Where to Start (Part 3)


A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Getting Down To It.

So maybe you’ve tried writing a few short stories. Or you’ve started a novel, cranked out a few pages or maybe a few chapters, but you’ve found the process… difficult. A bit daunting. Overwhelming. So let’s boil the process down to the bare bones — and perhaps get a better feel of what writing starting a novel is all about. So, for the moment, let’s forget about developing any sort of writing style, about pushing through writer’s block and other down-the-road potential obstacles, about winning that Pulitzer or interviewing with Oprah. For the moment we’ll stick to the preliminaries.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating: There’s no single, best, one-size-fits-all approach to beginning a novel. Some first-time novelists simply plop themselves down in front of a notepad, a typewriter (because those still exist!) or a PC and begin to peck out a first line, and then another. And another. You’re starting out cold turkey, ready to bang out 300 or 400 pages without a second thought. You’ve got a story to tell and, by God, you’re going to tell it. Because if that’s your style, your intent, go for it! Writers have been writing first novels by the seat of their pants (some of those efforts destined to become best-sellers) for hundreds of years. You can’t argue with tradition.

Or maybe you’re a perfectionist. You’ve been planning your novel for months or even years — getting yourself mentally prepared, but not quite ready to, y’know, do the deed. You’ve read every How-To writing book ever published, and you’ve memorized Strunk & White. Maybe you’re on your way to a Ph.D in creative writing. (Is there such a thing?) You’ve crossed your proverbial I’s and dotted your perennial T’s and only now, locked and loaded, are you ready to dare tap out those first few sentences.

Either way, realize that this brazen new millennium offers new and exciting (or new and terrifying, depending upon your POV) approaches to prepping, drafting, writing and selling a novel. The Internet has changed the way we gather and research information, interact with other writers to learn a few trade secrets or swap stories, tips and secrets — Reddit’s r/writing sub for example, or NaNoWriMo, Writer’s Digest, Writers Helping Writers, Inkitt or Wattpad — and how we find agents, editors and publishers. New emerging (or emerged) markets such: Audio, ebooks, flash-fiction and fan-fiction Websites and how-to apps proliferate. Total strangers will tell you what to do, how to do it, and will occasionally rip you and your work to pieces with the joyous dexterity of a seasoned serial killer. Emotionally drained, you’re left to wonder, Am I really a horrible writer? Or is that new best friend and critic of yours just some rando psychopath? Sometimes it can be hard to tell. But refer again — and as often as necessary — to Rule #3. Write to please yourself. I call it my self-inflicted sanity rule.

Not to mention that you’ll come across people like me; well-meaning souls who harken our presence and thrash about with an austere sincerity (or else an utterly false pretense) eager to share our fabulous secrets of fame and fortune like so many boardwalk carnival barkers. (Another rule of thumb: If somebody’s asking you to pay for their unsolicited time and advice, think twice, fact check their credentials and don’t be afraid to run screaming into the night.)

Because, basically, writing a novel can be a lonely, isolating endeavor, and trusting oneself is paramount. Your guess about what makes a best-seller is as good an assumption as anybody else’s best guess. So, yeah, relying on your own intuition and common sense is a safe bet. If you get stuck or lost along the way, sure — it’s okay to seek advice or second opinions. (Also see: Confronting Criticism.) But always remember that you’re captain of your own ship. If you find yourself sinking, it’s okay to swim for shore. But if you can weather the storms and make it to port, there’s no sweeter feeling. The first time you see your very own ISBN and/or Library of Congress PCN — few other thrills can compare. Because publishing a book feels very much like landing on the moon or skiing the Matterhorn. For anyone staring morosely at a blank screen, contemplating tapping out those first few pages, just be aware that the long journey ahead can be well worth the effort.

And if you don’t try, you’ll never know for sure.

So perhaps it’s time to explore that proverbial Yellow Brick Road. So let’s cut to the chase, bury that wicked witch and skip forward. (Cue the Munchkins!) Because whether you’re contemplating beginning a novel or you’ve already started a first draft, here’s what I consider to be an essential first step. Optional, yes, but essential.

Give yourself permission to engage in a bit of introspection. A little self-analysis. Ask yourself a few basic Why? questions. Don’t worry, it’s painless. Ain’t nobody’s keeping score. And there are no wrong answers. But understanding your core motivation for writing is, I suspect, more important than you may realize. For instance:

• Why have I chosen to write this particular narrative?

This is the easy question. Because any consideration short of I really don’t have a clue is acceptable. Writing for the sheer joy of writing is a completely acceptable answer. Writing to make a moral or social or philosophical difference is acceptable. Writing to quiet that incessant static buzz between your ears is acceptable. What’s static after all but a frequency looking for a receptor? Writing may be that receptor. Many writers find that writing fiction quiets the brain, fills a void, provides meaning to an otherwise vacuous life. All valid reasons to begin writing. But not having a clue will only get you so far. A page or two. A chapter or two, before you realize it’s time to move along. To find another source of fulfillment. Sure, give yourself credit for trying, but perhaps your better suited for a different sort of creative endeavor? A less emotionally demanding adventure?

• What’s my story about?

Because if you don’t know, readers probably won’t know (or care) either. (Also refer to What’s Your Intention?) Maybe you love reading fantasy, and you’re enamored with fire-belching dragons. However, sitting down to write about fire-belching dragons, but without any further consideration, won’t get you far. Not to mention that fire-belching dragons are the rage these days. Yours must be different, unique and—well, either plot- or character-driven. (See below.) So presenting a new take on an old tail tale, will be essential. I strongly suggest knowing your story before you begin to write.

What do I risk by writing this (or any) book? Is it worth the price?

I’m no shrink, nor do I play one on TV, and I expect no Freudian answers. But are there risks writing a book? Yup. A risk of disillusionment, disapproval and disappointment, for starters. Losing touch with friends and family. Losing months or perhaps years of your life while staring at a computer screen (and wondering who’s going to pay the G&E bills). Most of us will face a buttload* of rejection, and sometimes repeatedly. Most of us who begin a novel — and brace yourself — won’t finish. Of those who do finish, a majority will not find a publisher. Of those who do, a majority will not make a sustainable living. Not trying to be a total bummer here—but those are the risks we learn to accept.

Maybe you’ve heard of the old Aspiration, Inspiration, Perspiration philosophy of novel writing? If not, here’s the gist:

Aspiration is about having a desire and ambition — the eagerness — to write a particular story. Maybe it’s based on family history or a newspaper article or an old movie you once saw, and intend to improve upon. Maybe you’ve read a thousand fantasy novels and thought, I can do that! But having a specific goal in mind can be crucial to boy your joy of writing and your success.

Inspiration is simply another word for your creativity. Every chance you get, consciously or subliminally, your brain is concocting clever scenarios about this and that and some other thing. What if this happens? What if that happens? What would happen if…? Meaning, you’re comfortable concocting clever, witty characters in well-conceived settings (or realms), and then giving them something exciting, profound and memorable to accomplish or survive.

Perspiration is perhaps the most challenging of the three. Perspiration is all about your ability to persevere, page after page after page. Day after day, night after night. It’s about excusing yourself (not always, but often) when you’re friends are knocking back tequila shooters down at the Disco. It’s about potentially isolating yourself from friends and families for months or years, and about accepting criticism (when valid) and about pushing forward despite reservations and self-doubt and either the fear of failure or fear of success whispering furiously in the back of your brain. (Also see Fundamentals.)

But enough with the negativity already! Back to the fun and frolic of telling a good story.

As previously discussed, most story ideas begin as a snippet of thought or a fragmented concept, perhaps a random daydream or a tasty soundbite thrown your way from mass- or social-media. Maybe you’ve piled on additional, if nebulous, ideas as well. Once you have a basic story in mind — either a partially considered, loosely threaded beginning, middle and ending in mind, or simply that aforementioned inciting incident — it’s up to you to expand upon those concepts into an eventual, fully-formed novel.

Do realize that no set rules exist for proceeding. If my last few posts feel unhelpful or cumbersome, no worries! (And this is as close to a disclaimer as I’ll come.) But since every writer’s brainwaves, intuitions, coping skills and experiences are unique, I’m unlikely to speak with either eloquence or efficacy to every novice writer. So take from me what you will, disregard the rest and Google your way toward any number of variable alternative sources. The great thing about the Internet; There are a million different sources and resources awaiting your arrival. (Then again, the terrible thing about the Internet is: There are a million sources and resources out there.) So choose well, Pilgrim!

As previously mentioned, one can simply sit down (with a note pad, a typewriter or PC) and begin to lovingly craft a vision, such as writers have done for centuries; word by word, page by page, and scene by scene. But if blindly charging forward into the fray isn’t your style, no worries! Some writers mull their stories for months or years (it’s a kind of creative procrastination) waiting until they feel the moment is ripe. So if you consider yourself a creative procrastinator, or else suspect your impending story as being only half-baked, I offer a few suggestions that may (or may not) help you with a little forward momentum. For instance:

The Outline. Yes, I’ve already mentioned the potential value of outlining —but I shall continue to do so. Because it’s a valuable tool. And if you’re having trouble beginning, creating an outline (refer again to Where To Start: Part 2 if necessary) can jump-start those creative processes. And understand that while your outline can can begin as little more than quick notes on a notepad or bullet-pointing a potential story line—some writers may choose the more formidable option of tacking index cards to cork board, marking major plot points on a chalkboard; even employing flowchart type graphics. (If this, then that.) Others will voice-record their thoughts.

A final word about outlining. One not need outline an entire story from beginning to end. Most writers starting a first draft may have only a funny notion or how their novel will end. Some have no idea. But it’s okay to outline one or two chapters (or scenes), catch up and then begin to outline another few scenes or chapters. I do suggest, however, that if and end game presents itself, even if vague or uncertain, take the time to outline those thoughts. Once you have an ending in mind, it’s far easier to continually maneuver your characters toward that specific (or moderately certain) goal line. You’ll make fewer mistakes, take fewer wrong turns and very likely produce more relevant or profound characters, since everyone will know where they’re going and how to get there (or die trying!).

The Synopsis.

While your outline allows you to essentially expand various story ideas, a synopsis is, conversely, an encapsulation. A summary. If you’re able to define your plot in a page or two or three, you’ll begin to better understand the crux of your novel. Maybe your exciting sci-fi alien encounter is really a love story. Or your tale about two army deserters in a terrible war is basically a story of finding courage. A schoolyard tale about bullies and weaklings is ultimately a story about building unlikely friendships. So a synopsis can be a quick-glance guideline or as a daily reminder of where your story’s heading. (I’ve known a writer or two who’ll take a synopsis to their monitors. Every morning, it becomes both a prompt and a testament.

If creating a synopsis seems frivolous or overwhelming (and it may) take a deep breath and try this: What’s your favorite novel? See if you can write an synopsis about that book, without the pressure of summarizing your own words. Practice synopsizing a few novels and perhaps abridging your own work may feel far less daunting.

For example:


Amidst the rumble of an approaching Civil War, we find Scarlett O’Hara, the spoiled, teen-aged daughter of a wealthy Atlanta plantation owner, caught in her own giddy social bubble. Scarlett is clueless about the meaning of life, or the value of honor—although as the war rages, she discovers newfound courage and an inkling of character. Briefly married, she is quickly widowed by the calamity of war. Shortly thereafter, Scarlett’s beloved plantation, Tara, falls victim to the advancing Union army, and she must decide between her love of the land and her dedication to friends and family. She falls under the spell of a rebel blockade runner named Rhett Butler. The two are unsuited, but soon after the war’s end, she weds Rhett not for love but rather for his brash charisma and wealth—his ability to save Tara from the ravages of a lost war. However, their happiness quickly spirals into bitterness and remorse—and Scarlett ultimately decides that saving her home, Tara, is more important than saving her marriage. Still, she gathers the strength to hope for a brighter future.

Sure, it’s a sketchy synopsis, and incomplete (for instance, no mention of Ashley, of Melanie, or of Scarlett’s children), but it carries forth the deep core of the plot. Now, what about your story ideas? Can you define its heart and soul—even before you write word one? Discovering the essence of your unwritten novel can prove useful—and the sooner the better. Finding the essence of your story is so crucial that it’s now a rule.

Rule #11: Get acquainted with your story. Find your core elements. Because the more you know now, the fewer pages you’ll trash later.

Oh, and don’t delete your synopsis after you finish a draft or two. Agents and editors and publishers will ask for it. (At least I’ll ask.) Your synopsis can serve as your literary calling card, whence you submit your manuscript to agents or publishers.

An expanded synopsis. (Optional.) A synopsis is a synopsis is a synopsis—but like an outline or a draft, you’re constantly creating room for growth and improvement. As your plot coalesces, ain’t nothing wrong with updating your synopsis as well. Add a little padding, either before you begin to write or as you begin your first draft. It’s okay to use your synopsis (or outline) as a fluid primer or blueprint. It’s perfectly okay to update your synopsis—so feel free to add another 5 or 10 or 20 pages, exploring any newfound ideas. Make mistakes. Think fresh thoughts. Re-evaluate. Leave blanks. Every time I finish a synopsis, even a first draft, I find myself with a few dozen gaps where I’ve typed [IDEA TO COME]—and yes, again in bright, bold red—before moving along to those ideas that are freely flowing. Trust that every idea you need will arrive—and in its own damn time. Writing a novel is funny that way.

PS: If you’re one of those people loathe to leave a blank space, who must write every word precisely in chronological order, who must pen every thought with unwavering exactitude, striving for immediate perfection, my advice is this: Get over yourself. In fact, it’s even a rule. Rule #100: Get over yourself.**

Why? Because there’s no such animal as perfect writing. Certainly not while writing a synopsis or first draft! Even polished and ready for publication, there’s no single solution—no perfect sentence or perfect page or perfect chapter in a perfect book. Every word we write (or don’t write) is a subjective impulse. Writing Harold hated his dance classes rather than Harold disliked his dance classes won’t bring your novel any closer to Nirvana.

Perfection is an illusion—a Siren singing sweetly on the rocks of self-importance and ultimate disillusion. We do the best we can, and we also finish the book.

Character Profiles (Arias). Some writers choose to visualize their major characters (specifically their protagonist and antagonist) before they begin to draft out a story. They feel that by creating this sort of personal bio, they can better hone the creative process and even help characters deal more logically or realistically with your plot. I’ve known writers who’ll look for digital images of real folks in the hopes of better establishing a more familiar (and hence believable) entity in their own minds. Such intense scrutiny isn’t necessary—but it can’t hurt, either. For certain writers, depicting these people can help establish both a physical and emotional bond, even if most of these characteristics and physical attributes never make it to the page. The purpose of the literary aria is simply to help the writer’s vision.

I believe that some readers appreciate in-depth revelations of a character’s physical description, emotional band-width and various personal qualities. Others prefer to deduce such visual and emotional characteristics for themselves. So creating elaborate physical descriptions are obviously a matter of choice. For instance consider the somewhat pithy:

Marshal Dusty Yates stood at the edge of town, watching the sun rise. Yates had seen more evil in the last few days than most men would see in a lifetime. He absently brushed his fingers against the pistol holstered against his thigh and wondered if he’d live long enough to see sundown.

Or, conversely, the more detailed:

Marshal Dusty Yates, six foot, three inches of pure, mean Texan, stood grizzled and hungover at the edge of town, watching the sun rise. A hard-edged, ruggedly handsome man, Yates had seen more evil in the last few days than most men would ever see in a lifetime. He absently brushed his fingers against the smooth pearl handle of the Colt Peacemaker holstered against this thigh and, with a deep sigh, wondered if he’d live long enough to see sundown.

Both versions paint an adequate description of our hypothetical lawman, so a writer’s choice of embellishment is simply a factor of a specific writing style.

Where were we? Oh, yeah — so when you’re ready, you’ll begin writing your book.

First Draft. Like an outline, your first draft is a basic tool. Yes, you’re in actual writing mode (feels good, doesn’t it?) but at this point, most writers are still feeling their way forward, working out the kinks, proceeding cautiously and with the knowledge that the first draft or two are still incomplete, inaccurate and far from complete. You’re filling out your bullet points (or discovering new ones!) and you’re introducing readers to your story line—either teasing them with your plot’s imminent arrival or dropping us down the rabbit hole with sudden ferocity.

By the way, fiction is often viewed as being either plot-driven or character-driven.

Plot-driven novels are usually about events or obstacles (a plane crash, a war, an invasion of aliens or zombies or mumps) that take readers through a crisis or a series of dramatic situations, before dropping them, or at least the survivors, at the other end. In plot-driven novels, the plot or story-line is paramount and typically overshadows both your protagonist and antagonist. Characters in plot-driven novels are typically (not always, but often) quickly-sketched and auto-focused on the problem(s) at hand. Personalities and character-arcs are often externalized, as opposed to internalized. If you think of a plot-driven as pieces in a chess game, the plot would be the all-powerful queen (or king, take your pick) and the various characters are merely the pawns. Examples would be Jurassic Park (or virtually any Michael Crichton novel), The Da Vinci Code,

Character-driven novels instead focus on the fictional people who gradually evolve during circumstances and events that serve primarily to shape or change their lives. Your book’s primary focus isn’t what’s happening, but rather what’s happening to whom. Plot structure may feel little more than a series of random (and not necessarily overtly dramatic) events, but how your characters act, react and respond is your key ingredient. The so-called coming of age and heroes journey tales, love stories and tales of self-discovery are typically considered character-driven. Novels like Ulysses, About A Boy, The Great Gatsby and The Joy Luck Club are good examples.

And yes, occasionally a novel will provide sufficient plot- and character-driven elements. Titanic (the film) and Armageddon (ditto) are good examples of that near-perfect mix of a riveting plot and carefully crafted, well-developed characters. So are books such as The Godfather, Game of Thrones, the Harry Potter series and The Hobbit.

But now, back to the basics…

When writing your first draft, you’re either concentrating on establishing and building your plot (plot-driven) or else introducing and developing your major characters (character-driven). You’re adding the essentials; setting scenes and adding nuance—although at this stage, you’re likely focusing primarily on major story elements. This doesn’t mean you can’t embellish and add depth to your characters or sup plots, but by the time you finish your first draft, it may be filled with holes and excess wordiness, blunders and missing scenes and half-developed characters.

In fact, first drafts sometimes, most times, almost always, look like (to coin a phrase) dog shit.

It’s this realization of elusive perfection that will often freak-out many a novice writer, who’ll often and erroneously expect ‘an almost sterling’ appearance of one’s completed first draft. So don’t sweat it. Subsequent drafts, like coats of varnish, will gradually improve your book until you are appropriately thrilled with the results.

Second Draft. Your subsequent pass will be editing content and/or adding additional depth and nuance to your characters and/or honing your plot. You’re augmenting your prose with colors and sounds and smells, deleating excess verbiage and honing both dialogue (conversations) and internal monologues (deep, inner thoughts). You’re revealing nuanced character traits and subtle innuendo, perhaps including new twists and turns and, if appropriate, cliff-hangers. With your first draft complete, you’ve already built a creature of muscle and bone, but now you’re adding frizzy blonde hair and freckles and one unlaced hi-topped Keds. You’re “putting the red on the apple” as they say.

By the way, my use of  ‘Second Draft’ phase encompasses all other—third, fourth, fifth, thirty-ninth, etc.) drafts… until you feel your story feels complete.

Not all writers are alike and not all drafts will be alike. Some writers will craft one polished page a day—or so go the rumors—and rarely if ever revisited or redraft those finished page. If such a system works for you, great! For most of us, the redrafting and editorial processes can prove to be an arduous and difficult process. (But still fun, mind you.) You’ll see your prose improving with each pass.

Also, don’t view redrafting your manuscript as a strict, chronological process. I probably rework and edit my first 50-100 pages a dozen times, my middle second half as much and my lase few chapters—which I usually discover somewhere in the middle of my story—a few times. I often skip chapters and randomly work on troubled spots, so I bounce around various scenes and chapters at will, wherever my brain cells decide to take me.

After I’d finished my first novel’s final draft, for instance, I revisited a few early chapters, deleting one and adding several others — scenes that better suited later chapters and my grand finalé. Again, there’s no one way to write a novel. No singular approach. Each of us has varying procedures and practices. Once you find an editorial style that works for you, stick with it. (No matter how many well-meaning critics tell you otherwise!)

The Stick-it-in-a-Drawer Phase. Seriously. Put it away for a week or a month. Try to forget that you’ve ever written it. Me? I use that time to begin contemplating a new book. Or else OD on old movies…because that works too.

Polishing. Time’s up! Read your story again from a fresh perspective. Read, tweak and polish each page. Cut every uncertain or unnecessary word that doesn’t want to fit, un-garble every phrase that feels plodding or slow. Fill in the gaps…even if that means adding new scenes or chapters. Trim threads from the tapestry. Be sure every aspect belongs. Speed up the action or, when it doubt, truncate or eliminate the morass. If you feel something reads slow, don’t assume it isn’t. If you think it’s clunky, your readers will think so too. Oh, and kill your darlings.

And there’s your finished novel. Piece of cake, right?

– – – – –

* Buttload = 126 gallons of wine. Seriously. A butt is an antiquated but authentic unit of measurement.

** Rule #100. Unless, of course, this particular procedure works for you. Some writers (I believe Arthur C. Clarke was one, although I may be mistaken) would write a single perfectly structured thought (whether it was a paragraph or a page) before moving on. A single draft, thoroughly polished, chronologically stable, even stunning, from beginning to end. If it works for you, awesome! Ignore this rule! However, if you find yourself hovering maniacally over an incomplete thought for a week, a month, or a year, unable to push forward even a line or two—yeah, learn to love the blank space. Jump ahead and return when the mind is ripe. (And pity the poor wordsmith who lived before cut&paste!) But trust yourself. Trust the future. All good thoughts will come in time.


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Where to Start (Part 2)


A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Writing that first line.
(Also: Outlining Can Help.)

One’s first line(s) need not be plot specific, nor allude to any sort of inciting incident. However, the opening of any story should be, must be, profound. Poignant. Riveting. Either in-your-face riveting or very subtly so. Teasing. Provocative. Your opening’s sole intent is to immediately immerse readers in whatever impending story you’re about to present. Personally, I often fool around with my opening, tweaking, nudging or even re-writing that damn sentence over and over, even after I’ve finished several drafts. And yet, somehow, I eventually find the perfect (for me) expression.

How important is your first line? Important enough to be Rule #2: Make your story’s first line enticing enough to immediately hook readers. (The only line as important is your story’s last line. So the same rule apply.)

I’ve gathered 25 fictional first lines (and corresponding 2nd lines, if appropriate) from previously published authors. I believe these openers grab readers exceptionally well. Most of these books were or are hugely successful, but widely vary in substance, tonality and mood. These intros provide the necessary allure (whether wit, pathos, humor, suspense or a teasing overview) to read on. Some will hint of an impending inciting incident. Others are far more opaque or elusive. So, in chronological order:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen. (1813)

“It was a feature peculiar to the colonial wars of North America, that the toils and dangers of the wilderness were to be encountered, before the adverse hosts could meet.”The Last of the Mohicans. James Fenimore Cooper. (1826)

Charles Dickens’ 1859 classic, A Tale of Two Cities, is already (in)famous for its breathless prose, and the book’s familiar first line would be torn apart by today’s editors (or at least separated into several distinct sentences). And yet, Dickens’ emotional perception of Victorian-era London helped launch the book into Wikipedia’s Top 5 Best-Selling Novels of All Time list:
. . . . It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In War of the Worlds, H. G. Wells’ opener is rather amazing, given the book’s pub date. Orwell’s first line foreshadows his entire plot, and even hints at the book’s brilliant conclusion.
. . . .No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.War of the Worlds. H. G. Wells. (1898)

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. The Great Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald. (1925)

Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm, as the Tarletin twins were.Gone With The Wind. Margaret Mitchell. (1936)

In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit. The Hobbit. J.R.R. Tolkien. (1937)

In the corner of a first class smoking carriage, Mr. Justice Wargrave, lately retired from the bench, puffed at a cigar and ran an interested eye through the political news in The Times. And Then There Were None. Agatha Christie. (1939)
. . . . An interesting aside, the British version of Christie’s book was first titled Ten Little N – – – – – – . (Yup, the infamous N-word; and the title of a familiar children’s nursery rhyme at the time. The rhyme’s plot factored prominently into Christie’s story.) In America, the title was changed to Ten Little Indians and ultimately became known as And Then There Were None. The book remains one of the best-sellers of all time.

It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. 1984. George Orwell. (1948).

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.The Catcher in the Rye, J. D. Salinger (1951)

It was a pleasure to burn.Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury. (1953)

In those days cheap apartments were almost impossible to find in Manhattan, so I had to move to Brooklyn. This was in 1947, and one of the pleasant features of that summer which I so vividly remember was the weather, which was sunny and mild, flower-fragrant, almost as if the days had been arrested in a seemingly perpetual springtime.Sophie’s Choice. William Styron. (1960)

The Island of Gont, a single mountain that lifts its peak a mile above the storm-racked Northeast Sea, is a land famous for wizards. The Wizard of Earthsea. Ursula K. Le Guin. (1968)

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. Slaughterhouse-Five. Kurt Vonnegut. (1969)

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon. — The Last Good Kiss. James Crumley. (1978)

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.Neuromancer. William Gibson. (1984) This is the novel, btw, that coined the term Cyberspace.

The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.Glitz. Elmore Leonard. (1985)

Maybe I shouldn’t have given the guy who pumped my stomach my phone number, but who cares? My life is over anyway.Postcards from the Edge. Carrie Fischer. (1987)

I have been afraid of putting air in a tire ever since I saw a tractor tire blow up and throw Newt Hardbine’s father over the top of the Standard Oil sign.The Bean Trees. Barbara Kingsolver. (1988)

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone. J.K. Rowling. (1997)

At the first gesture of morning, flies began stirring. Inman’s eyes and the long wound at his neck drew them, and the sound of their wings and the touch of their feet were soon more potent than a yardful of roosters in rousing a man to wake.Cold Mountain. Charles Frazier. (1997)

They shoot the white girl first. With the others, they take their time.Paradise. Toni Morrison. (1998)

The creature watched and waited.The Past is Never. Tiffany Quay Tyson (2006)

Micky and the naked blonde are giggling in the Jacuzzi. On The Rocks. Me! Me! This one’s mine! (2012) …because I’m not above a little self-promotion (and I really like the line!).

I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it. But I lived as a colored woman for seventeen years. The Good Lord Bird. James McBride. (2017)

We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known? How Beautiful We Were. Imbolo Mbue. (2021)

Where to Start:
What Not to Worry About (Yet)

So begin… but do so with forethought and with a profound sense of purpose, of teasing or mystifying or exciting the reader. I’m aware that staring at a blank page, and glancing toward that distant finish line some 300 or 400 pages in the future, can produce a wee bit of anxiety. Of uncertainty. The common, cliché-ish and yet ultimately sage advice is to begin at the beginning. Although I admit the adage isn’t entirely helpful. Where to begin is often a writer’s state of mind at any particular moment.

But take heart. The truth is that very few writers know exactly where the beginning begins. My best advice is, for the moment, don’t sweat it. Don’t sit for hours, or days, petrified into inertia by worrying about precision or fretting about perfection. Just begin writing where you think your story might begin. At the moment, you’re more or less groping around in the dark. And that’s normal. Once you finish a draft or two, you can return to Page 1 with a better understanding of the overall story you wish to tell. You’re better acquainted with your characters, their personalities and motivations, and I suspect you’ll likely know exactly where your story should begin.

Because, remember—at any point in time, you’re allowed to change your mind. My first few pages rarely remain intact, and I’ll often rewrite my opening several times before I’m satisfied. But that’s what first drafts are for. A writer’s constantly honing pages, re-evaluating, reconsidering. Remember that your first few drafts will be sloppy, incomplete, and often inarticulate works in progress. A first draft (or outline) is like an artist’s sketch pad, full of literary doodles and unanswered questions. If you find yourself looking intently for typos or inconsistencies in your first draft, purple prose or incomplete thoughts, you’re doing it wrong. A typical first draft is a hot mess. It’s the nature of the beast.

When & Why Outlining Can Help.

While I’m aware that some (most?) fiction writers abhor outlining — admittedly, it’s not the most creative part of writing a novel — I’ve found that outlining can be a crucial, necessary element of story telling. Basically, you’re creating a cheat-sheet for yourself; a roughly scribbled road map containing just enough info to remind you of where you’re going, how you’ll get there and why. But while outlining, you’re also free to explore a plethora of new What if…? concepts, many of which won’t work, but a few which may dramatically improve your story.

Writing a novel is like a marriage. Those first 10-20 pages are the honeymoon period. It’s all fun and games, exploring new territories and considering uncharted options. But then the reality of carrying all that weight (sorry, married people) begins to take its toll. Sometimes uncertainly, self-doubt and even depression results. And then this cute-little-blonde of a new idea steps in, turns your head and there goes the marriage.

My advice? Dump the blonde (at least put her aside for a while) and persevere. Writing a novel is, and will always be, a major commitment. Stay the course.

Once you have your final chapter outlined, you’ll likely find it much easier to write toward that established end-game — even if you’ve only written a few pages of a first draft. However, once you’ve plotted those last few scenes, your characters will have sufficient motivation getting there and you’ll find yourself taking far fewer uncharted turns into the abyss.

Outlining a story doesn’t mean you can’t change your mind midway through, if something better comes along. (It occasionally does.) But, if so, take the time to update your outline and feel how this new concept plays out before writing another 20-30 pages that may go nowhere. (And don’t delete your old ideas just yet.) But, typically, an outline can often save that marriage.

An Example.

Here’s an (albeit somewhat verbose) example of how outlining can help: Let’s say we’re writing a love story that takes place in early 20th century Boston, at a time when immigrants were flooding the Atlantic seaboard states and seeking safe communities in overcrowded, impoverished, crime-infested cities. Politicians were little more than crime bosses. Young Bobby, who’s second generation Irish, falls in love with Maria, who’s second-generation Italian. Their families live on the edge of that teetering, cultural dividing line between the Irish and Italian communities. Such love, back in those days, often proved fatal.

Our beginning is pretty standard fare. Let’s say Bobby (18) meets Maria (17) at the corner apothecary/soda shoppe down the street. (This introduction is your inciting incident). He flirts, she giggles and despite Bobby’s best intention to dismiss her, he begins fall in love. And despite Maria’s father’s objections (‘No daughter of mine’s gonna be seen with some no-good, thievin’ mick squatter from Windsor!’) Maria’s smitten with Bobby as well. They begin to sneak away to the apothecary, or else meet at a little nearby duck pond, and talk away the long, summer afternoons. At one point Maria’s older brother, Vincente, catches sight of them holding hands. Vincente beats up Bobby, but that only reinforces his intention to marry Maria. Bobby’s older brother, Patrick, then beats up Vincente—their mothers bicker at the corner grocery, screaming in both Italian and Gaelic. Marias father, Luigi, threatens to lock her in the basement for a month, and repeatedly threatens to whip the poor girl senseless. Bobby’s father, Michael, likewise demands that his son stay away from this greannach girl—and yet Bobby and Maria aren’t dissuaded. They secretly plot to run away together…maybe to California, if they can save enough pennies, nickels and dimes.

Okay, so we’ve maybe written 100 pages of dramatic, intense realism, building the foundation of our story, with fleshed-out characters and brooding relationships. It’s time for Bobby and Maria to make their move. Come midnight, they’ll sneak away to board that long awaited train to California.

But perhaps that’s as far we’ve visualized the story line. We’ve reached as far as our romantic daydream has taken us. All along we’ve assumed that Bobby and Maria would elope and leave their families behind—but we suddenly realize that, once they’ve boarded the train, we’re leaving most of our carefully orchestrated, dramatic roadblocks behind as well. Freeing Bobby and Maria to be themselves, and happy, will suck much of the raw emotion out of the story. Do we provide new dangers on their way to California, or keep them in Boston until we can complete a few more story arcs?

Basically….so now what?

It’s the perfect time to outline any number of possible solutions. So after a number of false starts — ideas that, when outlining, are far easier easy to delete or alter than dumping 25 or 50 carefully drafted pages — maybe we find a couple of worthy concepts. So here goes:

Sample Outline. (Option A):

Bobby’s adamant about eloping with Maria. Because Bobby’s big brother, Paddy, is wary of Bobby’s brash stupidity, he accompanies Bobby into Boston’s Little Italy to keep him safe.

• As they approach Maria’s house, they find her father, Luigi, and her brother, Vinnie, waiting for them in the shadows, holding baseball bats. ‘

Brashly, Bobby declares his love for Maria and vowed that he won’t be deterred.

In a rage, Vinnie takes a swing at Bobby, who ducks the blow.

• Paddy pulls a small revolver from his waste band and shoots Vinnie dead.

• Panicked, Bobby grabs Maria’s hand and pulls the sobbing girl away from the fray.

• Running from the madness, neither Bobby or Maria see Luigi kill Paddy with a blow to the head.

An Irish cop, by happenstance, sees Paddy go down, and shoots Maria’s father. No! Luigi will provide far more drama as a foil if he’s still alive!

• Meanwhile, Bobby and Maria find refuge in an unoccupied, dilapidated tenement home a block away. Bobby’s tries to comfort Maria — but the girl’s distraught about her brother’s death.

An indigent wino attacks Bobby, but Bobby knocks the old guy out with a punch. No! Keep the plot taut here. No need for non-specific violence. The scene is dramatic enough without the distraction.

• Maria tells Bobby she must return home in shame to comfort her parents and, sobbing hysterically, she tells Bobby she still loves him, but that her brother’s death means they can never find happiness together. She kisses him goodbye.

…and now we’ve given ourselves a new set of hurdles before the two lovers can board that train and flee to happily ever after. Note that when I outline, I will often make notes to myself, and/or cross out those ideas that don’t feel right and even include (in red) a brief rationale for my decision, should I wonder later why I found those scenes ineffective or unnecessary.

But what if we’re not fully convinced about this new direction. Perhaps we’re still looking for other possibilities. The great thing about outlining: It’s quick and easy and, at this point, hardly definitive. Maybe we’re still thrilled about that train ride to California, and whatever obstacles that trek may provide. So what if…?

Sample Outline. (Option B):

Bobby’s adamant about eloping with Maria. Because Bobby’s big brother, Paddy, is wary of his little brother’s brash stupidity, he accompanies Bobby into Boston’s Little Italy to keep him safe.

• As they approach Maria’s house, they find Maria’s father and her brother, Vinnie, waiting for them in the shadows, holding a baseball bat. ‘

• Brashly, Bobby declares his love for Maria and vowed that he won’t be deterred by Vinnie’s threats of violence.

• In a rage, Vinnie takes a swing at Bobby, who ducks the blow.

• Paddy knocks Vinnie unconscious with an uppercut to the chin. Bobby grabs Maria’s hand and the three of them hustle off to the train station.

• A moment later, Vinnie comes to. And aware of Bobby’s plan to flee to California, he follows them to the station.

• Paddy gives Bobby a wad of cash and they hug. Bobby and Maria board the train and wave goodbye.

• A moment later, Vinnie shows up. Seeing Paddy watching the train depart, he pulls a small pistol from his waist band and shoots Paddy dead. In the ensuing panic, Vincente makes his getaway.

Vinnie returns home, explains that he saw Bobby and Maria board the train to California, but was a moment too late to stop them. (Does Vinnie tell his father he killed Bobby’s brother? Does he keep that a secret? Not sure yet!! Pros and cons of revealing the murder now???)

Enraged, Luigi tells Vinnie that they’re going to California on the next train and bring Maria back home. (Will two train tickets cost Luigi his last cent? Will they have to revert to robbery to fund their journey westward?) Since Vinnie’s a murderer, do we want to make Luigi a full-blown antagonist, or ultimately more sympathetic to Bobby’s plight? Meaning, might Luigi be redeemable? If so, probably not yet, but for the moment we’re keeping that open.

And thus, with relatively little effort, we now have two potential paths of forward momentum to choose from. Even with three or four variations outlined, eventually one will emerge as our best approach, and once we decide the most dramatic, exciting choice—we’re back on track and ready to draft another few scenes or chapters.

Oh, and one last option: If the spirit moves us, we can complete our outline — finish our story — before we begin drafting again. If we can discover a direct route from the train station to that final page, and outline the remainder of our book, we have a distinct advantage of having a complete roadmap between here and there. With a complete outline, we’re pretty much assured of how to proceed to the end of our tale. We’ll make far fewer wrong turns and blunders, and follow our map and that final destination: THE END.

Remember, an outline is simply a brief, short-hand list of what goes where. One need not add color or dialogue or innuendo. (We can if we like, but it’s not essential at this point.) We’re simply jotting down enough of our bared-bones, essential story-line to remind us of where we’re going and how we’re going to get there. And, if we’ve begun our story somewhere in the middle, we can outline backwards to our first chapters and eventually connect the dots as well. And then, when satisfied, continue outlining chronologically to the book’s ending.

Do note that I don’t consider outlining a Rule-worthy necessity. While I consider it a crucial writer’s tool, I still believe it’s a writer’s choice whether to outline or not. For many writers, it’s an ‘only as needed’ obligation, and many writers don’t outline at all. S’up to you. (But keep it in mind, the next time you find yourself stuck in the middle.)

CONTINUE to Part 3: Discovering your story’s core elements.

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Where To Start (Part 1)


A notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Where to Start.
(Also: Exploring your Inciting Incident.)

I’ve previously mentioned that finishing one’s novel is pretty damn important. So important, it’s my very own (previously stated and completely subjective) Rule #1. However, I’m quite aware that Rule #1 presumes a writer already having a potential, novel-length idea in mind—and with both the technical knowledge and the self-confidence to begin crafted the tale exactly as envisioned.

And yet, for many novice and/or hesitant fiction writers, that’s not always the case. Rule #1 loses a significant amount of value if you lack the experience, insight and/or courage to begin jotting down that first line.

And, oh yeah, starting a novel takes a lot of courage. However, before I continue…a quick preamble.

The Inciting Incident.

A misconception that some newbie writers have is assuming that “writing a novel” begins with tentatively scribbling out that first line on the first page of the first chapter. But writing a story typically begins with a vague or promising idea—one that may pester you for hours, days, weeks or even years, buzzing around your brain like an angry mosquito. Often (not always but often) this incomplete but essential What if? premise will become either the beginning, or the crux, of your story—a simple idea that puts into motion all circumstances and events that will eventually produce a completed novel. This fragmented concept is known as an inciting incident.

Or think of it this way: Your inciting incident is the necessary spark that will ignite the remainder of the story. If you were to visualize your novel’s plot (story line) as a string of exploding firecrackers, the inciting incident is you, the writer, lighting the fuse. You’re telling readers that something different—wonderful or romantic or terrifying or mysterious or silly or mind-blowing—is about to happen.

For instance: What if a skinny third-grader named Johnny is beaten up by several sumo-sized fifth graders? That’s an inciting incident. Johnny begins to formulate a cunningly sophisticated, yet bloodless, idea for revenge and eventually sets the plan in motion. Either he succeeds or fails miserably. Maybe Johnny fails but learns other important lessons about friendship or love or the downside of revenge. That’s the plot.

Or: What if a nuclear power plant is struck by a massive lightning bolt in the dead of night? An inciting incident, right? Those few late-shift engineers on duty wake from a stunned stupor and suddenly realize they’re telepathic. How do they adapt to their lives in the new normal? Do they become social outcasts? Do they save the world from some secret government conspiracy? Or just always win at poker? The moment those engineers awaken and realize what’s happened to them, your story will begin to produce an endless series of What if? questions, until you decide upon a viable story-line and an ultimately satisfying conclusion.

One’s inciting incident can either be prominently or discreetly plot-relevant. Your first line or opening paragraph need not directly relate to your story or its outcome (See Where To Start: Part 2). Maybe you want to introduce a character or two. Or establish a definitive time and place to better ground readers in your fictional realm. Both character development and scene-setting are no less important to your story than your plot.

Because while many novice writers believe — or in their exuberance to immediately dive into the heart of their story, insist — that their first lines abjectly define a plot, just know that a writer does have sufficient wiggle room to begin defining a character or to world/realm build first. And while: The giant meteor raced toward the distant blue-green speck known as planet Earth. might indeed be an appropriate opener, one has the potential to muse alternatives, providing those alternatives convey excitement — a reason for readers to want to turn the page.

However, I do recommend that you, the writer, provide a connection (even an unlikely one) between your first line and your last. For example, consider: Mathias awoke to the stabbing pain of a hangover and, for the third time this week, vowed to give up drinking forever. In which case, Mathias might be a protagonist or antagonist; possibly a character whom we’ll follow through the entire novel—or else a minor cast member (possibly expendable) whose solitary function might be to open your story in some memorable way. And if Mathias waking up with a hangover is your novel’s first line, what if his drinking plays a crucial role in your plot? What if Mathias’s next bender leads to some fatal, plot-essential mishap 25 or 50 pages hence? And what if that mishap leads to a series of unfortunate events that keep readers spellbound until your final page. Thus you’ve introduced a character and, even if indirectly, referenced your inciting incident as well.

A seemingly innocuous opening line can foreshadow events to come, becoming inexorably linked to your inciting incident, which in turn is directly connected to your entire story. Keep in mind that an inciting incident’s sole purpose is to lead readers toward (and eventually into) the heart of a story.

I realize that many writers are unsure or only vaguely aware of where the plot’s heading when they begin writing. Meaning they won’t solidify or finalize a first line (or first page or even a first chapter) until they’ve finished a draft or two.* Me? I usually have no idea how or where my book might end for another 100 pages or so. I may have a vague concept, but rarely a solid comprehension. Some writers cobble together a plot as they write, relying on intuition and outlining. And more about outlining later. Others don’t really care at this point (those adventurous pantsers among us). Note that in character-driven stories (as opposed to plot-driven narratives) a plot is sometimes little more than an afterthought. It’s the drama of human emotion that drives the book, not any particular event (aliens or zombies, a murder or true love) that befall them.

For instance, the uber-classic The Catcher in the Rye is a coming-of-age, character-driven novel, a young Holden Caulfield searching for the meaning of life in a superficial reality.

Conversely, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park is largely plot-driven, the story’s protagonists often little more than convenient plot-drivers, as DNA-recreated dinosaurs run amok.

Can a book be both plot- and character-driven? Of course. One can’t write a book plot-free, nor can one write a book that’s character-free. All works of fiction contain both attributes—just that some stories are more focused on the plot, others more focused on characters. A few books that I believe contain a pretty even (50/50) stylistic mix of the both plot- and character-development: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather; Stephen King’s The Stand; and, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife come to mind. Maybe not exactly a 50/50% blend of plot and character, but pretty damn close.

When considering a character- or plot-driven story, do remember that readers don’t read fiction to find out what happens, they read to find out what happens to whom. So even if you’re writing an intense, plot-driven novel, don’t skimp on appropriate character development.

Still not entirely sure that you’re ready to begin plotting or
writing a first draft? See Outlining in Where To Start (Part 2).

Okay, so what if those buzzing 2AM thoughts aren’t best suited as a story opener, but more viable as an isolated scene somewhere in the midst of your potential novel? Or maybe your original idea is more of a grand finalé concept? Can you begin writing your story’s last few scenes first, and then work your way forward? (Yes, it’s okay.) Can you begin drafting an idea somewhere in the middle and work both forward and backward? (Yes, it’s okay too. One can begin a novel at any point and fill in the blanks later.)

However, sooner or later, you’ll have to work your way toward your first chapter or two, and ultimately formulate that initial spark, the inciting incident, one that logically and rationally begins to define the tale you wish to tell.

For instance, what if one lazy Sunday afternoon, your chilled-out brain brushes against the fantasy of some brash young Medieval knight, confronting a castle’s drawbridge. Maybe that’s your entire concept… just a random knight upon his trusty steed, looking for adventure. Even better, perhaps you decide that this young knight has uncertain, untested magical powers. You name him Sir Edmond, and name the horse Pepper. But then what? Ah, but the possibilities (you believe) are endless!

Might this fragmented scene provide your book’s inciting incident? Possibly. However, you (and readers) may question Sir Edmond’s motivation. Why is this young knight even here? What does Edmond want? If you, the potential writer, don’t know, then your young knight isn’t going to know either. Lacking proper scene-setting, a clear story set-up or sufficient character motivation, Sir Edmond might bumble around without coherence or direction. Readers may be confused or, even worse, bored by a distinct lack of audience prep—meaning they lack a proper introduction to both the impending story and your protagonist (and/or antagonist).

The best way to provide a sufficient introduction is to draft your way back (in your mind, on paper, making notes on a PC—whatever works!) toward some logical beginning before Edmond finds himself sitting outside those foreboding castle walls. So you sit and think and daydream a little more, and perhaps eventually come with a possible solution, one of a thousand potential scenarios. Kinda like this:

What if a young princess is captured by an evil sorcerer. She’s forced into a life of anguish and misery until she agrees to marry the sorcerer’s son, a ruthless sociopath who covets her father’s magical kingdom. Okay, so there’s a viable intro, the princess’s abduction is a potentially great inciting incident. So you write a dozen or two pages, or maybe even several chapters, delving into the sorcerer’s nefarious plans and the poor princess’s plight. All hope is lost… until one day a lone knight with untested, magical powers appears at the castle gates. Maybe Sir Edmond is searching the countryside for his lost father, or sister, or cat. Any viable reason for his presence will suffice. But once inside the castle, our young knight catches sight of the tragic princess and is smitten by her beauty and angered by her precarious situation. Sir Edmond decides to do battle with the sorcerer to earn the sad princess’s love and respect...

So now you’ve returned to that original, nagging daydream. But now you’ve concocted a viable plot already and a reason for the young knights presence. Readers have already been introduced to your antagonist(s) that we already hate, and we’ve met the tragic, empathetic princess—and with this unexpected knight’s arrival, now we can anticipate a battle of wits and whatever ultimate, epic conflict that will eventually arise.

Intentionally or not, once your inciting incident is in place—directly or indirectly, discreetly or indiscreetly—you will eventually lead your characters toward your story’s conclusion.

Just remember that there’s no right or wrong way to begin perceiving or drafting or writing a novel; no best way, no by-the-numbers process, no single methodology that guarantees completion or success. My only advice: Write what feels worth writing. Write what best gets you back to accomplishing Rule #1. And that is: Finish your book. Because if you find yourself blissfully engaged and energized by your prose 10 or 20 pages from now—that’s a good sign. And, if not, perhaps consider trying a different approach. Or a new concept.

Still concerned about where or how to begin? Thumb through a few how-to books. Some are good, some are awful, so choose carefully. I also suggest perusing 3 or 4 of your own favorite novels with the intent of dissecting those scenes that astound you. You’re not reading for fun, but rather to determine why those books work. How do their authors create riveting drama, or effective pacing, or lifelike characters; how do they create sizzling dialogue or tackle action scenes, romantic scenes or else terrorize you into leaving the lights on all night. You’re not stealing ideas or plagiarizing — you’re simply trying to decipher how those authors create effective and memorable prose.

And one final thought about your inciting incident.….

I mentioned that one’s inciting incident need not be directly plot-related. Neither it nor your opening line absolutely must be grandiose or imposing. Lightning need not crash. Thunder need not rumble. Your inciting incident should be memorable, sure, but not unnecessarily verbose or overtly dramatic. Subtlety can also suffice. In terms of a less frenetic, curiously unobtrusive inciting incidence, for example:

What if Roberto notices Anita across a crowded room and, when their eyes meet, he suddenly feels a dizzying sense of breathlessness, of weightlessness, convinced that he’s met his soul mate? Or, What if three elderly sisters find an orphaned baby boy on the doorstep of their old, isolated mansion in the Louisiana Bayou? Both scenarios can offer unlimited potential for a writer.

But how might one fuse either of the above premises with one’s opening line?

Perhaps: Roberto found his cousin Niko’s party insufferable and had already turned to leave when he caught sight of a woman across the room who made the breath catch in his throat.

Or the bit more cliché-ish (but still an acceptable opener, imho): When Roberto’s gaze met Anita’s, he thought he’d died and gone to heaven.

Or what about: The old woman everyone in Bayou County knew as Granny Ray found the infant sleeping peacefully on her front stoop one morning, wrapped in newspapers and cradled in a cardboard Amazon Prime box.

Or the less specific: Granny Ray opened her front door early one morning, expecting to find nothing more than a bright blue Louisiana day.

Again, one need not announce the inciting incident in a book’s first line, but a writer should be aware of the inevitable connection between the two. Roberto and Anita’s will probably become lovers. But then what? Or Granny Ray discovers the child has magical abilities. Or, more traditionally, she falls in love with the child and wishes to keep it, despite her advanced age and eccentric behavior that has the neighbors worried. Writers can (and many do) spend a dozen or so pages introducing various characters or crafting colorful, spectacular visuals—a.k.a. scene setting—but those pages wouldn’t necessarily be considered plot specific. Necessary info, absolutely! But not necessary germane to your plot.

By the way, many works of fiction introduce a character or two, and explore their personalities, before delving into any sort of coherent plot momentum. (Best-selling authors James Michener and Tom Clancy are notorious for starting their plots very late in their stories.) Some writers take a chapter or two (or three) to properly ground readers in their new reality and then begin to reveal various characters living their pre-plot-specific lives. Again, ain’t no strict rules about how and where to begin a novel. Begin your story where it feels right. Because you can always change your mind later.

However, by jump-starting your plot, you’re also getting your protagonist (the good guy) off his ass. Crazy, but a story’s protagonist is almost always unknowingly or unwittingly forced into responsive action by a situation beyond his or her control. For instance, somebody cruel and nasty (your antagonist) robs a bank. Or kidnaps your sister. Or an attractive stranger whispers in your ear. Or your next door neighbor is bitten by a rabid aardvark and wakes up the next morning undead, craving human brains for breakfast. Maybe a budding astronomer notices a new dot in the night sky, but the speck of light is moving quickly—meaning either aliens coming or a rogue asteroid is about to decimate Mankind. (Yes, a natural or cosmic disaster can be considered a viable antagonist.) And discovering a glowing rock hurtling toward Earth is a tried and true inciting incident.

So is a bump in the night!

* It’s absolutely okay to leave your story’s opening pending. Meaning give yourself the freedom to adjust your first line (or paragraph or page) after you’ve finished a draft or two.

I’m aware that some writers, so intent on perfecting their opening pages, will mire themselves in an endless loop of rewriting and re-rewriting their opening, and exhaust themselves before they even finish their first scene. Some writers will simply give up. But once you’ve determined your end game, you’ll be far more knowledgeable about your characters, their motivations, personalities and abilities, so a more suitable starting point will be much easier to establish.

CONTINUE to Part 2: Writing that first line.


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rules-header-fullA notebook for fiction writers and aspiring novelists. One editor’s perspective.

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Welcome to the blog!
……Here’s what’s what.

My name is Dave Workman. I’m an author and freelance editor (formerly an acquisitions and developmental editor for Muse Harbor Publishing). Several years ago I began writing Rules of Engagement for beginning (or curious) writers, based on what I perceive to be fundamental obstacles that many of us confront when starting, or struggling through, a new novel. Perhaps I can offer useful advice—or maybe not—although I certainly know what excites me as a reader. Thus, the following comments (although RoE remains a work-in-progress) may be worth a look.

1. Good Writing, Bad Advice. Ultimately, it’s your book.
Rule #1: Finish your book.

2. Where to Start. (Part 1). Exploring your inciting incident.

3. Where to Start (Part 2). Your first line should be the most thoughtfully crafted sentence of your story. Also, don’t know exactly how or where to start? (I have a suggestion.) Also, a few thoughts about Outlining. (If you’re a first-time novelist, outlining may be more important than you think. If you’ve written 30-or-so novels…it’s still important.)
Rule #2: Make your story’s first line enticing enough to immediately hook readers.

4. Where To Start (Part 3). Reviewing the basics. Getting started (for real).
Rule #3:
Write to please yourself.
Rule #11:
Get acquainted with your story.
Rule #100:
Expecting perfection? Well, get over yourself. First drafts are often messy, incomplete and open for revision. Your first draft is a tool, nothing more. (Also see #12: Perfection below.)

5. A Few Common Obstacles. The 6 most common obstacles that most novice novelists confront. Also, a final (more or less) word on the importance of Outlining.

6. Fundamentals. Discovering those so-called ‘pillars’ of a successful novel. Sometimes it’s nature. Sometimes it’s nurture. Success is likely a combination of both.
Rule #17: Make a hard copy (paper) back-up of your manuscript every now and then, even when working in draft mode. (See Finagle’s Law. But brace yourself.)

7. Simple, But Exciting. Juggle precision with passion. Also: Introducing the novel’s Three Essential Components.
Rule #7
Write in clear, precise sentences. Communicate to your reader in intelligent thoughts, carefully constructed, while providing a constant, continual procession (discreetly or indiscreetly) of relevant information.
Rule #5: Continually 1. scene-set; 2. character-build, or; 3. move the plot forward. When writing fiction, nothing else matters. Page by page, a good novel should seamlessly blend all three components.
Rule #13: Readers don’t read novels to find out What Happens. They read novels to find out What Happens to Whom.
Sufficient character development is as essential as your plot.

8. Exciting, But Simple. Juggle passion with precision.
If you’re not fully engaged in your writing, potentially dull and tedious prose won’t thrill readers. But innovative, excited, passionate writers tend to produce innovating, exciting and passionate prose. Too much passion, however (the dreaded ‘purple prose’) can quickly drown a reader in the unintelligible. So it’s important to find that balanced, literary ‘sweet spot.’

9. Active Writing (Part 1). Active Voice. How to find it. How to keep it.
Rule #8:
Keep characters in motion. Either through action or dialogue, you’re continually pushing characters toward drama or pulling them away from drama. Also see Show, Don’t Tell below.

10. Active Writing (Part 2). Active Language (Grammar).
Rule #6:
The Jumping Cow Rule (Active vs. Passive Voice).

11. Active Writing (Part 3). Active Composition (Plotting)
Rule #14:
Develop your story from A-to-Z. Know where you’re going.

12. Perfection. Do your best, and then move on.
Rule #25: Perfection in writing doesn’t exist. (Don’t waste years attempting to find it.)
Rule #4: Do the best you can. That’s all readers can ask.

13. Action/Reaction. A novel is an endless series of relevant connections. Every paragraph you write is like a puzzle piece that must fit into a specific, coherent place within a specific, coherent premise.
Rule #10:
In fiction, for every action, provide an appropriate reaction. Over and over and over.

14. Show, Don’t Tell. What’s it even mean? Because we’ve all heard this advice a thousand times before… but it’s still a valid axiom. So don’t dismiss it! Also, exploring E-Prime writing.

15. What’s Your Intention? A brief guide to rational writing.
Rule #29:
Your characters may remain mysterious, elusive or distracted, but your prose must remain clear and concise.

16. Focus on the Now. Stay in the moment.
Rule #16:
Focus on the now. Write one thought at a time, and don’t worry about the rest.

17. My Favorite Films About Writers and Writing. A personal aside.

18. Finding Your Voice (Part 1). Find a style and stick with it.
Rule #9:
A great novel is not so much what you tell, but how you tell it. All writers develop a unique style. Finding yours is imperative.

19. Finding Your Voice (Part 2). Do your characters speak to you?
Rule #12:
Shut up and let your characters tell their own stories.

20. Finding Your Voice (Part 3). Point of View: Narrative vs. Authorial Voice.

21. Basic Plotting (Part 1). Right Brain (creative thinking) vs. Left Brain (critical thinking). Unfortunately, we need both halves.

22. Basic Plotting (Part 2). Plot Ahead, then catch up.

23. Basic Plotting (Part 3). Fiction is all about drama. (Even comedies are about the drama.) So don’t dismiss the drama.
Rule #27.
Make drama (big drama, little drama) your novel’s constant companion.

24. Action vs. Information. The Oil & Water of Novel Writing.
Rule #26:
Don’t mix Action and Information scenes. Keep these two incompatible concepts (relatively) separate.

25. Dialogue (Part 1). Writing Great Dialogue: An Absolute Necessity.
Rule #30: Create dialogue that—like the basic fundamentals of fiction—accomplishes one of three specific goals. Dialogue must: 1) Set a scene; 2) Develop/refine a character and/or; 3) Move the plot forward.

26. Dialogue (Part 2). Writing Great Dialogue: Balancing reality and fiction — two very distinct styles of chit-chat.
Rule #39: Never reveal too much relevant information too quickly.
Rule #39A:
...but relevant or not, always keep dialogue witty and compelling.

27. Dialogue (Part 3). Writing Great Dialogue isn’t about epic plotting. It’s simpler than that. Rule #41: Great fiction isn’t about ‘what happens.’ It’s about ‘what happens to people.’

28. Dialogue (Part 4). Dialogue vs. Internal Monologue. The key to precise communication with your readers is knowing when to use what.

29. Dialogue (Part 5). Writing Great Dialogue in First Person (POV).
Rule #45:
First Person POV readers aren’t expecting absolute authenticity so much as absolute personality.

30. Dialogue (Part 6A). The Q. & A. page.
Rule #48: Don’t use dialogue as an alternative to directly depicting action or drama.

31. Dialogue (Part 6B). The Q. & A. page (Cont’d).

32. Dialogue (Part 7). Attribution. (AKA: Dialogue Tags.) The ‘he said/she said’ of writing dialogue. Because sometimes visual subtleties matter.
Rule #55:
Don’t just write dialogue, write active dialogue. Avoid ‘talking heads’ scenes by maintaining visual stimulation or plot momentum during scenes of intense dialogue.

33. Dialogue (Part 8). When not to use dialogue.

34. Confronting Criticism. Sooner or later, we all confront criticism. How we regard such feedback can be crucial to our eventual success.
Rule #99:
Knowing the difference between constructive criticism and counter-productive criticism is crucial. (And this is where I tell you why.)

35. Scene-Setting. Scene-setting is often the most overlooked of the three essential components of novel writing.
Rule #28: Every scene we write, before we begin (or before we continue) to propel our plot forward, we must establish a viable setting for our characters, and a firm grounding for our readers. And we must do so every time we move a character to a new time or place, scene after scene.

36. Write The Daydream. What’s a novel, but a daydream we write down and embellish, expand and hone into something coherent, dramatic and hopefully entertaining?

37. More Common Obstacles Are you still finding those first few scenes/chapters difficult or impossible to write? I’ve already mentioned a few common obstacles that writers face. (See #5 above.) Maybe it’s time to look inward and investigate further.

38. Story vs. Plot. Also, resolving the “My-story’s-too-short!” dilemma.

39. First Drafts. Writing is a two-part process. Part 1: The Idea. And, Part 2: The Implementation. One’s first draft is very much a transition between creative right-brain thinking and logical left-brain thinking. Some beginning novelists have difficulty in making that transition.


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