In the Beginning…

I’ve just finished the Alienist, which was a good read, but about 200 pages too long, so I wanted something short and breezy for my next read. I won’t tell you what it is, because I’m going to trash it.

The book is 4th in a series. I haven’t read the earlier installments, and now I don’t have to, because the character, in the first chapter, summarized the last book for the reader: the whole plot and the resolution, for, as far as I can tell, no reason. Then a cop from the last book dropped into the main character’s office where they small talked and he got permission to scout the hero’s property.

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Beginnings are often written last because it takes the story to find the seed that must be planted.

That was chapter one, where if I didn’t actually know the writer, I would have stopped reading. The chapter was 80% exposition, half of it was unnecessary, the other half could have been handled in the coming chapter where they find something they didn’t expect to find.

Maybe the second chapter would be more interesting.


Set in the past, two guys get instructions from the superior, more exposition, and nothing happened.

This writer made several mistakes in the beginning…

  • If you’re writing a series, every book must stand on its own. Certainly, the reader who’s read from the beginning gets a flavor the non-sequential reader doesn’t, but if you recap you prior books in the series, the non-sequential reader doesn’t need to read those books.
  • He didn’t start as late in the story as he should have. Thrust me into the action! Barring that, give me something to visualize as the characters talk. One is doing something, the other is trying to break in, or perhaps a third character is in the way. In short, ADD CONFLICT.
  • Exposition should rarely be dropped in bulk. Some is necessary, and there are occasions where you do have do a bulk-drop, but not at the beginning!  (This is done well by some writers, be sure you’re one of them if you do this).
  • That entire first and second chapter could easily have been slipped into the action of the later chapter. Ask yourself: Do I need this scene?  If there’s no conflict, probably not. If the instructing character is never seen again, lose it.
  • No emotions were engaged. They talked about a lot of stuff, none of which mattered, but even the emotions they talked about (!) would have been better shown.

Your beginning should start as late in the story as possible. The reader should be shown the hero’s character, not told, ideally through conflict (it doesn’t have to be dire conflict, it may just be irritation); we need to explore the hero’s current “normal” briefly and poignantly, ideally while dealing with something that threatens that normal.

The second chapter should ramp up the energy; Motives and Goals begin to form, if not already begun in the first chapter (Motives and Goals of all characters drive the middle of your story as they clash).

It’s worth talking about foreshadowing. There is a difference between subtly hinting at future events, but if a chapter is telling me a future chapter is going to happen and that’s all it tells, I don’t need that initial chapter.

To sum up: Show me the existing normal through conflict (why? Because we’re our true selves under conflict ((again, not necessarily mortal conflict. It could be dealing with a child or a fussy assistant when trying to do something else… and that something else must contribute to the story)).

Reveal your character (don’t tell us), reveal the existing normal that is going to be severely shaken up later. Give me a hint what the story is about.

For example: In my book, Do Angels Still Fall? the narrator guardian angel is taking his human charge from death to the heavenly courts (his normal), the man asks the dramatic question, and the angel doesn’t know the answer (conflict comes from the man acting contrary to expectations). He then goes to the court of angels (his normal) and is given his next assignment, but his human isn’t a baby, it’s a pre-teen boy (his normal threatened), and he can reveal himself (totally against norms!). From there he meets his new charge after a moment of mistaken identity. Once he reveals himself to the boy, it’s new territory, where, in the end, our angel may fall and his human lost. That’s three chapters, which in this book constitutes the beginning.

Normal, normal challenged, against norms, dramatic introduction of the main characters. That’s a beginning.

Some writers say they view their drafted beginning as a means to figure out where to actually start. Many throw the first couple chapters out once the story resolves.

We’ll get into Motives and Goals in a future post, promise.

(I’ve read a bit futher in the book; plot is interesting, poorly told).

As for you, what are your “in the beginning” pet peeves?

Discourage Discouragement

Speaking to a friend who embodies confidence, it took me by surprise when he expressed discouragement. “I don’t think anyone’s interested in what I put out there.”

My inner critic is bold all the time. Pssst, the lion is the critic, the lion is you. Live like it!

I went through a fit of discouragement recently. At work, something I built from nothing was taken over by others. Hard not to take that personally. The same day, I looked at my book sales and found them… tepid. Discouragement took my breath away. It was short lived. I told myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and refused to accept the emotion (you can do that, you know).

A few days later, a friend gave me an encouraging word. “Aren’t you excited about what you’ve done for others?” She didn’t know of my bleak moment, but I think she guessed it when I blinked at her comment and stammered a response. You can refuse to accept emotion but it can still linger in the green room of your thoughts.

In Aron Osborne’s book, So Many Mountains, Which Ones to Climb?, he has an entire chapter devoted to Encouragement, that is, “to give someone courage.” He has many wise words in that book, take a look.

You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t face discouragement, often during the writing of the book, certainly after, and again when it’s for sale. Funny isn’t it? You can have 20 great reviews, but it’s the 1 negative that gets you down, isn’t it?

One of the reasons I started Prevail Press is to encourage people. I’ve found that when you’re discouraged, you can overcome it by sincerely encouraging others.

Another method is to understand the truth of what we do is a long-haul proposition, there are no shortcuts. A snapshot of a lifetime is no insight to that life. “Count your blessings” can be trite, but it is also true. Everyone has them, even if it’s just drawing a ragged breath each morning.

What you have to say is important. Learning any craft is an emotional roller coaster. My latest book, Creativity Wears Boots, describes the creative process. Knowing where you are in your pursuit can help dispel the monsters.

Building a Murder… uh… Story Board

You’ve seen them in TV shows, typically crime procedurals. The detective slowly builds their understanding of the crime on a cork board with photos, strings connecting them, events described or pictured, and eventually, as things link up and holes filled in, the crime is solved.

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This is from LIFE, a well-written show with an outline for a half-dozen seasons that ended in just a couple, so they wrapped up everything way too fast. Loved that show.

Authors can do the same with a story board to help visualize your ideas. It’s a great way to figure out who’s missing and who isn’t needed.

Whether it starts at the bottom of the top is up to you. Either way, start with your ending. Who (the bad guy) gets burned? Who burns him? How?

Next, figure out who was involved. Your main character probably doesn’t have the tools to win from the beginning (that’s why it’s good to have flawed characters). What events does she go through to learn and grow? Are they events of design or accident? Who are the players? Put them on the board.

Here you begin to discover holes. If your middle is threadbare, you may be missing characters or character traits. Your hero, sidekicks, villains, and thugs should be crashing around in organized mayhem. (Note: This is true of any story, not just crime, adventure, or sci-fi; househusbands can be heroes).

Is your middle too involved? Can characters or events be combined or cut entirely? Can some characters drop out or be lost?

In your beginning, with insights from the board, you can now figure out how to start your story.

Scapple is an inexpensive program that makes building a board easy.

In the next few posts, we’ll be looking at beginning, middle, and end. Check back each Wednesday, or better yet, subscribe!

Where Have All the Readers Gone?

I grew up in a family of readers. While occasionally there would be a non-fiction book, we were all mostly novel readers. Dad even got in trouble because he took 12 books with him on their honeymoon (yeah, Dad, what were you thinking? I only took 6 novels).

As a child, I read several books a day, even won an award for most

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Please encourage your kids and adults to read!

books checked out at the library. As an adult, I scaled back to a couple hundred a year. My sisters always have a book they’re involved with, and grocery bags full of novels ferry between their houses. My wife was a non-reader at first but discovered books in self-defense. She gets into deep, historical books, the kind that scare me, but she’s fearless. My kids are readers. This makes me biased, I’m sure. In my world, everyone is a reader.

Then I got into my 50s, and I went from 100-200 books a year to… 50 or 60 a year (gasp!). I’m a writer and publisher but I don’t read anywhere near as much as I used to. I’m guessing part of it was that when the kids were actual children our TV choices were limited to kid-friendly shows, so I read rather than watched. Not so much these days.

90% of my closest friends are readers. Some prefer non-fiction, but I like them anyway (hey, I finally wrote a non-fiction book and it sells better than my novels). Yet statistics say that only 20% of Americans are readers (Amazon does a big business in books, but how many are actually read?).

As a book-seller, I am amazed at how few readers there are. I’m naïve, but I expected most of my friends and acquaintances to buy my books (they’re priced to sell). Not so much.

This isn’t a poor-poor-pitiful-me post. I’d love it to be a discussion in the comments below. Do you read? Why or why not? Do you read as much as you used to? Why has it slowed down?

Voice – The Topic that Terrifies Writers

We aren’t talking about the reality singing show when we say The Voice, we’re talking about that thing that seems so hard to describe that is a vital element of a successful story.

We can look to a singing icon, though, to better understand Voice. Reba McEntire gave an interview about her early days learning to sing. She learned by doing covers of other people’s songs and sounded just like them. Her comment was insightful, “I had to learn to sing like everybody else so I could eventually sing like myself.”

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Just part your lips and speak… (is that how that goes?)

That’s an excellent description of narrative voice. Voice isn’t something you put on, it’s something you discover. It consists of your cadence, your word choice, your sentence structure, your way of describing, YOU.

When we talk to a friend, we hopefully are relaxed and natural. It’s when we try to pretend to be someone beyond, above, below, or what we think people want to hear that we get tripped up.

Think about an actor’s version of voice. I’ve been enjoying Chris Evans’ filmography, from the independent movies, Fantastic Four movies (he was the only good part), Captain America movies, and other studio movies. Evans has a range of expressions and movements. His body language changes from role to role, but he pulls from a stock of movements that are uniquely Chris Evans.

Impersonators cherry-pick such movements and mannerisms to convey the celebrity of choice. Then they grab their cadence and word choice, their manner of speaking, and away they go.

Once you’ve mastered writing so that it’s effortless, your voice will ring out. Sure, you can put on a persona when you write, but your best stories are the ones you are true to with your own voice. In other words, don’t worry about it. When you’re ready, when you’ve written like other people, you will eventually sound like yourself. That’s Voice.

Put the “u” in Author

I love to laugh (Ha-Ha-Ha!) when I read a story. I’m fairly certain I am incapable of writing a story without humor. Even if I were to write a serious genre, some of my characters would be witty, or employ dark humor.

But that’s just me.

And that’s the crux of it, right? You are the author of your story and you should not have to include something that’s not “of you” if you don’t want to. You may not want to write a comedy, though, if you’re humorless… just sayin’.

Which Story is Yours?

There is a school of thought that suggests authors and especially new authors should chase trends. If vampires are in, write vampire stories. That’s a bad idea. If you write a trendy story that isn’t “you” it will almost always be shoddy, not to mention trends are fleeting and by the time you write your trendy story, it probably won’t be trendy still. Never write someone else’s story (unless you’re a ghostwriter), always write your story.

This requires a degree of self-awareness.

Think of a story as your friend; write the ones you want to spend time with, because you’re going to spend a lot of time with it!

Back in the day, my stories trended toward dark tales. As I changed, so did my stories. I have no interest in writing horror, though I know how, and I’m playing with a story that has a serial killer, which I would normally shy away from, but I’ve got an idea that takes the character to a different level, so I may get away with it.

While every writer is special and unique, there are hundreds of thousands of people who would eat your kind of special with a spoon.

In a sense, we’re talking about Voice, but not exactly (that’s next week). Rather, we’re talking about writing stories where your voice would be authentic. Know your genres. Don’t be concerned if the genre isn’t the hot ticket right now. There are books I’ve only be able to get through a couple of paragraphs… that doesn’t mean the book is bad, it’s just not my kind of story. That’s OK. It’s also why publishers have several readers who weigh in on taking a story. What is awful to me may make someone else’s day.

Having said all that, don’t be afraid to stretch yourself. Know your genre’s, but know the neighboring, stretch genres, too.  

Adult Coloring Books

It’s funny, every time I say or write that, I want to eschew concise language and phrase it “Coloring Books for Adults.”

Recently a man who may be a friend and may not be, who actually likes fig newtons, frosted pop-tarts, and everything else wrong, poked fun at “adult coloring books,” knowing full-well that they aren’t about naked people.

All those fig newtons must have addled his brains, because he was seeing questionable adults with crayons in hand and tongue lodged between their teeth as they scrub the page trying to stay within the lines.

I have no such misapprehensions.

While I prefer the term “All-Ages Coloring Books” because, you know, the kids can got at it with crayons, but really, the beautiful line art is for complex coloring using colored pencils, paint pens, or watercolor, employing such techniques as shading, hueing, color blocking, and other terms that are beyond me.

That’s why Prevail Press has published Dawn Davidson’s Faces & Fantasy, a collection of 30 amazing drawings begging to brought to living color. But don’t take my word for it, check out Dawn’s example of what Adult Coloring is (and she does it with her clothes on. At least I think so, you only see her hands. Be nice in your imagination).

Not too long ago, I was at the beach, and several people were adult coloring. It’s catching on. Maybe you should give it a try. Faces & Fantasy, available at Amazon.

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