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.

Editor’s Structural Analysis of Abuse of Power

I think that authors typically have two blind spots regarding their work — either they think it’s the best thing ever written or they think it’s the worst. The danger in the first attitude is that they send it out before its ready and forever damage their reputation. The hazard of the second is that they keep striving for unobtainable perfection and never send it out at all.

I think I’m in a pretty good place. I’ve gotten pretty good feedback, and I’m ready to let my finished work stand. Why, then, did I decide to have my novelette — which was already published — looked at by an editor?

1. I won one of my fantasy football leagues. You’re probably saying, “Huh?” Seriously, I won a couple of hundred bucks and didn’t have any other immediate needs.
2. I want Abuse of Power to be an advertisement for my work, and, while I’m fairly happy with it, I want it to have a little more impact than it does now.
3. I think my writing is good. I want it to be great, and the single best way I can think of to improve is to get more feedback.

Tim, at Flourish Editing, did a structural review for me (check back tomorrow for a discussion of what the various types of reviews are and what you should choose), and here’s what I learned:

Overall, the piece is pretty good. Tim thinks it’s fast paced with plenty of emotion and, if Power of the Mages had been available, he said he would have been interested in buying it based on Abuse.

Characterization is a weak link in the story. Basically, I didn’t give much of an arc or dimension to any of the four main characters except Auggie, and his was probably weaker than it should have been. I seriously don’t think that this is a problem overall with my writing as much as it is me trying to keep the story tight given the format. I don’t think I’m going to change Benj’s arc at all in my edit, and I’ll only tweak Alaina’s a little.

Auggie’s arc needs to be stronger. Tim saw his transformation from adventurer to responsible adult as a minor sidenote rather than a major event. I need to strengthen this. Tim cautions me on this thought, however, in that I can’t make Auggie seem like a spoiled brat. I think I have fix for it; we’ll see.

I also made a huge mistake in portraying Emar as evil for the sake of being evil. I need to give him some depth. This is a typical problem with me; I tend to use the antagonist as a foil instead of developing them as characters. I need to do better!

Tim nailed one of my biggest weaknesses — distinct character voice. Truthfully, most of my characters sound like me talking. I’m going to do my best to learn to do better, but it’s going to be a long road for me. I’m hoping my readers don’t get too turned off as I work to improve.

He made some minor comments on plot which are easily fixable. I think it’s easy for any author to make tiny mistakes and sometimes it just takes an outsider view to spot them. These don’t worry me overmuch, but it’s helpful to have them pointed out.

Tim suggests that I can add some additional physical tension in places. I agree. It’s never a bad idea to increase tension, and I tend to focus much more on the dramatic over the physical.

Overall, I think the comments are well worth the slightly less than $100 that I paid. The full text of his analysis is posted below.

ABUSE OF POWER STRUCTURAL ANALYSIS

1. Overview

Executive Summary
You have a good story here. It’s well plotted, fast-paced, and engaging. There are a few minor issues here and there, but nothing that requires much effort to fix. Character is the weakest sector of the piece, as discussed below, but more in the sense of “it’d be nice if…” rather than “you have to fix…”. I enjoyed reading Abuse of Power, and if Power of the Mages had been available at the end of it, I’d have gone to pick it up.

Writing Style
For the most part, the writing style is very strong. You’re a good, efficient writer with a nice grasp of readability and an effective voice. There are some minor points where things get a little confused, or the viewpoint slips somewhat to permit a small authorial intrusion, but nothing serious. There are no chunks of exposition deadening pace, which is always a great sign. Auggie has a clean, crisp viewpoint which carries the story nicely, and you’ve got plenty of emotional movement in the text. It’s easy to slip into, and thoroughly enjoyable. The only area I can point to with any possible consistent weakness is in characterization, which is covered below. There isn’t much description, but then Auggie doesn’t really ever have time for it, so I consider that a positive sign rather than a criticism.

Setting
Magic-poor feudal fantasy is a popular place for stories to happen in. We don’t get to learn a huge amount about the world during Abuse of Power, but we discover everything we need to for the story to work, which is exactly the right amount. The information that is there makes sense, and hangs together effectively. There are some lovely touches that will help to hook reader curiosity, such as the tender’s moment of divine possession. Alaina’s magic will also serve in that regard, including the hints that she’s using power to calm an unwitting Auggie.

Characterization
The main characters are strong and engaging, which is very important. There isn’t a huge amount of character arc, but what there is feels well-handled. Auggie is forced to deal with his commitment issues and find peace; Alaina has to set aside some of her self-hatred. Benj doesn’t have any movement at all, but that’s fine for a character who’s there as a foil in a short story. As the antagonist, it’s fitting that Emar does not develop.
A slightly bigger issue is character depth. All four main characters are broadly one-dimensional. Auggie does have some occasional hints of privileged nobility running through his general knightly demeanor, but that’s it. You can get away with one-dimensional characters in a short story, but it wouldn’t take much to add in some sprinkles of deeper currents running through all four of the primaries, and you’d get deeper reader immersion (and pleasure) because of it. Of the four, Emar is the most cipher-like, and I recommend giving some thought to moving him from ‘Evil Because I’m Evil’ towards something just a little more sympathetic, and thus interesting. For example, ‘Desperately Trying To Prove Something’, ‘Totally Cynical Bounty Hunter’, or ‘More-Than-My-Job’s-Worth Bureaucrat.’
The other thing worth looking at is dialogue. The three protagonists all have very similar manners of speaking. That might be expected between Auggie and Benj, although they’d still most likely have some unique vocal aspects. It’s makes less sense for Alaina. Unless there’s some sort of setting-related consideration towards universal education cutting across class barriers, a baker’s daughter ought not sound like a Duke’s son. The piece would be stronger if you looked back over the dialogue and gave each person more of a flavor.

Plot & Tension
Plot and tension are strong throughout. Very little seems out of place — the only act I didn’t totally understand was Emar’s acceptance of the duel — and events flow reasonably naturally into each other. Tension is handled nicely for the most part. There are a few points where the protagonists get away with things that could have provided the opportunity for a moment or two of reader suspense, such as the snapped twig in the first scene, but the story never feels like it’s faltering. None of the scenes feel out of place, nor do they drag on past their welcome point.
There are a few possible issues of timing, particularly during the first night — the horseback swap, dawn coinciding with when they leave the fort — but nothing that can’t be easily fixed. All in all, it’s a well-told story.

Structure
The structure of this story fits fairly closely into romance patterns. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy rescues girl from crazed witchfinders, boy falls down cliff, boy engages in bloodthirsty duel as part of shotgun wedding, boy gets girl. Humor aside, the arcs in this piece are those of romance — changes in outlook, development of relationship, and so on. This is not a criticism. Some plot structures require more of a character arc on the part of the protagonist than others. Romantic stories tend not to have much arc, which fits with Abuse of Power. At the end of the story, Auggie is more or less the same chap he was at the start. He’s faced his fear of commitment, but that’s been mostly in the background anyway.
In terms of act breaks, the story is structured quite closely to the usual three-act set-up. We have the catcher’s appearance changing everything around 25% and Alaina’s rejection sets up a false failure echo around 50%. The break into Act 3 is slightly weaker, but we have the slow tender and the interrupted nuptials around that spot providing something of a moment of bleakness. The climactic confrontations, first with Emar and then with Alaina, fall in place nicely. There doesn’t appear to be any overt theme, but that’s not uncommon for a shorter piece.
The resolution is strong, and sets up your novel well. Ending with the tussle over Ashley’s name gives a great lead in to your sell-line.

2. Scene by Scene

1. Bandit Camp: Auggie and Benj scout a horse-thief camp in the dark.
This is well-paced, involving, and has some nice tension. One or two areas for possible improvement though. The way it’s currently written, Auggie’s breaking of the dry branch seems oddly deliberate for such a dangerous act. The moment of possible discovery that follows could definitely be played up for greater peril.
The initial conversation reveals basic character well, establishes Benj as a bit loose, Auggie as better-trained and more rigorous.
There is a little authorial intrusion and minor awkwardness in the writing – Benj’s transition to blending in is a bit too sudden; Auggie’s bitter reminiscence slows the vital initial pace a bit, and would be better on the (currently near-invisible) ride back.
The setting so far could be any low-tech; I initially thought of civil war US.

2. Colonel: The pair report the camp’s presence.
This builds on previous characterizations nicely. The Colonel’s behavior acts as an effective foil for strengthening our existing impressions. I think Auggie would have noticed the Colonel’s name though, whenever he was told it.

3. Tavern: Auggie meets Alaina, and gets her captured by mage catchers.
After the initial introductions, this is where protagonists’ characters get fully established. The three protags and the antag are all strong individuals, but are a little one-dimensional — Auggie is an officer, Benj is irresponsible, Alaina is annoyed, and Emar is nasty — and the three protags have broadly similar character voices. The moment where Auggie bullies Alaina into sitting is a start towards two-dimensionality, but a few more little moments scattered through the scene to add secondary dimensions — and some personal vocal uniqueness — would go a long way. This is particularly true of Emar, who will be more interesting if he doesn’t feel (and sound) like he’s acting simply because he’s evil-minded.
Setting is established firmly as fantastical for the first time, which makes sense in a setting where magic is utterly suppressed.
Pacing is fairly strong, writing is effective, and there’s plenty of emotional movement. Auggie’s reaction to Alaina does seems unusually strong given the brevity and awkwardness of their encounter; perhaps up the ‘love at first sight’ aspect a little to increase believability?

4. Rescue: Auggie and Benj snatch Alaina and make it to the fort.
There are some small moments of awkward writing, mostly at the start of the scene in the 3rd and 4th paras. It seems odd that the ambushed guard’s yelp doesn’t draw attention — or is it the wind muffling him? When Auggie slows to delay pursuit, there’s no sense that the fort is so near until Benj is riding into it, which is slightly jarring. Also, if the pursuit has closed from 100yds over ten miles to the point where a last 20-second sprint won’t be enough, transferring Alaina between horses seems nigh-on impossible. If they’re making a movie-stunt switch at full gallop, it ought to be talked through a lot more to establish how insanely difficult it is, and made as frightening as possible for the reader. Otherwise, you’ll risk losing immersion through implausibility.
Interesting character perspectives in here — role reversals between A and B, and Alaina’s reluctance to be rescued — provide nice interest. Plenty of emotional movement. There are several opportunities to increase tension during the scene however, and the storm doesn’t seem to attract Auggie’s notice as much as serious nasty weather ought to.

5. The Fort: Auggie and Alaina discuss the rescue.
Decent character interplay here, with some good hints to motivations. As in the tavern scene, some moments to add depth would strengthen things, and the characters could use greater voice differentiation. The Duke’s heir and a peasant girl generally wouldn’t be expected to use similar vernaculars.

6. Chase: The trio ditch immediate pursuit.
As the scene opens, we go from indeterminate night — but seemingly just a couple of hours since we were in the tavern — to dawn. The timing feels odd, given Benj just interrupted to say the Colonel was about to open the gates. The escape plan is very believable, which is nice.
I note that there are no missile weapons in evidence anywhere. Is that a setting thing, or does Emar feel restricted?

7. The Fall: Alaina reveals her powers.
A well-structured and decently paced scene. Establishes more of setting and character. Alaina’s history works effectively. There are a few spots that could use a little tightening, either for tone or minor clarity, after Auggie’s rescue — unwanted paragraph breaks during Alaina’s speech, abrupt emotional variability, etc. Overall though, a strong scene.

8. Ceremony: Auggie rounds up a shotgun wedding.
Nicely paced. The priest’s divine possession is a great touch, and opens a whole file of questions for readers to start obsessing over. The sparse description throughout is in accord with Auggie’s stress levels, but we ought to at least get the name of the village at the start of this scene or the end of the one before. Writing is crisp. Dialogue and character are effective throughout.
Nice use of the setting’s customs here, by the way. The marriage process is given exactly the right level of viewpoint attention that you’d expect given the twin requirements of extreme hurry and legal irreproachability.

9. Duel: Auggie and Emar fight it out.
A few issues here. I’m not sure why Emar agrees to the duel — he seems to hold all the cards, and there’s little sense that the setting makes a challenge like that unavoidable. Also, fifteen minutes is a hell of a long time for a duel to go on. Even allowing that Auggie has the stamina to swing a broadsword for that time, it’s (historically) very unlikely that both participants would be that perfectly balanced. This is particularly true given the very different weapons. It’s also unlikely that both men could avoid making a slip in that time. Finally, once Emar has lost, he leaves just a bit too abruptly. Even if he doesn’t say another word, which seems perfectly believable, I do think that Auggie would pay more attention to his departure. I also suspect Auggie would have enough blood-loss and fatigue at this point that he’d be pretty wiped out for the rest of the story.
It’s good seeing some of the other side of Auggie in this scene — bloodthirsty, reasonably careless of peasants’ fates, a touch arrogant. It makes him more human, and throws Alaina’s empathy into stronger relief. Possibly Benj could have a resigned/sarcastic last word before Auggie kicks the duel off? He doesn’t seem the type to miss a last retort.

10. Wedding: Alaina says yes.
Nice denouement. Her return of the rings is a good way to carry the tension through to the end, and fits perfectly with her established motivations and character. Benj is absent from the last scene, and might be expected to put in at least a minor irreverent appearance, but it’s not a big deal if you don’t want to shoe-horn him in.
The final line makes for a great lead in to your sell-line, and there’s plenty of stuff in there to establish hooks for Power of the Mages. Pacing is good, timing works, nothing seems out of place, and the writing is consistent.

How to Improve Your Writing

Whether you’re a beginner or are simply honing your craft, we’re all seeking to get better. What, then, is the best, most efficient, way to improve?

First, here’s some advice that gets tossed around a lot that I find dubious:

• Read – That’s usually the first thing that people tell you to do if you want to become a better writer. I read. I read a lot, 8 books finished this month. I’m not sure, however, how much any of that reading is doing to improve my writing. Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I simply don’t learn much about writing by reading fiction.
• Write – That’s the second piece of advice you’re going to get if you ask, “How do I become a better writer?” I wrote a quarter of a million words before I got serious about learning to write, and I’m not sure that the last sentence that I wrote was much better than the first.
• Start with Short Stories – While there is value in starting something that is easier to finish, if you want to write a novel, you’ll learn more by writing that first novel than by writing a hundred short stories. There are a lot of differences between the two forms.

I’m not saying that there’s no value in the above advice. It’s just that I didn’t find any of it particularly useful or efficient.

If I could go back to myself when I started my casual study of writing almost two decades ago, I’d tell myself to do the following:

Step 1 – Accept that, no matter how good I think my writing is, the first stuff that I produce is going to be crap not worthy of being read. By anyone. Learning to write is not an easy or quick process. Maybe some are born with an innate gift, but I wouldn’t count on you being one of them.

Step 2 – Read about writing. Find books and blogs that offer tips and advice. Don’t devote all your time to this or let it interfere with actual writing, but definitely make this a part of your life. Never stop reading about writing and trying to improve your craft. You never know where that tidbit will come from that takes your craft to the next level. (And I’m not just saying this because I both blog about writing and plan to write a book about it.)

Step 3 – Write. Whether a short story or a chapter of a novel, create a finished piece (again, think a whole chapter, not a whole novel).

Step 4 – Revise what you wrote. Make it the absolute best you can make it. Pour your heart, soul, and time into it.

Step 5- Once the piece is perfect, get feedback. I’ll post Monday on how to get feedback, but this step is key. Having someone who knows more than you tear to shreds a piece you thought was good is the fastest, best way to learn (once you get past the emotional devastation, anyway).

Step 6 – Go back to Step 2 and repeat until you’re getting mostly positive feedback from people whose opinions on writing you trust and respect.

Step 7 – Keep learning. Keep writing. Actively search for new knowledge. Seek out feedback and see what you can learn from that feedback.