July 06, 2005
First lines

A fellow writer is teaching a section on first lines for a creative writing class, and asked her colleagues for their thoughts on the role of first lines in fiction. I am not as well-published as the other folks in the group (yet), but I nonetheless have an opinion (doesn't everybody?).

It seems to me that the purpose of a first line is to get the reader (be he/she/it a consumer, an acquisitions editor, an agent, a student, a bookstore manager, or whatever) to want to read the next few sentences. That's it. Hook the reader enough to keep reading a few more sentences.

Whether the author accomplishes this by introducing and/or developing sympathy for a character, a setting, or a plot point is immaterial. The point is to get the reader to keep reading.

The purpose of the next few sentences, naturally, is to compel the reader to read the next few paragraphs. And those few paragraphs, in turn, should establish the kind of relationship with the reader such that the reader naturally wants to take in the rest of the book.

Now, the first few paragraphs typically must contain specific elements in order to accomplish the desired goal. But the first line, it seems to me, has an incredibly simple job and can accomplish it in a wide variety of ways. (That, of course, is why writing the first line is so hard.)

Typically, though, the successful first line compels readers to keep reading because they pose a question in the readers mind:

"He died."

Who did? How? Why?

"Call me Ishmael."


"It was a pleasure to burn."

It was? For whom? What's being burned? Why?

"Once upon a time, there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith."

Oh? How'd that happen?

Some of my favorite first lines can be found in William Gibson's Burning Chrome. Pick any story from that collection and read the first line. Lots of action, lots of drama packed into quick, compelling sentences that all beg the question: Why? They all establish a need in the reader to know more.

Most people think that the purpose of a resume is to get you the job. It isn't. The purpose of the resume is to get you the interview.

Likewise, the first sentence doesn't need to sell the story. It's entire purpose is to get you to read just a little bit more. Let the next few sentences establish a setting or a character or a problem (or all three). The compelling first line simply establishes one need in the reader: you want to know more.

Now, if I can only convert these pearls of wisdom into professional sales, I'll be all set....

Posted by at 01:48 PM in the following Department(s): Writing | Comments (1)
 July 07, 2005
Happy Birthday, RAH

One of the most influential American authors of the twentieth century, Robert A. Heinlein, was born on this day (that would be July 7th, for those of you not too sure of today's date) in 1907.

Insofar as my previous post was on the subject of first lines in fiction, I thought I'd celebrate in part by listing a few first lines from Heinlein short stories and novels. Not all of these may be of the "grab you by the lapels and shake vigorously" variety, but I think you'll agree that they at least suggest enough to make you want to see the line or two that follow. Favorites include:

from Beyond This Horizon, his first published novel:

Their problems were solved: the poor they no longer had with them; the sick, the lame, the halt, and the blind were historic memories; the ancient casues of war no longer obtained; they had more freedom than Man has ever enjoyed. All of them should have been happy --

from The Day After Tomorrow:

"What the hell goes on here?"

from "Waldo":

The act was billed as ballet tap -- which does not describe it.

from "Magic, Inc.":

"Whose spells are you using, buddy?"

from "The Roads Must Roll":

"Who makes the roads roll?"

from "Requiem":

On a high hill in Samoa there is a grave.

from "The Long Watch":

Johnny Dahlquist blew smoke at the Geiger counter.

from "The Green Hills of Earth":

This is the story of Rhysling, the blind singer of the Spaceways -- but not the official version.

from The Puppet Masters:

Were they truly intelligent?

from "Jerry Was a Man":

Don't blame the Martians.

from The Door Into Summer:

One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut.

from Have Space Suit -- Will Travel:

You see, I had this space suit.

from "The Year of the Jackpot":

At first Potiphar Breen did not notice the girl who was undressing.

from "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag":

"Is it blood, doctor?"

from Stranger in a Strange Land:

Once upon a time there was a Martian named Valentine Michael Smith.

from Time Enough for Love:

History has the relation to truth that theology has to religion -- ie, none to speak of.

from The Number of the Beast:

"He's a Mad Scientist and I'm his Beautiful Daughter."

from The Cat Who Walks Through Walls:

"We need you to kill a man."

from To Sail Beyond the Sunset:

I woke up in bed with a man and a cat. The man was a stranger; the cat was not.

And lastly, a first line that certainly makes *me* want to read more, from "It's Great to be Back!":

"Hurry up, Allan!"

Posted by at 12:34 AM in the following Department(s): Writing | Comments (0)
 July 12, 2005
Perfectly Flawed

Now, I was going to post here about the many fun and freaky and serendipitous events that took place on the night I went to see Star Wars: Episode III -- The Revenge of the SITH, but I've just been way too busy. Suffice it to say:

I saw it at the midnight showing on opening night. It rained. Hard. I got soaked. By magic, I got a perfect seat. Then I had to give it up to someone who claimed to be handicapped and who showed up at the last minute -- which means I then had to take a very crappy seat in the very front row. Met some cool people who sat with me. We swapped stories of raising kids, we shared popcorn and coke, and we had a hell of a good time watching a hell of an entertainment.

In the weeks that have since past, I have not had a chance to see it again at the theater (although I still hope to). However, many friends of mine have, and it has come up on several occasions as a topic of conversation.

The biggest point that *everyone* has to make is what is wrong with the movie. Friends' favorite flaws include the unbelievability of ...

Oops. I should have mentioned that there might be spoilers hereabouts. If you haven't seen the movie, and if you want to see the movie, and if you don't want to see any spoilers about what is in the movie, by all means -- do not let me spoil it for you.


Friends' favorite flaws include the unbelievable evaporation of Padme, the unbelievable love story between Padme and Anakin, the weak reasons behind Anakin's motivation, the "Noooooooooooooooo" scene, numerous continuity errors (like when Obi-Wan refers to Palpatine as the Emperor even before Palpatine has proclaimed himself as such) and so on. My friends love to debate whether the Emporer ever actually lied to Anakin (and will then pick on the movie from either interpretation). And so on, and so on.

I am willing to concede some of these points while disagreeing with others, but it's fun -- extremely fun -- to play the "Well, if *I* wrote the three Star Wars prequels, I would have..." game.

Everyone I know who has seen the movie has some way in which they would have or could have written it *so* much better. Everyone I know who has seen it has some favorite flaw to flaunt. And most of the things I hear them suggest would most certainly be an improvement. But.


Mr. Lucas must really be on to something to write the movie(s) that EVERYONE wants to have written.

So, here's to you, Mr. Lucas. You have written the most Perfectly Flawed movie series ever. It is so perfectly flawed, we'll watch it again and again and critique and analyze and rip apart and revel in it for years to come.

As you have done, I hope some day to write a story that everyone else wishes they had written. What better mark of success can a writer hope for?

(Well, that *and* a big, big bag of money.)

Posted by at 05:55 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (0)
 July 17, 2005
Jack Has No Soul

There’s a relatively new radio format making the rounds in the good ol’ US of A called “Jack.” This format has recently been adopted by a radio station where I live.

My strange and varied career has included three years working as an on-air personality at a small commercial radio station in upstate New York. For two and a half years, I worked primarily in the news department (although I also got involved in the music programming side of things, as the whim of the music director allowed), and then switched over to become a morning dj. So I am not an entirely disinterested party when it comes to radio (or journalism or pop music, for that matter).

Because I worked for so long at a rock-n-roll station, I was favored with a barrage of free albums and CDs. When I left radio, my appetite for new music remained, so I switched from getting free music to paying for it. A lot of it.

In recent years, my computer manufacturer of choice came out with a product called “iTunes”, and I finally decided to join the digital music age. I digitized my entire CD collection into one central disk drive, and now I can play anything in my collection with the click of a mouse. According to iTunes, I could play my entire play list for over 46 days and never repeat a track. (Of course, since several of my CDs are greatest hits and similar compilations, I’d hear the same *songs* more than once, but not exactly the same tracks.)

That kind of music library would be unmanageable, but iTunes includes a “rating” feature that allows me to assign a 1 to 5-star rating to any given track. When I digitized my CDs, I simply gave a 5-star rating to whatever track or tracks cause me to pick up the album. This allows me to set up a play list that randomly plays only my top-rated tunes. (8 days of music with, in theory, no repeats.) This makes for a very cool jukebox: all of my favorites, and only my favorites, spanning the breadth of my musical interests.

Now, along comes Jack.

The current range of music formats in the US highlights specific music genres and sub-genres. Any given station will tend to feature only R&B or classic rock (rock hits of the late 60’s through mid 70’s) or oldies (rock hits of the fifties through mid sixties) or “young” country or hip hop or top hits of the eighties or whatever. The Jack format does not recognize genre barriers. Jack could play the Clash followed by Suzanne Vega followed by Cake followed by Celine Dion. Depeche Mode followed by the Eagles. It wouldn’t surprise me to hear the Statler Brothers followed by Eminem on Jack. It’s a fascinatingly eclectic mix of the best (and the near-best) of most of the major music genres, going back to the mid-Sixties (albeit emphasizing more recent music).

In short, the music is right to my tastes. Not as edgy, certainly, but neither is my five-star mix on my iTunes. It’s all proven commodities. One doesn’t go to Jack to hear the latest. For that, I need to go elsewhere.

But Jack is different from other formats in another way: there are no djs. None. No personalities at all. Just a random selection of clips from a voice-over guy saying things like, “Playing the music we want” or “We’ll play anything, except your requests.”

Good music jockeys in a good format do more than simply announce the title of the song you just heard. They also have a little bit of influence over the order in which the music gets played. The degree of influence a dj can hold over the music mix depends upon how tightly formatted the station is, but most locally-owned stations still allow for at least *some* sway. The jock can rearrange the songs on his play list to highlight interesting connections lyrical or musical. This is what gives a radio show its flavor. It’s more than a random mix of music: it has a subtle theme.

Jack’s voice-overs claim that they play what they want. But to my trained ear, there exists no hint that any person holds any sway over what songs are being played. There are no clever segues between tunes, no thematic links to tie one song with the next – except as you would expect to occasionally pop up in a random shuffle, like my iTunes occasionally manages. So I don’t think “they” play what “they” want; I think “they” choose some songs and let a computer pick them at random.

I like my iTunes shuffle, don’t get me wrong. But it is, when all is said and done, a mechanical mix. Some songs simply don’t go well together, even though the songs are individually great. My iTunes is a fun back-up plan when I don’t have a specific CD in mind to listen to at the office. But as much as I try to cleverly set the parameters of my iTunes jukebox, the mix itself has no cleverness to it at all. Just like Jack. Jack has no soul. Great music spanning a wide variety of genres, yes. But personality? Voice? Character? No.

People respond to character. They respond to voice. I know several people who say that they don’t miss the patter of the djs. That may well be. But I am firmly convinced that people can sense the difference between a mechanical mix and a thoughtful presentation. The mind will grow to miss any kind of human connection with the music being played. This is what makes Jack less than the sum of its parts.

I believe that Jack’s approach to having an eclectic music base is a sound one. Now if a station were to adopt that kind of music format and combine it with a smart radio personality, *that* could be amazing.

Posted by at 03:44 PM in the following Department(s): Books/Movies/Music | Comments (4)
 July 25, 2005
Bigfoot is among us

I'm currently working on a novel (well, if I could make time to write, I'd be working on a novel) which takes a highly unlikely proposition that many people nonetheless believe and examines it along the lines of: what if it were actually true? What would that mean to our society, to the world, and how would it shape the way we look at our past and our future?

A friend of mine recently completed a novel that will appear very soon in print that works along similar lines. His novel asks: what if Sasquatch existed? What would that mean to our society? Who would be affected, and how? Because he brings such vivid scientific and forensic detail to his novel, the story is very compelling. If Sasquatch did exist today, then what does that imply about our past? About our future? What kind of evidence would be necessary to establish the existence as fact, and who would believe it even if it were available?

The medical, anthropological, historical, and zoological detail of the novel is fascinating. The author's understanding of the battles within academia are beyond reproach. And the inner workings of the government as depicted in the novel ring true, but who am I to say? And yet, the story doesn't get bogged down in detail. It sings along at a very fast pace.

So there. Your reading assignment is to pick up Cryptid when it comes out. Be sure to visit my friend's website at ericpenz.com. Tell him that his friend and critiquer Allan sent you.

Posted by at 04:01 PM in the following Department(s): Writing | Comments (0)
 July 26, 2005
The California Condor Story

A friend of mine claims to have come up with this story on his own:

A fellow was brought before the judge because he had been caught cooking and eating an endangered California condor. The man threw himself upon the mercy of the court.

"Your honor, I know what I did was wrong. I was out hunting, and I shot the condor before I realized what it was. You can imagine how horrified I was when I discovered what I had done. I panicked. I prepared a fire and cooked the bird, thinking maybe I should just eat the evidence. I wasn't thinking straight. I am so sorry for what I've done."

The judge considered. The man had a completely clean record and was an upstanding member of his community. He hardly seemed likely to become a menace to society.

"Son, the court is willing to overlook what you did this one time. Case dismissed." After banging his gavel, though, he motioned the man over to the bench.

"I do have one question, speaking as one sportsman to another."

"Yes, your honor?"

"What did the condor taste like?"

The man smiled and offered an aw-shucks shrug. "Well, your honor, it tasted kinda like a cross between a bald eagle and a spotted owl."

Posted by at 07:27 PM in the following Department(s): Humor | Comments (0)
 July 27, 2005
Marketing Genius

One of the local phone companies out where I live is now called "Qwest". It seems like every phone company I've ever heard of has changed its name within the past few years -- except for ATT, I think... do they still exist? -- and I couldn't even tell you who Qwest used to be. So I guess their marketing is doing a good job of making me forget that they used to be somebody else.

As part of their effort to reinvent themselves, however, their ads are trying to convince me that they are competent (the company they used to be never was, and I've seen nothing to convince me that they are now) and that they provide excellent service (see previous parenthetical aside). On this note, their ads have not succeeded.

You see, for months they would end their television commercials with an allegedly "real life" customer service rep exclaiming, "That's our spirit of service in action!"

Now, when I type that out, that looks reasonable, doesn't it? But when they *read* that slogan, it sounded more like this:

"That's our spirit of service: inaction!"

A palpable pause between "service" and "in action", while "in action" was slurred together to sound like one word.

A few weeks ago, the ads changed. The alleged "real life" company rep now reads the line as if it were punctuated thusly:

"That's our spirit of service. In? (pause) Action."

Really. A lilt on the word "in" as if it were a question. Followed by a long pause. Followed by "action." Of course, this only draws painful attention to the problem with their tag line in the first place.

But at least they are figuring it out, right?


I swear to you, I just heard a new ad for them a few nights ago, and the company spokesmodel informed us all that Qwest offers "the best in security."

(connect the dots here)

Posted by at 08:46 PM in the following Department(s): Tidbits | Comments (3)
 July 28, 2005
Gratuitous photo of Alex

Taken earlier this month when Paulette and kids treated me to a picnic lunch break:

Alex keeps stealing my sunglasses.

Posted by at 12:09 PM in the following Department(s): The Boys | Comments (0)
Nolan at Three Months

Earlier this month (July 10th, to be exact), Nolan turned three months old.

He had a doctor visit. The doctor says he's healthy. Very healthy. The kid remains a very happy, healthy, and all-around mild-mannered baby. Here is a photo of him taken just a few days prior to the big 3 MO:

Nolan at about three months.

His next doctor check up will be his four-month visit, which we scheduled for the same time as Alexander's three-year-old visit. We'll be asking the doctor if we should be worried that Nolan never gets sick. :-)

Posted by at 12:15 PM in the following Department(s): The Boys | Comments (0)
 July 30, 2005
Rebuttals and More Marketing Happiness

On the recent "California Condor" joke/story I posted where a friend of mine said that he made it up all by himself, a reader rebutted:

The condor/eagle/owl story was surely not made up by your friend. I saw that in Maxim I belive about 2 years ago, I think it was even joke of the month. I looked on the net, and I see the first posting of it was in September 1992.

Faithful reader went on to say that my friend is a "liar", but later asked that be changed to "liar face". So noted.

And, of course, that's the reason I had said that my friend said he made it up -- by way of expressing that I was dubious of the claim, but allowed that I was giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Regarding my post on the marketing genii at Qwest, faithful reader noted:

Qwest has been around for a "long time", since 1996, when all the long distance deregulation stuff was in its heyday. It was not a renamed company -- that's when it actually started. It was pretty successful, and eventually sucked up LCI (you might remember their 5 cent per minute commercials), and US West (one of the baby Bells).

Another faithful reader had kindly posted a similar comment as to Qwest's origins. In my defense, I'll point out that most of the current telecommunications giants in the US were formed by the so called Baby Bells recombining. Thus, Bell Atlantic took over Nynex and GTE to become Verizon, Southern Bell and Bell South merged and then took over just about everyone to become Cingular, and T-Mobile emerged from the ashes of VoiceStream and a few other telecom companies. So please don't judge me too harshly for thinking that Qwest was similarly a new name for combined entities.

I love the comments. It's cool to see that some people are actually reading my ramblings here. My original point, however, about the dubious intelligence of the marketing minds between Qwest's campaign stands. In fact, I'll point out that Liberty's marketing gurus have jumped into the fray by ending their ads thus:

"And that's insurance in action."

That's just what I need, Liberty: insurance inaction. Where do I sign up?!

This profligation of "in action" tag lines is the best stupid trend I've seen since a former employer of mine inadvertantly named their operating system for hand-held devices "WinCE". This led to a series of software products made "for WinCE".


Posted by at 11:04 PM in the following Department(s): Tidbits | Comments (1)

Copyright (c)1998 - 2010 by Allan Rousselle. All rights reserved, all wrongs reversed, all reservations righted, all right, already.
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