Sunday, May 10, 2009

Desperately Seeking A Stopper

A few weeks ago Linnea Sinclair shared a fabulous post about mentoring. Well, I don't claim to mentor, but I will pinch hit on occasion.

This last week, Lillian Cauldwell and I have been fighting a dragonish problem… but we are not well matched as temporary critique partners.

I fly under false colours, writing scatological social and political satire disguised as futuristic romance aka alien romance (which is not set in the future). Lillian writes well researched psychic mystery stories for young adults, and her heroes and heroines are African-American and Hispanic teens who see ghosts and are transported back into history through time and space.

Lillian's work reminds me of Indiana Jones in junior high.

Our dragon's name is "The Stopper" and we can't crack it.

For those not familiar with "The Stopper" it's an escalated version of a hook or grabber, intended to stop an agent or editor from answering the phone while your pages are in their hands. Ideally, one would like to come up with a "stopper" that not only leads to a contract, but that goes viral when the book is released.

Emily Bryan achieved something of the sort for "Distracting The Duchess" (a historical romance) with "I'm going to have to shorten his willy." People who had no intention of buying the book were happy to tweet about the line.

From a discussion of first lines, come some more examples of great stoppers:

“I don’t know how other guys feel about their wives leaving them but I helped mine pack.”

“I’ve been sleeping with your husband for the last two years."

“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.” That's from Firebreak, by Donald Westlake.

If those examples represent the gold standard for stoppers, dross might be this year's Bulwer Lytton winners:

For those who have never heard of it, the Bulwer-Lytton is an international literary parody contest, which honors the memory of Victorian novelist Edward George Earl Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873).

Entrants are challenged to submit bad opening sentences to imaginary novels. … Bulwer-Lytton opened his novel Paul Clifford (1830) with the immortal words …."It was a dark and stormy night."

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped "Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."

Garrison Spik
Washington, D.C.

Dishonorable Mention (Children's Literature)
Joanne watched her fellow passengers - a wizened man reading about alchemy; an oversized bearded man-child; a haunted, bespectacled young man with a scar; and a gaggle of private school children who chatted ceaselessly about Latin and flying around the hockey pitch and the two-faced teacher who they thought was a witch - there was a story here, she decided.

Tim Ellis
Haslemere, U.K.

Runner Up (Children's Literature)
Dorothy had reasons to be nervous: a young girl alone in a strange land, traveling with three weird, insecure males badly in need of psychiatric help; she tucked her feet under her skirt to keep the night's chill (and lewd stares) away and made sure one more time that the gun was secured in her yet-to-develop bosom.

Domingo Pestano
Alto Prado, Caracas, Venezuela

Find more here:

Lillian Cauldwell is trying to find a stopper for her second novel in the Anna Mae mystery series, which is targeted at young readers from eight to eighteen. Anna Mae is a youngster with psychic powers which she has inherited from her grandmother, and ghosts from the past guide her to find ancient, buried treasures.

She would very much appreciate any reader's opinions on which of her drafted first lines comes closest to grabbing their interest. (I've deliberately not presented the five examples in any kind of order.)

Make love, not war Anna Mae Botts remembered from her dream-vision, but the AK 47 automatic rifle slung over Jonathan Selassie's shoulders said something entirely different. She awoke with a start.

Carried by six teenagers, three girls dressed in white shorts, yellow tee shirts and flip flops; three boys dressed in the Atlanta Braves tee shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots, the Holy Relic gleamed in the mid day sun. Ahead of the procession a sixteen-year-old boy dressed in combat fatigues and slung over his left shoulder an AK47 rifle led the way. Behind them, a dust storm whirled and wiped out all traces of their prints.

Twelve year old Anna Mae Botts awoke with a jerk. She tried grasping the sides of her mattress only to find herself bound with rope and her mouth stuffed with a cotton rag, Anna Mae wailed inside her mind. “Granma!”

Twelve-year-old Anna Mae Botts struggled awake. Heaviness trapped at her limbs.
She willed her mind to break free of the oppressive smell of cinnamon and frankincense. The obnoxious odor blocked her mind and sent her spirit spinning into an opened black pit where a wooden rod became a snake rope and seven metal circular keys opened a rectangular gold box with angel wings outstretched on top and meeting in the middle.

“I’m cold.”
We’d just stepped out from the Lowry Dollar Cinema. The sun bathed me with its heat. My tee shirt clung to my back. Yet, I shivered in the hot sun. Raul looked at me. A slight grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. “It’s hottah than blazes out here. Yar always cold. Here!” He gave me a quick tight hug. “Bettah?”

Missing: Black teenager, last seen asleep in bed, Anna Mae Botts is five foot three inches, weighs one hundred pounds, brown eyes, and a butterfly birthmark on back of left calf. If you have any information, please call the Lowry sheriff’s department at 604-983-8867.

Anna Mae Botts struggled. Her heart thumped. She gripped the sheets. A boy opened a golden box and dissolved into ashes.

If something works, Lillian would like to know why. If readers can put their fingers on why one or more drafts veer off course, that, too, would be instructive.

Thank you, and Happy Mothers' Day.

Rowena Cherry


  1. None of them worked for me and I've read a lot of Young Adult and children's lit.

  2. Thank you very much for the feedback, Kimber An.

  3. PS. As a matter of interest, what's the best starting line you've read? And why did it appeal to you?

  4. Personally, I liked #3. The writing was unelaborated, but it makes you want to know who tied her, why they did it, how they managed to stuff something in her mouth without waking her, where's her mom vs her granma, etc.

    IMHO one or two of the others were too descriptive for an opening line. Get me hooked before you start describe what clothes they're wearing or what the pit looks like, etc.


    This is the most enthralling Science Fiction for young people I've read so far this year. It's actually labeled Middle Grade, but I couldn't put it down from the start and I'm forty.

    Unfortunately, I haven't found much of a selection in the YA SF New Releases.

    THE OTHER SIDE OF THE ISLAND had everything which makes a story unputdownable. The story was gripping. The characters were real and well-rounded, no cookie cutter characters, no stereotypes, not talking down to the readership. And the prose was haunting on top of all that. Wow. As a writer, I was so envious of how it was all put together.