What’s my (opening) line?

I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.

There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Just so.

And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:

“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.

“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.

“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.

“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”

 “Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.

“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

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

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.

And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

Now that’s a keeper.

What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.

Why we write

The chief benefit of publishing an e-book through Smashwords is the distribution channel–Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBooks and indie e-book retailer Kobo. There’s one other feature writers might consider, an interview with the author. Here’s mine:

What motivated you to become an indie author?

After sending queries to 76 agents, I received a number of kind comments but no offers of representation. Then an indie author alerted me to Joanna Penn and The Creative Penn podcasts about the publishing industry. I found her rationale for going independent so compelling I decided to learn as much as I could. The materials on Smashwords were also a great help. In an increasingly DIY world, indie publishing makes a lot sense.

What is the greatest joy of writing for you?

The greatest joy of writing is the process, the act of writing. Something I think publishing is just an excuse to keep writing.

What do your fans mean to you?

Fans mean contact with people who share common interests and feelings. The feel of a book is so important, and so elusive, especially during the drafting phase, when the author is isolated from others. To hear that I’ve entertained or touched someone else . . . that’s the real joy of writing.

Peak Season 3D cover 375x548What are you working on now?

I’m writing the sequel to Peak Season, the second book in the CW McCoy series. It’s called Tourist in Paradise and starts with the premise that someone is trying to kill the tourism industry in Southwest Florida. I’m also working on the audiobook version of Mr. Mayhem, the first in the Brinker series of crime novels. It’s high-concept, the kind of treatment you’d expect to see on HBO or Amazon Prime.

Who are your favorite authors?

An eclectic group of crime novelists ranging from Raymond Chandler, Ken Bruen and Chelsea Cain (“One Kick) to Robert B. Parker, Sara Paretsky, Ruth Rendell and Tony Hillerman. I like the Anns–Anne Lamott, Annie Proulx, Anne Tyler and Anna Quindlen. I also like the romantics, Jennifer Crusie and Janet Evanovich, and British writers P.G. Wodehouse (Jeeves and Wooster) and John Mortimer (Rumpole of the Bailey).

What inspires you to get out of bed each day?

Another chance to create, to build new worlds and live inside them.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

Hiking, taking photos, reading, listening to classical music and NPR.

How do you discover the e-books you read?

I follow recommendations from fellow members of my writers’ groups.

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?

No, but I remember a wonderful professor who rekindled my interest in fiction to such a degree that I wrote a book-length collection of short stories. Now that’s inspiration.

What is your writing process?

I try to write first thing in the morning and save marketing and social media for later in the day.

Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?

I remember my parents reading to me, and since then, I’ve grown fond of spoken-word audio.

Riding 3D coversHow do you approach cover design?

After design the cover of my first nonfiction book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, I wisely took the advice of a seasoned indie author and hired a professional to design the covers of Peak Season, Mr. Mayhem and Riding with the Blues. The designers have captured the tone of the work better than I ever could.

What are your five favorite books, and why?

Listening Woman by Tony Hillerman, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, Good Night, Mr. Wodehouse by Faith Sullivan and Road Rage by Ruth Rendell. Let’s add a sixth: California Fire and Life by Don Winslow. All offer sensitive characters thrust into compelling situations.

What do you read for pleasure?

Standalone books like The Girl on the Train and series novels by Parker, Hillerman, Rendell, Grimes and the inimitable P.G. Wodehouse. (Who can top Jeeves and Wooster?)

What is your e-reading device of choice?

I have an iPad mini and a Kindle and I’m looking forward to buying an Android tablet in the near future.

What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?

Social media and word of mouth, although I will send review copies to journalists and bloggers.

Describe your desk

My dining room table.

Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?

I grew up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, a once-rural area that attracted tourists to the clean mountain air. Perched on the border with New Jersey, it is now a bedroom community for New York. The area inspired a love of nature and a desire to experience the art and culture found in the city.

Mr Mayhem 3d_coverWhat’s the story behind your latest book?

After moving to Florida, I decided to revisit a lifelong interest in fiction. During a writing class, the instructor suggested we turn a short story into a news report and a news story into a piece of short fiction. As a working journalist, the first part felt easy. (I chose one of my favorites, a John Updike short story.) For the second part, I found an article about a fugitive financier that fascinated me and turned it into a short story. I liked the product and the process so much, I worked the character into the novel Peak Season and created someone worthy of challenging him, CW McCoy, a woman who had renounced violence . . . under the fugitive kidnaps her family.

For the second novel, Mr. Mayhem, I channeled some of the anger at literary rejection and cynicism about public relations and marketing in general.

When did you first start writing?

In elementary school.

What’s next for you?

The debut of Mr. Mayhem and the character of Brinker, a disgraced journalist doing PR for a funeral home and its trolley tour of murder sites in rural Pennsylvania. He hates the job, the place and himself. The tour business is dying. There aren’t enough murders to draw a crowd. An assassin would help. The audio version should be a killer.

A book by any other name . . .

Allusion Books logoThe U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has approved the registered mark of my publishing company, Allusion Books. Right now I’m only publishing books that I write, such as Peak Season, Riding with the Blues and a new crime series, Mr. Mayhem, due at the end of November.

The examining attorney for the USPTO did have to amend the identification of goods and services in my application to state that no claim is made to the exclusive right to use the word “books” apart from the mark as shown.  All you folks at the Big 5 publishing houses–Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster–you can breathe now.

Steaming up summer with romance novels

The heat is on this summer as National Public Radio takes on one of the steamier segments of the publishing industry.

Jennifer Crusie Bet MeNPR Books is focusing on romance novels. And their recommendations are not so-called “bodice rippers” or historical romances—they’re contemporary stories that straddle the categories of fiction.

The works blend the genres of romance and mystery or romance and humor to create contemporary novels that can appeal to a wide range of readers, not just those raised on Barbara Cartland or Janet Dailey. (Who hasn’t read at least one of the books in the Calder series? OK, don’t answer that.)

The NPR project features a more contemporary group of works like Bet Me by Jennifer Crusie, Match Me If You Can by Susan Elizabeth Phillips and Something About You by Julie James, a murder mystery involving an attorney and an FBI agent.

No mention of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series. How would you categorize them, as romantic suspense?

You can listen to the series on the NPR website.

The luckiest people in the world

Writers who need writers are the luckiest people in the world.

We build on the work of other writers. We draw inspiration from their creations, and their success. We’re usually too busy building our own careers to notice.

It’s time to notice.

Women-Writers-FrontYou don’t know me but I would like to thank you for helping to create the character of CW McCoy in Peak Season, a series I hope someday will approach the benchmark you’ve set. You didn’t just paste male characteristics onto women or use violence to attract attention. You were the trailblazers, the authors who turned the noir subgenre on its head and ushered in a generation of smart, tough, proficient female investigators.

That said, here is my list of writers whose female characters have traded cookies for cojones:

  • Sara Paretsky, for creating V.I. Warshawski, a character whose toughness serves her sense of justice
  • S.J. Rozan, for her evocative sense of place in the Lydia Chin outings
  • Lee Goldberg, for the deft portrayal of a secondary character, Natalie Teeger, in his series of Adrian Monk novels
  • Julia Spencer-Fleming, for Rev. Claire Fergusson’s moral compass
  • Laurie R. King, for the daring intelligence of Mary Russell
  • Sue Grafton, for revealing the conflicted love life of Kinsey Millhone
  • Janet Evanovich, for the push and pull of drama and humor in the Stephanie Plum novels
  • Marcia Muller, for Sharon McCone’s allegiance to family and friends
  • And Jennifer Crusie, for giving her leads a heartbeat and not just a pulse.

Writers who need writers are the luckiest writers in the world. Thanks to you, I’m one of them.

The infectious prediction of thrillers

Some writers land in the right place at the right time. Others anticipate, showing us what life might look like in a few years if things go horribly wrong. Many of the near-futurists build their plots on epidemics. Bob Reiss (Black Monday) did it with oil. Patricia Gussin (Weapon of Choice) does it with biologics.

In Gussin’s novel, published in 2012 but set in 1985, thoracic surgeon Dr. Laura Nelson gets caught in a medical and bureaucratic firestorm when a fast-moving staph infection spreads through her hospital at the same time the facility receives its first AIDS patient. Aside from delivering a decent thriller, the author shows what happens when antibiotic-resistant infections spread, and how hospitals and agencies such as the CDC must work quickly to contain the disease.

Weapon-of-Choice-3DSince Gussin is not only a physician but the former vice president of consumer pharmaceuticals at healthcare giant Johnson & Johnson, she writes with great detail . . . and frightening authority. Frightening because people can use these microbes as weapons.

All of which leads us to the latest crisis in healthcare, the threat of an Ebola pandemic. People worry about travel and transmission. Writers evoke images of the plague. Institutions scramble to contain, treat and reassure.

In Gussin’s book, she details CDC protocols for isolation and decontamination. Have they improved since 1985? Do they work as well in airports as they do in books?

When you look into the near future, what do you see?