Where to Begin?

“Call me Ishmael. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. In a hole in the ground…When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”

Image from collider.com

The  first line of popular and classical stories.  So it is time to write your story, and the blank page is in front of you.  What to write?

Images of writers with a typewriter come to my mind.  Ripping the page out of the machine and crumpling it up and tossing it into the garbage can.  A can already full with papers littered around the floor around the receptacle.

A blank page is pressure.  So many possibilities, so many directions, and yet….

A hook.  Capture your reader in the first few lines, real them in and keep them turning the pages clear to the end.

So where is the beginning of the story?  That is the question isn’t it?  I wrote a whole trilogy.  This summer I realized that my beginning, wasn’t really the beginning.  So I’ve a new beginning to write and a lot of work ahead of me.  However, it will be worth it.  One of my first rules of writing, story first.  What makes a good story?  What do you need to do, as the writer to make a good story?

Years ago I sat in a theater and watched in awe the beginning of Star Wars.  It was exciting, and visually satisfying.  Nothing had been seen like it before, and it was satisfying.  A great start.

So think of those great starts, what worked for you and why?  Look at your work.  Do you like the start?  So that blank screen, that empty first page.  What is it going to hold?

Another thought, somewhere I heard or read, and I don’t remember where, but I remember the concept.  Remember the ending of a story can be the beginning of another story.

Here is to great beginnings.

Oh, and by the way… The books are:  Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, The Hobbit, The Hunger Games.  Just in case you wanted to know.

Advertisements

Baiting the Hook—A First Step in Crafting Suspense

Wait! Do NOT open that…

Box. Door. Window. Hatch.

We’ve all been there, reading a thriller, horror story. Or sitting in the dark of a movie theater.

We’re not going to jump if, behind the door is Johnny Studboy about to hand Mary Sue a corsage and a box with a ring in it.

But if we know that (fill in the huge evil character) has annihilated Johnny, taken on his appearance, and substituted the ring for another that changed the last poor girl into a…

You get the idea.

Last time, I wrote about how often it’s what we don’t actually show that lets the readers’ imaginations run wild. Hopefully we’ve given enough poisoned breadcrumbs along the path to send their imaginations in a direction we want it to go. We’ve just left them to paint in the details.

In crafting suspense, however, there are tried-and-true methods. I don’t intend to go into them all. Writer’s Digest recently wrote about many, quoting the movie-master, Mr. Hitchcock. He cites the couple sitting at a bistro table chatting. No suspense there. Unless we, the reader/audience have previous been allowed to know what they don’t. Under their table is a bomb, set to go off at 3:00. And, as the gentleman asks the waiter for the check, chatting pleasantly with his soon-to-be paramour, he checks his watch. It’s 2:55.

Bait the hook and reel ’em in. But first, bait the hook.

All kinds of speculative fiction, more often than not, depends on suspense to propel the reader. In fact, I’d say that, to some extent, every kind of fiction does. Even literary. But that’s another discussion.

Rachelle Gardner blogged about writing what you know, that it doesn’t mean sticking to what you’ve actually, physically experienced in your life, but writing from what, in the depths of your being, you know to be true, for you. Go deep. Write from your truth.

In the case of suspense, I’d posit that writing what you know should draw from the well of your experience. What has worked in making you both terrified to keep reading/watching, and unable to stop?

Here’s where you do show. Bait the hook. If we don’t know what Ms. Unholy Evil is capable of, we won’t worry when Johnny stops to give her a light. If we don’t know, from having seen what the thing in the box can do, or unleash, we won’t cringe as it’s about to be opened.

After a brief introduction, when a boy chasing his paper boat down the rain-filled gutter encounters a clown in the sewer, and Uncle Stevie is kind enough to show us what a fun-filled clown can do, well, need I go on? But I’ll be you did.

First you gotta set ’em up. Bait that hook. Show something mind-blowing. (To a degree appropriate to your story and genre, of course.) Then back off. Take your sweet time. But keep going toward that door. Or that lovely lunch date with the bomb under the table.

You know what works. The slow amble up to an “Oh, no, don’t do it” moment, and then cut. Make us wait to see if…

Think about it. What’s scarier? The actual moment when something flies down from the top of the bookcase (of course it’s only the cat—the monster is behind the curtain), or those interminable moments when Sally Stupid is creeping in the dark to investigate? You KNOW something is going to happen.

More importantly, you’ve shown just how horrific, or life-changing (or life-ending), it might be.

Then build those moments, accelerating to the big showdown or the big reveal. Each more intense, each reversal more devasting, terrifying, or challenging.

But you know all that. Right? Timing, pace, is everything.

But first, you gotta bait the hook.

What ways do you think are effective in doing that? Do you agree that it’s key? Are there times when effective baiting is not necessary?

Make The Damn Thing Up

I’ve probably confused the dickens out of my fellow speculative fiction writers with that title. Perhaps the rest of you as well. It does seem a bit redundant since, isn’t that what we’re all doing? Are we not making up stories?

Fortunately, I’m not talking about stories. I’m talking about words. You’d be surprised to find out how many words we take for granted that were actually made up by writers who didn’t have a word for what they wanted to say. Some, I suspect, did it just for the hellabit to see if they could get away with leaving an indelible mark on the language, if not on literature.

For example: The word Robot did not exist before 1921, when Czech playwright Karl Capek created it from the Czech root word for work and used it in his play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots).

Utopia was invented in 1516 by Sir Thomas More for his novel of the same name. It is a pun on a Latin word which means both ‘good place’ and ‘no place.’

Children’s author Lewis Carroll invented the words chortle, smog, brunch, and breathalyzer.

Some fans of Willie Shakespeare claim that he has added around 10,000 words to the language which never existed before he made them up. These include: hobnob, alligator, assassination, bump, eventful, and lonely. Some detractors say that the words were probably already used in the spoken language and he just wrote them down in his plays. Funny thing, though; no one else thought to do it before he did, and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t the only playwright of his time.

Now before you begin to think that all these common words gained their stationalization simply because they are old, consider this:

The word factiod did not exist before 1973, when Norman Mailer made it up to mean a fact which did not exsist before it appeared in a newspaper, or magazine. The meaning has changed somewhat since. (And, no, you young smartalecs out there. 1973 is NOT that old!)

So, what’s the point to all of this?

Every so often a writer will use a word that is either obscure, or they made up for a purpose. Outside of Sci-Fi, and Fantasy ─where words and names are made up with the blistering speed of a lightningbat─ some well-meaning beta reader, editor, or critic is bound to call you on it. Sometimes even when you’ve made it pretty clear what the word is supposed to mean.

Take heart. If the word is obscure, they are simply showing that they don’t know as much as you do, and were too darn lazy to Google it. If you made it up and pretty much explained it through context, or comparison; you can be reasonably certain they are not actually reading your story, they are skimming through it.

That, or you have yet another victim of the Elvin Woodhead Speed Readin’ course.

In the end, who knows? You may not have a novel that will stand through the coming centuries, but you may have permanently altered the language as we know it. Then the folks at Webster will have to include your word in all their future editions.

How’s that for immortaletablity? footballer pictures

Later Gang! scuba diving in menorca

Filtering It Out

I have been seeing a lot of filtering in the Speculative Fiction Marathon over the last ten weeks. Filtering. What is it, and why should I care?

Filtering is exactly what its name implies. It is running an observation through your point of view character instead of giving it straight to the reader. It’s pretty easy to spot but can be harder to remove. What happens is you’re having the character share the action with the reader instead of putting it directly before the reader. It’s like a stage direction that shouts ‘look here’. If you have words like ‘heard, saw, watched, looked, realized, knew, understood, seemed, and felt’ then you have filtering. Here’s a heavy example:

 

She heard the gunshot and dropped her book. It felt like her stomach twisted and dropped into a hole. She knew that her mom had taken matters into her own hands. Going to the window, she saw smoke rising from the rifle crimped against her mother’s shoulder, and she watched as dozens of blackbirds scattered from the cornfield. It seemed Mom had gone over the deep end.

 

So what’s so bad about filtering? First off, it adds to your word count. Those words are unnecessary, and they won’t help your cause with agents. It makes the writing look sloppy instead of sharp and concise.

Second, it’s like twirling your head in plastic wrap, or putting a swimsuit on your kid, covering him with a towel, and adding a parka to top it off before you go to the beach. You’re coating your writing in layers. Those words create a distance between the reader and your character. They filter and slow down the pace, adding a layer to separate readers from getting close to the action. Everything you write, unless you use third person omniscient, is coming through your point of view character. What filtering does is poke the reader in the eye and say ‘hey, don’t forget, my character is here’.

Most of the time, it isn’t necessary though there are exceptions. Rarely, there are times when you do want to draw attention to something such as the fact that your character is in a dark room so you focus on her hearing.

Here’s how it looks without the filtering:

 

The pop of a gunshot made her drop her book. Her stomach twisted as if it fell into a hole. Her mother had taken matters into her own hands. At the window, smoke rose from the rifle crimped against her mother’s shoulder while dozens of blackbirds scattered from the cornfield. Her mother had gone off the deep end.

 

Try writing without filtering words and see how much more vivid  and fast paced your writing becomes.

Building Depth into your Protagonist

The protagonist is the end all – be all of the manuscript. This person will be followed by the reader all the way till the end. There doesn’t have to be just one. How many heroes have won the day alone? Since all the focus will be on these people/this person, they need to have depth.
No one wants to read about someone who can’t do anything for themselves. Unless it’s a self-help book and the person finds a way to break out of the funk at the end. On the other hand, a protagonist that can do whatever they like, kicking massive derriere and taking names right off the bat is particularly boring. Yes we all want to be that type of person, but we prefer finding out how it is they got there. They need to be balanced and have not only the attributes that make them strong, but also have things they need to work on.

IE: Cathy writes amazing reports and knows what she’s doing, but unless she can get over her shyness, the world will never know that she has created a renewable resource that is free and easy to use.

A protagonist needs to grow and the reader has to see it. No one wakes up one day to find they can do what they’ve always wanted (unless they find out someone cast a spell on them, in that case, they need to find out why.) There is a process and if done well, the reader will feel it.
Questions you should ask your protagonist:
What are your strengths? Can you use them to obtain your goal?
What are your weaknesses? Are they worthy enough in the plot for the reader to route for you?
What are your goals?
What’s keeping you from your goals?
There are ways to break this down even further.
Like: What type of archetype are you?

Are you the hero, the anti-hero, the fool, or something else entirely?

The more you know about your protagonist, the more depth you can show in his/her/its journey.

What are your thoughts? Do you flush out your protagonist before you write or do you let them come to life on the pages?