The Sea Side Strangler Strikes Again!
Leave it to my mentally unstable, common sense impaired parents to ship me off to the only town in America with an active serial killer on the loose. I could so easily have the life squeezed out of me by some deranged killer. Now that would be the ultimate revenge. I mean, talk about a guilt trip—not that I’d be alive to benefit from it. And quite frankly, I’d prefer to die peacefully, in my sleep, at the age of one hundred and eight, thank you very much.
So begins my debut young adult mystery SWIMMING ALONE. I had a great deal of fun writing these opening lines, but it took me several years and many rewrites to get to them. Somewhere during my revision process, I realized I needed several things to happen. I needed to introduce my readers to The Sea Side Strangler, a serial killer who haunts my protagonist throughout the novel. I also needed to introduce the narrator, Cathy Banks. No, we don’t know her name yet. But we know she isn’t an adult, since her parents are shipping her off somewhere. And from the voice, I think most people would venture to guess that she is a teenager, and a snarky one at that.
“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
That is how it is for me when I begin a new story. Taking that first step and not knowing what the story is going to be about, but having the faith that by the time I get to the end, I will have a whole story. I start with a first line and from there take it line by line, step by step, until I discover what the story will be about. And that most definitely was the case with my short story “Lewenda Gets Married,” which will appear in a multi-genre anthology called Glimpse: A New World.
Judy Penz Sheluk
I’d been sitting in the reception area of Hampton & Associates for the better part of an hour when Leith Hampton finally charged in through the main door, his face flushed, a faint scent of sandalwood cologne wafting into the room. He held an overstuffed black briefcase in each hand and muttered an apology about a tough morning in court before barking out a flurry of instructions to a harried-looking associate. A tail-wagging goldendoodle appeared out of nowhere, and I realized the dog had been sleeping under the receptionist’s desk.
Bestselling author Louise Penny does not mince words. In a recent article, she offered the following advice: “If you’re writing your first work of crime fiction, place the body near the beginning of your book—preferably on the first page, perhaps the first sentence. In later books this won’t be as necessary, but agents and editors like it established early, so readers know what they’re getting.”
When I began to write Catacomb, the sequel to my first Italian mystery (Burnt Siena) I was determined to engage the reader at the very beginning. That goal was impressed upon me when I attended a conference session in which several authors met with two New York agents. Each author read the first two pages of a work in progress, the agents reacted, and then they passed the author a card saying, “yes, send me more,” or “not interested.” I read two pages from the chapter that begins with a loving description of Siena, Italy, through the eyes of protagonist Flora Garibaldi, and ends with the discovery of a body. The criticisms were, “Well, obviously you want us to know you’ve lived in Italy…” and “I don’t like your protagonist.” Not very encouraging! But those agents didn’t like anything they heard in that room; we authors all came away depressed.
When I was younger and dreamed of becoming a writer, I never imagined how much revising and rewriting were involved in the process. I went through what felt like thousands of rounds of self-editing, several rounds with my wonderful Sisters in Crime – Central Virginia critique group, and three rounds with the publisher’s editor and proofreaders.
I started Secret Lives and Private Eyes with four different opening chapters. The original introductory chapter was moved further in the story. And the new first chapter eventually became a prologue to the mystery.
She’s Not There, a novel of suspense and my first novel, has a 4.2 Star rating on Amazon.com after more than 600 reviews, and is the first novel in the successful TJ Peacock & Lisa Rayburn suspense series.
The story begins when psychologist Lisa Rayburn discovers abused women are disappearing at a rate too high to be a coincidence. I felt that this discovery by my main character through a group of statistics would not be an engaging enough start for a suspense story, so I decided to do a prologue that introduced the killer.
After landing a two-book deal with St. Martins Press for a new series, I was surprised to learn that the first Fia McKee novel would not come out until the spring of 2017, a wait of almost two years!
I was aware that some publishers are asking their authors to write novellas and short stories to keep these writers in the public eye during the intervals between their full- length novels. A novella seemed like just the thing.
“It’s my party,” Lesley Gore sang, “and I’ll cry if I want to.” Or, in this case, it’s my blog, and I’ll break the rules if I want to. The guidelines for this blog ask writers to discuss the first two pages of one novel or short story. I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’ll discuss the opening sentences of several stories in my recently released collection, Her Infinite Variety: Tales of Women and Crime. In short stories, we probably don’t have two pages to make readers and editors want to keep reading. We’re lucky if we get two sentences. So I thought it might be interesting to compare the openings of these stories and see if I can come to any general conclusions. Other writers, of course, have used other approaches to beginning short stories, and have often succeeded far more than I ever will. But this is what’s worked for me.
Before the internet, my sportswriter husband regularly followed British soccer with an overseas subscription to The Daily Telegraph from London. There was a bonus for me in this expensive dedication: The Telegraph had extensive crime coverage. One story, about a murder witnessed only by a speechless infant, captured my imagination. It went into my notebook, but it was years before the principals in the little drama emerged, beginning with Jeff Woodbine, who begins his story about bad choices with a little meditation on his grandmother, based on a relative who had fought the good fight against dementia.
One of my favorite writing prompts came from a graduate course I took at Manhattanville College with writer Elizabeth Eslami. Liz told us to start with the phrase All s/he [or I] wanted was… and then write. Is the desire big—like James Bond’s desire to save the world from takeover by Spectre? Is it more personal, like the desired to be loved or to gain self-confidence? How does this desire manifest itself in action? I tell my fiction students to start there, in the middle of a desire—and to think about some reasons why the desire may be thwarted. Save the back story for later, I say. Keep the stakes high and raise questions. Those are the things I tried to do as I opened my novel Shadow Notes.
Hello. I am Randy Rawls, and I’m an author of eleven published books in three series, plus one historical. The series are all contemporary settings featuring a Private Investigator, two in South Florida and one in Texas. The historical takes place in 19551956 in northeastern North Carolina. My latest book is DATING DEATH, book three in my Beth Bowman, a South Florida PI, series.
It was a typical Friday night in the Howe University’s library. The building was quiet as only a nearly empty library would be, but it could have been as noisy as a schoolyard at recess, and still the young man huddled over a book on the table wouldn’t have noticed.
To capture the readers on the first page, my goal was to introduce Erin Matthews by showing her as a sympathetic, but flawed character. My biggest obstacle was how to tell her backstory, which provides the motive for her actions, without telling all in one chunk at the beginning.
I started Erin’s story as she is beginning a new life in a world completely foreign to her after running from her past. She is alone, without money, and about to move in with a stranger. In the first two pages her character is partially revealed, as well as the characters and motives of the men who are aiding her escape. I also needed to show the era and place where her story is centered because the setting is as much of a character as the people.
My debut novel, Just Another Termination, was released by Black Opal Books on August 29, 2015 as the first in a series of mysteries that tell the story of Judy Kenagy, the first human resources manager to turn sleuth or, at least, the first to admit it.
I knew I needed grabbers and hookers to reel readers in, and keep them going throughout the book, but I also knew how easy it was to lose them in the first two pages. I needed to identify the protagonist. At minimum, provide a hint to her motivation. Add a few fascinating characters, set the tone, establish timeframe and setting. So what did I do? Here’s the start of my book.