Before you continue, there isn't really an answer to this question.
No, that's not true. There is, but it'll be different for everyone. I've read so many articles by writers and editors claiming formulas to finding your story's best place to begin, but the truth is, you won't find it until you've written the end. Even then, you will need to go through several edits and revisions until you discover it beneath layers of pre-story.
So, if you do want one answer: write your story.
Below are several original openings to a stroy I'm working on. Each time I'd found a new opening, I was sure it was the right one. Then I'd edit and revise from that point only to discover a new place to start.
My current WIP is called STARS IN MY POCKET. It's a YA Dark Contemporary. Here's my current pitch: A teen believes he must replace his dad’s telescope if he’s to earn his dead parents’ forgiveness for the horrible thing he said when they died, but doing so puts his best friend in danger.
Here's how it went down for the first hundred.
A thorny bush wraps itself around our back railing like it owns the place. I used to believe the damn spiky she-devil stole my parents. I used to kick it, spit on it, yell at. Gran always says be careful around her. Her. Like the damn bush is alive. It is, I guess. It takes stuff. Its thorns grab hold, and if you go hunting underneath, you're bound to get hurt.
So of course when I finally fish my key from my back pocket and try to jam it into the doorknob, I drop it. Right into the bush.
"Damnbit!" I'm not exactly enunciating tonight. "Idiot."
What doesn't work: Too many female unknowns in first paragraph (bush, mother, grandmother). Flow is off.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world --anger, hurt, dysfunction.
Don't they know you can't see stars with ground lights on? Lame-ass skatepark. Those stupid street lamps have the park shut down for maintenance tonight, and I'm stuck dodging cars along the overpass with my dweeb of a guardian angel.
"Hey, Guy, watch it!" Jase grabs my shoulders and pushes me out of the path of a speeding semi, but I slip in its wake.
"Asshole!" I yell, flipping the driver the bird before I faceplant into a patch of dirt.
What doesn't work: Wrong place to start. We don't need the skatepark info first. That can wait.
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world--anger, hurt, risk-taking. Dialogue sets tone and pulls reader into the scene. We meet MC and his pal, setting up friendship as a theme.
In fourteen days, I’ll make my sixth journey. Hah, “journey,” what a joke. It’s like a three-minute walk from my porch, but from where I stand right now that painful patch of dirt is as far away as Orion’s Belt.
Every year, for the past five years, I’ve trekked from my back yard to a patch of dirt in the town’s vacant wash land so I can leave my parents a gift. And every year I laugh at myself, this anonymous suburbanite who will do whatever it takes to see his dead parents one more time.
What doesn't work: The goal is unclear. Sarcasm isn't working. Why is he leaving gifts? How will they help him see his parents? Why does he need to see them--besides the obvious reason? Who is this kid, and why should we care about him?
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world-- hurt, regret. Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his pain and inner turmoil. We are clear he misses his parents, that they're dead, and that he's trying to accomplish something by leaving gifts.
Round Four (and current contender:
In seven days, I’ll make my sixth pilgrimage to that painful patch of dirt where my parents died, hoping to see them one more time. It's a journey I've made every November for the past five years that's gone from hope to hopelessness. I mean, to be honest, I only call it a pilgrimage because I think it'll bring me peace.
It never does, and from where I stand tonight, that chance might be as far away as Orion’s Belt. In real life, it's a three-minute walk from my back porch that I take because the book I keep under my mattress says leaving my dead parents gifts will give me the chance to say I'm sorry.
What doesn't work: (my question for you)
What works: We are immediately pulled into the MC's world- hurt, regret, hopelessness, Internal monologue sets MC's tone and allows us to feel his inner turmoil: he misses his dead parents, and he's following some kind of legend or ritual in a book to help him earn their forgiveness.
Why this works best: We have a clear goal (earn parents' forgiveness), an obstacle (something magical needs to happen, and this is clearly an ordinary world), and sympathy (he's pained with regret for something). Finally, we have a reason to keep reading: will he achieve his goal? what will happen along the way?
What do you think? I'd love to hear which opening works and why. Please share your comments. Please also share your story's opening and why you think it does or doesn't start in the right spot.
That's my story, what's yours?
As the darker months approach, I emerge from my summer writing cave, bleary eyed but invigorated. Because I am a teacher, I relish the off-time to work on my writing. This past summer, I spent ten-twelve hours each day editing and revising my current manuscript.
I'd like to share a little bit of my process with you, then I'd love to hear how you revise. Something I hear from other writers: how do you know when you're finished?
Revising is like running down hill: you have to put on the brakes at some point and try not to scrape your face. I think I am at that point. I think.
This post is not about setting up a new story. It's about what to do once you've written your first draft and combed through it at least once or twice to see what you've written. I don't consider those revision stages. That's still part of the writing. For me, when I'm pumping out my story, I just go. I have a plan, that's true, but I'm writing non-stop. When I get to the end, I go back, read it, fix stuff, read it again, fix more stuff. I do this until it feels solid.
Then I put it away.
When I come back to it--weeks or months later--I see it through fresh eyes. Now I'm ready to revise.
Here's what revision looks like for me:
1. Brew coffee
2. Drink coffee
3. Turn off social media
4. Gather resources nearby
5. Get chocolate
6. Eat chocolate; think about lunch; turn social media back on...
7. Return to step 1
8. Open my document (yes, there are distractions until I get down to business)
9. Send my document to my Kindle
10. Read my story like a book (this is an amazing trick I learned from an author)
11. Mark up awkward phrases, typos, grammatical errors, etc., using NOTES
12. Re-open my document (for me, this is in Scrivener); make corrections from my Kindle NOTES
13. Share my story, chapters, opening, whatever, with my Critique Partners
14. Review their feedback; decide what to take and what to leave (remember, it's your story)
15. Now I revise.
Revision is the tearing apart and reconstruction of your story. When you first sit down, you might not even know what the story is really about until you get to the end. That's how it is for me. Steps 1-14 are actually the foreplay to revising.
Revision is messy, heart-breaking, frustrating, really, really hard. You have to get rid of characters who are in the way, develop characters who are too thin, tighten plots, destroy plots.
It's not easy, but when you get through this process, you have a story. And that's a beautiful thing.
What is your process? I'd love to hear it.
That's my story, what's yours?
You've heard the terms plotter and pantser. Which one are you?
I'll give you a hint about me: I'm a Virgo.
In my own regular life, I plan my day, leave myself sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, set alarms to remind me about appointments or what to pick up at the store. I don't leave things to chance. Certainly not my memory.
I plot my day, so of course I plot my books.
Why? For me, it sends events in motion. If I know what's coming, I can lay the groundwork with intention. Instead of taking the fun out of writing, planing keeps me on point and my stories tighter. That makes me happy.
Here are my five plotter must have's:
1. Alarm Clock: you can't write if you're still in bed. I teach, so for most of the year, I'm working during my favorite time to write. What to do? I set my alarm clock thirty minutes or more before I need to get up. Since getting up is usually at 6:30, I try to get up at 6 or 5:30. Otherwise, I will write at night. It all depends on my day. You can't schedule creative, so I need to write when time avails me.
2. Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT: I discovered Snyder's easy to follow beats two years ago at a SCBWI conference. Three authors attested to it, gave us all a quick how-to and why-to, and I was sold. I outline my plot to the beats of Snyder's three-act outline, tweak what I need to, and follow this when I set up my chapters and map my character arcs. This saves time and frees me up to focus on the story and creative process.
3. Scrivener: Oh, how I love my Scrivener! This writing app puts everything I need at my fingertips (my keyboard fingertips). I have written many blog posts about this tool's awesome features; check them out if you want. The best part of Scrivener? I can't choose one thing, but I do love the character and setting templates and the ability to upload pictures for both. Right now, I'm editing my new YA mystery. The revision mode lets you write in a different color, which makes it easy to find your new ideas after hours of editing.
4. Critique partners: Of course you can have critique partners if you pants your way through stories, but I can't let a blog post like this go by without a shout-out to my dear crits Gwynne Jackson and Jessica Gruner. Critique partners are vital at each stage of your writing. Whether you are planning, writing, editing, or revising, these smart people will give you the feedback you need to make your story better. I brainstorm plots, pluck their brains when a plot point goes awry, and take in their suggestions when I finished my story and am preparing to edit.
5. A good kind of pressure: This can come from anyone and anywhere. Your family, friends, Twitter buddies, neighbors, or colleagues. But no one can apply that necessary pressure to get you writing and thinking about your story if you don't tell them what you are up to. Let the world know you are writing the next bestseller. Locate beta readers for feedback, too. Their feedback and suggestions or whoops and wows will motivate you to keep going.
Whether you plan your story scene-to-scene before you write or sit down in front of a blank page and let it flow, you need support. I love to connect with other writers. Please find me on Twitter or Facebook. Let's connect and support each other.
That's my story; what's yours?
No matter where you are in writing your story, weather can play a part in moving the action forward, defining a character, or throwing a wrench in the path of good or evil.
Great writers from Shakespeare to Steinbeck have successfully used weather in their stories. If it weren't for the drought, the Joads might never have set out to California. In The Tempest, we can't forget how Prospero used weather for his own good.
Here's how you can hurl lightning bolts at your villains or paint rainbows for your protagonists and get away with it.
PLOT. If you are stuck moving the action forward, change the weather. When your MC steps outside without an umbrella and is caught in a sudden downpour, does he slip into a cafe for a fortuitous encounter with someone? Does he hop on a bus to avoid the weather? Does that bus crash? Is it the wrong bus, and he ends up late for (work, a date, picking up a child)? Insurance companies don't take responsibility for acts of God. Neither must writers. Use storms, landslides, earthquakes. These things happen without notice.
CHARACTER. How do your characters respond to different weather events? Use them to reveal moods, fears, hopes, or long-lost dreams. Maybe every time it rains, your character is reminded of the day his dog died. Or whenever she sees a rainbow, she makes a wish. Don't go overboard. No one likes a cliche. Subtlety is your best move.
SETTING. Last but not least, we must talk about the obvious. Depending on where your story is set, some weather events just won't come up. It's unlikely an earthquake will hit in Iowa or that a monsoon will flood Arizona. If you are writing realistic fiction, study the weather in the area where your story is set. You might discover some freak storm that hit years back. You could use that for a tragic backstory, or it could be the reason for your character's behavior or motivation.
That's my story. What's yours?
Please share your ideas in the comment section below! Happy writing :)
Every story has a theme even if the author never sets it there on purpose. The theme is an underlying or overarching message that might not be discerned until the story ends. A theme connects to the story's topic. It's what you want readers to understand about life after they've finished your book.
Often, the theme is the same as what the hero or protagonist discovers. In the Pulitzer novel, THE GOLDFINCH, Theo learns that you cannot hold onto what you love or you might destroy it. In other words, love means letting go.
Sometimes, it's too big, In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the theme centers around the fragility of innocence. Perhaps Harper Lee was saying that to be innocent meant risking your life.
On occasion, the narrator tells us the theme (or hints strongly), so we can participate in its development during the story. In Edgar Alan Poe's THE TELL-TALE HEART, the main character serves as the narrator and lets the reader know immediately that he's going crazy. We learn with him that even the mad can feel guilt. Guilt has no boundaries.
If you are in the middle of writing a story, or you are planning one, consider the message you want readers to take away.
Here are some common themes:
Beauty is only skin deep.
Believe in yourself.
Believing strongly in something is vital to its fruition.
Change is inevitable.
Good and evil can coexist.
Blood is thicker than water.
Love always wins.
Rules protect us.
Face your fears, and you will be stronger.
Truth can set us free.
Other themes can be found in old proverbs, the Bible, Torah, Koran, Baghavad Gita, or other religious works, Shakespeare, poetry, your mother's words, a prisoner's regrets. In short, a theme is a message, and we all have at least one we live by.
What is close to your heart? What messages will you leave with your readers?
Share your thoughts here.
I dare not say these words out loud, but... shhh... come closer, and I'll whisper them to you.
I think my story is finished.
Don't tell anyone. Not yet. First, I need to make sure I've satisfied the questions with which the story began.
I have worked on my young adult contemporary manuscript for more than a year. I'm not talking the writing part. The writing began in 2013. I'm talking editing and revising. A year. To be precise, fifteen months.
ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY has seen changes in characters, point of view, and plot. It is an entirely different story than the one I began three years ago. It is also an entirely better story.
First, let me tell you why it's better then I'll show you how I know it's finished.
One. I have addressed every concern an agent or editor brought to my attention during contests and querying.
Two. I have examined and corrected every detail my amazing critique partners raised a red flag to.
Three. I like it. It's a story. The characters are authentic. The MC is fallible.
Now let me show you how I know it's finished using the following five questions.
One. Is the main plot resolved?
I don't want to promise a premise that doesn't pan out. Readers need resolution to the protagonist's problem. Resolution does not necessarily mean a happy or satisfying ending. It just needs to be plausible.
Two. Did the protagonist solve it (YA needs this)?
In YA, the protagonist needs to be the one to solve her problem. Adolescents seek empowerment; adults screw with their destinies enough in the real world.
Three. Has the character grown or changed from the opening scene?
Consider Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey narrative. When the reader meets the MC, there must be something the reader asks or observes, something he expects to change.
Four. Have all the minor plots resolved?
Your A story and B story and all minor journeys that arose along the way must each come to a close.
Five. Have all the "teasers" been dealt with or resolved?
In Act I, you've no doubt introduced red herrings or secondary characters with their own story. These all need closure. If Mom has been looking for a job throughout the story, and you keep referring to it, she either needs to land one or make a comment about going back to school. Something. Don't leave teasers teasing (unless you're writing a sequel... but that's another story...).
If you think you're story is over, answer the five questions. What other questions do you think writers need to ask?
Share with us here.
This week, I tackle another completed manuscript and ready it for queries. STARS IN MY POCKET is my fourth YA novel. Two books are part of the Logos Publishing House bookshelf and a third awaits an agent's love. If ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY doesn't land an agent, I'm hoping STARS will.
For the past four weeks, I've been editing, revising, sharing, and repeating the process on both manuscripts. Although the task is tedious and sometimes frustrating, I know the attention will only improve and tighten the stories.
Since this is my current world, I thought I'd share my steps with you. I'd love to hear others' methods when it comes to fine-tuning a new manuscript.
Here's my story...
After I've written the final chapter, I will put my work away for at least a month. While it sits and finds itself, I busy myself with other writing projects and catch up on my reading.
Next, I read through the story on my computer (in its Scrivener form) and listen to the flow, watching for key plot points and erroneous tangents.
If the story flows, I begin re-reading the book for as many major characters as it has. If there are three main characters, I re-read it three times, focussing on that character, his back story, details, arcs to plot and other characters. Then I take a read-through for the collection of minor characters, bringing them more to life.
I keep this editing/revising process moving for weeks and sometimes months.
Each time I read through the book, I edit and revise sentence structures, word usage, and grammar.
When I'm close to the end, I read through for filter words (words that pull the reader out of the story). Scrivener is great for this.
My final revision mode is on Kindle. I compile my manuscript, send it to Word where I format it, and email it to my Kindle app.
I read it like a book, but I use the notes and highlight colors to catch errors that slipped past on my computer.
Sometimes, I find major plot issues. In that case, I might go through a major revision and repeat the editing/revision process all over.
Throughout this time, I am meeting with critique partners and sharing with beta readers. All feedback helps.
Today, ON THE ROAD TO MARTY MCFLY awaits my critique partners' read-throughs to help tighten the plot. Two agents liked the writing and voice, but both had trouble with the plot.
STARS IN MY POCKET is on my Kindle with notes. I've read 68%, and will next go back to Scrivener to repair seams and mend holes.
It may not be a perfect process, but it works for me. Soon--I can feel it!--I will get that agent call. Until then, all I can do is edit, revise, rinse, and repeat.
What are your practices for editing your manuscripts? Please share!
While working with my creative writers recently, a student frowned and said, "I don't want to make a character people don't like."
I wonder what Alan Rickman would have said to that? Most definitely the author, JK Rowling, filled him in on the multi-dimensional character.
Every character in your story is important. If not, get rid of them. No character--as no human--is perfect. We are flawed. We love; we hate; we care; we judge. Your job as a writer is to build three-dimensional imaginative people who readers believe.
As for creating unlikable characters, those can be the most fun.
Villains, antagonists, creeps--all of them--help your hero figure out what she needs and how she'll get there. However, the antagonist and villain are not synonymous.
The antagonist is your hero's biggest adversary. Adversaries can simply be annoying pains in the neck. They can help develop your protagonist, but they are not vital to the plot. This obstacle might also be a phenomenon like the weather (GRAPES OF WRATH) or an institution (CATCHER IN THE RYE, ANIMAL FARM).
Classic antagonists in children's lit include Tinkerbell and The Queen of Hearts. They help the protagonist grow and learn, but they do not tie in directly to the main plot.
The villain is essential to the plot and prevents your hero from reaching resolution. The villain is one whose dastardly ways impede your main character. (In HARRY POTTER, Snape might be seen as an antagonist, whereas Voldemort is clearly the villain.)
Villains we love to hate: the Devil, Moriarity, Captain Hook)
Let's complicate things. The villain might also be your protagonist. This character seeks a goal, but he's not the nicest of people. Think: THE GRINCH, THE GODFATHER, MACBETH, or the TV show DEXTER. In these cases, you can see that a villain/protagonist reads more like a villainous protagonist.
That said, not every story has a villain, but every story has an antagonist. It often depends on your genre.
Whether you are in the middle of your story or just getting started, consider who or what impedes your hero's journey. That is your obstacle. If it's a person or being, they are either your villain or antagonist. If that character is essential to the plot, they are most likely your villain. Think of the fun Rowling had with Voldemort. Readers despised him from the get go, but we also learned more of why he was so tormented.
Without Snape, our antagonist, Harry would never have survived. This we know now.
Create characters with flaws, characters who annoy us, characters who do despicable things. It's your world. Whatever you do, put as much heart and time into developing these hated ones as you do your main character.
Side note: when I told my young writers to imagine a teacher or classmate who truly got on their nerves and turn them into a character in their stories, they each smiled and put pen to paper.
Remember, writing is fun. Have fun.