I was always a voracious reader. As a kid, most of my free time was spent reading. Picture books, chapter books, horse magazines, fairy tales; pretty much anything I could get my grubby little hands on. But as I got older, school and friends and extracurricular activities started taking up more of my free time, and my reading time was more and more often confined to bedtime and weekends (heavens forbid). And that’s when I discovered the magical time known as the winter holidays.
Just think–two glorious weeks empty of schoolwork and extracurriculars! Friends off to visit relatives or tied up with family obligations. Shorter days. The winter break was, for me, a series of long, beautiful hours just asking to be filled up with reading. Plus, for Christmas I was guaranteed a pile of new and exciting books just waiting to be cracked open and devoured.
In middle school, my grandmother sent me Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone. I sat curled up on the sofa in front of a roaring fire for hours and hours and hours. I did not come up for air until I had read every wonderful word of that book, and when I finally dragged myself off the couch it was to insist that my mom drive me to the bookstore to buy the next two installments (The Goblet of Fire wouldn’t come out for two years yet.)
Black clouds scud across the moon, nearly full. The chill breeze has a little…bite to it. A tap-tapping on the window startles you out of your slumber. Perhaps it is only a tree branch, shaking in the wind. Or perhaps it is something else? Someone else?
Pop culture may have remade vampires into sexy, brooding vegetarians, but Halloween reminds us that while vampires might be fangtastic, and know how to have a bloody good time, they are ultimately denizens of the night who enjoy violence and murder. So let’s sink out teeth into literature’s creepiest vampires…
1. Carmilla, Carmilla
Beautiful, languid, and mysterious, Carmilla insinuates herself into the lives of innocent young women, one at a time. Her mercurial moods and unsettling sexual advances distract her prey from her exotic tastes: the catlike monster that visits them in their nightmares and drinks of their blood is really her. Eventually, each girl wastes away and dies, leaving Carmilla free to find a new female companion. Best friends forever…or until you die.
A dank fog creeps between trees that reach with skeletal claws towards a darkening sky. Brittle leaves clatter together in a chill wind that moans over chimney-tops and hammers at windows well-shuttered against the night.
Are those bats that flit across the moon and cast shadows over unlit thresholds? Or something worse? Hold each other tightly and keep your doors barred, children, for something wicked this way comes.* In no particular order I present some of the scariest literary witches.
*Author’s note: I am well aware that not all witches have warts or fly on broomsticks, and (to quote Xander Harris) “witches they were persecuted. Wicca good and love the earth and women power and I’ll be over here.” In the spirit of Hallowe’en I am choosing to ignore this fact.
1. Bellatrix Lestrange, Harry Potter Series
Voldemort’s right hand woman and a die-hard Death Eater, Bellatrix is deeply evil. Sent to Azkaban for torturing Neville Longbottom’s parents until they went permanently insane, Bellatrix is also responsible for the curse that kills Sirius Black, her cousin and Harry’s godfather. Dumbledore describes her as “…dear Bellatrix, who likes to play with her food before eating it.” Yikes.
2. The Witch of the Waste,Howl’s Moving Castle
After seducing Howl by appearing to him as a pretty young woman, the Witch puts a curse on him so that the moment he falls in love he will have to return to her side. Later, she curses young Sophie so that she turns into an ancient crone who cannot speak of the spell to anyone. I wouldn’t want to get on this curse-happy Witch’s bad side!
The end of October approaches–the days grow colder and darker and the leaves twist and scurry, pushed and pulled by chill breezes. But is it only the wind that taps against our windows and creeps beneath our locked doors? Or is it something more sinister, something that lurks in shadows and darkens our dreams?
With Hallowe’en less than a week away, I thought I’d tackle some of the creepier monsters in myth and legend, starting today with ghosts. The spirits of the dead are known to creep closer as November approaches, waiting for that time when the veil is thin enough for them to go wailing out into the night, bemoaning lives wasted and loves lost. With no further ado, here are six of the creepiest ghosts in literature.
1. King Hamlet,Hamlet
“Murder most foul!” Shakespeare employed ghosts as a device in more than one of his plays, but the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father is by far the creepiest. He wanders purgatory with blood trickling from his ear, reliving his murder and demanding revenge. Later, he haunts his traitorous wife’s closet wearing only a nightgown. *shudder*
2. The Headless Horseman, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Supposedly a Hessian soldier hired to suppress the American Revolution who was beheaded by an errant cannonball. Every night, astride a demonic steed, the headless specter gallops through the streets of Sleepy Hollow with his severed head lashed to the pommel of his saddle. And beware to those who cross his path–he might subject you to the same fate that ended his life.
As I once more begin the arduous process of drafting a new manuscript, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the mechanics and architecture of story-telling. Of course there’s no right way to tell a story, but there are certain elements that must be in place for a story to be effective. And–if we’re starting at the beginning–the first thing we have to think about is, well, the beginning.
It’s no secret in the publishing industry that the beginning of a manuscript is of the utmost importance. To agents, to editors, and to potential readers alike. The first 250 words…the first page…the first chapter. The opening of a book is what introduces your work to your reader, and, if all goes well, draws them in and makes them keep reading. But what exactly is supposed to be going on in this crucial stage, and how do we as writers make that happen? While there’s no perfect way to do it, here are some of the things I think are absolutely necessary to nailing the perfect first page.
1. Start with action. Okay, this needs a little clarification. By action I don’t necessarily mean a sword fight or a horse race. By action, I mean something needs to be in the process of happening. The fancy literary term is in media res, or in the middle of things. Something is being revealed. Something is going terribly wrong. Someone is in trouble. There must be a sense that something is happening, and will continue to happen.
Another way of putting this: don’t lead with extensive backstory or a detailed explanation of who and where and why. These things are important, but a paragraph of exposition on your first page may just kill your reader’s desire to continue past that first page. Lead with action; the rest will follow.
2. Introduce your main character. Have you ever read a book that began with something happening to someone, and then it turned out that character was not, in fact, the protagonist of the story? I have, and I always feel a little cheated. Your readers are going to assume that the first person they meet is your main character. So let them meet him or her. And remember, first impressions matter.
Meeting your protagonist is the first point of connection for your reader. Whatever assumptions they make right off the bat might just stick with that throughout the story. So make that first impression count, and give them a sense of who your character is and what motivates them.
3. Show us your world. When they open that first page, readers are latching onto any and every detail that will give them a sense of setting and place. What do the characters look like? What are the surroundings? How is it similar to what the reader is familiar with, and how is it different? Without details to bring the scene into focus, the reader might feel a little lost, as though the action is happening in a vacuum.
The challenge here is painting a picture…without going overboard with descriptions. Just like explanation and backstory, too much description on the first page may bore and alienate your reader. Give your reader a sense of place without resorting to a paint-by-number.
4. Give us a hint of voice. Your potential reader needs to know what makes your story different from all the others out there, and why they should read yours. That means that the style and voice that makes you unique and sets your book apart from others needs to be immediately apparent. Is your POV character always making cracks regardless of the situation? Do you rely on muscular active prose? Whatever makes you stand out, include it in the first page. Let your hard-won craft shine!
Sound hard? IT IS. Welcome to the big leagues! While there’s no perfect way to open a manuscript, keeping these points in mind will help you begin your amazing story in a way that will have readers clamoring for more!
What do you like to include on your first page? What do you like to see on other writer’s first pages? Leave your thoughts below!