Works of fiction appearing here are © 2011-2017 by Jack H. Tyler, and are not to be assumed to lie in the public domain.
Any reproduction of this material is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Happy Holidays, whichever you choose!

          "Learning is the fountain of youth.  No matter how old you are, you must never stop growing." ~ CHINESE PROVERB
          I have always been in the camp that holds that the people and stores who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" have ridden the Political Correctness train to the far end of the line.  This year, I had the film peeled off of my eyes by one of my oldest and most respected internet friends, a practicing Jew from southern Australia, who pointed this out in her latest blog post:


          Thank you, Kaz, for the wisdom of your words.  I never wanted to be "that guy."  I didn't know, now I do, and the adjustment has been made.  So like the title says, Happy Holidays, no matter which one you celebrate.
          I would be remiss if I didn't point out that there is a Slayer of Darkness giveaway in progress over at Goodreads.  Click on the widget at the top of the right sidebar to join in.  Signed copies will be mailed to five lucky winners, so get your name in the hat.  This may be the last physical book I ever publish, so don't miss out!
          The party starts early over here, and I need my beauty rest.  Have a great day, and a great holiday season, and I'll be back with another thrilling post New Year's morning.  Don't miss it!

~ Blimprider

Monday, December 19, 2016

Slayer of Darkness

          "Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout some painful illness.  One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.  For all one knows, that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.  And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's personality.  Good prose is like a windowpane." ~ GEORGE ORWELL
          And yet I did it.  I've done it multiple times in the past, and have plans to do it again; it seems to be in the blood.  Last Friday morning, the third installment of the Beyond the Rails series landed on Amazon in both print and e-book formats.  For some time now, I have been fielding suggestions that the crew of the Kestrel should expand into novels, leaving behind their short-story format.  I was resistant to the notion for a good long while, due to the fact that the characters and situations were designed to support short stories.  However, I finally decided that, like TV shows and video games that make the jump to the big screen, taking Beyond the Rails into the format of the novel was a worthy endeavor.  It was a long time coming, I know, and the reason for that was the need to examine the history and determine what loose ends were left in the stories, and there were plenty, that could be brought together and tied up, what supporting characters warranted space in the "big book," and what subplots and distractions could be woven into the fabric.  And now it's done.  I have, as Red Smith said, "sat down at a keyboard and opened a vein," and now the results are out there, open to every sort of scrutiny, and for the next days and weeks I will be waiting with that odd mix of eagerness and apprehension for the first reviews to come in.  I have my own opinions of the crew's transition, but mine aren't the ones that count!
         Since much of the purpose of blogging, Facebooking, Goodreading, and so on is to boost sales, allow me to present the synopsis from the back cover:

          It’s March of 1883, and the inhabitants of the east African colony of Kenya are preparing for the Long Rain. The crew of the Kestrel, a small cargo blimp, are no exception, trying to squeeze in the last few paying runs before two months of high winds and constant rain sweep the airships from the sky.
          Arriving in their midst is an old acquaintance, an Australian woman of uncertain background who brings an unbelievable story, and asks them to aid her in what seems to be an impossible task. She offers to pay them well, but can the money she offers be nearly enough to compensate for the danger she plans to place them in? And what business could the mysterious team of international bounty hunters be engaged upon?
          Join the crew of the Kestrel for their longest journey yet, a thrill-packed, suspenseful ride through a world of shadowy operators that could prove to be their last.

          Exciting enough for you?  I hope so, and I hope the book lives up to it.  It was a year of hard work, exacerbated by much nail-biting, backtracking, and do-overs, and I most sincerely hope it was worth it.  Time, and the reviews, will tell!  If you'd care to join in that particular feeding frenzy, you can get your copy, print or Kindle, by clicking the cover in the left sidebar.  Whatever you think, I'd love to hear from you!
          Until next week, then, play nice, look out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

One Path up the Mountain

"There are many paths up the mountain, but there is only one summit."
                                     ~ CHINESE PROVERB
 
          I'm going to do something that I never do here:  I'm going to talk about my religion, although only inasmuch as it informs my writing.  What, you didn't think I was going to lay myself bare, did you?
          Anybody recognize the symbol?  This has been appropriated by just about every martial art form that practices in America, and here on the legendary west coast, there is a big association with surf shops.  In fact, this is Taoism's symbol of balance and harmony, expressed as yīnyáng, literally "dark – bright," and carries the actual Chinese name of taijitu.
          To confirm all these hints, I am a Taoist.  Have been since a date I didn't think to mark in the early 1970s.  I was introduced to it by a certain martial arts instructor who was born in the old country and came here later in life.  By great good fortune, my ascension of the spirit happened to coincide with the run of the original Kung Fu series.  That show has been much-maligned over the years, but whatever there is to say about David Carradine (and there is plenty), the spirituality embodied in that show was spot-on, and reinforced my rudimentary steps along the path.  The coincidence of Kung Fu with my introduction to Taoism was, from my point of view, the most incredible case of kismet in my life.  Christians have a thousand movies they can watch for inspiration; Taoists have Kung Fu, and to our great good fortune, the producers got it right.
          I grew up in an entertainment world filled with the likes of John Wayne, Josh Randall, and Have Gun Will Travel; in other words, a surly bunch of cowboys who would as soon blow your head off as look at you.  When this quiet, peaceful half-Chinese monk wandered into this world of violence, everyone I knew enjoyed the fighting scenes, but nobody seemed to get that it wasn't about that at all.  Maybe I only did because of the other influence, that of my instructor of fighting; and there's a bit of irony for you.
          There is ongoing disagreement among religious scholars about whether Taoism is a true religion, or merely a philosophy.  See, it has no living God with a name, a personality, certain expectations of his followers, and so on.  Taoism treats its "god," the Tao, as a linear force like light or gravity, that acts in predictable ways to constantly create, destroy, and recreate the universe on a minute-to-minute basis.  What the Taoist strives to do is bring himself into balance and harmony with the cycles of nature, and thereby live his life with a minimum of hassle.  My take:  Most religions worship a God that tells you to be decent to your fellow man because that's what He wants, and you'd better do it!  Taoism teaches that aligning yourself with the Tao leads to a decent life, and will bring you the most favorable outcomes in your personal existence.  A difference that makes no difference is no difference.  No matter how you get there, though, mean people still suck!
          How this has shown up in my writing is that my main characters, as I look back at them, seem to be too kind and giving for the world they inhabit.  Some of that may be laid at the feet of the style that I consciously tried to emulate in the writing of Beyond the Rails, that of the "boys-own adventure" books of the 1920s and 30s.  That was a literary period during which the villains were villainous, the ladies were virtuous, and the heroes had perfect teeth.  A complicating factor in sorting out the reasons is that I write stories set in the Victorian Era, a time in which even the villains were as likely to make a self-justifying speech during which he called the hero "sir" as he was to plant a bomb aboard his airship, so the exact reason continues to elude me, but people seem to like it, so perhaps I worry overmuch.
          The thing is, I will soon be starting a new series with the working title of The Nexus Chronicles.  Last November 28th I was working diligently on the Beyond the Rails edit when it was knocked completely out of my head by the idea of Nexus sliding unbidden into my mind like a base runner stealing second, spikes up, and woe be unto whatever gets in his way.  I pulled out one of my ever-handy notebooks and wrote down, "The idea of Nexus, a border city formed at the intersection of all the astral planes, strikes with an almost physical impact."  In the two weeks since, this thing has been simmering, festering, and growing additional heads almost non-stop, and I've had to move into a bigger notebook.
          Here's the thing:  The denizens of Nexus, good and evil, are most definitely not Victorian drawing room characters.  The villains, above all, are not nice, and have no sense of honor or fair play about them, and any protagonist who attempts to deal with them as if they did will be chewed up and spit out, so the great challenge, and the Journey of Wonder that I'm about to undertake will be to see whether I can actually pull off heroes whose halos, of necessity, have slipped to varying degrees.  I usually say "We'll all find out together," but I'm not going to say that this time, because I intend to become a recluse while I'm working this out.  I've learned from experience how poorly I react to other voices pointing out my missteps while I'm trying to work out where to put my feet, and I'm going to spare myself that particular pleasure while I figure out whether I can write the stories this idea calls for.  All I can say is that I will keep blogging, primarily about general writing issues, and probably next week, when I see where this is headed, I'll pull the wraps back a little, and let those interested get a feel for the flavor, but don't expect any big reveals.  Just enjoy the blog, and see whether you can get into the concept.  I'll do my best to make it good! 


*          *          *


          On the writing front, I'm going to solicit your opinions here, as a point was raised last week by one of my readers, and I want to know how everyone feels about it.  This reader said the blog was hard to read, because of the light-on-dark print, and the all-caps font that I use.  Let me address each of those points separately.
          First, the color.  The background color of the blog is #441500 on the standard internet color chart, International Steampunk Brown, and I have no plan to change it.  That means it will be light-on-dark for the foreseeable.
          Second, though, the font. The name of the font is Walter Turncoat, and I chose it from among the dozens of fonts that Blogger offers because it most closely resembles my natural handwriting.  The photo to the left is of a page from my Beyond the Rails notebook so you can see the uncanny resemblance for yourself.  Seriously, if you could get a font based on your own handwriting, would you use it?  Yeah, I thought so.
          But unlike the color, I'm not married to it.  If it's driving off readers, I'm not so stupid that I won't consider a change, so that's what I'm asking here.  Should I change it?  I've put a poll at the top of the right sidebar, and I would very much like for everyone to voice their opinion: should I leave it as it is, make it larger, or change it completely?  This is an important question to me, as I'm not doing this to drive off readers, and your input would be dearly appreciated.
          As to Beyond the Rails III, I am still hopeful of seeing it for sale on Amazon by this coming Sunday.  Once that's done, I'll be taking a break for Christmas and New Year's (if you can call building a new world from scratch "Taking a break"), after which I'll be pitching into the next project.  I have repeatedly said that that will be Stingaree, but I may have to go to The Nexus Chronicles next just to get that monkey off of my back, because it is paying no attention to my demands to get back on the back burner and be quiet.  But I have three weeks to figure that out.  Meanwhile, let's get the Kestrel back into the air for another thrill-packed adventure!
          Until next week, play nice, look out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Importance of Reviews

"Yesterday, December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy..."
                                  ~ FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT

          Thus spoke the United States president on the day following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  My generation grew up despising Japan and all things Japanese, from cheap toys to professional wrestlers.   Today, 75 years later, Japan is one of our closest friends and staunchest allies on a very turbulent world stage.  I admire, and in many ways love, the Japanese people and culture, but as a sailor in the United States Navy, I have sailed up the channel at Pearl Harbor, manning the rail and rendering a salute to the broken wreck of the USS Arizona, and it is impossible for me to refrain from honoring those unsuspecting brothers in arms who were ambushed and slaughtered on that on this pivotal date in history.  Some of the most ambiguous feelings I entertain well up on this particular date, and I wonder sometimes whether 75 years from now, we will be this friendly with the Muslim World.  I won't be here to see it, but I hope for it, nonetheless. 
          The subject of this week's post is book reviews, and I considered tying the ambiguity of my feelings about Pearl Harbor into some half-assed pun about reviews, but that's too cheap a ploy even for me, so I'll just pitch in.  Reviews are an author's life blood.  Not sales.  Not interviews.  Not the equipment and paraphernalia of our Craft.  Reviews, pure and simple.  These other things, to be sure, are necessary items, but reviews are what keep us going.
          Allow me to elaborate.  Many, nay, most of my friends are independent authors, or "indies."  In the not-so-distant past, an indie was someone who had written a book, and felt so strongly about seeing it in print that he paid a vanity press hundreds or thousands of dollars to have a crate of his books delivered to his home which he then had to try to market by whatever means he could find.  Being an indie a decade or so ago meant a huge outlay of cash in order to put your book before the public, which in turn meant that we actually had two gatekeepers:  The publishing industry itself, and an author's personal wealth.
          Today anyone can write anything, click a mouse, and their book is for sale on amazon.com, and any number of other places.  The upside is that no one has to go through a gatekeeper to become a published author.  The downside is that no one has to go through a gatekeeper to become a published author.  The point of this doublespeak?  Somewhere in the neighborhood of five thousand books a day are published, and most of them are of very poor quality.  A casual sampling of Amazon's "look inside" feature, or a survey of books.google.com will demonstrate that quite clearly, but the quality of the work isn't the subject of this particular outing.  No, it's the value of reviews to an author.
          Many of those friends I mentioned above are trying to establish careers in the field of fiction writing.  I myself am an amateur, a hobbyist author.  I have a solid retirement package in place, and will never be dependent on a single book sale to make this month's rent, none of which means that I don't enjoy seeing sales figures on my publisher's report.  But what I enjoy more than anything is having people read my work, and tell me that they enjoy it.  To date, I'm fairly certain I have given away more copies of my books than I have sold.  But professional or amateur, needy or not, an author wants above all else to know that his work is being read, and if not 100% appreciated, at least discussed, and this is where the review comes in.
          Just as most authors in the internet age aren't professionals, neither are most reviewers.  In fact, the vast majority of reviews are written by casual readers of the books in question.  Look at the reviews of your favorite book on amazon.com.  What do you see?  Page after page after page of ordinary Joes and Janes from upstate New York, rural Texas, and the far Pacific shores that read a book, enjoyed it or not, and took the time to share their opinion.  Again, because of the publishing model that is in place here in the internet age, it is necessary for an author to garner reviews from his everyday readers in order to have any impact on the market.
           If this sounds like I'm soliciting book reviews from my readers, I am, but that's a fraction of it.  I am soliciting reviews for all my indie friends, and the indies I've never met and never will.  Let me explain the facts of life to our non-writing fans.  Writing a book is a long endeavor.  From concept to planning, to research to the actual writing, followed by proofreading, editing, creating or commissioning a cover, to finished product can take a year for an ordinary, everyday novel.  Considerably longer for a major project, something historical, or a trilogy, for example.  This is a year of recreational time taken from friends, family, and other interests, and most writers suffer the crushing burden of a day job as well.  If someone has invested this level of work in writing a book that has entertained you, uplifted you, moved you in some tangible way, it is a natural human response, I would think, to want to say thank you for putting forth the effort to produce this.  And the best way to do this in the modern literary market is to write a review of the book.
          The most common, and most effective place to share these reviews is on Amazon.com for one simple reason.  We are all, as indies, facing a numbers game.  We want to share our work, and we market everywhere we can think of, from Facebook to our personal blogs.  Most of us cannot afford to hire a PR firm to do a national media campaign, so we go it alone.  But there is a critical mass of reviews that Amazon looks at to determine the point at which they begin to promote your book in those bar ads we've all seen that take the form of "If you enjoyed this book, you might like this other one (yours!)."  I've heard various figures floated around, and don't know the exact one myself, but based on what I've heard from other sources, it seems like an author starts getting some push at around thirty reviews.  And make no mistake, Amazon does everything in their power to stack the deck against the independent author.  If you write a review of my book, and Amazon discovers that we are friends on Facebook or a blog, they will delete it.  If a book is in both physical and Ebook formats, they separate the reviews, in other words, if you have ten reviews of your paperback and twenty of your Kindle, you don't have thirty reviews, you have twenty.  So if you've enjoyed a book that I've written, or any other independent author you've encountered, encourage them to write more.  Enable them to write more.  Write a review!
          Readers, I think, hear the word "review," and they think of those four-column epics in the New York Times written by celebrity critics, filled with snarky innuendos and double entendres, but you don't need to go to these lengths to support an indie author.  Just a quick couple of sentences saying, "I liked this book because the characters were believable," or you liked the descriptions, or the plot was complex and full of surprises counts in Amazon's numbers game.  You don't have to search for the place to leave a review; Amazon will Email you asking what you thought of the book.  And even if you didn't buy the book on Amazon, find it there, and leave the review there.  No matter what you think of Amazon, they are the big he-bull in the publishing industry, and more people will see the book and its reviews there than on all other sites combined.  We aren't asking much.  We spent a year on average to bring you that story that you read in a week.  If it brought you any enjoyment at all, take a minute and tell the world about it.  We all thrive on the appreciation of our work.  Some of us are trying to have careers based on that work, so any little thing you can do is appreciated.  A couple of sentences might make the difference as to whether you ever get another book by a favorite author, so give it some thought.  Call it an investment.  It can pay big dividends.

*          *          *

          On the writing front this week, goodness, the activity!  I am being driven like a rented mule by the desire to see Nexus underway.  Under that particular prod, I took Sunday and completed the update of Beyond the Rails II, and submitted it to the publisher.  The "corrected" copy is now what is for sale on the Amazon website, with typos, spelling issues, and punctuation gaffes weeded out and fixed.  As I mentioned last week in regard to the first book, if you already own this, you don't need to buy another, as nothing of substance has been changed.
          The next project on the horizon is Stingaree, which has already had some work done on it.  You can read the first chapter by clicking on the Sample Tab at the top of the left sidebar.  It will be torture to work on this while I'm aching to get Nexus into final form, but it will be good, as I can use the year, more or less, that it will take to bring Stingaree to completion to flesh out the world of Nexus so that all, or at least most of, the envisioned interactions have already been established and the consequences worked out so that I'm not making it up on the fly.  I'm not that kind of writer, and I very much want Nexus to be perfect.
          For each of the past two days, I have been able to complete the third edit of three chapters of Beyond the Rails III.  If I can keep that pace up through the end, I estimate that I'll be ready to download CreateSpace's template and start formatting by next Wednesday.  Within a couple of days of that, the book should be available on Amazon!  If you've been following the blog, you know that Beyond the Rails III is a novel, and one thing that that project, along with my work on Stingaree, has taught me is that I have a good deal more facility with the short story-novelette form than I do the full-size novel; accordingly, The Nexus Chronicles (my working title) will return to a format of several 12- 15,000-word stories in a book.
          And that is all I'm prepared to share for now.  Keep following along, as I have plans to reveal little by little what will be going on between those particular covers.  Until next time, then, play nice, look out for one another, and above all else, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Nexus

          "A hack is on the constant hunt for 'ideas' for his plots, or 'new angles.'  The real writer is haunted by a plot which he must write out of inner necessity.  He is impervious to suggestions."
                                         ~ EDMUND BERGLER

          I usually begin with the main part of the post, and put my writing update last, but I'm doing it differently for this post, because I'm as excited as a writer as I have been in a long time.  Last Monday morning, as I sat at this keyboard working on the Beyond the Rails edit (and more on that later), the idea for a story struck me with the physical impact of a Mike Tyson haymaker.  I should tell you right now that, accepting the sage advice of Vladimir Nabokov, Anne Tyler, and Norman Mailer,  I am not going into a great amount of detail, but this idea concerns the goings on in a mythical city.  Its ambition, and that is beyond any doubt the right word, is to tie together every myth and fable in human history.  The name of the city, and the working title, is Nexus, but had Star Trek not used the title for its Hugo Award-winning episode, it could easily have been called The City on the Edge of Forever.
          Tuesday, having slept on it, I woke up with the premise of the story fully formed, fleshed out some of the mechanics, and worked out most of the big-picture details of time and setting.  It may be difficult for me to stay within the confines of steampunk for this one, although I may be able to work some limited aspects in.  It will be traumatic, and feel like something of a betrayal, to leave it behind, but authors are supposed to grow, right?  By Wednesday, yesterday, I was fleshing out some characters and outlining the opening scene.  In the days ahead I have plans to begin a detailed map.
          The point is, this new project has taken over my head, and is working diligently to throw everything else out into the street.  Stingaree?  Never mind that, it wants me to abandon the Beyond the Rails edit.  So far, the discipline is in place to prevent that, but lots of notes are getting assembled in the notebook that accompanies me everywhere.  By next post, I may be wondering why I ever thought this was a good idea, but right now it's is the biggest event on my writing horizon.  Stay tuned for updates.
          On the subject of Beyond the Rails III, I have finished the second edit, and put the manuscript aside to cool off, in other words, to allow my love for my own prose to fade.  In the interim, and in preparation for its publication, I have completed a full edit of the first book, and over the next week to ten days, will be editing the second.  These edits involve morphing all of the apostrophes and quotation marks which were somehow transferred in different type face than the text, correcting a few typos and misspellings, and removing a bunch of hyphens that I was advised had appeared in the middle of a good many sentences.  Owners of the original editions should be advised that no substantive changes have been made, and you will not miss anything if you don't buy the updated version.  By the time I'm finished editing the second book, I'll be ready to start the final edit on the third, and there is an outside chance that it could be ready for purchase by Christmas, though not by much.  Anyway, that's the latest.  Now, on to the article I had planned...

*          *          *

          A few posts back, I compared the structure of a novel to a street on a movie set, with all the facades looking fabulous as they hung on the scaffolding erected to support them.  This week, I'm going to compare them to an actual house, maybe like the one you live in.  If your book is a house, then, the cover must be the exterior, and obviously, a well-designed house with a nice paint job is going to be inviting, and a crummy one with decaying eaves and big paint blisters missing is going to put you into fight-or-flight mode, in the case of a reader, mostly flight.
          If the exterior, the cover, prompts you to knock on the door, someone will open it, and what you see over the resident's shoulder constitutes the first impression that you will never unsee.  Looking past the door frame, you'll see a well-ordered home, a loving family, or a mess, maybe even one of those hoarder houses from the National Geo Channel, and what you see in that first glimpse is what's going to make you decide to come in, or say "sorry, wrong address," and flee to your car to escape.
          The literary equivalent of that first glimpse is your opening sentence, and we are taught that if you want a modern reader with all the demands she has on her time to come in and make herself comfortable, that first sentence had better be a doozy!  Let's examine a few from books new and old, large and small, and see what the writer accomplished with the use of his first dozen words or so.  For starters, let's look at a few classics:

1. A Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne, 1864:
          On the 14th of May, 1863, my uncle, Professor Liedenbrock, rushed into his little house, No. 19 Königstrasse, one of the oldest streets in the oldest portion of the city of Hamburg.
          As an opening sentence, this seems terribly weak to me.  Grant you, I am no fan of Verne, having finally read seven of his most acclaimed works, but this first sentence is in no way calculated to make me want to read the rest of it.

2. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883:
          Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17—, and go back to the time when my father kept the "Admiral Benbow" inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodgings under our roof.
          Here, at least, there is some substance for a reader to sink his teeth into, although it seems to promise a slog to rival any manual of tax codes that the Internal Revenue Service has ever produced.

3. The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling, 1888:
          The Law, as quoted, lays down a fair conduct of life, and one not easy to follow.
          Again, a generation after Verne, is there anything here that makes you want to keep going?  There certainly isn't for me, and unlike Verne, Kipling is one of my favorite authors.  It seems that the early adventure books that boys cut their teeth and honed their dreams on tended to begin with a whimper rather than a bang.  Perhaps the 20th Century would fare better?

4. The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conon Doyle, 1901:
          Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table.
          Nope.  Apparently, readers in the latter half of the 19th Century held expectations so low that this sort of dull, uninteresting introductory fare that promised the reader an adventure in staying awake was not only acceptable, but so superior that these are among the books best remembered today.  And this despite the existence prior to them all of this invitation to come into the writer's parlor:

5. The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe, 1842:
          I was sick — sick unto death with that long agony; and when they at length unbound me, and I was permitted to sit, I felt that my senses were leaving me.
          Now, here were words to bring a reader in for the long journey, and penned by a crass American a generation before the great Jules Verne wrote uninspired prose about his uncle rushing into his house!  How could these masters have forgotten how it was done?  But let's move forward fifty years, and see how mid-Twentieth Century authors were snagging their readers.

6. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien, 1954:
          When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
          It is impossible, in the wake of Peter Jackson's magnificent films, to go back and pretend that we don't know what this book is going to become, but as an opening sentence, all I see to "bring me in," as it were, is that reference to an eleventy-first birthday.  This might engender some slight curiosity as to what exactly that might be, so it's clever enough, but hardly compelling.  Where are those opening lines that today's writing professors, agents, and publishers warn us have to get the reader by the throat with the opening statement, and never let go?  When did they begin?  Perhaps in war...

7. Mr. Lincoln's Army by Bruce Catton, 1951:
          The rowboat slid out on the Potomac in the hazy light of a hot August morning, dropped down past the line of black ships near the Alexandria wharves, and bumped to a stop with its nose against the wooden side of a transport.
          This is better.  In fairness, this is a non-fictional history being written in a narrative style, but it makes me at least wonder what the business of the people in that rowboat is, and want to read further to find out.  And honestly, if what is essentially a textbook can set the hook like this, what's the matter with these fiction authors?  Let's explore further.

8. Jirel Meets Magic by C.L. Moore, 1935:
          Over Guishard's fallen drawbridge thundered Joiry's warrior lady, sword swinging, voice shouting hoarsely inside her helmet.
          Now, here is an author who knows how to hook a reader, and it's obvious that the art hadn't been lost at all.  Of course, Moore wrote for the fantasy pulps, and as such, was considered beneath mention by the literary snobs who wrote books for smart people.  Naturally, as so often happens, Catherine Lucille Moore is given her due today, decades after her death.  Her series, Jirel of Joiry, is praised as being one of the first works to show the influence of Robert E. Howard (Conan), and the first to introduce a powerful leading female character to the fantasy genre.  But she was hardly mainstream.  Let's look at some late-in-the-Century powerhouses. 

9. The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, 1977:
          The sun was already sinking into the deep green of the hills to the west of the valley, the red and gray-pink of its shadows touching the corners of the land, when Flick Ohmsford began his descent.
          His descent?  Now this is more like it.  What is he descending to?  From where?  Classic; a simple description of a simple scene that absolutely demands that you learn more.  This is promising.  Moving on, then, to a true modern powerhouse of literature and screen, we have:

10. Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, 1990:
          The tropical rain fell in drenching sheets, hammering on the corrugated roof of the clinic building, roaring down the metal gutters, splashing on the ground in a torrent.
          Here is a passage that says nothing about its genre.  It might be adventure, romance, horror, or mystery, but it requires further reading.  Brilliant!  Now we're getting somewhere!  A few years further along, we are presented with:

11. Shock Wave by Clive Cussler, 1996:
          Of the four clipper ships built in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1854, one stood out from the others.
          Would you read on?  It seems optional.  If you enjoy a good yarn of the sea, as I do, then you probably would.  If not, this seems a little flat.  The rest of the paragraph goes on to describe dimensions, tonnage, and sailing characteristics; hardly the most exciting fare.  Moving on to one of my favorite authors:

12. The Crystal Shard by R.A. Salvatore, 1988:
          The demon sat back on the seat it had carved in the stem of the giant mushroom.
          All right, my personal bias notwithstanding, who can read that introductory sentence from the first of 40 books, give or take, and toss it aside with a "meh?"   Salvatore has been on the NYT Best Sellers List for over two decades, with his stories of dark elf Drizzt Do'Urden and his small band of companions.  He should be as big as Tolkien, but much like C.L. Moore, he isn't taken seriously because he writes in the Dungeons & Dragons universe as dictated by that role-playing game system.  How much do our prejudices, and those of others, deprive us of?  Before I wrap this up, I want to look at three of the biggest blockbusters ever to seize the public's imagination:

13. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling, 1997:
          Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.
          Yeah, curiosity is generated, I suppose, and this is the first sentence of the first book intended for children, and perhaps it works in that context, but I just have this nagging feeling that the Queen Mother of Fantasy missed a great opportunity to make a grand entrance.  *Sigh*  Moving on...

14. Twilight by Stephanie Meyer, 2005:
          My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.
          Meh.  What are we looking at here?  Is this supposed to excite me to keep reading?  Well, it doesn't.  I have driven to the airport, or at least past it, many times with the windows down, and have yet to become romantically involved with a vampire.  So, let's wrap this up with the most infamous book and movie ever put before the American public:

15. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James, 2011:
          I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror.
          Has anyone else ever done this, or am I the only one?  Oh, you have?  As an opening line, this one makes closing the book seem like an inordinate amount of effort.  Just drop it where you are, and let the housekeeper deal with it.  This book, and Twilight, are so polarizing that the mere mention of them in a certain Facebook writers' group of which I am a member is grounds for dismissal.

          But I'm not here to discuss the literary merit of any of these works.  This is about the first sentence, and its ability to hold that reader as she stands before the bookstore shelf, several dozen books of her chosen genre laid out before her, and what is that author going to do to snag her right now?  Why shouldn't she put your book back on the shelf after that quick scan of the first page, and pick up someone else's?
          As authors, we are all told loudly and repeatedly that we have to snag the interest of the agent/publisher/reader from the opening line, and it makes sense to my logic center.  Deciding to look into this more closely, I chose the first dozen books more or less at random from my own shelf to cover a wide time span and several genres, then I added the last three, which I don't own, because they are huge!  I looked at a number of other well-known books and authors, from Fail Safe to The Killer Angels, from Asimov to Grisham, and what I found is that very few big, well-known authors adhere to this principle, regardless of the era, and the bigger they are, the less likely they are to do so.  This was the exact opposite of what I expected.
          So, what is to be my conclusion here?  I easily put more time and effort into this article than any other I have ever done, and I can honestly say that I am stunned by the results.  Fifteen books, plus another score considered and not included, is hardly a meaningful sample, but they are fifteen successful books by mostly major authors, and very few, 20% by my lights, adhere to the principle in question.  That doubles to 40% if you include the borderline entries, but that isn't much for a market as savagely competitive as publishing and marketing books.  Have we been mislead?  Is it unimportant?  What's a struggling indie to think?
          Here's what I think:  I will continue to make my opening sentence a mind-harpoon designed to spear the reader's curiosity and sense of adventure.  Why not?  I see nothing to lose by making that opening hook as compelling as possible.  If that is done well, maybe that browser in Barnes & Noble or on Amazon's website drops your book into his basket instead of back into obscurity, moving on to look for another opening that better meets his expectations.  Yes, that seems to fly in the face of my empirical data, but in a business where 5,000 new books are published every day, no advantage seems too small to seek out.
          This has been inspiring.  Maybe a few weeks down the road, I'll look at some of the indie books published by my friends and colleagues, and see what we can glean about them.  Maybe they'll find it helpful; maybe I'll find myself friendless.  Time will tell.  Until then, get out there and live life like you mean it!

~ Blimprider