Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 6 of 9)

Are those purposes also true in fiction? If we’re writing fiction, we need to remember the principles I've mentioned in previous blogs. And there is more.

In fiction, we need to insert other elements close to the beginning. We introduce our major character as early as possible. Unconsciously, readers identify with the protagonist—male or female—because reading is a vicarious experience. For ten minutes or ten hours we become someone else as we turn pages.

Be sure to make the time period clear. Unless you tell us differently, we'll assume it's the present. But don't have people fight with swords or radioactive beams without making readers know the era.

Don't underestimate the importance of place. We're all creatures who occupy space on the earth and we want to know where a story takes place. Place is like an anchor. Once we know we're in Sydney, Australia, or Rye, New York, we can enjoy the story instead of wondering, "Where is this taking place?"

Good novelists know the important elements of a superb beginning—and they include them.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 5 of 9)

On our first page we make a contract with readers. We’re saying, "If you’ll invest your time in reading me, I’ll make it worth your while."

Whatever we promise in the beginning sentence we need to deliver. In my article on health that began with the question, "How long do you choose to live?" I offered 1,200 words on how to make better choices that affect our health and longevity.

The first sentence also shows the tone or style of the material—the voice we’ll use throughout the article or chapter. If it’s humor or a light touch, we need to make it obvious and stay with that tone. If we want to write with a more somber tenor, we need to start that way.

Here are four made-up beginnings that express different styles. Which voice is closest to yours?

• Eight years, 49 diets, and 900 pounds ago I decided to get serious about my weight.

• What should we, as Christians, know about the Bible? What information do we consider essential to make us well-read and informed believers?

• Prayer is either a problem or a source of power. We can view it with doubt or with quietness.

• Who is the addict? I observed behavior patterns of three individuals, all productive, who work in my office. I'll explain their behavior and you decide who is the addict.

I choose the tone I want;
I show the same voice throughout the writing.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 4 of 9)

Beginnings serve several purposes. One is to grab readers. But that’s not enough. Good beginnings need to build on at least two other significant matters—and that’s when it becomes difficult. They present or hint at a problem, and they need to make readers care about the story or the person or both.

Instead of focusing exclusively on snagging attention, we need to incorporate all three ideas. Try to make it happen in the first sentence and certainly by the end of the second paragraph. If we don’t, we evoke yawns or rejection slips.

Here are two examples. This is the first sentence of a nonfiction article on health and nutrition I wrote several years ago: "How long do you choose to live?"

In those seven words, I incorporated all three purposes. First, the sentence grabs readers’ attention by causing them to think. Second, it implies a problem. That is, we have to make choices about the quality and length of our lives (and the next two paragraphs reinforce the idea). Third, we assume readers care about how long they live.

Those three principles may not be obvious to readers, but they need to be in the mind of the writer.

In my book, When a Man You Love Was Abused, I open with these sentences:
He was molested—or at least you suspect he was. That means he was victimized by someone older and more powerful than he was. He is someone you care about deeply, and because he hurts, you hurt.

The beginning grabs attention and lays out the problem of male sexual abuse. The final sentence makes readers care about a man who hurts but it also enables readers to face their own pain.

Readers are more interested in themselves and their needs than they are in us and what we want to tell them. Thus, we write to answer questions or explain issues.

Good writers incorporate three principles
each time they begin a writing project.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 3 of 9)

How do I know where to begin a manuscript? No single answer works here. The best advice is to start at a point of tension. Throw me into a story or an article that pulls my emotions or my curiosity and makes me want to know more.

The best way to show this is to mention a book I wrote in the early 1980s called Woman on Death Row. Where should I start? I asked members at a conference and received many answers: At her conversion? At the moment she receives her lethal injection? When she poisons her first victim? When she hears the death sentence? Any of them might have worked.

I opened the book when the sheriff comes to arrest Velma Barfield. The book goes about 80 pages before readers realize she committed murder. I reasoned that if they thought she was innocent, they'd be more interested than if I started with her death or the pronouncement of a sentence.

First rule: Start at a high point of tension. Begin where you can pique readers' interest. You can always go backward or forward once you hook readers.

Second rule: Start with a sympathetic character so readers can identify. (I mentioned this in a previous blog.) We can identify with Velma because we care about her predicament. We like her. Haven't most of us been accused of things we didn't do? I expect many of us have fantasized how we'd respond if someone accused us of a major crime.

There is no one place to start,
but choose to start with drama.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 2 of 9)

What makes a good beginning? I started thinking about the question of beginnings at a writers conference in 2002. For seventy-five minutes I listened to the instructor teach on first paragraphs for a story or an article. I liked much of what he said; however, he didn’t say enough. He emphasized the need for what he called a hook—a grab-me beginning. At thirty minutes into his presentation, he said, "Now you’re going to write a first paragraph." He gave us an idea that worked for fiction or nonfiction. We had ten minutes to complete the assignment. When several read their pieces aloud, the instructor grinned often because they had grasped what he meant.

Most of them wrote provocative beginnings, but a few of them did more than grab readers’ attention.

My biggest objection to his lecture was not what he taught, but what he didn’t explain. He implied that if writers had a powerful hook, that gimmick was all it took to get an editor to buy. Even though the lecturer had published four books, he missed the purpose of good beginnings. They are more than just gimmicks to grab attention. I'll tell you more in my next blog.

Clever beginnings aren't enough to sustain an article/chapter.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Questions about Beginnings (part 1 of 9)

What’s so important about how we start an article or a book? I can give the answer in one sentence: We must earn the right to be read. It’s that simple; it’s also that difficult.

For me, the most difficult part of any piece is the first sentence. If readers don't like the invitation to read, they'll close the book or click on a different site.

All of us have different methods of writing, but here's my one immutable rule: I don't start writing a manuscript until I know the first sentence. I may edit those words and change the structure of the opening paragraph five times, but I know where I want to start.

If I know where to begin I can plan where I want to go and how I'll get there.
I rewrite those first words more than anything else. For example, I’ve already rewritten the first sentence of this blog entry six times and I may revise it again before I finish.

Good writers earn the right to be read.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Weak Fiction (Part 3 of 3)

Make me care. Good fiction presents at least one person that readers care about. They may not like the person very much but if the character intrigues them, that's another way to say they care. Scarlett O'Hara isn't particularly likeable, but she's fascinating and readers care—they want to know what happens to her. Before we send off our magnus opus, we need to ask: Why would anyone want to read this?

Someone once gave me a manuscript and it took eight pages to get the heroine awake and out of bed. Another three pages lapsed before she got out of the shower. She kept remembering past events and thinking of terrible trials she had endured. I don't know what happened after her shower: I put down the manuscript. I didn't care.

If we can't identify in some way, we won't continue to read (unless forced to do so in a literature class). We call it reader identification.

When we read (and this is just as true with watching a film or TV), we become at least one of the characters and that transcends gender and age. The story or the character touches something inside us. We become involved in the story.

When I was fifteen I read The Human Comedy, which none of my friends then or since has liked, but I hooked into every character, especially the teen-aged boy Homer or the drunken Mr. Grogan. Markus was Homer's older brother and away in service. I felt the pain and the heartache of the family when they learned of Marcus's death.

One book won't appeal to everyone, but I've seen too many manuscripts where we have no one with whom to identify or care about.

Good writers make us care;
good writers work hard so readers can identify with their characters.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Weak Fiction (Part 2 of 3)

A few years ago a publisher asked me to endorse the first book in an adventure series. I knew the author slightly and was eager to help. I began to read and before I finished the second chapter I knew I had to decline.

He didn't know a major rule of fiction: RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain) that I gleaned from Browne and King's Self-editing for Fiction Writers. Hide the back story. Never let what happened in the past stop the action in the present.

As I remember the book, four people appear in chapter one. That was fine and four people aren't too many. The author made the caper clear and connected each of the four men with the proposed heist. That was fine. As he introduced each man, however, the writer spent more than a page explaining the person's past and motivation. That was not fine. I was bored and I didn't care.

Read those last three words again: I didn't care. Worse, the action stopped four times. It's like seeing a car speeding toward you and you ponder whether you want to quit your job, leave your marriage, or go back to your meds. While you ponder, the car should have hit you. If two paragraphs go by and someone hasn't taken evasive action, you are dead. And so is the story.

By contrast, The Good Guy by Dean Koontz does an excellent job of omitting all back story. We learn about the three major characters only from what they tell us. Most writers aren't expert enough to do that. So do it this way: sneak in the back story—a sentence or two at a time. Readers will like you for it, even if they don't know what you're doing.

Good novelists resist explaining everything—
especially in the opening chapter.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Weak Fiction (Part 1 of 3)

If you want to sell fiction, know your genre. That's almost too obvious to write, and yet many people don't grasp that every area has its own rules and sometimes fairly rigid formulas. If I read a mystery, I can expect the book to focus on murder, arson, robbery, or some serious crime. The chase—solving the mystery—is the high point.

If romance is your genre, stay within your field. You might include a crime, but (a) make it a subplot and (b) it must contribute to the romance. Again, that seems obvious.

Study the work of others who write in the same area. Make sure you understand and consider their writing as your guidelines. But that's not enough: Don't make your book sound like others in the field. This may be subtle, but the differences distinguish the excellent from the mediocre. For example, I can pick up a Christian romance and by the third page I know what it is. It has what I call a twang. The story is usually predictable, but the writing is, one friend said, "too nice to be real life."

Good fiction means to stay within your genre, but not to sound like the others in your field. Say it differently. Think creatively instead of following the formula laid down by half-a-dozen others.

Good writers know their field;
good writers write distinctively.