Archive for May, 2013

ChapterOneFrom the first line in a story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with the protagonist. So what makes an exciting first line? And at what point in our novel or short story do we “re-hook” the reader?

Make interesting things happen – preferably bad things. That’s the base of basics of hooking. But please, PLEASE, don’t start your piece with one of the following first lines. They are overused and generic, and unless done in some awesomely unique-never-before-seen-blow-your-socks-off way, agents and editors will cringe, and will not read on. Remember, agents look for an excuse not to read further. And don’t you want to make your piece as interesting and unique as possible? Anyway, here are my top 5 “cringers”:

  • Waking up – especially from an alarm clock: This is one of the most common first lines agents and editors read. And complain about. Whether it is or isn’t, most believe it to be lazy writing. So come on! You’re a writer! You can do better than that!
  • “It was a dark, and stormy night…”: Weather in general – whether the weather is dark and stormy, or bright and sunshiny, this is one of the most overused, so try to avoid it.
  • The bad day at school: This is more common with YA. This has both been done very well and muy terrible! But it’s still the bad day at school. As unique as your character’s bad day at school is, it is, still, indeed, the bad day at school. Most agents and editors will stop reading.
  • It was all just a dream: Starting your story with a bang is great, but if the opening turns out to be just a dream, many readers will be disappointed, and agents will in all likelihood stop reading…
  • Running through a forest (especially if it’s a nightmare): This at first glance might seem like a great idea, but many, many, many others have also come up with this idea. As many twists and turns, near-death experiences, or lost loves they have while running through this forest, agents and editors will smack their foreheads, shake their heads, and punch “delete” on their keyboards – (that is if the “delete” key has survived the abundant daily abuse).

Still reading? Okay good. You might have thrown a few expletives my way, chucked your keyboard at me, or revisited your novel a moment to check how you started your story… But there’s good news! There are PLENTY of great first lines! Here’s what makes a great hook:

  • Begin with the character. Not description. Not the weather. Not the building. Not the world. Not a prologue. The character.
  • Give the reader an immediate stake by putting the character or something the character loves in imminent danger, or start with a special flavor of comedy. Could be physical, could be emotional or psychological.
  • Start with an interesting action or thought. Make it fresh. Make it immediate and impactful.
  • Show the reader who the character is in that first line. No back story. Who are they NOW? Show what they are doing right now that will impel your story forward all the way to the last line.

Want some good examples? Here we go:

  • “Our story opens where countless stories have ended in the last twenty-six years: with an idiot – in this case, my brother Shaun – deciding it would be a good idea to go out and poke a zombie with a stick to see what happens.” ~ Mira Grant, Feed
  • “Prince Raoden of Arelon awoke early that morning, completely unaware that he had been damned for all eternity.” ~ Brandon Sanderson, Elantris
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” ~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
  • “We go about our daily lives understanding almost nothing about the world.” ~ Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
  • “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” ~ C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Nuff said? Who would stop reading any of these novels after those phenomenal first lines? Albeit, Brandon Sanderson woke up his character in the first line, but being “damned for all eternity” kind of overpowers the former. Point is – there are exceptions to everything. We can argue about genre, preference, and style, but a great first line is a great first line.

In Elements of Advanced Storytelling, I promised to dig into not only the first line, but also show how to hook a reader throughout a piece, keep them intrigued. This goes along with a later post I’ll write, “Tension, Conflict, and the Driving Force,” with a couple big differences. We establish tension by hooking a reader. The catalyst is the hook. The reaction is the tension and conflict. And oftentimes, the hook is a one-liner, or small paragraph that escalates emotion or impels action.

Introduce something new when it makes sense, but surprise the reader. Keep them on their toes. At the end of chapters, throw in a one-liner to re-hook the reader – to keep them turning the pages. In the new chapter, throw in another hook. These first and last chapter one-liners aren’t nearly as important as the first line in a novel, but most great writers understand how to cause us poor readers those many sleepless nights. This isn’t the end-all be-all of writing, but you must know where your story is heading. Keep it moving forward by keeping the reader hooked.

Re-hooking can come in many forms – dialogue, emotion, action, comedy, even literary prose. But it must make sense to your novel. I wouldn’t tell a joke at the end of a chapter if the next one begins with a torture scene. Well…unless you want to shock the reader. But that’s a different subject. Anyway, the mood of characters, the voice of your story, and the pace of your prose dictates where those strategic hooks can be placed. Sometimes, it won’t make sense to begin or end a chapter with a hook, but the key is to watch for it. Write. And read. Look for those turning points or moments in your book where one line could make a big difference. Use this in conjunction with tension and character, and you are well on your way to a best-seller.

Dreams. When you google “dreams,” you get the definition of sleep—namely how to interpret the images you see while you’re sleeping.

Just goes to show you that even searching for a dream doesn’t mean that you’ll find what you’re really looking for. And, honestly, my sleep dreams are mostly stress induced. My best dreams tend to be the ones I fantasize about while I’m awake and functional.

My dreams vary from day to day and shift from subject to subject, but I blame that on wanting a lot out of the time I have to explore those dreams. I want so much out of my life and I have allotted time to achieve those moments…but I can want as much as I’d like. The problem I run into is the capability factor. You know, the “hey I’m actually capable and I should put some effort into this dream” thing. Ultimately, if I’m going to actually feel the dream leave my fantasy and enter the reality that I have made with my life, then I need to make the actual steps towards it.

No one else can do that for me. No one else can encourage me to do it if I won’t move. No one else can flatter me enough to try harder. It’s all on me.

Now, the problem that I constantly run into is the commitment to myself. I constantly tell myself that it’s a silly notion to think that I could actually achieve what I crave because, come on now, who would really want to read what I have to say? Who would actually care? Why do I care if people actually care?

Because, if people don’t care, then my dream is just a figment. Just a fragment. Just a moment lost in my mind. Because, if I care that I become successful with my dream, then I might be disappointed to hear that I’m not the reflection of a diamond’s potential, but the darkness of the rough surrounding the gleam.

In all honesty, I do hear the ridiculous doubt in myself, in my ability to try, and the eyes immediately start rolling around.  I know I need to stop questioning my ability to achieve what I think I might really want. I know that I need to let myself praise my work, so that maybe I can see the goodness in it. So that maybe I can become the light that I so wish to be. After all, the only thing holding me back from that sparkle is me.

I’m sure every dreamer feels this way. So, how do we jump start the confidence and leave behind all the “poor me for not being good enough because I’m too afraid that I’ll fail horribly” attitude?

Maybe the start is to simply stop fearing the end, and enjoy the hope from the beginning. Or, maybe it’s as simple as letting myself believe in the dream as fully as I do while I’m sleeping—by letting the dream be real enough to feel like I can hold onto it.

Then again, I’d like to start being the person I’m meant to be. No more maybe this, maybe that. It’s simply time. It’s now time to stop liking the idea and actually step toward it.

It’s time to stop questioning myself.

Have you ever immersed yourself in a story, you like a character, and then you toss the book across the room with an exasperated sigh? Simply because a character did something they would never do. And I ask you this: is it against the character’s grain given the events of their fictional creation, or is it from you imprinting your own expectations, your own personality, and your own wants upon the character?

In our society, people often confuse strength with power. Strength comes from right action, doing what is right given what you think and say. Power comes from doing whatever you dare regardless of your beliefs. These are the people who’s actions are always questioned, usually frowned upon, and easily turn villain. I think of Socrates in example. He was given the chance to leave. No one wanted his death, they just wanted him to get out of town and stop teaching. Power, for him, would have been leaving and continuing to spread his knowledge. Yet, he understood, if he left, it would betray every word he had ever spoken. So, he drank Hemlock. That is strength.

Now, this dialogue I share with you stemmed from a discussion I held with a colleague. While reading a scene from the novel I’m still rewriting (will it ever see light?) she didn’t agree with the reaction of a character.

Background–the protagonist is a boy who was raised solely by his mother, and within my world, they share a deep bond. For the first time in their lives, they are separated when the boy starts training as a knight. The mother fears what his life will become, and a few years later, she receives the news her son is on the verge of death. Upon hearing these words, the mother has a strong visceral reaction. Her skin pales and she nearly faints. This is the fear she’s held in her heart all her life.

My colleague felt this wan’t a proper reaction since a strong, female character wouldn’t display weakness. And I had to think upon this for some time.

When I write a character, I construct them from within. Meaning, I think of their life. How they grew up, what they believe, how they act, etc. And wether they are male or female, their actions will always be based on the culmination of their life events.

For some reason, I’ve been speaking about expectations a lot this week, but if you have not gathered it, I don’t have them. Life cannot be viewed for what it is with them, and will only be seen for what you desire it to be. It is the same with people. Humans are capable of strength, weakeness, vulnerability, tears, hate, or any other trait you can ponder. These are not attributes limited to either sex, despite what our society would have you believe.

Now, coming back to my colleague’s comment, I decided the mother’s reaction was proper given her life. I will not betray her charcter to present the antithesis of perceived notions of society. I will not hand her power. She instead has strength, for two reasons: it is a proper action given what she thinks and says, and more important, I believe there is no shame in expressing emotion.

Emotion is what makes us human. It is what makes life worth living, and why should we limit our emotions because someone in power says we shouldn’t feel something? In the short of it, the reason for this post, don’t allow others to shape your ideas of how people should act. Anyone is capable of anything regardless of what is between their legs.

I like many types of fiction.  SciFi, Fantasy, Mystery, Romance, even Horror.

          A couple members of the Stonehenge Writer’s Group write some excellent horror.  That’s a genre that’s incredibly difficult to pull off without being cheesy or letting down your readers at the end of the story.  Kudos to those who do it well!

          I believe horror can be roughly divided into two main groups.  The first: Grab the reader’s attention by drowning them in blood and gore.  The second: Rub the reader’s nerves raw, slowly, agonizingly, with an ever increasing application of tension — knowing something bad is about to happen, perhaps when you turn the very next page…

          Okay, reading that back I guess it’s obvious which type of horror I prefer.  Not that I mind well done blood and gore.  I just prefer to have it as a climax to a great story, not the only reason for the story.  That’s just my preference.  I know there are many who will vehemently disagree.  So for this post, let’s agree to disagree.  For me, the best is incredibly creepy OMG-is-it-going-to-get-me-NOW horror.

          So, what do you find horrifyingly creepy?  Something realistic?  Ghostly?  Monsterous?  Something tangible, like a phone call with no one there?  Or the intangible, like the glimpse of a shadow where it doesn’t belong?

          Is it worse to be with a group of people and know one of them can’t be trusted?    

          Or is being completely and utterly alone what makes it truly creepy? 

          How about finding your things moved, cleaned up and put away, when no one but you has a key to your home?  Would you tell yourself you must have done it and forgotten about it?

          Or the sounds of whispered conversations in your house that stop when you enter the room, even when you’re the only one there?  Would you tell yourself you’re just imagining things?

          Maybe it’s receiving a ‘love’ note from someone anonymous, who claims to have been watching you for weeks and thinks it’s nearly time for you to meet.   Would you report it to the police?  What if they said there’s nothing they can do?

          Perhaps it’s a sudden explosive shattering of glass from somewhere downstairs?  Would you go down, alone, to check it out?

          Is it worse if you’re woken from a dead sleep, barely dressed, half awake?  Would you call someone else?  Wake them up?  When it’s probably nothing…

          What if you glimpse, out of the corner of your eye, a shadow move past your dark bedroom doorway?  Would you tell yourself that was nothing?

          Or hear unexplained footsteps in the hall, right outside your door?  Would you pull the covers over your head and pray it goes away? 

          How about a ‘scritching’ sound, like fingernails would make, coming from the window that you can’t see behind closed curtains?  Would you get up to open those curtains?  To see what’s out there?

          I’d be interested in hearing if any of these push your creepy button.  Or do you have others?

          What is it about a horror story that makes you say, “That was awesome!”

Let’s talk about goals today.  I wrote about writing resolutions for New Year’s back in January, but maybe it’s a good time to revisit the topic–because after almost five months, it’s probably a good time to revisit goals too.

I’m in the middle of making some revisions to my writing goals–mostly because I’m not in the middle of revising my writing, and I should be.  I think one of the hazards of writing is that it’s easy to get caught up in the new shiny project, and never finish that one that’s already had so much work put into it.  Usually I have pretty good focus, but lately I must confess I’ve been flailing a bit.

I have two novel drafts that just need some revision.  One only needs one last final round, the other a few more passes.  But I’ve also started thinking about my next project, the historical fiction novel I want to do for NaNoWriMo 2013.  I figured between now and then is a good time for some research–which is good.  Except that lately, I’ve been shunting aside the other drafts in favor of research, which is bad!

My original writing goal for the year was to write every day.  I’ve done pretty well on that and I still am…only I don’t feel like I’m actually moving forward, because I’m not working on what I really should.  To avoid an endless string of half-finished projects and to move forward on larger things like, say, publishing, I really need to finish at least one novel draft before concentrating on the new one.  So I’ve been coming up with revised goals.

I’m a big fan of small-picture goals, like writing every day.  It’s immediately attainable, it’s measurable, it’s something you have to do now rather than putting off (as you could something that has a longer timeline).  However, I find I need to pair my small-picture goal with some bigger-picture ones, and set some deadlines.

Right now I’m giving myself a week for no-pressure, no-guilt fiddling about with the historical fiction novel.  But I set a date to begin revising my nearly-finished draft, and another date for finishing it!  After that, I’ll set new goal dates for things like querying agents and revising that second in-progress draft.

So that’s where I find myself on writing goals, not quite halfway into the year.  Did you set any goals at the beginning of the year (or some other time)?  How has it been working out for you?

CherryBlossomIn the following weeks, I’ll delve into how to take our writing to the next level. In the past months, I’ve written a lot about basic storytelling, shared best practices, shown how to hone our skills, and revealed a little about characters and world building. Here, I’ve broken out Advanced Storytelling into a number of important elements, and will detail each of these into individual posts in the weeks that follow. Hope you enjoy!

  • HOOK YOUR READER: From the first line in your story, it is important to suck the reader in by showing immediate tension with your protagonist. Next week, I’ll discuss what first lines we should avoid, which are overused, and what ingredients grill up an exciting hook. However, this goes far beyond that introductory sentence. When is it appropriate to relax the tension? When should we begin to delve into back-story? At what points in our story should we re-hook the reader with another twist? How do we end it in a way that is both satisfactory to the reader, and leaves them craving for more? Stay tuned, and we’ll delve into the details.
  • AUTHENTIC CHARACTER EMOTION – FLAWS, GROWTH, ARCS, AND TRANSFORMATION OF PROTAGONISTS AND ANTAGONISTS: I’ve shown in previous posts how important character emotion is. Emotion links us to our characters, gives us a stake in the story, and makes us truly care about what happens – connects us to fresh and new experiences. Might even have an impact on our world outside of reading. In this topic, I’ll discuss at what points in our story we should show character growth, (or the lack of), and dig into how to make this experience truly impactful to the reader. We’ll review best practices and the art of taking our characters’ arcs to the next level – both protagonists’ and antagonists’. I’ll explain the differences between proactive, active, and reactive characters. We’ll also dig into this scientifically – showing outlines and how this relates to our plot elements and increases tension.
  • TENSION, CONFLICT, AND THE DRIVING FORCE: To keep the story moving and our readers impulsively flipping the pages into the wee hours of morning, it is imperative to show the steady progression of plot and characters, the enticing details of hazards and wrenches, and the difficulties and growth that ensues. Some good advice: the more we torment our characters, the more interesting the story. When should we ramp up the tension and conflict? When should we relax? Sub-plots are at times necessary, but many times they are not. It is important to consistently progress the storyline, and at the same time, show the little steps and interesting details that keep the readers holding their breath.
  • YOUR WORLD – DETAILS, CULTURE, AND SENSES: It is easy to bog the reader down with unnecessary details, or do the opposite and not show enough. Where is the balance? This depends a lot on the story, style, genre, characters, length, and voice. But it is always important to make the world we portray real to our audience. Here, we’ll delve into the finer details and examples of great stories with interaction – and the differences of styles and how they relate to the overall theme and story structure.
  • THE THREE ACTIONS – ACTION, REACTION, INTERACTION: Characters and the world, the reader and writer, the plot and details. In this topic, I will discuss how we put it all together with the “Three Actions.” I’ll show how they interrelate and the parallels between them. I’ll reveal why these elements are so important and how they impact the storytelling experience.
  • STORY STRUCTURE AND THEMES – OUTLINING VS “PANTSING”: Hundreds if not thousands of books crowd the market, all showing the best ways to structure a story. Here, we will dig into why there are so many different methods, which to use, which to avoid, and why. Is there a “best” way, or does it depend on the style of the author? Should we conform to what the world is telling us, or enhance our natural strengths? There is much controversy here, and I will take a neutral stance in order to show the broadest picture, explain why so many authors are adamant that their own opposing and conflicting views are correct, and give my advice on how to proceed in this vast sea of style.
  • PROSE WITH STYLE AND VOICE – CLARITY, BREVITY, AND WORD CHOICE: Writing is an art, but with any art, the more knowledge and experience one has, the more likely one will succeed. The broader our experiences and perspectives, and the more we open ourselves to possibilities and ideas, the more likely we will achieve our goals. Our work ethic matters. Our passions matter. We must know ourselves, stay in tune to our strengths and weaknesses, then actively make ourselves improve and grow. Grammar might seem basic, but the more knowledgeable one is, the more command one has of language – not to mention an understanding of which rules are breakable and when. In this topic, I will discuss the differences between character and author voice, and expand on the importance of the words we use, and how we use them. There are many styles of storytelling, and I will show examples of some of the most common, and analyze their differences.

Like many, I have a passion for storytelling, but I’m also acutely aware of my strengths and weaknesses. The elements of self-awareness, knowledge, patience, understanding, wisdom, and work ethic are all fruits that set me on my path to success. To grow as a writer is to grow as a person. I look forward to your future comments and interactions.