More First Sentences

Yesterday we looked at three opening sentences of classic pulp stories.  Today let’s take a closer look at three contemporary short stories published in Issue 9 of Cirsova Magazine.  One of the best of the current crop of short fiction periodicals, Cirsova makes for a great case study because it publishes a wide variety of genres, features some of the best unheralded talent working today, and because I’ve never published anything with them, so I can maintain a thin veneer of objectivity about the stories within.

The first first sentence comes from The Faerie Pool, by Edward McDermott:

The rutted road meandered through the woods, shaded by mighty oaks whose roots reached out to trip an unwary traveler.

The use of adjectives in this sentence works well.  Though the road is rutted (well traveled), it meanders (is in no hurry), shaded (and out of the cleansing light of the sun), and old (as evidenced by the mighty oaks.  The threat of the oaks demonstrates this is no place for the unwary, so we have an intimation of a threat right out of the gates.  That’s a good sign. Trouble ahead calls the reader forward.  A solid opening.

Next up is Our Lords, the Swine, by N.A. Roberts:

The Knight sought shelter for the evening, and when he saw the monastery on the hill above him, he turned his horse towards it.

Here’s a counter example that could have used a lot more descriptive words to paint the picture.  It violates the “show, don’t tell” rule, but we’ve got a limited number of words to use and a strong start demands unsubtle tactics.  You’ve got to come out swinging, not playing coy with the image you’re painting in the reader’s head.  Is the knight tired or proud?  What sort of monastery does he face?  It should loom over him if it houses a dark secret, or should beckon him with bright lights shining from every window.  Details are your friend at this stage, provided they are terse and provide some foreshadowing of what is to come.

I quite liked the story that followed, but this sentence does little more than confirm the setting and the genre.  To be fair, S.K. Inkslinger starts off the next tale, The Bejeweled Chest, with even less.

I was bleeding badly.

Does anybody bleed well?

Oh, shut up, Jon – this is no time for pedantic grammar Nazi-ing.  If you break a rule well, then you wrote well, full stop.  As a first sentence, this works fantastic.  It’s just four words, so you get through it almost too fast to realize what happened.  And yet in those four words a timer started ticking down to the detonation of the plot bomb.  We’re stuck in a tale with a protagonist who has already faced danger and lived, but there’s no telling how long he or she has to get out of trouble.  We don’t know the genre, we don’t know the mood.  All we know is that we have to move fast.  This is classic page-turning prose.  Well done.

One thing that I like about all three of these sentences is that they all eschew the all-too-common trope of “NAME VERBED.”  That’s an empty introduction to snoozeville.

Too many stories force a name into the first sentence.  There’s plenty of time for names once we’ve set up the gameboard.  Give the reader a picture first, set some stakes, get things in motion.  Once you’ve done that, then you can start affixing labels to personalities and places.  If you haven’t built the structure of the story, the labels have nothing to hold them – they just linger there in the mind, hanging in empty and weightless space.  With every passing moment, the reader’s interest in finding a post to stick them to will wane, so don’t give them an excuse.  Make them wonder who this guy is first, then give them the name.  Draw them in and make them ask for a name before you give it to them.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the next three sentences.  In the meantime, consider how the rules of first sentences can be used throughout your stories.  How every sentence can lead the reader onwards, rather than hang in space while it waits for necessary details to emerge later on in the narrative – even one sentence too late is still too late.

Oh, and Happy Halloween!  Here’s a Conan Pumpkin Stencil for your pulp pumpkin.

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First Sentences, Examples From the Pulps

In the interests of learning from the masters, here are a few examples of evocative first sentences taken from a random scattering of works.  As with yesterday’s assignment, consider how each sentence hooks your attention, declares stakes, identifies the mood and genre of the piece, and then take a look at the second list which presents the source of the work.

  1. When Miss Vine went to bed she was accompanied by her shadow thrown on the white marble wall.
  2. The fisherman loosened his knife in its scabbard.
  3. I had this story from one who had no business to tell it to me, or to any other.

  4. I am a medical man specializing in neurology and diseases of the brain.
  5. It was June 25th in the year 2999, and Hugh Grimes, the robot, worked feverishly to perfect the synthetic brain he had made after thousands of experiments, in his secret laboratory beneath the Tombs of the Kings near ancient Thebes.

Given my predilections, and that these all survived not only the slushpile of the golden age of science fiction and fantasy – that would be the years before Damon Knight and Issac Asimov ruined the sci-fi culture for decades for those keeping score at home – but that they also survived decades of relative obscurity and passed into public domain where they were loved enough to have been posted in an easily searchable HTML format…it should be no surprise that they are all effective in their own way.

Once you’ve had a chance to think about them for a minute, let’s look at the source, the who, and the why they work.

  1. Put Out the Light, by Ethel Line White.  You thought I’d start with an easy one?  Miss White is a new name to me, one encountered while searching for easily cut-and-pasted HTML versions of first sentences.  She wrote primarily Weird Tales style horror, but I can’t say more than that until I’ve read more of her works.  The simple act of going to bed, pursued by one’s own shadow, becomes oddly sinister when she describes it this way.  It’s a nice lead in, even if it does suffer a bit from the “Name First” trope that generally turns me off.  Anybody out there have any experience with Miss Ethel?  How does her work hold up?
  2. The Devil in Iron, by Robert E. Howard.  Yes, this is a Conan story, and the fisherman is the first victim of a supernatural terror.  Note the implied menace that draws the reader into the next sentence.  Fisherman are tough old buzzards, so if this guy is nervous enough to check his knife and keep it ready, you can bet what happens next will be bloody.  I’ve never read this work – that needs to be corrected.
  3. Tarzan of the Apes, by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  This one takes a bit to work through.  One the one hand, it’s a great way of hooking the reader, as it implies the fantastic tale to follow not only happened in the real world, but that no one is supposed to know about it. It hooks the reader by inviting him to join in a conspiracy of knowledge, and thereby works to stroke the reader’s ego with the faint hint of forbidden knowledge.  It also serves as a framing device for the action that follows.  We’re not reading from the point of view of an omniscient narrator, but reading a third hand tale passed down from one co-conspirator to the next!  That’s a lot to pack into such a short sentence.
  4. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt.  Hey, they can’t all be winners.  This sentence introduces the main character as an exceptionally intelligent protagonist, one not particularly squeamish, and perhaps one who is ultimately rational and given to science rather than the fantastic notions of magic and the occult.  It isn’t particularly gripping, but it does alert the reader to the first person viewpoint of the story that follows.
  5. The Iron World, by Otis Adelbert Kline.  Holy cats, now that’s how you start a story that begs to be read.  It’s a mouthful, to be sure, and it throws ideas at the reader with machine gun ruthlessness, almost daring one to rush ahead before one’s thoughts have processed that we’re in the distant future when a robot might strive to perfect a fake brain, and do so beneath the ancient tombs that litter the deserts surrounding Egypt.  And why does a brilliant robot like this have the prosaic name of Hugh Grimes?  How can you not keep reading after an introduction like that?
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First Sentences – An Exercise for Readers and Writers

First impressions matter, all the more so when you’re writing a short story.  Having just dropped three to twelve bucks on a novel, a reader might give you a few pages to correct for a rough opening.  When you’ve only got a few thousand words to get in, shake your literary money-maker, and get out, you have to strike fast.  That becomes all the more true when yours is just one of ten short works in a collection.  If it’s easier to turn to the next story than become invested in the current story, readers will do just that.

The master of pulp fantasy and sci-fi excelled at grabbing the reader by the collar and putting his attention in a headlock from the first word through the end of the tale.  As a thought experiment for you, dear blog reader, the following list presents the first sentence from each of the ten stories included in the most recent edition of Cirsova Magazine, presented sans attribution.  As you read, consider how each sentence hooks your attention, or fails to do so.  Also, consider how the sentence serves to set-up the mood of the piece that follows.  Can you guess from one sentence whether the story is fantasy, modern, or sci-fi?

  • The rutted road meandered through the woods, shaded by mighty oaks whose roots reached out to trip an unwary traveler.
  • The Knight sought shelter for the evening, and when he saw the monastery on the hill above him, he turned his horse towards it.
  • I was bleeding badly.
  • Just as he was about to enter the tavern, Theofian Nap was interrupted by his knives, which were talking to themselves.
  • The local populace knew of that forgettable mountain only for its treacherous ledges and the old tales of bandit hideouts near the top.
  • The psychologist shifted through the young man’s pile of artwork, each sheet filled with apocalyptic scenes of strange alien beings that were surrounded by dramatic explosions from the havoc and destruction they wreaked.
  • In a system far from here, on a blue world much like ours, orbiting a sickly green sun, the city of Antares stood towering over a barren landscape.
  • The first commissioner of A’a’a undulated into the circus ring.
  • “I don’t know why I ever listened to you,” said Lady Alexia FitzClarence to Foskin, her composite servitor, as they trudged abreast through the desert heat.
  • We’d come all the way to Alpha Dog station and had not yet found the rest and relaxation bragged about upon the brochure (had there been one).

That’s all for today.  Over the rest of the week, I’ll take a look at each sentence individually, tell you well it works both as a hook and as a lead-in to the story that follows, and give proper credit to the authors.

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A Light Review, “Lil Gotham”

Here’s a fun little number. My youngest wasn’t sure about this, but she’s learning how to read and we’ve been enjoying a little Lego Batman on the Xbox 360 lately (so retro!), so it seemed right up her alley.

Also, it was free.

Li’l Gotham is a promotional comic on the shelf at the local comic book shop that we found when hunting for the ever elusive Alterna Comics in the wild.

As a brief aside:  You can nab the Alterna game online, but it’s always more fun to find those diamonds you can grab for yourself amid the mounds and piles of rubbish.  My local shop deals with Diamond, so they mostly have the socially acceptable fare on order, but Diamond seems to throw a few rare copies of Alterna Comics their way.  You just have to be quick about it.  I did grab Zero Jumper #1 in the store, but had to order #2 and #3 online.  When #4 hits the shelves, I’ll cross my fingers and try to grab it there.

Support your local hobby shop…before it’s too late!

Something about the clean lines and understated hues of the water color style artwork appealed to me.  So I sat her down and rubbed her face in it, and am glad I did.  So is she.  The stories are light holiday fare.  The first shows Batman explaining Halloween to Robin – a Robin whose childhood was not as an acrobat, but whose parents where some sort of mad scientists.  Not sure which Robin that makes this, as I don’t follow mainline DC all that closely.  On page two Robin leaps at Batman’s rogues gallery and starts laying down a serious beating before Batman explains they are just kids in costumes.  Robin is unimpressed and thinks the beatings should continue just to be on the safe side.

My kind of kid.

The second story offers up a Thanksgiving story about…is Oswald Cobblepot the real name of The Penguin?  He wants to save the birds on Thanksgiving, and enlists the help of the penguins to set their people free.  Yeah, that’s exactly the kind of story that makes my daughter giggle, and exactly the kind of story I want in my kids’ comics.

Well written for the younger set, the drama rises almost to the level of a classic Archie comic, which is perfect.  The art features near Calvin and Hobbes level cuteness with just enough grit to grab hold of.  It’s also the proud owner of a mercifully low woke-quotient.  If you wanted to introduce Gotham to your littlest kids, you could do a lot worse than this fun little bit of swag.  I may just have to keep an eye out for

Giving money to DC?  I hate to give money to people that hate me, but there’s also some value in putting your money where your mouth is.  My bills on the counter are a strong indicator of, “More of this please,” and so long as they keep it light and kid-friendly, I won’t regret it.

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Thank You

Thank you to everyone who ordered a copy of Barbarian Emperor over the last few weeks.  It’s been trundling along in sales that represent a step-up from my last few offerings.  Your faith in my ability to keep you entertained for roughly 200-pages warms my heart, and I hope that my efforts have not gone in vain.

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Cirsova 8’s “Party Crashers” by Ken McGrath

 The cover story for Cirsova 8 brings us a near future, superhero tale dressed up in tech-noir trappings.  The two heroes of the piece, Haywire and Scramble, are hired guns ready to engage in a little corporate espionage or black-op counter-terrorism if the price is right.  The name of their little enterprise, Party Crashers, lends itself to the name of the story, which clips along at a nice pace.  Hired to protect a shady CEO from his eco-terrorist son, they have the advantage of bionic upgrades, called ‘augments’ in the story, that allow them to act in superhuman fashion.

As with the previous story in the issue, Only a Coward, the story suffers a bit for insufficient world building – or at least insufficient explanations of how the world works.  It’s not clear until late in the game that augments are common enough to elicit disdain from some seedy types, but rare enough to be a surprise when they pop up later.  It’s also not clear what the limitations on the technology are, leaving the world a little vague.  It might be a world just like ours, but with a light patina of high-tech, or it might be a full-on Blade Runner or Shadowrun sci-fantasy.  Were this story plugged into a longer tale, or just one of many adventures of Haywire and Scramble, that might hamper the visual appeal of the tale, but as a stand-alone meant that the movie in my own head lacked real substance or form.

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IF: A Sci-Fi Anthology

When the Isolate and Swarm crowd decided to take a swing at the good guys over at Alterna Comics, I (along with a few thousand other comic book fans) advanced my purchase schedule to send a financial signal to Peter Simeti that he has a lot of people in his corner.  The titles were already on my list, they just motivated me to send in my money a little sooner than expected.  That means ordering Issues 2 and 3 of Zero Jumper before Issue 4 hits the newsstands.  To round out the order and minimize shipping costs, I threw a copy of IF into the mix, and I’m glad I did.

A digest sized comic clocking in at about 6-inches by 8-inches, and drown entirely in black and white, this anthology features 36 creators and 15 stories with mixed results.  That’s no surprise with an undertaking like this.  Each story clocks in around 12 pages in length, making them a mix of short-short fiction and short vignettes that feel like part of a much larger story.  Some are great, some are not.

Of particular interest to a casual comic fan like myself, some of the stories feature great writing and mediocre art, and some vice-versa. Sitting down to read all of the stories back to back really helped a neophyte like me appreciate how the two aspects of the sequential art format interlock and see what happens when they don’t.

My favorite was Love By Numbers about a helpful household robot who learns to love, but maybe not in the way you think.  The 50’s style art plays well with the storyline and presents a chipper front that clashes with and thereby emphasizes the dark underpinnings of the story.

“Love By Numbers”, Art By Dan Lauer

In contrast, Alex Eckman-Long writes and does the art for Moon, which isn’t much of a story, perhaps by design, but looks fantastic.

No stakes, just pretty art and a punchline

This collection would make a great bathroom reader. Physically, it’s the perfect size for the back of the toilet – just don’t resell it when you’re done, for the love of Kirby – because the short nature of the works. Also, reading the stories back to back can result in some jarring changes of pace and mood. Some of the tales are just plain goofy, such as Chas! Pangurn’s Big Foot, Little Hope, which feature’s sasquatch’s existential crisis, which is immediately followed by the scariest work in the collection, Jon Clark’s Cling, which pits two young boys home alone against a mobile and hungry portal to a dark dimension.

My one real complaint circles back once again to the emphasis on strong girls who don’t need no man.  While not universal, and by no means present in a heavy enough way to make for a deal-breaker, the stories tilt strongly towards the heroic women and those goofy old menfolk at it again.  That’s the zeitgeist, and if you need to up the fantasy element in that way, more power to you, but the strong adherence to Current Year counter-instinctual storytelling represents a flaw in the writing and editing that detracts from the enjoyment it might have otherwise provided.  If you’re the type to favor go-grrl stories, you’ll have one less complaint that I did, at any rate.

Overall the quality reaches a level that makes this a worthy by for comic fans ready to step out of the usual capes.   It’s also a nice sampler that can help a hungry reader find new talent they might not otherwise locate.  It was a little over-priced for what I got in hardcopy, but at six bucks for the Kindle version, it’s worth a shot.

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Cirsova 8’s “Only a Coward” by Jennifer Povey

If you want to catch the eye of a Catholic, you could do a lot worse than the opening to Jennifer Povey’s Only A Coward:

“Only a coward chooses death over a difficult life,” Selien spoke those words as the knife hacked through the braid of her hair.”

As a minor quibble, the sentence would have more impact if it were made clear Selien is cutting her own braid off. While it’s not strictly passive voice, it’s also not the knife doing the hacking. It’s Selien. She’s mad that her kinsfolk want her to throw herself onto her husband’s funeral pyre instead of haring off after his murderer. She turns her back on her people and rides out on a stolen pony, eludes escape, and now we’re cooking with gas!

Otherwise, the opening scene of this story is a clinic on tight writing.  The stakes are made clear immediately, as are the challenges, and the ultimate goal.  Povey does in the space of a couple of hundred words what many writers can’t do in a thousand.

Only A Coward consists of a chase scene in which Selien gets a little supernatural help catching the man that did her wrong. Like the chase, the climactic ending has a lot of twists and turns. Povey shows a real knack for efficient storytelling that could have used a little more fleshing out. Speaking as a big fan of minimalist descriptions in fiction, this story really cried out for more details of the world Selien inhabits. With so little to go on, the reader winds up with a scene in his head that lacks focus. The geography receives plenty of attention, an important factor in a tracking and chasing sequence, but a little more indication of the tech level, the style of dress of the characters, the cultural motivations and assumptions, all of that world building would have helped flesh out the story and deliver a more satisfying resolution.

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Happy BE Day

Today’s the day that my loyal fans receive their comeuppance in the form of the high-octane adventure of a slave turned emperor.  Pre-orders are over, it’s time to sit back and let the struggle of a regular guy forced to claw his way onto the Imperial throne to save the world from the ravenous appetite of dark and mysterious powers inimical to the forces of justice, law, and order.  Hot babes, furious fights, and a journey to edges of the known world await those who delve into the pages of Barbarian Emperor – the sort of tale no New York City problem glasses NPC editor would dare let escape from her slush pile.

Don’t worry about the spoilers inherent in the title of the work.  I can guarantee that the journey is worth taking for the view along the way, and that the destination isn’t quite what you think!

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The Barbarian Emperor On The Air

Soon.

If you already pre-ordered a copy of Barbarian Emperor, thank you.  If you haven’t because you’re still sitting on the fence, here are a couple of interviews that I did over the last week showcasing the work and a whole lot more.  The first video deals with a lot of current event issues, particularly those the difficulties faced by independent authors.  The second takes a more timeless turn as we delve into the deep magic of fantasy cosmologies, alignment, and play styles.  Whether sword and sandal adventure with a hearty sorcery mix tickles your fancy or not, both of these interviews will entertain you – the hosts are universally funny and clever and offer up engaging conversations.

Enjoy!

First up is Jon Del Arroz’s Lunchstream, with Katrina:

And the always entertaining and informative Geek Gab with YOUR HOST, ME, DADDY WARPiiiIIIIG! and John McGlynn:

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