30 December 2005

New Year's Resolutions

This year I resolve to write a novel. And to read War and Peace, Crime and Punishment and The Three Musketeers.
Sounds pretty impressive, doesn't it? It's also far flung, even for this Word Nerd.
Word Nerd has been contemplating what kind of writing/reading goals to set for 2006. First things first -- writing a whole novel isn't one of them. Why? Where to begin. That's exactly why. Same with the major classic novels. Maybe they look better as paperweights on the coffee table.

At least for this Word Nerd, writing goals need to be smaller, manageable, doable chunks. Like write 10,000 words by Valentine's day, or have the revisions to the next section of the work in progess done before your birthday.

So if 2006 is the year to get serious about writing/reading, how to write that resolution?
If you haven't started writing, start. Do exercises with writing prompts to practice getting that pen going on paper (or fingers on the keyboard).
If you have started writing, what's your weakness/struggle/area that would be a challenge? Finishing something? Sending out finished manuscripts for publication? Writing something longer than 5,000 words? Writing something really short?

If 2006 is the year to start reading more, define what you mean... more than what? More fiction? More non-fiction? More magazines? More about current events? Then seek out recommendations. Nothing will kill this goal quicker than picking up bad books.

And for this Word Nerd?
  • Read more non-fiction. That would be at least 12 non-fiction books for 2006.
  • Read more fiction books that were written at least 50 years ago (the threshold for classics is a little low, but Graham Greene has to count or Word Nerd will never make it). That would be at least 4.
  • Write the synopsis for the Work in Progress.
  • Revise/edit/add where needed to the next 20,000-some words of the Work in Progress.

There. Word Nerd will welcome suggestions for what to read in the non-fiction and classics category. (A caveat on the classics category... don't suggest Jane Austen, or anything by the Bronte sisters. Or Thomas Hardy. This is fun, not college lit class).

29 December 2005

A dental analogy, or Why critiquing is so hard

Being the target of a critiquing session for writers is like how most people react to going to the dentist's office: Both involve being stuck in a chair and forcing yourself to endure, well, often less-than-pleasant attention from the hands of people, who tell you what to being doing better, be it flossing or good pacing in dialogue. Word Nerd isn't sure how dentists react all the time to people who want to flee their offices, but being on the giving end of critiquing isn't always a whole lot of fun either.

Critiquing is tough. Bottom line. No writer wants to hear only, "I like it." That's no help. Of course, neither does a writer really want to come back from a critique session feeling like it was a scene out of a slasher movie, with a manuscript given back hacked up and dripping with red ink.

So what's a critique-er to do? Apply the golden rule -- critique others the way you would want to be critiqued. Give thoughtful, insightful comments about places that need work. And don't forget to mark the good stuff to let the author know the places you laughed outloud or caught foreshadowing or whatnot. If the piece isn't a genre you're really familiar with, that makes it tougher sometimes to stick with it. That said though, every story needs well developed characters, good dialogue and rising and falling action. As a critiquer you can look for those elements in any story. The more you give critiques, the better you get at it, and the more it can help you identify trouble spots in your own writing before you ever put it up for critique.

Sometimes though critiquing still ends up like flossing: you just have to do it.

28 December 2005

Best of 2005 -- Top Ten Books

Word Nerd read a lot in 2005. Not every book is brilliant, or life-changing, or just plain well-written. But out of the list of books from this year, the winners surface.
And here they are:
10. Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham (sci-fi)
9. A Gun for Sale, Graham Greene (literary fiction)
8. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman (fantasy)
7. Queen of the South, Arturo Perez-Reverte (literary fiction)
6. Ragman and Other Cries of Faith, Walter Wangerin (memoir, fiction, essays)
5. Can Man Live without God, Ravi Zacharias (Christian apologetics)
4. Griffin and Sabine, Nick Bantock (epistolary fiction with REALLY good art)
3. Magnificent Defeat, Frederick Buechner * (Christian spirituality)
2. Watership Down, Richard Adams (fiction)
1. Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller (memoir/Christian spirituality.)

A little bit about the list that's worth mentioning.... This list would have been a lot different if Word Nerd had limited the list to first readings of books. Neverwhere, Griffin and Sabine, and Watership Down have all been read before but still rise to the top of the "best of" list because they are that good.

Word Nerd has already blogged about Blue Like Jazz, so if you're curious, you can read this post, which includes a link to the first chapter of the book.

Queen of the South won out a close tie with Perez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste, which was the subject of this blog entry. Queen of the South won though because Word Nerd has never seen an author write a version of himself into the story as well as Perez-Reverte seems to embody the unnamed Spanish journalist narrator in this novel.

If you're looking for a book to fill the rest of the holidays, these would great places to start.

* This title is not available through the Oshkosh Public Library.

27 December 2005

Bring out the hatchets

Miss Snark, a literary agent and blogger, is publishing critiques of novel synopses with her comments about whether the pitches are working or not.

As Joe from the musical version of "Sunset Boulevard" says, "It's fun to see how bad bad writing can be."

And every now and then, there's one with some sparkle.

Words that should be

Merriam-Webster, that duo in dictionaries, has acknowledged that people often use words that, well, aren't really words. Because of this, they have begun their online Open Dictionary, a place where W.N.s can submit words in from their lexicon and provide a definition.

What kind of words are these, you ask?
Try diabological: (adj) logical, but devilish or evil in concept
juxtalogue: (noun) a word pair in which one of the words is used exclusively or almost exclusively with the other word. Ex, halcyon days, scantilly clad.
twired (adj) the feeling one gets after drinking caffeine late at night.

Do you have a word that you think Merriam-Webster needs to know about? Submit it and let Word Nerd know so the appropriate links can be posted.

23 December 2005

Book Banter -- Peter and the Starcatchers

Title: Peter and the Starcatchers
Author: Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
Length: 451 pages
Genre: children's/YA
Banter Points: Peter and the Starcatchers has a very clever premise, explaining the backstory to Peter Pan and how a certain boy named Peter ends up in Neverland with the power to fly and a lifetime enemy of Captain Hook. Parts of this book are also like Patrick O'Brien-light as Barry and Pearson craft some wonderful sea battles and keep enough nautical terms in the story to give it a sense of realism. The chapters read very fast -- many are only a few pages long -- and switch back and forth from character to character to keep the reader in step with where all the good guys and all the bad guys are at all times. The story is light and whimsical with some laugh-out-loud moments.
Bummer Points: Barry and Pearson, sadly, broke one of the cardinal rules of fiction -- show, don't tell. Most of the resolution of the book is explanation, not action. Peter, the hero of our story, disappears for several chapters and then later tells the other characters what he was doing. Since Barry and Pearson kept switching which character was the focus of each chapter, it doesn't make sense that they just left Peter out. It would have been possible, Word Nerd suspects, to keep Peter in the story but not give away entirely everything that happened until the resolution.
Word Nerd recommendation: It's possible that a reader in the age group that the book was intended for would not have the same hang-ups with the end as Word Nerd did. The ending though is not reason enough to pass up Peter and its enchating history that fills in the gaps of a very familiar story. Also, for anybody with the slightest talent for doing voices, this would be a great book to read aloud to kids with all the possibilities for doing Mr. Smee, the Black Stache, Peter and all the other characters.

22 December 2005

Please use "insipid" in a sentence

Stuck, a bit, perhaps on how to correctly use it? Or what "insipid" even means?

So were a bunch of other people in 2005, launching "insipid" into the number 5 slot of Merriam Webster's Words of the Year.

Merriam-Webster compiled the top ten words based on online lookups. Many of the words, understandably, track from the year's top news stories: At #2, refugee; #4, filibuster; #6, tsunami; #7, pandemic and #8 conclave. Past words of the year lists also show that the top look-ups are linked to the news. Just look at 2004 -- on the list were both "insurgent" and "cicada."

It could be interesting to see what words get a lot of notice in 2006. Word Nerd predicts the Olympics could have an effect somehow if strange sporting terms get thrown around. Mid-term Congressional elections next November also could be a place where some words are generated that get a lot of queries.

Any thoughts from fellow word nerds about what words could be popular next year? Or do other w.n.'s hope 2006 will be the year that people stop compiling these insipid "of the year" lists.

21 December 2005

Best of 2005 -- First Book in a Series

The 2005 "Best of's" continues.
More drumrolling please and another envelope.

The winner for the category "Best First Book in a Series" goes to Captain Alatriste, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.

Swashbuckling. Intrique. Dangerous men. Dangerous women. With elements like that, it's no wonder Alatriste caught Word Nerd's attention. It also had the added plus of being written by former Spanish-journalist-turned-novelist Perez-Reverte, an author who has impressed Word Nerd in the past.

Capt. Diego Alatriste is a dangerous sword-for-hire in 17th century Spain. He is hired to murder two Englishmen who come to Spain. When the moment comes to complete the deed, Alatriste changes his mind, impressed by the fight the English duo puts up. Suddenly, Alatriste finds himself caught up between those who hired him and those he spared. The whole story is narrated by Alatriste's young page, Inigo Balboa, who gives the reader the historical context to understand the politics and culture of Spain at the time. Word Nerd is unsure if some of the praise for Alatriste should really go to Margaret Sayers Peden, who translated the book from Spanish.

Since we're on this side of the Atlantic, readers have to wait until sometime in 2006 to get the next Alatriste book, "Purity of Blood."

20 December 2005

Whedon Wisdom

"You take people, you put them on a journey, you give them peril, you find out who they really are. If there's any kind of fiction better than that, I don't know what it is." -- Joss Whedon, on Zap2it.com, as quoted in Finding Serenity: Anti-heroes, Lost Shepherds and Space Hookers in Joss Whedon's Firefly.

Neither does Word Nerd. Nor is Word Nerd sure that anybody else does this as well, at least on screen, as Whedon in his short-lived TV show Firefly, and follow-up feature film, Serenity. (Serenity releases on DVD today...)

Whedon's quote got the Word Nerd to thinking, though, about his recipe for fiction. A lot of tasty stories have these basic elements at their core. Lord of the Rings. Les Miserables. Huckleberry Finn. Wonder Boys.

Thinking more, Word Nerd realizes this is in the Work in Progress as well. The story really starts to take off when the characters have to leave the places they are familiar with. There is, perhaps, an intrinsic peril in the unknown, and how a character reacts to that unknown is revealing.

In Whedon's Firefly/Serenity, we get to see the journeys of nine well-crafted characters. The shepherd (preacher) who left the abbey. The hardened war veteran captain. Little by little, as they end up in their fair share of perils, we see who they really are. It is not the sci-fi that makes the story, it is the people.

And so it is with most stories. The plot, the peril, is only the lens for how the reader really comes to see the characters.

19 December 2005

Best of 2005 -- Discovered Author

Given that 2005 is winding down, Word Nerd is taking a look over the next two weeks at the "Best of's" for reading this year.

For today -- the Best Author Word Nerd started reading in 2005.
(drumroll and the envelope, please)
Jack Whyte
Whyte is the author of the Camulod Chronicles, an historical fiction of the Roman exodus from Britain and the subsequent founding of Camulod (Camelot). Whyte starts his foray into the King Arthur story two generations before Arthur ever appears with two Roman soldiers, Caius Brittanicus and Publius Varrus. Brittanicus and Varrus become Arthur's ancestors. As the series progresses, more and more familiar characters enter the story, including Merlin, Uther, Lot of Cornwell, and eventually, Arthur himself.
Whyte's take on the Arthur story is quite different than others because it is far more practical and less mythic. His research on the history of early Britain comes through, but in a very readable way. The Chronicles are loaded with good writing, believable history and characters that measure up to the magnitude of Arthurian legend.
Word Nerd, being a long-standing King Arthur fan, is a tough critic of any author who will try to add to the Arthurian mythos. After five books in Whyte's Chronicles, it is safe to say he earned his place with an Arthur (and a Merlin) that are as human and heroic and flawed as they come.
The Camolud Chronicles include the following books: The Skystone, The Singing Sword, The Eagles' Brood, The Fort at River's Bend, The Sorcerer: Metamorphosis. Word Nerd needs to continue reading the series with Uther and The Lance Thrower.

Runners up:
Garth Nix: Wrote the Abhorsen trilogy. It's maybe YA fiction, but well-worth reading
Donald E. Westlake: Mystery/crime writer. Word Nerd has been reading his Dortmunder series about the adventures of John Dortmunder, a thief who manages to bungle most of the capers he gets involved with.

16 December 2005

Book Banter -- Seven Up

Title: Seven Up
Author: Janet Evanovich
Length: 309 pages
Genre: mystery
Banter Points: Forget sugar plums. Let's talk Stephanie Plum, the hapless bounty hunter. In Evanovich's seventh offering in the series, Plum is sent to bring in Eddie DeChooch, an elderly, depressed and quasi-retired mobster. He slips through her fingers (repeatedly... this is Stephanie Plum we're talking about). Like always, Stephanie has car woes, and troubles with the two men in her life, her quasi-fiance vice-cop Joe Morelli and fellow bounty hunter Ranger. It takes all three to bring in DeChooch, plus a deal with Ranger that could turn Stephanie's world even farther around.

Bummer Points: Word Nerd struggled with just why -- save for the sake of continuity and a being catchy -- this book was called Seven Up. The early Stephanie Plum books -- One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly -- had titles that were not only clever but sort of fit the plot of the book. Seven Up, however... Word Nerd just can't quite get it to fit. There were more than seven new minor characters. There was no reference to the soda brand.

Word Nerd recommendation: Can we say, hard to wait for Hard Eight?

15 December 2005

Book Banter -- Body of Evidence

Title: Body of Evidence
Author: Patricia Cornwell
Length: 274 pages
Genre: mystery
Banter Points: It's easy to see from Cornwell's second novel featuring medical examiner Kay Scarpetta why these books have done well and why Cornwell keeps writing them. Her character is fresh, smart and growing. Scarpetta evolves from the first book, "Postmortem," and there are plenty of places where Scarpetta can continue to change as a character.

"Body of Evidence" follows Scarpetta's investigation into the death of writer Beryl Madison. The day Madison returns to Virginia after an extended stay in the Florida Keys, she's murdered. The ensuing mystery ranges all the way from Florida to Maryland and dredges up things in Scarpetta's own past.

Bummer Points: The ending happens all in a rush. Word Nerd vacilates on whether mysteries are better if all the clues are laid out through the book or whether being surprised is good. "Body of Evidence" doesn't give much to help the reader figure it out until the whole puzzle unlocks for Scarpetta.

Word Nerd recommendation: The Kay Scarpetta books are a well-written, sort of early CSI-type story. With many more books in the series, Word Nerd will surely keep reading.

09 December 2005

Book Banter -- Dead Witch Walking

Title: Dead Witch Walking
Author: Kim Harrison
Length: 419 pages
Genre: fantasy/horror/chick lit
Banter Points: Easy mindless reading. Even Word Nerds like that sometimes.

Bummer Points: Can we say, "conventions?" Harrison's twists on the classic fantasy/horror conventions are bent a little too far. I'm guessing it's hard to be a writer wanting to break into the witty-heroine first-person fiction market. There are plenty of other characters already out there: Anita Blake, Stephanie Plum, Kay Scarpetta, etc. that have books that collectively sold a bizillion copies. In her quest to be original with the world her character inhabits, she pushes things almost too far out of comfortable bounds for readers who are familiar with the genre.

Harrison enters this market with Rachel Morgan, a witch. In Rachel's world of Cincinnati, Ohio, and northern Kentucky, humans and Inderlanders (the name given to lump all witches, fairies, pixies, and vampires together) are about equal in population. In the backstory, humans suffered big population loss because of a virus carried in tomatoes. Rachel works as a runner for the I.S., the Inderlander version of the FBI or CIA. Things go south with that job, and she and fellow runner Ivy Tamwood (a living vampire, because it's a virus that causes that too) and pixy Jenks all quit, much to the chagrin of the I.S. Rachel spends most of the book running for her life from IS assassins.

Rachel Morgan just doesn't have enough sine qua non to separate her from the other heroines out there.

Word Nerd recommendation: Word Nerd may pick up the next book in the series, or not. Harrison's series will likely take a placeholder spot on the "read this when you can't find anything list."

08 December 2005

Lifestyles of the Rich and Fictional

Forbes, the financial magazine, recently published an insightful special report. The report is the 2005 update to the Forbes Fictional 15.

Word Nerd finds this list refreshingly creative. Recognizing the fascination readers have with the super-rich, Forbes compiled this list of the 15 richest fictional characters from books, comics, movies and television.

Topping the list of the fictional super-rich, Forbes says, is Santa Claus, whose wealth is listed as "infinite." Comic book villians and superheros also make the list, with Lex Luthor and Bruce Wayne coming in at 4 and 8, respectively. The 2005 list also includes the first wizard -- Lucius Malfoy of Harry Potter-dom. Inheritance, Forbes discovered, also seems to be the most reliable way to have millions; six of this year's 15 came by their fortune from their relatives.

This year's list is updated from 2002, the first time Forbes tackled this project. Dropping off the list in the intervening three years were JR Ewing, Jay Gatsby, Gordon Gekko, Auric Goldfinger and Charles Foster Kane.

Forbes' methodology for calculating the net worth of these individuals seems a little subjective, but the profiles for those making the list are cleverly written and fresh looks at well-known characters.

Forbes wanted comments after the 2002 list for anyone they left off the list. Word Nerd does the same...Is there anyone from the depths of literature or the film archives who should be on the current list that isn't? How rich are they and how did they come by that wealth?

07 December 2005

Book Banter -- Blue Like Jazz

Title: Blue Like Jazz
Author: Donald Miller
Length: 242 p.
Genre: memoir/Christian Spirituality
Banter Points: Wow. That's a cheap thing for a Word Nerd to say about a book, but well, sometimes even Word Nerds are at a bit of a loss for a good description. Again. Wow.

Here's the thing about this book: It's honest. Honest about life, honest about writing, honest about God and faith. Startlingly, shockingly honest. And well-written.

"I never liked jazz music," Miller writes in his intoduction author's note, "because jazz music doesn't resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night, when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. ... I used to not like God because God didn't resolve. But that was before any of this happened."

What follows is Miller's recounting of his developing understanding of God and how he came to resolve his frustrations with the post-modern church and how Christians acted toward others.

Click here for the first chapter, for a taste of Miller's style and the content of the book.

Bummer Points: While Miller's book is fantastic, he doesn't give much advice for anyone else on how to answer the questions he struggled with in his own life. The book is not a road map, but rather like a slide show of somebody else's vacation.

Word Nerd recommendation: Thumbs up. Miller has a couple other books out and they are on the list of things Word Nerd wants to read in the future.

06 December 2005

Telling Tales out of ... (or "Maybe the Greeks were right")

Necessity. Not school.

I had a long conversation on the phone last night with a friend and by then end, we were both laughing so hard it hurt. Are we that humorous? No -- we were telling stories, regaling each other with the tales of the happenings that had been going on in life. (Just what do you do, when Binky the Clown calls the radio station you work at? And how many times do you interview somebody who's had a legitimate conversation with someone about performing elephant shoes?)

We weren't intending to amuse each other with these tales, tales that might not even be that funny when they stand on their own. But I suspect we couldn't help it. Couldn't help telling them full of dramatic pauses and inflection, making each little happening into a dramatic event.

We told them because telling stories is about validating experience and finding catharsis (yep... remember Greek drama?) Pultizer-prize nominated author Frederick Buechner said the storyteller's job is about finding meaning.

Our stories on the phone weren't about deep, philosophical, high-brow insights into life. They were just the trappings of life and relating our experiences to someone else validated how we felt or reacted to a situation. We laughed. We ended the conversation feeling more light-hearted than when we started. It's why all those Greek playwrights wrote those pieces like Oedipus Rex, so that the audience would feel all horrible during the play but satisfy their need for those emotions.

As people, we've been telling each other stories for a really long time because it's how we navigate our world. Think of the ancient mythologies (Greek, Egyptian, Norse, wherever) that explained through stories why things were as they were (changing seasons, why the sun rises, etc).

I don't think story telling is ever going to disappear. We've had the habit this long. Why mess with a good thing?

05 December 2005

Book Banter -- Golden Fool

Title: Golden Fool
Author: Robin Hobb
Length: 709 pages
Genre: fantasy
Banter Points: It's a little hard to kick this off with the second book in a trilogy and even harder when it's the second book in the third trilogy of a big story that's now all connected. I shall not be daunted, however.

Golden Fool's high point is that Hobb is continuing the story of FitzChivalry Farseer that she began in Assassin's Apprentice, the first book in the Farseer Trilogy. And like the Assassin Farseer trilogy, the story is again narrated in Fitz's own voice, giving him a credibility that is often lacking in fantasy characters. His first-person point of view lets the reader get swept up in only his perspective of events so that when Fitz's world is shaken, so is the reader. After five books with this same character, he is wonderfully developed but still brimming with potential.

At the heart of Golden Fool is changes in the relationship between Fitz and the Fool, who now masquerade around as Lord Golden (the Fool) and Tom Badgerlock, his servant, for fear of betraying Fitz's true identity to those who believe him dead, or would wish him to be so. These two characters are inexorably linked, despite how they might wish it otherwise. But when a person from the Fool's past shows up, Fitz's perceptions of the Fool change, setting Fitz again on a path that he does not want to be on.

Bummer points: This is Fitz's story as was started in the Farseer Trilogy. Unfortunately, Hobb decided to link the events of those three books with the events of her Liveship Trader trilogy. The Liveship books are not nearly as good (likely, I suspect, because it's not Fitz's voice telling the story but rather a very wide, almost omniscient third-person POV). To make this series make sense though, you have to slog through the three in the middle.

Word Nerd recommendation: Thumbs up for sure. Fantasy books are a dime a dozen, good fantasy books are harder to come by. Hobb is a master of her genre, creating a world that is not so far flung that it lacks believability. FitzChivalry should take his place as one of the long-standing and almost iconic characters in the genre.

If you want to get caught up on the story here, the books are, in order, as follows: Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin's Quest, Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny, Fool's Errand, Golden Fool, (Fool's Fate... I haven't read this one yet...)

02 December 2005

The Notebook

If you were thinking this was going to be about the Nicolas Sparks book, you will be sadly disappointed.

This is about the notebook that I carry with me, almost at all times. And not the reporter's one for doing my day job.

This particular notebook is small, with ring binding and a blue stripe on the cover and a snap that keeps it closed and what looks like type-writer type on the front that says "notes," all in lower-case letters. This is the idea notebook.

I heard for years that writers should carry such a notebook with them. I didn't. In fact, I adamantly refused to myself that I would need such a notebook. That was until I got tired of trying to find fragments of paper to jot down ideas, descriptions, things that struck my fancy or promised myself I would remember this only to have forgotten it when I got home.

So now I carry the notebook with me just about everywhere so that when the next great idea, or bit of dialogue or plot twist springs in my mind I can write it down. There is also the added bonus of always having paper handy so I can write myself notes like "Buy real whipping cream to take to dinner at Carol's tonight."

Some of the notes are just questions that I need to suss out as I keep writing, mostly dealing the WIP. Some of the notes are really good ideas. Some are like "Use a round commons bldg. like @ Connor Praire for something -- think." I started a new list of ideas for this very blog.

Maybe those people who said writers should carry such a notebook were really on to something.

01 December 2005

It was a dark and stormy night -- Part II

I promised answers to the great first lines later.
It's later now.

Before giving them, though, I must give kudos to Jamie. She got 7 of the 8 correct. Word Nerd will have to hunt down some past literature teachers of other players of the first line game.

Without further adieu -- the answers.

1. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

2. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens

3.In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

4. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone 84 days now without taking a fish. The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

5. Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

6. No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scru- tinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells

7. At a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived a little while ago one of those gentlemen who are wont to keep a lance in the rack, an old buckler, a lean horse and a swift greyhound. Don Quixote, by Miguel Cervantes

8. Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson

It was a dark and stormy night

"It was a dark and stormy night," is actually the first sentence of Madeleine L'Engle's classic, A Wrinkle in Time.

As first sentences go, dark and stormy nights may not be the thing to really hook a reader. But first sentences (or in some cases, pages or chapters) are critically important to get a reader interested. Bored at the beginning can mean that a reader will put a piece down.

I have used the first sentence test to pick what book to read more than once. Recently, I had this experience (sort of) with Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson's Peter and the Starcatchers. What I read was, "Peter was the leader of the boys, because he was oldest. Or maybe he wasn't." An astute reader will note that technically, those are the third and fourth sentences in the book. But while browsing in the book store, they were the first sentences I read. I promptly went and got the book at the library. First sentence test passed.

Example two. "Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton more than three hours, that they meant to murder him." (Word Nerd begs forgiveness if this quote isn't perfect... I'm doing it from memory.) This is the opening sentence to Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. Curious?

Because first lines are so important, the really good ones have gone down in history. Call me Ishmael. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. See?

So. Ready to see how well first lines stick? (Or how well you remember your literature classes?) What books do the following first lines begin?

1. It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife
2. Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show..
3.In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since
4. He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf stream and he had gone 84 days now without taking a fish.
5. Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.
6. No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scru- tinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
7. At a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived a little while ago one of those gentlemen who are wont to keep a lance in the rack, an old buckler, a lean horse and a swift greyhound.
8. Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.

Answers coming later.