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First Ten Pages

As a writer, one thing you can depend on–reader attention spans have gotten shorter. This means you have to hook the reader faster–and that means starting the story on page one. What is the story?

The story is where your protagonist is faced with a problem–a big one that’s going to carry the protagonist through a character arc of trial/errors, defeat and then victory (or tragic downfall). You want to establish just who is the protagonist, what is the problem, what’s keeping the protagonist from an easy solution, and you want to set the tone of the story (is it comic, dark, romantic, or something else), and establish the world.

Here’s what I like to keep in mind for those opening pages:

1-Who is the protagonist? In every story, you really one one character who has the main character arc. Yes, even in a romance, you might have a couple who falls in love, but one of them really has the major growth, and that is the protagonist.

2-What’s the big problem? I want this to be on page one if possible, but it must be within the first ten pages. This is part of the big hook–a big problem that will make the reader think, “How is this going to be solved?” I want conflict right away, and that doesn’t have to be a gun fight or a car chase, but it does mean getting the characters talking and doing as soon as possible.

3-How is the reader going to bond with this main character? You don’t have to have the protagonist saving kittens on page one, but it sure helps to get the reader on that character’s side if you give the reader something. The something can be an admirable trait (humor in the face of danger, intelligence, charm, or a mad skill), or it can be an action undertaken that puts the reader on that character’s side, or it can be simply an understanding of the character’s motivations. Understanding helps with sympathy.

4-Where and when are we? This is one I often see skipped over. The where and when are important to establishing both mood and setting. Readers want to be immersed into a world, and this is done by layering details of that world so the reader experiences it. Or, as Chekhov–the writer, not the Star Trek character–once said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Showing takes time to put the reader into the world. What are the smells? The sounds? What time of year is it? Are you showing the heat, or telling the reader about it? What details better build the mood? What details reveal the character to the reader? Details matter–and the right details are vital to making the world vivid. I want the reader to see, hear, smell, touch and taste the world right away, and doing so within a character’s viewpoint can help bond the reader to that character (which is why it is so important to start off with the right character as the protagonist). 

5-What’s the overall tone of the story? If I want a light, comic romance, I’m going to go for a setting, a scene, and a situation that gives me the material I can use to set the tone. I am not going to start with a funeral–not unless it’s dark comedy. If the story is action-adventure, then I want that on page one. If the story is paranormal, I want the weird on page one to help hook the reader. Don’t hold back–the reader got a promise from the cover blurb and title, but those first few pages is where a reader will decided to settle down to the story or not. Know what you want to deliver and get it up front. Tone comes from word choices, from the setting, from the viewpoint you use, and from what you have your character doing. Again, it’s all about getting the details right.

6-What are the stakes? This is another one I often see overlooked. For something to matter to the reader, the reader must know the potential cost to the main character. What will the protagonist gain from achieving the big goal? What will he or she loose if failure is the result? If the reader doesn’t have a clue about this, then why should the reader care about the outcome? Let the reader know up front that there are high stakes (and later on, you’ll want to raise those stakes even more).

7-Where is the protagonist going to end up? I want the end to mirror the opening, but to do so in a way that shows the protagonist’s growth (that the protagonist has indeed really changed and come out the other side–the old self is dead). This means I am often thinking of the ending at the same time I’m thinking about the beginning of the story. However, not knowing the ending shouldn’t hold you up from starting a story. It just means you need to keep in mind that you may need revisions to the opening once you get the ending written. Keep it fluid.

I know writers who think, “I’ll hold this back because I want to build anticipation.” Good luck with that–you are just as likely to lose the reader. Or you may think, “But the reader really has to know all this background about the protagonist.” No, the reader doesn’t need to know backstory or setup–the reader needs the story to start. Save your backstory until the reader really, really, really needs it. A good guideline is keep any background to one or two sentences, not one or two paragraphs unless you can make the writing utterly compelling.

Finally, don’t get stuck on editing the opening. Get it down and get going–you can always come back to it later. You may find out, too, that where you really needed to start the story was in chapter three, but those first two chapters at least got you writing.

 

Writing Workshops 2020

UPDATE–2020 is almost full!

February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW

March 16 – April 12, 2020 Show & Tell: An Interactive Workshop, OCCRWA

May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW

June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA

August POV: It’s More Than a Point of View, YRW

September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA

October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW – NEW WORKSHOP!

There also might be a workshop coming for November!

I’m starting to plan writing workshops for 2020. It was nice to take a year off in 2019, but I find I miss the interaction of the workshops–it’s enjoyable to help other writers find their path.

So far, I have scheduled:

  • February 3- 28, 2020 Wounds & Warriors, HHRW
  • May 4- 29, 2020 Horse Sense For Your Characters, HHRW
  • June 1-26, 2020 The Sexy Synopsis, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • September 1-25, 2020 Dialogue: Don’t Let ‘Em Say What You Mean, Contemporary Romance RWA
  • October 5-30, 2020 THEME: A Vital Element of Fiction, HHRW

I’ll be adding a few more, but in the meantime, for anyone interested in taking a workshop, here are a few tips to get the most from any workshop:

Interact. This may seem obvious-and I’ve lurked in a few workshops, too–but I find that those who ask questions and post exercises get the most from the workshop. You may have to clear the decks to participate. It is hard to juggle too many things all at once, but it can give you better value for your time.

Don’t worry about your ideas. I’ve known many people who are paranoid about ideas being stolen. What I’ve found is that if you give the same idea to two writers, you’re going to have two different books. Don’t sweat the ideas. It is your voice that matters. And if you are still worried, do the exercises with made up stories–it might even spark a new book.

Make mistakes. A workshop is a great place to experiment and learn. I find many people, however, come in with the idea of ‘doing everything right.’ That actually won’t help you learn anything. Use workshops as a place to try new things, to push beyond your comfort zones, and to make mistakes. You’ll get more from the workshop by doing so.

Have fun. Many folks come into workshops with grim determination (this goes along with not making mistakes). Again, workshops are a safe place to let loose, try new things, and be creative. They are places to reconnect with experimentation, which can often get the creative juices flowing.

Use what works for you. In any workshop, if you come out with one great thing learned, that’s a positive. You will find that every writer has a different process–including you. This means what works for one writer may not work for another. This is okay. If something doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to shoot down the idea–just don’t use it. Take what does work, and feel okay about abandoning the rest.

Try new things. If you’ve never written first person, try that. If you’ve never written third person, try that instead. Try out new techniques. This goes along with making mistakes. Yes, what you try may not work, but it may lead to new discoveries.

If you don’t post, do the exercises at home. I am a great believer in writing exercises. I’ve used them to discover my own comfort zone for what I want to write. I’ve used them to improve my viewpoint control, to work on dialogue, to do better narrative. Writing exercises to me are like warm-up for a dancer–they’re vital to improve technique. All my writing craft workshops include exercises–and the writers who get the most from the workshops do them and post them for feedback. However, even if you don’t post the exercises, you will learn a lot by doing them.

And that’s it–some tips on how to get more from an online workshop, particularly one that I might teach.

My First Pre-Order — Davinia’s Duke

This is the first time I’ve done a pre-order….wheee, a new book coming out. It’s been some time. So what’s on pre-order?

Davinia's Duke: A Regency Romance NovellaA too perfect duke, a very imperfect lady…is it the perfect match or a perfect disaster?

A duke in need of a wife…

The dukes of Everley always marry at thirty–but the current duke has left choosing a bride far too late. Arriving at a country house party for a Valentine’s ball, he expects to find one suitable young lady to be the next duchess. He doesn’t expect to find the woman he once kissed in a garden–the woman who was the bane of his life for a season, and who might be the only woman who can save him from becoming a far too proper duke.

A lady in need of her own life…

Davinia has never forgotten that one kiss in a garden—but she has also been married, widowed, and intends to keep her niece from making the mistake she nearly made when she allowed the Duke of Everley to kiss her. But when the house becomes snow-bound, Davinia begins to realize there is a warm-hearted man under the weight of a title. Is it too late to correct past mistakes and rekindle a love she thought lost?

This was a story that took a long time–why do I keep forgetting that shorter often means harder. Everything has to be just so in a novella. Life got in the way…weather got in the way…and being away from a story means it takes time to pick it up again.

The story is due out July 23, right with the Beau Monde conference where I’m speaking. I still have a ton of things to do before then (like start on the next story, which I’m already researching and outlining). But it is fun to have a new story coming out!

 

Editing the Awkward

EditI judge in a few writing contest, and it amazes me that I see the same mistake over and over—it’s almost like they’re contagious. Of course, as writers, we have to learn our craft. That means lots of writing to figure out how to put a sentence together, and make a paragraph make sense, and then construct a scene. These basics may seem too basic, but good writing technique makes the writing disappear so the story and characters can captivate the reader. That’s the goal. Truman Capote called it ‘the voice by the fireside’. How do you get writing that puts the focus on the story?

1) Read your work aloud.  This is a simple way to catch a lot of problems. If you stumble as you read, so will the reader. Reading your work aloud will help you catch sentences that don’t really make sense, places where you have too many sentence fragments, awkward constructions, weird staging, typos and even plot holes.

2) Stage action to make sense. In general, actions reveal thoughts. This means you want to show how your characters express emotions with actions. Also, most people act first, and then speak. This means it makes more sense to have action followed by dialogue. Finally, watch use of ‘as’. Slamming the door as you pull off your coat is really hard to make happen because they are two separate actions. This will trip a reader. Use ‘as’ for comparisons, as in as light as a feather. That’s where it belongs.

3) Do an edit for wandering body parts. Sometimes I have to laugh at these—I do them, too, and have to edit them out. This often happens due to passive voice, where the subject is not active. You end up with things such as, ‘Her eyes wandered over his body’ or other phrases that belong more to a horror movie.

4) Let strong verbs put the reader into the world. Was and were are perfectly good words, but they can be weak when it comes to description. Saying ‘the sun was hot’ doesn’t really do a great job of putting the reader into a scene where the heat is shimmering up from black asphalt and sweat drips off your skin and you have to squint behind sunglasses against the glare. Make your descriptions vivid and visceral.

5) Avoid semi-colons and colons. If you’re writing fiction, and you’re not sure when to use a colon or semi-colon, just avoid them. Let commas and periods do the job and go for those simple sentences. The goal is invisible writing that pulls the reader into the story.

6) Know your tenses. When in past tense and talking about the further past, past perfect will help keep the time-line straight for your reader. You may see every “had” in the story, but these disappear for the reader.

7) Know dialogue punctuation. This may seem simple and basic, but this is a place where a lot of writers just don’t seem to know how to use the tools of commas and periods. If the action modifies the dialogue, you want a comma in there to connect this into one though. If the action is separate, you want a period. This also means people can’t really sigh out words, or moan dialogue, or huff a word, or otherwise do two things at once that require two different breaths.

8) Do more than one edit. Do one edit just to look for typos (and print out the story to help you with this). Do another edit on viewpoint. Do yet another edit to see if you are weaving in all the senses. Do another edit to make sure every character has a unique voice. Do another edit to make sure every scene has conflict in it. You don’t want to edit out emotion, but you also want to make sure the story is as solid as possible. Save all these edits for when the story is finished, but don’t be satisfied with just one pass through the writing.

9) Get motivations onto the page. The reason why characters do things is important. A reader will better sympathize with a character if the reader understands what’s motivating that character.

10) Use a thesaurus—edit out incorrect word usage. If you’re uncertain of a word, look it up or don’t use it. One I see too often is the use of reigns instead of reins—the former is for kings and queens, the latter for horses. That’s not just a typo, that’s the wrong word used and will throw a reader right out of the story.

11) If you add anything, that now needs editing. Too often I’ll see a really great first ten pages, and then something goes wrong. What’s happened is that the first ten pages have been polished, then the writer added in something but forgot to do the editing.

12) Get a copy of King & Brown’s Self-Editing For Fiction Writers. This is a great little book that will do a lot to help you learn how to edit your own writing. Don’t lean on others to ‘fix’ your writing. Yes, you may want to have an editor look things over, but first make sure the writing is just what you want and as good as you can get it.

Remember there is the story in your head, the story on the page, and the story in the reader’s head—the goal is to get these as close together as possible. Strong technical skills will better help you realize the story that’s in your mind so that most of it reaches the reader’s imagination.

Speaking About Writing…

tbm4

I’m delighted to announce that The Beau Monde, the Regency chapter of the Romance Writers of America has asked me to be their keynote speaker at this year’s conference in July. This is not just a lovely honor–it feels to me like a continuity of writers. It’s been 25 years since The Beau Monde was started–that’s a generation. And my how the world has changed, particularly for writers. I think that’s actually one of the attractions to Regency England–it’s a world that is safely in the past, with all the changes done and over with, and a much easier world to navigate in many ways. (Of course, you still have wars, and you have a lack of penicillin, other bad medical care, and not much in the way of rights for women or anyone else other than a rich, white male, oh, and let’s not forget the desperately poor along with some other problems–but let’s not dwell on the negative.)

One of the advantages of writing about the good stuff in the Regency is that it is possible to provide an escape back to a world that’s a little less complicated, a whole lot slower, and a lot of style. But I’m jumping  ahead of myself–it’s off to New York (not my favorite place it the world, but I am looking forward to a cross-country drive to see a bit more of the US) for The Beau Monde conference.

In the meantime, I have a Regency romance novella to finish up!

Kitchen Sinking

sink.jpgIt took me a long time to learn that less is more–seven books, of time, in fact. They’re still with me, hidden away in boxes. Learning curves, all of them, and for that they have a special place in my heart, but they’re also books only a mother could love. They’re more than ugly ducklings, because they never grew up into anything else. My problem was that I kept coming up with what I thought were cool ideas–lots of them. And all those ideas would get smashed into one story. It was a lot like cooking and deciding that if a little spice was good, why not throw in some of every spice in the cupboard. No wonder those stories couldn’t be rescued.

These days I advocate–and try to practice–that less is more. One good idea is great in a story–it’s a good hook and I really don’t need to complicate it into a ball of tangled yarn. That includes not overdoing it with the characters–it’s often better to trim down the number of characters. Some of the best advice I ever was given was to look to where I could put two (or three) characters together to make one far more interesting character. This keeps the technical challenges down so I can focus on making the characters and story that is there the best possible.

The main thing that taught me how to trim down–and it wasn’t just those seven manuscripts–was to learn to write a good short story. Short means you have to focus, and there isn’t room to do anything but a tight structure. With just two main characters characters, the focus became my characters–and a really good story with great description. It was lovely to write that story. I had time to breathe, to develop, to enjoy the world. And I had a huge ‘ah ha’ moment. And that is simple is much more challenging than complex.

To go back to that cooking metaphor, when you have a lovely simple dish with only three or four ingredients, those ingredients have to be of very good quality. In fiction, that means only a few well developed characters, one great idea, one strong theme, one central conflict. And the ability to throw out what’s not working–or what doesn’t fit. It’s about paring down to the core so I know what the core is in the story. And it’s about delivering really good prose. I can do that when I’m not trying to juggle too many technical challenges.

So these days I leave the too many viewpoints alone. I look to make the cast small enough to manage. I like the focus of a good story well-told, and it’s not necessary to do more.

And I’m not alone–others see these same issues of sinking a good story (or kitchen sinking it) with too much going on:

TOO MUCH PLOT–https://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/too-much-of-a-good-thing-dont-sink-a-story-with-too-much-plot

COMMON MISTAKES–http://www.foremostpress.com/authors/articles/mistakes_beginners.html

DO’s AND DON’Ts of MIXING GENRES–https://www.writersdigest.com/writing-articles/by-writing-goal/get-published-sell-my-work/the-dos-and-donts-of-combining-genres

GET TO KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS–https://theeditorsblog.net/2013/03/22/get-to-know-your-characters/

 

Plot, Character & Theme

I’m doing my Plotting from Character workshop this November and as usual before a workshop I’ve been thinking about the elements that go into the workshop–and into a story.

Too often what I see in manuscripts is that “stuff happens.” Now, that’s not bad in an action-packed story, except it can end up not being very satisfying to a reader. Ideally, the stuff that happens has something to do with the main character having tough choices that reveal the character of the character, and has even more to do with theme. So let’s start with theme.

The importance of theme is often overlooked. Theme is what the story is REALLY about–it is what is going to resonate with the reader and create a greater satisfaction. Theme is the touchstone for the writer, too. If you get lost, look to theme to get back on track. So…without theme, a story tends to wander. You might even think of theme as the core phrase or question that puts a focus into the story.

This focus helps you set up a core goal that will lead to conflict and then a crisis (or dark moment, where the protagonist must face his or her greatest weakness, and either overcome it, or not, leading to death of the old self, or in a tragic tale, the character’s death for failure.

What does this have to do with ‘plotting from character’?

With theme in place, the writer can start asking–“What characters do I need to explore this theme?” And also–“What needs to happen to face my protagonist with tough choices related to theme?” In other words, it is no longer about coming up with general stuff, but now coming up with events that will test the protagonist based around the theme, or core ideas the protagonist needs to learn.

This helps greatly in avoiding cliches, such as the heroine gets kidnapped, or the hero and heroine have a misunderstanding after the hero’s ex tells the heroine some lie about the hero. Theme and a specific character will generate a very specific story–and this brings a freshness to the story.

How do you apply all this?

Well, theme and character go hand-in-hand. It’s really hard to develop just one of these, so you have to do them together. For example, if you’re story is REALLY about how there is only fear and love, and the stronger of these will overcome the other, then you know you will need a character who has deep fears to overcome, and faces the need to overcome these in order to have a great love. You’re also going to have a character who doesn’t overcome fears, and a character who is fearless. Those combinations will let you best explore that theme. With that in place, you still need to develop the characters–starting with the protagonist–so that the characters do not come across as flat (or cardboard). And you’re going to develop tougher and tougher choices for that protagonist that fit into the main turning points of the story.

This means the action of the story is going to come from your characters–from facing characters with tougher and tougher choices. Because your characters are yours, this helps you avoid any cliche action in the story. That’s plotting from character. But it’s hard to do this without some idea of theme.

Now I will say some writers know how to do this instinctively (I’m not one of them). I also hold that if you know your theme up front, it is a lot easier to weave it into the story–not with a heavy hand, but a light touch that makes the theme (and the story) stronger. Is this easy–no, not really. But it is well worth it for the reader in that you’ll end up with a stronger story that makes the reader keep thinking about that story long after the last page has been read.