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Weldon Writes ... Almost a Blog

A Powerful First Line is Essential!

Many editors will tell you that, when plowing through a slush pile of freelance submissions, they often never get past the first sentence of a story, much less the first paragraph. Writers may think this unfair, but an editor's instinct about a story is usually dead on -- if the first few lines of a story don't snare your attention, you're not likely to read further.

 

Strong, compelling first lines are critical.

 

Consider the following examples of first lines from best-selling authors.

 

  • Everything, Sam Peebles decided later, was the fault of the god-damned acrobat. If the acrobat hadn't gotten drunk at exactly the wrong time, Sam never would have ended up in such trouble. ("The Library Policeman" by Stephen King)
     
  • Red Tongue Jurgis (we called him that because he ate red-hots all the time) stood under my window one cold October morning and yelled at the metal weathercock on top of our house. ("The Last Circus" by Ray Bradbury)
     
  • It was hell's season, and the air smelled of burning children. ("Gone South" by Robert McCammon)
     
  • On the night after the day she had stained the louvered window shutters of her new apartment on East 52nd Street, Beth saw a woman slowly and hideously knifed to death in the courtyard of her building. ("The Whimper of Whipped Dogs" by Harlan Ellison)
     
  • Barberio felt fine, despite the bullet. ("Son of Celluloid" by Clive Barker)


Well-written first lines engage the inquisitive human brain, pulling us into a story by appealing to our natural curiosity, appealing to our emotions, or ideally both. And very often brevity enhances those appeals. (Barker's six-word sentence, for example, begs many questions that urge you to read more.) First lines should raise questions in our minds, with the promise that the answers will be divulged if we continue reading the story. First lines should jumpstart the reader's imagination. The excellent writer understands the psychology of the reader and uses this knowledge to manipulate, entertain, and even educate the reader -- right out of the gate.

 

Consider the first sentence from Harlan Ellison's "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs." Ellison was inspired to write this short story after the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964; Genovese was stabbed repeatedly near her apartment in New York City, and the murder was witnessed by 38 of her neighbors who did not interfere with the killer, despite the woman's screams for help. Ellison starts the story with mention of a mundane chore (painting louvered window shutters), then counterpoints this with a knifing in Beth's courtyard. Subtle psychology going on here. In one sentence, Ellison has us hooked. What did Beth do? What happened next? Who was the slain woman? The murderer? How can you not read more?

 

If you are a fiction writer, spend a good deal of time tailoring the first sentence or two of your stories. Consider the questions you want in your reader's mind as the story begins, then write a lead that plants those questions -- and drive them to read more.

 

 

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Stand-Up and Comics and Horror, Oh My: Meet Jasper Bark

Jasper Bark has a problem staying out of trouble. Much to our entertainment, he's embraced this lifelong ambition to find trouble and use it as the content for his writing. His broad experience has given us incredible horror stories, comics, and even a children's "pop-up" book of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions. There's not much the man can't do, creatively speaking. Plus, he has a distinct, if somewhat warped, sense of humor. Interviewing him proved to be an adventure.

 

 

Let's start by dispelling a rumor. Do you really write in the nude?

 

Only when I'm trying to summon a Batrachian Daemon to spitball story ideas. But that has its drawbacks because those daemons are pretty possessive when it comes to their ideas, and there's nothing worse than being taken to court for plagiarism in a hell dimension. I mean, jeez, their legal system, talk about Kafkaesque.

 

Plus, as I'm constantly explaining to my wife, and the Mailman, technically it's not nudity if I'm dripping in Yak's blood.

 

You once performed (and maybe you still do) stand-up poetry. How did that happen? And did stand-up comedy have anything to do with it?

Did comedy have anything to do with it? I guess that would depend on how drunk my audiences were.

 

I have worked as both a stand-up and a performance poet over the years. Stand-up gigs pay much better than poetry gigs. At one point I combined the two, so I could cover twice the number of venues with the same set. Hence stand-up poetry.

 

I began stand-up when I was 15 years old. There weren't any comedy clubs in the North of England where I lived, which was very blue-collar. In those days, the comedy clubs were all down in the south of the UK, which was much richer. So, I played Working Men's Clubs, which had cheap beer and blue comedians. I used to skip school and hitchhike to the venues. Technically I was way too young to be in any of those places, but they let me in for some reason. I think it was because I looked about 12, had a potty mouth, and the customers found it hilarious.

 

I left school at 16, which you could do in the UK back in the '80s, and, having no qualifications and no other trade, I led a hand-to-mouth/gig-to-gig existence as a stand-up and actor throughout my late teens and twenties, eventually making quite a few 'blink and you'll miss me' appearances on TV. It was the closest I could get to running away to join the circus.

 

Some of your fiction runs to erotic horror, with a side of dark humor. Is this an intentional recipe (erotic fiction + horror with a dash of humor) or one that just comes naturally to you? Read More 

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For Action-Oriented Female Characters, You Can't Beat DV Berkom

DV Berkom loves strong, intelligent, smart-ass, and kick-ass female characters. So, it's not surprising that the USA Today best-selling author of two action-packed thriller series features impressive female leads: Kate Jones and Leine Basso. Her drive to create such women stems from a lifelong addiction to reading spy novels, mysteries, and thrillers— and longing to find the female equivalent within those pages.


After a lifetime of moving to places people typically like to visit on vacation, she now lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and several imaginary characters who like to tell her what to do. Her most recent books include Dakota Burn, Absolution, Dark Return, The Last Deception, Vigilante Dead, A Killing Truth, and Cargo. She's currently working on her next thriller.

DV was happy to entertain some questions from us. If you enjoy reading (and perhaps writing) thrillers, you just might find her experiences and advice enlightening.

 

Thanks for playing along with us! Let's start with the obvious questions. What do you find most appealing about writing series? Do you think series are easier to write and market than stand-alone novels?

 

Other than short stories, I've only ever written a series—I really love them. The form gives me the ability to explore the main character much more in-depth than a stand-alone novel. Plus, I get to concentrate on the story, the setting, and the secondary characters since I'm familiar with the MC and don't have to build her from scratch. But easy to write? I'd have to say writing, in general, is about as easy as balancing on top of a unicycle in the middle of the I-5 during a Seattle rush hour, while sipping a cocktail and having a conversation with my editor.

 

As for marketing, I think having a series is definitely easier than writing one-offs. There are so many more entry points for a reader and, if they love a character, many will burn through the entire series, which helps tremendously.

 

When creating a series character like Leine Basso or Kate Jones, is the character growth and maturation planned or a natural progression?

 

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Alan Orloff: From Mechanical Engineering to Engineering Thriller, Mystery, and Horror Fiction

Alan Orloff has had a diversified career during his lifetime, far more than most folks. Lucky for us, he's now settled into writing awarding-winning novels and short stories. His debut mystery, Diamonds for the Dead, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. His novel, Pray for the Innocent, won the 2019 ITW Thriller Award in the Best E-Book Original category.

 

Alan's short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and other publications, including Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly, Noir at the Salad Bar, 50 Shades of Cabernet, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and many others.  His story, "Rule Number One" was selected for the 2018 edition of The Best American Mystery Stories anthology. His story, "Happy Birthday" (published on Shotgun Honey), was a 2018 Derringer Award Finalist in the Flash Fiction category. And his story, "Dying in Dokesville" (published in Mystery Most Geographical) won the 2019 Derringer Award in the Short Story category.

 

Alan is always willing to chat with readers and fellow writers. So, it was no surprise when he agreed—without hesitation—to talk with us for Suspense Magazine.

 


Alan, thanks for chatting with us. You come from a diverse background. A degree in mechanical engineering, an MBA. You've worked on nuclear submarines, at a marketing research firm, and have even driven a forklift, among many other things. Now you're a full-time writer. How in the world did that happen?

A very good question, one that my wife asks me all the time. I wish I had a better answer, but one day I just decided to give writing a try. While I never (never!) had taken a creative writing class (or shown any desire to do so), I'd always been a big reader. I guess I finally got fed up reading other people's stories and wanted to write my own! I started slow, with a proof of concept. Could I write a short story? I did, it didn't stink (too bad), so I took a few workshops, then a few more, and kept at it. Still doing it, too.

 

 

Tell us about your thriller, Pray for the Innocent.

 

 

Don't hate me, but I woke up at 4 am with the premise for this novel fully formed in my head. I recommend this method very highly! (Although, every morning since, when I wake up WITHOUT a great idea in my idea, I have to admit I'm a little disappointed.) The book kicks off with a slight sci-fi twist and then it's off to the races. (It was fortunate enough to win the ITW Thriller Award for Best E-Book Original.) Here's a brief description:

 

In the shadow of the Pentagon, a secret DoD brain research experiment goes terribly wrong, and an ex-Special Ops soldier escapes, believing he is Viktor Dragunov, the Russian operative from the 80's thriller novel, Attack on America. To capture him, the Feds turn to the person uniquely qualified to predict his next moves, the man who created the fictional character, best-selling author Mathias King.

Now a reclusive English professor, King is reluctant to get involved, having sworn off the culture of violence after a deranged fan murdered his wife. But when innocent people start dying, King is thrust back into that dark world. With help from his enthusiastic graduate assistant Emily Phan, King must outsmart his own creation--while outmaneuvering the cover-up-loving Feds--before Dragunov succeeds in his hell-bent mission.

To destroy America.

 

 

Your first novel, Diamonds for the Dead, was nominated for an Agatha Award for Best First Novel. What was your inspiration for that book?

 

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