Considerations in a First Person Opening

This post walks through my thought process in starting a short story. Hopefully, it will help someone out there who might one day encounter a similar situation.

To begin with, I try to keep myself focused on the goal of my writing and the goal of my story.

Primary Goal:

Write two short stories, one from the point of view of a mage and one from a noble, that explain the causes of the Wizard’s War.

Secondary Goal:

There are a lot of readers out there that want a story that will make them feel something. If you can achieve that goal, you can tap into a significant market absent any other criteria. Beyond that, I personally admire any author that can both keep me engaged and evoke an emotional response. Those two criteria, in fact, comprise my main objectives for what I try to achieve with my writing.

One way to learn a technique is to find a book that accomplishes a particular objective really well. Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun did a better job of evoking an emotional response in me than any other book.

My goal for these two short stories is to emulate the techniques in that work. That means a deep immersion into the character from an emotional standpoint and writing from in a 1st person POV.

My Process:

I’m a discovery writer, so, going into my first story, I don’t know much about the situation or the character. I know he’s a young mage nearing graduation at the academy that serves the Three Kingdoms. He’s in Love and wants nothing more than to marry his sweetheart. Luckily, she feels the same, so it’s not a “win the girl’s heart” story (not that that’s a bad story; I just want to pursue a different plotline than my novelette, Abuse of Power). Instead, the conflict comes from a decree from the nobles requiring that permission is required for any mage who wants to marry.

I think this is a fairly smart start. The protagonist has a relatable goal. Who can’t sympathize with someone who fights for love? And the situation provides lots of opportunities for conflict.

Problems Inherent to a First Person Opening:

1st Person offers a lot of great advantages, chief among them the ability to slip thoroughly inside the protagonist’s head. It also puts up a couple of roadblocks straight from the start:

• Describing the character is difficult. People don’t generally give a lot of consideration to their how they look to others, so getting in a good description is problematic. The appraising glance in a mirror has been overdone. I’m pretty minimalist when it comes to description anyway, so I’ll probably just throw in some pertinent details in conversation – “You know I can’t see well at night with my dark eyes” OR “My light skin burns easily if I’m out in the sun too long.” I’m not overly concerned at the moment about his appearance, and I’d prefer to let the reader draw their own pictures.
• Getting the character’s name in. A pet peeve of mine is an author going too long without giving me the character’s name, and this is much more difficult in first person. This consideration shapes a lot of decisions at the start of the story.

On to the Story:

“Tomis. I’m sorry.”

That was my first thought for the opening line. By starting the next line with “I,” it immediately establishes the name of the POV character as the first word. My main problem with it, however, is that I’m having a person other than the protagonist perform the first action (speaking) in my story. That just grates on me.

Instead, I’ll add the following as the first line:

I knew something was wrong when I saw his face.

That’s definitely the sentiment I want. It filters the situation emotionally, but there are some major issues:

• I will not start any story with the first verb being “knew.” Not going to happen. I need something more active that conveys the same emotion.
• “Saw” is the bad type of filtering.
• I don’t like the alliteration.

Modified, it becomes:

I faltered at his expression.

“Faltered,” to me, conjures the exact right picture — a guy walking along and hesitating from the emotions caused by something he sees.

I do have a problem with “his.” If I were beta reading your story and saw this, I’d write, “What, exactly, is the antecedent to ‘his’?” The pronoun use without the proper antecedent, however, allows me to focus on the protagonist. I think leaving who “his” refers to as a bit of a question doesn’t harm me all that much at this point.

“What’s happened?”

I like this response, but I need to constantly remind myself to filter the situation through Tomis’ emotions. The more I do so, the better — for this experiment anyway. I need to add something like: My alarm grew. Since that’s a bit telly, I’ll change it to: My heart raced.

Granted, that’s a pretty generic indicator. Better might be something more specific to my character. Three problems, though:

1. The absolute weakest part of my writing is coming up with those perfect beats. It’s usually something that has to wait for the 3rd or 4th draft.
2. I don’t know enough about the character yet to establish the perfect beat.
3. Would a more specific indicator detract from the focus as the reader has to parse the meaning?

The end result of those considerations is that I’m going to leave it alone for now.

Cale’s eyes darted toward the arched doorway leading to the main hall before focusing behind me to the right. That he couldn’t bear to look at me wasn’t a good sign. “Another decree.”

This section is okay for a rough draft. I finally reveal who “his” referred to, and I don’t think the wait was too long. I also give him an action that shows his anxiousness.

The next line is more problematic. Normally, I’d say RUE, but I’m trying to learn a new technique rather than do what I normally do. Establishing emotional context is far more important right now than worrying about overexplaining. I can already see, however, that this issue will present constant struggles.

I like the terseness of the explanation in that it both presents a hook and fits the image of Cale that I’m trying to build as being reluctant to explain the situation to Tomis.

Putting It All Together:

I faltered at his expression.

“Tomis. I’m sorry.”

My heart raced. “What’s happened?”

Cale’s eyes darted toward the arched doorway leading to the main hall before focusing behind me to the right. That he couldn’t bear to look at me wasn’t a good sign. “Another decree.”

(Overall, it’s a little choppy, but it’ll suffice for the rough draft.)

Thoughts?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Are you intrigued by where I’m going? What do you think of the technique? Any comments on my thought process? Does this help you at all?

Evaluating Abuse of Power Based on the Principles of Good Writing

In this post, I set forth my thoughts on what constitutes good writing. An author should be his own worst critic and constantly examine his work for improvement. To that end, I’m evaluating my novelette, Abuse of Power, based on those principles to see where I need to concentrate my efforts for future learning.

Principle 1 – Do no harm

Clean, concise prose is my strong point. While there’s always room for improvement, trying to get better at writing technique will take a great deal of time and result in little benefit.

Likewise, I think I do a good job of making story choices that don’t provide distractions for the reader. The structure for Abuse is straightforward, and it flows well.

I give myself a solid 4.5 stars here.

Principle 2 – Create relatable characters

Before getting my editor’s comments, I thought I did a pretty good job with characterization overall. While I think Auggie and Alaina are pretty relatable in their overarching goals and struggles, I’m lacking in a couple of other areas:

• Variation of character voice. One of Tim’s big complaints was the lack of differentiation between the voices of Alaina, a baker’s daughter, and Auggie, the son of the duke. Oops. I did my best in the revision to use vocabulary to create more of a divide, but I don’t think this is one of my strong suits. I’ll continue to work on improving this aspect of my craft, but, truthfully, I don’t see it as a huge impact.
• Of more worry is the fact that Tim felt my characters were too one-dimensional. I’m struggling with this one. Since Abuse is a novelette, I tried hard to keep the plot concise and didn’t see a lot of opportunities to expand on the characters. In the revision, I added a little bit of detail, but I’m not sure I adequately addressed his concerns. I’ll be interested to see if he feels this problem extends to Power of the Mages where I spent much more time developing characters.

Because of the two fairly serious concerns, I give myself only 2 stars here. 😦

Principle 3 – Present a series of significant events

The structure and pace of Abuse is spot on. Tim had no major complaints, and I feel the story moves well. He noted a few places where I could ramp up the tension a bit, and I did so in my revision.

Again, there’s always room for improvement, but, in general, I know how to add tension and how to keep a story moving.

I give myself another solid 4.5 stars.

Principle 4 – Filter the events through the emotional lens of your character

This principle is the one that I discovered most recently in my writing career and the one I feel is the weakest element of my writing. While Tim was overall pleased with the emotional movement, I’m still not satisfied.

I know a lot of writers criticize Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series, but, in Midnight Sun, she does the best job I’ve ever read of filtering. Every sentence brings the reader closer to Edward’s emotions.

I’m not saying that I should try to emulate her style as I’m not sure it would be appropriate for epic fantasy, but I think I have a long way to go in truly learning and embracing the technique she implements. I’m making a further study of it a high priority on my to-do list. Perhaps I’ll pen a short story that explores her methods.

Because Tim thought I did well overall, I give myself 3.5 stars.

Principle 5 – Give the reader an emotional payoff

I like the ending of Abuse. Each time I read it, I smile.

On the other hand, it doesn’t provide the emotional payoff that I really want. Part of that is the limitation of fitting the story into a novelette and part is my weakness at emotional filtering.

3 stars.

Overall, Abuse of Power is a solid story at 3.5 stars, but I have a lot of work to do in getting better at my overall craft. I’d be interested to know what you think of my evaluation. The final version should be available for free download from the site sometime no later than early next week. If you get a chance, please read it and comment.

The Principles of Good Writing

The more self published books I read, the more I want to make sure mine doesn’t suck. Honestly, if you expect people to pay money for a product, you should make every effort to ensure that the novel is worthy.

To that end, I am constantly analyzing the principles of good writing and evaluating my work versus those principles.

Note that these principles are not necessarily universal. What I may consider an important element of a story, you may feel is insignificant. There is no one perfect story that fits every person; tastes vary widely. The point is that each author should keep their goals firmly fixed. If you don’t know what you consider good, how are you ever going to achieve it?

Principle 1 – Do no harm

The vast majority of readers who pick up your book don’t want to see you fail. They want to love your writing, to be engaged and moved emotionally by your work. The best things you can do are not let your writing get in the way of the story and not make stupid decisions. Two keys:

• Produce clean, concise prose
• Make story choices designed to engage the reader

Principle 2 – Create relatable characters

The reader lives the story through the eyes of your characters. The more the reader can relate to the character, the more engaged they are. Two keys:

• Give the character an overarching goal to which anyone can relate, such as the search for love, acceptance, etc.
• Make the character struggle to attain their goal

Principle 3 – Present a series of significant events

A story, in its simplest terms, is a series of scenes. The core of good writing is choosing which scenes to present. Two keys to make each one significant:

• Make each relate to and advance the story
• Make each not boring by filling it with tension and emotion

Principle 4 – Filter the events through the emotional lens of your character

Events have no relevance to the reader and, thus, no impact. To make your writing engaging, you have to make the reader feel the importance of the event. The best way to do that is to show the event through the eyes of the character and clue the reader in at each step regarding the character’s feelings about what is happening.

Principle 5 – Give the reader an emotional payoff

If you’ve followed the principles above, your reader knows your character’s goal and has experienced your character’s struggle. They’re rooting for your character to succeed. They want to experience that success. Give it to them.

Tomorrow, I evaluate my novelette, Abuse of Power, in light of these principles.

Be Active Part 2

In this post, I discussed the What, Why, and When of Be Active. The post below concludes the series.

How

Step 1 – Take a scene and write just the verbs.

Consider the following:

Sally had a pony. It made her happy. One day, she was riding and saw storm clouds on the horizon. It started to rain. She could have gone back to the stable. Instead, she was so happy that she continued riding, even while the rain began to make her wet.

That’s not exactly the most compelling paragraph ever written. Granted, there are many issues with it, but a part of the problem is the lack of action conveyed by the verbs. Let’s look at them:

Had
Made
Was
Saw
Started
Could
Was

Step 2 – Replace weak verbs with strong ones.

All seven verbs above are weak. None convey action or motion.

Sally had a pony. It made her happy.

Instead of telling the reader in static terms that Sally owns a pony and how that pony makes her feel, let’s show them:

Sally stilled her tapping foot and glanced at the clock again. Only five more minutes, she thought. Her ears repelled the teacher’s voice as the seconds ticked. She pressed her feet hard against the floor to keep her knees from swaying.

Finally, the bell rang, and Sally rushed from the building. Rainbow, she thought, here I come. She smiled.

Okay, not the greatest piece of literature ever produced, but we’re headed in the right direction. We’re showing how eager Sally is to get to her pony and how happy she is at the prospect. Note the verbs in this version:

Stilled
Glanced
Thought
Repelled
Pressed
Rang
Rushed
Thought
Smiled

With the exception of “thought,” which is a necessary evil, all these words convey motion.

One day, she was riding and saw storm clouds on the horizon.

There are isolated instances where it is appropriate to use “was” plus a gerund. Most of the times that I see a beginner using the construct, it is not a wise choice. In this case, “was riding” can be translated as “existed in a state of riding.” It’s much stronger to depict Sally as “riding” by using “rode” than as “existing” by using “was.”

The second clause is likewise quite weak. It’s an example of what I call the bad version of filtering. We’re in Sally’s point of view, so there is no reason to write that she saw. If we simply show the reader what she sees, they understand that it’s coming through her eyes.

Her legs churned as she ran to the stable, and she threw her arms around the pony’s neck before saddling him. After a quick check of the horse’s legs, she galloped toward the river.

Wind whipped through her hair. Too much wind.

She frowned. Storm clouds gathered on the horizon.

Again, look at the verbs used:

Churned
Threw
Galloped
Whipped
Frowned
Gathered

It started to rain. She could have gone back to the stable. Instead, she was so happy that she continued riding, even while the rain began to make her wet.

Any time you see “started to” or “began to” in your writing, examine it. Most of the time, it’s hiding a better verb.

Likewise, consider “was” to be one of the worst worse you can possibly use. If you can get rid of it without going through verbal gymnastics, do so.

It’s not always possible to avoid “could,” but realize that it’s weak.

Large, wet drops splashed on her head and shoulders, and she slumped in dismay at the thought of cutting her ride short. There’s no lightning or thunder, she thought.

She grinned. I won’t melt.

Note how the combination of showing and conveying motion transformed a horrid, uninteresting paragraph into something that is at least readable.

Be Active

This two-part series is another slightly better than rough draft version of a chapter from my upcoming book on writing. As always, I’d love feedback.

Be Active

What

The fundamental concepts of Be Active are twofold:

1. Subjects perform the action in a sentence.

Steve hit the tree.

The preceding sentence is written in active voice. The subject, Steve, performs an action, hitting the tree. Contrast that with a sentence written in passive voice:

The tree was hit by Steve.

2. The author chooses strong verbs that convey motion.

Steve was running toward the castle.

That sentence literally means, “Steve existed in a state of running toward the castle.” Instead of having your protagonist exist, show him doing something.

Steve ran toward the castle.

Or, even better:

Steve sprinted toward the castle.

Why

Using active voice and strong verbs:

• Creates more tension and more interest – Readers simply are more engaged by strong, active writing.
• Conveys a direct, authoritative style – If your goal is story over style, this technique helps.
• Is clearer – Active voice requires fewer words than passive voice and delivers the intended message in a more straightforward manner. Strong, active verbs generate action and emotion more effectively than other parts of speech without the need for modifying words to paint a picture.

When

Be Active should be your default technique. Use it unless you have a reason not to.

Reasons not to use it:

• You desire to focus on the object rather than the subject.

Beth was attacked.

The story, presumably, is interested in Beth, not the attacker. The use of passive voice focuses attention on her.

• You seek to reduce tension.

Since active voice and strong verbs create more tension, the reverse, using passive voice and focusing on existence rather than action, serves to reduce the tension.

• You seek to slow pace.

Concise and direct writing leads to an increased pace. Using more words and focusing less on action helps to slow things down.

Stay tuned next week for the conclusion of this post on how to implement this crucial technique.

We Hold These Truths About Self Editing

In my travels around the internet and my adventures critiquing others’ writing, I’ve found two statements about editing that bother me.

“Truth” 1: You can’t edit yourself.

Before you editors in my audience get too worked up, I’m not disagreeing with the premise that a finished, professional product requires the services of a professional editor. I can’t imagine putting a work for sale without, at the very least, a structural edit.

I disagree with an implication I’m getting from the statement, one that I’m not sure was intended but that bothers me a lot — that an author shouldn’t do everything he can to edit himself. After all, if it’s not possible to edit yourself, why should you try?

More indicative of this attitude is a statement I’ve seen too many times to count from those who have been critiqued:

“Truth” 2: I don’t have to (punctuate correctly, understand basic grammar rules, craft a coherent thought, produce more than a jumble of random words, etc.); that’s what editors are for.

That attitude makes my head want to explode.

Here are my truths about editing:

Truth 1 – If you’re going to be a writer, do it right.

You simply must employ the services of an editor before hitting “publish” for your precious manuscript. If you’re not serious enough about producing a quality product that you can’t make that monetary investment, how can you expect anyone to pay for your work?

The most likely results of failure to do so is:

• You embarrass yourself.
• You make the rest of us self-publishers look bad.

If you truly don’t have any money, try crowdsourcing. If your work has any merit, you should be able to generate enough money for at least a manuscript review by a freelance editor. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.

Truth 2 – Self edit before the edit.

Three reasons:

• Your editor is a professional, meaning that’s how he makes his livelihood. He’s charging you per word as a way to estimate the amount of time he will spend working on your manuscript. He cannot afford to spend more than that allotted amount of time. Once he hits that limit, he has to move on to the next client. Would you rather he spent his time taking your work from horrible to readable or from good to great?
• Editing is freaking expensive. Unless you have a publisher that’s paying for it or you expect your book to make six figures, it’s simply not cost effective to have an editor fix mistakes that you could have caught.
• An editor can only take your work so far above the starting point. When I critique someone, I can’t do much if I can’t understand what they’re trying to convey. All I can do is point out the confusion. If I can understand but the wording/technique is off, I can suggest a remedy. If the wording/technique is good, I can focus on how that piece fits in with the overall story.

Truth 3 – Sweat the small stuff.

Similar to the attitude that it’s the editor’s responsibility to fix all your wrongs is the attitude that small mistakes don’t matter.

What’s more important — not using adverbs or having a coherent plot?

Obviously the latter.

The big stuff — plot, character, tension, emotion — take your work from useless drivel to readable. If you want to find any audience at all, you must master these elements.

If, however, you want your work to be great, you have to master the small stuff.

No one, beside another writer, is going to read your book and say, “It was awesome. The author didn’t overuse adverbs.”

What’s going to happen is, since you found ways to immerse the reader in lieu of using adverbs, the reader is going to turn page after page until the end and say, “Wow, that was awesome. I couldn’t put it down.”

Each time you make a mistake, you pull the reader out of the story. Enough mistakes, and you lose them.

How to Craft a Compelling Story

This post is my first attempt to capture my thoughts about the essentials of storytelling. The list I’ve created needs refinement. I welcome comments, but please note that, for the sake of clarity, I’m not trying to be comprehensive. For example, I write below that your story should be sequential. Obviously, it’s possible to create a compelling story and use flashbacks.

Essential Steps for Creating a Compelling Story

1. Come up with an idea. The importance of the nature and originality of the idea is debatable. On one hand, it can help you get the book marketed and published. On the other, if you’re creating a character-driven novel, it doesn’t have nearly the importance to the story as the character does.

2. Create a character. Though your story may have multiple people floating through it, one needs to be the protagonist, and that person needs to be both relatable and the primary focus of the story.

3. The core of your idea should be a Significant Situation. Throw your character into that Significant Situation, and you have the beginnings of your story.

4. Break your idea into a series of events. Each event should be presented inside a scene. Note that a discovery writer cannot skip this step. Whereas an outliner will come up with a scene list before writing the first draft, the discovery writer typically writes the first draft and then checks that the scenes properly present the idea.

5. The sequences of scenes should:

• Follow a logical plot structure
• Follow the character from just before introduction of the Significant Situation until just after the conclusion of the Significant Situation
• Be presented in chronological order for the most part

6. Each scene should:

• Build upon the last scene. Think of building a story like presenting a case to a jury. Each scene is a bit of evidence, and you build that evidence up to reach your conclusion. Get rid of any scene that doesn’t advance the plot.
• Be interesting to the reader. Ask yourself the question, “What is the reader getting out of this scene?” Does it have enough tension, emotion, and/or humor?
• Show the event to the reader. If someone tells you about an accident on the freeway, the account isn’t going to stay with you for long or interest you all that much. If you see the accident, you’re going to remember it a whole lot longer, and it’s going to impact you a whole lot more.
• Be filtered through the POV character to give it emotional context. Events have no relevance. They’re not compelling or impactful in a vacuum. If you read a story about a guy dying in an accident, you may think that it’s a sad event, but it’s not going to impact you much. If you hear about the accident from the guy’s wife and she tells you how much his death has affected her, you’ll find the story compelling.
• Develop character. Each action, thought, and spoken word reveals something to the reader about your character. Understand what you’re revealing and let these three methods do their job. Telling the reader that your character is tall is far worse than showing him ducking under a doorway.

7. The conclusion should show a transformation in the character. For the story to be compelling, it needs to be meaningful. The best way to show the impact of the events is to show its effect on the character by showing significant personal change.