First Lines in Fiction – Black Glass

Black Glass, by Karen Joy Fowler

Great First Lines in Fiction

First published in 1998, this book of short stories by the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is just as rich and complex and strange as it was seventeen years ago. If you’ve read it before, it’s worth revisiting, and if you haven’t, it’s time to discover the short fiction of Karen Joy Fowler.

The best fiction sucks us in by presenting opening lines we simply can’t walk away from, because they raise so many intriguing questions, and we can’t leave until we have the answers. For this reason, I often begin fiction writing workshops with a study of the opening paragraphs of novels and stories.

What a first line shouldn’t be: boring or overwrought. Nothing is more irritating to me as a reader than when the writer uses the first line to show off, rather than to start a story. Anyone can show off, but it takes something more to let the reader know, in the very first line, that a)you can tell a story and b)you’re about to do just that.

What a first line must be: clear and suggestive. Clear because the reader should not be trying to untangle words in your very first sentence.  Suggestive because the line must suggest a character, or a place, or a situation, or a problem, or some combination thereof.

Here are a few of the first (or almost-first) lines from Black Glass:

From The “Elizabeth Complex”:

There is no evidence that Elizabeth ever blamed her father for killing her mother.

From “Shimbara”:

At the top of the cliffs was a castle and, inside the castle, a 15-year-old boy. Here is where it gets tricky. What is different and what is the same?

Here is the opening of “Letters From Home:”

I wish you could see me now. You would laugh. I have a husband. I have children.

To whom is the narrator speaking? And why would this person laugh at the notion of her having a husband and children?

We have to know. And so we read on. That’s exactly what great fiction urges us to do.

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What to do when your static front page doesn’t load

If you’ve arrived at this post, it’s probably because your wordpress site is driving you nuts. Suddenly, your static front page only shows up when you’re logged in. When you’re not logged in, and you type in the address of your wordpress site, the static front page doesn’t load. The page that shows up to visitors isn’t the one you’ve indicated in your settings.

I don’t usually post about wordpress issues, but as a writer and small press publisher who does all of my web design myself, I deal with wordpress issues on a regular basis. (I know, I know: hire someone. However, I like to get under the hood and see how things work, and just hiring someone to do it means a learning opportunity lost). The static front page problem had me stumped, and I spent two full work days trying to figure it out, reading support documentation for my wordpress theme, uninstalling plugins, changing themes, resubmitting my google site index: you name it. I even tried to mess with functions.php and other files, but nothing worked.

Finally, I came upon this post in the wordpress support forums. Because the problem is so difficult to figure out, and because this solution worked beautifully and got my correct front page up and running immediately, and because the solution was buried in the support forums and not too easy to find, I’m posting it here. If your static front page is broken, this may very well help. Please note that I am not a wordpress expert. This solution was presented by Jackie McBride at, who credits for the fix. It takes just a couple of minutes to implement, and voila, your wordpress front page will show up as needed. Thank you, Jackie and inmotionhosting!

Jackie McBride
Posted 9 months ago #

You might need to reactivate the plugin for the following to work. Credit is given to

“Step 1.Log into the WordPress Dashboard
Step 2.
Setting WP Super Cache
Hover over Settings, then click WP Super Cache
Step 3.
Delete cache WP Super Cache
On the WP Super Cache Settings page, click Delete Cache
Once you are done clearing your WordPress cache, you should see any recent changes that you published. The caching plugin should then cache the latest version of your page when the site is visited again.”

So, I did this just as Jackie outlined here. I installed the WP Super Cache plugin and deleted my cache. I logged out to check if my front page was working. And voila, there it was. The problem seems to arise when you delete the WP Super Cache plugin. So once it’s installed, you may be better off leaving it be.

Good luck! I hope this helps. For any other wordpress issues, please go to

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Creative Writing Prompts for High School Students

So, you’re halfway through the summer break, you’ve made good headway into your summer reading list for high school, and you’re itching to write but you don’t know where to start. You’ve always been creative, but you know that when school starts in a few weeks, your afternoons will be filled with required reading, exhausting math homework, persuasive essays, perhaps jobs, and all sorts of extra-curricular activities. Now is the perfect time to get some writing done. Check out these fun, inspiring creative writing prompts for high school students.

As a professional writer (see my books here), I can tell you from experience that the more you write, the easier it gets. Writing is just like any other useful activity: when you make a habit of it, it begins to come more naturally. The summer–when you’re free from most of the pressures of school–is the best time to begin the habit. Choose your spot for writing–whether it’s a favorite chair, the couch, the bed, the park, or a coffee shop you love–and create a habit of writing in that spot.

When I was in high school, I would spend hours in my room, journaling or reading or writing poems and stories. It wasn’t until my senior year at Murphy High in Mobile, Alabama that I took a creative writing class. The world opened up to me then. I found what I was meant to do.

I find the best way to get unstuck when you can’t think of what to write is to use a quick writing prompt. So I’ve created a series of 500-word writing prompts to help you get started. The key here is that you don’t need to write very long, really, to end up with 500 words. These writing prompts are fun, and they’re designed to help you be creative and to let your writing go places you never thought of.

Click here to download the writing prompts and receive my weekly writing tips.

Want to get really inspired? Check out this great writing workbook: Story Starters. You can download the workbook right to your phone, iPad, or laptop. Perfect for Kindle, too.

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Kate Bosworth in The Year of Fog

Kate Bosworth to star in adaptation of The Year of Fog, directed by Michael Polish

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may know that The Year of Fog has been optioned for the big screen before. And you know that it can take a very long time for a film to get made. So many things have to come together: a great script, the right director, the right actor, and, perhaps the most difficult piece of the puzzle, funding. If that weren’t complicated enough, once all of those things are in place, the schedules have to somehow all sync up. No wonder movies can take such a long time to make. But sometimes the stars do align, and a story that began as an image in a writer’s brain, a phrase, an inkling, at long last makes it to screen.

I’m very happy to announce that husband and wife team Michael Polish and Kate Bosworth have just optioned The Year of Fog. This is exciting for a few reasons. One reason I think this is such a good fit is that Polish has a strong track record of thoughtful, beautiful, smart independent films (Northfork, The Astronaut Farmer, Big Sur, Twin Falls Idaho, among others). He also has strong ties to the Bay Area. His adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur was praised for the way it was truthful to Kerouac the man and to the story of Big Sur. Landscape plays a starring role in Polish’s films. He is a gifted storyteller with a a keen eye for the inherent drama of place and a sublime understanding of the way place defines character (Northfork is a prime example of this aesthetic).

Another reason this option just feels right to me is that Kate Bosworth will be playing the lead. Abby, the main character of The Year of Fog, is a stepmother, and so is Bosworth. At the time of this writing, Bosworth is the same age that Abby is when the book opens. There’s a good bit of surfing in the book; Bosworth, who gained a cult following for Blue Crush, is a surfer in real life. The story really puts Abby through the paces, and Bosworth, whose recent work includes psychological thrillers like Before I Wake and Bus 657, as well as subtle dramatic turns in films like Still Alice, can pull it off.

Bosworth and Polish have recently completed 90 Minutes in Heaven, an adaptation of the book by the same name, which will hit theaters soon. And in an interesting coincidence, Bosworth just wrapped filming the action thriller Bus 657 with Robert DeNiro in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama (which gets a cameo in The Year of Fog). Which all just brings me to another thing I love about this couple: they work hard, and they really make movies. Between them, they have at least six forthcoming films, and Bosworth is also starring alongside Dennis Quaid in the Netflix series The Art of More.

While nothing in Hollywood is certain, I have a good feeling about this one. I can’t wait to see Polish’s cinematic vision for the novel realized, and to see Bosworth’s interpretation of Abby, a character who is close to my heart.

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Yangtze River Cruise

A Journey up the Yangtze River Through Three Gorges Dam

There is the sound of a releasing, water rushing in, and the ship begins to rise. It feels as if we are on an enormous elevator. Despite the early hour, the bridge above us is crowded with onlookers—the usual assortment of crumpled workers and lackluster soldiers, along with lithe elderly people who continue with their morning stretches as the array of boats rises to meet them. They wave and exchange greetings with the passengers. There are already a few vendors milling about, trying to sell postcards and jade trinkets, dried eel snacks and steamed buns. Bells ring, lights flash, and another set of massive doors opens. In the space of five minutes we have risen seventy feet.

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What looms before us now looks like some cold-war era industrial nightmare. The hillsides, shattered with explosives, are craggy banks of eroding soil dotted with tumble-down workers’ shacks and piles of dirt and granite. Graham lends me his binoculars, and through them I can make out small human figures dangling precariously from bamboo scaffolding that climbs one of the vertical walls of the new lock.

“That used to be a mountain,” Graham says. “They sliced it in half to build the locks. A 10,000-ton whip will be able to steer into the pair of locks, ascend from river to reservoir, and emerge on the other side in a lake as placid as your bathtub.”

The drilling is ceaseless. An explosion echoes through the valley, but it is impossible to tell where it came from. The air is gray and grainy. Simply to breathe is a challenge. My eyes water, my throat burns. I gaze out in astonishment. “How can the people let this happen? Don’t they see the damage that’s being done?”

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“What do you expect them to do?” Bai says. “Paint signs? Stage a sit-in? Organize a petition?”

“Why not? Somebody has to.”

“It’s not that simple,” Bai says. “In 1992, 180 men and women from the Democratic Youth Party in Kaixian County did oppose the dam. They were arrested and charged with sabotage and counterrevolutionary activity.”

“Whatever happened to them?”

“No one’s seen them since they were arrested.”

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A small band of passengers is crowded around Elvis Paris, who is extolling the virtues of the dam. He points to a mass of rock and gravel and concrete littered with cranes and drilling rigs. “This used to be Zhongbao Island,” Elvis says. “Thanks to modern engineering, useless island is now foundation for world’s greatest dam.”

The Red Victoria presses on toward the narrow pass. The river seems too much for us. Here, it is deep and very fast. I see the cranes, the concrete, the mounds of blasted granite. I hear the din of drills and chisels. But these bare facts are not enough to convince me. I cannot believe that this fast and powerful river will simply stop, paralyzed behind a manmade wall. I know nothing of physics, mathematics, the intricate workings of engineering. But I can see and feel the power of this ancient and magnificent river. Instinct tells me that she will not be so easily tamed.

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Soon we are approaching Xiling Gorge. Graham translates a series of huge Chinese characters painted in white on the sheer side of a cliff: Serve the People. Develop the Three Gorges. Layers of green hills rise out of the water. Through the thin mist I can make out small houses huddled up to the water, and, behind them, steep terraced hills. Solitary figures stand atop bamboo rafts, using long poles to navigate the swirling rafts at the edge of the river. Flat-bottomed boats pass us, headed downstream with their loads of golden hay. Goats wander the hillsides, foraging. The ship rocks as the water whirls around us. The air is chilly, just the vaguest shadow of the sun visible through the fog.

The Voice calls out the names of attractions along the way: Sanyou Cave, Three Knives, Shadow of Lamp. Next we come to Ox Temple. Behind the temple a mountain rises. “Look close at the mountain and you will see strong young man leading ox,” The Voice says. Then there is Kongling Shoal, also known as the Gate of Hell, because many boats have been wrecked here. The Gate of Hell is dotted with dangerous reefs, the most deceptive of which is called Come to Me Stone. After that we pass, Horse-lung, Ox-liver, and Book of War Art and Sword Gorge.


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The cliffs rise up sheer, like great walls. In some places the bases of the mountains are so close together that I am certain we will not be able to pass, but each time it seems that we are headed for disaster, the ship turns at just the right moment, to just the right degree, and we continue smoothly upstream. Graham and Bai are standing on either side of me. Neither Dave nor Stacy is anywhere to be seen. I feel enclosed in some strange dream—the green mountains, the pale mist, the heavy tin covered with photos of Amanda Ruth, the weight of my longing for a man I met only days ago, the unsettling patience of his knowing wife. We have been standing here for some time when I realize that they have moved closer to me, that both of them have one arm wrapped around my back.

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Excerpted from DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM, a novel of the Yangtze River and the Three Gorges Dam, by Michelle Richmond

Read the story behind the book.

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