Fiction Fundamentals

How Not to Start a Novel: Four Things to Avoid on Page One

21 July 2014

From author Janice Hardy via Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

The first page of your manuscript is critical for more than just grabbing an agent’s or editor’s attention. Readers often read the first page or two to determine whether or not to read the novel. If those pages grab them, they’ll buy the book. If not, they’ll put it back on the shelf. That’s a lot of pressure for 250 words.

Which is why those words need to capture the reader.

Common writing advice will tell you to “start with action,” but that doesn’t mean blow up a car or rob a bank—and this can actually hurt your opening not help if it.

What it really means is to start with something going on. It can be something going wrong, (my personal favorite), something revealed, something denied, something craved—the list is endless. But no matter what shape this “something” takes, there’s a sense that things are about to happen, and that it won’t be good for someone.

This sense of anticipation creates questions readers will want answers to. Why are the characters casing that playground? Who is that woman following them? What’s the deal with these two people arguing way too loudly?

However, one question you want to avoid is, “What’s going on?” A vague opening that confuses is not the type of question you want readers asking. They should be able to guess what’s going on, even if they’re not yet sure what it all means.

. . . .

Here are four common mistakes to avoid when crafting your open scene:

1. Having too much backstory and explanation.

Until the reader knows and cares about the characters, they don’t want to know the history of the world or the backstory of the protagonist.

They want to see a character with a problem and be drawn in by that story question.

Too much information can slow a story down and overwhelm a reader. If it’s too much work to read, they won’t read it.

Think of it like this: you walk into a party and some guy comes up to you and starts telling you all about his grandmother and how important she was to him, and how that’s affecting his current decision on whether or not to move to Baltimore and take this job he’s not sure s the right position for him. Are you intrigued? Odds are you’re looking for any excuse to get away from this bore.

To fix: Cut the backstory and look for ways to show how that backstory affects your character in that scene (If it doesn’t, that’s a big clue you don’t need to mention it at all). If it’s critical to know the protagonist is scared of dogs, don’t stop the story to explain how he was bitten when he was five, show him seeing a dog and being too scared to move. 

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

You and Editors

26 June 2014

From author David Farland:

I got an email the other day from an unhappy writer who said that editors aren’t really editors anymore. He said that they’re just “choosers,” picking stories that need the least amount of fixing. Nobody edits.

I certainly see his argument. There are some incompetent editors. For example, I recently got an email from an author whose novel was rejected by a young editor because it was written in third person. She said, “Young adult novels are written in first person, not third!” The same editor wrote another rejection letter to another author saying, “You have adverbs in your manuscript. I would never publish a book with adverbs in it.”

. . . .

Let’s face it: traditionally, say thirty years ago, many editors weren’t formally trained. They often rose up from the secretarial pools, where they worked as slush readers. They may have had no training at all as a creative writer, or editor.

What they did have going for them was “literary sensibilities.” In other words, when they saw a story that moved them and they knew that it would touch other people, they had the good sense to buy it. Their literary sensibilities might have been their best qualification. A good eye is a gift. It can’t be trained into a critic.

. . . .

[T]hough I have worked with dozens of editors over the years, I probably have had more training than any of them. Does that mean that they weren’t helpful?

Not at all! A good editor brings his or her literary sensibilities to the table, along with their experience, which may indeed by quite vast. My editor at Tor, for example, has more experience as a book editor than anyone else in his field.

. . . .

Sometimes I will get letters from people who desperately want me to write their stories for them, or to teach them everything that they need to know to become a writer. I will usually respond by saying, “I really can’t do that.” There are just too many people who want to become writers without doing the work. I’m not a ghost writer, and I don’t have the time to be anyone’s tutor.

Editors will often feel the same. It’s not their job to go in and “fix” every manuscript. Indeed, most manuscripts can’t be fixed. Too often the authors will tell stories that are stale, where the basic concepts to the story make it so that the tale isn’t worth telling.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Writing Dystopias

21 June 2014

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor Dave Farland:

The best dystopian settings arouse realistic fears in the reader. In other words, the author studies the world as it is today, and very often will look at social conditions and consider, “If this goes on, how will the world change?”

So, for example, in a book like 1984 we’re shown a world where Big Brother is always watching you, where history is instantly revised in order to support current government policies, where big government uses deception and propaganda to control the masses. Does it sound familiar at all?

When Orwell published the novel in 1949, he had seen how Hitler’s “big lie” campaigns had worked in Germany, and how the Soviets and other countries were controlling news broadcasts around the world.

To a certain degree, people in every society are constantly struggling to unravel their leader’s lies, so this kind of dystopia resonated with its readership.

. . . .

In the same way, if you look at The Hunger Games, you can see some ugly aspects of American society playing out. Certainly, the Hunger Games themselves echo the popular reality television shows likeSurvivor, where attractive men and women compete for a grand prize in a primitive location. The show is all about lust, betrayal, starvation, and competition.

Certainly in Hunger Games you don’t have to look far to see the comparisons to 1984, where a Big Brother character constantly watches and manipulates the masses, always on the verge of sending in his troops.

In short, both books play upon reader’s fears by echoing current problems.

. . . .

Some concepts are merely absurd. For example, you could write a dystopia in which giant carrot people are growing humans in hydroponic gardens. It might work as a comedy.

A story can easily move from sounding prophetic to becoming barely plausible to sounding absolutely stupid. It’s a sliding scale.

Link to the rest at David Farland and thanks to Eric for the tip.

Stephen King: How I wrote Carrie

5 April 2014

From The Guardian:

While he was going to college my brother Dave worked summers as a janitor at Brunswick High. For part of one summer I worked there, too. One day I was supposed to scrub the rust-stains off the walls in the girls’ shower. I noticed that the showers, unlike those in the boys’ locker room, had chrome U-rings with pink plastic curtains attached.

This memory came back to me one day while I was working in the laundry, and I started seeing the opening scene of a story: girls showering in a locker room where there were no U-rings, pink plastic curtains or privacy. And this one girl starts to have her period. Only she doesn’t know what it is, and the other girls – grossed out, horrified, amused – start pelting her with sanitary napkins … The girl begins to scream. All that blood!

I’d read an article in LIFE magazine some years before, suggesting that at least some reported poltergeist activity might actually be telekinetic phenomena – telekinesis being the ability to move objects just by thinking about them. There was some evidence to suggest that young people might have such powers, the article said, especially girls in early adolescence, right around the time of their first —

POW! Two unrelated ideas, adolescent cruelty and telekinesis, came together, and I had an idea …

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Nick for the tip.

Promises to Keep

12 March 2014

From Dave Farland:

A reader wrote last week and asked, “Can you talk about the promises that authors make in a manuscript? I’m not sure that I understand what people mean.” So I hope that this article helps:

As a teen, I once read a fantasy novel that had a picture on the cover that showed a wizard fighting with some lizard men. I read the novel, and liked it pretty well, except for one thing: the mage on the cover was too old, and there weren’t any lizard men. I kept thinking, “It must come at the end!”

But the scene never did take place.

. . . .

As authors, we tend to make promises that are more subtle. I have seen stories come to me in in the Writers of the Future submissions, and on more than one occasion that author has promised, “This is the greatest story ever told.” I’ve even had authors send release forms, asking me to promise not to steal their ideas, etc. Most of us authors don’t take ourselves quite so seriously, but we do make promises. We just tend to be subtle about it.

Very often I’ll get a story in my manuscript pile that starts off being funny. It may be beautifully written. It might have an engaging conflict. But when I reach the end of the story, too often I will find that the humorous piece turned tragic.

The author promised me one thing on page one, but delivered its opposite at the end of the tale.

. . . .

There are certain inherent promises that every author makes. For example:

1) I will respect my characters. This means that at the end of the story, I won’t kill my protagonist or have him fail for no reason. I may have him die a heroic death, but if I do, there will be a purpose behind it, a deeper meaning, a compelling reason to end the tale tragically.

This is important. When a reader becomes engrossed in a tale, the reader adopts the persona of your protagonist. It’s a lot like slipping on a glove. If the protagonist is likeable, and is much like us, or is very interesting, then we might find that it is effortless to adopt the persona, and we will then virtually “live through” the protagonist’s experiences. In fact, in the best tales, we don’t slip into the persona effortlessly, we do it enthusiastically.

So when an author decides to harm a protagonist, the reader feels attacked. As a professional author, I know better than to assault my readers.

Link to the rest at David Farland

Balancing Character Agency

2 March 2014

From Mythcreants:

It’s pointless to debate whether plot or characters are more important. They are both essential, and they work together to create the story. Unfortunately, they don’t always work well together. More than a few storytellers have planned their plot to the end, only realizing once they started the story that their characters wouldn’t come quietly. Balancing character agency will help you prevent this kind of disaster, while still allowing you to mold the direction your story takes. Here’s some things to keep in mind.

Characters Must Make Their Own Choices

Most experienced roleplayers can recall a time when they felt powerless to steer the story. The corridor in the house they were exploring offered no side passages, and became a brick wall behind them. The Duke asked them to defend the walls, and offered instant death by spikes as an alternative if they didn’t want to. This is known as railroading, and any GM who does it regularly will have a rebellion on their hands.

Railroading can also happen in written works. Just stuff your characters in a body bag and toss them around without a chance to strike back. Or worse, have the hero make decisions that are out of character in order to serve the plot. Strong written characters have a will of their own, not unlike roleplayers.

Regardless of whether stories are interactive, they are infinitely more satisfying when characters make meaningful choices. A common complaint about the Hunger Games is that Katniss had no agency. The series gave her few chances to steer the story. Some of this was necessary – if given the option, she would have kept her sister safe without battling 23 other kids. But as the conflict grew wider in scope, she should have picked the role she would play. Instead, other characters made that choice without her input.

For character choices to be meaningful, they need to have a significant effect on the story. Something very important should change based on the decisions the characters make, and the audience  - players or readers – should have an idea of how the outcome would have changed with a different choice.

Link to the rest at Mythcreants

Getting Great “Word of Mouth” Advertising

9 February 2014

From Dave Farland:

There are certain books (and cars, and foods, and vacations) that somehow demand to be talked about. You know what I mean.

For the past couple of years, I’ve heard people talking about the hit television series Breaking Bad, which tells of a high school chemistry teacher who decides to start a meth lab. I heard enough about it, that last summer I finally decided to watch an episode—and found myself deeply hooked.

Obviously, as authors, all of us want to get great word of mouth advertising. It is easily the least expensive form of advertising—since it costs you nothing—and the most productive form of advertising, since it comes in the form of testimonials from people that you know, and trust, and who are more or less a lot like you.

. . . .

If you look at books that have gotten great word of mouth, there are a few things that they have in common.

1) Story is more important than style. Most bestsellers aren’t stylistic masterpieces. Instead, the authors offer prose that is merely workmanlike. The prose doesn’t interfere with the story. Many great stylists are actually challenging to read, and their stories become opaque and obscured due to overwriting. Bestsellers on the other hand are usually easily understood.

. . . .

4) The story transports the reader. It may transport them to another time or another place, but it also needs to transport the reader emotionally and intellectually, make them feel things that they want to feel, think about things that suddenly become important to them.

Link to the rest at David Farland

To Grow or Not to Grow

28 January 2014

From NYT bestselling author and former writing professor, Dave Farland:

If you want to understand how vital character growth is to good fiction, take a look at a few classic movies. Study such films as Good Will Hunting, As Good as it Gets, Orange County, and The Silver Linings Playbook. In each of these films, every major character grows during his or her time on camera. It’s a motif in Hollywood. Having a character grow as a person is practically a requirement for any comedy, any feel-good movie. But it’s not a new thing.

In fact, this pattern of growth remains consistent through nearly all great works of fiction ever written. (I only say “nearly” because as soon as I say all, someone is going to come up with something that doesn’t have growth, like Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and then we’ll have to argue all day about whether it was great literature.)

Note that in literary fiction, it is often said that the characters should merely “change,” not grow. But it is not nearly so enjoyable watching the demise of a protagonist as it is to watch one succeed. Change may intrigue, but growth inspires.

. . . .

A pattern emerges in many of the world’s most popular stories. Consider for example A Christmas CarolLord of the Rings, and Ender’s Game.

In each of the tales that I mentioned, the protagonist starts out like a child, viewing evil as something outside himself. Poverty is not a problem that Scrooge normally worries about–it’s something that happens in other counties. Frodo’s Dark Lord is in lands far away. The Buggers are on another planet.

But evil soon strikes closer to home. The protagonist discovers that it’s in the people around him. Scrooge discovers that his best employee is suffering. Frodo confronts his Boromir. And young Ender Wiggins discovers that children who should be fighting evil are cruel and divisive.

Link to the rest at Dave Farland and thanks to Lee for the tip.

Escapism vs. Reality Check: On Creating Honest Fiction

24 January 2014

From author Ryan Casey:

Not grim in the quality sense of the word. I happen to think it’s pretty good on that front. But grim in mood. Tone. Grim in character, in setting, and in the twists and turns of plot.

Writing grim fiction is something I’ve always done, really. I’m a fan of dark comedy, gruesome mysteries, as well as complex character studies. That’s what I’m interested in, as a reader, and that is reflected in my fiction.

However, I know there is a different kind of reader out there to me. A reader who enjoys positive spins on life; a reader who enjoys transportations to fantasy worlds much more idyllic than our world. I like these works too — there’s nothing like a quality fantasy or sci-fi to transport your imagination elsewhere. Escapism is a good way to switch off from reality. Sometimes, we don’t want reminding of the harsh realities of the world. We get enough of miserable reality in the media.

That said, ‘reality check’ works are my personal fascination. One look at my published works should be enough to give that away — What We Saw impersonated a cute childhood mystery, but background themes of marriage breakdown, domestic abuse and mental health issues hung over the story like a dark cloud. Most people got this, but some people didn’t like this — many reviewers questioned whether the book was a kid’s book or an adult book. They spoke of the lingering sense of mystery; the sense that not all was resolved in the conclusion.

This is the exact reaction I was looking for.

. . . .

But the question is, should fiction have to be about escapism? Should it have to be about happy endings, neat resolutions and clean-cut characters?

You know my answer to this already. I believe not. Hell — maybe I’m being naive. Maybe I’m losing a section of the reading market by refusing to adhere to what we are apparently supposed to write. But that’s okay, because I know there’s a smaller section of the market who do want to read these ‘reality check’ works. A group of readers who do enjoy character studies. A group of readers who enjoy being forced to question their fiction.

Link to the rest at Ryan Casey

Plotting

18 January 2014

From NYT bestseller and former writing professor, Dave Farland:

We often begin a story with very little in mind—a powerful image from a dream, a play on words overheard during a conversation, an emotion that we want to capture, a clever idea for a twist. As these ideas begin to stack up, we begin to form a story.

I often feel that the ideas that give me the genesis of a story are like pieces to a puzzle—a puzzle that I will create. Yet when I first imagine them, I only glimpse parts of a complete image—a flash of blue sky here, the eye of a monster there, a mouse in a meadow.

As I imagine the story piece by piece, a novel eventually takes shape. But I want to emphasize that for me, at least, books don’t “take shape” by accident.

I was reading an article recently about Madeline L’Engle, who wrote about how she once went through a five-year dry spell as a new writer. In her memoir “Summer,” Madeline recalls telling her mother about people who say they’d like to write books, yet somehow can’t. “The reason they don’t ever get around to writing the books is usually, in the young, that they have to wait for inspiration, and you know perfectly well that if an artist of any kind sits around waiting for inspiration he’ll have a very small body of work,” she said. “Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.”

I agree. Most of my inspiration comes while plotting and composing a book.

. . . .

A novel doesn’t have just one plot. A complex novel may have a dozen plots. As I’m plotting my novel, I take each of my main viewpoint characters and create a plot chart for each one. Each important conflict gets charted out.

Link to the rest at David Farland

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