Monday, August 8, 2022

The Power of Great Opening Lines by Randy Overbeck

Today, everything must move in a blur. Downloads can’t be fast; they need to be instantaneous. Calling friends on the cell takes too long and is so yesterday. Just text them. If they care, they’ll text back. If it can’t be squeezed into a tweet, it isn’t worth sharing. And don’t get me started on Tik-Tok. The average view is thirteen seconds! Really? Tik-tok-ers have just few seconds to catch viewers’ eyes…or else they’ll be swiping on to the next one.

I’m not sure who’s to blame but that’s the reality.

The same principle applies to writers and books today. Of course, it has always been that way, kind of. The saying “Don’t judge a book by the cover” mostly does not apply. Many readers do exactly that. “Oh, that cover looks interesting. I’ll check it out the first few pages.” Of course, now the cover is likely a digital image and the first few pages are from the sample on Amazon.

And that’s not really new. It’s just the current version of strolling through our favorite bookstore, browsing the books on the shelves and checking out a few pages of those that look interesting.

But, with today’s speeded up world, with the thirst for instantaneous gratification, authors need to realize readers may likely not browse the first few pages. More likely, they will check out the first page…or maybe the opening paragraph…or even just the first sentence.

But even this is not that new. For centuries, readers have sampled the first sentences of a writer in much the same way they would taste a spoonful of soup to judge its flavor. If the soup was too salty or too spicy or too thin, it would be evident in the first few sips. For years, readers have had much the same approach to novels…and great writers understood this.

Even Charles Dickens—who got paid by the word, remember—recognized that he needed to hook his readers within the first few sentences. His opening lines to A Tale of Two Cities are some of the most famous first lines in literature. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”—A Tale of Two Cities 

Jane Austen, who was writing for a very different audience, understood this point as well. Her most famous work, Pride and Prejudice, continues to win fans two hundred years after it was first published and, in fact, has fueled an entire genre of Regency novels. She realized she needed to hook her readers right from the start.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a fortune, must be in want of a wife.”—Pride and Prejudice

Some of today’s best and most successful authors recognize this truth. They craft opening sentences and paragraphs designed to make readers want more, to feel the need to keep reading. As I’ve read great writers, I’m always struck by the power and pull of the opening of their novels. Take Tom Clancy, the insurance agent who became the most successful techno-thriller author on the ‘80’s and ‘90s. 

This is the opening line from Patriot Games, the second in his Jack Ryan series. “Ryan was nearly killed twice in half an hour.”—Patriot Games 

By the time Patriot Games was published in 1987, The Hunt for Red October had already been a huge best-seller and readers couldn’t stop talking about the hero, Jack Ryan. So, for the opening sentence in book two, the author dispenses with the “Jack” and goes with just “Ryan” and readers are crying for more. Patriot Games would go on to become an even bigger bestseller.

Probably my favorite historical mystery writer, James Benn, has mastered this as well as any. James writes murder mysteries that take place during World War II, with his protagonist, a young detective from Boston transplanted to various sites of the war to investigate. Readers get a healthy and enlightening look at history as well as a darn good whodunit in each entry. And his books always start off with a bang.

“Light travels faster than sound.

Strange the things you think about when you’re about to die. Even as the tracers lit the night air, their tiny silvery phosphorescence clawing at the small aircraft from the ground below, a tiny part of my brain mused on this practical demonstration of the scientific fact. The rest of my brain panicked madly, sending surges of adrenaline coursing through my body, urging me to get the hell out, now.”—The Devouring, a Billy Boyle WWII Mystery 

I mean, how could a reader stop reading after that?

Emerging writers would do well to learn from these experts, old and new. You want your novel to start with a sentence or a paragraph that will catch your readers’ attention. What that is depends largely on your genre and your readers, but there are plenty of fine examples to learn from. Next, the sentence or paragraph needs to leave the readers wanting more, wondering “What’s next?” And these impulses have to be organic to the work. Readers don’t like it when an author dangles a tasty bit to reel his or her readers in and then switches to something else.

When I penned my new series, the Haunted Shores Mysteries, I tried to pay particular attention to this advice. With these novels, I was fortunate as I had much to work with. A reviewer described them as “a cold case murder mystery wrapped in a ghost story with a side of romance, all set in a beautiful resort location.” The different aspects of the narratives gave me several options to craft enticing opening lines.

Consider the start of Crimson at Cape May, the second in the series. 

“There was something off about her.

Darrell Henshaw had first spotted the woman on the Promenade near the corner of the Cape May Convention Hall. Huddled in the shadows, her long white dress soiled and torn, she stared at him with sad eyes that might have once been enchanting but now seemed haunting.”

The woman, of course, is the Haunted Bride, the murder victim of my tale and my hope was to grab readers’ interest from the first page. It must have worked as Crimson earned bestseller status last fall, following in the footsteps of Blood on the Chesapeake, which reached the same rank a few months earlier.

Of course, there is more, much more writers need to do. Strong, enticing writing needs to continue beyond the first paragraph or page. The reader has to say to himself, “I need to keep reading to find out what happens next.” But if we, as writers, can’t hook potential readers in the first line or first paragraph or first page, we’ll never get a chance to tell them the rest of our story. They’ll move on to the next book or worse, the next tweet or Tik-Tok video.


Dr. Randy Overbeck is an award-winning educator, author and speaker. As an educator, he served children in roles captured in his novels, from teacher and coach to principal and superintendent. His novels have earned national awards including the Gold Award from Literary Titan, Thriller of the Year from Readers Favorite, Silver Award for Mystery of the Year from ReaderViews and Crown of Excellence from Ind’tale Magazine. Dr. Overbeck is an active member of the literary community, contributing to a writers’ critique group, serving as a mentor to emerging writers and participating in writing conferences. His newest literary project, the podcast, Great Stories about Great Storytellers, exposes the weird and unusual backstories of great storytellers like authors, directors and poets.

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Saturday, August 6, 2022

Hold Fast to Dreams by Liz Flaherty

This came mostly from 2019. The past week or two, I've been buying school supplies here and there, worrying about Covid in the schools, about how kids are bullied, teachers are bullied, and pubic education is under constant fire from the same people who are holding the fire extinguishers behind their backs and saying "Gotcha!" 

Am I biased? You bet. I have kids who teach and a grandson still in middle school. I'm afraid for the students who may not get what they need in the future, whose school curricula may be built around political platforms instead of the truth, and who have to learn to take cover before they learn the alphabet and "Red Rover, Red Rover..." I worry about teachers ending up having to be armed, know...they don't have enough to do. 

I'm a mom and a nana. I got a little sick writing that. Thanks, again, for opening the Window and for reading it even when you don't agree with it.

Her name was Margaret. In my freshman year, she had someone else grade short stories we wrote, just to give us another outlook. I got great feedback--I held onto that a long time. Great feedback is an immeasurable gift. 

His name was Gordon. He encouraged.

Her name was Clauda. She taught both English and Latin, and I learned more about words and their origins than I ever would have thought existed.

Her name was Jane. She didn't think I'd EVER learn to type, but I did. Finally. Not well, but well enough that being a writer was much easier than it might have been.

His name was Joe. He taught Algebra and about life, and when I sold my first book, he brought me a dozen roses.

Her name was Mrs. Sullivan. She was my first grade teacher and she didn't like me, but she let me read with the second graders because I was bored. I was scared to death of her, but I learned. Every day.

His name was Graham, although I don't think they called him that. He taught Senior English. It may have been my favorite class ever. 

His name was Jerry. He was a heck of a basketball coach, and he taught American History and made me love it. He also gave me a C in it. It's where I learned you don't have to be good at something to learn from it and enjoy it. 

I graduated from high school 54 years ago. The list above is a microcosm of the ones who taught me in those 12 years on the way to graduation. I still remember their names, what they looked like, and things they said to me.

On November 19, 2019, almost 20,000 teachers went to the State House in Indianapolis. They sang, they chanted, they wore Red for Ed. They carried signs, they met with legislators, they publicized the shame that is our state's stance on public education. My daughter and son-in-law were there. The support our educators received was humbling. The support they provide to their students should be humbling to the lawmakers; unfortunately, it is not.

I will get off my soapbox now. I realize it's probably not the right place for it. And yet it is. Because of those people up there, I'm a writer. I know about commas and plot and quotation marks. I know that in that 12 years with them, none of them ever told me I couldn't do anything. None of them ever said I wasn't good enough. None of them ever cared where I lived or that I didn't dress as well as other girls. They gave me everything I needed in adulthood's toolbox.

And I'm still so grateful.

To all the teachers and kids and school staff going back to school, have a good week.Be safe. To them and everyone else, be nice to somebody. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Giving MS A Place by Debby Myers

Debby Myers brings a special voice to the Window. Her experiences and her writing voice educate and inform as well as--not to be shallow about it--keep us interested. She's a thespian and a circus performer as well as a reluctant voice for Multiple Sclerosis. Welcome her please. Hold your applause till the end, but by all means, let her hear it.

My birthday is this month. From the time I was old enough to remember, it’s been hot outside on my birthday. I used to love it – I could tan, go hang out at the beach, or just enjoy the great outdoors watching my grandkids play. It’s just another perk that I’ve been robbed of by multiple sclerosis. Heat is no longer my friend, especially combined with our Indiana humidity.

I’ve written here before about my MS. It’s been six years now since my diagnosis. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, although I’m not sure I ever will be. It requires me to be in temperatures around 70 degrees as much as possible. Anything more exposes my body, particularly from my ribcage to my toes, to an awakening of prickliness and spasms. Pins and needles in my legs and jolts of uncontrollable muscle jitters in my thighs, along with tightness from my MS hug tugging at my ribcage, begin when the external thermometer climbs over 80.

Lack of tolerance to heat is just one of more than a dozen symptoms in my unpredictable life with this disease. Don’t get me wrong. I know we all suffer from ailments as we age. I’m 59 now. When my six-year-old grandson asked me how old I was going to be on my birthday, and I said 59, he made an awful face. Most days I make that awful face too. If we really are "only as old as we feel," then I must be 159.

A dear friend came to visit me last week. When he saw me, he said he thought I looked good – healthy and happy. I didn’t want to correct him, because I have become an expert at using my acting skills in these situations. I do my best in social interactions to put on my friendly face instead of an awful one. Because MS is one of those invisible conditions, I can get away with that. Despite my appearance, my body is constantly struggling with stability. It’s not to say there aren’t times when I do feel healthier and happier, but not like I used to before February 12, 2016.

I saw my neurologist in May. She told me she’s pleased that the MS is holding stable. I am getting infusions every six months of Ocrevus. FDA approved in 2017, it is the only drug used to treat Primary Progressive MS, so it came just in time for me. When I began taking it, the drug was new, so the only results to base its effectiveness on were trials. It is designed to slow progression of the disease, reduce new lesions that eat away at the myelin on nerve endings that cause new symptoms. For me, it seems to be doing just that. I am grateful.

I made the decision to attend the circus parade this year. It will mean being pushed around in a wheelchair. That is one of the things that wears away at my dignity. That chair is where I’ll be living permanently one day. I don’t even like anyone to see me in it. Yet I can’t miss the parade. My oldest grandgirl is the new drum major for the Maconaquah Marching Braves. She has been playing flute since sixth grade and was part of the group last year when they took the state title. At the parade I will see her for the first time in her hard-earned role. I can’t miss it because of a wheelchair or because of heat.

Often people ask why the wheelchair. Why not a cane or a walker? Well, those can only take me so far. I struggle the most with my legs, particularly my right leg. the signal from the brain that says “lift the front part of your foot” doesn’t make it. My brain says “take a step” but my body only gets part of the instructions. If I try to walk more than a city block, weakness sets in quickly, as does my balance.

Life with MS can be unpredictable and downright odd from day to day, due to the wide variety and severity of symptoms. All of these and more can be frustrating to experience, let alone try to explain to someone. No one sees the pain, the numbness, the tingling, the tinnitus, the eye problems, bowel and bladder problems, weak for a few days, strong for a few days, energy one day, totally weak the next, depression, the frustration.

I try my best to make peace with it, to give it a place. Yet my shelf is not big enough anymore. Sometimes I feel there is just no more room to hold it. Despite all of it, I will continue to fight it. For this is my life, this is my body, and this is my soul. Mine. And now I’m 59.

Pick up Vex and Valor or Verdicts and Vows at Gallery 15, Anita's Boutique, or from Debby - she'll sign them, too! Book 3 - the climax, Verve and Valor, will be out in the next couple of months, so now is the time to catch up on this amazing trilogy focusing on two families everyone can relate to. 

Also available on Amazon.