Friday, August 28

How to Pen an Award-Winning Story with Deep Structure

Literary agents share many pearls of wisdom when it comes to judging writing contests, but I've seen one that surfaces more often than all the others: deep structure.

According to Dr. John Yeoman, deep structure is "what the reader detects subconsciously beneath the narrative. A perception of depth."

It's when we as readers feel our pulse quicken, we take a deep breath and settle back in our chair, and say "Ahhhhh" as we experience reader euphoria. It's when we set the story down and think about it for days and days to follow.

So what does deep structure have to do with crafting a good hook? Plenty.

In the opening paragraph a writer has the opportunity to create an echo.

One aspect of deep structure is bringing it all full circle at the end, and to do so, the writer can create the first touchstone, the first connection in the opening paragraph. Think of it as an echo.

Echos in the opening paragraph may consist of phrases or a sentence that is repeated at the end, an image that draws upon one or more of the five senses that is experienced again at the end, or a similar action that strikes the reader in such a way to be sticky in their memory.

If done effectively, the echo relates to the theme of the story as well, giving it even deeper meaning. This helps set a story apart from the hundreds of stories a judge reads for a literary contest.

Wednesday, August 26

100 Best First Lines from Novels and Short Stories

According to The Good Hook 
(in no particular order)


1.“In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.”
(David Markson in Wittgenstein’s Mistress)

2. “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”  
(Dodie Smith in I Capture the Castle)

3. "It was a pleasure to burn."
(Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451)

4. "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."
(Vladimir Nabokov in Lolita)

5. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."
(Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice)

6. “It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.”
            (Maggie Stiefvater in The Scorpio Races)

7. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
            (J.D. Salinger in The Catcher in the Rye)

8. “In the days when the spinning-wheels hummed busily in the farmhouses—and even great ladies, clothed in silk and thread lace, had their toy spinning-wheels of polished oak—there might be seen in districts far away among the lanes, or deep in the bosom of the hills, certain pallid undersized men, who, by the side of the brawny country-folk, looked like the remnants of a disinherited race.
            (George Eliot in Silas Marner)

9. “My mother does not remember being invited to my first wedding.”
            (Ann Beattie in The Rabbit Hole as Likely Explanation)

10. “From time to time I show up in myself just long enough for people to know they are not in the room alone.”
            (Gary Lutz in Devotions)

11. “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”
            (William Faulkner in The Sound and the Fury)

12.”You do not believe me.”
            (Gordon Lish in The Foreigner as Apprentice)

13. “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting. Make it useless stuff or skip it.”
            (Amy Hempel in In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried)

14. “In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it any more. It was cold in the fall in Milan and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the street looking in through the windows.”
            (Earnest Hemingway in In Another Country)

15. “See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves.”
            (Cormac McCarthy in Blood Meridian)

16. “A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.”
            (James Joyce in The Dead)

17. “Imagine a ruin so strange it must never have happened.”
            (Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible)

18. “It was terribly hot that summer Mr. Robertson left town, and for a long while the river seemed dead. Just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the center of town, dirty yellow foam collecting at its edges.”
            (Elizabeth Strout in Amy and Isabelle)

19. “When summer comes to the North Woods, time slows down. And some days it stops altogether. The sky, gray and lowering for much of the year, becomes an ocean of blue, so vast and brilliant you can’t help but stop what you’re doing—pinning wet sheets to the line maybe, or shucking a bushel of con on the back steps—to stare up at it.”
            (Jennifer Donnelly in A Northern Light)

20. “The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads.”
            (Hugh Howey in Wool)

21. “I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a Dumpster.”
            (Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle)

22. “She was her father's daughter. It was said of her from the beginning. For one thing, Alma Whittaker looked precisely like Henry: ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose. This was a rather unfortunate circumstance for Alma, although it would take her some years to realize it. Henry's face was far better suited to a grown man than to a little girl. Not that Henry himself objected to this state of affairs; Henry Whittaker enjoyed looking at his image wherever he might encounter it (in a mirror, in a portrait, in a child's face), so he always took satisfaction in Alma's appearance.”
            (Elizabeth Gilbert in The Signature of All Things)

23. “It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts.”
            (Patrick Rothfuss in The Name of the Wind)

24. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
            (George Orwell in 1984)

25. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
            (Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina; 1877 trans. Constance Garnett)

26. “I am an invisible man.”
            (Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man)

27. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
            (Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities)

28. “You better not never tell nobody but God.”
            (Alice Walker in The Color Purple)

29. “My name was Salmon, like the fish; first name, Susie. I was fourteen when I was murdered on December 6, 1973.”
            (Alice Sebold in The Lovely Bones)

30. “I live in the coldest town on earth.”
            (Erika Krouse in The Pole of Cold)

31. “There are many ways one can die in Sarajevo.”
            (James Winter in A Very Small Flame)

32. “I was in the kitchen watching The Weather Channel when the girl from two floors down knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to fall in love.”
            (Chuck Augello in Cool City)

33. “My mother was thrilled to be dying of brain cancer after a lifetime of smoking.”
            (Susan Perabo in Indulgence)

34. “The chrome-topped vending machine in the Baltimore Travel Plaza flashed Chips! Chips! Chips! but no one could have known it was broken unless they’d been there for a long time, like Lynnea, having just escaped lackluster Kentucky, waiting for a taxi, watching a pale, chain-smoking white girl whose life seemed to be brought to a grinding halt by an inability to obtain Fritos.”
            (ZZ Packer in Our Lady of Peace)

35. “Daniel stands in the funnel, a narrow path between two high brick walls that join the playground to the estate proper. On windy days, the air is forced through here then spun upward in a vortex above the square of so-called grass between the four blocks of flats. Anything that isn’t nailed down becomes airborne. Washing, litter, dust. Grown men have been knocked off their feet. A while back there was a story going round about a flying cat.”
            (Mark Haddon in The Gun)

36. “A river loses strength, loses water.”
            (Melinda Moustakis in They Find the Drowned)

37. “When the camp director introduces God, he reminds us the man is just an actor.”
            (Jamie Quatro in Sinkhole)

38. “Andy Catlett was a child of two worlds.”
            (Wendell Berry in Nothing Living Lives Alone)

39. “We call ourselves Die Harschblödeln: the Frozen Idiots.”
            (Jim Shepard in Your Fate Hurtles Down at You)

40. “The boy who falls asleep to the story of the bear will grow old and wordlessly die.”
            (Ted Sanders in Obit)

41. “It’s not only about looking good. If you’re just looking good, you’ll probably be able to get a cone or a soft pretzel, but definitely not an Orange Julius.”
            (Myla Goldberg in Going for the Orange Julius)

42. “Chuey called me from jail. He said it was all a big mistake. I said, Sure Chuey, like always, que no? What is it this time, weed or wine? He said it was something different this time. I said, You mean like reds, angel dust, what? Chuey says, No Dulcie, something worse.”
            (Lou Mathews in Crazy Life)

43. “The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.”
            (Raymond Carver in Whoever Was Using This Bed)

44. “At dusk they pour from the sky. They blow across the ramparts, turn cartwheels over rooftops, flutter into the ravines between houses. Entire streets swirl with them, flashing white against the cobbles. Urgent message to the inhabitants of this town, they say. Depart immediately to open country.”
            (Anthony Doerr in All the Light We Cannot See)

45. “Pat and Clyde were murdered on pot roast night.”
            (Hannah Tinti in Home Sweet Home)

46. “I read about it in the paper, in the subway, on my way to work. I read it, and I couldn’t believe it, and I read it again. Then perhaps I just stared at it, at the newsprint spelling out his name, spelling out the story. I stared at it in the swinging lights of the subway car, and in the faces and bodies of the people, and in my own face, trapped in the darkness which roared outside.”
            (James Baldwin in Sonny’s Blues)

47. “The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.”
            (Ernest Hemingway in Hills Like White Elephants)

48. “The people who say the Holocaust didn’t happen asked me to speak at their recent international conference. The invitation surprised me, for I am a Jew who’s written about the Holocaust and (for chrissakes, I feel like adding) certainly hasn’t denied it.”
            (John Sack in Inside the Bunker)

49. “Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors, or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right.”
            (Joyce Carol Oates in Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?)

50. “The way I figure it, everyone gets a miracle.”
            (John Green in Paper Towns)

51. “The best day of my life happened when I was five and almost died at Disney World. I’m sixteen now, so you can imagine that’s left me with quite a few days of major suckage.”
            (Libba Bray in Going Bovine)

52. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”
            (J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit)

53. “Evil wears a mask, and I can finally see its face.”
            (Travis Thrasher in Gravestone)

54. “The weight of their pity is like a stone tied about my neck.”
            (C.J. Redwine in Defiance)

55. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
            (Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar)

56. “Call me Ishmael.”
            (Herman Melville in Moby Dick)

57. “A screaming comes across the sky.”
            (Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow)

58. “Many years later, as he face the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
            (Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude)

59. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
            (Charles Dickens in David Copperfield)

60. “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
            (William Gibson in Neuromancer)

61. “Sophie had waited all her life to be kidnapped.”
            (Soman Chainani in The School for Good and Evil)

62. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”
            (Toni Morrison in Beloved)

63. “She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.”
            (Henry James in The Wings of the Dove)

64. “The captain never drank. Yet, toward nightfall in that smoke-colored season between Indian summer and December’s first true snow, he would sometimes feel half drunken.”
            (Nelson Algren in The Man With the Golden Arm)

65. “ ’Philadelphia and Jubilee!’ August said when Hattie told him what she wanted to name their twins. ‘You cain’t give them babies no crazy names like that!’ ”
            (Ayana Mathis in The Twelve Tribes of Hattie)

66. “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.”
            (Khaled Hosseini in The Kite Runner)

67. “umber whunnnn yerrrnnn umber whunnnn fayunnnn These sounds: even in the haze. But sometimes the sounds—like the pain—faded, and then there was only the haze. He remembered darkness: solid darkness had come before the haze.”
            (Stephen King in Misery)

68. “There was a time in Africa the people could fly. Mauma told me this one night when I was ten years old. She said, “Handful, your granny-mauma saw it for herself. She say they flew over trees and clouds. She say they flew like blackbirds. When we came here, we left that magic behind.””
            (Sue Monk Kidd in The Invention of Wings)

69. “Her doctor had told Julian’s mother that she must lose twenty pounds on account of her blood pressure, so on Wednesday nights Julian had to take her downtown on the bus for a reducing class at the Y.”
            (Flannery O’Connor in Everything That Rises Must Converge)

70. “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I’m in the third checkout slot, with my back to the door, so I don’t see them until they’re over by the bread. The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the back of her legs. I stood there with my hand on a box of HiHO crackers trying to remember if I rang it up or not. I ring it up again and the customer starts giving me hell. She’s one of these cash-register-watchers, a witch about fifty with rouge on her cheekbones and no eyebrows, and I know it made her day to trip me up. She’d been watching cash registers for fifty years and probably never seen a mistake before.”
            (John Updike in A & P)

71. “It was midsummer, the heat rippling above the macadam roads. Cicadas screaming out of the trees and the sky like pewter, glaring.”
            (Joyce Carol Oates in Heat)

72. “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.”
            (Raymond Carver in Cathedral)

73. “They both stood on the other side of the miracle. Their marriage was bad, perhaps even rotting, but then it got better.”
            (Rick Bass in The Fireman)

74. “Our aim was this: Alaska. To abandon Mobile at dawn without telling anybody, not even our girlfriends or our boss at the plant.”
            (Tom Franklin in Alaska)

75. “The evening sun was a giant peach in the rearview mirror, apocalyptic and gaseous as it burned toward the horizon. The daily paradox of Los Angeles: toxic beauty.”
            (Antonya Nelson in Dick)

76. “By our second day at Camp Crescendo, the girls in my Brownie troop had decided to kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. Troop 909 was doomed from the first day of camp; they were white girls, their complexions a blend of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla. They turtled out from their bus in pairs, their rolled-up sleeping bags chromatized with Disney characters: Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Mickey Mouse; or the generic ones cheap parents bought: washed-out rainbows, unicorns, curly-eyelashed frogs. Some clutched Igloo coolers and still others held on to stuffed toys like pacifiers, looking all around them like tourists determined to be dazzled.”
            (ZZ Packer in Brownies)

77. “Leo was from a long time ago, the first one I ever saw nude. In the spring before the Hellmans filled their pool, we’d go down there in the deep end, with baby oil, and like that. I met him the first month away at boarding school. He had a halo from the campus light behind him. I flipped.”
            (Susan Minot in Lust)

78. “Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders—a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.”
            (Tobias Wolff in Bullet in the Brain)

79. “Used to be a doctor would wrap a woman up tight to hold body and soul together, but when I fell last week trying to get to the kitchen to pour myself a drink, they just untangled my tubes, picked me up like I was a child, and put me back in this awful bed. Told me I’d had a stroke. Now I’m lying here with a broken rib that aches.”
            (Bonnie Jo Campbell in Mothers, Tell Your Daughters)

80. “When Eddie B. dared me to walk the net bridge over the Elijah Hatchett River where we’d seen an alligator and another kid got bit by a coral snake, I wasn’t scared—I just didn’t feel like doing it right then. So that’s how come I know just what he’s saying when I see him in church, flapping his elbows like someone in here is chicken. When Momma’s not looking, I make my evil face at him, but he just laughs and turns the right was in his pew.”
            (Danette Haworth in Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning)

81. “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
            (Jeffrey Eugenides in Middlesex)

82. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
            (Iain M. Banks in The Crow Road)

83. “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”
            (F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby)

84. “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.”
            (Raphael Sabatini in Scaramouche)

85. “It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought.”
            (Lois Lowry in The Giver)

86. “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.”
            (J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

87. “First the colors. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try… Here is a small fact… You are going to die.”
            (Markus Zusak in The Book Thief)

88. “All children, except one, grow up.”
            (J.M. Barrie in Peter Pan)

89. “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or he is wonderful.”
            (Roald Dahl in Matilda)

90. “My father took one hundred and thirty two minutes to die. I counted.”
            (Melina Marchetta in On Jellicoe Road)

91. “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.”
            (Erin Morgenstern in The Night Circus)

92. “Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.”
            (Margaret Atwood in Cat’s Eye)

93. “All this happened, more or less.”
            (Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five)

94. “You ask me if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter, when I believed her to run away, perhaps to the city.”
            (Neil Gaiman in The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain

95. “None of them knew the color of the sky.”
            (Stephen Crane in Open Boat)

96. “You wouldn’t have known me a year ago.”
            (Amy Bloom in The Story)

97. “It was dark all the time, and so it was dark when the ship’s captain crept into the corner where his young daughter was asleep. It was dark when he carried her out onto the deck and raised her up in the moonlight to better she him claim.”
            (Ramona Ausubel in Do Not Save the Ferocious, Save the Tender)

98. “Sadie’s lover, Marcus, called her every Thursday from Chicago as he drove to and from marriage counseling. (His wife drove separately, it goes without saying.) The end result of this was it felt as if the three of them were in counseling together, but Sadie sort of liked that.”
            (Szidónia Molnár in Andorra)

99. “Once, in the woods, a tree. Once in the wood there was a tree with the power to tell the future. The children of the household yearned for its verdicts on their lives, but their governess was wiser.”
            (Rachel Kadish in The Governess and the Tree)


We leave the 100th spot open as a dedication to all the writers across time: to those who created the perfect opening line to a story, but lived in a society that oppressed their voice, and to those who are courageous enough to begin a story at all.

Tuesday, August 25

Submission to The First Line

If you're having a bit of writer's block, staring at that white screen, wondering how to begin your next story, then there's a journal just for you: The First Line.

Based in Texas, The First Line publishes four issues annually. If you're looking for a jump start to a new story, here's the next first line to run with!

George pressed the call button and said, "Mrs. Whitfield, you have a visitor."
Due date: November 1, 2015

Thursday, August 13

Getting That First Paragraph Right

"When I'm starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I'll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I'll word and reword it until I'm happy with what I've got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I'll know I can do the book."

Stephen King is quoted here from The Atlantic, and I wonder how many of us share this trait with him.

My life as a writer would be a lot easier if I could just vomit words on paper to get past the first paragraph, to write the story in its entirety only to then go back and revise that opening paragraph.

But I can't.

I'll spend months working over the first paragraph, trying to find the right voice, the right angle, and until then, I don't feel the connection with the story to write it all.

So thank goodness I'm not alone.  

And still, Stephen King cranks out 2,000 words a day. Onward...

Tuesday, August 11

Skimmy Dipping

What's it like to skim through dozens of opening paragraphs, hoping to catch a surge of creative inspiration, before you nestle into your writing chair with fingers poised above the keyboard, ready for those words to come that will hook not only the reader, but you the writer?

Is it kind of like dipping into a Ben & Jerry's with a spoon when you're stuck mid-sentence, only to double dip, knowing the second bite will be even more satisfying?

Maybe it's more like rewriting that opening line, over and over and over again, changing one word, then a phrase, while studying your fingernail cuticles.

Surely it's not like waiting in line for 90 minutes for the Tower of Terror ride at Disney, only to find its all a blur of noise as you search in the dark for a glimmer of light.

Determined to find out, I pulled out my 38 issues of One Story and my six copies of The Pen/O.Henry Prize Stories and sat down to skim.

* I should note here: I don't believe this is the correct method of carefully studying literature. Just like skim milk cannot nourish a baby the way whole milk can, skimmy dipping into literature isn't a writer's multivitamin, it's more like licking the buttercream frosting off that last cupcake.

So back to the stories, lots of them. After only a handful of stories I found it hard to skim, so I stopped skipping words and slowed down.

Longer sentences, consisting of four or five lines lost my attention compared to sentences with only ten words or less, like this one:

Andy Catlett was a child of two worlds. (in Wendell Berry's "Nothing Living Lives Alone" 2012 PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories)

After more than 20 stories, I found myself coming to the conclusion that each story has a unique opening. Patterns may be repetitive. Dialogue in the first sentence is rare. My favorites included character, plot, and tone in the first sentence. And in some of them, I saw myself, or rather my style of writing.

Whether skimming opening paragraphs is a trait of slush pile readers, I don't know, but after an hour of reading the first few lines of each story my head buzzed and I had to check the mirror to see if my eyes were crossed.

So much talent in so many words did leave me feeling inspired, but I realized one thing that's impacted my writing the most: I can't find my voice, my words, in the writings of others. The words of other authors are like the songs of birds, beautiful and moving, but my own song can only come from within, and I hear it best when I tune out the words around me and listen to what I have to say in my own way.