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!

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”

 

Stalled in your writing?  The Benefits of a Quick Read!

I read a quote recently that said if you look at the state of your house, office and garage, that reflects the state of your inner being.

Hmm…I just came off a week of celebrations – my daughter graduating from college, my son graduating from high school – and the ensuing parties and houseful of guests.  All my adult children, plus extended family hung out at our house, playing games into the wee hours of the night.

The morning light revealed piles of coke cans, Doritos wrappers, blankets, shoes and pillows scattered around the family ottoman or kitchen table, the evidence of, well, fun had the night before.

We capped off our week with a hike up to a local waterfall, where we took a few minutes to sit down and reflect on the accomplishments of our graduates, as well as looked ahead to the future with hopes and dreams.

Amidst the fun of the game playing and cake-eating, the three hour hike afforded us with an opportunity to cherish the important stuff.

In the middle of writing a book, we can get caught up in the drama (and challenge) of writing, moving from one climatic event to the next. But somewhere in the middle we sometimes lose steam as we look ahead at all the scenes we must yet accomplish. Our progress begins to slow and suddenly we find ourselves standing in the middle of the room, looking at the debris, wondering how we got here, and how we might find the strength to continue.

It’s time to do a Quick Read of your book.

Reading what you have so far will charm you back into the story, into the big picture, and charge you with momentum to finish.  You’ll see what you have accomplished – and the reward of staying the course.

Here’s some advice on how to maximize your Quick Read:

  1. Don’t edit each scene as you go. If you stop to edit, you’ll find yourself suddenly reworking essential moments, slow your progress and you might even change something that will affect your ending.  Instead, TAKE NOTES on your story – outlining possible changes.  You might also highlight areas you need to pay special attention to later.  Remind yourself that you WILL go back and re-write, and give your story a deep edit when you’re finished.  Now, you’re just trying to reignite your inspiration.
  2. Keep an eye out for shallow (and unfounded) emotional responses. When you’re writing that first pass, you’re still getting to know your characters and their emotional responses. A second read through, after you’ve gotten to know them better will unearth deeper responses, more meaningful reactions, and add to your emotional layering of a scene.  Again, don’t rewrite it yet, but make notes on how you might react to this differently.  Then, on your editing pass, you’ll have a springboard from which to rewrite the emotions.
  3. Make notes on where you might need more storyworld, or perhaps even an additional scene. You might even find a redundant scene.
  4. Pick up plotting threads you might have forgotten as you’ve trudged through Act 2. Make a list of all the threads so you remember to wind them up at the end.
  5. Ask: WHAT DO I LOVE? I always ask myself this as I’m reading. What do I love about this book?  What character moments, plot twists, dialogue, prose – I go ahead and highlight it so I can remember why I’m writing this book, and I’m encouraged that yes, it’s a worthwhile venture to continue.  Seeing all those pink highlights is encouraging as I’m scrolling through my kindle, ready to start moving forward away.

Finally, doing a Quick Read of your book, especially while you’re busy with other events (e.g. family graduations!) utilizes that “non-writing” time and helps build your momentum for getting back on track after the party has died.

Life gets in the way of our writing – (or rather, writing gets in the way of life?), but you don’t have to let yourself get derailed.  Or, maybe you simply have lost your steam.  Stop writing, sit down and start reading.

You might just discover you’ve found your next favorite author.

Go! Write Something Brilliant!

Susie May