A look at great opening lines

The Epic Crush of Genie Lo.I’m a sucker for a great first line. I have a mental collection of my favorites, and today I’m adding a new line to that list. Rather than simply gush, I’m going to break down the first few paragraphs of my current read, The Epic Crush of Genie Lo by F.C. Yee. Hopefully, this exercise will help you improve your own opening lines.

First line: “So I didn’t handle the mugging as well as I could have.”

This tells us several things right away. First, there’s a mugging going on. Second, the narrator regrets how she responded. (We don’t know for sure that she’s a girl yet, but we’ll learn that in the next paragraph.) Third, the tone of this sentence suggests that this character has a humorous way of looking at the world and the situations she’s in.

Solid opening, right? But it gets better. The story continues:

“I would have known what to do it I’d been the victim. Hand over everything quietly. Run away as fast as possible. Go for the eyes if I was cornered. I’d passed the optional SafeStrong girl’s defense seminar at school with flying colors.”

All of a sudden, this mugging scene has been turned on its head. Our narrator isn’t the victim. Also, we know she’s level-headed during a confrontation, she took a self-defense class, and she’s not afraid to fight when necessary. At this point, you’re probably really curious. What’s going on?

Yee doesn’t waste any time with internal monologues or unnecessary descriptions. She puts us in that scene right away with the next lines:

“But we’d never covered what to do when you see six grown men stomping the utter hell out of a boy your age in broad daylight. It was a Tuesday morning, for god’s sake. I was on my way to school, the kid was down on the ground, and the muggers were kicking him like their lives depended on it. They weren’t even trying to take his money.”

Here we see more of the narrator’s humor in the tone and language used, and get a brief but detailed description of the situation. A high school student (their ages aren’t explicitly stated, but are implied by the tone and diction) witnesses another teen getting beat up by six adults. When I read this, I immediately asked myself, what would I do in this situation? Would I confront six much larger men attacking a kid?

At this point, I know everything I need to know. I’m invested in this story. I want to know who this boy is, why he’s being attacked, and how the narrator handles the situation. (She says she could have handled it better, so what did she do that she wishes she’d done differently?)

I haven’t finished The Epic Crush of Genie Lo, but so far, it is everything those first lines promise it will be. Full of action and a badass girl with a snarky/humorous outlook, and unexpected (but not to the point that they stretch belief) situations like stumbling upon a mugging on the way to school.

I hope this exercise has helped you see ways to improve your own opening lines. Do you have any favorite openings? Please share in the comments!

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Eclipse glasses and library service

Solar eclipse.Last week, my library fielded thousands of calls, emails, chats, Facebook messages, and in-person questions about eclipse viewing glasses. Like many libraries across the country, my library received 1,000 free pairs from the Space Science Institute’s National Center for Interactive Learning via STAR_Net, an initiative to bring STEM exhibits and programming to libraries. And like many libraries, we had a demand that far exceeded our supply. News outlets kept encouraging people to go to the library for their glasses, and at the end of the week, we kept having to turn people away.

I hate having to say no to people at the library. And of course, I always offer an alternative when I can, in this case telling people about other places in the area that were giving out glasses and showing them instructions to make a pinhole camera to safely view the eclipse. But chances are those other places (some of them nearby libraries) also had demands that far exceeded supply. The most frustrating thing about all this, as Karen Jensen points out on Teen Librarian Toolbox, is that for a lot of these people, eclipse glasses were the first thing they came to the library for in a long time. Maybe the first thing they ever came to us for. And we had to turn them away.

It’s great that so many people came to the library. But if they came to us, and were disappointed, the chances of them coming back the next time they need something are lower. And we have so much more we could offer. Maybe we could help them solve their next problem, but they’ll never know, because they’ll remember the last time they asked us for something and heard no, and not bother to ask us again.

I don’t have any answers here. I’m just frustrated by how many people we had to turn away, how many people of all ages left disappointed. We applied for eclipse glasses from STAR_Net to do a good thing for our community, and yet so much of our community feels let down.

I hope they see how much we can and do offer them every day. And I hope they come back the next time they could use our help.

Eclipse glasses line.

The line outside my library of people waiting to pick up eclipse viewing glasses Friday morning. They started lining up more than an hour before we opened.

Books about social justice

Social Justice Reads.After the past weekend, I feel like now is a good time to share a list of books exploring themes of social justice. If you have titles to add to this list, please share in the comments!

I’m sure there are many more, so please share your favorites in the comments!

The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky

The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky.I’m always thrilled to see other writers succeed, and am even more excited when that writer is part of what I consider my “writing family.” On Friday I had the privilege of going to my friend Summer Heacock’s book launch. I’ve seen Summer go through being on submission with multiple projects, breaking up with one agent, signing with her current agents, and finally reading from her debut book at a real, live bookstore!

I’m really busy with both writing stuff and library stuff this week, so I’ll leave you with my review of Summer’s book, The Awkward Path to Getting Lucky​. If you want to laugh your pants off while you’re feeling all the feels, pick up Summer’s book!

Fantastic book! The voice is so strong and unique. I laughed out loud on every page — often multiple times per page! I loved the dynamic between the four women at the bakery, and how open they were talking with one another about everything. If you like baking, feels, and uncensored talk about lady parts, do yourself a favor and get your hands on this book! The coarse language isn’t for every reader, but if you don’t mind a liberal amount of (non-gratuitous) swearing, I highly recommend this book.

Why having friends who write is awesome

Community.I’ve mentioned before how nice it is to have people I can talk shop with, but Midwest Writers Workshop really drove that home for me last weekend. As much as I love my family and friends who don’t write, none of them will truly understand what it’s like to be in the query trenches or on submission or pitching to an agent. R&R is just more likely to mean “rest and relaxation” than “revise and resubmit” to them. It’s hard for them to grasp both how exciting signing with an agent is and how signing with an agent doesn’t mean your book will be on shelves next week.

If you’re a writer who sees writing as your career, I highly recommend you have at least one friend who also considers writing a career. Have someone who gets what you’re going through, someone you can celebrate and commiserate with, someone who’ll swap queries with you and provide honest feedback on what isn’t working. Find your people, and cheer each other on. Celebrate their successes. Be there for them when things aren’t going well.

We all need someone who will pick us up when we’re down, and encourage us to keep going when we’re in a rut. And there’s no greater feeling than celebrating with a friend who’s just signed with an agent or gotten her first ARC or has her first book out in the world.

How did you find your writing community?

Genre Lessons: Historical Fiction Revisited

Antique watch.

I belong to a librarian book club that reads a different genre every month to improve our reader’s advisory skills. The idea is to get us better-acquainted with the types of books we may not normally read. In addition to improving my recommendations, I’m also studying these books from a writer’s perspective. Just because I don’t write a certain genre doesn’t mean I can’t learn from those who do. If you want to see other posts in this series, check out the “genre lessons” tag.

This month we’re reading historical fiction, and I picked a couple amazing books. Here are my biggest takeaways:

  1. Multiple plot lines are great for maintaining tension. Mackenzi Lee’s The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue is a great example of this, with the adventure/mystery plot alternating with the romantic plot. (I don’t normally name the books I read for genre lessons, because some of these posts can get critical and reading is highly subjective, but I’m making an exception because those like me who struggle with pacing can learn a lot from this book.) Every time the tension eased in one plot line, it ratcheted up in the other. I’m not saying add subplots to increase tension, but if you have a subplot, consider complicating that at points where the main plot slows.
  2. How people say things is just as important as what they say. A good historical fiction novel immerses readers in the setting with vivid descriptions; a great one also has characters whose diction indicates their culture and upbringing. This goes for other genres, too; writing a character from the American South doesn’t mean just writing an accent, it means having that character use Southern expressions and turns of phrase.
  3. The best villains are characters whose motivations readers understand and believe, even when they disagree with the villain. My favorite villains are the ones I feel a little sorry for when they lose.

Those are the main things I noticed as I read historical fiction this month. Have you read any great books in this genre recently that helped improve your writing?

I’m suffering from a conference hangover right now, but I’ll talk about Midwest Writers Workshop next week!

Will you be at Midwest Writers Workshop?

Midwest Writers Workshop.Today’s post is short, since I’m busy getting ready for the 44th Annual Midwest Writers Workshop. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me sing the praises of MWW, as it’s where I met many of my critique partners and closest friends. No matter what stage you’re at in your career, if you have the time and means to attend a writing conference, I highly recommend doing so.

And if you’re going to be at MWW, please say hi!