Friday, September 30, 2016

Questions about Beginnings (Part 7 of 9)

How long should a beginning be? I often hear that question. My answer is: As short as possible. Some experts say not more than 100 words (about half a manuscript page). Instead of focusing on length, concentrate on it being easy to read and quick to absorb.

Give us enough words to pull us into the writing. Hold back nonessential information.

When I browse a book or a magazine, I'll give the writer the benefit of one paragraph. If I'm not at least mildly interested, I stop. I always have a stack of reading material at my desk—more than I'll ever read—and so do many writers. I want my reading to be pleasurable and I don't want to work at reading.

For instance, two days ago I started to read a blog entry where the writer tells about an emotional experience while watching a film in a theater. Before she grabs us with the experience, in the first paragraph she writes about the price of the ticket and that she doesn't usually attend action movies.

I shook my head. Those two things may be important to her (spending money and justifying attending a film) but not to readers. I lost interest.

Beginnings contain only essential information to draw readers to the material.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

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, September 23, 2016

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, September 20, 2016

Questions about Beginnings (Part 4 of 9)

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, September 16, 2016

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, September 13, 2016

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, September 9, 2016

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, September 6, 2016

Reading Aloud

I've often heard writers speak about reading their work aloud before sending it off. I disputed that advice and said, "I hear it inside my head."

This is my confession that I was wrong. I recorded five radio scripts for the publisher of Not Quite Healed. The publicist chose segments for me to read in 35–40 seconds.

As I read in preparation, I was shocked at some of my bad sentences. I understood them only while reading them aloud.

Here are two that I'm embarrassed to have written.

First, it's a good thing I didn't see everything in the beginning . . . Notice the double thing, and I started with a weak it's.

It would have been a better sentence if I had written it this way: I didn't see everything in the beginning, and that was good."

In another script, my sentence read, "We lived with our hidden anguish for years." Not a bad sentence, but it has the wrong emphasis, so I changed it to read: For years, we lived with our hidden anguish.

When I read aloud,
my ear catches what my eye misses.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Dangling Modifiers

(By Kathy Ide)

When you begin a sentence with a modifying word or phrase, the subject of the sentence is what must be modified by that word or phrase. A “dangling modifier” is a phrase that does not clearly and sensibly modify the appropriate word.

EXAMPLE #1: Changing the oil every 3,000 miles, the Mustang seemed to run better.

The subject of this sentence is “the Mustang.” The modifying phrase is “Changing the oil . . .” A Mustang cannot change its own oil. So you’d want to rewrite that as something like: “Changing the oil every 3,000 miles, Sandra found she got much better gas mileage.”

EXAMPLE #2: Walking to work, the eucalyptus trees reminded Lynette of Brandilyn Collins’s latest novel.

The subject of this sentence is “the eucalyptus trees.” The modifier is “Walking to work . . .” Eucalyptus trees don’t walk to work . . . not even in Brandilyn’s novels. So rewrite: “As Lynette walked to work, the eucalyptus trees reminded her of Eyes of Elisha.”

EXAMPLE #3: Slamming on the brakes, the car swerved off the road.

Unless you’re Stephen King, the car in your story probably didn’t slam on its own brakes. So: “Robin slammed on the brakes, and the car swerved off the road.” Or: “When Robin slammed on the brakes, the car swerved off the road.”

EXAMPLE #4: Six months after attending the writers’ conference, Gail’s article was accepted by a publisher.

The subject of this sentence is “Gail’s article.” “Gail’s article” did not attend the writers’ conference. So you’d want to rewrite to something like: “Six months after Gail attended Mount Hermon, her article was accepted by a publisher.”


Be sure the action in the modifying phrase can be accomplished at the same time as the action in the rest of the sentence.

EXAMPLE: Hugging the postman, Delilah ripped open the box containing her new novel.

Delilah cannot simultaneously hug the postman and rip open a box. Reword to something like: “After hugging the postman, Delilah ripped open the box containing her new novel.”


The position of a modifier determines what thing or action is being modified.

EXAMPLE #1: Sharon sent out a proposal for her book on living with horses last week.

Sharon’s proposal wasn’t for a book about “living with horses last week.” Reword: “Last week Sharon sent out a proposal for her book on living with horses.”

EXAMPLE #2: The editor told me on Thursday I have a book signing.

Did the editor say this on Thursday, or do you have a book signing on Thursday? “On Thursday, the editor told me I have a book signing.” Or: “The editor told me I have a book signing on Thursday.”

* * * * *

Used by permission and reprinted from

—Kathy Ide, author of Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors and the editor/compiler of the Fiction Lover’s Devotional series, is a full-time freelance editor/writing mentor and teacher. She is the founder and director of the Christian Editor Connection and The Christian PEN.