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?

Advertisements

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.

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.

When Is a Book Ready to be Self Published?

I need your help. I’m confused. Bemused. Befuddled.

I. Just. Don’t. Under. Stand.

(Note to Mark: Not a typo; I separated the single word, “understand,” for effect.)

First, some background info:

I’ve done a lot of work in preparation for self publishing Power of the Mages. I’ve:

• Set a goal of what I want the book to accomplish – Not as much in terms of what the book will bring me as far as money goes but what I want the writing to achieve. I want to immerse my reader and evoke an emotional response.
• Studied writing – I think I know, from a theoretical standpoint at least, what it takes to achieve my goal.
• Taken steps to make sure I’m achieving my goal – I’ve sought feedback from sources that I trust.

Most of all, I continually re-evaluate if the book is ready.

I have an aggressive timeline ahead of me. I’m going to read the 3rd draft in early May, jot down notes, collect beta reader comments, and incorporate all relevant suggestions. By May 8, I want my 4th draft to be in the hands of my editor.

Once I get his analysis, my schedule stays tight — six weeks to get to the finished stage in order to release on August 1.

If I can’t meet that goal or the editor tells me the book needs a lot more work, I’ll push my deadline.

I feel two competing interests warring inside me:

1. The book will never be perfect. I could spend the rest of my life working on it, and, on my deathbed, I’d find something that could be tweaked. At some point, I just have to send it out there and accept that my next book will be better because my skill will be better.
2. If the book isn’t good enough, it does nothing for me. My marketing plan relies on the book compelling readers to recommend it to others. If it’s not at that level, publishing it is pointless.

There are tough decisions to make in my future, and thoughts of that process have me thinking a lot about when and why a book should be self published.

Here’s what I do understand:

Situation 1

An author studies the craft, creates an incredible book, and self publishes it. This situation is the one I want for me. I also want to find these books so that I can recommend them to others.

Situation 2

The author is delusional. Let’s face it, there are many people out there who just don’t get it. They think their book has merit simply because they put in the hard work of writing it. You can usually tell in the first couple of paragraphs that they don’t understand how to construct a simple declarative sentence, much less convey a story. Telling them what they did wrong is pointless; they lack too much basic understanding. While I don’t desire to encounter these books, I, at least, understand what drives the publishing of them. My response is to roll my eyes and move on.

Situation 3

Though the technique and writing may be spotty and editing close to non-existent, there’s something about the story that appeals to the audience. A reader of romance may not care much about story and style as long as the emotional punch is delivered. An action fan might not care about the plot plausibility as long as their pulse is kept pounding. A writer of this type of work has discovered that it’s more profitable to produce the next book than it is to tweak the first one to death. I respect and understand that decision.

Here’s what completely baffles me:

I’m reading a book right now that fits into a fourth situation, and I just don’t understand the concept. If it were an isolated case, I’d simply shrug my shoulders. However, I’ve encountered it many times.

Situation 4

An author is talented enough to create compelling story elements but the work — both from a storytelling and technique standpoint — is unpolished.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 1. It’s not good enough that I can recommend it to others. It feels like a decent second draft.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 2. The author has some skill. He’s not so delusional that he obviously has no idea what makes a book good.

The book doesn’t fit Situation 3. There’s no strong core to the book that’s going to produce an audience.

Simply put, it feels like the author put in a lot of work; got tired before getting to the finish line; said, “Screw it, good enough;” and hit “Publish.”

Don’t let that be you. If you’re that close, please take it the rest of the way. I know it’s a hard road, but making it to the end will be so much more rewarding than collapsing onto the curb.

Push on, writer. Push on.