Category Archives: Plot Development

A Lesson in First Pages!

A story hook is like strange headlights coming at you out of the dark on a lonely road. What lies ahead?

A story hook is like those headlights coming at you. What lies ahead?

I often get good posts from Writer Unboxed, and today’s example is a recurring feature of the site called “Flog a Pro.” Monthly contributor Ray Rhamey invites readers to vote the first page of a current bestseller up or down: would you turn the page?

I’m sharing the most recent candidate because it speaks with particular eloquence to an issue I’ve been encountering in the writing groups I haunt. Although I understand the reasons a few commenters voted no (e.g., snarky narrator, too much alliteration), I’d vote “yes” on this sample for one simple reason: it has a hook.

Wait! Doesn’t everybody know that the first page, or at least the first chapter, of a novel has to have a hook?

Apparently not.

Evidence that not everyone understands this basic principle of story-telling comes not just from recent writing-group conversations but also from a set of contest entries I recently judged. Novel after novel opened with “introductions” to plain-vanilla characters going about their daily business or mundane scene-setting, or, all too often, gobs of backstory about people I have no reason to care about.

A scintillating voice or a rapier sense of humor can carry me for a few such pages, but even then, by the end of the first chapter, I have to have someone to worry about, something really perplexing to wonder over, some hint of a serious conflict that will drive the book. Those are “hooks.”

When I ask, “But where is the story going? What is this character’s problem, goal, frustration?”, and of course, the generic but important, “Why should I care?”, the (often indignant) response will be

“Oh, that will come in Chapter Two.”

or

“The reader will see that develop over the course of the book.”

Um, the reader won’t see anything develop over the course of the book because she won’t read it. She won’t get to Chapter Two.

Books leading to a door in a brick wall

A hook points to the door in the wall. and says, “Come through!”

From occasional comments I’ve received, I think it’s possible that this defense arises because the writers in question are producing LITERATURE. People who read LITERATURE don’t need bombs going off on page one. They will patiently wait for a story to develop. They’ll slog through long, tedious details because they know that only simpletons require things to actually happen. Endless observations of people tying their shoelaces—portraying the cosmic meaning in such minutiae—that’s what LITERATURE is all about.

Excuse me. I read LITERATURE, too. And the LITERARY writers who get read know that story isn’t necessarily about bombs going off. In fact, it’s usually not the bombs that matter.It’s what they do to the people they blow up.

Story is built on heart-wracking conflict, on blistering emotion, on goals set and surrendered and recovered, on needs. STORY transcends genre.

And story begins on page one.

 

 

 

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Why I don’t use Beta Readers #WriterWednesday #AmWriting

Here’s a post that challenges received wisdom on beta readers from D. E. Haggerty. What do you think?

D.E. Haggerty

As many of you know, I’ve just finished the draft of my latest novel (insert shameless plug for new novel here). Now that the manuscript is off to the editor, it should be time to send the ARC to beta readers. Notice me rushing off to do that? No? That’s because I no longer use beta readers. Oh, the shame! Who the hell do I think I am not using beta readers?!?

I could go into a long background story of all the mistakes I’ve made with beta readers and even the heartbreaking story of losing a good friend over it all, but I’m just going to get to the heart of the matter.

Beta Reader _1

Reasons I don’t use Beta Readers:

Timing. In order to plan my book marketing properly, there is a two-month gap between the time I finish the novel and it goes to the editor…

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Against Outlines

Do you outline your novels? Why or why not?

Eye of digits

Since my title is “Against Outlines,” you may suspect I’m going to argue against them.

Maybe, though, I’m not vehemently against outlines for writing novels.

The outlines you need!

In my brief career as a romance novelist, outlines were essential.

After all, these books were short, about 55,000 words, and I had to produce them in a matter of months. Writing one had to be like running a mini-marathon.

Marathon runners

You were given a route and a clear finish line, and you had to run the same route as everybody else. You could throw in a leap or a flourish here and there—in fact, you were encouraged to, as long as you didn’t stumble off course or onto the sidewalk. No characters allowed to stop and drift into quirky shops or down unmarked alleys. Eyes on the prize!

Lest romance writers rightly take offense, let me be clear. Setting off on and finishing this course is no snap.

Free runners sport concept illustration

Planning at this level takes enormous discipline. Directing each scene so that each actor arrives at the mark for the scene to follow requires a well-honed sense of character motive and of how dialogue and action can deliver on that motive. And those flourishes: as I learned, to carve out a lane for yourself in the genre with all those thousands of others huffing along beside you, to be you without veering off course: that takes a brand of genius. Believe me, I was there. I know.

Outlines make such a demanding fictional endeavor doable. Each scene can be carefully slotted into the overall course. Too many talky scenes in a row? The outline will flog you back on pace. Three-quarters there? Do you have enough action to fill those last pages? The outline knows.

And of course, there’s that one thing we all need that outlines amply provide: a story arc. River in KentuckySomething’s going to change before the end of the story. You can’t write your final outline entry without knowing what that something is.

But. . .

“No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.”

That’s what a dear late colleague of mine used to say. That “surprise for the writer” is what an outline trades away.

Writing without an outline is more like setting out on a road trip than a marathon. Whimsical road Depositphotos_17645691_s-2015

You do have a destination. You can see it, a glow on the horizon. But you’re not a hundred percent sure yet what’s giving off that glow.

So off you go. Maybe you have a map, but it offers you many forks, and you can’t even tell which one is shortest, let alone which one you’ll most enjoy. Along each fork you spot little side trips, where you park for a bit and wander to see what’s there. You find your characters in those quirky shops, down those murky alleys, picking up memories, fears, loves, trying them out like costumes to see what new selves they reveal.

You didn’t know your character loves French movies even though he doesn’t understand any French, or that she loves cats even though they make her sneeze. Or that she fell out of a tree and nearly died when she was ten, did you? Oh! That explains her anger at the father who didn’t catch her; now you discover her struggles with trust.

Without an outline, you don’t tell characters what to do. You follow them and discover what they do.

It’s not like you tag along blindly. If they get too wild, you may abandon them, leave them to their own stories . . . though you may come back one day just to see where they ended up.

Without an outline, there’s a sense in which the story writes itself.

haunting road Depositphotos_23990435_s-2015Dangerous? Oh, my lord, yes. It takes much longer. It tempts complication, which can be a storyteller’s bane.

But it can save you grief as well. My one great, sad lesson from my Failed Novel was that once you set your thinly known characters loose in the world, talking to each other and finding unexpected doors to open, they create themselves—excuse the cliché: they take on a life of their own. And once that starts to happen, you must listen. The marathon route says turn right here; they say, “No, we don’t like that direction.”

Boss characters you’ve found, not made, and they’ll punish you.

So maybe we need a middle ground. A road trip into delight and surprise for the writer-on-deadline who must get to that glow this week, not next year?

Magic book

What strategies do you use to keep your novel on track without giving up the chance for surprise?

 

 

 

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Top 5 Lessons From Bad Writer

This post by Allison Maruska is HILARIOUS! And too spot on. Note to self: watch out for Bad Writer when she shows up on your computer. Don’t know how she gets there, but she’s pretty good at sneaking in!

Allison Maruska

I have an alter-ego on Twitter. Her name is Bad Writer.

BW page

She doesn’t have a million followers or viral tweets or anything like that. She exists merely to be the public face of my sarcastic side. And since I talk to writers a lot on Twitter, she focuses on writing.

Since her creation in July, she has tweeted 643 times, according to that screenshot. That’s a lot of bad advice being doled out. Some of those are quoted Retweets from Nat Russo’s #HorribleWritingTips, Sam Sykes’ joke tweets, Tweeps who reply, and other parody accounts, but most are her own content based on things that I read she reads. Sometimes, the content overlaps a little. I thought we could use those instances for learning. And since Bad Writer says the opposite of what a writer should do, the lessons will be actual constructive things with her non-examples.

Lesson 1: Stop abusing…

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Terrific Piece on Working with Critique Groups!

So many books!

This is one of the most thoughtful pieces I’ve read about the critique group process, from guest blogger Kathryn Craft posting at Writers in the Storm. It rings true for me on so many levels.

Are you in a critique group? Is Kathryn speaking to/for you?

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Great New Post from Chuck Wendig (a writer you want to meet if you haven’t)

KnowledgeI’m back from knee surgery and scanning my blogs. Not surprisingly, here’s a keeper. Chuck is a lively writer, so there may be some bad words. Well worth it. Here he tells us what I had to learn the hard way; that character, not plot, creates story. My favorite line from this piece–“Plot is the thing that characters poop.”

 

I learned this in My Failed Novel (here’s one of several posts on How Not to Write a Failed Novel, all of which I’m sure will help you become the Next Big Thing). I forced my characters to do something they most certainly did not want to do. The single good thing about that moment was that I had clearly created characters with lives of their own. I shoved them into action, and they rebelled, and a whole lot of important reviewers saw them rebelling. And said so in the highest venues. The End.

Sad Editing!

Chuck says “give your characters something to do.” I’d add that, if they have come to life, often what they do will not be what just anyone would do. It will often be a choice specific to them, to who they have become as you watched them and listened to them. Not all your readers will admire their choices. But those choices—motivated, yes, by who they are and the context, but at the same time personal, heartfelt, unique—will trigger the next cascade of actions that we think of as plot. So don’t settle for what the latest TV hero would have done. Set loose a character with the voice to tell you what SHE is going to do. Then get out of her way. Plot will be what ensues.

Book open to the stars

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Maybe You Don’t Need that Book on Writing After All . . .

Editing tips for writers. . . If you have a computer and can check out Editing 101 at Chris the Story Reading Ape’s blog. Susan Uttendorfsky of Adirondack Editing provides a host of FREE lessons on everything from “Removing Filter Words” (a must-read) to when to use “which” or “that.” I’ve found Susan’s posts to be accurate, clear, and friendly. Check them out!

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