As an editor, I truly wish more authors knew it was okay to focus on their strengths. So much craft advice encourages filling in the gaps in our writing skills. Learn how to avoid soggy middles! Craft a brilliant first line! Create dynamic characters, not static ones! And if you know my subtips, you know I am a huge supporter of learning great craft. But a really vibrant skill in one area can outshine an gap elsewhere.
Gaps in our writing skills can be book killers. But these days especially, the market is looking for strengths. What do you do that’s wild and knew and beautiful? Build a book around it. Plot a book around it. Maybe you’re a genius at describing guinea pigs. Lean into that! Plot around it!
If you’re so real and funny and nuanced with dialogue, take it to the max. Concept the book around the gutting things people say to each other. Plot me a magic system built on the power of words. Make the words visual, life-changing. Make us see words in a new way.
And completely aside from what the market wants, readers often care so much more about what a book does so well they can’t quit talking about it. They’ll often forgive so many weaknesses in a story if completely immerses them through a beautiful strength.
Unfortunately, the publishing industry often teaches writers that we aren’t as good as we think we are. We’re wrong about our gaps and our strengths. Maybe this breeds humility, but maybe it also breeds insecurity. We often end up not knowing ourselves as writers, partially because of that. If you not sure of your strengths, ask other writers. Ask a few readers and librarians. Get to know your own writing. Dig into what fills you with joy about it. Think of what your favorite writers are great at, and see if it’s a strength you share.
Usually, though, if we’ve been writing for a while, we DO come to know what we’re good at. We’re just nervous to claim it.
So please, friend, claim your strengths. Lean on them. Trust them. Write your strengths with bravery and confidence. That can make all the difference.
This last weekend I went to ALA Midwinter, a meeting of the American Library Association in Chicago. My publishing house sent me to be at YALSA’s Best Fiction for Young Adults teen lunch, where 6 authors spoke to over 60 teens to connect and introduce them to their newest books. I was there with Ally Carter, Elizabeth Eulberg, Heather Burch, and Sabaa Tahir, and I had a great time speaking with the teens. They were so sharp and motivated, and had so many great questions. The other authors were wonderful, too, and I was honored to be at the event with them and sign my book for those teens.
After the event, I went to some panels, including one on reaching out to the female geeks and nerds in your community, and one on hot new adult literary debuts from LibraryReads. I walked the floor and grabbed some awesome new books, too:
The AAP/Library Reads panel was especially good. Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train), Chigozie Obioma (The Fishermen), Colonel Jill Morgenthaler, (The Courage to Take Command), Melissa Falcon Field (What Burns Away), and Kirstin Valdez Quade (Night at the Fiestas) all spoke. Their books are some of the most anticipated debuts, and I’ve been hearing about Girl on the Train for months. One thing that amazed me about these authors was their vision. They have such a clear idea of where they fit in their genre, and they have something to say, and a story to say it with.
Left to right:
Melissa Falcon Field, Paula Hawkins, Colonel Jill Morgenthaler, Chigozie Obioma, and Kirstin Valdez Quade
After the panels Saturday, I met up with Elizabeth Blackwell, the author of While Beauty Slept, a riveting gothic retelling, and she also blogs for me over at Publishing Hub. We’ve been connecting online for a while but this was the first time I got to meet her in person, and it was so great to finally do that.
I met up with Bethany Robison, author and sports writer extraordinaire, for dinner, and author Nicole Baart for drinks after, and hanging out with those two is always a great time. I’m always stunned by what wonderful people authors and book lovers are.
Nicole and I, being excited about books:
Unfortunately, because of the blizzard that hit Chicago, my trip that was supposed to be overnight turned into three nights. More ALA wasn’t a bad thing, though, and I used my time wisely– more books, more drinks with author friends, and more listening to geniuses speak on their favorite topics. Nicole introduced me to author Renee Rosen, author of What The Lady Wants, which I have in my pile of books and am very much looking forward to reading now!
Sunday Nicole and I watched pieces of the Super Bowl in between Nicole’s grand introduction to The Walking Dead, because a marathon was running and she hadn’t seen it before. Any of you who follow me on Twitter know I’m a huge fan of TWD, and I’m never happier than when someone else turns out to love something I love, too. (P.S. THE WALKING DEAD RETURNS THIS SUNDAY.) We did go down to the hotel bar at the end of the game to watch, though, because Nicole is a better American than I am.
Monday, my second flight was cancelled, and I discovered that cabs are extremely expensive. However, I was able to attend Renee Rosen’s session on Chicago as a historical setting, and Nicole Baart’s session on handling difficult topics in fiction. Both were wonderful and thought-provoking.
"Survival is insufficient– I don't want to scrape my way through life, I want to embrace it"- @NicoleLynnBaart at #alamw15
Nicole Baart speaking on The Beautiful Daughters (releasing from Atria April 28) and on handling difficult topics in fiction:
Author Renee Rosen speaking on What The Lady Wants and Chicago as a historical setting:
When I wasn’t in panels, it was great fun to walk the floor, meet librarians, booksellers, and publicists. It’s hard work for all these people, and by the end everyone is tired and ready to go home, but it’s so clear how much these people love books and authors.
The line at the Penguin booth for the display hardcovers:
Books to watch for featured at the PopTop stage:
Three of the new “it” books I saw featured all over ALA this year:
Some other great things that happened at ALA this year:
And here is the shot you’ve been waiting to see– all the books I brought home from ALA! Ones I’m most excited for? The Alex Crow, Girl on the Train, The Start of Me and You, The Third Twin, The Dogs… okay, all of them. I’m excited for all of them!
I’m so happy to be writing this post, and I’m even happier to be inviting you to my launch party. It’s a bit unusual, and a lot wonderful, and comes from a pretty awesome chain of events.
Back in 2012, Nikki Urang and I were both querying our first manuscripts and had shared work, and decided to become critique partners. We didn’t have agents, didn’t have any publishing credentials, and were terrified that no agent was going to want us and not entirely sure we could do this publishing thing. We queried, and revised, and
Welcome to The Hit List: a game of sexual conquest. We won’t judge you, but your girlfriend might.
shared chapters of a new book we were each writing, and kept at it. We both shelved the manuscripts we were querying, and finished the books we were working on. We drew up lists of questions to ask agents if “the call” ever happened. We analyzed feedback in those coveted personal responses to queries. In March of 2013, a few months into me querying my new novel, Nikki signed with her agent, Nicole Resciniti. I was thrilled for her, because she’d worked hard and THE HIT LIST was awesome. We celebrated, and Nikki encouraged me to keep going. I kept querying, got a bunch of requests from agents, and started working on an R&R through the summer. Nikki’s book deal with Spencer Hill Press for THE HIT LIST was announced, and I signed with my agent, Carlie Webber.
This whole time, we went back and forth with panic attacks, worries, and all the nerves. All of them. But it was crazy fun, too, working through all this with someone who was going through it, too. I went on submission with my agent in January, and Nikki whipped me back into shape during several melt-downs. Nikki got her release date, and we celebrated again, because a fall release date is a wonderful thing. In March of 2014, my agent told me I had an offer. I panicked. Nikki helped me research, weigh the pros and cons, and supported me when I decided Merit Press was exactly what I wanted. The deal was announced, I was told it would be a fall release date, and we celebrated again. I dove right into edits since it would be a fast timeline, and then I was told my firm release date.
Both THE HIT LIST and HOW WE FALL are releasing on the same day. November 11, Nikki and I become published authors, and we are thrilled to have been able to go through all the rejections and questions and celebrations of querying and our debut year together. She’s been a huge support and encouragement for me, and I’ve tried my best for her. Our first signings were even on the same day, May 30 in New York City, at Book Expo America.
Because of all this, we’ve decided we want to have our launch parties together, and you are invited! There’s nothing quite like the writer friendships you make along the way to publication, and we want you there. Watching our families and friends all over the U.S. and even all over the world come through for us with support and
He kissed her on a dare. She told him to do it again. Their secret might tear the family apart.
encouragement and pre-orders and all those things every one of you has done has meant the world to us, and so we want you, there, too. We know many of you can’t travel to the Midwest for our launch party, but since this day is important to us, and you being there is important to us, we have created the most wickedly awesome launch party.
November 8-11, our critique partners and closest writing friends are getting together for a writing retreat in Omaha. Writers write, right? We’re taking a break from the hectic before-release-day demands and writing all weekend with wine, chocolate, and friends. You’ll see us tweeting about it, doing word sprints online, and having fun on the #YAlaunch hashtag, and updating the event’s Facebook page with fun news. The last night of the retreat is our launch party.
Jesse, my husband and a professional videographer, is going to film and live-stream the event. All you’ll have to do is click a link to join the party. We have games to play (Book Title Scramble, Name That Cover, a make-a-bad title/bad cover competition, and more) with you on Facebook and Twitter, Q&As, and through all of it we’ll be interacting with you live. Of course, launch parties have wine and chocolate, and we’re giving that away, too!
We’re also giving away over 100 books. Yes. 100. One hundred. You’ll want to come even if you’ve never heard of us just to win awesome books! We’re giving away prize packs of our critique partners’ books, books written by our agency/publishing house friends, books that inspired our writing, and books we would just love you to read. We’re going to be releasing a list of the books we’re giving away, so keep checking in to see!
If that wasn’t enough to convince you, we’re also going to be introducing you to the awesome authors who will be on the retreat with us, and you can ask them questions and get to hear about their work! Aside from Nikki and myself, we’re thrilled to be welcoming:
We’re so thrilled to have such a wonderful group of authors with us for the launch party, and we’re so grateful to all of them for their support and time and effort in coming to help us celebrate. You’ll definitely want to hear them talk about their work and get the chance to interact and have a great evening with them.
So when and how do you attend?
When: Monday, November 10, from 6-10pm central time.
Why: books, wine, chocolate, celebrating with Kate and Nikki
Nikki and I would love to see you there! Our friends, families, and fellow writers have kept us going, and we would be thrilled to celebrate with you. We want this to be as much a giant book party as our launch party, so even if you don’t know us, please feel free to come and meet awesome authors and win amazing books.
Please do tell your friends, share this post, and invite others to come! The event is open to the public and we’d love your help supporting awesome authors, fantastic books, and the writing community.
I made a change to the site today. I’ve had the tab above that says “critiquing services” for quite some time, and last fall, I joined forces with Alex Yuschik, an editor who’s as sharp as she is supportive. My freelance editing has grown enough that we’ve moved it to another site to have cleaner breakdowns of what we offer. If you want to make sure your pages are the best they can be before you query, if your query isn’t landing you requests and you think it may have issues, or if you want constructive, honest feedback on your entire manuscript, let us know! You can still click the “critique services” tab above to go to the new site for my editing, or you can go right to http://kaeditorial.wordpress.com
A bit about K&A:
K & A Editorial is a full-service editorial company for writers intending to have their work published. We do developmental editing, copy editing, line editing, and proofreading. Most of our clients come to us through referrals from literary agencies, publishing houses, and other authors. We’re serious about supporting the writing community, so keep an eye out for charity auctions, pitch contests, and giveaways we participate in—you may win a free critique!
For self-publishing authors: we offer a thorough 5-round editorial package designed to sharpen and polish your story until it’s ready for readers. Please see the whole-manuscript editorial tab on the editorial site for more details.
For writers pursuing traditional publication: we offer critiques of all your submission materials as well as partial and full manuscript critiques. We’ll help you improve your query and pages to catch an agent or editor’s eye. Check us out, and let us know if you have questions!
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.
Review by Alison Doherty Where We Belong
St. Martins Griffin, 2013
There are some authors I read because I know exactly what I’m going to get and other authors I read to just to see what new and exciting narrative they’ve created. Emily Giffin definitely belongs in the former category. I’ve bought and read all of her books, because I know what kind of story she will write and I know that I will like it. Her latest book, Where We Belong, is no exception.
In order to avoid botching the summary, here is the description of the book from goodreads.com:
Marian Caldwell is a thirty-six year old television producer, living her dream in New York City. With a fulfilling career and satisfying relationship, she has convinced everyone, including herself, that her life is just as she wants it to be. But one night, Marian answers a knock on the door . . . only to find Kirby Rose, an eighteen-year-old girl with a key to a past that Marian thought she had sealed off forever. From the moment Kirby appears on her doorstep, Marian’s perfectly constructed world—and her very identity—will be shaken to its core, resurrecting ghosts and memories of a passionate young love affair that threaten everything that has come to define her.
For the precocious and determined Kirby, the encounter will spur a process of discovery that ushers her across the threshold of adulthood, forcing her to re-evaluate her family and future in a wise and bittersweet light. As the two women embark on a journey to find the one thing missing in their lives, each will come to recognize that where we belong is often where we least expect to find ourselves—a place that we may have willed ourselves to forget, but that the heart remembers forever.
Giffin combines highly conceptual plots, innovative story structure, and spectacular character-development into each of her novels. She is really good at getting into the heads of women. She picks out the details that are important to them and, more impressively, manages to convey to the reader the differences between how they view themselves, how others view them, and who they really are. She then uses the structure of her stories, moving between character POV and time, to make you switch your loyalty between the characters.
Where We Belong is Giffin writing at her best. It’s especially good because of the heightened emotional stakes that come along with parenthood as the story’s primary relationship. Although fear not, both characters do have romantic involvements! Unlike her previous novels, in this story none of the characters development is ever really finished. The novel does not contain a traditional beginning, middle, and end, but instead portrays spirals of beginnings and middles as both women come to terms with the new identities their growing relationship with each other creates. As a reader and aspiring writer I really enjoyed the idea of constant character growth.
This is a fun, quick read perfect for a plane ride, day at the beach, or particularly long bubble bath. If you’ve liked Giffin’s other novels then I feel like I can almost guarantee you will enjoy this one. If you don’t like Giffin’s writing or don’t like the somewhat condescendingly termed genre “chick lit” then I suggest staying away from this novel. I also wonder how you made it through my whole review.
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?
#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
Pushing your characters out of their comfort zones is a key concept in developing compelling conflict. If your characters are good at everything they’re doing and don’t have to push themselves, we don’t wait around to see if they’ll get the job done. We know they will. When the conflict challenges the main character, we see character development happening all over the place. So, yes, of course we want to throw something at them that challenges their abilities.
But here’s the twist, and really, the most important part: don’t just give them something HARDER, challenge them with something completely opposite of what they’re comfortable with. The pro assassin who has his toughest case yet might be interesting, but it’s not as gripping as it could be. What does Katniss not have time for? Impractical things. Where does she have to go? The Capitol– the height of impracticality. She doesn’t have time for entertainment and doesn’t understand people who do, but yet she has to not only participate in but BE entertainment. Even when her life and Peeta’s are at stake, she still has to be good entertainment, or they won’t get help when they need it. Seeing Katniss struggle (remember post 1 on character struggle?) with things that directly conflict with her ethics, in an area she can barely understand, having to develop skills she has never used before, is a gold mine situation for character development. How she reacts tells the audience a great deal about her motivation, intelligence, resourcefulness, insecurities, and compassion. It takes every bit of who she is to survive.
And that’s key to this whole rule. Gripping conflict should push your characters to the limits, especially in their weak areas, because when it does, we find out who they really are. When you do that, characters have to change. They become deeper, more complex, more relatable, more memorable, and even more compelling.
Don’t forget to check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me!
Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,
Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,
Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and lit agency intern,
If you read my post from yesterday, you know that today is the first day of my blogging challenge. I’m blogging my way through Pixar’s 22 Rules of Storytelling as compiled by Emma Coates, Pixar storyboard artist. If you want to see the background on why I’m doing this and hear my thoughts on that article from The New Yorker that challenges those rules with some decisive language, my post from yesterday discusses that.
The rules themselves arebasic, time-tested methods and tips for writing fiction. Even though they are fairly basic, they are not always easy and definitely not always part of a writer’s process– even though they should be! Many of the issues I see in the slush pile that makes me pass on a project could be solved if the writers used these 22 rules. Often, when I love something in a submission, it’s because the writer did one or more of these 22 things well. They really are hallmarks of good stories.
Here’s rule 1, and my thoughts on it:
#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
I love that this is rule 1, because I love, love, love it. Character struggle is at the core of so many riveting, impacting stories. In The Hunger Games, Katniss’s struggles are endless and we’re never quite sure if she’s going to win. She struggles to feed and protect her family. She struggles to hide her practical personality and her hatred of the materialism around her in order to become an engaging tribute people will support– which is part of her struggle to survive. She struggles in a dozen other ways, too- surviving her burns and dehydration. Figuring out how she feels about Peeta. Readers become involved in her struggles and care about what happens long before they find out if she fails or succeeds. In fact, we admire her for getting back up and trying again. Hard things happen to everyone, but it takes someone special to get back up and keep trying.
In the early seasons of The Vampire Diaries, noble vampire Stefan just lacks something. He’s not nearly as interesting as his brother Damon, and even though they know he’s the morally better character, many viewers (dare I say the majority?) root for Damon. Why? Damon struggles with his nature, while Stefan has already beaten it. Stefan really doesn’t have much of anything to struggle over in those first seasons. Later on, his character becomes more complex, but it takes a while. Damon is the one who is torn between his evil vampire nature and wanting to be a better man than he is. In season 2, we see one of the most impacting moments of his struggle in the middle of the road, as he’s trying to decide whether or not to kill the young woman who stopped to help him. This moment is, in my opinion, one of the best scenes of the show. Stefan lacks a significant struggle. He’s got it figured out, and since he’s so noble and always does the right thing, we prefer his far more interesting brother.
Character struggle taps into two very important things: 1) forward motion in the plot, and 2) human nature. Plots need things to happen. We all know that. Some specific goal needs to be present. The character has to WANT something- finding her self-identity, escaping the kidnapper, winning the election, putting his marriage back together. So all the things that happen, the events, need to build toward that goal- even if she doesn’t get what she wants in the end. But it has to be difficult to get there. If characters got what they wanted without hardly trying, stories would be much shorter and much less interesting. If Katniss so impressed the Capitol by volunteering to be a tribute that they granted her and her family an exemption from the games, the book would hardly be worth reading. The difficulties along the way, the struggles thrown at the characters to keep them working hard for what they want, maps out an obstacle course that tests them to the max. Struggle provides something for the characters to do, something to fight against, and an instigator of character change. Struggle moves the plot forward.
Struggle is also a fantastic way of connecting with the audience. It’s one of the things that makes readers care about the character. Interestingly enough, it’s also a significant character development tool, because it does (or should) change the characters. Struggle, it seems, is intricately connected to human nature. We identify with someone who struggles because we know what fighting for or against something is like– even if it’s just yourself. Perhaps especially if it’s fighting against yourself. We can relate to it. It’s not the winning or losing that we’re after when we follow a character around for 300 pages. If the winning was easy, we’d barely care if the character succeeded. The emotion of the situation is all tied up in the character’s struggle.
So yes, we admire characters more for trying than for succeeding. Writers, use this idea when you write to boost conflict, deepen the struggle, and change the characters. Readers, look for the character’s struggle when you read, because identifying that is a fantastic means of accessing theme and really understanding the characters.
Also, all of you should check out the posts from my blogging friends who are doing this challenge with me! The first posts go up today.
Talynn Lynn, a writer, editorial intern for Entranced Publishing, and writing assistant extraordinaire,
Mary Pat, a writer, fellow teacher, and fantastic blogger,
Alex Yuschik, a writer, grad student, and also an intern to a literary agent,
Hello readers! Please welcome my first guest blogger, Bree Brouwer. She has some unique experience in the writing world, and she’s approaching building her career as a writer in an entirely different way than I am. Even though she wants to be a fiction writer, she’s starting in the nonfiction arena, and since she’s done such a fantastic job building a platform in such a short amount of time, I invited her here today to talk about the what and why of writing nonfiction.
When I was younger, I decided quite early on that I wanted to be a writer. My mom read me classic stories before bed like Little House on the Prairie and The Chronicles of Narnia. As I grew up, I discovered YA literature like My Side of the Mountain, and my all-time favorites Misty of Chincoteague and The Saddle Club (boy, I loved horses). As adulthood approached, teachers introduced me to Wilde, Tolkien, the Brontes, Austen, Lewis, Huxley, and so many more writers who created stories that made me yearn for more.
I wanted to do for others what these authors had done for me. In college, I decided to focus on a degree in English writing, determined to pursue fiction the rest of my life. The problem, as I’m sure many of you know, was that English writing degrees tend to involve lots of non-fiction writing, with only a smidgen of fiction classes added for “well-rounded” measure. I grudgingly showed up at my journalism and advanced expository writing classes, anticipating that next semester I could take screenwriting.
Why such a diversion to non-fiction writing, you ask? I grew up with a news anchor dad, and everything I saw in the news, journalism, and communication world disgusted me. The sensationalism of it all seemed demeaning and frankly unethical. Though I firmly believe that even one person can make a difference in an industry, I told myself I never wanted to be that one person. Leave the job to someone who actually cared more about all that non-fiction stuff.
So now that college had drilled me with mostly non-fiction knowledge, I had a choice to make once I graduated: focus on fiction and stay penniless for a while, or plod through a non-fiction job just to start paying off loans. I still cringed at the thought of becoming a journalist or copywriter, so I took a completely different route and became an online English teacher.
My job was a desk job in a massive warehouse-converted-to-office building, and since the school’s curriculum was pre-written, I mostly graded. At home, I was so weary of English and grammar in general that my writing slowed to a complete stop. Not surprisingly, it was towards the end of these three years as a teacher that I started to realize how much I needed to write… and write anything at all.
Fortunately, I’d been keeping up-to-date with all my favorite geeky websites about gaming and entertainment, and had been watching the developing world of blogging for years. I noticed that the more I read articles and blogs by other writers, the more I thought, “I can do this.” The world of new media journalism was growing, and I actually found myself wanting in on the adventure. I started applying for internships and volunteering to write for these sites, all the while thinking of a blog I’d like to start myself and hoping that my non-fiction background would pay off.
It did. This past August, a few months into writing for two sites, I decided to take the freelance plunge and quit my teaching job. I networked on social media, launched a geek blog, and scored an entertainment blogging position with a smartphone app company called Fanhattan. Though I had no paying clients, I was writing again and it felt perfectly right. I still don’t have many paying clients, but I’m slowly getting closer to a livable salary and adoring my little non-fiction writing successes along the way!
I really think two key factors were at play in my non-fiction enlightenment. First, the fact that I found a specific part of the often unethical, sensationalist world of journalism and non-fiction that I ended up loving (entertainment, new media, and other geeky stuff), really provided a whole new perspective on what I’d previously thought I hated. Second, I had never had correct guidance in college or directly out of it on how to find and become involved in this area of non-fiction. Once I learned all this myself, I was more than eager to try my writing hand at it.
I share all this with you because I know many of you are aspiring fiction authors like I was, and I know that as much as you want to write fiction, you shouldn’t avoid non-fiction. I don’t mean to turn you off from fiction entirely, because it’s still one I haven’t given up on myself. Instead, realize that some form of non-fiction exists that you probably would love to participate in (and in all reality, could easily get paid for doing so as you work on your fiction aspirations). You may find blogging about ancient Mayans gets you going, or contributing articles to a local non-profit newsletter creates a sense of accomplishment. Heck, you could even find joy in local news reporting.
Whatever it is you find about non-fiction that keeps you writing and stretches your skills, get to it, and don’t let your non-fiction prejudices hinder you. Would you be interested in hearing more from Bree about how to start building a nonfiction platform? Do you have any questions about writing nonfiction? Let me know in the comments!
Bree Brouwer is a freelance writer and blogger who loves investigating culture, pursuing geek enlightenment, producing videos & short films, and shopping for deals like a true Dutchwoman. She is working on the launch of her blog, Geek My Life (www.geekmylife.net). Her desire is to create, discuss, and promote content worth consuming; find her at www.breebrouwer.com. Find her on Twitter at @BreeBrouwer