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?
So you are working on your novel, and you think it's pretty good. Then you start querying it, and agents tell you they aren't "feeling it." You open up your manuscript and look for the holes, find where to add the spice, pluck out the bad bits.
It's kind of hit or miss at this point. You've been working on this baby for more than a year, so what do you do now?
Put it away for a week at least.
Take it back out, and read the whole thing like a book. That's what it is, right?
Whatever you do, you do not give up.
Cue, LOCKER ROOM SPEECH:
You write this book like it's Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Sure you were down 3-1, but you came back, baby. You stormed onto the home-team's court and played like a boss. Even after many had villified you for changing teams, they loved you when you returned.
You don't know the word NO, and you are not a loser.
You have coaches and trainers who guide and mold you, but at the end of the day, it's all up to you. You have to write like you mean it, edit like there is no tomorrow, polish and revise to make room for that trophy. This is it.
I write because I have stories in my head. I write because I love it. Never do I sit down and think, damn, I guess I have to write today. There is no place I'd rather be than in front of a story I am creating. I love my characters, and I want them to find readers who will love them, too.
Writing can be a solitary game, but you must remember there are people out there to help: critique partners, beta readers, editors, and agents, Listen to all of the advice and feedback. Then use what feels right. Just because the story came out of your head doesn't mean it doesn't need a little massaging. Flowers grow because we feed them, give them sunlight and water.
Feed your story. It's Game 7, and the heat is on. (Sure, go ahead and mix metaphors.) Do not give up. That is not an option.
You got this!
That's my story, what's yours?
Word choice matters.
If you are a writer, choosing the wrong word at the wrong time could land you in a mess.
When Alice tells the Mad Hatter that she has said what she's meant because she meant to say it, he scolds her: "You might just as well say that "I see what I eat" is the same thing as "I eat what I see.""
Words matter, and so does the order in which we use them.
Today is Leap Day, a perfect time to review the use of verbs. Let's start with leap.
Synonyms include: hop, jump, spring, vault, bound, hurdle.
However, those words refer to the act of leaping, such as: I leapt over the boulder. An equivalent sentence could be written using any of the aforementioned synonyms. Not true if you wrote this sentence: The company leaped at the opportunity to raise production. You wouldn't say The company vaulted or hurdled at the opportunity. You could say they jumped or sprang.
Say what you mean.
My esteemed critique partner, Gwynne Jackson, reminds me often that the best word to use is the simplest. If the frog hopped onto the lily pad, say so. Don't get fancy by saying it vaulted onto the lily pad. Do frogs vault?
Varying words and sentence helps your writing flow, but don't get overzealous. If the shoe fits...
When your vocabulary needs a boost or the word you've written doesn't sound right, take time to research the right word. For that, there are many resources.
Scrivener If you use this amazing writing app, you know all about its dictionary and thesaurus. Double tap the word in your document and bring forward a dictionary page to examine.
Etymolonline I use this in the classroom with my students. Type in a word and learn the word origin, common usage, synonyms, antonyms, or more.
OneLookDictionary Another creative site that offers up loads of suggestions to help you find the right word.
Whatever you are working on right now, take the time to choose the right words.
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!
Winning NaNoWriMo is no small feat. Committing yourself to writing more than one thousand words each day (a 1.6k average is needed to 'win'), suggests you have what it takes.
But don't stop there. Words on a page do not a story make.
Now comes the fun part. Editing and revising and editing and revising and . . . Time to get to the root of your novel.
Your story is not complete until you've spent days, and weeks, and months combing through its pages, tweaking plot lines, and finessing word usage. The true nugget of your story is often buried deep within the middle of all those thousands of words.
Every writer has his own advice for how to tackle the revision stages. Google til your heart's content, and you can find half a dozen that make sense to you.
I follow Stephen King's: put your first draft away for a month to six weeks before you revise.
Here are six ideas for how to handle revising your first draft.
1. Listen to the King. Put it away and work on anything else but that manuscript for at least a month. You'll return with fresh eyes to discover the hidden beauty (buried deep in chapter six) or the rubbish you wrote to begin the story.
2. Before you revise, write a letter to a friend explaining your book. (You don't need to send it.) Try to get it right in a 35-word pitch. Then dig in revising, go back and read that letter and write a new one. Repeat this process until you've uncovered the true pitch.
3. Revise your draft as many times as you have important characters. Each time you revise, do it with one character in mind. Use his perspective. This is a great way to uncover loose storylines, catch missing or erroneous details (birthdates, eye color, favorite foods, etc.).
4. Cut or combine useless characters. Idea 3 will help you uncover who adds to the plot and who detracts from it. As Mr. King says: "Kill your darlings." (This is also a good time to study all the names used in your story. Be sure they are not easily confusing--too many single syllable names; too many names starting with S, etc.)
5. Create a storyboard of key scenes. Plotters will have already done this. However, do it again. I record each scene on a post-it that I can move around a board. Not all scenes need cutting; some need moving.
6. Share your draft with a trusted partner. If you haven't joined a writing group or located a critque partner, now's a great time to do this. Other writers understand what is a first draft. They won't nit-pick at grammar or spelling. They will tell you what works and what doesn't.
Now, stop reading this blog and get to revising. More tips on revising and editing in the future!
Please share your ideas here.