Tag Archives: writing advice

That Pesky Opening

A novel’s beginning is sometimes one of the most difficult aspects a writer faces. It gives the first impression, and, as we learn growing up, first impressions are very important.

The writer must grab a reader’s attention from the first sentence and continue to keep it. (And I’m not just talking about once a book is published. Many agents won’t read past the first line – the first paragraph – of a submitted novel if it doesn’t grab their attention.)

As much as writers hope that readers would give more than the first page or so of a novel a chance, for the most part that’s not the case. Hooking readers from the get-go is necessary to keep them reading.

Some examples of attention-grabbing opening lines:

  • “It has been sixty-four years since the president and the Consortium identified love as a disease, and forty three since the scientists perfected a cure.” – Delirium by Lauren Oliver
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – 1984 by George Orwell
  • “I felt her fear before I heard her screams.” – Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead
  • “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.” – The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • “One minute the teacher was talking about the Civil War. And the next minute he was gone.” – Gone by Michael Grant
  • “It was a pleasure to burn.” – Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Once that opening line or two is written, the rest of the page needs to continue to draw the reader in.

There are many ways to catch and keep a reader’s interest. Here are some more common ways:

  1. Start in the right place. Begin at the start of a conflict and build momentum from that first moment. If you start the novel by discussing something interesting that happened before the novel began, think about including that interesting event instead of simply talking about it (showing vs. telling). Likewise, including long, winding descriptions or a flashback before the story has moved forward at all isn’t all that compelling.
    1. In Susan Dennard’s Something Strange and Deadly, the author begins with the main character getting caught in the rush at the post office when one of the dead comes down the street. (Opening line: “‘Dead!’ a woman screamed. ‘It’s the Dead!’”)
  2. Include action. This does not mean throwing in a random car or plane crash. Every action needs to have context. Without meaning behind it, action becomes pointless. Action doesn’t have to be huge, it can simply be the character standing at a street corner and turning left instead of right like she has done every day for the past three years.
  3. Don’t jump ahead of your readers. Two points here. One: have your readers care about your characters before you put your characters in jeopardy. Two: don’t make the beginning confusing, even if the opening ends up making sense later. If readers don’t care or if they’re confused, they will most likely stop reading.
  4. Ground your characters. Set the scene. You can have great dialogue, but if the reader has no idea where the conversation is happening, it takes away from the novel. You don’t have to, and shouldn’t, include paragraphs of background at the beginning. But including a couple of lines depicting laughter, the clanking of glasses, the thudding of feet against concrete, the screech of a bird, or the rich smell of hazelnut coffee will help readers to visualize where the conversation is occurring.
  5. Don’t forget the momentum. The opening should show off the character’s distinctive voice. It should show the audience the point of view the story is being told from, as well as introducing readers to the plot.
    1. The Giver by Lois Lowry quickly introduces the main character and his voice: “It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened. No. Wrong word, Jonas thought. Frightened meant that deep, sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen. Frightened was the way he had felt a year ago when an unidentified aircraft had overflown the community twice.”

If an opening is done well, readers will feel that internal tug to keep reading. They may ask themselves why the grandmother felt the need to burn those letters, how a group of people could allow someone to be chosen at random to be sacrificed, where a girl’s brother disappeared to all those years ago, or the identity of a shadow following a young mother in a picture that was taken the night she was murdered.

Have any suggestions on ways to write a great opening?

The Birth Of An Idea

There’s one question writers tend to get asked universally: Where do your story ideas come from? 

There’s no one response to this question. There’s no correct answer that will help those searching for inspiration find it. 

Ideas can flow from anywhere. Many times they simply materialize out of the writer’s head. But there are some ways you can spark or jog ideas into something greater:

  1. Daydreams or nighttime dreams. If you remember what you dreamed about, you can often find inspiration. You just have to notice the details and pay attention to what can be used and what can’t.
  2. People, places, images. You could be sitting at the beach and notice a girl running along the sand. Something about her starts your mind churning. You could be visiting an ancient castle, once great but now in ruins. You could see an old woman, sitting at a kitchen table, holding a stack of half burned letters in her hands.
  3. Disagreements. Is there something you don’t agree with in the novels you read? How about in TV series? Is there something you believe is missing in these novels and TV shows?
  4. Ask yourself “What if…” type questions. What if you woke up and found yourself in a forest, naked?  I wonder what is behind that locked door. If only I could step into the trunk of a tree and find myself in another world.
  5. Experiences and emotions. Are there any experiences you’ve had or someone you know has had that stuck with you? Are there certain emotions or a combination of emotions you want to explore?

Ideas can sprout from anything and any moment. Finding ideas isn’t the hard part. The challenge is figuring out which ideas are worth pursuing, and then giving those ideas form on paper, fleshing them out enough to create an engaging and believable story.

Where do you get your ideas?

Executing That Idea (Without Hacking An Arm Off)

Novels start with an idea. You could be sitting in a classroom, out on a run, or at the grocery store. Often I’ll be in bed, attempting to sleep, when an idea pops into my head.

The question is, what to do once you get that idea.

Most writers have many more ideas than they do time to write novels. (I do.) But in order to get and keep readers, you have to create a world large enough to sustain an entire novel- often several novels. You need characters that are strong and full. Ones that readers can identify with. (This takes a lot of work.)

So, a good place to start is with the characters. Building strong, in-depth characters with backstory (even if you don’t include all the backstory in your novel) helps you to formulate a more detailed storyline.

The same concept applies for creating a world. If your novel takes place somewhere other than Earth, or in some secret place on Earth no one knows about, creating a history is very useful. For myself, I draw a detailed map of the land and write pages on the different towns and landscapes. Most of this never reaches my revised versions, but having the background allows me to create a more realistic feel.

Believability is key. Let the readers escape their reality and plunge into your world. Some of the best novels I’ve read have made me forget what time it is or where I am. I get so involved that the characters seem real to me. I can see them, feel them, and I feel for them.

Your world has to be consistent and well thought out. The storyline needs tension, depth, and conflict. There’s got to be a sense that at any moment everything can blow up in the protagonist’s face. That threat of catastrophe is very important. If the stakes aren’t high enough, readers lose interest.

Building up to the climax, giving readers that sense of anticipation, incorporating a climax that blows them away, and then having a satisfying release are essential.

And, if you are working on a series, make sure to leave some threads unanswered. It’s never too early to think about what’s going into a sequel or the third novel in a trilogy. That way you can set up future story lines and keep readers wanting more.

How do you bring your ideas to the page?

Burning That Midnight Candle

You’ve heard of writers who stay up half the night (or the entire night) writing in a fevered state. Their minds are working so fast their fingers can’t keep up with them.

You’ve also heard of writers who write for fifteen minutes, then jump up and do something else for thirty minutes before sitting back down to write for another fifteen minutes.

I find myself somewhere in between these two scenarios. When I sit down to write, I can pump out thousands of words, utterly forgetting about time. (The longest I’ve written for in one sitting is about twelve hours. I’ll admit I forgot to eat.) I can also sit and stare at my computer screen watching the seconds tick by.

There’s a ton of advice on the Internet about how to write. Many pros state you should work on your novel every day. Be it a hundred words or a couple thousand, working on your novel every day keeps it progressing forward. That way you’ll have a novel draft finished in a month to several months.

Sometimes I struggle with this advice. Not only am I working on getting a novel published, I have a job, I exercise, and I write this blog (add in Twitter and Facebook and you’ve got a party). Bottom line: it can be difficult to squeeze in working on my novel every single day.

But many famous writers – Garth Nix and Nicholas Sparks are two examples – started out with day jobs and found the time to write. The key is organizing your day. If you’re serious about writing, make it a priority. If you can’t possibly write every single day, then select certain days that will be dedicated to your novel.

The important part is keeping the momentum flowing. Writing an entire novel isn’t easy, which is why many say to work on it every day.

The payoff to keep chugging along? Holding that finished manuscript in your hands.

Do you write every day or can you go for months without writing and then haul it into high gear for a few weeks?