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More About Opening Lines

When I posted a piece about opening lines in my work and invited you to compete for prizes by sending in your favorite openings from other novelists’ work, I hoped enough of you would respond to populate, say, a classroom. I pictured a small and genteel group, but instead enough of you responded to form a dangerous mob. I read all your entries, and so many were good that picking the best ten was not easy. But as soon as the winners have provided their addresses, we will announce them, and the limited-edition books will be in the mail within a week.

The following are from winners and near winners. By the way, those who cited various openings of mine are assumed to be vastly intelligent specimens of humanity with impeccable taste, but in all humility (I have a little), I couldn’t award prizes to them. And those who offered openings from their own stories——nice try.

The no-brainer was the 119-word opening sentence of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. I’m not going to quote it here, but look it up. It’s the perfect example of how a bravura writer can break all kinds of rules and get away with it.

If you like quick-punch openings, this from the late great Terry Pratchett’s Night Watch should intrigue with its mix of the hard-boiled and the comic: “Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but finished shaving before doing anything about it.”

For purely funny, it’s hard to beat the opening of David Wong’s John Dies at the End: “Solving the following riddle will reveal the awful secret behind the universe, assuming you do not go utterly mad in the attempt. If you already happen to know the awful secret behind the universe, feel free to skip ahead.”

The always lyrical and entertaining Alice Hoffman opened her excellent The Museum of Extraordinary Things with this gem: “You would think it would be impossible to find anything new in the world, creatures no man has ever seen before, one-of-a-kind oddities in which nature has taken a backseat to the coursing pulse of the fantastical and the marvelous.”

With his unerring sense of narrative and comedy, Jim Butcher opened Blood Rites this way: “The building was on fire, and it wasn’t my fault.”

I was delighted that an old favorite of mine, the late John Nichols, was cited for his opening to The Magic Journey: “Forty years before the Pueblo electricity scam rocked Chamisville a year after April Delaney had returned home to resurrect an embarrassingly radical newspaper called El Carin, April’s father, Dale Rodney McQueen, a sometime prizefighter, medicine-oil hustler, cowpuncher, flesh peddler, and general all-around ne’er-do-well from Muleshoe, Texas, entered Chamisville seated behind the wheel of a rattletrap school bus riddled with bullet holes.” My friends, that does Dickens and Jim Butcher proud.

Thanks for participating (if you did). And if you didn’t participate, what the hell’s wrong with you? We’ll have a couple of more contests, with more limited-edition books as prizes, in the days ahead.

Finally, here is an opening line that delights me and is not from one of my own novels. It is by William Goldman, from his wonderful The Princess Bride: “This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.”

 

Post-Novel Confusion: Ashley Bell

Each time I finish a novel, there is a day or two of euphoria, an irrational feeling that I have beaten death rather than just a deadline. I am more than half convinced that I could stand in front of a speeding freight train and survive. I have never tested this conviction, but only out of consideration for the cost to the railroad company and the potential injuries to the crew if the train should derail on contact with my invulnerable self.

When the euphoria passes, I enter a period of confusion, not sure what to do next. I answer a little reader mail. Reorder the contents of my desk drawers. Inventory my socks. Ponder at length, once again, whether to give away my neckties and whether I really need that white shirt for funerals or if, in the future, I can wear one of my more solemn Hawaiian shirts. This continues until I realize that, if I don’t start writing fiction again, I will have a quiet meltdown and spend the rest of my life in a mental institution, talking to myself and eating flies that stray by.

After finishing Ashley Bell, which was the most exhilarating creative experience since I wrote Watchers, the euphoria was so intense that, when it passed, I sank into a deeper state of aimlessness than ever. Counting snails in a bed of impatiens. Listening to audiobooks with the sound off. Fortunately, before I got to the point of spending days counting the hairs on my dog’s tail, I started an e-novella, Last Light, which came in at more than 23,000 words, at once started another novella, and life was good. I’m not sure if it’s sad or a blessing that I would rather be writing than lying by the pool with an umbrella drink, but considering that, during my first seventeen years, 347,846 people called me a slacker with no future, I suppose things have turned out all right.

So Much Glamour You Want to Puke

Back in the day, when my novel Phantoms was being turned into a film by Miramax, through their Rogue division, Gerda and I were invited to the Miramax party following the Golden Globe Awards. At the time, that party was always described in the media as the one for which all the most glamorous people sought invitations. The impression was given that the stars so desired being at this soiree that Julia Roberts might have beaten the crap out of Woody Allen and stolen his invitation if she could have gotten away with it. So I put on a tux, and Gerda dressed beautifully for the occasion, and we drove less than a block, from the Peninsula Hotel, where we were staying, to the hotel where the party was being thrown, expecting to be agape for several hours, stunned by the lavish decorations and the presence of a virtual hornet’s nest of movie stars.

Instead, at least two banquet rooms had been connected, the walls concealed with tacky red faux-velvet drapes, so it seemed that either the hundreds of people standing around with drinks in their hands were waiting for the curtain to part and a movie to begin in a vast theater with a 360-degree screen, or we were in a low-rent bordello that couldn’t afford beds.

There were serve-yourself food stations offering all manner of treats. However, there were numerous guests with colds, sneezing and coughing around the food, and people were picking up items for their plates but then having second thoughts and returning them to the food stations. We stuck with cabernet sauvignon.

The guests weren’t 80% famous faces, as the media portray such events, but 95% producers and film executives and film critics and the like, so for the most part you might have thought you were at a convention of office-equipment salesmen in Cleveland.

There was a large circular bar, and one of the eight bartenders did his version of Don Rickles, issuing insults when he took your order and delivered it. I heard him insult two people ahead of me, and when I placed my order, he said, “You want the cabernet in two glasses? Man, you look like you take it straight in a vein.” Some of what he said was potentially amusing, but he delivered his lines with such a vicious edge, you couldn’t be sure if he was treating the gig as an audition, hoping to land a job as a stand-up comic, or if he was a dangerous psychopath.

While I was waiting for the wine, Matt LeBlanc, then starring in Friends, stepped to the bar beside me. As the bartender poured the second glass of cab, he looked at LeBlanc, whom he clearly recognized, and when his new customer asked for one drink or another, the would-be Rickles spewed forth a colorful series of expletives that I won’t repeat here, suggesting that if the actor couldn’t be patient, he should get his own damn drink. LeBlanc, who had been perfectly nice, is apparently a mellow guy. Though he hadn’t had the benefit of seeing the bartender in action, he stood blinking as if bewildered at the heated response, said not a word, and waited for his drink.

According to the media, the party was expected to go on until the wee hours of the morning. After less than an hour, Gerda and I fled back to the Peninsula Hotel and had dinner together, having overdosed on glamour for the night.

The Crow Shrieker

The Horse Whisperer was published some years ago, featuring a man who had an uncanny ability to communicate with horses. I now reveal that I am a crow shrieker, which is not as glamorous as being a horse whisperer, but I’m proud of my uncanny talent.

In our backyard, there’s a big oak tree on which crows have roosted for thirteen years, ever since we moved into this house. Each night, after I take our dog Anna for her end-of-day pee, we sit on the patio sofa, enjoying the sunset or, if the hour is late, the lights of Newport. At sunset, the crows are active, often taking offense at Anna’s presence, shrieking at us.

One night, I imitated their shriek but belted it out at great volume. I was amused when repeatedly my shriek silenced them for a minute. After my fifth or sixth response to them, they were silent longer——until one bird flew down from the tree, to the edge of the patio, and stood staring at me. I stared back, and after a moment, it shrieked. I shrieked in, if I do say so myself, a perfect imitation of it, but louder. The crow flew away, and a second later, a dozen crows in the oak burst into fight and followed it. Two months later, they have not returned. I lack Dr. Dolittle’s ability to speak with animals, but I seem to have the power to scare the hell out of crows.

Anna watched all this with interest. My shrieking did not in the least disturb her. But she knows her dad is. . . different.

Superhero Movies

I don’t know about you, but I’m burned out on superhero movies for the time being. Those guys all seem to go to the same two costume designers. There’s one who is obsessed with tights and capes and masks and cool boots, who isn’t terribly imaginative but who probably has an interesting and complex sex life, though he may be in danger of Spandex poisoning. Then there’s the costume designer who’s also an engineer, who makes the suits for Ironman and Ant Man and, I suspect, for some of the politicians currently lumbering robotically across the politiscape. I’ll get interested in superhero movies again when one of them dresses more imaginatively, maybe like the late Liberace or Elton John in concert, or like John Candy in his polka-band-leader costume.

Aside from being bored by their same-old-same-old costumes, I need a break from superhero movies because I’ve started to get an uncomfortable feeling some of them are closet fascists, strutting around in their flamboyant togs. Have you noticed that in the battles with supervillains, the superheroes destroy as many buildings and as much infrastructure as the bad guys do, like hundreds of billions in collateral damage? And then they expect to be praised. It’s as if Godzilla obliterated Los Angeles and then wondered why he never received a generous grant from the American Foundation for the Arts.

Where Do You Get Your Story Ideas? – Life Expectancy

I was driving home from L.A. after a conference with producers and network executives. As usual after such a meeting, I was in a mood: proud of myself for not having beaten anyone with a blunt object, for not having thrown anyone through a window, for not having applied the corkscrew in my Swiss Army knife to anyone’s throat, but at the same time berating myself for not having done all of those things. Studio/network pitch and story meetings often test the patience of a saint, which I am not.

For some reason I no longer recall, I was in my wife’s Ford Explorer, and on the CD deck were albums by Paul Simon and by Simon & Garfunkle. The song “Patterns” came on, which I’d heard often, but now a line intrigued me as never before: My life is made of patterns that can scarcely be controlled. Maybe I was stewing about the fact that the film-TV part of my career was at all times in the hands of people whom I couldn’t control and who didn’t get it. Anyway, I was struck by the thought that a story about someone whose life was governed by a pattern he couldn’t control might be compelling and suspenseful——and something with which every reader could identify, since we all at times feel that we have lost control of our lives.

But what pattern? It had to be something the character was aware of and could not deny. A pattern that, at each repetition, put his life in danger. It had to be entirely beyond his control, something that he had to endure and survive, but that he could not resolve by his own actions; otherwise, it would not pose a mortal threat and would not require him to seek and find within himself the courage and philosophical wisdom to press forward.

As I drove south on the 405, I decided that on the night of the lead character’s birth (eventually he would be named Jimmy Tock), someone would predict five unspecified crises in his life, five “terrible days,” beginning when he was twenty. But who should do the predicting? Not a psychic or anything as predictable as that. So. . .what if Jimmy’s grandfather is in the hospital where Jimmy’s mom is giving birth, dying from a stroke as his grandson is born. Grandpa has been unable to speak for days——but suddenly he sets up in bed, terrified, and predicts the five terrible days. Could be very dramatic. Jimmy’s dad is dashing back and forth between the expectant father’s lounge, where he will soon hear the news that he is a father, and the ICU in which his own father is dying. Great drama for an opening situation.

Okay, now I’m ten miles closer to home, but there’s another problem with the set-up. Why should anyone believe Grandpa’s predictions, as he’s never shown psychic ability before? An obvious answer occurred to me perhaps half a mile later: Grandpa would make other predictions that establish his bona fides. On his deathbed, he also predicts the newborn baby’s sex, precise weight, length, and the fact that he would be born with syndactyly, a congenital condition in which fingers or toes are fused to one another (in Jimmy’s case, a few toes) and must be separated surgically. All of these predictions come true that very night, so the prediction of five terrible days, the first when Jimmy is twenty, have to be taken seriously.

As always, in trying to explain where a story idea came from, we now hit a moment that defies explanation. I had traveled no more than thirty miles during the time the story kernel came to me and the supporting details were worked out, when for reasons that can never be deduced, four lines from Lord Byron’s poem “To Thomas Moore” floated into my mind: Here is a sigh to those who love me, And a smile to those who hate; And, whatever sky’s above me, Here’s a heart for every fate. That was the attitude that the lead character would have through all his travails; he would be a good-natured guy, frightened but game, and that would mean the story, while suspenseful, would almost certainly be a comic novel as well.

And theme? What truth about the human condition lies at the heart of the novel? That came to me a moment later, and again as lines from a poem, this time by Anne Bronte: But he that dares not grasp the thorn / Should never crave the rose. In other words, everything good in life requires the acceptance of risk. Later, other themes would be raveled with the first, but I was ready to go.

Opening Lines

Publisher’s Note: Dean loves getting letters from fans with favorite opening lines from his books. Now he wants you to send him YOUR favorite opening lines of all time. Surprise Dean with lines from books he has not read, and he will pick his ten favorites! Winners will receive a limited, signed, and numbered collector’s edition book of their choice.

Click here to enter.

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A year ago or more, when answering letters from readers (real letters, not e-mails, as there is not enough time to answer even a fraction of reader e-mails), I started asking which opening lines in my books they thought were the most compelling. A little marketing research, if you will. And I learned a few things from their choices, including that no matter how long you have been writing, there is value in feedback from readers. These first lines received the most votes:

Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch. —Dragon Tears

Bartholomew Lampion was blinded at the age of three, when surgeons reluctantly removed his eyes to save him from a fast- spreading cancer, but although eyeless, Barty regained his sight when he was thirteen. —From the Corner of His Eye

This is a thing I’ve learned: Even with a gun to my head, I am capable of being convulsed with laughter. —Relentless

Elsewhere, night falls, but in Moonlight Bay it steals upon us with barely a whisper, like a gentle dark-sapphire surf licking a beach. —Seize the Night

The world is full of broken people. Splints, casts, miracle drugs, and time can’t mend fractured hearts, wounded minds, torn spirits. —One Door Away from Heaven

A man begins dying at the moment of his birth. —The Husband

On that Tuesday in January, when her life changed forever, Martine Rhodes woke with a headache, developed a sour stomach after washing down two aspirin with grapefruit juice, guaranteed herself an epic bad-hair day by mistakenly using Dustin’s shampoo instead of her own, broke a fingernail, burnt her toast, discovered ants swarming through the cabinet under the kitchen sink, eradicated the pests by firing a spray can of insecticide as ferociously as Sigourney Weaver wielded a flamethrower in one of those old extraterrestrial-bug movies, cleaned up the resultant carnage with paper towels, hummed Bach’s Requiem as she solemnly consigned the tiny bodies to the trash can, and took a telephone call from her mother, Sabrina, who still prayed for the collapse of Martie’s marriage three years after the wedding.  —False Memory

I don’t always——or even usually——craft a first sentence that is meant to be an immediate hook. If it doesn’t come naturally, it can seem artificial. I figure I’ve got at least a paragraph or two, more likely a page or two, with which to compel the reader to stay with the story, though not much more than that. Dickens routinely set his hooks within two pages, and there’s no better model than the one he offers.

That the line from Dragon Tears was so often chosen doesn’t surprise me. It promises threat and action soon, and it’s just tongue-in-cheek enough to make the reader smile.

Likewise, the opening to From the Corner of His Eye is an obvious choice because it promises an epic life story, strangeness, tragedy, triumph, and wonder.

The line from Relentless doesn’t surprise me, but I suspect that it would surprise a number of people in publishing. It is widely believed that mixing humor with suspense is a sales killer, though with many books I have proved that bit of common wisdom is not true.

     I also suspect some people would feel that the opening to Seize the Night is insufficiently gripping because it’s just a visual, not a promise of anything. Maybe I have a lot of language freaks in my readership, but being a guy who grew up reading Ray Bradbury, I’ve always felt that a lyrical opening, even just a description of the sky, can hook the reader if its words are carefully chosen for their resonance and if it paints a scene that suggests mystery or wonder.

The line from One Door Away from Heaven does indeed surprise me. First of all, it’s not one sentence, but two, so picking it is a bit of a cheat. And this is a story in which I purposefully took a page or two to crank up the engine. Yet not only did this have a lot of votes, but a fine film producer, who once tried to get the book produced, also told me she bought her copy of the novel on the basis of that opening paragraph and realized, from that alone, that it was probably going to make a terrific movie. (That’s another story.) Why? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I suspect it appeals to people because it expresses something that they feel is true but haven’t before put into words themselves: that most people are in one way or another broken by their experiences, that we are all the walking wounded. This suggests that, against all the common wisdom of the publishing business, it might be all right to open a book with something as potentially off-putting as a bit of humble philosophy.

That conclusion is reinforced by the opening line of The Husband. This is very humble philosophy, something everyone knows, but perhaps it strikes the reader because we never see our fate put quite so bluntly, especially when talking about birth, which is usually couched in joyful terms.

The one that most surprises me is False Memory. This is a long opening sentence——131 words!——which runs against most writing advice to keep sentences short, or at least shorter than this. People seem to like it because it conveys so much about the heroine and her character and sets her up as someone you want to know more about. Maybe I’ll open a book one day with a 500-word sentence just to see if I can get away with it. [Text message just coming in from my editor: Don’t even think about it.]

Taking Our Dog Out to Dinner

We enjoy going out to dinner. We do not enjoy leaving our golden retriever, Anna, at home while we go out to dinner. For one thing, we miss her. There’s also the fact that we worry, should we leave her home alone too often, she’ll one day write a tell-all about us, including such humiliating details as my passion for bunny slippers. Which would be a damnable lie. Besides, we bristle at the injustice of her being denied service. She’s well-behaved, cute, and never barks. I can claim none of those three virtues, and yet I am welcome in every restaurant.

Fortunately, there are restaurants that welcome dogs on their patios. Miss Anna gets a bowl of ice-water and waits patiently as Gerda and I share wine for half an hour before ordering. But the moment the waiter has taken our order, Anna comes to my right side and looks at me expectantly, because she knows she gets cookies only after we have ordered and that they are always kept in a plastic bag in my right, interior jacket pocket. At the end of dinner, if we’ve had French fries, she gets a few. Often she keeps such a low profile that most of the diners on the patio do not know she’s there. She never shrieks, never cries hysterically, never throws food, never runs wildly among the tables, never goes to the table of a stranger to ask, “Can I have some of your cake, why can’t I?” And yet misbehaving children are welcome where she isn’t. Ah, but come the revolution . . .

Photo Session

My publisher recently sent a highly regarded photographer to take a few new book-jacket and publicity photos of me. No one said it was because in order to make me appear appealing, a photographer of extraordinary talent was needed, with special lighting, and sixteen image consultants. But I knew. I knew. No one said, “Oh, how cute,” when I sat down before the camera, but when my dog Anna entered, fresh from the groomer, the words “cute” and “adorable” and “enchanting” and fluffy” were each used like 7,000 times in half an hour, all in regard to her.

As you know, we writers are known for being without ego, among the humblest people on Earth, demure, and unassuming. So I just smiled and was happy that my sweet puppy was so admired, though in my heart, I hoped that, one day, even if years from now, at least one person would call me fluffy.

A Crisis of Extraordinary Proportions

Maybe it’s a genetic abnormality, maybe it’s a dark knot in my psychology that can never be untied, but whatever the reason, I never much liked chocolate milk. Chocolate, yes. Milk, yes. But the two combined always seemed to me to be a culinary experiment less successful than trout ice cream. Then, a few years ago, Gerda——who doesn’t share my long list of food quirks ——brought home a half-gallon container of Hood’s Calorie Countdown chocolate milk. My life was forever changed.

Hood’s is headquartered 3,000 miles from me, in Massachusetts, where I have never been and where, therefore, I couldn’t even be certain that they had cows or knew about chocolate. Yet here was a sublime concoction, more chocolatey than the bland chocolate milks I had known before, like a liquid version of the chocolatiest of chocolate ice creams, yet only 90 calories a glass. The vicissitudes of life ceased to bother me. I no longer worried about planet-killing asteroids plunging toward Earth or that some demonic TV network would resurrect the old series My Mother the Car.

Then one day a great darkness fell upon me. Gerda came home to say that the supermarket where she bought Hood’s no longer carried it. And she couldn’t find it elsewhere, though she had looked in markets major and minor. I knew then, as never before, the full meaning of the word devastated as it is used by the lost and grieving figures in the great tragedies of the theater.

When Hood’s web site failed to reveal any stores in Orange County, California, where the magic elixir could be purchased, I thrashed in anguish for several hours, and then thought to write to the address on the last depressingly empty carton of their exemplary product. In my letter, I said that if there was a store selling their chocolate milk within a 30-mile radius of our house, I would crawl there over broken glass to buy it, though I hoped that I would be able instead to drive there at ballistic speed.

In the two weeks required to receive a reply, I had our last empty carton of Hood’s Calorie Countdown chocolate milk encased in Lucite and mounted upon a pedestal in my office, so that I might never forget the perfection that had once been and might never be again. When an envelope appeared in the mail, bearing the return address of Hood’s, I hesitated to open it, fearful that I might be told there was no way to obtain the precious liquid other than by purchasing a refrigerated 18-wheeler, driving to Massachusetts, and personally hauling a year’s supply across the continent and up the treacherous Rocky-Mountain highways. (I had investigated the cost of doing just that, and I had found it was not prohibitive, considering the alternative of a life without the world’s best chocolate milk.)

But the wonderful, kind, and all-around delightful woman working in Hood’s customer-relations office provided the name of a market within a reasonable distance of our home. My relief was akin to that I felt when the Soviet Union collapsed and, for a few years at least, the imminent threat of global nuclear war diminished.

I have my chocolate milk again. I am at peace. Though sometimes I wake in the middle of the night, rattled by the fear that if for a while I could not obtain Hood’s chocolate milk, then any of life’s essentials might be denied me tomorrow. What if, for example, a total collapse of the Cheddar market made it impossible to obtain those little Goldfish crackers?

 

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