Start your book right–keep them up all night!

I’m up at my writing retreat in northern Minnesota this week working hard on the final edits and proofing a book due Friday. (It’s book #5 in my Montana Rescue series. Book #3—A Matter of Trust hits the shelves in a week!)

The first thing I always do in my final pass is make sure the first chapter has done its work. Writing a first chapter is soooo challenging because it must do the work of launching your external plot, creating a connection between your reader and your character, attracting the attention of the reader, igniting the internal plot and wooing the reader with your voice. (and, you must make the reader worry enough about the problem raised in chapter one to turn to chapter two!)

That’s a TON of work for poor chapter one. But if you do it right, you’ll create a book that keeps readers up all night.

Unfortunately, we often write chapter one first—before we really know our character, our plot, and before our voice has had a chance to warm up. That’s why I always go back and rewrite it last, after the book is finished. It might end up very much the same as when I started…or I might scrap it and rewrite it knowing what I know now.

Last week, and for the next two weeks, we’re taking first scenes in our weekly Novel.Academy peptalk. We’re going through a series entitled Extreme Book Makeover, where we learn how to root out problems, and then learn tools to fix them. We then follow up with a couple weeks of feedback on submitted scenes.

What are some symptoms of weak first scenes?

  • The scene doesn’t raise interest…there’s no danger or intrigue that arrests our emotional interest or adrenaline)
  • The lead character isn’t likable—meaning he/she isn’t heroic or sympathetic
  • There is no hint at long term trouble, and therefore, no reason to keep reading (in other words; Stakes)
  • We don’t know where we are…lack of storyworld (really, this is important!)
  • Too much pipe…Meaning, we are taking WAY too long to get into the scene (this is usually a backstory dump problem).

I find it easier, as I’m editing, and rewriting, to start by asking myself big questions. I’ll dig down into the words later. Here are some of the questions I ask myself:

  • Does my first line pique a reader’s interest?
  • Do I have a mental picture of the character and what he/she does?
  • Would I want to spend time with this person, or at least learn more about them?
  • Can I relate to their current problem?
  • Do I know where I am? (and when?)
  • Do I have enough dialogue for my character to come to life for the reader?
  • Am I worried about my character when the scene ends?

Are you working on first scene today? Remember, how well our reader connects with and cares about your character determines the success of a story.

Your story matters. Go! Write something brilliant.

Susie May

www.learnhowtowriteanovel.com

P.S If you’re struggling with how to overhaul your story, you might want to check out our Extreme Book Makeover series in Novel.Academy. Along with overhauling your plot, characters and scenes, we also have classes on how to get that book published (along with over a 100 hours of classes on craft, industry, indie publishing and much much more.) Learn more at Novel.Academy.

​Don’t go down halfway through

Our football team had our opponents on the run. At halftime, we were up 32-3.

Comfortable lead. So apparently the guys decided, during halftime, to take a little nap, maybe get in the sauna, watch a little television…I dunno.

Because they left their passion in the locker room when they took the field for the second half.

Now, I’ve never played college football, but I know it’s not easy. You have to show up just to not get hurt. But there’s something that happens when you’re so far ahead you think about putting in the third string. You let go of your zeal, start looking at your watch, thinking about the burger waiting for you after the game.

Or maybe you’re just tired. You gave it all in the first half, and frankly, you need a break.

I get it.

Because I start out a story on fire, writing furiously through the first four chapters. It gets a little harder as I forge my way through chapters 7-8-9…10.

And then it’s halftime. Or at least, half-way through the book.

And I’m tired.

And I still have half the book to write.

And I really want a burger.

By the way, your character might have this moment half-way through the book, too, where they feel exhausted, overwhelmed and ready to hang up their pads and go home.

This is when they look back and see WHY they’re on this journey in the first place. They’re reminded of not only their motivation, but their greatest dream. And that the fight is worth it.

You, and your hero have to press on, or their journey–and your book–will fall apart.

Sort of like our team did. We landed penalty after penalty, gave the ball over three times with sloppy playing and suddenly the score was 21 to 32.

WHAT?

Don’t let the fact you have the rest of the book to write cause you to write poorly, take plotting shortcuts and short-change the emotion of your characters.

Here’s a tip. Don’t look at the entire book, the entire journey. Just take it “play by play.” Give just the next scene your very best. Then, take a little breather, and write the next scene. Just keep going, steady on, until the end.

If you need to write it poorly the first time—that’s FINE. You can give yourself permission to write poorly…as long as you don’t settle there. Go back and rewrite it.

I had a conversation a while back with an aspiring author about how to start her scenes. You can read it here. (Read the entire conversation inConversations with a Writing Coach)

Thankfully, our team woke up in the 4th quarter and pulled the game back into our hands.

So can you. If you feel like your book is sagging, tighten it up by asking:

  • What’s at stake in this scene?
  • What happens if my character doesn’t achieve their goal?
  • How can I create tension by putting my character in a sympathetic situation and making my reader care?

If you get tired half way through, and let your writing sag, your reader will close the book halfway through. And then no one gets to celebrate the final victory. Bummer!

Your story matters, and the fight is worth it!

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

 

Susie May

P.S. My new book,The Story Equation launched this week! Need to know how to create an ORGANIC, properly motivated character, and build an organic, powerful, yet easy plot? Check out the “SEQ!”

 

P.P.S. This week in Novel.Academy, we’re talking about TRENDS in publishing! Learn what’s hot, what’s not, and how you can use it to build your novel career. Check out Novel.Academy, over 100 classes on how to get published, and stay published and make your story matter!

4 Tips to Prep Your Writing Contest Entry

It’s contest season in the writing world! Perhaps you just submitted your entry to the ACFW Genesis contest earlier this week. There are lots of other contests coming up later this year for both published and unpublished writers.

Several writing friends asked me to give them feedback on their submissions, so I’ve been reading like a potential contest judge and making suggestions to strengthen their stories. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a short “consider this” checklist for any future manuscripts you might submit to a writers contest:

  1. Avoid starting a scene with dialogue. As the all-wise author of your manuscript, you know who is speaking. But the reader, who is new to both the story and the characters, doesn’t know who is speaking or why they are saying what they are saying or who they are talking to. Starting a scene, especially the first scene in your book, with dialogue creates a lot of questions for your reader — and for a contest judge.
  2. Avoid muddling up dialogue with multiple action tags. Dialogue, in and of itself, is action. Some writers like to crowd dialogue with a sentence describing some sort of action the character is doing, a.k.a. an action tag. Then comes something the character says. Then another action tag. Then more dialogue. It’s too, too much.
    1. EXAMPLE: Tony blocked the door, spreading his arms out wide. “You’re not going anywhere.” He glared at Mona, who tried to move past him. “I told you I wanted to talk to you–and I mean it.” Smooth the dialogue out by using only one action tag per segment of dialogue: “You’re not going anywhere.” Tony blocked the door, refusing to let Mona move past him. “I told you I wanted to talk to you–and I meant it.”
  3. Avoid rushing your story. Oftentimes, a contest entry is the opening scene of your manuscript, which means your Inciting Incident is included. Remember: the Inciting Incident is the event that shoves the main character out of their normal world. It can be negative (someone tries to kill them) or positive (they win the lottery). Once again, as the all-knowing author of your manuscript, you know everything else that’s going to happen to your main character(s) in the rest of the book. Don’t rush it. Pacing is an important element of good writing. Yes, you can slow your story down by dumping in too much backstory. But you can also rush your reader — and a contest judge — if you push the story ahead too quickly, writing too many pivotal elements into early scenes. 
  4. Avoid spending too much time in your character’s head. I blogged about avoiding too much  character introspection back in January, offering one tip to get out of your character’s head. Yes, there are times when your POV character is going to be thinking about things — a problem, a person, a decision. The question is: Can you rewrite the scene so instead of thinking, thinking, thinking for fifteen hundred words or more, your character is talking to someone about the situation? 

How can you apply these 4 tips to your next contest entry? 

[Tweet “4 Tips to Prep Your Writing Contest Entry by @bethvogt #tips #writingcontest #amwriting”]

 

NaNoWriMo Scene Starter!

[So—like you all, I’m writing a book in month with NaNoWriMo! Just to encourage myself, I dragged out this conversation I had with an aspiring author on how to keep going!

If you want the entire Conversation on How to Write a Novel, check out Conversations with a Writing Coach!]

*****

“How is your NaNoWriMo manuscript going?” I set my coffee down at the table where Sally sat waiting for me, drinking coffee and eating a cookie. A light frost tipped the grass outside, the lake frothy along the rocky shoreline.

“I think my brain is shutting down. I’ve written about two thousand words a day, but I am running out of ideas on how to start my scene.” Sally broke off a piece of her monster cookie, the fresh-baked smell enough to make me wish I hadn’t eaten breakfast.

“Have you done your scene preparation?  Figured out Layer One: what kind of scene it is, and the 5 Ws’?”

“Oh, that’s the easy part. And Layer Two isn’t so hard either. Creating Tension is easy once you understand the equation: a Character we care about who has a goal, as well as something to lose who meets obstacles that feel insurmountable so much so that we fear they’ll fail.”

“Right. The equation is: Sympathetic Character + Stakes + Goals + Obstacles + Fear of Failure.”

She broke off another piece of cookie. A M&M dropped onto her napkin. “But finding the first line and getting going that is stumping me. I feel like the words should just come to me, but…I’m staring at the blank page.”

“I understand. Let me teach you my first line/hook technique that is simple and fast to get you going into the scene. This is Layer Three and it’s simply about making the Hook SHARP.

“S stands for STAKES. What does your character have to lose? What can go wrong? You must have this element or there is simply no reason to have this scene, and especially no reason for your reader to stick with the story. In an Action scene, it’s something that could happen. In a ReAction scene, it might be making a bad decision. To find this, ask: What is the worst thing that could happen to your character right now? What does he/she fear?

“H stands for Hero/Heroine Identification. Why should we care about your character? What about your character makes us understand or even sympathize with him? To find that element ask: What do I have in common with my character? What need, or dream, or situation, or fear, or past experience do we share? And what about that can I extrapolate that fits into my story? Giving your character a realistic, sympathetic situation and realistic emotions is the key to creating that connection between your reader and your character.

“A stand for Anchoring, or Storyworld. Use your inner journalist to create place. By the end of the first paragraph, and for sure the first scene, you should have anchored your character into the scene by using the five W’s. Who, What, Where, When and Why? Then, add in the 5 senses. The Facts and Feelings work together to establish place and evoke emotions. The right storyworld can give us a feeling of happiness, or tension, even doom in the scene. Ask: What is the one emotion you’d like to establish in this first sentence, paragraph, scene? Using the five 5’s, what words can you find that conveys this sense of emotion? Use these in the crafting of your first paragraph.

“R reminds us to start your scene: on the Run. Writing craft instructor Dwight Swain in Techniques of the selling writer says that “a good story being in the middle, retrieves the past and continues to the end.” Your scene should start in the middle of the action, as if drawing back the curtain on the scene to find it already in action on the stage. Ask: How can I start my scene with the characters already engaging the problem of the scene?

“P helps us to identify and weave in the Thematic Problem, or the Story Question, in the scene. You will have one story question, or thematic question that drives your book. This question permeates all the decisions your hero and/or heroine make throughout the story. Ask: What thematic question is my character grappling with in this scene? How can you weave in the theme, or some part of it?

“Once you have identified all these pieces, climb into your POV character’s “skin” (or head) and stand at the edge of the stage, looking at all the activity and ask: What am I (as the character) thinking right now? Not what am I thinking about, but what am I thinking?

“Use this sentence to start your character in the scene. You can change it later, but at this moment, you’ll be in your character’s skin and able to go forward in their POV and write the scene. (Because you’ll know the goals, stakes, obstacles and even the thematic problem they’ll struggle with in the scene).

“What if I get the wrong first line?”

“Sally, there’s no wrong first line. But at this point, you’re just trying to get words on the page. Try it – you’ll be surprised at how the words just start to flow out of you once you figure out these elements.”

“I don’t know. I like to let the scene just . . . flow out of me. Organic. Seat of the pants.”

I looked at her cookie as she finished it off. “When you make cookies, you use the same ingredients for almost every kind of cookie. Sugar. Flour. Eggs. Salt. Baking soda. However, have you ever started making cookies and realized you’ve run out of one of the ingredients? Suddenly you have to run to the store, and your baking is stalled.

“The same thing happens when you are creating a scene. First, you assemble your ingredients. If you skip this part, you don’t know what you’re missing and you’ll suddenly be stalled in your creation process. This way, you’re pulling your “scene ingredients” out of the cupboard (your head) before you start mixing it together. You’re still writing the scene “Seat of the Pants” but you’re using specific ingredients to help you build it. And since you’ve assembled them before hand, you can flow without having to stop and figure out what you’re missing.”

“You’ve been eyeing my cookie all morning haven’t you?”

Truth: Success with scene building and maximizing your writing session is about preparation and gathering your ingredients before you begin. 

Dare: Do your prep work before you begin your writing session. An hour of planning will save you and hour of staring at an empty page!

Have a great writing week!

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May

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Conversations Postcard bigLet’s have a conversation about how to be a published author! (only $4.99 on Kindle!)

“I was so excited to see that Conversations with a Writing Coach contains the lessons and writing aids that took me from being an unpublished writer to published with a multi-book contract. Susan’s talent for teaching the craft of writing is phenomenal. The lessons are easy to understand and will help beginning writers understand and develop their characters, plots and settings. And not just beginning writers—the workbook is a great refresher course for me as I begin my 5th book in two years. Patricia Bradley, author of the Logan Point series”