First Lines Matter; New Vs Old, Literary Vs SciFi & Fantasy


I’m noticing lately how the first line(s) of a book seem to have some kind of unseen force around it with its ability to foretell to the reader what they are in for and, I mean, c’mon, it’s gotta be nonsense that such a weight—whether or not the book will be successful—should rest upon this one sentence.

I’m kinda thinking that the fuss that is sometimes made over the first line is a little bit of writer-snobbery because surely this one sentence, even is it is the first one, can’t possibly convey how the rest of the book is going to be? It’s only one sentence. Shouldn’t it be, at the very least, a page or five?

Thinking about it, though, it could be said that the first sentence is part of that important first impression that a book cover brings. When someone picks up a book in a shop (which is what I prefer to do; rather than read an excerpt online) the first bit of writing seen is the first sentence and it’s been reported lately that due to the onset of online social media our attention spans are waning more and more as technology progresses. So it’s beginning to make sense, to me as a writer, that I should be spending more time on this first of sentences.

As an example of what we (the general public) can take note from as good writing, here are the first sentences to the books on the short-list of The MA Brief History Of Seven Killingsan Booker Prize, starting with the winner:


. Dead people never stop talking. Maybe because death is not death at all, just a detention after school.

A Brief History Of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Turin is where the famous shroud is from, the one showing Christ’s body supine after crucifixion: hands folded over genitals, eyes closed, head crowned with thorns.

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

We were fishermen: My brothers and I became fishermen in January of 1996 after our father moved out of Akure, a town in the west of Nigeria, where we had lived together all our lives.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma

Randeep Sanghera stood in front of the green-and-blue map tacked to the wall.

The Year Of The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

Late one July evening in 1994, Red and Abby Whitshank had a phone call from their son Denny.

A Spool Of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

The eleventh apartment had only one closet, but it did have a sliding glass door that opened onto a small balcony, from which he could see a man sitting across the way, outdoors in only a T-shirt and shorts even though it was October, smoking.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Personally, I prefer sci-fi and fantasy but these first liners are effective, for me, in the way that they offer up just enough information that makes me want to continue reading to find out more. Which is in itself, a great way to go about writing a book.

However, they are not powerful enough for me to buy them from a shop and I probably won’t read any of them (well, I might read the winner but only because, you know, it is the winner) as, like I said, I’m more into sci-fi and fantasy. So, I’m thinking, let’s see what the first lines of some of my older books are and how they compare to this new Man Booker bunch:

“We should start back,” Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. “The wildlings are dead.”

A Game Of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

The storm had broken. Pug danced along the edge of the rocks, his feet finding scant purchase as he made his way among the tide pools.

Magician by Raymond E. Feist

For three days Dr Alimantando had followed the greenperson across the desert.

Desolation Road by Ian McDonald

The island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast sea, is a land famous for wizards.

A Wizard Of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin

This is the tale of Elric before he was called Woman-slayer, before the final collapse of Melniboné.

Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock

The Drenai herald waited nervously outside the great doors of the throne room, flanked by two Nadir guards who stared ahead, slanted eyes fixed on the bronze eagle emblazoned on the dark wood.

Legend by David Gemmell

DSCF0602The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.

The Light Fantastic by Terry Pratchett

Maybe I’m biased towards sci-fi and fantasy but I reckon the second lot of first liners are better, more encapsulating and more beckoning for me to carry on reading, even though they were written decades ago. They do the same thing in offering up just enough information for further extrapolation but also give that little bit of not-of-this-worldliness that I’m such a fan of.

So, to me, the second lot of first-liners from the books written decades ago are favoured because they grasp at my readers eye with their use of imagining and world-building. It’s like a a safety net: once I see on page some outlandish, other-worldly jargon I know I’ll at least have my imagination stimulated. I don’t want to read real life, I get enough of that with, uhm, real life.

So I guess, yeah, I probably am prejudiced towards sci-fi/fantasy but hey, that’s a good thing because most of the books in my library are in that genre and so is the story I’m trying to write!

Holiday Season Inspiration

The holiday season is well and truly under-way. This means that, for me, writing takes somewhat of a back seat for a while as I concentrate on providing entertainment for the kids while they’re off from school.

It’s also a good time to recharge ones writerly juices in the sense of experiencing some outwardly undertakings such as exploring new spaces like castles, parks, cities, fields, urban writhes and rural meanderings.

I’ve realised I’ve developed a helpful skill, as a writer, while exploring new areas and experiences with the family. As I plow them with needless facts and information on whatever we happen to be doing at the time, getting them to think about the surrounding area and its (in)significance, I’m extrapolating within my own writerly brain the possibilities of whatever I’m doing may have upon my book.

Where the Vikings first landed in Britain.

Where the Vikings first landed in Britain.

While my kids are running about like lunatics through some English Heritage ruin doing cartwheels and climbing monoliths I’m exploring, in one part of my head, the eventualities of any of my characters being in such a place, while at the same time, showing my wife how dedicated I am in telling my kids to stop doing whatever it is they probably shouldn’t be doing.

It kind of works. Specifically when we’re at some ancient ruin. My brain seems apt to position itself in two time periods at once. I can see Vikings lay slaughter while my kids demand to be judged on their rolling-down-a-sand-dune technique. As I look upon my children, in awe of the overshadowing long-ships, my wife is overjoyed in the family activity I’m dedicating the entire family-part of my brain too. It’s great!

Taking pictures of areas which could be possible book locations is also great. Looking at a picture of an area you’re writing about helps reinforce the feeling you’re trying to portray. They say a picture paints a thousand words but you and I both know, as writers, it’s more likely around twelve hundred and fifty words.

Alnwick Castle

Alnwick Castle. Home to Harry Potter and Downton Abbey!


Every man who possibly can should force himself to a holiday of a full month in a year, whether he feels like taking it or not.

~William James

Woah, there. Just back-up a minute.

My hard-drive recently decided, without provocation, that it was going on vacation holiday and if I wanted it back I’d have to show it some love. Luckily for me, I’m quite skilled in the art of romancing a lovelorn hard-drive back into the here-and-now and have done so with this particular device four or five times in the past.

This time, however, my necromantic-like skills in re-animating the inner-circuitry of a somewhat antiquated and very dilapidated desktop computer where not enough and it was time to release the fiery arrows upon the machine as it lay atop the old Homer (Simpson not the Greek Saga-ist) mouse-pad on its final decent toward ‘The Junk-box Of Doom’.

Lugubriously, I bid adieu to my favourite—and not to mention expensive—word-processor/erstwhile high-end gaming machine without the trepidation one would usually associate with the loss of not only the hardware but the software and, more importantly, the data.

Because I knew, without any shadow of a doubt, that my data was, not only safely copied elsewhere but also up-to-date. This was due to a rigorous and steadfast backing-up routine that I had painstakingly developed—yes, the hard way—over the past several years. And it’s thanks to this routine that I can still write and edit even though my hard-drive has kissed the dirt.

Nowadays, my back-up routine is done oldskool with a twist: For my writing, my main data medium is my flash-drive and my hard-drives are my back-up sources. Every time I physically save some writing (onto my flash drive) I also back it up on whatever computer I’m using, usually my laptop or my desktop. It only takes 10 seconds to drag and drop whichever files need copied.

I don’t use Cloud software simply because there are too many unknowns. At the very least, accidents happen, people make mistakes and it’s these people who keep the servers we call ‘The Cloud’ running. At the very worst, some disgruntled ex-employee might savagely hit the delete key. Shit happens, right?

Backing-up data to the cloud is unreliable, not purely for the reason that you don’t know what goes on behind the scenes. It’s just like T.V. magicians: They say they don’t use actors but, c’mon, you know they do. How else can they get these ‘random’ people on the street to go ‘Wow!‘ when even we can see how the trick was done from the comfort of our own ass-dented, nachos-ridden armchair?

But, I digress. Back up your shit. Don’t back it up to ‘The Clown Cloud’. Back it up to your own physical medium, whether it’s a floppy disk, a compact disk, a flash disk or a hard disk. Just get it on something you can hold in your own hands. And make it safe. You don’t need to keep it secret, but keep it safe.


The writer is a mysterious figure, wandering lonely as a cloud, fired by inspiration, or perhaps a cocktail or two.

Sara Sheridan

How To Edit Properly (?)

No, I mean it as a question: How to edit properly? Because I don’t know if I’m doing this right.

What’s the difference between editing and rewriting? I’ll tell you: editing is when you fix things and rewriting is when you change things. There, easy as that.

However, in truth, it’s not really as easy as that, but I don’t need to tell you this because, if you’re anything like me, you’ll know fine well that this kinda shit is hard.

Right now, I’m trying to rewrite. I’ve got two files on my computer: the original first draft and the rewrite version I’m re-sculpting, paragraph by paragraph, as I go through the original.

What I’ve ended up doing is re-sculpting the first draft with a rewrite while simultaneously editing this re-sculpture. And it’s all turning into quite a lengthy process. I’m not good at lengthy processes. But this, apparently, is what makes an author from a writer.

So, the question is: is it best to have said two files on the P.C. and manipulate between them or should it be done with a hard-copy of the draft or should it be something completely different.

If the answer is something like: it all depends on who you are and what you prefer and you need to try different things to find out what works for you then you can shove that answer right up your arse.

I want a magic answer that simply tells me the best way to turn my mothic first draft into a wordificant butterfly. I want to know the secret that allows Stephen King to turn his first draft into a final draft over those sweet few months.

Experience, you say? Bollocks is what I say to that and do you know why? It’s because I don’t have any experience writing novels and I’d like a more preferable answer, that’s why.

In truth, it’s just a formula I’m looking for. Something that tells me how to turn my first draft into a final draft in as few steps as possible. Because I just feel like I’m running out of time. Don’t you?

Self Published: The Answer To Finding The Right Book

It’s safe to say, that while writing—or re-writing—a manuscript, the last thing that should be on one’s mind is the finished product. Or is that just total crap? Because while writing something, anything, it’s all about reaching that finished product?

For me, it’s a process of building. I’ve got an ending in mind. The whole novel writing process is about reaching that final scene. So, to get there, I’ve got to erect a structure. I’ve got to build whatever it takes to reach that final platform.

So the first draft becomes a journey just to get to where I want it to end. Then, the subsequent rewrites (which I’m doing now) is a long, drawn-out, painstaking process, like organising a deck of cards which have been scattered on the floor.

That organising, otherwise known as editing and rewriting, is something, not only of an art form but a highly desired and greatly required skill. And while no-one likes to say it out loud, there are actual rules to the editing and rewriting process.

For a start, you’ve got to know English. That much is a given. Isn’t it? You’d think it was but the truth is that many novels being written are very poorly written in English even by native English speakers.

Sadly, many self-published novels often reflect this. Amazon has made it as easy as pressing buttons for anyone to self-publish a novel. And because of this, many—let’s call them unworthy—titles are published in one form or another.

My solution: Professional editing certification. Or, an ‘edited certification’ mark.

If you were going to buy a book online…and it had a badge saying it had been edited by an accredited professional…you’d be more inclined to buy that book!

Think of a gas installer. You wouldn’t get someone to install your gas central heating unless they were Corgi registered, would you? No, you wouldn’t, because it would be dangerous if you did and you wouldn’t be insured for any mishaps.

The same should/can go with books. Want to buy a book online but don’t want to run the risk of a crappy read? Make sure it’s been ‘edited professionally’ with the editors mark.

It works the same way as a gas installer. An editor gets a certificate for basically being an editor (passes some editorial test) and can then attribute that certificate onto work they have edited, like a badge or a stamp.

Said work, ie, a book, displays the ‘editors mark’, saying it has been professionally edited, and can now be a trusted and viable option for any future reader.

Not only does this ensure proper kudos goes to those writers who know what they’re doing but the readers get to know that they aren’t picking up a pile of shit. And an economy is born!

If I had the choice to read one of two self-published books, and one had a ‘professionally edited’ stamp on it, I know which one I’d pick. Don’t you?

Badly Written Book Appreciation Society

You get a whole load of of websites that’ll tell you, with ultimate authority, which book you should or should not be reading. Book reviews; fiction and non-fiction, articles, essays, interviews, thoughts and opinions. There is no need for anyone to read a badly written book anymore. All you need to do is a wee bit of research. And anyway, who’s got time to waste on a badly written or even a badly edited novel?

However. For a wannabe author, I say you should make time, now and again, to read a badly written book, for several reasons:

  1. Most obviously, it’ll show you how not to write your own manuscript. And if you persevere, purely to enlighten your own sense of right and wrong, It’ll show you in spectacular detail the mistakes you should never emulate. Use it as an exercise; highlight where it goes wrong and write down why—you’ll never make the same mistake.
  2. It will give you an impression on what passes these days for an editor/publisher, or more precisely: that specific publisher and you will have a benchmark on what you should not present to said publisher (or vice-versa, depending on your own level of selloutability).
  3. If you can recognize a badly written book, be it the story-line, the prose, the editing, the characters, the plot or the dues ex machina, then you know you can do better and this is a verification of your own superior writing ability — which should advocate some kind of reward.
  4. Figuring out where a book has gone wrong is an exercise in creativity and writing awareness which is, in itself, a skill required when you come to edit and rewrite your own manuscript.
  5. Then there is the feel-good factor. This is self-explainable.

I’m always amazed when I read what I believe to be a badly written book which has been published by a reputable publisher. I don’t think my standards are too high as I’ve been reading for more than 30 years and I can recognize good or bad writing in the first few pages. But something has gone wrong somewhere and for some reason a shitty book has been published and some lucky author has been given a paycheck.

This goes a long way to say that there may be more than just an element of luck involved in getting a book published. Maybe it’s all about knowing the right people, who knows? But the one thing that is for sure is this: if some of these books can make the grade then all you need to do is work hard on your own manuscript, keep sending it out to agents/publishers and it’s surely gonna find it’s way onto a shelf sooner or later.

So, I guess the moral of the story is this: Write whatever the hell you wan’t to write, edit the shit out of it and treat every rejection as one step closer to signing a deal. You can’t go wrong.

∗Raises a glass to all the badly written books out there∗

Easy reading is damn hard writing. 

 ~ Nathaniel Hawthorne

Editing A First Draft

So, the first draft is finished and the story works in a sort of splotchy kinda way. There were a few surprises but, in the end, things generally got to where they ought to be. Creating and writing the first draft was a thing of fandabulousness!

So why does the process of editing have to be so laborious? What is it that makes the editing procedure seem such an onerous and formidable task? Well, let’s face it; editing is basically ironing out the wrinkles. And who likes to iron? Not me, that’s for sure. And by the looks my wife gives me when I ask her to please, please iron my shirt because she’s better at it than I am — I don’t think she likes to iron either!

But, man, when the ironing’s finished and that 95% polyester fabric is suitably de-wrinklified, those floral patterns sure look pretty. And that’s all the editing process is. Making pretty floral patterns from the wrinkled fabric of a first draft.



Painless editing is all about making the process fun and I go about that in several ways. First of all, and easiest, is to simply reward myself when I’ve hit a target with either watching some Netflix or playing some computer game. But to make that a rewarding experience I’ve had to cut back on them both altogether (as well as food—rewarding yourself with food is never a good idea and to those who say there’s nothing wrong in rewarding yourself with a bag of scientifically-impossible-and-addictively-tasting Doritos (or whatever your ideal, weight-inducing snack is) once a week, to that I say balderdash!). I suppose it’s part of the new regime you instigates when you find yourself tumbling downward over-that-yonder-hill: you start to realize it’s time to do things right.

Secret One-Liners

I also like to make comedy of an intelligent nature. I call it the secret one-liner. It’s a joke that not many people will get but those that do will feel a connection with the writing and might even become a fan. In fact, the more obscure and niche the topic of the joke, the better. I always try to put secret one-liners into my writing. It helps the editing process because it instills fun.


Taking breaks from editing is a must. In a normal working day of eight hours, UK law says you’re entitled to a 20 minute break. A decent employer, however, will perhaps give you 3 breaks from work, for example: a 30 minute lunch break and two 15 minute tea breaks. And, although there is no law defining it, health & safety regulations stipulate you should be taking at least a 5 minute break from your monitor every hour. So, if you’re going to be professional about editing and treat it like a proper job (which, I suggest, is the best way for success) then you must ensure regular breaks away from the screen. Give your eyes a rest for 10 minutes every hour.


Music makes for a contented soul (or at least keeps the tinnitus at bay). Ambient music, quiet music, music without words, idyllically gentle in the background. When you can hear the music, it’s not working. When the music melts into your surroundings, that’s when the magic happens. I used to write code once-upon-a-time and every now and again I would reach a level of sub-conscious involvement with the coding—I would disengage with the world around me. A person could sit beside me and talk directly at me and I wouldn’t hear the words simply because 100% of my focus was directed at solving a coding problem. In the sporting world it’s called being in the zone. You can do this with writing and music helps to get you there.


Patience is by far one of the best tools a writer can have. First, to realize that writing, at a professional level, is not a thing that can be done quickly. Sure, you can write at speed but it’s gonna take months, even years to finish writing a book. Knowing this helps to develop the kind of hard-shelled patience a writer wears as an over-coat. You don’t have to be a patient person to become a novelist but when you don that writerly cap you’ll become accustomed to the speed at which a novel is written. I’m still working on patience. I like things to be done quickly—I like to see results—so I break things done; turn one thing into four, which means four, hopefully positive, results instead of one, which works for me. And I can feel my patience growing, my tolerance of dumbfounded, slowness developing. I’m getting there.


It’s all a journey or a process, this editing malarkey and being a noob at it is okay. To make mistakes is just one part of that process. You could say the first draft is just one big mistake that needs to be fixed. Any half-way decent word-processing software will automatically save your stuff and once you know how to work the software you’ll never need to worry about mistakes. Make as many mistakes as you can. There’ll always be copy & paste to come to the rescue.

Learning how to edit is all about finding out what’s best for you, not what someone else tells you to do. Sure, there are a bunch of books and sites that’ll give you all the information you’ll ever need but I say the best way to find a process that works for you is to learn how the professionals do it then go do it whatever the hell way you want to.


“When you break rules, break ’em good and hard”
― Terry Pratchett



Stage One – The Promethean Explosion

Stage one of writing a book is all about planning and plotting and background generating. Developing characters, building worlds and developing story arcs are all part of the first stage. Drawing pictures, setting up potential scenes, jotting down essential one-liners for future dialogue. Establishing all that metaphysical creato-matter that’s bouncing around inside the head trying to make its way out. Getting it written down.

Getting it permanently fixed onto a page is important. And fun! But specifically a vital part of the process of writing a book. It gives birth to the creation that was, just like everything hand-made, only ever a simple idea.

I’ve been working on my own stage one (of this particular tale) for the past 20 years or so. Getting it written down onto paper and screen was very much a colourful experience. It’s the most writing I’ve ever done in one go and it took me several weeks, round about this time last year. Vacating the conceptions from my head was a thing of exponential, wordy splendiferousness.

The more I wrote, the more ideas came to the fore. It was like everything I had ever thought about and tucked away somewhere obscure for a later date suddenly all came rushing forth. It was their one chance for freedom and they got it. And getting it all written down helped in the fact it cleared up some space in my head. No more did I need to subconsciously retain this information—which was a great thing too because I wanted to learn some Spanish:

Dónde está la tienda que vende los libros?

Sitting down and writing, writing, writing all the ideas and background of a particular story is very much a liberating experience and hugely important to the novel. Writing everything that goes through the head, even descriptions of tiny sub-characters that may only exist for one paragraph. In fact, especially for those miniscule moments as the more of these there are the more vivid the story becomes. Get it all fixed down somewhere so it can be read again at a later date and then extrapolate, exfoliate and (if need be) excommunicate when the time comes.

Stage one is the part that no-one will ever see (unless, of course, you make it big and decide to reward your reader-base with unabashed follow-ups, add-ons, short stories and unfinished tales) so get it all out. It doesn’t even have to make sense, it just needs to be written down. Don’t worry about remembering why, that’ll kick in when the brain decides it needs to (unless you were drunk at the time — in which case forget about it).

Stage one is getting everything that matters in your story’s universe written down.


the best-laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley

– Robert Burns

—First Draft Complete—Phase 3 Activated—Momentum of Seriousness Initiated—

National Novel Writing Month is over and the guys from repair-a-home have just left. My celebrations for winning NaNoWriMo got a bit out of hand but I’m still alive, if somewhat mysteriously balder than a few days ago. Cigars have been embellished, champagne has been adjudicated and writerly prowess has been declared before all visiting dignitaries. There was even some Ferrerro Rocher being passed around but for the life of me, I swear I never had any.

The first draft is completed. That’s what it was all about. Getting the story out in as easy a fashion as possible. Without caring about spelling or grammar or plot-lines or arcs. Just getting the basics of the story into existence, no matter how rough it looks. Now it’s there in black and white it can be worked on.

Like chucking a slab of clay onto a wheel and turning it into a Tuscia d’Arte vase or a block of Bahia Rosewood handcrafted into a Javan Rhino figurine or a flap of soflty-creased paper folded meticulously into an elegant Coscoroba Swan. The first draft is but a slice of beef waiting to be transformed into a succulent steak with just the right garnish and just the right seasoning and just the right accompaniments.

Mmm, steak. And chips. With some fried onions. Garnish. Seasoning.

Just a sec, I’ll be right back…

Ahem, the next stage, then, is the re-write. Not the edit. You cannot edit a first draft. At least, I cannot edit my first draft. It has to be re-written beforehand. The first draft was throwing the words down to get the story out. ‘She did this and then that happened but all bundles of shit happened after that and he felt like something about it all then everyone had a fight and someone died.’  That’s my first draft. That’s me telling me what the story is about and how it all ends. Now that is out of the way I can re-write it so it begins to make some kinda sense.

Re-write until satisfaction. Then the editing comes in. The editing, for me, will be the biggest and most important part of writing the book. This is when things get serious. This is when the real writing starts. This is when the fun begins. This is when the book becomes either a piece of crap from some sci-fi fan who builds computers at lunch-time while working at the local shopping center or a serious contender for an agent or a publisher looking for something honed, refined and ready to go.

The editing is when all the artistry comes into place. It’s working the magic into the words. The editing is when the manuscript is made into something worthy of artistry. A writer is an artist. The art of a writer can and should be unsurpassed. The art of a writer can make you laugh, can make you cry, can make you angry, hopeful, frustrated and make you anguish for more. This is editing. It’s about touching the mind.

During the month of November I learned a great deal about writing. About writing first drafts, in particular. And also about my approach to writing. For me, the first draft, like I said above, was just throwing the story down onto the page. The re-write, the second draft, is when I turn that story into something more tangible. Character names should be uniform through-out the tale. Dates, names and locations will begin to match up in more than one location.

But before I begin re-writing I need to read some books, both fiction and non-fiction, by writers I admire and on editing specifically, just to get the feel on where I should be aiming for. Then I’m going to outline out my first draft. I did only a very basic outline before starting because I wanted my writing to take me on its own journey to the destination I’d already determined. Now I’m there I can use an outline to determine if I’ve got too much going on, if characters need more story-time, where to put chapter breaks, make a timeline/dateline, that sort of stuff.

Next step: get some reading done.

Ooh yeah…that’s right…uh huh…


Yeah Baby!


That’s what I’m talking about. I’ve only gone and done it. Got a bit hairy near the end. But I fought through. I’ve passed a milestone. Gone and finished something. In your face old History teacher! Ha!

I’m pretty worded out now. Gonna get me a curry. And a film. And a beer to add to the pounds I’ve earned this month. Then I’m gonna smoke that $100 cigar I was saving for when my kids stop asking for money. Thanks NaNoWriMo! From the bottom of my belly!

Fifty thousand and seventy three. Just about ran out of words for November. Need a reboot. More wordificating…next month…


First draft done, now the fun begins!