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.

How to Use Rules

There is only one ironclad rule in writing: You can do anything you want as long as it works.

However, there are a ton of rules that serve to guide your writing journey. In this post, I listed why I think you’re better off following them than not. I also wrote that a strategy for implementing them is probably a good idea.

That strategy is today’s topic.

Step 1 – Just follow the darn rules.

Show, don’t tell. Avoid adverbs. Be active.

Find a bromide and use it.

You’ll question the effectiveness. You’ll shout, “Why?” and “My way is better!” The truth is that learning to apply the rules will make your writing better, and make it better fast. It’s amazing the difference just a little cleanup of technique will make for you.

Seeing those instant results, and getting much better feedback when you post, provides a lot of motivation to continue your journey.

Step 2 – Seek to understand the rules.

If you want to master the craft, it’s not enough to simply show instead of tell. The fact is that there are times when your best bet is to tell. You have to know when that is.

There’s no help for it but to learn. Understand what showing accomplishes and what telling accomplishes. Understand what the goal for your writing is. If you put all that understanding together, you should be able to discern when to use which technique.

Step 3 – Experiment.

First, deliberately break the rules trying to achieve a certain effect. Second, massage the writing until you think it works. Finally, get feedback from your beta-readers.

You’re trying to develop your ear and your discernment. If you get wide-spread agreement, fantastic. Move one to the next step. If not, go back and try again.

Step 4 – Mastery.

Once you can break a rule and achieve the result you wanted to the satisfaction of your beta readers and your editor, you’ve mastered the rule. Congratulations!

Just a couple of points to remember:

1. It’s almost always a really bad thing if you’re breaking a rule unintentionally. Rule breaking is something that should be done with malice aforethought.
2. Until you’ve mastered the rule, you are absolutely the worst person on the planet who can determine if what you have written works.

Sorry, Them’s the Rules

Whenever you mention writing rules, you tend to get a lot of pushback. For example:

• Rules hinder my unique voice – For me, writing is all about the best way to convey the story; the words and techniques are just tools for achieving my ultimate goal. If you feel that the words are an art form unto themselves, more power to you. Understand, however, that creating something “unique” means that there isn’t a lot of help out there for you. Right now, you’re a child making watercolors for the refrigerator. As long as you understand that it’s going to be a while before you’re creating masterworks for the museum, that’s fine with me.

• Rules stifle my creativity – In fact, rules help your creativity — your story — shine through. If you’re more concerned with your words than your story, please see the bullet point above.

• Writing is so subjective that there are no rules – Bull. Like it or not, you’re a part of a huge publishing industry, and, like all other industries, there are standards. The moment you put your work up for sale on Amazon, you’re saying, “I’m a professional who has created something worthy to be purchased.” If you haven’t followed the rules, if you aren’t aware of standards, you have created a substandard work. In my mind, you’re no different than the contractor who cuts corners and leaves their client with a leaky roof.

• Rules are oversimplified – I agree, but that doesn’t mean they should be ignored. It means they should be further explored. If you want to break a rule, understand it first.

I’ve said it before and will do so again — the rules are there for your benefit. Learning them will only help you. However, a methodology for implementing them would probably be of some benefit. Tune in next week for my views on the subject.

Examining the Essentials

As my planned date of publication for my debut novel draws closer, I find myself thinking a lot about what makes a story worthy. What should an author most pay attention to? I came up with 4 essentials.

Essential 1 – Don’t Make Stupid Choices

So your story takes place in some ancient country that I’ve never heard of. Great. I’m sure it’s a wonderful setting, but do you really have to use authentic names for your characters? The five scholars who make the study of that country’s history their lives’ work will be appreciative, but the rest of your potential audience will give up reading when they lose track of who and where.

I do understand that no problem is too great that it can’t be solved, and a creative writer can make anything work.

The truth is, writing something people will want to read is freaking hard. Becoming competent in the basics is challenging enough. I just don’t need additional hurdles.

Essential 2 – Setting and Events Don’t Matter Without Context

Let’s say I’m writing a story and choose for my setting: late evening in the French Quarter of New Orleans on February 7, 2010.

To the vast majority of people, the time and date will have no relevance. The location might have some. They may remember a drunken Mardi Gras. Perhaps they have a pleasant association involving their appreciation of the city’s architecture. Maybe they have a negative feel for the place because an old girlfriend from there dumped them.

I wasn’t there at the time the story takes place, but I get goose bumps thinking about it. If I expect my audience automatically to feel the same way, I’m an idiot. It takes work to get them to that point.

The story isn’t about a setting or the events; it’s about a guy. If I show him as a long-suffering Saints fan — throwing the TV remote at the end of yet another 3-13 season, his despair at a series of poor decisions and squandered opportunities — when I take the reader to the culmination of Super Bowl XLIV with this guy surrounded by throngs of the faithful, I can make any reader feel the same emotion that I do (well, maybe ANY reader. It requires the capacity for emotion, and I have a hard time ascribing any human attribute to a Falcons fan.).

Essential 3 – Tension

If a story is life without the boring parts, tension is what removes the boredom. Truthfully, if you want to find a single area on which to concentrate, pick this one.

A story with the tension done right will keep the reader turning pages even if everything else about it pretty much sucks. The reader will finish the book and say, “That writing was kinda crappy,” but they’ll probably buy your next book.

A Brief Aside…

Not making bad choices is the least important of the essentials. Unfortunately, it’s also the one I’m the best at.

I didn’t come to understand the importance of filtering through your POV character until writing my 3rd draft, and I think it shows. I made a valiant effort in my editing, but I still have work to do.

I don’t think that tension is a weakness of mine, but I also wouldn’t consider it a strength. I’ll try to ramp it up in both the final drafts.

That brings me to:

Essential 4 – Emotion

If you want your reader to love your book, you have to make them feel something. The only way to do that is to get the emotion right, and that’s not an easy proposition. You can’t just tell the reader what the character feels; you have to demonstrate it in a way that makes the reader truly understand. If you go too far, though, it induces eye rolling.

This morning, I used my DVR to catch up on an episode of Grimm. One of the ongoing plot lines is the development of a relationship between two of the supporting characters, and it struck me how well the writers are handling that subplot. They don’t devote a lot of time to it, but, what time they do spend, they use well.

First, the guy is just enough of a loser to be sympathetic. I’m firmly rooting for him to win the girl.

Second, they don’t get sappy. He never pines over her. Instead, they show him doing things that indicate his feelings.

In the episode I watched today, the character, a clock repair man, gives his girlfriend a, wait for it, clock. He doesn’t go on and on about his feelings for her; he goes on and on about how awesome the clock is. The camera cuts to the girl, and her expression indicates her understanding of his meaning. It’s fantastic writing.

Quite simply, the 3rd draft of my novel is not where I want it to be in this respect, but I’m working on it. I found this blog post recently that offers tremendous advice: http://awriterstouch.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/words-concrete-and-stacking-stories-3-tips-for-writing-emotion-in-fiction/

I strongly suggest you check it out.

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.