Monday, September 28, 2015

Oh, That First Line!

Sometimes a story works better when it's started in a somewhat controversial way.

In the middle of a scene. Check.
Action underway. Check.
In your face introduction to a main character. Double check.

That's the tack I decided to take with The Outer Planets, my next full length Sci-Fi Romance novel in The Inherited Stars Series.

What's the controversial part? Oh, that first line!

When I first started the contest circuit with The Outer Planets, I was really concerned it might be a total turn-off for some readers. Granted, the language isn't all that bad, but it isn't something you see very often in an opener. I considered downplaying it, re-working it, or just cutting it altogether in favor of internal monologue. But since that's the point of contests--to see what's flying high and what's falling as flat as a de-orbiting satellite--I decided to grit my teeth and hit that send button.

Courage, pilgrim. Sometimes you just gotta take chances.

I'm so glad I did.

The dialogue in question?
“Hello, bitch,” Lissa Bruce whispered. 
Whoa! Yes, that's the introduction to the heroine. And that's a pretty harsh statement to make to someone. Those two words might peg her as a person who's socially very rough around the edges and difficult to like. The spin comes in the next sentence, when the reader finds out who she's addressing.
Outside the portal, a leviathan floated in all her gloating glory. Running lights on full, insignias glowing, silver carbon skin stretched tight over her multi-deck carcass. Damned ship had been nothing but heartache. The research vessel too tough to die. 
Yup. Lissa is talking to a ship. And not just any ship. This ship is a planetary research vessel bound for Jupiter and Saturn on a mission that will last nearly five years. From the second word, it's obvious the heroine carries a lot of bitterness toward this vessel, and some of the reasons for that animosity are immediately revealed.
Secured in a flight couch, Lissa gazed across space while the pilot maneuvered the ten-passenger shuttle along the starboard flank of the big ship, lining up with the docking bay. When the upper hull of the giant blotted out the sun, three-story high letters emblazoned on her side stood out in bold relief:  
NSS ROBERT BRADLEY 
Lissa’s gut tightened. The vessel had been re-christened in honor of its original skipper. The 45-year-old general officer, an icon murdered in his prime, had left her a widow. Except she hadn’t technically been married, he hadn’t really been murdered, and her identity had been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.  
She could imagine him gazing at his ship, arms crossed and feet planted, glancing her way with smug satisfaction. 
The definition of irony: When a ship you despise becomes your only safe haven. 
Lissa’s mouth ticked down in a hard frown when she caught her reflection on the port surface. This stranger looking back at her was their doing, too. The doctors had made subtle alterations, disguising the facial landmarks a human brain correlates to recognition. They’d permanently changed the color of her hair and irises. Platinum to honey blonde. Cornflower blue to bright aquamarine. To Lissa, the changes seemed too superficial, a medical slight-of-hand that any sharp set of eyes could see through. But the doctors reassured her the transformation was complete, and bowing to certain demands had validated her ticket aboard the Bradley.
Those six paragraphs hopefully do their job of softening Lissa's uncensored reaction in the opening, and set her up as a more sympathetic character than she might at first seem. She's a woman caught up in a past that almost destroyed her life, leaving her deceived, betrayed and in great jeopardy.

I'm firmly in the "show don't tell" camp and the "start the story in the middle" bent. Revealing Lissa's feelings upon confronting the Bradley via dialogue seemed a much more interesting way to present her state of mind than by simply explaining she was very angry, disturbed and resentful.

Or that she's about to board this object of her ire for an extended voyage because it may literally be her last option.

So how did the gamble with the contests work out? Well, sometimes it pays to go with your instincts.

1st Place – 2013 Spacecoast RWA Launching a Star Contest
1st Place – 2011 Connecticut RWA The Write Stuff
1st Place – 2010 Utah RWA Heart of the West Contest
1st Place – 2010 Central Ohio RWA Ignite the Flame Contest
1st Place – 2010 Lilac City Rochester 1st and Ten Contest
2nd Place – 2010 Toronto Gold Contest
3rd Place – 2010 RWA FF&P On The Far Side Contest
3rd Place – 2010 North Texas RWA Great Expectations Specialized category

Finalist  --  2011 RWA Golden Heart Awards

What are your thoughts? Do harsh statements/swearing by a main character in the opening of a novel turn you off or does it only spark your interest to find out more about what's going on with them?

Have a great week.

17 comments:

  1. It wouldn't put me off, unless it used one particular swear word that I can't stand. Not so much the word, but the way it is used and the derogatory emphasis on something that wasn't all that offensive once upon a time. I can't even think the word without shuddering. However, it isn't 'bitch'.
    I remember Four Weddings and a Funeral opens with an entire series of the 'f' word in quick succession from both the two characters we first meet. It's a scene I often think of when something has gone belly up in my life. :P The key is always to use the right words in the right way for the right setting. It gives us that instant snap shot of that scene or character, and if someone is offended...well, they probably wouldn't have liked the rest of the book either, so at least they wouldn't waste their time going any further and saddle you with a returned book when you thought you had a sale. Me, I want an opening line that has impact, or I'm not really going to bother with the second.

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    1. Thanks, Pippa. Yeah, I'm not a fan of the F bomb either when it's used to an extreme or in situations where it's not really warranted. The occasional expletive when things really go south is understandable, but characters who use the phrase every other sentence--or multiple times in one sentence--only seem sadly lacking in vocabulary to communicate effectively.

      So that other word that bothers you--does it also start with a "b"?

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    2. I'll admit - I wouldn't use swear words at all when I wrote Keir (and before that). I think the shift came when I wrote about a woman dumped by her boyfriend and figured the f word was appropriate to how she'd be feeling. My last editor at BP told me I'd gone a bit overboard with my last piece for them, but she should hear the teenage boys as they come out of school - every other word is the f word because they think it's so cool. Sigh. Overuse just means it loses its emphasis. As you say, used sparingly in the right situation really gives it the impact it *should* have - to show things really have gone south or hurt the character. Although, I guess it could also be shown to express a character's limited vocabulary/intelligence? Again, this is one reason I hated CleanReader - I'm not a fan of expletives, but if I use them, it's fir damn good reason!
      No, not 'b'. Starts with a 'c', four letters. >_< Possibly something not so well known/used in the same way outside the UK.

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    3. Okay, I think I've got it. If I'm right, I'm in agreement with you. That's one word I've never used because to me it does seem so completely demeaning. If someone needs to make a harsh statement toward a female character, I'd tend to go with "cow" or "bitch."

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    4. There are no words for that body part (if I'm right) that don't sound objectively gross. My brother once said, exasperated, "Why don't you just call it Excelsior?!"

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    5. Laurie, yeah, and it's quite an aggressive sounding word which doesn't help. Eileen, you're right. Funny how the male words seems more socially acceptable. O.o

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    6. I just read an article about JK Rowling dealing with a troll...and she used THAT WORD! :P

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  2. Love the first line and the followup. This books sounds SO fun!!!

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    1. Thanks, Pauline! :) It's a Near Future Science Fiction Romance-mystery-suspense. Something for everyone! LOL

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  3. A harsh statement that is whispered doesn't seem so harsh. And it is a great way to start the development of a character - person or ship. Sounds great!

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    1. Thanks, Riley! I'm really looking forward to releasing this one because Near Future isn't seen all that often in SFR. The characters aren't in a galaxy far, far away, they're right in our solar neighborhood.

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  4. She sounds feisty. I want to know more. In this case, it sounds like the lady has an interesting relationship with the ship. She still has some fight left in that relationship! I can hear how she could say it, too, dragging out the ls and the o in 'hello.'
    Obscenity is a staple in some punk genres, so I'm used to it. In some books it's present on every page, because that's how people talk in the world. Their lives just merit lots of derogatory words. In others, it's used sparingly for effect.

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  5. Ah. Didn't know that about punk genres, Eileen, but other than Steampunk, and one Biopunk by Sharon, I don't tend to read it.

    And yes, Lissa's a fighter--and a survivor--but her life is about to take a turn that will set her on her ear. :)

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  6. I have always loved this opener of yours! Do you remember the Janet Evanovich talk at RWA? :)

    But then I have a pretty thick skin for profanity. As you know a couple of my heroes have been fond of the F word!

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  7. LOL Yes, I remember how we cracked up at Janet's frank talk.

    My characters do tend to drop the F word, just sparingly. Sair dropped it on several occasions with good cause, but since it was the futuristic version it wasn't quite the same. :)

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