I have been in a black hole of editing, drafting, revising, conferences, and travel for family. Just in case you want the details, between a family reunion on both sides of the family, conferences, and travel for my novel that released last November, this year I’ve been to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Minneapolis twice, Dallas, Chicago, New York, Arkansas twice, Colorado, Mexico, and Nebraska. I also moved from Iowa to South Dakota last month. This month, I’ll be going to Indiana for the Midwest Writers Workshop, where I’ll be both attending to learn, helping present a session on pitching your manuscript, and taking pitches myself for Entangled Publishing. I’ve also drafted a new manuscript, revised it, and worked through edits with my agent on a third manuscript. Add that to moving into an acquiring position at Entangled and working with my clients on ten released/soon-to-be-releasing titles, and that’s why I haven’t had time to tell you here…
I’m hosting a two-day conference in Sioux Center, IA. It’s a small conference, focused on one-on-one mentorship. New York Times bestselling authors Tosca Lee and Nicole Baart, myself, and library director Becky Bilby will be presenting lectures, workshops, discussion panels, and networking sessions on everything new and debut authors need to know: marketing, platform building, story structure, character development, writing dark fiction, publishing paths, revising and editing, and more. Attendees will also have the chance to schedule a private consultation with me, where they can pitch a completed MS to Entangled, receive a query critique, and get personalized career advice and have their questions answered.
It’s been an awesomely fun thing to create and promote this conference, and I’m so excited to try my hand at supporting new and debut authors in the way that so many others helped support me. We’re already almost at capacity, but I wanted to tell you-all about it, since you’ve been following me from the beginning. Register in the next 10 days, and you can still attend!
Another cool thing? It’s free for teen writers! If you’re 19 years of age or under, you may attend at no cost. For adults, the cost is $80. Next year it won’t be this inexpensive, so it’s a great year to come join the fun, learn everything I wish I’d known as a querying and debut author, and challenge yourself on both the craft and business of writing. Writers of all skill levels are encouraged to attend– sessions will contain advanced material, but no writer is too new for this conference. I’d love to see you there! And if you can’t make it this year, help me spread the word?
And beware. It’s intense! Check out the speakers, schedule of events, and more on the conference website below.
Writers spend a lot of time on their concepts. We put a lot of effort into making it unique, avoiding cliché ringing alarm or dream scenes, and giving it high stakes and relatable characters. Those things are great and absolutely, give those things your attention. But there’s another element that deserves more attention than it gets. A writer who masters this always gets my attention in the slush pile.
This element is an art form by itself. It’s often overlooked or not given the attention it deserves. It can make even an average story concept fresh and impacting. Any guesses what it is?
Prose. Whole books exist on the art of mastering prose. Agent Noah Lukeman wrote The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, which is a whole book on just the first page pages of your manuscript, and a big chunk of it deals with prose. Techniques for creating poetic prose with stark imagery and fluid meter exist, of course, and definitely study up on those if you haven’t. Backloading, front-loading, revolving length, consonance, etc., can be really great ways to add suspense and punch to your writing.
There are, however, four simple things you can do to kick the quality of your prose up a notch. These things will help smooth out your writing and help you avoid those issues that so often plague slush pile pages.
1) Lack of contractions. This happens most often in SF/F/paranormal writing. More formal phrasing is often the first route writers take when they want to make an angel/vampire/elf/immortal of any kind sound as if he or she is from another culture. This idea might have worked for the first few who did it, and it still might work if done extraordinarily well, but it’s such a common device now that it isn’t fresh anymore. Plus, and here’s the kicker, it makes the writing stilted. Even if your character is from another culture, it doesn’t work. Try saying the lines out loud yourself; if it sounds weird to you, it will to your readers, too. Overly formal writing, especially lack of contractions, pulls me out of the story and makes it that much harder to catch my attention. People think and speak with contractions 99% of the time, so not having them just doesn’t sound natural. If you want to make the voice more formal, find another way to do it.
2) Modifier overload. Adjectives and adverbs are like arms and legs. You probably need one or two, and sometimes they can really help, but more isn’t always better. Modifiers stand out in a sentence; be choosy. An author friend of mine told me her agent says she gets ten adverbs per novel. That’s how choosy you should be. Now, if you’re that choosy, maybe you can do more than ten. The point is, I wonder how many writers are actually aware of how many they’re using. If using words is going to be your career, you have to be aware. Here’s a quick trick to check how you’re doing with modifiers: Take just your first page and highlight how many adverbs and adjectives are on that page. I normally see 15+ modifiers on the first page—way more than a handful per chapter. Of course, the solution is to delete the modifier and use stronger nouns and verbs- “wailed” instead of “cried loudly”, or “hurtle” instead of “run quickly.” I like to keep in mind the principle of “detail that matters.” If it doesn’t matter that the flowers are pink, don’t tell me. They’ll show up as a color in my imagination even if you don’t supply one. But if the tangle of the stems and the withered leaves matter as insight about the protagonist, then by all means, use it. Just be aware, and be intentional.
3) Common phrasing. This is a little more abstract of a concept, but it’s easy to identify in a manuscript. When I read about bright sunny days, fear creeping over someone, half-smiles turning up a corner of someone’s mouth, etc., I get bored because I’ve seen all these things too many times. Cliches are definitely a part of common phrasing, but it’s more just ordinary words being used in an unimaginative way. When I read, I want to see a new perspective on something. Wintergirls by Laurie Halse Anderson is an excellent example of breaking away from the ordinary in showing the main character’s thoughts. Not everyone should go so far as to strike out portions of the text, but I do at least want to think, “hey, this writer sees that man’s shoes a little differently than most people would” or “I’d never thought of describing a street like that.” Language that shows unique thought is almost always gripping. In your characters and your concepts, you want to show us something new, and do that with your wording, too. Give us something new.
4) Word clutter. Modifier overload can be a big part of cluttered prose, but there are a few other elements involved, too. Empty words, words that hardly carry any meaning at all, should be avoided: there, are, is, was, were, it, etc. “There are” or “it was” are particularly common and limp beginnings to a sentence. “That” is another big offender. Empty words clunk along, dragging down the prose and drawing far too much attention to themselves. Use ctrl-F to find these words and uproot them. I once searched for “that” in my first manuscript, and found over 800 uses- about 3 per page. I deleted over half of them. Wordcount-wise, that’s more roughly 2 pages of nothing but the word “that.”
A final thing to watch out for is simply being wordy. Conciseness is at the heart of good prose- packing the meaning into your words. Don’t use a phrase when a word or two mean the same. I don’t mean turn your manuscript into a bullet-pointed list of nouns and verbs, and by all means, use the words necessary. But do be concise, and cut every word you don’t genuinely need.
With prose, less is often more. Be fresh, be concise, be intentional. A well-placed adjective or a neatly-turned phrase can make a sentence stand out, but piling on pretty words creates inflated language and purple prose that readers skim. Starkness and simplicity can make your prose gorgeous, so give them a chance.
I just posted last week about handling success as a writer, so this week I’m talking about the other side of the coin: rejection.
When I taught high school English, I tried to keep in mind that negative comments have about seven times as much power as a positive comment. As an editor, I try to give my clients “critique sandwich”- one positive comment on either side of a negative one. People simply feel negative things more intensely- and take them more personally- than they do positive things.
This is especially true of querying and being on submission. It’s hard, discouraging work, with more ups and downs than most people can imagine. We feel rejection intensely. Someone said no, and it’s hard to hear- even though we know agents can only take on projects they love, think they can sell, and are willing to risk their income on. All the reasons aside, someone still said no. Some days I handle it better than others. We can tell ourselves all sorts of things about how many famous authors had X number of rejections, how long it usually takes to get an agent/publishing deal, and how many factors affect those decisions- but those rejections pile up. Even when it’s not a huge pile, it can feel like one.
What rejection feels like is actually really important. For a long time, it felt like no one was interested in the story I poured my blood and love into, it felt like “the call” would never happen, and it felt like I’d trying forever without results.
Remember those are just feelings. They are a normal part of the process. Every writer feels them. Writers have to be able to take rejection, try harder, persevere longer, and keep going.
Continuing on when you’re feeling those rejections is hard. Even normal efforts can be draining when you’re discouraged. A lot of people just quit at that point- way before they should. But don’t quit. Use those feelings to make yourself a better writer. Here’s what I try to do:
Recognize the feelings are normal. Almost every writer has gone through the rejection blues. It’s not a sign from the universe that you can’t do this. It’s both natural and expected. It’s like the ache after working out; you tried really hard, and now it hurts. That’s okay.
Allow yourself some time to wallow- but just a little. Call in sick for a day if you need to, but don’t quit the job. Recognize that it’s discouraging, that it’s hard, and that it makes you worry. Admit it to get it out in the open. Don’t feel like you need to pretend.
Use those negative feelings to push yourself. Writers push themselves a lot already in a hundred ways- but when I’m feeling those rejections, I have to remind myself that writing is a job. I have to work when I don’t want to. I have to do things that are boring and frustrating and discouraging. If I’m serious about being a writer, I have to keep doing it.
Get back to work- but don’t just slog through feeling like your writing is worthless. I can never keep going if I am functioning like that. Make a plan for dealing with rejection.
Making that plan for handling rejection is important. I use my “rejection plan” all the time. When I don’t have the physical or mental energy to keep trying and manage my mood, I fall back on my rejection plan, and it works. Here’s what mine looks like:
Find a critique partner to cry on. They get it like no one else. As supportive as my husband and friends have been, they haven’t been through this in the same way CPs have been. Vent, rant, spew disparaging diatribes if you must. Get it out in a private environment with someone who understands. (Not in public, and not with a professional contact. Keep venting where it belongs.)
After wallowing, I pick up a great new book to read. I try to save one that I’ve been dying to read. They helped me discover again what I love about writing, and they inspire and encourage me again. A great new book lets me check out of my problems and discouragement, and gives me the time to find some emotional distance. TV and movies and hanging out with friends often don’t do this for me when I’m discouraged, because even with friends I’m still likely to be discouraged about the issue, and TV and movies (unless they are really wonderful) might let me check out of my problems, but they don’t inspire me to go back to writing and keep trying in the same way a great book does.
Then, I resort to my lists. When I’m too discouraged to put words on the page, when I don’t trust my diction and hate all my sentences, I work on items I can break down into lists with a yes or no check-mark. Character profiles, chapter outlines, scene lists, research, etc. I don’t have to finesse those, and they do need done. Sometimes it’s just sending a new query. When I was querying, part of my plan was to send a new query immediately every time I received a rejection. It was hugely helpful, because it was exciting to find a new agent who might like my work, and send off that email. Hope! And eventually, I sent the query that got me the request, which got me the call, which got me the offer.
Those short-term rejection plans really help me bounce back and limit the damage my discouragement does. Try making one for yourself that hits those same goals– venting, inspiring, and continuing to make progress.
Long term, of course, the most important element of my rejection plan is this: start a new project. Beginning a new MS is exciting and encouraging and full of potential. Having something like that to fall back on kept me going while I was querying and on submission, and it’s what’s keeping me from freaking out during the waiting months before my debut releases. It keeps me from obsessing and it keeps me working, both absolutely necessary things.
So here’s my encouragement: Keep at it in spite of the feelings. They’re natural, and they just mean you’re in the thick of it.
Writers are tough people. Being tough doesn’t mean we don’t want to quit- it means we keep going anyway because we know its worth it. We have stories and characters and what-ifs to share. We love pulling all those things together, and we’ll do what it takes to make it happen.
What do you do when you get discouraged? How do you handle rejection?
Even if you don’t write about young adult relationships, consent and non-consent in fiction needs to be handled intentionally and fairly. Most of us try really hard in our writing to not promote slut-shaming and rape culture and victim-blaming, but writing about healthy, considerate relationships requires more than that.
So what shouldn’t we be doing?
Showing force and manipulation as sexy— sometimes we think hey, isn’t it sexy if he/she wants him/her that badly? And I hope you know the answer there. Selfishness is never sexy.
Allowing our characters to react as if being pressured isn’t a big deal. Power and influence are incredibly strong forces on people, especially young adults, and being pressured for something you’re not ready for is traumatic and frightening. Enough people blow it off already; we shouldn’t let our characters do that, too.
Implying that “no” doesn’t really mean “no.” Playing hard to get can be a fun part of a relationship story, and teasing/flirting can be great. But when you’re building a healthy relationship between your characters and one says no to a date, a call, a text, a kiss, anything– the other one had better respect that. Sometimes we think it’s charming to have the guy take being turned down as an invitation to try harder, and when everyone is well-intentioned and our characters have no ulterior motives, it can be. But in real life, what does that look like? What does that feel like to the person who said no, to know they’re not being taken seriously, that their current wishes aren’t being respected? It’s scary. It’s offensive. We shouldn’t be modeling that as charming. It’s not charming; it’s dangerous.
So what should we be doing?
Calling out the flaws in our characters’ relationships— sometimes we write certain characters who do need to learn respect and boundaries, and relationships don’t always start off as healthy ones. If that’s the case, awesome job for writing realistic people. But call it out in the story. Make it an issue. Don’t let it just resolve itself (hint: that’s not resolving it) because they decided they loved each other. It’s a big deal; make it a big deal in your story. In addition to promoting a culture of consent and respect, those can be great turning points for your characters that will add depth and complexity.
Actively showing consent moments. It doesn’t have to be the super formal and sometimes awkward “can I kiss you?” (But hey, we all love awkwardness because it’s cute!) Work the consent into the flirting. Through hesitation and eye contact and body language. Use words and distance and time to show respect and permission. And if it’s more than just a brief kiss, have your characters check in with each other. Permission for one thing is not permission for all things.
Bringing consent into the relationship itself, not just the physical intimacy. Getting a girl’s number from a friend and calling her when she didn’t know you had her contact info? That’s invasive. In most situations, that’s not okay. Showing up at his house when he didn’t give you his address? Creepy. Invasive. Sometimes we show it as okay, as something that’s charming. For example, in the Vampire Diaries pilot– Stefan showing up on Elena’s doorstep. He’d met her outside the bathroom at school, then scared her in a graveyard– and now he’s at her home, at night? She really shouldn’t be charmed there. Not okay, Stefan.
Consent should be showing up all over the place when you’re writing a healthy relationship. And it doesn’t have to be super serious– it’s fine to keep it light-hearted. But work it in. Yes, you can call me. Come over some time. Can I meet your family? Would you like to go out again?
Home, contact information, being introduced to parents and siblings (especially younger siblings), and even friends mean your character is handing out some measure of trust and vulnerability. Don’t let those things be taken from them– let your characters give them to the other person. And if one (or more) of those things is taken away from them, make it a big deal. Address it. Your readers and your characters deserve a culture of consent and respect.
I’m not a particularly clumsy person. But sometimes when I’m thinking, I convince myself my body is just my brain and there’s no need to watch where I’m going or pay attention to my surroundings.
That happened yesterday, and I smacked my elbow on the corner of my upstairs hall. It hurt so bad I sat down there on the floor and gave up all hope of life.
I grew up a farm girl. I’ve nearly been killed in several accidents, I’ve stabbed my hand on sharp wire and lost a lot of blood, I’ve been bitten by dogs, been stung by hornets when they flew up my jacket sleeve, and been chased by snakes in the pond. I’m no weakling. And yet, sitting there in the hall clutching my elbow, it occurred to me that this is what I expect my characters to handle, except much more.
I expect them to take it, process it, handle it, and still win. I take everything away from them– friendships, family, health, resources. I cause them pain (for good reasons, I have to remind myself) and just when they get it handled and get back up, I knock them down again.
In trying to be a good writer, I have to test my characters. I have to throw everything at them, push them to change and become active and either fall or rise. The whole process of telling the story is me asking them, “Is this the best you can do?” I expect the best from my characters. Is this the best fight you can put up, the sharpest thinking you can do, the greatest love you can give, the hardest you can try?
When we expect so much from our characters, we’d better not be expecting less of ourselves. As a writer, are you doing your story justice? In the time I’ve spent editing and writing (not nearly enough) I’ve started to realize the humble writers, the ones who are willing to go back to the drawing board and read books on writing craft and take the harsh critiques, are the ones who make it.
When you’re asking yourself if you’re ready to query, if you’re done with edits, if you need to change this or that, here’s the question to ask: Is this the best you can do? We ask for the best, the most, the hardest things, from our characters. Give your writing your best, and keep asking yourself, “Can I do better? Is this all I’ve got? Is this the best I can do?”
Find the answers to those questions, chase them down, settle for nothing less, and you’ll become a good writer.
Waiting to find the time to write. Waiting for drafts to pull themselves together, waiting for beta readers to get back to you, waiting for edits from your editor, waiting for reviews, waiting for something, anything to happen.
Waiting is a huge part of a writer’s life. And I hate it. When I’m waiting, those thoughts creep in. That I’m not a very good writer, that no editor would want my book, that I’ll never have another idea as good as the last one I wrote. And even if I manage to fight those thoughts off and tell myself that’s not what the silence means, it’s frustrating and stressful. Waiting on other people to get back to you before you can meet your own goals, waiting for a yes so you can continue– it’s frustrating. It’s stressful when you’re not sure what’s going to happen, and if readers or agents or editors will like your work. Stressful waiting for the approval, the advice, the go-ahead.
There’s a lot of advice out there on how to handle the waiting involved in a writer’s life. Adjust, work on a new project, spend time with your family. It’s all good advice. And I’ve tried it, and it works pretty well, for the most part. People would ask me “So how’s the writing thing going?” and I got pretty used to saying, “Oh, you know, just waiting.”
I don’t think that attitude is good for me. It weighs on me. It takes a toll. I don’t like saying I’m waiting. I can’t turn off the writer part of me for very long and pay attention to something else. A consistent, balanced lifestyle works better for me, where I’m making progress daily or weekly and moving toward my goals. I can handle rejection and lack of news much better when I know things are moving forward anyway.
So, for those of us who can’t handle the waiting, here’s my thought:
Stop waiting. Stop saying you’re waiting. Stop thinking about it that way.
If you want news to come to you, make the news happen. Of course, spend time with your family and take a break if you need it, but stop telling yourself you’re waiting. Find things you can do when you can’t move forward in one area. Read that book you want to use as a comparison title. Research the next ten agents you’re going to query. Connect with writers in your area. Blog genuinely and frequently. Build your platform with meaningful connections. Take the time to read Writing the Breakout Novel and On Writing and Master Class in Fiction Writing. Go to a conference and learn, connect, be inspired. And yes, write that next manuscript.
If you don’t want to be waiting, don’t wait. Push forward in any area you can. Small success are a tremendous encouragement, progress builds over time, and no one holds more influence over your career than you do. It’s yours. Go get it.
You know the feeling. You’ve been writing along, feeling the gut-punch of creating an awesome scene, and when you take a break and re-read, the scene reads flat. Limp. But you’re a pro, so you know this is probably just because you’re too close to it now, so you let it go and decide to come back later. Maybe you keep writing, maybe you go read a great book or do some research to reset your brain. But when you come back, it still sounds lifeless. There’s a lot of action– someone is in danger, someone revealed something painful, or maybe it’s a fight scene. Whatever scene it is, it’s one you need to really grip your readers and land that blow, but it’s just sitting there, and you know in your gut you didn’t deliver the punch you wanted to.
Don’t ignore that feeling. If you can sense that, you have fantastic instincts. That’s your writer’s brain trying to get your attention, saying “Hey- we’ve got a problem.”
If you think about that for a minute, that will lead us to the answer. A flat scene is one that’s not getting up off the page. It’s just sitting there. It’s not alive, it’s not true-to-life in some element. We’re seeing it through a character’s eyes, but somehow that character’s experience isn’t hitting us. And it should be.
That feeling tells you you’re missing something. But when you know where to look, it can be pretty easy to see what you’re missing.
A character’s experience breaks down into 5 separate things:
Thought– In 1st and 3rd person where we’re very close to the character, a character’s thought is often also exposition. For punchy scenes, blend them better. Use the character’s voice to phrase things, don’t use too much exposition, use thoughts that heighten the tension. Make as much of the exposition thought from the character as you can– this tightens the psychic distance (the distance from the readers to the character’s mind) and gets us right in the middle of things.
Action– Usually this one isn’t the culprit, but make sure things are happening. If it’s not a particularly active scene, don’t let people just sit there. Have them use actions and gestures that heighten tension and show their emotional state. Grip things, rearrange things, pace, throw things, etc. Reaction is a big part of action– most of what we do on a daily basis is reacting to something else, and reactions are powerful things. Use your character’s reactions to show how this is affecting him/her.
Dialogue– Technically dialogue is an action, but it’s a distinct one that often either dominates a scene or gets left out, so it’s separate. Check to make sure you’re not letting it take over the scene; sometimes what’s not said is more impacting. Let us read between the lines. Make sure, too, that you actually do have dialogue in there somewhere. People accuse, demand, and give ultimatums through dialogue. Most escalation happens through dialogue, so make sure that you have it, and that what you have contributes and is the best way to show the detail.
Sensation– We all know to use the senses when we’re writing, so bring us the action through textures, instincts, sounds, detailed sights, scents (which often carry memories), even taste. We can sense something that your character doesn’t, so channel the sensations to us through him.
Emotion– This one often gets the same treatment that dialogue does– way too much or none at all. The most impacting use of emotion is usually brief and powerful. We don’t need long, winding paragraphs that drown us in grief or loneliness. By the time the reader finishes those, the action has paused for so long we’re looking around for something to happen and we’ve lost interest. Basically, we don’t care. Keep it brief, make it deep, move on. But keep it going, too. Come back to how all these actions and dialogue and sensations and thoughts are affecting your character emotionally. We get worn thin. Old wounds get opened up. We become desperate. Sometimes we’ve just had it. Keep the emotional progression of your character advancing; don’t let what they’re feeling sit there. Make it go somewhere.
If a scene feels flat, it’s almost always one of two things- 1) either you’re showing, not telling (a different post) or 2) one or more of the 5 things above is missing from your scene. In all the pages I’ve seen come through slush or edited or written, most often I see emotion and thought being the ones missing or over/underdeveloped.
Check through your scene to see if you’re missing any of those. Use highlighters if you want, and color each one of the five a different color in your scene. See what dominates. See what’s missing or needs boosted. See if any moment carries more than one.
An impacting scene is a dense chemical blend. Miss one element, and it doesn’t affect us like it should. That denseness is important, too– if you’ve got all of those things happening, it’s a lot, but it can’t take forever on the page. Make sensations carry thought. So, combine them. Make action show emotion. Use dialogue to push the action. Get two or more from that list into each moment, and you’ll have something dense and impacting. Your scene won’t be flat; it will get up off the page and have a life of its own. We’ll walk into it, and you’ll have created something we can live in, too.
Writing a love story is tricky. I’m not talking about romance as a genre. I’m talking about any element of a romantic relationship between characters. Creating that kind of compelling connection is tough work. But when it’s done right? We get something personal, something relatable and impacting.
A lot of times the romance is made up of what should really just be a friendship. Similar priorities, an internal need that the other person can meet, a few traits that challenge the other person– that’s a fantastic recipe for a friendship, but it’s not deep enough for a love story. Even if you add physical attraction to it, it’s not really a love story.
A love story, no matter how big a part of the story it is, needs to go much deeper than friendship plus attraction. When you’re reading, ask yourself why these two characters love each other. Why does he love THIS intelligent, confidant woman with a dark past, and not some other one? Why does she fall for THIS quiet, funny guy, and not any of the other million men who have those traits? When you’re building a love story, it’s key to the whole process that these people have more than just the building blocks for a friendship. Of course, friendship love stories are wonderful things– but they don’t stop with the materials for friendship.
True attraction might look simple. It absolutely may feel simple to your characters: I see her+she’s hot+not a bad personality=I’m attracted. But I’m not convinced by that. Genuine attraction is a thousand tiny, powerful connections being made– perhaps in a single day or maybe over a decade.
Generating these connections is how you get the potential for a love story, and getting them on the page is what makes the love story impacting. It’s what convinces readers they’re watching something real happen. It’s what makes them believe that out of all the people on this planet, these two people want each other and no one else. And most importantly, those connections breaking is what makes the near-misses and fights and failures so painful. Things really are breaking.
So what kind of connections? How many? When? Where? How do we generate these connections and put them on the page?
The connections I’m talking about are most often tiny little points of recognition, challenge, enjoyment, desire, and admiration. Sometimes these things can be huge and obvious– two characters together on quest. But that’s not nearly as impacting because there’s really nothing new about it, and it’s such a big thing we’re not surprised. Maybe they both like cinnamon in their coffee. Okay, that’s much smaller, but it’s also a little contrived. Can you get away with it? Maybe, depending on the reader. But readers don’t want a giant sign on the page that spells out “these people are perfect for each other!” There’s very little reason two people liking cinnamon would result in a lasting, important connection. At best, it’s a mildly interesting parallel.
The connection points we’re looking for are ones that are impacting. Impact is created by weight. It leaves a mark; it has an effect. Connection points should be things that are emotionally important, surprising, thought-provoking, unusual, or endearing. In one of my recent manuscripts, my main character falls for a guy partially because he’s been able to survive both physically and emotionally in some pretty terrible circumstances, and she’s not sure she’ll manage to do either of those things. They have a connection point because of it. One of the reasons he notices her is her competence–she adapts to new circumstances and figures out how to handle herself well enough to get the task done. He likes that because he feels like he failed to do that when it really mattered.
Connections don’t need to be so straightforward, either. My guy likes my girl in part because she’s hell-bent on getting justice, and he has almost never been treated fairly. Her search for justice has nothing to do with him, but he likes her vision of how the world should be. And after a while, she notices his reclusive hobby is getting revenge on the villain in a much more subtle way than she is, almost as a side effect of his own success. So, the connection points don’t have to be exact matches or immediately recognizable. Twist them a bit, turn them over, put them inside something else. Readers will love digging into them and seeing why they matter.
Now, those are emotionally weighty things. They’re not small connections. But by themselves, they wouldn’t be a solid enough foundation for a love story. We need dozens more. And they all need to have emotional impact and a reason for the other person to connect with it. They should be big things, little things, things they find fun, different things they hate for the same reason, things they love for opposite reasons– so many complex, important connections that it becomes a powerful physical attraction, no matter what the characters look like.
The combined effect of so many complex connections gives both the characters and their story uniqueness and individuality. That’s what will convince readers that THIS quiet, funny guy is the one she’ll fall for, even though she’ll come across a lot more quiet, funny guys pretty similar to him. That’s why they’re not just friends. Their pattern of connections is unique, weighty, enjoyable, and key to who they are. It makes them want each other.
Writing a believable attraction on an emotional and physical scale is tough, interesting, rewarding work. You’re creating one of the most powerful, affecting relationships on earth. By its very existence, it has meaning for us and how we live our lives.
Want more on this topic? Below are two TED talks that I found very interesting and useful for writers who are dealing with some element of attraction or a love story in their writing. They’re also very helpful for building characters with charming/sexy/attractive personalities. They’re highly recommended.
I fast-draft all of my manuscripts. It’s much easier and much less stressful for me to write several thousand words a day for 5-6 weeks than it is for me to scratch out 1k a day and constantly be thinking, worrying, and problem-solving about my book for six months. I love fast-drafting because it allows me to get in the zone and stay there.
If you’re doing National Novel Writing Month along with so many of the rest of us, you’ll be trying to write 50,000 words during the month of November. Here are some tips and tricks from a perpetual fast-drafter for getting those words on the page:
1) Get in the mindset. Chant these to yourself until you believe them: You can’t polish a blank page. You can’t edit what you haven’t written. A first draft’s only job is to exist; if it exists, it’s a perfect first draft. Leave editing for December.
2) Prepare your lifestyle. Make a few meals ahead of time and put them in the freezer. Or, you can swap cooking duty with a friend or family member nearby; offer to cook a few nights for them in Dec. if they bring over a meal or two in November. Stock your pantry and freezer with items that won’t spoil so you can cut down on trips to the store. Consider hiring a neighbor kid or local student to come help out with basic house cleaning for an hour a week; I’ve done this several times, and for $50, I don’t have to vacuum or clean the bathroom for a month. Those are valuable writing hours.
3) Re-prioritize writing. For fast-drafting, writing has to not be the thing that gets done once everything else is done. Unless I have guests coming over, when I’m fast-drafting, the house chores suffer. And that’s fine with me. Writing has to come pretty close to first to get a project like this done. Explaining to your family what you’re trying to do and how much work it is is a great idea; consider asking them to help pull the extra weight by taking over dishes, walking the dog, doing laundry, making breakfast so you can get right to writing, etc., in exchange for a fun family party or outing in early December.
4) Create productive ways to give your brain a break. Buy a book that’s a treat– one you’ve been dying to read. Reading helps me to get out of sentence patterns and word habits I get stuck in when fast-drafting, and it’s a blessed relief from hearing my own voice on the page. Working on outlining or research tasks is also a great productive break. I work through a copy of Donald Maass’s WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK every time I draft. When I can’t write scenes anymore, I switch to the book and work through a section. It’s also a great thing to take along for sitting in waiting rooms, working on during a car trip, or anytime I have 5-10 minutes to spare but can’t get writing done. I also keep a file of research tasks– look up this, Google that, find out X crazy detail– that I can work on when I can’t write anymore. Doing these things lets me write scenes when I have the time and energy, and it gives me productive things that don’t require the same level of mental engagement when I don’t.
5) Get rid of your Kryptonite. If it’s Candy Crush, swear off. If it’s Netflix, stay away. Facebook or Pinterest? Have your spouse/a friend change your password and ask them to let you on once a day. Any activity where you aren’t aware of time passing means you’re likely to spend more time doing it than you meant to. Usually way more. It might be your “braindead activity” but unless we’re very different people, those things won’t refresh you and they’ll simply be a black hole in your time.
6) Reward yourself when you meet your daily goals. Maybe the reward is reading time, or chocolate, or new music. I recommend rewards that don’t require tons of time– television, social media time, games I like, etc., tend to mean I stay up too late enjoying my reward, and my writing time the next day suffers. So make sure your reward doesn’t make your writing suffer. A great reward for me is swapping pages with a CP or friend who is doing NaNo– reading each other’s pages quick (no crits, just reading for fun) and squealing over fun details and awesome tension is incredibly motivating. When so much material is being created so fast, the urge to share it and have it heard because IT IS SO AWESOME gets overwhelming. So, share it! There are few better rewards than having a friend love it, too. (But again– no critiques, no editing. Just OMG LUV and high-fives.)
7) Remember that unless you don’t start, you can’t fail. That’s the great thing about NaNo. You can “win” by writing 50,000+ words, but you can’t really lose. If you write 10,000 words, you have a fantastic start on your book, plus all the planning and time required to actually put words on the page. You’re gaining, you’re making progress, you’re creating something every day you put down words. No matter how many words it turns out to be, creating isn’t failing.
Are you doing NaNo? Do you have an awesome project in the works?
Fiction is a form of art, and art is personal, subjective, and filled with exceptions.
However, fiction is also a science, with specific principles and forms that are guided by the psychology of how people read and respond to story. These things can be taught and learned. They can be added to a writer’s skill set and significantly improve both the writing and the story. (Side note: if you’ve been told you’re not a good enough writer, that’s why you should keep going if you want to be one. Like all things, becoming skilled is a process.)
The first chapter of a story, often the first two chapters, can be incredibly difficult to write. It’s often the most rewritten and revised portion of a book, and it’s the place where flaws can mean you lose the attention of an agent, editor, or readers. Readers decide within a few seconds of opening a book whether they’ll keep reading, and it’s up to those first chapters to hook the reader enough that they’ll spend hours following your characters around instead of all the other things they could be doing.
Complex stories in any genre, and especially sci-fi and fantasy, can be particularly difficult when it comes to beginnings. Almost every story needs to open with action, tension, subtext, clearly defined main characters, a compelling connection to those characters, and a central conflict or problem. Fitting all that into the first few pages of a story is hard enough, but it gets exponentially more difficult when the story contains a large cast, several subplots, a huge backstory, and multiple points of view. This is often the case with sci-fi and fantasy, and it’s those genres I see struggling the most with their beginnings. Complex contemporary stories (TV example: PARENTHOOD) can also struggle here quite a bit.
One TV show that does tension, plot, and character well is The Vampire Diaries. (Plus: Damon!) I’m using it as an example of how to open particularly difficult stories because it has an enormous cast, a backstory covering thousands of years, multiple points of view, and several main storylines and subplots.
Note: there are spoilers in this post referring to the first episode, and a few beyond that. If you haven’t seen the first few episodes, I highly recommend watching them now (Netflix has the show) to get the most out of this post and to not spoil the story.
Episode one of season one of The Vampire Diaries has a lot going on. We meet Elena, Jeremy, Jenna, Stefan, Caroline, Bonnie, Matt, Tyler, Vicki, and Damon, as well as a few minor characters. High stakes, including two deaths at the beginning, tragic pasts, supernatural content, and compelling goals for each of the main characters make this a particularly difficult story to begin. It’s a wildly successful show, with viewers coming and staying for the history, romance, tension, character depth, and moments of genuine emotion. So let’s see how the show starts a story that does all that.
Here’s the first few minutes of the show, in case you want to refresh your memory:
Personally, the first few minutes of episode one strike me as weak and scattered. We have Stefan’s voice-over telling us that he’s been hiding for centuries and that he’s a vampire. Then we switch to a car with a man and a woman returning from a concert on a foggy night. They hit someone, both people are bitten and killed by what turns out to be a vampire. This is a prologue, and I don’t think it’s a particularly effective one. When I first saw this episode, I thought the characters would be important ones, and they weren’t; I thought the concert would be important, and it wasn’t; I wondered briefly if it was a flashback, and the man and woman were Elena’s parents, which was confusing. Then we have the show’s title appear, and we cut to Stefan’s point of view, and get more voice-over telling us that his coming home is a major risk, but he has to know “her.”
So basically, we have a prologue from Stefan’s POV split in half by a prologue containing strangers and a mystery killer. The goal of the prologues, most likely, is to give us the tone of the show and let us know there’s more going on in the story than we think. Neither of these goals justifies having one, and especially not two, prologues, when it fractures the beginning and we could find out in much more subtle and intriguing ways that there’s more going on in the story than it at first looks like. Prologues like this rob the reader of wondering; we’ve been told there’s a vampire, we’ve been shown in the most obvious way that he’s not a good one, we’ve been told there’s major risk to him somehow, and we know this is all connected to the girl. All of that material would be more impacting, and therefore more compelling, if it was worked into the story bits at a time and in more subtle ways, because then the reader wonders and asks questions. That’s key to tension. (The psychology behind telling a story on screen is slightly different for movies and TV shows than for books. Prologues may be part of that; I’m addressing the techniques used in telling this story as if it were a novel.)
The story hits a much stronger note when we switch to Elena’s POV just over two minutes into the episode. This is where “chapter one” starts, and is where the strong storytelling begins. Elena is writing in her diary, which makes the title of the show make sense for the viewers. I’m not a fan of the diary element in these first few episodes, partially because it’s a bit cheesy and partially because it’s also a form of telling. The diaries of the founders are a much stronger reason for the show’s title. However, we do have some great stuff happening here. 1) We are tightly focused on a girl in a specific moment. Tight focus is necessary for story beginnings, even for stories with huge casts and long backstories. Give us a single character, MAYBE two, to connect with, and focus on the moment, the particular action that is happening right then. 2) We’re also meeting Elena on a day something changed. Starting on “the day that’s different” is a fantastic device that enables readers to jump into action and follow a character as her world alters; right there, we have action and character development, simply from watching the character react to change. Elena here is vowing to make today different by hiding her still-present grief for her first day of senior year. 3) We hear her say “Yes, I feel much better” and the camera shows us family photos on her dresser. This is fantastic tension; we know something tragic happened. We figure out what when she immediately follows that with saying she lost her parents. I’d rather see that line cut and leave the readers wondering why she’s grieving. Raising a question and then not answering it immediately raises tension and helps to hook the readers, as long as they know enough to ground themselves.
And we do know a lot about Elena, even though she’s only been on screen for a few seconds. Her room and clothing show (see? showing, not telling) us that she’s a middle-class American teenager, the photos show us a happy family, we know something went wrong and she’s struggling. The very first page of Elena’s story gives us action, tension, a bit of context, and a compelling struggle for us to connect to. Grief is universal. So is struggling to present a strong face to the world. Most viewers can relate to her, and so far she’s likeable because of it. We also have her goal, which is vital to guiding the story. Managing her grief as she starts school is enough of a goal for now. Make sure your characters have a goal right off the bat; we need to know the goal so we’re interested in whether the character succeeds or fails. We’re already reading (or watching) to find out whether the character wins, and if so, how.
Note where the story begins: we don’t have a crowded stage with several characters, we don’t have a chunk of backstory or exposition, or a high-action chase, or epic danger. We’re allowed to settle into the world by watching one character struggle with something relatable. Details are brief and impacting, and tons of information is withheld. And we have questions: how did her parents die? Where is she going? Why is today important? We’ve spent about 40 seconds with Elena by this point, so about one page. Aim for that effect with your first page. Ground us, compel us, hook us. Make us question and relate. Keep the focus tight.
The next scene cuts to the kitchen as Elena walks in, and we meet our first new character: Jenna. We’re seeing the effects of Elena being parentless because Jenna doesn’t know what to get her for breakfast, the mood is hectic, and the room is a bit of a mess. This gives us the sense things are just the bumpy side of normal here. And that’s more tension.
Adding to the tension and hectic mood, Jeremy walks in. We saw him briefly in the family photo, so we can assume he’s related. We also get a question answered: Jenna mentions their first day of school. Opening pages need to continually raise questions– some big, some minor– and answering the minor ones as we go helps to make the reader trust that the author will make progress toward answering the big ones. That makes a huge difference in whether you’re hooking the reader or frustrating him. A frustrated reader puts a book down because he doesn’t know enough to make sense of the story. A reader who is hooked keeps reading to find out. Raise questions, answer a few, and keep raising more as you go. (Side note: keeping questions floating around does more than raise tension; it also prevents you from giving tons of backstory and info-dump, which remove questions, slow the pacing, and cause readers to skim.)
We’ve also got bits of character development scattered all through this. Jenna is overwhelmed but trying hard. She offers breakfast, lunch money, and anything else she can think of. She forgets about her presentation, and dashes out the door late for it. Jeremy has tension written all over him; from his movements to his lack of eye contact, he shows he’s withdrawn and unhappy. He takes the lunch money; Elena doesn’t. Elena, in fact, is the one to remind Jenna of her presentation. We immediately, less than 3 pages into the story, have these characters pegged: Jenna is trying but is in over her head, Jeremy is unhappy and acting out, and Elena is grieving, responsible, and trying to help others around her. This is enough of a sprinkling of character development for us to get a clear picture of who they are. Later they’ll get deeper, but it’s enough for now.
Right before the scene ends, we get the tension raised again: Elena asks her brother if he’s okay, he rolls his eyes and says, “Don’t start,” and Elena is annoyed and hurt. The focus shifts from Elena to the TV behind her, where we see a news broadcast with photos of the two people who were killed coming home from the concert during the prologue. We have tension between Elena and Jeremy, which lets us know there are problems there. We wonder why, and what kind of problems. We have a callback to the killings on the road, letting us know they’ll come up again and be important.
This is all in the first minute and a half of the show past the prologues, and probably about the equivalent of the first three pages of a story. A little more than this is what you’d include as sample pages in your query. This amount of story is actually more than most readers will give your book when they’re browsing in Barnes & Noble, and agents will often need even less to tell if your story isn’t for them.
Openings are difficult because they have to do so much in so little space. Sprinkling is the key. Even when you have a massive story and a large cast, keep the focus tight and as you expand it, just sprinkle in the tension and details and relationships. That’s what I want to emphasize here. Of course genre differences apply– frequently there’s more action and suspense in thrillers, for example. But in general, just use bits of information, shades of development. Sprinkle in those things, and you’ll have to room to get your plot and characters on stage, leaving room for character goals, tension, action, and suspense. Even the plot should develop in small steps. Notice none of the storylines have been developed yet. We don’t know much about any one thing, but we know a little bit about a lot of things. We have a hint of something supernatural. We’re grounded in a modern middle-class American high school life. We have a family in turmoil because of recent deaths. Our main character has a goal; Elena desperately wants to start off her senior year with a strong face. Plus, we have dozens of questions, and numerous possibilities for things to go wrong. School is starting, something’s wrong with Jeremy, Jenna is overwhelmed and might have trouble with these teenagers, and we know there’s a stranger in town and there’s been two killings. Readers will keep reading, and agents and editors would be interested because the story is already complex and layered with relatable characters, and the information release and tension are subtley done.
Yes, there are exceptions, and yes, a particularly strong element can carry weaker elements and still have a strong opening for the story. But if exceptions were what usually worked, they wouldn’t be called “exceptions.” And if you have a particularly strong element in your beginning, don’t burden it by making it carry a flawed structure or weak characters.
These are the kinds of things that make for a strong opening to a big story. Tight focus, a strong goal for the main character, questions, tension, suspense, a bit of context, development of the main character and their relationships, and enough action to take the story just a step forward. All this should happen in a very few number of pages, and the key is sprinkling. If you have chunks of any one thing in your first pages, chances are it’s crowding out other things that need to be there. It definitely can be done; TVD did all that, prologues included, in three minutes and thirty seconds. Sprinkle them in at the beginning, then pull on those threads once you have everything on stage.
This is part one of a series of posts on TVD episode one, so come back next time to look at how TVD pulls on all those threads!
What are your thoughts? Are you a TVD fan? What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing or structuring opening pages?