January 26, 2015

Writing Practice: Opening Lines, Paragraphs, and Pages

At a writing conference I attended several months ago, author Brady Allen shared with us how to practice writing openings and improve this skill.

Why Do We Care About Openings?  

In the writing book Hooked by Les Edgerton, a book recommended by Allen, we're told that "A tremendous number of possibly good and even brilliant novels and short stories never get read beyond the first few paragraphs or pages by agents and editors. Why? Simple: The stories don't begin in the right place. When an agent or editor encounters a poor or improper beginning, she doesn't bother to read on."  If you want your stories to be read, and especially if you want them to be published, having a solid opening is vital.

What Makes a Good Opening?

Your goal in an opening, as with much of your story, is to evoke an emotional response that hooks the reader and makes them want to keep reading.  You need the reader to experience the scene right along with the character, feeling just what the character is feeling, seeing and hearing what the character is seeing and hearing, etc.

Allen says that a good opening line has the following characteristics:

  • a character
  • in a place
  • doing something ("in medias res")
  • described in "kick-ass language" (using vivid verbs and concrete nouns)
  • and raises questions in the reader's mind

A good opening scene should successfully introduce the story problem, hook the reader, establish the rules of the story, and forecast the ending of the story.

A few examples of good opening lines:

  • A few days before Thanksgiving I get a terrific recipe from the Turkey Hotline Lady while Dyna and I make love. (What's Not to Enjoy? - Jo-Anne Michiel Watts)
  • As a boy, he had watched his mother grow bigger with the child that would become his sister. The larger her belly grew, the more repulsed he became, shrinking from her touch, afraid to touch her skin. (It's Different - Les Edgerton)
  • When the office door opened suddenly I knew the game was up. It had been a money-maker -- but it was all over.  As the cop walked in I sat back in the chair and put on a happy grin. (The Stainless Steel Rat - Harry Harrison)
  • It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. (City of Glass - Paul Auster)
  • High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. (Changing Places - David Lodge)

You may find it helpful to build a notebook or computer file containing some of your favorite opening lines to use as inspiration.

How Do You Practice Openings?

The "practice" is:

  • Come up with at least ten new opening lines each week
  • Once a week (or more often), turn two of those opening lines into an opening paragraph
  • Once a month (or more often), turn one of those opening paragraphs into an opening page

If you stick with this practice as best you can, you'll improve your ability to write story openings.  You'll also build up a file you can browse through when you're feeling writer's block.  Reading through all these openings may inspire you to write the story they hint at, or something totally different.

What if you're having trouble even coming up with those opening lines?  Look in the community/neighborhood section of your local newspaper or a news web site.  If something in there strikes you as funny, interesting, or unusual, try to write a story opening based on it.

January 19, 2015

Building a Story With Scenes

I've been writing for a few years now, but I'm still perfecting my writing process.  I learned recently that using pen and paper helps me brainstorm faster and more completely.  I've also learned that although I can write a story organically, it is much harder and slower than if I develop a rough outline and break the story down into individual scenes before I start writing.  Since it may help others, I want to share that part of my process.

What is a Scene?

A scene is a set of characters, in a given location, doing the same thing, over a continuous period of time.  If the characters, location, activity, or timeframe change, it may (but does not have to) constitute a new scene.

For example:  Joe and Jane are washing dishes after dinner.  They discuss a murder that occurred in the neighborhood.  Jane leaves, telling Joe that she is going to water the begonias.  Joe continues washing the dishes.  He remembers their vacation to Fort Lauderdale last year and how amazing Jane looked in her bikini.

Is this one or two scenes?

We could split the scene into two at the point where Jane leaves, since the cast of characters changed.  This could make sense if we think we might drop the bikini memory later, or if we are thinking it might make sense to have it occur at a different point in the story.

On the other hand, since the dish washing activity continued and the point of view never left Joe, we could decide it's still the same scene.  We might also decide it's important to keep the murder discussion and bikini memory together, especially if we want to depict Joe as the killer and use the bikini memory as a way to show his lack of genuine concern about the murder.

In other words, the writer gets to decide whether it's appropriate to break this into two scenes, or keep it as one.  Ultimately, as bestselling author Aaron Allston always says, the only rule is "Do what works for the story."

Using Scenes to Build the Story

After I've brainstormed the plot, next I envision the individual scenes needed to tell the story.  I'll open the Scrivener software and create individual scene cards, which looks something like this:

In the example above, I have scenes like "Harkness is briefed" and "Harkness reviews file".  On the right-hand side of the screenshot you see virtual index cards created for each scene.  I'll add, remove, and rearrange these scenes until I'm happy.

All I've written to this point is a brief description of each scene, but I have a good picture of the entire story I'm about to write.  The key for me is to write scene notes that are "detailed enough" so that I know what I'm trying to accomplish, but not so detailed that looking at the notes makes me feel like the scene is already written (which can make writing that scene feel redundant).

Writing the Scenes

My scene notes may be very detailed:  "Tom and Fred borrow Charlie's prized Corvette.  They go a little crazy outside of town, and drive really fast down a twisty road.  In the process, a hub cap comes off the car and rolls into the swamp.  They know they can't take it back to Charlie like this, and since he's got custom hub caps, they can't just buy a replacement.  They need to find the lost one."  Writing a scene from these notes should be very easy.

In other cases, my notes are vague:  "Tom and Fred search for the hub cap."  I might choose to write this scene organically (i.e., "seat-of-the-pants style") or wait until I've brainstormed it more fully.
Breaking a story down into scenes delivers many benefits:
  • Breaking a story down into small scenes makes it easy to employ the pomodoro technique.
  • If you only have a few minutes to write at a session, knowing the individual scenes you need to write makes it easy to find one you can create in the time available.  This is a big help when writing isn't your day job! 
  • As you mark individual scenes "written", it's easy to see the progress you're making toward completing the whole story.  That can be very motivating.
  • Since you know all the scenes you need to write, you can write them in any order that appeals to you without worrying that you'll miss one.
  • Adding, removing, and reordering scenes to improve the story is much easier when the story is broken down into scenes from the start.
You may want to try this approach (whether or not you use Scrivener).  I found it a great way to quickly complete NaNoWriMo, and improve the plotting and structure in all of my stories.

January 12, 2015

10 Things Readers Want From Your Novel

James V. Smith Jr., in The Writer's Little Helper, includes a list of 21 traits your book should have.  In the article accompanying his list, he recommends building your own list the same way he did… visit Amazon.com and read the reader reviews for the novels which currently appear on the New York Times Bestseller List.  I decided to try that experiment myself.

Here is what I learned:
  1. Subject Matter Expertise and Authenticity: Readers responded to novels set in far-flung geographical or historical locations if the author "did her research" and "got the details right". Readers like this both because it makes the novel informative if the subject matter is slightly familiar, and because it "rings true" for those who know the subject matter intimately.
  2. Vivid Depictions of Emotion:  Readers often describe a bestselling novel with phrases like "it was a moving experience", "made me feel like I was actually involved", "a whirlwind of emotions", and "it will make your heart break". 
  3. Easy to Follow Storyline:  Readers don't want to deal with a book where it's difficult to figure out who is doing what, why they are doing it, or who the key players are. 
  4. Solid Descriptions of Setting:  Readers praise "vivid, graphic depictions of everything" because it helps them to experience the story.
  5. Believable Characters:  Readers want characters who have good and bad points, and behave in a realistic way given their personalities, skills, and resources.  Readers need to empathize with the characters, and understand (from the characters' perspectives) why they do what they do.
  6. Surprises:  Between television, movies, and books, most readers have seen a lot "unexpected" plot twists and often try to anticipate where the author is headed.  If you deliver what they expect, they feel cheated.  If you show them something they never saw coming (but fits with the characters and story), they'll love you.  But remember that the surprise must be believable.  Having a character who is afraid of water suddenly become a championship swimmer without at least having swimming lessons is going to cost your story credibility.
  7. Character Growth: Readers enjoying following a character through an experience and seeing them emerge as a changed person in the end.  That doesn't mean it has to be a happy ending.  The change can also be completely internal to the character, such as overcoming a self-destructive tendency.
  8. Realistic Dialogue:  Your characters should speak not only like real people, but like real people with the education, background, and intelligence that character should have.  We don't expect a cowboy from Texas to utter a line like "Excuse me, dear fellow, but could you please un-holster your revolver now?  I'd like to engage in a bit of gunplay with you."  On the other hand, if you established that he was born in Texas but spent most of his life in London, it might work.
  9. Fast Pacing:  A book which lumbers along will cause many readers to put it down before finishing it.  But a book that is paced quickly, with hooks to keep the reader turning to the next chapter, can become a page-turner that readers don't want to put down.
  10. Actively Involved Main Character:  If the main character shows no backbone throughout the story, and lets events happen to them without responding, readers feel cheated.  They want to see the characters have goals, struggle to achieve them, and come out changed (not necessarily for the better) in the end. 
It can be very enlightening as a writer to visit The New York Times Bestseller List and read the corresponding Amazon.com reviews about those books.  Both the good and bad reviews can tell you a lot about what readers are looking for.

January 5, 2015

The Power of Pen and Paper

At a recent conference, I had a lot of down time.  I started reading Austin Kleon's book Steal Like an Artist.  In the book, he shares ten suggestions to help artists (including writers) be more successful.  The fourth suggestion is "Use your hands."  He goes on to say:
While I love my computer, I think computers have robbed us of the feeling that we're actually making things.  Instead, we're just typing keys and clicking mouse buttons. [snip]… computers are alienating because they put a sheet of glass between you and whatever is happening. [snip] You need to find a way to bring your body into your work.  Our nerves aren't a one-way street – our bodies can tell our brains as much as our brains tell our bodies. [snip] It wasn't until I started bringing analog tools back into my process that making things became fun again and my work started to improve.

I decided to see how this advice worked for me.  I left my computer in my backpack and bought an overpriced spiral-bound notebook in the hotel gift shop.  It turned out to be the best $4.99-plus-tax I ever spent.

There is a story I've been mulling over in my head, and on the computer, for over a year now.  I've never been able to nail down some of the major element.  For instance, I knew that there was an "event" which occurred years before the start of the story.  This event shaped the lives of two men, causing one to turn to crime, and one to fight crime.  I had no idea what that "event" was, and I'd been trying to figure it out for weeks.  The story hinged on it, so development was at a standstill.  I began writing down in the notebook (with a very cool pen, the Pilot G Tec C) what I knew about that story so far.  More of it began to take shape.  It wasn't long before I saw that phantom "event" in my head.  I knew why it happened. I knew how it happened, and why it affected my characters as it did.  I was much closer to being able to write that story than I'd ever been.  I wrote a series of notes telling the story from the point of view of every character. It was exhilarating. I wondered if it would help with another project I'd been stuck on.

For a couple of years, I've tried to brainstorm an entire science-fiction universe to play in, which could spawn an infinite number of short stories and novels.  It's never gotten very far.  After I started scribbling in my notebook, it really began to take shape.  I now know the history of my fictional universe, from thousands of years before the stories start to hundreds of years after they end.  I know how mankind got the faster-than-light technology, how a galactic civilization formed, and what its greatest threat will be.  I even have a decent picture of how they'll defeat it.  I have notes on several events that could spawn stories or novels in the universe.  This is more than I got from a year of brainstorming in my head or at my computer.  I consider it nothing less than a breakthrough.

If you're stuck on a creative project, try getting your body involved… even if it's only to take a walk.  Research says that a short exercise session can improve mental performance for a short time afterward.  In my case, switching from trying to create on a computer to writing with pen on paper made a big difference.