Tag Archives: novels

Editing Tips And Tools: Tension

Some years ago, in an article about creating tension in fiction, I quoted agent and writing instructor Donald Maass on the subject:

Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)

Saying every page needs tension is one thing. Actually pulling it off is another.

I suggest tension is something writers should aim for but not worry about until the editing process. When a first draft is complete, it remains first, not last. Honestly, I’m a little shocked when I hear some self-publishing authors talking about their third edit, as if they have really outdone themselves by going over their manuscript so often.

In truth, a traditionally published author faces multiple editing / proofreading facets of the publishing process after they turn their completed manuscript in to the publisher. Why should self-published works do less? In other words, I advocate multiple edits or revisions, much of which an author can do as part of a self-editing process. Proof reading might be something worth handing over to someone else, because no matter how carefully we look over our work, we can still miss errors we will see as soon as the book is in print.

But back to tension.

How do we know if our book has the requisite “tension on every page”? This may seem simplistic, but I suggest looking for tension. In other words, do an entire edit with one thing in mind: is there tension in this scene?

Note, I said “scene.” I find searching for tension on every page of a manuscript rather hard. It’s hard to stay in the story and ask yourself if there’s tension because, well, you are no longer in the story, so how do you know?

Instead, by looking at scenes instead of pages, evaluating the level of tension is much easier.

What’s a scene? One writing instructor likens novel scenes to scenes in a play. Of course novels have the advantage of also showing a characters internal reactions to the actions and speech taking place on stage. The unit—both the action, dialogue, and internal discourse—together make up a scene.

You can think of a scene ending when the curtain would come down, or when the stage crew comes out to put in new scenery or new props. You can think of a scene as the end of one group of interacting with each other or the end of one day or the end of a particular activity or effort to accomplish something.

And believe me, looking for scenes, as the corollary, writing in scenes, becomes easier the more an author does it.

But here’s the secret in self-editing for tension: after identifying a scene, the author must judge whether or not there was tension.

Tension does not always mean conflict. Certainly when conflict occurs, there should be tension. But there are other ways of creating tension. For example, there can be romantic tension in which a character feels, well, romantic, and wants to move forward but may choose for his own reason (maybe he’s engaged to someone else), to refrain. In this case, the tension is less because of the romance and more because of the struggle he has with his two desires.

Basically tension comes from any type of struggle. Sometimes the struggle is external and those seem easy to identify. But they need to be genuine struggles. Too many superhero movies lack tension because there is no question about the outcome. The superhero will come out on top because, you know, superpower. That’s why superhero authors often create supervillains to confront the heroes—they want to make the struggle credible. They want to open the possibility in the viewer’s mind that the hero might lose.

Fiction needs genuine and credible struggles.

Another type of conflict that creates tension is not against evil but against better. Characters may struggle knowing whether they should do Good Thing A or Good Thing B. An example would be the character who must decide whether to save the drowning boy or to call 9-1-1 for the gunman holding a hostage. Both are needed, but he can’t do both. What should he do? Is there a third option?

Struggles don’t have to be this dramatic, but that have to matter. What a character needs to decide should hold consequences. If the result of Decision A is . . . life goes on, and the result of Decision B is . . . life gets better, there really is no tension when the character struggles to decide. I mean, the results are pretty obvious so the tension is pretty low.

All that to say, writers need to evaluate their own scenes based on whether the tension is high or low.

I’ve created a simple chart in which I write a short scene description, identify what the character wants, and then rate the tension on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being highest.

Another thing that helps me: if I’m bored, the reader will be too.

And this: if I don’t know where the scene ends and starts, it probably needs work.

In the end, I have a picture of what I believe to be true about the level of tension in my novel, so I can easily see which sections need more work.

It’s not full-proof. We are evaluating our own work, after all, so we can wink at the parts that have low tension without realizing we are. But taking this close look and asking questions about the tension level will most likely help us eliminate the worst, lowest points of tension, and the book is bound to be better for it.

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Picking Up The Pace, Revisited

According to Sol Stein in Stein On Writing, one of the most common reasons manuscripts are rejected is because of a slow pace.

I’ve read slow-paced books before. The truth is, they can be boring.

According to Stein, there are a number of techniques writers can use to keep the pace of a novel or non-fiction work (including blog articles) moving at a healthy clip.

First, short sentences move the pace along. Second, short paragraphs do the same. Finally, short sentences combined with short paragraphs create the fastest pace of all.

To achieve these shorts, first tighten sentence structure (get rid of words like even or just, for example) and reduce redundancy. Second, judicially shorten sentences and paragraphs in action scenes.

I say “judicially” because a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can become exhausting … and equally boring. Varied sentence structure is by far more interesting than one subject/verb/object sentence after another.

Besides regulating sentence and paragraph length, a writer can control pace by skipping steps, or condensing action. For example, suppose a character decides to bake a cake. Including all the steps would look something like this.

Duncan Hines Moist Delux German Chocolate Cake

    Martha went to the pantry and picked out the cake mix she wanted — German chocolate. She flipped to the back of the box and checked the list of ingredients. Off she went to the refrigerator, pulled out the egg carton, and selected three eggs. Next she turned on the oven, setting the temperature to the required 350 degrees. After retrieving her measuring cup, cake pan, and mixing bowl from the cupboard, she opened the box.

Nothing is wrong with this paragraph. The writing is clear, the sentences are varied, the verbs are strong. But so far the reader hasn’t learned anything. Martha is going to bake a cake — we got that. But five sentences later, she still hasn’t done it. In other words, this scene can be compressed in a sentence or two.

    Martha settled on German chocolate cake for dessert and prepped for her first baking project in a year. When everything was ready, she whipped the ingredients together and popped the mixture into the oven as if she’d been baking cakes for a living.

In those two sentences, Martha not only gets the cake in the oven, we have a chance to learn something more about her in the process. We’re letting the reader imagine the particulars of baking the cake. As a result of the faster pace, we are able to make the scene do double duty.

Another technique to increase pace is to leave a scene out. The old time movies used this technique, not for the sake of pace, but to adhere to a standard of modesty when a couple would enter a bedroom and close the door. The intimate scene was left to the viewers’ imagination. The next scene in the film, then, would show the wife in the morning helping her husband with his tie, for example, or heading to the kitchen in her robe and slippers to start breakfast.

For the sake of pace, scenes in novels can be left out in the same way. Take a story about an innocent man going to prison. The courtroom scene isn’t necessary because the conflict will center on what the prisoner must endure behind bars. Hence, for the sake of pace, the court appearances simply are not present. The police come to the protagonist’s house, and in the next scene, he’s being strip searched in a federal penitentiary.

Jump-cutting, borrowed from film-making, is a similar technique, but instead of taking out a scene, the transitional action is omitted. Here’s how that would work.

A pastor is going to visit an accident victim in the hospital. He tells his secretary where he’ll be and heads for the door. When using the jump-cut, the author includes an extra line between text to indicate something has been left out or time has passed. In this example scenario, the next action is the pastor stepping into the hospital room with a Bible in hand. The transition—how he got from his office to the hospital room—is left out.

Whichever techniques an author uses, the important thing to remember is that these devices should serve the story. Jump-cuts for the sake of jump-cuts don’t move the story forward, and a fast pace for the sake of a fast pace can lose readers.

If, however, the story is dragging or critique partners are falling asleep, it might be time to experiment a little with some ways to pick up the pace. 😉

This post, sans some editorial changes, first appeared at Rewrite, Reword, Reword in June 2011.

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Creating Tension

Agent and writing instructor Donald Maass believes in creating tension on every page of a novel. In fact, he goes so far as to say that this one factor can be the difference between a novelist breaking out, or not.

Without a doubt the most common flaw I see in manuscripts from beginners and midcareer novelists alike is the failure to invest every page of a novel with tension. Low tension equals low interest. High tension equals high interest. The ratio is mathematic, the result positive, so why do so many writers believe they can ignore the equation? (Writing the Breakout Novel, p. 174)

breakoutnovel-coverI’m less inclined to think that writers are purposefully ignoring the concept. Rather, some may not have learned they need tension on every page and some may believe they have it simply because the story–every page–interests them.

Tension goes beyond interest, however. Tension drives a story forward and makes a reader want to know what will happen next. But how exactly do you create tension on every page? Donald Maass gives several suggestions.

Primarily tension comes from conflict, so Maass advises novelists to build a novel in scenes. “A well-constructed scene has a mini-arc of its own: a beginning, rise and climax or reversal at the end” (ibid. p. 174).

He also suggests eliminating the “aftermath” scene, sometimes referred to as the sequel, in which the protagonist re-groups and decides what to do next. Rather, a fairly common practice in vogue today is to use the “jump cut,” moving from the end of one set of complicating circumstances to the beginning of the next.

In addition, Maass gives a valuable suggestion about exposition–the “self-talk” which shows the reader the inner workings of a character. If the character’s thoughts are nothing more than a rehash of what has happened, there’s little tension. Rather than showing the protagonist trapped in a dilemma, struggling to resolve his situation, he may instead appear to wallow in indecision and self-pity. Not only is there low tension, but the character may come across as whiny. It is better to leave out internal monologue that doesn’t create tension.

In my own reading and in a spate of superhero movies, I’ve discovered that tension sags when an event is predictable. Even the most action-packed scenes can feel boring when a reader or viewer knows the outcome ahead of time. Tension, then, is created by an unknown outcome.

It’s also created by the personal. If something deadly is about to happen to an unknown character, the tension is seriously reduced. Even our news outlets have learned this fact. An anonymous child goes missing, and people sadly shake their heads. A face is put to that child, with the story about her life, her friends, her interests, and suddenly the public cares deeply what happens to her.

In the same way, when writers put a face to a character, readers’ interest increases.

elevator-200538-mThe conflict a novelist creates for his character, however, must be believable. A businessman on his lunch break accidentally steps into into an elevator shaft that the maintenance worker accidentally left exposed, but he breaks his fall because he happened to be carrying his dry cleaning. Well . . . not so believable. When events stretch beyond the point of credibility, readers may lose interest.

You’ll notice in that scenario above there were also a number of accidentals. Tension needs the unavoidable, not the happenstance. When a drunk leaves a bar and climbs into his car, readers know that danger is approaching. Whatever happens to that driver should be caused by his being behind the wheel in an inebriated state. He might cause an accident, get stopped by the police, even make it home only to have his wife react negatively. Whatever happens to him has been completely and properly motivated and will therefore seem to the reader as unavoidable.

Finally, to create tension, the events a writer takes her character through must be urgent–they should matter. Perhaps the hero is faced with a decision to go to a party or not go to a party. The situation won’t have tension unless something is at stake.

Perhaps the woman he’s in love with will be at that party, but she has a new boyfriend, so he must decide if the pleasure of seeing her outweighs the sorrow of seeing her with her boyfriend. That’s better, but if he has no chance of winning her back, the tension is still low. There’s not enough at stake.

Have you read through your manuscript looking for tension on every page? It’s a great exercise, and perhaps a must revision step before sending that baby out into the world.

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Who Hooked You And How?

466523_jamaican_fisher_manLast week we looked at the opening paragraphs of ten novels to see which hooked readers most often. I find these exercise informative. What was it that grabbed readers’ attention and why?

The poll results are in. Only one vote separated our top two entries.

In the top slot was Choice B
I never believed in ghosts.

Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.

In second place was Choice C:
Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.

Impossible.

She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?

Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne.

And now the big reveal: who are these authors and from what books did these openings come?

Choice A Storm by Evan Angler
Choice B Fathom by Merrie Destefano
Choice C Prophet by R. J. Larson
Choice D Cracks in the Ice by Deanna Klingel
Choice E Crosswind by Steve Rzasa
Choice F Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard
Choice G The Constant Tower by Carole McDonnell
Choice H Soul’s Gate by James Rubart
Choice I The New Recruit by Jill Williamson
Choice J Beckon by Tom Pawlik

Here are my general observations about openings that hook:

The ones that attracted the most readers contained surprise or the unexpected–warm snow, seeing a ghost.

They also created tension. The middle of a summer night, wind scratching tree branches against the window, and the protagonist starts awake. The tension is palatable. Perhaps less so, but still present is the tension created by the smeared ash “like menacing shadows.”

The openings that hook also created a question, whether spoken or unspoken. Why would a ghost visit a twelve-year-old? What was burning?

Another element that these openings share is evocative language. In Fathom: “… the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away.” And “some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.”

In Prophet: “Tarnished snow” and “mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square.”

The final element I notice in the top attention-getting entries is that they connect the reader with a character. Fathom does this in part because of the first person point of view. The reader is right with the character from the beginning, feeling what she feels, experiencing the same startling event she experienced.

Prophet creates a connection with the character through description and her actions. She’s observant, curious, unnerved, concerned. Her questioning draws the reader in to question with her.

I think it’s fair to say that the other openings shared some of these same elements–but perhaps not all. They may have included things these top two did not.

In truth, there is no sure-fire formula for an intriguing opening that will hook readers, but I don’t think you can go wrong if you surprise your audience, create tension and questions with evocative language while introducing them to an interesting character.

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Are You Hooked?

1085595_fish_bait_1Some years ago, I conducted a poll over at A Christian Worldview of Fiction to see what readers liked about the openings of several recently published books. It was a fun way of seeing what people are looking for in their openings.

Writers who have gone to conferences or read instruction books know the first few paragraphs create the all important “hook” to capture readers’ interest. Consequently, spending a little time reading and reacting to a variety of openings can be instructive. So I thought it was time to re-create that poll with a different set of books.

Without giving you book titles, genres, or authors, I’ll post the openings of a few books released either this year or last and let you vote on the ones that captured your interest. I’ll make it multiple choice so that you can choose more than one answer if several (or all) hook you. Then next week I’ll reveal the titles and authors.

The real help, however, will be from those who comment, telling why one and not another opening grabbed their attention.

So here we are, the first 50-75 words, in no special order:

Choice A – The door to the house was closed and locked and guarded by two men wearing uniforms unlike any Connor had ever seen. They were quiet. They held rifles and wore helmets that shadowed their faces. They stared out and didn’t move.

Connor watched from the yard next door, dark under the curtain of a hot September night. The town around him was still, suspended in the thick, stifling air, and he crept through it silently.

Choice B – I never believed in ghosts.

Until I saw one, face to face, when I was twelve.

It was the middle of the summer, one of those nights when the wind scratched tree branches against my window and the Pacific roared so loud I thought it was going to sweep my away. Something startled me awake, some shifting of our house, beam against beam, old wood crying out in the damp sea breeze.

Choice C – Tarnished snow sifted through the air, clinging to Ela Roch’s skin the instant she stepped outside. Warm snow.

Impossible.

She rubbed at the flakes on her bare forearm and watched them smear across her brown flesh like menacing shadows. Ashes. What was burning?

Unnerved, Ela scanned the plain mud-plastered stone houses honeycombed around the wide public square. Houses built one atop another within a vast, irregular, protective curtain wall, sheltering the city of Parne.

Choice D Dear Diary,

All I want is to be in charge of my own life and ice skate. Is that so much to ask? I mean I am fourteen. I think I can be in charge of something. It just isn’t fair. All I wan to do is ice skate. Sometimes things happen that have nothing to do with me, but they change things in my life. I don’t think that’s fair.

Choice E – Troy could finally relax.

His Maledore Vireo biplane dipped just under the clouds. It was still dark this early in the morning. The sky was a deep blue, and his only illumination was that given by the moon. It was plenty, though, to shed light on his gauges and instruments. The flash steam engine of his biplane was loud enough to reassure him it was properly working.

Choice F – The pine trees mocked his youth, their thin, green fingers fretting in the wind. If he didn’t move fast, they would betray him—he just knew it—and the deer would get away. . . again. Arvel wiped his brow, stole across an expanse of dead pine needles, and crouched behind a bush strangled by bindweek and its poisonous red berries.

Holding his breath, he nocked an arrow.

Three deer chewed and sniffed.

Choice G – Now my prince, in my former rendition, I spoke of Ephan’s deeds. Then you asked me to tell the tale again, and this time to tell you Psal’s story. I will play my part. But you must play your part as well. For you it is given the task of forgetting all you have heard of the previous tale and to keep your heart and mind on Psal. Can you do this?

Choice H – Reece Roth Spun at the sound–a dull scrape like log on log. But there was nothing behind him except a small pile of driftwood worn white by years of ocean rain and wind. A shadow flitted in the corner of his eye, but as he turned farther to his left, the darkness vanished.

His heart pumped faster as he took another quarter turn to complete the circle.

Choice I – What can I say? I’m a moron.

I knew better than to play ball in King Coat’s territory. Maybe I was looking for a fight, wanting to blow off steam after my “talk” with Principal McKaffey.

But there we were, me and three guys from the public school, playing two on two on the court in Alameda Park. It was around 2:20. The elementary schools hadn’t let out yet.

Choice J – The last time he saw his father alive, Jackson David Kendrick was only nine years old.

The gray light of dawn was seeping in between his bedroom curtains when Jack woke to find him standing in the doorway. Dr. David Kendrick was a willowy, spectacled anthropologist at the University of Chicago.

By the way, if you think you know who the author is, feel free to leave a comment and give us your guess. However, if you’ve read the book and actually KNOW who the author is, please limit your comment to a hint but don’t spoil the chance others have of guessing.

Remember, vote for all the beginnings that hooked you. The poll will remain open for a week.

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Five Fiction Killers

Reading_Young_manI’ve read any number of lists about writing fiction from editors, writers, and agents, all designed to give fiction writers help. Some enumerate story essentials, others, ways to improve, what agents look for, or story mistakes. I decided it’s time I make my own list–my “story killers.” The elements below are things that induce me to put a book down, perhaps never to pick it up again. Or worse–perhaps never to pick up a book by that same author ever again.

Of course there is some subjectivity in such list. Some readers care more about plot than others do. Some care more about character. Good stories, however, need to be a blend of both, in the right way. I think you’ll find the “killers” on my list reflect this blend.

1) Characters that don’t want anything. Instead, the story happens to the protagonist, and he merely reacts. Even when the action seems fast-paced and suspenseful, I remain rather ho-hum because I’m not cheering the character on to achieve anything. All the activity seems designed merely to keep the character alive so he can do other things to keep himself alive. Survival, without a plan to end the cycle, simply doesn’t make a compelling story as far as I’m concerned.

paper_cutout_character2) Characters that are flat. This point applies to minor characters as well as the main ones. Writers have several euphemisms for this kind of character–two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out, stereotypical. The point is, they lack originality and, therefore, the feel of a real person. No individual is actually like any other. When a character in a novel acts just like a “typical” barkeep or hooker or preacher or cop . . . in fact like a typical anyone, there is some stereotyping going on.

The other way to flatten a character is to make her non-descript. She is simply “a woman” or “a secretary” or “a waitress.” There’s nothing particular about her.

Some writers think that giving a character a particular or unique look is sufficient. However, characters become memorable by what they do more than by how they look.

A college professor with tats covering his arms and neck might seem unique, but if he behaves like any other college professor, then he will soon fade into the background. If he has tats and never writes anything using capital letters, now he’s acting out of character for a college professor.

The reader might start to wonder if his students like him more or if they’ll think he’s incompetent. They might wonder how he keeps his job. In other words, there’s been some complexity introduced, some conflict. And yet this character doesn’t need to become major. He can simply be interesting in his minor role.

3) Unimaginative prose. Rather than varying structure, each sentence is simple, starting with “He.” Or adjectives are pedantic–long arms, long beard, long cord–and verbs are lackluster. Everyone walks, sees, turns. These verbs, of course, aren’t “incorrect,” but they are dull. They don’t create an image for the reader or paint a unique scene.

I recently read a book that compared a bald head to a cue ball. This analogy was an attempt to make the prose interesting, but there were two problems with it. First, it’s such a common comparison it can almost be considered a cliché. But also, this was a work of speculative fiction and nothing in the story made me think these people would know what a cue ball was.

The point is, comparisons can liven up unimaginative prose, if they are done well. The comparison needs to give the reader a fresh perspective and it needs to be consistent with the viewpoint character’s thinking.

4) Conflict that is too easily resolved. Characters need to struggle and strive. They need to work hard to overcome. If obstacles block their goals but are easily removed, the struggle doesn’t seem like much of a struggle. Whatever they win doesn’t seem as if it’s been earned. When a character beats any foe, overcomes any problem, soon there’s little tension when the next hurdle looms ahead of the character. The reader already knows this too will be brushed away in a page or two, with little or no lasting effects.

5) A lack of emotional response. Characters that live through horrific things ought to feel something or ought to make a conscious effort to shut off their emotions to the awfulness. If they act the same after witnessing a murder or escaping death as they did before the event, the story begins to feel cartoonish and the characters, more like caractures.

Along those lines, a character running for her life should have more thoughts about how she can escape than about whether or not the love interest she’s with will kiss her or not. Seriously. I’ve read books that interrupt the tension of an escape for an injection of sexual tension–at least that’s what I imagine the author was going for.

This tension-on-tension is bound to water down one or the other. They both won’t have the same impact they’d have if they were introduced separately.

Plus, it doesn’t seem plausible to me. When the danger is over, yes, then the character might feel grateful to the love interest or so relieved or thankful, that a “moment” would be logical and appropriate.

But with gun-totting criminals behind and the edge of the roof ahead, I don’t see the female protagonist logically thinking, My, look at his broad shoulders. That sort of line will ineitable induce from me . . . well, 🙄

Along with a reason to put that book down.

What “killers” would you add?

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Get It All Down


If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is a great motivator for us writers to turn off the editing side of our brains and write. Rough drafts, after all, are supposed to be rough.

The problem is, novices think the first thing onto the screen is brilliant and a finished product. On the other hands, those of us further along the writing process tend to think we have to polish and perfect scene one before we can progress to scene two.

Years ago I was in a critique group with a writer (actually more than one) whose desire for perfection froze her. She couldn’t get past the problems of her previous novel and move on to her second. She endlessly fiddled and tweaked and rewrote and could not move on. Nothing was good enough. Nothing was perfect.

The truth is, nothing we write ever will be perfect. There is always something more we could do to make the story stronger or the character deeper or the theme more intricately woven into the plot.

It’s a hard truth for those of us who want our books to be our best. It’s such a hard truth that it ends up paralyzing too many good writers.

Enter a contest, of sorts, that pushes writers to produce volume, not quality, and suddenly stories are taking shape and frozen writers and pouring out pages.

But do we have to wait for November to experience this rush of creativity? I don’t think so. What we need to do is to commit first to getting the story down. Then we need to commit to going back and polishing those pages until they shine.

I don’t want to slide by the months when a story is gestating. I think that’s also a necessary step. Unlike children, however, stories don’t have a set amount of time they need to develop. And writers can take some steps to move the process along.

The “move along” activities are sometimes referred to as pre-writing. They might include research, writing character sketches, filling out character charts, or doing the early steps of a process like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method.

For me, my first pre-writing activity was to make a map of the fantasy world I was envisioning. As I worked, story elements suggested themselves, and I began to make notes. Eventually I worked on an outline, and then I was off.

In those early days of my writing career, I was operating with that false idea that I’d get the story right, with some minor tweaking, as soon as I transcribed my handwriting into my computer. (Yes, I still write my rough drafts in long hand, even for short stories, but that’s just me.)

The bliss of that ignorance was that I plowed forward and got the story down. As I learned more about writing, I found a disturbing truth emerge: getting the story down was becoming harder. I felt less and less willing to write what I knew was drivel and keep going. This scene was wrong, that character motivation was weak, this plot point was predictable. I wanted to get it all right that first time.

I’d been around writing circles long enough to know the importance of getting the story down, and yet at one point I was forcing myself to move on. I’d already torn up one opening and started over. I’d gone back and added in a scene I was pretty sure would make things better. But I was still unhappy, still stalled.

Until I made myself write. Without going back. Without rendering a judgment on what went on before.

This act of getting the story out may be the very best thing that NaNoWriMo does for novelists — even ones like me who don’t play. The emphasis on volume serves as a reminder that at some point we all have to sit down and release the words, which will add up to pages, then chapters, and one day a completed story, rough though it may be. After all, a rough story is a lot easier to pretty up than a non-existent one!

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How To Start A Novel

Over the past few years, I’ve discovered some excellent writers whose novels, from my perspective, would be stronger if the story structure were stronger.

Many writers may believe that their story hangs on the plot sequence. Hence they work hard to develop an opening scene of intrigue or danger that will draw readers in. Certainly the opening to a novel is important, but for readers to care about the intrigue or danger, they must care about the characters involved.

For example, I watched part of a TV show the other night that opened with an off-duty policeman chasing a man who apparently had been in the midst of committing a crime. During the chase, the perpetrator was hit by a car and died.

Did this scene increase my interest? Draw me into the story? Somewhat. Not because of the virtually unknown man who died but because of the ramifications it held for the police officer, one of the show’s stars.

So how should a novelist begin a story? Above all else, he should conceive of a character that has something she wants or needs. This character’s longing must become striving.

A good story does not happen to a character. The character initiates events in an attempt to satisfy the want or need that drives him.

Often this driving desire does not surface immediately, but the writer must know what this character desire is. The opening scene may present a more transient, less significant want or need, then as the story unfolds the character’s outer and inner struggles will crystallize the deeper desire.

Not only must the writer begin with a character in want, he must also conceive of an antagonist who will serve as a foil. This character is not necessarily an opponent. He might be a business partner who holds a different vision from the protagonist or a homeless man who initiates guilty feelings every time he pushes his cart down the street.

The point is, when beginning a story, knowing who will be the chief character to throw up roadblocks, difficulties, questions, doubts, is just as important as knowing what the main character wants. These two are the twin cornerstones of story structure.

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