Today I want to talk about how to start writing a book — particularly, finding your novel’s real beginning. As I say, I’ve been doing a lot of Writer’s Digest webinar critiques lately, and so a lot of posts have been inspired by things I’m seeing and notes I’m giving. While there are lots of personalized notes that I give on each manuscript (which are specific to the work), there is a handful of notes that I cut and paste from a master Word document (5 pages long!) because I have to give them over and over and over again, as they apply across dozens of manuscripts. No blog post is about a single critique that I’ve given. If I’m writing about it here, that means I’m seeing it a lot. One webinar student, Barbara, wrote back to react to a note that I’d given her.
How to Start Writing a Book: A Common Note
If you have to go into a flashback or two in the first 500 words, my guess is that you haven’t found your beginning yet. A strong opening scene is one you want to stick to for a few pages without yanking the reader away.
Barbara’s was personalized slightly for the manuscript at hand, but that is the heart of the comment. I give this note when a writer establishes a present moment with their novel opening, but then they either go into a flashback or cut the scene short and dash off to another scene within the first 2 pages (or 500 words, which is also the limit for critique submissions for the novel webinars).
And this was Barbara’s reaction to it:
Just a quick note to thank you so much for your critique. I have been struggling for a long time now on my opening pages, not quite understanding why they weren’t working. Your observation that maybe I haven’t found my real beginning yet was eye-opening. I am now filled with ideas for a new first chapter, and so relieved that I can take all the pressure off my current first chapter!
How to Start Writing a Book: Beginnings Are Hard
I wanted to share this with you because I think it’s a very common issue that a lot of writers struggle with. Beginnings are hard. You have to accomplish a lot with them (there’s a checklist in my book that I thought long and hard about). You almost never know everything your beginning will have to do until you finish the book, and it’s often the section that you’ll have to go back to over and over again to make sure it works and pulls the reader in while introducing your character and world without too much heavy telling or backstory. Whew! (Check out tips for writing backstory here.)
Sometimes It Takes Time to Find the Real Beginning
As such, most writers don’t land on their real beginning until much later in the revision process. Some don’t even land there until their book is sold and they’re deep into editing it on a more professional level. The point is, do the best you can with the beginning, learn as much as you can about how to make a good beginning work (check out HOOKED by Les Edgerton, out from Writer’s Digest, and discussed on this blog about setting reader expectations), and then give it your best shot.
If you lock yourself (mentally) into a beginning that isn’t working, it will hurt you in the submission pile, since that’s what you’re showing off to agents and editors. Stay as open-minded and as flexible with your novel opening, and make sure you write one that you will want to sustain for a scene or two without slipping into flashback or making a scene transition. That’s one easy way to know when a writer is in their opening mojo–they grab on to a beginning and they run with it for a while. Thanks to Barbara for letting me pass on this reminder, and keep my note in mind for how to start writing a book.
Wondering how to start writing a book? Get one-on-one, in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor.
Karen wrote in to me the other day to ask about multiplatform publishing:
What is the role of the artist/writer of children’s picture books in parallel platform markets if they are to be successful? How can knowledge or experience in multiple areas be leveraged when submitting to one platform with the hopes and vision of it transcending to multiple platforms? Should something be included in the query letter?
Focus On Your Book
When someone is talented or knowledgeable in many areas, it is difficult to know how to wrap it all up in one package. However, I urge debut writers whose interest lies primarily in landing a print book deal to focus there first. If you try to pitch an idea in too many directions at once (as a magazine, book app, TV show, clothing line) without first having any print titles under your belt, agents and editors will think you’re ambitious…and not in a good way.
Focus. Create the best book you can, publish it well, and let audience demand for your talents make ideas evolve into multiplatform publishing. Don’t start by stretching your idea in many directions right off the bat.
Don’t Mention Multiplatform Publishing In Your Query Letter
This happens to me all the time in query letters. (Check out my post on query letter tips for more on this topic.) The author will write something like:
While I think SAMMY THE SKUNK would be a very strong picture book in today’s market, I am also envisioning a book app with the same branding, and have turned Sammy’s story into a feature film. The script for potential theatrical release is being written as we speak.
This almost makes me think that the author isn’t in love with his idea being a book…he’s just in love with his idea and will throw it against any wall to see if it’ll stick. That’s not a focused approach when trying to enter the publishing game, because we are into books. That’s what we do. That’s what we love. And it takes a lot of passion, dedication, knowledge, and, yes, really strong ideas to be involved in the book world. You have to really want to have a book, specifically. Drop the multiplatform publishing aspirations until that book is under your belt.
It Bears Repeating: Focus
Lots of books do get picked up by other platforms and go online or into theaters or into toy stores. Sure. But those properties are usually leveraged when the property that started it all (be it a book or a movie or whatever) stood on its own merits and attracted and audience and made other platform gatekeepers and tastemakers seek out the creator.
I’ll say it again: Focus. Seek to make one really strong impact on one part of the entertainment/content industry, then spread out from there.
If you’re committed to writing a book, my editorial services will help you make your project the best it can be.
A novel opening — and setting reader expectations — is one of the hardest things in the world to do right when you’re learning how to write a great book. In fact, there’s a whole book about why that is (and how to jump this difficult hurdle) called HOOKED by Les Edgerton (Writer’s Digest Books). I highly recommend it. Anyway. One of the issues I often run into during critiques is the promise of the novel. What do I mean by that?
How to Write a Great Book: Where Will Your Story Take Them?
As readers, we like to telescope into the future a bit when we pick up a book. After reading the first 5 or 10 pages, our imaginations start feverishly working on where the story will take us. Conflict is usually presented in the first chapter, or a world is introduced, or we meet characters, and we think, “Okay. I get it. This will be the central conflict of the plot that I’m reading here,” or, “I’m going to spend the next 350 pages with these people,” or, “I think we’re in some futuristic dystopian society, cool. Can’t wait to learn more.”
How to Write a Great Book: Avoid Misdirected Promises
This is a natural process and readers do it almost subconsciously. The key for you — the writer — is to know that and to build the right promise when beginning a novel. You always want to work with your reader’s imagination when you’re figuring out how to write a great book, make the right promise, and then deliver it. They’re going to be telescoping forward into your story, so you might as well make them a) excited to read on, and b) at least right about where they think you’re going with your novel. The most common error I see is one of a misguided or misdirected promise.
I wish I could say this has only happened once or twice, but this scenario happens to me at almost every conference. I read a novel opening that takes place in school or with the family or during a sports game. These scenes are introductory and often info-dump-y and they don’t really do much for me, so I say that to the writer. They always look at me and say, “Oh, well, the rest of the story doesn’t even have anything to do with school/family/sports. I just thought I had to put them in a normal setting first and then go off to the good stuff.”
Misdirected Promises Interrupt The Flow Of Your Story
Not kidding. This happens all the time. And I understand it. When we talk about plotting a novel, we often talk about a character’s normal and how the inciting incident wrecks it. So, of course, for most kids, “normal” means family and school. But I also talk about prime real estate (which includes how to start a story), which is where you should be setting reader expectations. This relates to the promise of the novel like so: if you’re starting a story in school and going through all the usual suspects of introducing the bully and the Queen Bee and the crush, your reader will think (not without good reason), “Ah, I am going to be spending the next four hours reading a school story.”
And if on page 11, aliens descend and suddenly your protagonist is a long-lost space queen, well…your reader might be a bit jarred. If the story is good, they will reset their expectations and forge on, but you don’t want to give them this kind of cognitive dissonance. The same goes for genre. If something reads contemporary realistic for enough pages to make me think that it’s a contemporary realistic novel, don’t toss dragons at me on page 25. My expectations have gelled. I am settling into your tale. I don’t want to suddenly discover that I’ll be reading high fantasy.
If you have to start in a normal setting, at least drop hints. If yours is a ghost story, make your character see eerie shadows that disappear when she looks them head-on (tips on how to write a ghost story). If there are going to be dragons, you better let us know that this is a world that has dragons in it (a news report about dragon shortages playing in the background would be a cliche, but I hope you understand what I mean). If your character will be going on a long journey, drop subtle hints and foreshadowing, like briefly describing walking shoes piled by the door. Whatever. Just think about what you want to convey — the core of it, the plot, the arc — and then make sure when you’re starting a story, you drop hints that allude to that core.
Plant Seeds That Are Relevant To The Rest Of Your Story
And if any element plays a strong role in your opening, let it play a strong role throughout. No spending 10 pages focusing on a school story if school does not show up ever again. In fiction, you plant seeds from the very beginning and they grow in importance as you hurtle toward the climax. Don’t scatter pumpkin seeds at the beginning of planting season if you’re trying to grow a tomato garden.
You never want to misdirect when you’re setting reader expectations and leave them scratching their heads halfway through your beginning. Save the misdirection for withholding information and crafting suspense and surprise. Instead, make a solemn promise to your audience when you’re starting a story that you will tell them the tale they think they’ve settled down to read. That’s the first step to how to write a great book. That doesn’t mean make it predictable, but it means build their expectations just so and make them excited to follow you down the path you’ve set up for them from page one.
Wondering how to write a great book? Get one-on-one, in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor.
Every once in a while, I hear from readers who inspire me to see the bright side and feel wonderful about the creative work that we all do when we sit down to write. 13 year-old writer M wrote just such a letter. Since I know I always need a creative pick-me-up, especially as I crank on a soon to be revealed very secret project (cue mysterious music), I wanted to share the exchange between M and I, in the hopes that it will get you to care about your own craft as the New Year gets underway.
This is what M wrote to me a week or so ago:
I’m a beginning novelist (if that’s the proper term) and I’ve been writing since second grade to my current age of thirteen. I’ve always known what I wanted to be an author. Unfortunately, I’m a very nervous writer. Whenever I’m writing a “non-serious” story, the words flow so easily, but whenever I’m working on a story that I’m serious about, the words only come in short spurts. It’s so frustrating, mostly because the story and the scenes are laid out perfectly in my head, but I can’t translate them onto paper without worrying myself to death.
I’ve also read a lot of your blog, which has been an amazing source of information for me, and one of your blog posts really jumps out at me: That one about making readers care. I totally get where you’re coming from, mostly because I’ve read a few books that really have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster ride. The thing is, I’m terrified that I won’t be able to do it right. Is there such thing as a writer that just isn’t able to make the reader care about the character no matter what they try? Or is it just a matter of practice and revision? Do you have any tips for manipulating the reader’s emotions? What about making my inner editor shut up? Is there a significant difference in the quality of manuscripts written by older and younger people?
Well, thank you in advance. I just wanted the chance to ask you some questions and tell you how much I admire you. (And here I am, worrying about whether or not this email makes me seem too formal, or- God forbid- obnoxious.)
Immediately, I could see so much of myself in M (and no, M isn’t code for “Mary,” this is a real letter, not one of those “well, my, uh, friend really wanted some writing advice” type of situations, hehe). I mean this in the most loving way possible — the girl’s neurotic. But so am I! And so is almost every other writer I know. There’s a lot to love about being up in one’s head all the time, but there’s also a downside to thinking and caring so intensely. This was the core of my answer to M, which you can read below:
Thank you so much for writing in. I love hearing from writers, and young writers especially. Now, I know exactly how you feel about being creative even under pressure (a serious story vs. a non-serious one). Here’s the thing…you can’t do anything well when your brain is getting in the way. When your inner critic is telling you that you’ll never get down on the page what you have in your head. When you start worrying whether people will care about it or not. That kind of anxiety is the absolute enemy of creative work.
It’s easier said than done, but I would tell you to write something “non-serious” and then part of your “serious” work EVERY DAY. Get yourself in the mood by doing something that’s just for fun, the push through to the real stuff you want to accomplish. And as for making your readers care, I have a feeling you won’t have a problem there. You obviously care very much about your writing, that’s why you’re worried about it so much. We don’t worry about things we don’t care about.
When a writer has emotions about what they’re writing, then they’re likely to stir up a sense of caring in the reader. However, do keep in mind that the best way to make a reader care is to create a character who cares deeply about something — a goal, a person, an outcome — and then take it away from them or put obstacles in their way. Think about it like this: We don’t care about a story that goes, “They were together and happy, with no problems in the world.” We care about, “They were separated from one another by the worst luck on the planet and moved mountains to be reunited.” We like to read about struggle, we like to read about accomplishing the impossible goals, we like to read about characters who would do anything in the world to get what they want. Why? Because we all know what it feels like to yearn, to want, to hurt, to be frustrated, etc. Give your characters something they want, then get in their way. I think that’s central to making a reader care.
Nobody’s inner editor will ever shut up all the way, but you have to keep going through it. You said some very nice things in your email about my blog. You probably think I have it all together and just cruise around, inspiring people and being helpful. But you know what? I have to write it almost every day and almost every day I have those nagging voices in my head that I’m going to run out of stuff to talk about or that the article I’m doing isn’t what writers need to hear, etc. So it’s not something you can ever get rid of, but it’s something you can learn to deal with. The worst thing you can do is worry yourself so much that you become creatively paralyzed.
Finally, stop worrying about whether younger writers or older ones make better manuscripts. I’ve read wonderful things from young writers, awful things from older writers, and vice versa. When you have the right story and you tell it in a way that only you can, you will find your audience and your success. Don’t let anything else obsess you in the meantime. In a word, make it your New Year’s Resolution to quit worrying so much and focus on the writing. 🙂
Sorry for the slow start to posts in 2012. There are just so many events that I need to promote as the year gets underway. Watch this space for more focus on craft…and that big announcement I promised…(mwahahahahahaha).
In Big Sur this past weekend, we had a collective “lightbulb moment” in one of my workshops about first draft novel revision and the difference between editing and revising. A writer had come to the Friday session, gone back to the drawing board, or so she thought, and returned with a revision on Saturday. We noticed some new turns of phrase and a few things cut but, overall, the issues we’d isolated for her on Friday were still on the page. What happened? She was editing, rather than revising, and there’s a difference between editing and revising.
The Difference Between Editing and Revising
Let me be quick to say that it’s highly unusual to expect that much change in one day of revision, let alone one month, but such dramatic manuscript evolution is the name of the game at Big Sur. It’s not unheard of to have writers pull amazing all-night feats and return to workshop with a completely fresh 10 pages, the ink still wet from the morning printer queue, for example. So while we didn’t expect a profound change in her work, per se, we were a little underwhelmed by what actually showed up.
“Help me. I keep having this same problem,” she begged after we finished Saturday workshop. The middle of the story was dragging but the end — we’d all agreed on both days — was gripping. She’d also been focusing on this piece for quite some time at home, to no avail. The problem is, she’s editing. Moving words around. Doing small tweaks. She’s not revising.
A second member of the group was an author as well as an illustrator. My biggest note for him on Friday was that the middle of the story was static and, perhaps more pressingly, all of his pictures were landscape-view and eye level, like dioramas or posed vignettes in a museum. There was only one perspective and he used it on every page. That added to the draggy pace.
“Try moving ‘the camera’ here, and see if you can’t envision any of your scenes from a unique perspective. Down low. Bird’s eye. Close up. Tilted. There are so many ways to see a scene, so many vantage points. What you’re doing is fine, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and there’s also no variety. Stretch yourself,” I told him.
In contrast to the first writer, he came back on Saturday with his story completely reimagined. He hadn’t had time to create a new dummy, but he did describe the changes he’d make on every page, including significant cuts to the middle. He also brought in new sketches that he’d dashed off — all of them incorporating new and exciting perspective. This is revision.
Small Changes, Big Changes
This isn’t a game of “which writer is better,” however. But I think seeing his transformation shuffled something loose for the first writer. She’d been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a “tinkering revision.” Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she’d just been mucking around with what she’d already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere. This can happen right away in a first draft novel revision, and then you’re pretty much doomed. Because you don’t train yourself to see the big issues that need fixing, and especially in a first draft, there are going to be more big issues.
It’s extremely tempting to tinker. Those words are already on the page. You’ve already done all that work. When you revise with the existing manuscript in hand, you are that much more inclined to keep making small scale changes because, hey, it’s already there in front of you, it represents a lot of past work, and it’s probably not that bad, etc. With a first draft novel revision, you just finished the thing and want to bask in accomplishment. You may not want to mess with it too much.
Let me say it here once and for all: unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there (More on learning from negative feedback). I’ve said this before, but look at the word revision…it means “to see again.” To see your story in a whole new light. To make massive plot, character, and language changes. And having so much on the page already often lures us into a false complacency, especially in a first draft novel revision, if this attitude sets in from the start. (Check out some revision techniques here.)
The Difference Between Editing and Revision If You’re Stuck or Suffering Writer’s Block
The second writer in workshop got a big idea for some big changes and ran with it. The note about new perspective is a tough one because it meant he would have to throw out every single page he’d already done, but he said “Okay, what the heck!” and tried it. When I heard the second writer beg us to finally tell her what to do, I had this to say: “Go to your computer, back up the file, highlight the entire problematic part, and hit ‘delete.’ Sure, it’s scary, but I think you’re locked into what is already on the page and you’re not seeing creative solutions as a result. Writing is all about experimenting. You should get used to generating words and then getting rid of them or changing them. They’re a renewable resource. Take a day or a week or a month to write a completely new beginning and middle, full of completely new ideas, fully free from what you had in place before. Sometimes this is what you have to do, especially in a first draft novel revision if you find that something isn’t working. If you hate it, you can always go back to the old version. But I doubt you will, because you’ll be thinking outside of the old version, and it will be fresh and new. And if it’s a bust, nobody has to know. It’s just you and your computer.”
This seemed to communicate the second writer’s lightbulb moment to the first writer. She seemed excited to go home and try the experiment. I think what she needed was the reminder, and maybe the permission, to wipe the slate clean and play around again. The manuscript had become a dreaded tweaking project that wasn’t behaving, not the fun story that she’d set out to write. Now she could relive some inspiration and just play with it all over again.
In my experience, the best revisions are the most drastic, especially for a first draft novel revision. This is the true difference between editing and revising. Whether a writer has a bolt of writing inspiration and rips up their manuscript on their own, fueled by the manic energy of creation, or whether they’re forced to push further by a well-meaning agent or editor and, out of spite or adrenaline or fear or all of the above, finally takes the torch to the problem parts, it’s those writers who have the guts to start over in a piece that usually reap the biggest rewards. (A good recommendation to do a brand new kind of revision is this self-editing trick.)
So if you feel like you’re just tinkering, shoveling text like a kid pushing peas around his plate, be brave and try starting over completely. You know what you want to accomplish with the section, so just take a brand new run at it. Or maybe you’ll realize that the section wasn’t working and trash it entirely, or find another, better part that fits. Change is tough, especially when you’ve been working on something for years and are eager to see it in print. But it’s once you kick the ladder out from under yourself completely, I’ve found, that you discover resources and ideas you never could’ve imagined.
Sometimes it’s impossible to pull of a truly transformational revision alone. Hire me as your manuscript editor, and I will get you unstuck if you’ve been tinkering for too long, or off on the right path to begin with.
Here’s a question from DHE, which boils down to: “An agent asked for my full manuscript — how do I handle revision?”
Lastly, I’m wondering a bit about aspects about the revisions after getting an agent process, namely how much time is okay to spend on revisions. If someone has little free time and knows it’s going to take them awhile to get revisions done, is that troublesome or is that okay?
My answer is going to apply just as much to people who have reputable literary agents as it will to people who are still looking. Whenever I visit a conference, I always get asked questions about revision. In essence, how long is it okay to revise. Should you rush just because you want to get out on submission or because, per our question, “An agent asked for my full manuscript — yay/crap!”
An Agent Asked For My Full Manuscript — Now What?
Revision Is A Marathon, Not A Sprint
In terms of the latter question, I’ve addressed it in my post about the literary agent request. In essence, I prefer a slow-cooked, gourmet meal to fast food. No writer should ever sprint on my account, and I want to reiterate that here. Just because an agent asked for my full manuscript doesn’t mean I should dash off and hurry to show them subpar, rushed work. That just doesn’t make sense. If more time will let you turn around a stellar revision, by all means, take the time.
Hone Your Revision Skills
I’m sad to say that I’ve parted ways with more clients on the issue of revision than I have on any other grounds. When reputable literary agents take on writers, they see the work in front of them but that’s it. They can hear the writer’s ideas for future projects, they can guesstimate the writer’s writing and revision skills based on the manuscript at hand, but those are all just guesses. In my experience, a writer’s ability to revise is usually the biggest — and most important — mystery as a writer and agent embark together in their relationship.
Some writers I’ve taken on have turned out great revisions and sharpened their editorial skills. Others have floundered, turned out hasty revisions, failed to go deeply enough into the work, etc. Sometimes, it is possible, as Ian in the comments said, to revise a manuscript to death. It happens when you stare at it too hard — or not hard enough — and cut out all the voice, the freshness, the spontaneity of the thing. This usually happens when you’re in too much of a hurry, and it’s the answer to “How do bad books get published?”
Final Thoughts On Quality In Revision
First, an answer to the question of “How much novel revision is normal?” Next, a reminder about the Million Bad Words. In essence, you have to revise more than you think. Then put it away. Then come back to it in three months and revise again. If you devote yourself to this cycle, when “An agent asked for my full manuscript” becomes a reality, you’ll be ready with a polished piece of work.
I find writers often have the problem of too little revision, not too much. It is possible to become completely sick of your manuscript or hack out your frustrations on it. If that’s the case, I’d try cheating on it with a new project. That spark and excitement of working on something new could easily answer the question of whether you should go back to your old manuscript at some point for another or put the old ball and chain in the drawer for good.
Let’s jump into your revision together. Revision guidance is at the heart of every one of my book editing services.
Recently, I’ve posted two things that I firmly believe are the cornerstones of how to write good fiction.
How To Write Good Fiction
Make Me Care
First, authors who are writing fiction must make me care. I need to care about character (most important) and then about their story. If I don’t care, you’re dead in the water. If you aren’t thinking about the emotional impact of your story, you aren’t going to master how to write good fiction.
Balance Action and Information
Second, writing a good book is a balance between action and exposition in writing. Too much action and we don’t hook into the character or situation. (Especially if the breakneck action is at the beginning of your novel, like if you start with a hectic chase sequence, for example, we have a really hard time figuring out what’s going on or why.) Too much information (a first chapter where your character sits in their room thinking about his life, for example) and there’s no action, no plot, no forward momentum, and the whole thing drags. The two elements must always be in balance. In times when there’s a lot of information being introduced, you must also keep your characters moving. You can’t indulge in an info-dump. In times of action, you must also work hard to keep us invested by giving us context and information (later on in the novel, once character and situation are established, this usually means emotional context, ie: interiority).
Always Include Emotion
I was at the Rutgers One-on-One Conference this past weekend, in a roundtable discussion with super agent Tina Wexler from ICM. We were talking about how to write good fiction with regard to novel beginnings and, of course, I sprouted off my “action vs. information” line. Then Tina put the missing piece together and it fit perfectly: “But it needs to have emotion, too. Emotion is the third point of that triangle.”
I made a joke at the time about really working a metaphor to death, but a lightbulb definitely went off because of her comment, and now I think I have the perfect image for my two most important tenets of writing a good book.
The Sword Of The Awesome Manuscript
If fiction is a balance of action and information, the axis of the scale, the part that holds everything else together, is emotion. Without emotion to lord over the work and to keep everything else in check, your whole manuscript falls apart. (And you do not get to hold the Sword of the Awesome Manuscript.)
We should always be in touch with your character’s emotions (especially if you are writing in third person, as that is a challenge for many) and they should be legible and resonant for readers. Whether you’re writing a scene of action or dropping information in your manuscript, keep in mind your characters’ interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) near the surface. You can even indulge in some strategic Good Telling–balanced with interiority in writing, of course. If you’ve mastered these tenets, then you’re on your way to mastering how to write good fiction.
I offer a variety of editorial services that will help you find the perfect balance between action, information, and emotion in your story.
Writing fiction a reader cares about is a huge question many writers have. This post will be a short one but it strikes at, I think, the very heart of being a good writer. What is your number one objective as a writer?
To make your reader feel.
Whenever I speak about how to write a query letter at conferences, I always have one request: Make me care. This is the same idea. I want to feel my interest piqued with the query. I want to feel something, even if it’s just a stirring of feeling or concern or nervousness or longing. Most queries fail to elicit even one feeling (other than boredom).
How to Make a Reader Care
The manuscript itself, however, has to do much more than just make a reader care (though that’s an excellent starting point, and it will set you apart from most writers). When your character — who is the focal point of our feelings and our gateway into the story — feels hurt, the reader should ache. When they fall in love, the reader should feel her heart quicken. When they think all is lost, the reader should reach for the Ben & Jerry’s. That’s when you know you’re on your way to being a good writer.
If you’re not writing fiction that manipulates your reader’s emotions and takes your audience on a journey of feelings, thoughts, and realizations, what’s the point?
How do you make your readers feel emotion? You do it through crafting a character with feelings and goals, and also by knowing your own feelings. At the VCFA Alumni Mini-Residency I attended this July in Vermont, COUNTDOWN author and master writer Deborah Wiles said the following:
Allow your character’s heart to break. How? Know thyself. Feel what you feel. Allow yourself your heartache. Share it with your character. Heal together.
What Does a Reader Care About?
As you’re writing fiction and your character encounters a thrilling roller coast of emotional ups and downs, of victories and disappointments, you must always be thinking of their emotions. How are they reacting to this event? How are they interpreting it? What is the emotional context? Where do they think they go from here? Use your character’s interiority.
More importantly, use your own emotions and thoughts as guides for what your character is going through. That will lend your writing truth, and it’s a key part of being a good writer. Pour your heart out a little bit. Always think of the character’s emotions (usually a version of your own) and the emotions you want to evoke in the reader when you’re writing about feelings.
Readers expect to pick up a book and be transported and transformed, not only to another world or time or unique point of view, but to emotional places own hearts, minds, and lives.
Writing Fiction That Elicits Emotions
Last week, I watched The Notebook for the first time, just because it was so wildly popular and I wanted to see how it was put together. (I didn’t much care for it but that’s beside the point.) Has anyone ever recommended this particular movie to you? If you’re a woman and you have girlfriends that are crazy about it, what did they say to convince you to watch?
I bet it wasn’t, “You’ll really love the dialogue” or, “You should see how the filmmakers introduce the complication of the rich fiancé.” It could just be my own experience here, but the only thing anyone ever told me about The Notebook (and this came from about ten different people) is:
“It will make you cry your face off.”*
Readers couldn’t care less about the craft and framework behind a tale when emotions are in the mix. (When you’re writing fiction, you have to care very much about it, but that’s another story.)
Emotions and Writing Good Fiction
Emotion is going to be your reader’s biggest takeaway…and their biggest expectation when they’re considering reading a book. And if you’re writing fiction effectively — if you write a book that’s not only cathartic for your character and your reader but for you, too — you will definitely give your readers a journey they won’t forget.
The penultimate workshop for this series comes from Darcy.
“So? Have you thought about it long enough yet?” The question startled me so much I dropped my spoon full of granola into my bowl. Soy milk splashed up onto my chin and the front of my sweater, and Pepper barked from where she was sitting under my chair. Peter had a habit of slipping into a room without anyone noticing. He was stealthy like that. I made a face Poppy would have called “The Evil Eye” and threw it at him.
This is a classic jarring beginning that I see a lot. Unattributed dialogue to begin is always dicey, since we don’t know the characters. And we could literally be anywhere, talking to anyone, about anything. It does nothing to ground the reader. We learn nothing about the character from her reaction, either, as she is just startled. We get the soy milk detail and the little puppy with the preppy name. We also get some attitude, but we don’t get the main character and Peter’s relationship, which is a weakness for the rest of the scene. Also, the Poppy/Pepper names are too close for me. For a second, I thought, “Wait, how does she know what the dog is thinking?” There’s so much and it’s so disorienting that I don’t even have enough bandwidth left over to focus on what the “it” in the first sentence is, which the writer is trying to set up as the source of tension.
“Woah. What’s with the Evil Eye? This is your Primary Present we’re talking about,” said Peter.
Perhaps I was a bit hasty with the Evil Eye look. I quickly tried to make it up to him.
She knows what he’s asking about, so I don’t get why she gives him the Evil Eye and then recants. The “Primary Present” line, as a result, seems like it’s for the reader’s benefit…to introduce the idea to the reader instead of aim for organic dialogue. Please also notice how old you think this character is…
“Sorry, Peter,” I said. I got up from my seat and retrieved my super special bought-it-with-my-own-money chocolate granola from the pantry. “Would you like some granola for breakfast?” I asked sweetly.
Peter laughed. “That,” he said, pointing to my Delightfully Chocolate-y granola, “is not breakfast. This is breakfast.” He grabbed a package of whole wheat bagels from the fridge and held them high like he had just caught a 30-pound salmon and was showing it off. I shrugged. He had a point. If I ran out of my chocolate granola I would probably take a whole wheat bagel instead.
We get no information about what their relationship is. As I’m reading this, with an eye trained by tens of thousands of kidlit novel beginnings, I’m thinking she’s a 14/15 y.o. snotty (and a bit manipulative) teen and he’s her obnoxious older brother, who’s your typical carbo-loading dude. Plus, why does the writer spend so much time gloating over the granola if the character would just as soon ditch it for a bagel? It told me something about the character, at least, until she was like, “But it doesn’t matter because I can do a bagel, too.” What’s the point of establishing it and then devaluing it right away? Now it is a meaningless detail.
Having settled the breakfast food question I returned to my granola while Peter poured himself a cup of coffee. “You still haven’t answered my question, Beatrix” he pointed out.
Rats. I had been hoping the Great Granola vs. Bagel debate would distract him. The fact was I had not thought long enough about my Primary Present yet. I wasn’t any closer to a decision that day than I was a month earlier and I had to come up with something quick. My deadline was just around the corner.
I’m confused as to what this Primary Present issue is. Is it just a present? Seems that way. (You never know with all the dystopian plots going around…it could be something more serious.) But, for now, I really don’t get what the big deal is. Someone is trying to do something nice for Beatrix…so why is she acting so weird and cagey about it? Those stakes are extremely low. Even saying something like “The Great Granola vs. Bagel debate,” an attempt at high stakes language, doesn’t raise stakes because we saw the debate…and it wasn’t that big a deal. Giving us a sense of why she’s avoiding it, and giving her a specific deadline (not the vague “just around the corner”) would give the writer a stronger position but I’m still not sure the premise is tense enough. Also, do a comma between “Beatrix” and the end quote in the first paragraph.
Each year for My Birthday/Christmas Peter always bought me a lot of nice presents: books, art supplies, music CD’s. He would buy them all year round and then give them to me on December 25th. That was the day we celebrated my birthday and Christmas too, of course. Those small things were all my Secondary Presents. Then there was my Primary Present. The Primary Present was always something super special. I could ask for anything I wanted as long as it could not be wrapped. Every year I tried to stump Peter and see if I could come up with something that he couldn’t pull off, but he always came through.
Now it seems like Peter is a parent figure? Still very unclear, because he acts like a macho teen boy. The presents he’s bought are vague and missed opportunities to provide character details. I’d also quibble with “music CDs”: first, you don’t need the apostrophe, second, it’s redundant, just say “CDs,” third, CDs aren’t as popular/relevant these days. Again, it sounds like what Peter does is really nice, so I have no idea why she’s avoiding the issue. It’s like me refusing a spa treatment. Really?
Last year he took me and my best friend Poppy to New York City for the day and we had high tea at Bergdorf Goodman and tried on shoes we could never possibly buy. Then we went on a horse and carriage ride through Central Park. That one was extra special because it was my tenth birthday. This year, my eleventh birthday, doesn’t seem so special on the calendar, and I’d already tried everything I could think of up to this birthday to try as a Primary Present.
Aside from two mentions now, we haven’t really seen Poppy, so is she really necessary to cram in there right now or can she be introduced with more context later? The biggest shocker, to me, was the character’s age. Her voice right now is a bit like GOSSIP GIRL meets Samantha-from-Sex-in-the-City. She’s jaded, really self-aware (a more adult trait), manipulative around men, and loves a good pair of Manolos. And I’m supposed to buy that she’s ten? Sure, maybe in the world of Toddlers and Tiaras but I read too much middle grade to really have this voice for this age ring true. And know that readers for a 10 y.o. character will be younger (since kids always read up), so an 8 y.o. from the general reading pool wouldn’t really bond with this character, I don’t think.
So here we have some voice issues, some stakes issues, some characterization issues, and some context issues. Overall, I would take another run at this beginning with clarity in mind, and, depending on the plot, age the character up to 15 or 16. It would be much easier to write to your voice instead of trying to change your voice to fit the character…here, it’s clearly a much more adult voice than the writer is aware of, I think. This is not a glowing workshop, I’m afraid, but there’s a lot to take away here, and I applaud the writer for volunteering!
ETA: Deleted the present could/couldn’t be wrapped note because I missed it! Sorry all, and thanks for your eagle eyes!
This workshop piece comes from Michele Tennant. Enjoy!
Dylan pushed off the sidewalk with his black Converse high-tops. Beneath him the wheels on his skateboard whirred. Tiny bumps on the concrete beneath sent vibrations up his legs. The only voice in his head was his own.
The Converse shoe is a “hi-top” (and they often call them Chucks…as a former punk kid/skate rat, I try to be aware of these things). The second sentence reads awkwardly. There’s a simpler way to say it, and the syntax is off. Not sure why you need to say that “The only voice in his head was his own.” I should hope so…whose else is in there? Doesn’t need explaining.
“Okay, folks you’re in for a treat,” Dylan mumbled under his breath. He mimicked the roar of a crowed stadium. “thirteen year old Dylan Davis will now be attempting the laser flip. Let’s hope he doesn’t scrape any freckles off on the pavement.”
Capitalized “Thirteen” here. When I talk about mimetic writing, I want you to be aware of what the character is doing. If he’s skating, he’s working out. The freckles/pavement line is too long for someone out of breath…
Another push and Dylan picked up speed. The crisp morning air stung his eyes making them water. Dylan breathed in the smell of damp pavement and lilac blossoms and saw a flash of red across the street. Katie Jordan had stepped off the curb. She was fresh and clean and dressed for work.
I’d put a comma between “eyes” and “water.” Good smell detail, though. We usually ignore that sense. “She was fresh and clean and dressed for work” is not something I’d imagine a 13 y.o. skate kid saying about a woman. The voice is too adult and too female. I would’ve also loved more context for who Katie is…a teacher? A neighbor? Mrs. Robinson?
She smiled and waved, and a breeze blew her flowing red skirt up just high enough for Dylan to get a glimpse of the black lace on her slip beneath. He waved back. Still following her with his eyes, he pushed off the ground again. One of the wheels struck a pebble. The board wobbled precariously causing Dylan to flail his arms as he steadied himself.
Would a 13 y.o. boy know what a slip is? This lacy peek is a bit sexy in this context, and we still don’t know who Katie is, so I don’t quite understand it yet. That description is not in voice, again, and the first sentence is overlong. I’d also use “underneath” here. We’ve got a bit of play-by-play narration going on here…you’re tracking what’s happening very closely, but I’m not sure we need all these details described so thoroughly. “Causing” is a very dry voice word, esp. for a 13 y.o. boy narrator. “Steadied” too.
He glanced back, hoping Katie hadn’t seen. Thankfully, she had bent to pick up the Sunday newspaper.
Up the street Dylan heard an engine rev.
Come on focus, he told himself. A little faster now . . . What did Jason say? Push off, jump, flip and land. Landing, that’s the part I’m worried about.
Is he just skating for the sake of skating or is there something coming up that he’s practicing for? A competition? The Impress The Older Lady Olympics? You could frame what he’s doing and why to give us more stakes for this practice session. “Thankfully” not in voice here. Overall, I’m really not getting a 13 y.o. boy sense from the prose. Try reading it aloud. Really get into your boy’s character.
A black SUV sped past Dylan. He turned to see it bump up over the curb and onto the sidewalk. There stood Katie, hand in her open mailbox, frozen, her eyes wide.
We don’t really get the danger in this description. Is it weaving? Does it narrowly miss him? One moment it “sped,” the next moment it is on a rampage. You could build up this moment more so that it’s not a jarring surprise to the reader, who wasn’t expecting this. It’s an issue of tone.
The newspaper dropped from Katie’s fingertips. Dylan opened his mouth to warn her, as he did the skateboard stopped abruptly. A jolt shuddered through Dylan’s body. He was propelled forward like a test dummy. The world flew past; Katie’s frightened face, the SUV, houses, trees, picket fence, sidewalk, sky.
The second sentence is clunky and an awkward transition. The test dummy image is a bit of a cliché. Like the snatches of images…they’re mimetic of what’s going on.
Dylan found himself on his back in the damp concrete culvert. All he could hear was the whoosh, whoosh, whooshing of the blood rushing through his veins. His body felt disconnected, numb and cold and a salty, metallic taste filled his mouth. He spit a mixture of blood and saliva onto the pavement beside him.
“Found himself” is a rather mild way of putting it. I’d switch out something with more impact. (Get it? Because he just hit the ground?) These sentences are a bit dry for something so intense. The syntax of “numb and cold and a salty” is off to me. Also, there has been no interiority in terms of his thoughts. Have your character react to what’s going on…a lot has just happened…where’s his head in all this?!
Taking a deep breath, Dylan struggled to lift his right arm. It wouldn’t budge. With his left elbow he managed to army crawled up the muddy, moss covered concrete to the sidewalk. There on the blacktop lay Katie’s mangled body. Her arms and legs stuck out at odd angles and a puddle that matched her skirt was slowly spreading around her. A dull hum filled his ears. It was as if someone had pushed the mute button for the whole planet.
Could use more thoughts. Like the last image very much. If we knew more about his relationship (or lack thereof) with Katie, we would care a lot more when she gets whalloped. It’s all about context. This might be a bit graphic, depending on the rest of the story, for MG. Also, good job starting right off with some action!