I Just Finished My First Novel And …

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

…I was hoping you could recommend an agent.

…I was hoping you’d have a look and tell me if I’m on the right track.

…I was hoping you’d tell me the best way to self-publish so it will have a chance to sell.

These are all variations on a theme in emails I’ve received over the years. I’ve answered each one, but calculate that in the cumulative expenditure of time I could probably have written a novel or two. I thought I’d write this blog post so the next time I get such an email I can simply send a link!

So … Hello, hopeful first-timer! And thanks for your email.

A few thoughts:

You are not ready for an agent. Most likely, that is, for an agent is not looking for a book to sell. An agent is looking for a writer to represent, one who will be able to produce quality books (plural). And by quality, I mean something that stands out, is bold and beautiful, but also has a reasonable chance to capture a significant market share. Can you say that about this first novel? And by the way, are you developing a second novel? Have you got a great idea for a third?

I can’t read your manuscript. I am a working writer, and there are only so many hours in a day. If you attend a conference where I am reading manuscripts as part of the deal, I will have a look at your first 3000 words or so. I can tell a lot about a writer in 3k…so, by the way, can an agent or editor. But outside of that limited venue, I just don’t have the time, and I don’t read for a fee. There are good teachers who do. One of them is blog brother Larry Brooks via Storyfix.

You are probably not ready to self-publish. You could be the exception, but generally speaking your first novel is going to need a lot of work. By the way, have you heard that writing is work? Making money self-publishing is work. Tossing up books that aren’t ready for prime time is not the way to make money. Becoming a professional about things is (and I use professional in the sense of doing productive things in a systematic way). You need a plan, and business sense. Here I can recommend a book.

But you’ve finished your first novel. Congratulations! That is a big step. There are more:

  • Let your manuscript sit for three weeks or so. Print out a hard copy and read it as if you had just purchased the book and it’s from a brand new author. Take minimal notes, but be looking for places where things slow down or don’t work for some reason. Mark those places.
  • Do any fixing you can. If something’s not working, try to figure out for yourself what to do about it. Books on revision, for example, can help you here. You will learn invaluable lessons that will serve you in the future.
  • Write a second draft.
  • Show your second draft to beta readers, people you know and trust to give you specific feedback. It helps to give them a checklist of questions, like this one.
  • Re-write again.
  • As this is your first novel, a pass from a good professional editor is a good investment.

You’re here? You’ve done all that? Good going! I trust, then, that you are at least halfway through the first draft of your next novel.

What?

Yep.

This is the work ethic of the career writer.

Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Thank you for your email.

Keep writing.

JSB

Any other advice for such a one as this?

13+

Is It Time to Quit the Day Job?

By John Gilstrap

Well, well. It’s been awhile since I wandered into the Killzone. I love what you’ve done with the place. I figure it’s been about six years since I took my hiatus from these halls. I see lots of familiar faces, and a happy number of new ones as well. Now, if you’ll excuse me for just a second, let me go to the fireplace and turn my coffee cup around so it’s facing front again.

When I departed the Killzone after its first three years, I did it in part because the pressures of my day job—which required an insane amount of overnight travel—combined with my annual book contracts left me with too little time to do justice to everything. Something had to go, so the voluntary commitment bit the dust.

Effective January of last year, I departed that day job after 10½ years, and while I’m still busy as hell, there’s room again in the schedule for blogging. When I reached out to my buddy Jim Bell to see if there might be room for a returning emeritus, I learned that Joe Moore was planning his departure, and here we are.

I thought it appropriate for my first foray back into blogdom to talk about making the decision to quit the day job. Most artists have dreamed of turning their back on the workaday world and throwing their entire being into writing or singing or painting or . . . well, you get it. How do you know when it’s time (or if it’s okay) to pull the trigger on a job—or, in my case, on a 35-year career? (I am/was a safety engineer by training and degree, with a special emphasis on explosives, hazardous materials, firefighting and various metals processing operations.)

As a rule, I discourage people from making the jump to full-time writing unless they have a financial backstop—a working spouse, perhaps, with a dependable income stream and employer-paid insurance. I for sure discourage people who have never published a book, or who perhaps have published only one or two okay-performers from making the leap.

Full disclosure: I’m a planner and a risk avoider. I don’t roll the dice on important stuff.

In my world view, you always take care of family first. The baby’s got to have food and diapers, the teenagers have to have as good a shot at a great launch as you can give them. My own experience shows that writing success can be achieved just as well as a part-time endeavor as it can be from a full-time commitment. For me, it played out like this:

Books 1 & 2: Written part time, while working 60 to 80 hours a week.
Books 3, 4 & 5: Written full-time, but supplemented by income from screenplays and insurance paid for by the Writers Guild of America.
Books 6 thru 14: Written part time while working a day job that required nearly 200 nights of travel per year.
Books 15 & 16: Written full-time.

If you’ve got a passion for writing, you’ll find a way to make it work, one way or another. In the vast pantheon of people who tell stories on the page, relatively few of them do so full time. And of those who do, my experience shows that they have a working spouse, or have retired and have an additional source of income. In my own case, I spent 20 years investing and saving for this moment, to the point that if the book market crashes, we’ll still make ends meet.

So, how do you know if you’re ready for the switch to full-time writing? Well, obviously mileage will vary, but here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Can you afford it?

Only you know what your lifestyle needs are, and how much cash flow you require to support it. Only you know how much risk you’re willing to take, and what sacrifices you’re willing to make. Still, here are some realities to consider (We’ll assume that you’re married without dependent children, you’re a 50-year-old sole bread-winner making $100,000 per year from writing alone, and that you live in Fairfax, Virginia):

1. 15% comes off the top for agent commission, leaving you with $85K in taxable income.
2. The $85K puts you in the 25% tax bracket, so $21,250 goes to Uncle Sam.
3. Of the remaining $63,750, you’ll owe another $4,400 to Virginia.
4. That brings us to $59,350.
5. Now remember that since you’re self-employed, you need to cover both the employer and employee share of FICA, so that’s another 15% of taxable income, or $12,750, leaving you with $46,600 to pay bills.
6. Don’t forget health insurance, which is far too moving a target to guess at a number, but plan on about $1,000 per month, provided you stay healthy.
7. Of your $100,000, then, you’ve only got about $34,600 left in truly discretionary income.

The killers here are the 7.5% employer’s share of FICA and the health insurance. For my wife and I, who are both healthy yet take some medications, our insured healthcare costs will approach $30,000 per year until we reach the age of 65.

If you’re on the edge of making the move to full-time artist, invest in both a good lawyer and a good accountant to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of incorporation, and on the structure of the corporation you form.

Can you handle the loneliness?

The first time I left a day job to write full-time, loneliness proved to be my Achilles heel. It’s not that I’m not content keeping my own company, but rather that as a Type A extrovert, I missed the water cooler action. Spending the day playing with your imaginary friends can get to be pretty isolating if you let it.

Are you ready to turn your passion into a real job?

It’s a big deal to entrust your financial future to an industry as capricious as the entertainment business, where your reputation and paycheck are literally tied to your latest effort. Readers’ tastes change, publishers go out of business, editors and agents retire. Any one of those events—or any one of a bajillion others, for that matter—can turn current success on its ear. And you’ll have to adapt. It’s no different than any other business, but in my experience, creative people start a writing business with far less preparation and due diligence than the average entrepreneur. Don’t make that mistake.

Whether you’re traditionally published or you choose the far more challenging self-publishing route, this job is as much about marketing and business management as it is about creativity. While your expenses are tax deductible, they are not free. Those expense reports you used to turn in to the accounting office for reimbursement are now paid out of your own funds. That short story that you used to squeeze out free of charge for a charity anthology now represents real opportunity costs that are measured in real dollars.

Will you be happy with your decision five years from now?

Back when Joy and I were first married, my mother counseled that if we waited to have children or buy a house until we thought we could afford them, we’d never have children and we’d be renting forever. Sometimes, making the decision casts the future. Failure is not an option.

There’s no such thing as security in any job market these days. We all know people who have been laid off without ceremony after having dedicated decades of their lives to the company they loved. Business is business, after all, and there’s rarely room for mercy from the corner offices.

It could be argued that shifting from what I used to call a Big Boy Job to a creative job is no more or less risky than leaving Google to go to work for Apple. They’re all big steps.

They’re all big decisions.

 

15+

Point of View: First versus Third

By Elaine Viets

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When I wrote Brain Storm, the first novel in my new Angela Richman, Death Investigator series, I went through ten rewrites and a year-long debate: Should this novel of psychological suspense be first person or third person?
Brain Storm is a very personal story. Angela, my death investigator, had the same medical crisis that I did – six strokes, brain surgery and a coma, plus months of rehab. I thought first person would reflect that. But third person is better for conveying information, and this new, darker series has complex forensics that would be impossible in a first-person narrative.
I worked out a compromise: the first two chapters of Brain Storm were in first person, which I thought gave the novel a personal introduction. The rest of Brain Storm was in third. And that’s how I sold it.
When I sent out the manuscript for blurbs, thriller writer Jeff Abbott said, “Do you really want to switch POVs like that?” Jeff almost never – and I mean never – gives blurbs, and I admire his writing. After many emails, phone calls, and meetings with my editors, they decided I should recast the first and second chapters into third person, so the whole novel was in third person.

Here is the original first-person Chapter 1 of Brain Storm:

cemetery

The doctor who nearly killed me was buried today. The Missouri medical establishment turned out to honor him. The eulogies were heartfelt: doctors, nurses and patients praised Dr. Porter Gravois s compassion and skill as a neurologist. Their tears were genuine. His funeral cortege was nearly a mile long on the road named after his powerful St. Louis family. Everyone called him by his nickname, Chip, as if they were all part of his inner circle. Chip made them feel that way.
I didn’t attend his funeral. I was still in the hospital, recovering from the damage he did to me. I’d been in there three months. But I was glad he was dead, and so were the people who knew the real Dr. Gravois. None of us called him Chip.
As I lay on the scratchy hospital sheets, I wondered how Dr. Gravois looked in his coffin. He had a long pale face and a knife blade nose, like a stone figure on a British tomb. Did the mortician manage to duplicate the fatherly smile that fooled so many? That smile didn’t quite reach Dr. Gravois s hard blue eyes, but those were closed forever.
Which suit was he buried in? Chip wore Savile Row suits from Kilgour in London. Chip pronounced it Kilgar, and said only parvenus called the tailor Kilgore. His Kilgour suits were lovely silk and light wool. It was a shame to put one in the ground. But I had no qualms about shoveling Dr. Gravois six feet under.
What about Dr. Gravois s bitter enemy, Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt?
He and his awful off the rack suits were barred from the funeral. No matter how much he paid for his suits, he still looked more like a small town insurance agent than a neurosurgeon.
His unwed mother had named him after her favorite country music star. Dr. Jeb was a country boy, from his badly cut hair to his thick-soled brown shoes.
Was he wearing a jail jumpsuit now? We’d all heard Dr. Jeb threaten Dr. Gravois. He called him a crook and a killer and said the best thing Porter Gravois could do for his patients was die.
The next day, Dr. Gravois was murdered.
*********************************************************************************************
That’s the voice of my protagonist, Angela Marie Richman. She was misdiagnosed by Dr. Gravois as “too young and healthy to have a stroke” and sent home, where she had the medical catastrophe that nearly killed her. Dr. Gravois, the man who misdiagnosed her, is the bitter enemy of the talented, gauche Dr. Tritt, who saved Angela’s life. Bald, crippled, and hallucinating after her surgery, Angela has to use to her death investigator skills to save the man who saved her life.

 

Here is the rewrite of that same Brain Storm chapter in third person:

The doctor who nearly killed Angela Richman was buried today, and the Missouri medical establishment turned out to honor him. The eulogies were heartfelt: doctors, nurses, and patients praised Dr. Porter Gravois’s compassion and skill as a neurologist. Their tears were genuine. His funeral cortege was nearly a mile long on the road named after his powerful St. Louis family. Everyone called him by his nickname, Chip, as if they were all part of his inner circle. Chip made them feel that way.
Angela didn’t attend his funeral. She was still in the hospital, recovering from the damage he’d done to her. She’d been in there three months. Angela was glad Porter was dead, and so were the people who knew the real Dr. Gravois. They didn’t call him Chip.
As she lay on the scratchy hospital sheets, she wondered how Dr. Gravois looked in his coffin. He had a long, pale face and a knife-blade nose, like a stone figure on a British tomb. Had the mortician managed to duplicate the fatherly smile that fooled so many? That smile didn’t quite reach Gravois’s hard, blue eyes, but those were closed forever.
Which suit was he buried in? Chip wore Savile Row suits from Kilgour in London. Chip pronounced it Kilgar and said only parvenus called the tailor Kilgore. His bespoke suits were lovely silk and light wool. It was a shame to put one in the ground. But Angela had no qualms about shoveling Gravois six feet under.
What about Dr. Gravois’s bitter enemy, Dr. Jeb Travis Tritt?
He and his awful, off-the-rack suits were barred from the funeral. No matter how much he paid for his suits, he still looked more like a small-town insurance agent than a neurosurgeon.
His unwed mother had named him after her favorite country music star. Dr. Tritt was a country boy, from his badly cut hair to his thick-soled brown shoes.
Is he wearing a jail jumpsuit now? Angela wondered. Everyone heard Tritt threaten Gravois. He’d called him a crook and a killer and said the best thing Porter Gravois could do for his patients was die.
The next day Dr. Gravois was murdered.
********************************************************************************************

My editor felt that writing those two chapters in first person, then changing them to third, gave the book a more intimate feel. What do you think? Is reversing the points of view a way to add depth to your writing?
PS: Jeff Abbott gave Brain Storm this blurb: “Elaine Viets’s newest is both a timely medical drama and a compelling mystery. Brain Storm gives us a detailed look at the shattered life of a determined death investigator. Readers will want more of Angela Richman’s adventures.”
TKZ’s PJ Parrish said, “I’m stoked to see Elaine venture into darker territory with Brain Storm, a multilayered mystery that is rich in its sense of place and character and propelled with medical intrigue. Brain Storm has everything I love in crime fiction – complexity, intelligence, pretzel plotting, and a touch of dark humor.”

Win Brain Storm, my new Angela Richman Death Investigator mystery. Thomas & Mercer is giving away 100 free Brain Storm e-books on Goodreads. Here’s the link: https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/show/191474-brain-storm

14+

John D and Me…And All The
Other Writers I Owe Big Time

First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. ― Kurt Vonnegut

By PJ Parrish

I had been storing this blog to run around Thanksgiving, but John D. MacDonald forced my hand this week, so I’m posting early. I want to take a moment to acknowledge the books and thank the authors who have helped me along the way.

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Recently, I was asked by a writer friend Don Bruns to contribute to an ongoing series that has been running in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune called “John D and Me.” Cool beans, I thought, since other contributors included Stephen King, Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Heather Graham, JA Jance, David Morrell…the list went on and on. Click here to read my article. Don’t worry…it’s short. I chose to write about MacDonald’s short stories because, truth be told, I hadn’t read many of the guy’s novels back then. But I had found a yellowed dog-earred copy of his short story collection The Good Old Stuff in a used book store, and at that time, I was struggling mightily to write my first short story.

Actually, it wasn’t my first.  My first short story was way back in eighth grade. I was an inattentive student, but I had a lovely teacher Miss Gentry, who made us write a short story. The only touchstones in my little life at that point were The Beatles and my only dream was to run away to London. So I wrote about a lonely cockney boy who painted magic pictures. It was called “The Transformation of Robbie.” I got an A on it.

Miss Gentry

After class, Miss Gentry pulled me aside and said, “you should be a writer.” Twenty-five years later, I dedicated a book to her.

It should be noted that my sister and future co-author Kelly was also churning out short stories in those days. Her most notable effort was called “The Kill.” It was about a serial killer who knocks off The Beatles, one by one. We joke now that nothing much has changed: She still likes to write the gory scenes, I like doing the psychological stuff. I don’t have my early efforts, but she kept hers – see photo below right for the stunning cover she designed at age 11.

THE KILL KELLY

Fast forward to 2005. I am trying to write a story for the Mystery Writers of America’s anthology, edited by Harlan Coben. In addition to the big-name writers the editor invites, the anthology holds out 10 spots for blind submissions from any MWA member. I had a good idea for my story and four published mysteries under my belt. But I couldn’t get a bead on the short story’s special formula. What came so easy at age 14 wasn’t coming so easy at age 54.

So I cracked open The Good Old Stuff. Maybe it was because I had been reading Cheever and Chandler and was getting intimidated. But MacDonald made it look effortless. His stories, culled from his pulp magazine career, had an ease and breeze as fresh as the ocean winds. I realized I had been fighting an undertow of expectations, so I flipped over on my back and floated. The words flowed, the story formed. My first adult short story, “One Shot” got picked for MWA’s anthology Death Do Us Part. It was the second proudest moment of my writing life, right after Miss Gentry’s A.

Writing about MacDonald this month got me thinking about the debts I owed to other writers. Here are a couple I should thank:

E.B. White. Charlotte’s Web remains my favorite book of all time. I love it as pure story, but it taught me a very valuable lesson that all novelists should take to heart: Sometimes, you just have to kill off a sympathetic character.

Joyce Carol Oates. Lots of lessons from this woman about productivity and having the courage to write outside the boundaries of whatever box they try to put you in. But one book of hers had a huge impact on me — Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart. From this murky violent story of murder and race, I learned about the power of ambiguity, about the need to leave room in a story for the reader’s imagination to breath, to resist the urge to tie everything up in a neat bow. Also, she just makes me want to write with more metaphoric power. Check out her opening paragraph:

“Little Red” Garlock, sixteen years old, skull smashed soft as a rotted pumpkin and body dumped into the Cassadaga River near the foot of Pitt Street, must not have sunk as he’d been intended to sink, or floated as far. As the morning mist begins to lift form the river a solitary fisherman sights him, or the body he has become, trapped and bobbing frantically in pilings about thirty feet offshore. It’s the buglelike cries of the gulls that alert the fisherman – gulls with wide gunmetal-gray wings, dazzling snowy heads and tails feathers, dangling pink legs like something incompletely hatched. The kind you think might be a beautiful bird until you get up close.

The-Road-Cormac-McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I still think about this story years after I read it. From it, I learned about spare writing and especially the power of one indelible image. Michael Connelly talks about this, too, about how one gesture, word or image can have so much more impact than an avalanche of description. Connelly talks about how he wrote about a cop who seemed the paragon of cool, how nothing about the horrors of his job seemed to bother him. Except for one telling detail – the stems of his glasses were chewed down to the nubs. In The Road, the image I can’t get out of my head, the one thing that stands in my mind as the symbol of post-apocalyptic survival, is canned peaches.

In the story, a man and the boy discover a cache of supplies in an abandoned farmhouse. Among them is canned peaches. Yes, it’s a delicacy in a time of starvation, but McCarthy also uses it as a symbol marking the split in the world between the fruit-eating “good guys” and the cannibalistic “bad guys.” Here’s an exchange between man and boy:

He pulled one of the boxes down and clawed it open and held up a can of peaches.
“It’s here because someone thought it might be needed.”
“But they didn’t get to use it.”
“No. They didn’t.”
“They died.”
“Yes.”
“Is it okay for us to take it?”
“Yes. It is. They would want us to. Just like we would want them to.”
“They were the good guys?”
“Yes. They were.”
“Like us.”
“Like us. Yes.”
“So it’s okay.”
“Yes. It’s okay.”
They ate a can of peaches. They licked the spoons and tipped the bowls and drank the rich sweet syrup.

I can’t eat canned peaches anymore because of this. I want to cry just thinking about.

Neil Gaiman. When I was working on our latest book She’s Not There, I needed to find just the right children’s book that resonated with my adult heroine. It was happenstance that I found Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. It follows the adventures of a boy named Bod after his family is murdered and he is left to be brought up by a graveyard. Which metaphorically is what happened to my heroine. I just started  Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which, like my own book, is about the fragility of memory. I think what I am learning from Gaiman is the need to be original, to not follow the pack, to be true to yourself as a writer. He sums it up in this quote:

Start telling the stories that only you can tell, because there’ll always be better writers than you and there’ll always be smarter writers than you. There will always be people who are much better at doing this or doing that – but you are the only you.

David Morrell. Several years ago, David was the guest of honor at our writers conference  SleuthFest here in Florida. This talented teacher, prolific writer, and editor of the anthology Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, and creator of Rambo no less, had tons of great advice. But here is the single line that impacted me as a writer.

Find out what you’re most afraid of, and that will be your subject for your life or until your fear changes.

David credits this lesson to another writer Phillip Klass (pen name William Tenn) who told David that all the great writers have a distinct subject matter, a particular approach, that sets them apart from everyone else. The mere mention of their names, Faulkner, for example, or Edith Wharton, conjures themes, settings, methods, tones, and attitudes that are unique to them. How did they get to be so distinctive? By responding to who they were and the forces that made them that way. And all writers are haunted by secrets they need to tell. David talks about this in his book The Successful Novelist: A Lifetime of Lessons about Writing and Publishing. Click Here to read the first chapter.

And last but not least…

Unamed Romance Novel. I read this eons ago as part of my education back in the days when I thought I was going to make a million bucks writing for Harlequin. This novel (I won’t use the title here) taught me perhaps the most valuable lesson of all, one that every writer – published or un – should take to heart. Here is the line from the book that did it:

She sat on the sand on Miami Beach and watched the sun sink slowly into the ocean in a blaze of orange and pink.

When I read that line, I threw the book across the room. But then I picked the book up and put it on my shelf, where it still sits today. (Well, on my bathroom shelf). Because this book taught me that no matter how brilliant your metaphors, how original your story, how beguiling your prose, how deep your unexplored fears, if you have the sun setting in the east, nothing else is gonna work.

So who were your teachers, what were their books, and what did you learn?

11+

Finding the Right Door
to Enter Your Story

Disney2

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

By PJ Parrish

I had a whole ‘nother blog in the works today but Clare’s post yesterday on common amateur mistakes made me want to switch gears. That, and the fact that I was hearing voices in my head the other day and this is a good way to exorcise them.

A while back, I gave a talk to a beginning writers group about what makes for a great opening in a novel. We had a good time analyzing which of their openings had promise or why they had veered off track. It’s a popular topic, as we at TKZ here so well know, but I think it’s one that we all need to revisit constantly. Me included.

See, the other day, as I was pounding around the jogging oval at the park, I heard a strange voice whispering in my head. I had never heard her before, but she was insistent: “Tell my story! Tell my story!” I tried to ignore her, because as Kelly and I await the Sept. 9 launch of our new book SHE’S NOT THERE, we are 16 chapters into a new Louis Kincaid. And one of the commandments of novel writing is Thou Shall Finish One Book Before Starting a New One. But this woman wouldn’t shut up, so I went home and banged out 2,000 words. Wow! I never get out of the gate that fast! I was chuffed.

Well, I re-read it yesterday. Wee-doggies, it stinks. I open with a woman sitting alone in a fishing boat in the Everglades. She is thinking about her life and what brought her to this point. She is sad. She is regretful. She is boring as hell. I also larded in pages of description of the saw grass, the weather, the clouds, the water, even the type of fishing lure she was using. Finally, toward the 2,000-word mark, I reveal she is a Miami homicide detective who turned in her badge when her husband and child were killed in a drug deal gone bad that she was involved in.

This morning, I deleted the chapter. Lesson number 1: Just because you have an idea doesn’t mean you should act on it. Lesson number 2: Even experienced writers have trouble with openings.

Even Stephen King. You think you sweat bullets over openings? He says he spends months and even years before he finds his footing. I read this recently in an interview King gave to The Atlantic magazine. He talks at length about what makes for a great opening, and how hard it is for him to find the right one.

When I’m starting a book, I compose in bed before I go to sleep. I will lie there in the dark and think. I’ll try to write a paragraph. An opening paragraph. And over a period of weeks and months and even years, I’ll word and reword it until I’m happy with what I’ve got. If I can get that first paragraph right, I’ll know I can do the book.

And he makes a great point, that the right opening line is as important to the writer as it is to the reader:

You can’t forget that the opening line is important to the writer, too. To the person who’s actually boots-on-the-ground. Because it’s not just the reader’s way in, it’s the writer’s way in also, and you’ve got to find a doorway that fits us both. I think that’s why my books tend to begin as first sentences — I’ll write that opening sentence first, and when I get it right I’ll start to think I really have something.

Which is why I deep-sixed my woman in the fishing boat. Maybe her story does need to be told, but I entered via the wrong door. I’m going to set her aside for a while. In the meantime, I am going back to school. Want to come along?

HOOKS

Enthuse or lose! What was the prime crime of my bad chapter? NOTHING HAPPENED! The first chapter is where your reader makes decision to enter your world. Your hook needn’t be too fast or fancy. It can even be quiet — like someone going on a fishing or hunting trip (see example below!).  But it must be suspenseful enough to makes us care about your character. Fancy hooks can be disappointing if what follows doesn’t measure up. If you begin at the most dramatic or tense moment in your story, you have nowhere to go but downhill. Also, if your hook is extremely strange or misleading, you might just make the reader mad.

What about opening with action scenes? I’ve seen it work well; I’ve seen it look silly. I think intense action scenes work only if they have context and reason for happening. Car chase, bullets fly, things explode, dead bodies! But unless you give reader reason to care about someone, it feels cheap and pushy, like a Roger Moore James Bond movie. If you can make us CARE about the person during intense opening action scene, yes. If not, it’s boring and trite.

OPENING LINES

A good one gives you intellectual line of credit from the reader: “Wow, that line was so damn good, I’m in for the next 50 pages.” A good opening line is lean and mean and assertive. One of my fave’s is from Hemingway’s story, “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber:  “It was lunch now and they were all sitting under the double green fly of the dining tent pretending that nothing had happened.”

A good opening line is a promise, or a question, or an unproven idea. But if it feels contrived or overly cute, you will lose the reader. Especially if what follows does not measure up.  Stephen King has two favorite opening lines. One is from James M. Cain’s great novel The Postman Always Rings Twice:  “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.”  Here’s King on why he loves it:

Suddenly, you’re right inside the story — the speaker takes a lift on a hay truck and gets found out. But Cain pulls off so much more than a loaded setting — and the best writers do. This sentence tells you more than you think it tells you. Nobody’s riding on the hay truck because they bought a ticket. He’s a basically a drifter, someone on the outskirts, someone who’s going to steal and filch to get by. So you know a lot about him from the beginning, more than maybe registers in your conscious mind, and you start to get curious. This opening accomplishes something else: It’s a quick introduction to the writer’s style, another thing good first sentences tend to do.”

GET INTO STORY AS LATE AS POSSIBLE

This is one of my pet peeves about bad writing…throat clearing. Begin your story just moments before the interesting stuff is about to happen. You want to create tension as early as possible in your story and escalate from there. Don’t give the reader too much time to think about whether they want to go along on your ride. Get them buckled in and get them moving. Preferably not in bass boat.

INTRODUCE THE PROTAGONIST

Another pet peeve of mine. Don’t wait too late in the story to introduce your hero. Don’t give the early spotlight to a minor character because whoever is at the helm in chapter one is who the reader will automatically want to follow. I call these folks “spear carriers” after the guys who stand in the background holding the spears in “Aida.”  They aren’t allowed to steal the spotlight when Radamès is belting out Celeste Aida. So don’t let your secondary characters get undue attention or the reader will feel betrayed and annoyed when you shift the spotlight.

IDENTIFY THE CONFLICT OR QUEST

Begin the book with conflict. Big, small, physical, emotional, whatever. Conflict disrupts the status quo. Conflict is drama. Conflict is interesting. Your first chapter is not a straight horizontal line. It’s a jagged driveway leading up a dark mountainside. Don’t put a woman in a fishing boat in the Everglades thinking about how crappy her life is and expect the reader to care.

WHAT IS AT STAKE HERE?

What is at play in the story? What are the costs? What can be gained, what can be lost? Love? Money? One’s soul? Will someone die? Can someone be saved? The first chapter doesn’t demand that you spell out the stakes of the entire book in neon but we do need a hint. And we don’t care that her fishing lure is a 1-ounce jig with a bulky trailer.

CREATE A DRAMATIC ARC

Your whole book has an arc, but every chapter should have a mini-arc. Ask yourself “What is the purpose of this chapter?” and then build your chapter around that. This does not mean each chapter needs a conclusion but it needs to feel complete unto itself even as it compels the reader onto the next chapter. The opening chapter should have its own rise and fall. It is not JUST A LAUNCHING PAD!

GET YOUR CHARACTERS TALKING

Dialogue is the lifeblood of your story and you need it early. Too much exposition or description is like driving a car with the emergency brake on. Likewise, don’t bog down your opening with characters doing menial things. Like fishing. Or thinking about boring stuff. Like fishing lures. Here’s some good advice from agent Peter Miller that I read once on Chuck Sambuchino’s Writer’s Digest blog: “My biggest pet peeve with an opening chapter is when an author features too much exposition, when they go beyond what is necessary for simply ‘setting the scene.’ I want to feel as if I’m in the hands of a master storyteller, and starting a story with long, flowery, overly-descriptive sentences makes the writer seem amateurish and the story contrived. Of course, an equally jarring beginning can be nearly as off-putting, and I hesitate to read on if I’m feeling disoriented by the fifth page. I enjoy when writers can find a good balance between exposition and mystery. Too much accounting always ruins the mystery of a novel, and the unknown is what propels us to read further.”

SO DOES THAT MEAN  I SHOULD OPEN WITH DIALOGUE?

This goes to personal taste. I’m not a fan of it, but I have seen it pulled off. But be careful because opening with dialogue tosses the reader into the deep end of the fictional pool with no tethering in time and place. This is like waking up from a coma. Where am I? Who are these people talking? I could be wrong because I haven’t read them all, but even Dialogue Demon Elmore Leonard gives you a quick couple lines or graphs first. (Okay, I’m wrong: LaBrava opens with “He’s been taking pictures three years, look at the work,” Maurice said.) But if your dialogue only leads to confusion, that isn’t good. Which relates to…

ESTABLISH YOUR SETTING AND TIME FRAME

The first chapter must establish the where and the when of the story, just so the reader isn’t flailing around. Yes, you can use time and place taglines, especially if your story is wide in geographic scope or bouncing around in time. But if your story is fairly linear and compact (taking place, say, all within six months time in Memphis), sticking a time tag on each chapter only makes you look like you don’t know how to gracefully slip this info into your narrative.

ESTABLISH YOUR TONE AND MOOD

First impressions matter. From the get-go, your reader should be able to tell what kind of book he is reading – hardboiled, romantic suspense, humorous, neo-noir? Yes, the cover and copy conveys this, but you need to convey it in your opening. Everything in your book should support your tone, but the first chapter is vital to inducing an emotional effect in your reader. I’ve mentioned Edgar Allan Poe’s Unity of Effect often here but it’s worth repeating: Every element of a story should help create a single emotional impact. But remember that a little mood goes a long way – think of a few swift and colorful brush strokes rather than gobs of thick paint.  Did you know that in the Everglades, intense daytime heating of the ground causes the warm moist tropical air to rise, creating the afternoon thundershowers? And that most of the storms happen at 2 p.m.? I should have just wrote “It rained in the afternoon.”

MAKE YOUR VOICE LOUD AND CLEAR

This is where you are introducing your story but also yourself as a writer. Your language must be crisp, you must be in complete control of your craft, you must be original! Shorter is usually better. No florid language or indulgent description, no bloated passages, no slack in the rope. The reader must feel he is being led by a calm, confident storyteller. See quote about by Stephen King about James M. Cain.

BACKSTORY AND EXPOSITION

The first chapter is not the place to tell us everything. Don’t be like a child overturning his bucket of toys — then it’s just a colorful clamor, an overindulgence of information. Exposition kills drama. Backstory is boring. Give us a reason to care about that stuff before you start droning on and on about it. Incorporating backstory is hard work, but you must weave it artfully into the story not give us an info-dump chapter 1.

Shoot-1

To end, let’s go back to Stephen King. So we know he admires James M. Cain. But what is his all-time favorite opening line? It is from Douglas Fairbairn’s novel Shoot. Here’s the set-up: A group of middle-aged guys, all war vets, are on a hunting trip. As they come to a riverbank, they spot another group of guys, much like themselves, on the other side. Without any provocation, one of the hunters on the opposite bank raises his rifle and fires at the first group, wounding one man. Reflexively, one of the first group returns fire, blowing the shooter’s head apart. The opening line: “This is what happened.”

And here is King on why he loves it:

“This has always been the quintessential opening line. It’s flat and clean as an affidavit. It establishes just what kind of speaker we’re dealing with: someone willing to say, I will tell you the truth. I’ll tell you the facts. I’ll cut through the bullshit and show you exactly what happened. It suggests that there’s an important story here, too, in a way that says to the reader: and you want to know. A line like “This is what happened,” doesn’t actually say anything–there’s zero action or context — but it doesn’t matter. It’s a voice, and an invitation, that’s very difficult for me to refuse. It’s like finding a good friend who has valuable information to share. Here’s somebody, it says, who can provide entertainment, an escape, and maybe even a way of looking at the world that will open your eyes. In fiction, that’s irresistible. It’s why we read.

King loves it so much, he echoed it in the opening of of his own novel Needful Things: “You’ve been here before.”  And guess what? It’s his own favorite opening. Which is a good place to end, I think.

 

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What Advice Would You Give to Young Writers?

By Jordan Dane
@JordanDane



Today I am presenting a workshop to the Creative Writing students at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA). This is a free offering of like-minded authors getting together to share their thoughts on the publishing industry and the craft of writing. I plan on sharing my thoughts on the latest trends in publishing with a focus on the Young Adult and New Adult markets. I will also spend more time talking about author craft and the epiphanies I have learned through the books I’ve written. Each book teaches you something different, right? Writing is the best way to learn those things, mostly through trial and error when you learn best from your mistakes.

I also want to spend time talking about the writer’s life and the discipline to accomplish daily goals. Usually life, the day job, and other obligations can force you to set aside your passion to write, but if it’s important to you, I say make time for it, even if that’s only a page a day.

The hardest thing I will broach is the crazy things happening in the publishing industry with regard to the changing contractual terms and what it means to self-publish or navigate the ebook services being offered by large publishers and agents, etc. But I find it hard to stop the long list of warnings that I would want them to be aware of so they don’t sign their copyrights away for the life of their book, simply to get published. It’s a scary world out there in this interim phase while the industry is sorting things out. But I don’t want to scare them off either. So I am limiting my warnings to only the most treacherous ones that dangle like gems stones and look all polished and pretty, but have complications. Things like royalty value for digital books, the ala carte subrights menu, rights reversions, and what agents and publishers are offering that could be troublesome. When the goal is to get them to incorporate writing into their daily life, or to nurture something that could become a passion later in life, I don’t want to discourage them from the start.

When I talk to young writers, I want to simply encourage them to write and recognize that if they have the drive and passion for writing, they should write whether they get published or not. I remember how important reading and writing was for me in school and how it stayed with me for my whole life. But first comes the desire and getting hooked on it. It’s a quality of life thing. I usually encourage them to keep a journal of their thoughts or characters they want to develop, or keep a file of ideas for future books. I will share James Scott Bell’s wonderful TKZ post on how to write a short story or share one of my favorite Joe Moore posts on editing your work in Writing is Rewriting. There are so many posts that I’ve found useful at TKZ that I’m still pinching myself that I am a member here.

But my question to all of you is – what advice would you give to a young writer? Someone who is in college or high school and has the writing bug? Everyone here at TKZ would have something to offer young writers. What would you tell them?

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