zimmer even puts forward a good argument to suggest that parasites helped create sex!

It’ll make your skin itch like crazy but, if you’re at all into science, you have to read this book.

Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb

I’m a big fan of Hobb’s Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies but I was unsure about this one. With different characters and a different setting, would I still enjoy her work?

I should never have doubted her. Hobb writes compelling characters and that’s what keeps you reading. Hero or villain, you want the characters to achieve their goals and you suffer when they don’t get them. And you suffer a lot, because Hobb seems to delight in torturing her characters. And it’s brilliantly entertaining.

The Woman In Black by Susan Hill

This is a marvellous story in the same vein as The Turn of the Screw. Just like James’ novel, Woman in Black is short and without filler, offering only a building tension that doesn’t explode into cheap imagery or easy scares. Instead it leaves you unsettled, even after you’ve put it down. It stays with you for a long time; the best sign possible for a ghost story.

Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

I didn’t see the twist coming. There, I said it. I appear to be the only one but, even if I had predicted the ending, that wouldn’t stop me recommending this novel. Watson managed to write a touching novel that’s also a master class in the slow-build, the tension rising slowly but surely until I was tearing through the pages, desperate to get to the end.

So those are my top books of 2012. What were yours? Leave a comment and let me know.

Lessons From No More Books 2012

They said I’d never make it. Ten months without buying, borrowing or otherwise acquiring any new books? Popular opinion had me snapping and going on an Amazon binge within weeks. That or turning into a drooling fool (more so, that is).

But it’s almost here. The end of No More Books 2012. It’s not been easy. Nor has it been fun. And with my list of books to buy longer than it’s ever been, some people might be asking why I bothered. I asked myself that question many times but I believe it’s a good idea for any bookaholic. Here’s what No More Books has taught me:

1. Use Your Library.

Like most bookaholics, I buy books in the belief that I’ll read them one day. Of course, one day is only rarely today. Until that happens, you’re building up a library with only one member who never steps foot inside. But No More Books forced me to dust off that library card and wander the shelves.

2. There’s Too Many Of Them.

That said, I told myself 2013 would see the library almost exhausted. I was wrong. It won’t make a dent. And, as any character who says “there’s too many of them” is invariably caught and killed, expect my books to devour me any minute.

3. Who Needs New Books?

Why does someone with a burgeoning library of unread books need new ones anyway? No More Books has made me realise that, a lot of the time, buying books comes more from a collector’s mindset than anything else. And whilst owning books gives me pleasure, it’s a hollow joy if I’ll never have time to read them.

4. Kill The Impulse Buy.

It’s easy to rationalise impulse buying a book because society tells us that books are good. They’re educational, increase literacy and all that jazz. Society wants me to buy a book. How can I refuse?

But I’m not made of money and impulse buys can often become paperweights. No More Books stamps out the impulse to buy first and think later. Hopefully that habit will last and make me a more discerning shopper.

5. Discerning Shoppers Save Money.

In theory, anyway. I may or may not have significantly contributed to my DVD collection instead.

Think you’ll give No More Books a try? Or have these been the ravings of a madman? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Interview with Paranormal Young Adult Author Airicka Phoenix

Next up in my sporadic series of author interviews is Airicka Phoenix. I can’t remember who followed whom first, but it’s safe to say that my Twitter feed certainly became a lot livelier once Airicka was amongst the little blue pigeons! She’s got a good sense of humour and is always fun to talk to, so I thought I would have a few words with her about her new novel.

So, Airicka, the soapbox is yours. Could you start by telling us a little about your path to becoming a writer?

I suppose the only answer I can give to this that will make no sense at all is that Beauty and the Beast brought me here. It was grade 3 and we were supposed to draw pictures that told a story then put words to them. I was obsessed with Disney’s version of Beauty and the Beast, but I never liked how Belle didn’t get the chance to kick butt and it was too sappy (I was 8!). So I rewrote the story. The pictures were horrible and you can’t make out a word, but it was good enough to get framed by my mother! Lol. I’ve been hooked to writing ever since. Touching Smoke is only one book in a long line of plots and characters just waiting to get out.

Airicka Phoenix's Touching Smoke will be released at the end of July 2012.Tell us about Touching Smoke.

Touching Smoke is about a girl’s desire to know her past, only to discover her past is better left in the dark. It’s a young adult cocktail of romance, adventure, mystery, and fantasy and paranormal. The story stars Fallon Braeden, a sixteen-year-old gypsy on the run with her mother in their beat up Impala. Things haven’t always been normal, but they take a drastic dip for the downright insane the day Fallen starts an earthquake and everything falls apart. Suddenly, she finds herself hunted by creatures with unusual abilities, haunted by a ghost baring a frighteningly familiar resemblance and falls in love with the last person she should ever give her heart to. So as her foundation crumbles beneath her, Fallon teeters on the brink of two devastating revelations: follow her heart or save the world.

What inspired this trilogy?

Touching Smoke came to me by accident. I was actually vanquishing a demon in another story when the idea for Touching Smoke popped into my head. It took me about a day to write out the plot, fill in the characters and Touching Smoke was born.

You describe yourself as a paranormal young adult (or YA) author. The genre has been made very popular of late by the Twilight books. Did they have an influence on you?

Getting inspired has never been an issue. Getting all the stories bubbling up in my head out is the real problem. On whether or not Touching Smoke was directly inspired by Twilight or any other book/movie, etc, I can say with complete honesty that it wasn’t. However, in that same breath, Touching Smoke was inspired by another book that I will be releasing soon.

Can you tell us anything about that book?

It’s also a YA novel. I like to think it is a Buffy meets Romeo & Juliet. It’s about a girl named Clara who is a Hunter for the human race. Her job is to kill the supernatural, until she comes across a demon she can’t kill and breaks all the rules to keep him alive.

I’m not sure when this book will come out, but I’m hoping soon.

What is it that drew you to the paranormal YA genre?

I have my mom to thank for that. I grew up watching The Witches, The NeverEnding Story and The Labyrinth, just to name a few. My mom always had a passion for anything that had magic so our house was always full of superstitious stories and stories of romance and danger. My mom had a flare for making up some of the most amazing stories and I would sit up for hours listening to her. When I got older, I started writing my own. The young adult genre has always held something special for me. I love the innocence of the characters and those stages between childhood and adulthood when everything is the most fragile.

Touching Smoke will be published via Treasureline Publishing. What made you work with them rather than go it alone?

I thought of going at it alone several times, but the process had always daunted me so much that I kept waiting for Touching Smoke to get noticed by a publisher or waste away on my hard drive. Treasureline Publishing actually published my first short story, Torrid, and took up Touching Smoke after I got to talking with the lady in charge of the company. She took Touching Smoke under her wing, I designed the cover and the rest is history.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be a writer?

It’s only as hard as you let it be. Be wary of who you let into those fragile moments when you are at your most vulnerable and always keep moving.

And, finally, what’s the problem with red Smarties?

OMG! LOL!! I think I cracked a rib! Oh my goodness! I thought we agreed this discussion would remain hush-hush! *sigh* all right, well, I actually have a phobia against most ‘red’ foods. So it’s not just smarties. I won’t eat or drink or touch most things red. But I do like strawberries, raspberries and applies which seem to be exempted in my weirdness.

If this has whetted your appetite, you can download Touching Smoke here (if you’re in the UK) or here (if you’re in the US)will be released at the end of July. You can also visit Airicka’s website and let her know what you think of her red food phobia. She’s on Twitter and Goodreads too, so she hasn’t anywhere to hide…