Friday, July 27, 2012

Strong Starts: Make a Promise with Your First Chapter

Over the last month, I’ve gone through the stages of developing a story. Now let’s take a closer look at some of the parts of creating a strong story. I’ll begin with a series of posts on strong starts. You’ll hear it over and over again — the first chapter, and especially the opening lines, are important. Your opening makes a promise about the rest of the story, article, or book. It tells readers what to expect, setting the stage for the rest of the story to unfold — and hopefully hooking their interest.

What You Promise

The first scene should identify your story’s genre. This can be trickier than it sounds. Say it’s a romance, but the main character doesn’t meet the love interest until later. Can you at least suggest her loneliness or desire for romance? (And get that love interest in there as soon as possible!)

Maybe you’re writing a story involving magic, time travel, ghosts, or a step into another dimension, but you want to show the normal world before you shift into fantasy. That’s fine, but if we start reading about a realistic modern setting and then halfway through magic comes out of nowhere, you’ll surprise your reader — and not in a good way. Your story will feel like two different stories clumsily stitched together.

If you’re going to start “normal” and later introduce an element like magic or aliens, try to hint at what’s to come. Maybe the main character is wishing that magic existed — that’s enough to prepare the reader. In my novel The Ghost on the Stairs, we don’t find out that the narrator’s sister has seen a ghost until the end of chapter 2. But on the opening page, she comments that the hotel “looks haunted” and is “spooky.” Those words suggest that a ghost story may be coming. That’s enough to prep the reader. (The title doesn’t hurt either.)

Your opening should also identify the story’s setting. This includes when and where we are, if it’s historical or set in another country or world. Once again, you don’t want your reader to assume a modern story and then discover halfway through that it’s actually a historical setting. They’ll blame you for their confusion. In a contemporary story, you may not identify a specific city, but the reader should have a feel for whether this is inner-city, small-town, suburban, or whatever.

Who and What’s Up

Your opening pages should focus on your main character. You may find exceptions to this rule, but your readers will assume that whoever is prominent in the opening pages is the main character. Switching can cause confusion. You should also establish your point of view early. If you’ll be switching points of view, don’t wait too long to make the first switch. In novels, typically you want to show your alternate point of view in the second chapter and then switch back and forth with some kind of regular rhythm.

And of course, you want some kind of challenge or conflict in your opening. This doesn’t have to be the main plot problem — you may need additional set up before your main character takes on that challenge or even knows about it. But try to make sure that your opening problem relates to the main problem. It may even lead to it.

In The Ghost on the Stairs, Tania faints at the end of chapter 1. Jon does not yet know why, but this opening problem leads to the main problem — she’d seen a ghost. If I’d used an entirely different opening problem, say stress with their new stepfather, that would have suggested a family drama, not a paranormal adventure.

This book promises adventure in Mayan times.
In a short story, you need to introduce your main conflict even more quickly. A story I sold to Highlights started like this:

Jaguar Paw watched the older Mayan boys play pok-a-tok. The ball skidded around the court as the players tried to keep it from touching the ground. They used their arms, knees, and hips, but never their hands or feet. The best pok-a-tok players were everybody’s heroes. These boys were just practicing. But that meant Jaguar Paw could watch from the edge of the court.

That opening paragraph, 64 words, introduces the main character, identifies the foreign, historical setting, includes a specific location (the ball court), and hints at Jaguar Paw’s desire to be a ballplayer. Genre, setting, main character, and conflict, all up front.

Next week: The Fast Start

In AdvancedPlotting, you’ll get two dozen essays like this one on the craft of writing, plus a detailed explanation of the Plot Outline Exercise, a powerful tool to identify and fix plot weaknesses in your manuscripts. $9.99 paperback, $4.99 ebook.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

When Rules Aren’t: namelos author Alina Klein

Alina Klein provides the final installment for the series of guest posts by namelos authors. She shares some advice about when to listen to advice –  and when to go your own way –  with “When Rules Aren’t.” Here's Alina:

I was at a writing conference several months ago listening to a well-published author share her rules about writing a novel. It was an entertaining speech. She was smart, funny and confident in what she was saying. She shared her rules with great conviction and everyone around me was scribbling notes, madly.

One of them was: Never write a book about something bad that happened in your past. Nobody wants to read that.

Scribble, scribble went the pens.

There was a point in my life that hearing that “rule” from the mouth of a popular author would have derailed me. The novel I worked on for many years was based on something bad that happened to me in my own past. Who was I to think I could do it successfully?

Of course, that wasn’t the first rule I heard at a conference, or read in a book, that made me question my story and whether I should continue with it. There have been many.

Luckily my memory is pretty poor. I’d forget derailing advice after a few days, weeks or sometimes months, and then I’d get back to work on my book.

The bottom line is, I had to write Rape Girl even if I broke every rule of every successful writer on the planet. Luckily for me, at some point I realized that the “rules” being tossed about in speeches, books and articles really weren’t. There are no absolutes when it comes to story, and what is acceptable or worth telling.

Don’t put your faith in anyone but yourself when it comes to what you should or shouldn’t write, or how to go about it. The rules we pick up from successful authors and industry professionals are there to guide us when we are lost, not derail us when we have some inkling of where we’re going. Pick and choose what inspires you, ignore the rest, and write whatever you must.

Alina Klein lives in Indiana with her husband, two sons, and a quirky assortment of pets, including both a tortoise and a hare. When she isn’t reading or writing you might find her foraging for wild edibles, hauling random materials around her yard to create pretty things for her garden, or snapping amusing photos of her children and guinea fowl. Alina volunteers as an Assistant Regional Adviser for The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. Rape Girl is her first novel.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

5 Tips for Strong Settings from Sheila Kelly Welch

Here's another of my namelos guests. Sheila Kelly Welch, author of Waiting to Forget, shares five tips on bringing your setting to powerful life.

Where in the World?

Back when cell phones were just beginning to become common, our teenaged children would answer our house phone, and the first question they always asked their friends was, “Where you at?” Often this was followed by, “When you getting here?” We humans have an innate desire to ask and answer those two basic questions, “Where?” and “When?”

As authors, we need to give readers a feeling for the time and place of our stories. Chris already has written an informative blog post that gives an overview about settings, so I decided to narrow my focus to a few specific suggestions.

A sense of place is simply the background for stories such as Beverly Cleary’s Ramona series that are driven mainly by interplay between characters. In contrast, the setting is of upmost importance in stories like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet with the wilderness playing as big a role as the character.

Each author determines how large a part a story’s time and place will play. In my own case, when I begin to form an idea, the setting almost always grows along with my concept of the characters. In addition, for most of my writing, “where” and sometimes “when” are crucial to the plot.

Although some young readers may love to read long, descriptive passages, many are bored and will skip over these sections or even be discouraged and toss the whole book, magazine, or e-reader aside. Here are my five tips for creating convincing settings that will keep kids reading.

1) Use vivid and, if possible, unique details that help set the tone of your story and make readers feel as if they are there with your characters.

2) Reveal information about the location of your story or scene gradually, not all at once.

3) Connect the description with an emotion or an emotional response on the part of the character(s). Whether the setting reflects or contrasts with the character’s mood doesn’t matter. The important thing is to relate the place to the character’s feelings.

4) Weave the description in and around dialog or action. This helps keep the scene from becoming static and helps readers build a complete mental image that includes the characters.

5) Use all five senses in your description. This is often neglected because authors “see” the location and tell only what it looks like. Adding the smells, tastes, sounds, and textures offers many opportunities to immerse your readers in your story’s setting.

My short story, “The Holding-On Night” published in Cricket, is about the 1918 pandemic, so what happens is tied to the time and place. Although I researched that time period, I was fortunate to have a first-hand account from my mother. She also told me many details about her childhood environment that helped me create the setting.

The story is only about six pages long but illustrates all five of my tips or suggestions. Below I’ve arranged most of the references to the setting as they appear in the story and have labeled and discussed the corresponding number of the tip(s) (see above). As you’ll discover, there is considerable overlap.

> Anna squinted up at the stern clouds in the October sky. A sharp breeze skimmed across the field, whispering a threat of winter through the dried grasses. She shivered.

#3, #5 This first paragraph reflects the sense of foreboding that the girl feels, before the terror of the illness is even mentioned. The sound of the wind is part of the scene.

> Anna’s older sister, Ellen, walked beside her on the narrow path. “It’s going to rain,” she said. “I can feel it.”

“Beeeeep!” yelled nine-year-old Peggie. She was trying--unsuccessfully--to imitate the blaring horns of the Model T Fords that sometimes chugged past their house.

#2, #4 Separated by even more dialog, these two portions show how bits and pieces of the setting are introduced gradually and are woven into the action and dialog.

> The path was for all the McNaughton school-age children. Their father had gotten permission from the farmer who owned the field and spent all of a weekend hacking through the weeds to create a shortcut to school.

#2, #3 Again, here’s a gradual introduction, but this time with an emotional connection. Readers are shown how much the children’s father cares for them.

> Ellen was insisting that Maria hold her hand, even though there were no wagons or noisy automobiles out and about with the deadly influenza stalking the country.

#1, #3 Here are details, unique to this setting, and Ellen’s concern for her younger sibling is demonstrated.

> She trudged across the dusty road and along the cracked sidewalk. Just as she started up the sagging wooden steps onto the front porch of their home, the door burst open. Peggie stomped out. “There’s no bread!”

#2 Here are action and dialog, along with description.

 > Through the open door she could feel the heat of the kitchen and smell the slightly sickening odor of diapers boiling, being sterilized on the wood stove.

The house was too warm; their father had fed the potbellied stove so much wood, it glowed --- as if fire could drive away the flu like a wild beast.

#1, #5 Unique details are used plus the senses of touch and smell.

> Daddy had brought down several chamber pots and helped the little ones to use them. The stench was all around, and Anna lay, barely breathing.

#3, #5 Both father and daughter are connected to the setting, and, obviously, the sense of smell is used.

> The rocker moved gently back and forth. Her father’s heart thumped to the rhythm. Anna felt his arms, holding her, keeping her from sliding forever into the darkness.

Early in the morning, as the first light seeped into the kitchen, Anna climbed from her father’s arms.

#3, #5 These last two examples use touch, sound, and sight. Also, the light coming into the kitchen reflects the emotions of the child.

While creating a convincing setting can be a challenge, it is well worth the effort. If you use these five tips, you’ll help readers to feel a connection – not just to the setting you’ve described – but to your whole story.

Sheila Kelly Welch is a former teacher who writes and illustrates for children of all ages. Her story, “The Holding-On Night,” published in Cricket, won the International Reading Association’s 2007 Paul A. Witty Short Story Award. Her work has appeared in many children’s magazines, and she has written a collection of short stories, three easy-to-read chapter books, and five novels, including her most recent, Waiting to Forget, published by namelos. Waiting to Forget begins and ends in a hospital, and in between, twelve-year-old T.J. struggles with memories of his difficult other life, before he was adopted, and with the reasons why his little sister now lies unconscious in the emergency room. Library Media Connection highly recommended it and said, “This is a story that, once read, you will never forget.”

See both the text and illustrations for “The Holding-On Night.”

Watch a book trailer for Waiting to Forget.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Turning an Idea into Story: Pack the plot full of action

I’ve been talking about turning an idea into a story by building a strong middle with an action-packed plot. Chances are, you have things happening throughout your story. After all, you’re writing about something. But just how exciting is the action?

I ghost-wrote a novel about a girl detective on a paleontology dig. I tried to capture life on a dig, with the long hours crouching in the dirt in the hot sun, and I included info about how fossils are preserved, found, and excavated. The editor said I needed to cut some of the nonfiction info about paleontology and have more action. She suggested using the desert setting more. I wrote a couple of new chapters where the girls get lured into the desert at night, get lost, and realize they are surrounded by coyotes. Hmm, crouching in the dirt or escaping coyotes at night—which sounds more exciting?

The author next to rock that (maybe) contains a dinosaur bone.
As you develop the middle of your story, look for places to add more danger, more excitement, more tension. This is true even if you’re not writing an action story. If you’re writing a teen romance, your “danger” may be social danger.

In order to keep the tension high, check that your characters are struggling enough. How difficult have you made things? Can you make the situation worse? (Note that for younger readers, you may not want to choose the scariest or most difficult challenges. Keep your difficulties appropriate to your audience age.) 

If your characters accomplish things too easily, try to add complications. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, you might consider the “Rule of Three.” A character should try and fail twice, before succeeding on the third try. For a novel, a character might have to make several steps to reach their ultimate goal. You could use the Rule of Three at each step, to ensure that your character isn’t zipping through the challenges.

Exaggeration is a key to most strong fiction. You want your story to be believable, but that doesn’t mean it should be realistic, at least not in the everyday, normal sense. Most of us want to read about unusual characters having dramatic experiences. We already know about everyday life. 

Dramatic exaggeration works for short stories and novels, in any genre, for any age group. I wrote a review of The Sandwich Swap for The New York Journal of Books. The authors took a real-life experience—an Arab girl’s disgust over her friend’s peanut butter and jelly sandwich, until she tried it—and turned it into a school-wide war. That turned a minor episode into a dramatic and entertaining picture book story. (Read the full review by clicking on the book’s title.)

Next week I’ll talk about raising the stakes to keep the tension high.

Advanced Plotting has tons of advice on building strong plots. Get Advanced Plottingon Amazon or B&N, in print or e-book.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Tackling Tough Topics with Shannon Wiersbitzky

Here’s another namelos guest, Shannon Wiersbitzky, author of The Summer of Hammers and Angels, talking about how to handle tough topics in your writing. To see previous namelos posts, click on the headline banner above and then scroll down.

Tackling Tough Topics

As it turns out, many of the authors at namelos have tackled tough or potentially controversial issues and I expect you’ll continue to see tough topics on the list in the future. Between the five of us, our novels include characters that are dealing with child abuse, premature death, rape, war, and questions of faith.

For writers, tackling issues like these through writing may cause you to wonder. How many kids experience what I want to write about? Will they be able to relate to my character? Will the topic turn kids, teachers, or parents off? Will they understand the references to the topic?

With so many questions, where do you start?

Assess whether or not the topic is critical to the story
As you consider your story, ask yourself how and why the topic comes into play. If it is central to your story line and to your character’s struggles and development, then by all means, write on! If it came to mind because an editor at a recent conference noted they’re looking for books about “issues” and you think you can “work it in” to your current novel, then maybe think twice.

Let your character(s) ask questions.
With any tough topic, there are likely multiple viewpoints that exist. Consider sharing those viewpoints in your story as well. All characters won’t have the same perspective. That is where conflict arises! Let the reader mull over each new idea and come to their own conclusions about what they believe. Great book discussions will ensue.

In an interview with NPR, author Jodi Picoult discussed how she writes about tough topics. “I always look at it sort of like the facets of a diamond. You’ve got to illuminate each one, and then let the reader decide what’s the brightest one and why. My job isn’t to tell them which is the brightest one. It’s just to illuminate every single facet.”

Respect the topic.
In my novel, The Summer of Hammers and Angels, the main character deals with questions of faith. I’ve spent time in all sorts of churches. Growing up, church was always part of my life. I mainly attended Lutheran and Presbyterian services with my parents, but during the summer, when I stayed with my grandparents, church had a whole different feel to it. On Sundays we were either at the Church of God or the Baptist Church. There was always singing, arms raised when the spirit moved, and shouts of Amen or Hallelujah or That’s right, when the pastor said something the congregation agreed with. As a kid I loved attending church where everyone got to be loud. 

The church in my novel is a mish-mash of them all. The point wasn’t to portray one right way of doing things, or conversely to mock a way of believing. The story is meant to convey the way things happen in the fictional town of Tucker’s Ferry, West Virginia, in this one particular church community.

Be honest about the plot, the setting, and the characters.
Don’t gussy up or gloss over what might be a tough scene. Dive in, let your character, and therefore your reader, experience whatever conflict, crisis, or pain may be taking place. As a writer this means you’ll have to go to that place too…which isn’t always easy.

In Alina Klein’s Rape Girl, there is a scene that struck me as being completely honest as I read it. During the scene, the main character is receiving a rape exam.
“I kept drawing my knees together and Dr. Buckner kept prying them gently apart. All the while he picked up foot-long swabs and slick metal devices of torture, inserting and removing them without pause.
I felt a tear drip down my temple toward my hair. Mom quietly brushed it away.”

Make it believable.
When writing about tough topics, characters might find the road to happiness, they may come to a tragic end, or a million options in between. There isn’t one right answer. But whatever the answer, through the writing, readers must be absolutely convinced that it is the only outcome that could have occurred in that moment.

In No-Name Baby by Nancy Bo Flood, the main character, Sophie, is grappling with the early delivery of her baby brother. The entire family is stressed and it shows.
““Sophie, please, no questions. Not tonight.” Aunt Rae reached for the stack of cloths.
“Let me help.”
“No!” her aunt snapped.
A loud moan came from upstairs. Then another. Papa flung open the door, his eyes wide. Aunt Rae crossed herself, murmuring, “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have mercy.”
A long, awful cry. A scream.
Papa bolted up the stairs. Aunt Rae was right behind.
Sophie couldn’t move.”

We need writers who are willing to take on life’s toughest topics. If they’ve touched us deeply enough to push us to write a book, then there most certainly are kids who would be drawn to these books and benefit from reading them.

Shannon Wiersbitzky wrote her first book in elementary school. Unfortunately she illustrated it too. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband and two sons. The Summer of Hammers and Angels, about a young girl who learns the power of love and community, is her first novel.