It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

I have to write a short story for Second Helpings, an anthology to be released later this year from Second Wind Publishing, and I’m trying to come up with a witty or evocative first line, something that will immediately catapult me into a story, but all I can think of is Billy Crystal in Throw Mama From the Train. I remember watching him struggle for the perfect first line, the perfect word until I wanted to scream “Skip the first line! Start anywhere! Or use a thesaurus.” But that was before I started to write, and now I find myself doing the same thing.

Odd that first lines are so important, yet few set the mood or do anything else they’re supposed to. And fewer still are memorable. Probably the best known line is “It was a dark and stormy night,” but it’s also considered to be the worst first line in history, mostly because of what comes after the initial phrase. The entire first sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton for his novel Paul Clifford is: It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. That sure is an eyeful!

As it turns out, Bulwer-Lytton was not the first to use “It was a dark and stormy night.” Washington Irving used the phrase twenty years earlier on page 282 of The History of New York.

Still, memorable or not, plagiarism or not, I stole the line for a short story I wrote for Murder in the Wind, a previous Second Wind anthology. Here’s how my story “The Stygian Night” began:

***

It was a dark and stormy night.

Silas Slovotsky leaned back in his chair and studied the words he’d typed into his computer.

He grinned. Perfect. The very words he needed to set the scene. And they had the added benefit of being true. It was a dark and stormy night. Except for his porch light, of course. And the thunder and lightning—

He leaned forward and peered at the computer screen. Did the sentence seem a bit trite? Maybe he needed to spiffy it up. He opened his thesaurus to the word “dark” and ran a finger down the page. “Stygian”. That might work.

He cleared his computer screen and typed: It was a stygian night.

Nope. Didn’t have the euphoniousness of the original sentence. Perhaps if he reread what he’d already written he could figure out how to proceed.

He printed out the manuscript he’d been working on for the past four months and read the single page. Dark as Night by Jack Kemp.

A thrill ran up his spine. He could see it on the shelf in the bookstore. Kemp, King, Koontz. He’d chosen his pseudonym specifically so the reviewers could call them the unhallowed trinity. And he deserved the accolade.

A knock on the door startled him out of his dream.

Who could that be? His friends—all two of them—knew he didn’t like to be disturbed when he was writing.

***

I loved that story. So out of character for me! And I loved my story for the latest anthology. Apparently, although I dig in my heels and scream (silently), “I don’t wanna!” I do enjoy my short stories.

How about this for a first line? As the ax descended toward her head, the young mother struggled in vain to free her hands from the nylon rope. It might work if I took out “in vain” because headless characters are hard to write about, but come to think of it, Washington Irving managed to do it. He wrote about a headless horseman.

But this is supposed to be a holiday story. Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Years. And it has to involve food because a recipe will accompany each story. It seems as if I am far from a festive mood — all I can think of is poisoned cookies. Maybe someone left poisoned cookies for Santa? Or gave them to a neighbor who always went overboard with the Christmas lights, making it impossible to sleep? Or couldn’t bear one more holiday dinner with her overbearing brother-in-law?

Perhaps not, but still . . . murder, mayhem, and family get-togethers somehow seem to go together.

What about one of these for a first line? Now is the winter of our discontent, or It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Maybe for another Silas Slovotsky story?

Hey! Why should I have all the fun? You can write your own holiday story (any genre) and maybe you will be published in the same anthology. Rules for the contest are here: Invitation to Submit an Entry to Our Short Story Contest.

My Publisher Is Sponsoring a Short Story Contest!

Second Wind Publishing invites you to submit an entry to their holiday short story contest.

Entries are to be holiday stories of any genre that mention a food of some kind. (The food item can be a focus of the story or simply a prop.) The winner will be included in Second Helpings, a short story/recipe anthology to be released in time for Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Years. So, be thinking of holiday stories with delicious recipes. The story and recipe must be your own original work since the recipe will also be published in the anthology. Plagiarism will not be tolerated. The story must not exist in print form or in any current or upcoming anthology. The story must be no longer than 5,000 words.

The contest is open to anyone in the world, 18 or older, though the entry must be written in English. There is no entry fee. The best entries will be posted on the Second Wind Publishing contest blog for everyone to read and comment. The authors and management of Second Wind Publishing will choose the three finalists, but reader comments will be taken into consideration. Entries will be judged on originality, readability, writing skills, characterization, plot, and how well they fit in with the theme of the anthology. Spelling and grammar count. The decision of the judges is final.

Everyone is welcome to vote for the winner, which is to be chosen from the three finalists. The winner will be the finalist with the most comments.

The winning entry will be published in the upcoming Second Wind anthology, Second Helpings. The winner will also receive a coupon from Smashwords.com for an unlimited number of free downloads of the anthology for one month. The coupon can be sent to as many people as you wish during that month. The winner will be able to purchase an unlimited number of print copies of the anthology at half price plus shipping costs. And the winner will receive a one year free VIP account from Angie’s Diary, the online writing magazine to help you get even more exposure for your writing. ($99 value).

All entries will be deleted once the contest is over.

The contest begins April 1, 2012 and ends June 30, 2012.

Schedule:
June 30, 2012 at 11:59 pm ET: Contest ends.
July 1 — July 15, 2012: Judging of entries by 2W (and 2W authors) to pick top three entries
July 15 — July 31, 2012: Judging of the three finalists by blog readers to pick the winner
August 1, 2012: Winner announced
October 1, 2012 Book published (In an ideal world …)

Please send your entries as a Word .doc or .docx to secondwindpublishing(at)gmail.com Be sure to replace (at) with @ and use “Holiday Contest” for the subject line.

See complete listing of rules at http://secondwindcontests.wordpress.com/

Best of luck to all of you!!