FREE online Writing Workshop and Conference next week!

For all you working on a manuscript or query letter, hurry on over to writeoncon.com and post your query and up to the first 5 pages of your novel. Over the weekend, you can read and critique other people’s work while they do the same for yours. The more time you spend reading query letters and other people’s comments about them, the more you’ll learn about writing a great query. And, of course, if you post your own query, you might get some excellent feedback.

And it’s all for free!

On Tuesday and Wednesday, August 13-14, writeoncon.com will host a free online writing conference. Literary Agents and Editors will troll through the queries looking for new writers. You can even win up to $1000 if you enter and win the contests!

Even if you have to work, you can still participate, as the events will be recorded. There is absolutely no reason NOT to check it out.

All you have to do is sign in (which takes about 1 minute) and then you can read posts, comment, post your own work, and take full advantage of everything writeoncon.com has to offer

Stop reading this and check it out!

Why Outline?

There are so many variables to weigh and balance when starting a novel, it is silly not to spend considerable time mulling things over, working out the conflict, major scenes, character background and personality, setting, deciding on a point of view, and a thousand other things before you actually begin writing the book.

Some people dive right in and just start writing, claiming that they don’t know what will happen or even “who did it” in a murder mystery until the characters reveal it to them . . . though I suspect these claims are false and yield shoddy stories.  Still, maybe that approach will work for you, but most of us need to plan well in advance.

For the ending to satisfy, you should consider it when you write the first page. I can’t imagine any novelist is like Mozart, seeing the entire story before him all at once in one fantastic flash of inspiration. Therefore, if you just start writing before you have a good idea of where you’re going and how you’ll get there, you will likely end up getting lost. At the very least, your opening will not be as effective as it would otherwise be if you could lay some subtle groundwork. If you don’t plan ahead, you’ll probably write some okay stuff, get stuck, not know where to go, realize you should have done something else 40 pages ago, scrap the last 40 pages, etc.

I wrote “essays” on each of my main characters. I pretended that my novel was already written and a professor told me to write a character analysis of each major character in the book. Basically, I looked at their personalities and histories, then plotted their character arcs—figuring out how they would change during the story, which scenes would catapult that change, how the background info was relevant (or not) and how to reveal it during the story, etc. This was a huge help!

I also wrote brief paragraphs about what I consider my main themes: explaining each theme, how it is introduced, developed, and what the story says about it in the end. If I found that a theme got “dropped” somewhere, I had to make decisions: do I scrap that element of the story? Do I find a way to “bring it back in” by the end? What changes would need to be made? How would this decision affect other factors in the story?

Use the computer, note cards, post-its, or whatever you want—but get organized before you actual begin writing that novel.

Keep in mind that IT IS OKAY TO DEVIATE from your outline. And you will. When you do (usually because your characters demand it), you may be able to easily steer the book back on course. If you can’t or the characters won’t let you, you’ll need to start outlining again from that chapter onward. Or I suppose you could go back and revise the character so that he/she would make a different series of decisions that would allow the book to remain pretty much on track with your original outline—but even that involves going back and doing a lot of rewriting and seems odd.

NOTE: It is true that you can discover a lot by writing, but if you do so without an outline or map, the writing will be without direction. As a result, you’ll end up cutting much of it. You might surprise yourself and come up with some fascinating characters, scenes, and plot points, but most likely, you will have to rewrite much of your work, so outlining can save you a lot of time. Diving in and writing while brainstorming might give you a rough draft. More likely, it can be a useful way to get to know your characters, but you’ll still have to do major revisions—possibly even starting over once you do know where you want the story to go. I know several authors journal as a character. They are often surprised by what the character will reveal to them during this process and some of that information makes it into the book. But that’s a journal. It isn’t the novel. That’s the author “doing research” to get to know the character and those journal pages will not be in the novel itself, so journaling is not writing the novel.

Writing Physical Description – Part One

In my post about “Things to Avoid in Chapter # 1,” I wrote that you should “Avoid the temptation to describe your main character [on the first page or even in the first chapter].” However, I didn’t provide much insight into how to write physical description. So here we are.

There are no “rules” to writing description because it is a product of your own style. Hemingway gives us very little in the way of description while Stephen King can go on for pages. When I read The Stand twenty years ago, I remember stopping and thinking, “My God. He’s written six pages describing an abandoned military facility. There aren’t even any characters!” Now, to King’s credit, I also noted that his elaborate details enabled me to vividly picture every brick of this complex. Obviously, my reaction is also an indication that despite King’s talent, the passage was still long for my personal taste.

I cannot write like Stephen King. I will never be able to include such rich and graceful detail. My prose is average; it serves its purpose but lacks imaginative description or an abundance of figurative language. Therefore, I would never attempt to imitate King and therefore I lean toward the opposite approach: providing little description and counting on the reader to supply the rest.

Even if, like me, your prose isn’t going to win you any awards, you might still be tempted to provide plenty of minute details so that the reader pictures exactly what you have in your own head. Resist that. Instead, keep the description pretty quick and short. There are advantages to minimal character description. Yes, you will want to provide the reader with a good idea of what the main characters look like, but you can leave “a little room” for the reader to supply the missing pieces. I see two advantages:

  1. Minimal description will quicken your story’s pace.
  2. When the reader uses his/her own imagination, he/she becomes part of the creation and can become more invested in the story.

Do you want to provide details about your main character’s face? I only describe a face if there is something peculiar or memorable like facial hair, a scar, the color of lipstick, if the person appears plump or thin, etc. Readers seem happy to supply the particulars of the face. If you supply it for them, readers might not feel like they “know” the character—the character may appear as a stranger in the reader’s mind. I can think of exceptions to this rule (I’ve included Ichabod Crane’s introduction at the bottom of this post), but I think it’s generally good advice to provide the outline or skeleton of a character, dress it up with some meat and clothes, but allow the reader to unconsciously help out.

Providing a single telling detail is often more effective than a summary description. EX: “His neck was a molting snake.” See? Can’t you picture that guy? Did you imagine him as old and wrinkly? If not, is the image in your head a vivid one? If this is a minor character, this brief description is all we’ll need. If it is a major character, you can be more descriptive later, but this lays some good “ground work” so we won’t be surprised later when you tell us that this character is elderly, has a skin condition, was in a fire, etc.

Reading description is boring from a modern reader’s standpoint—it brings the story to a halt. You don’t want to slow down on the first page or even in the first chapter. Can you wait a chapter or two before describing your character? Try it. I bet you’ll end up making that description a more natural/less forced part of your prose if you hold off for a while.

Read the following description of Ichabod Crane, the protagonist from Washington Irving’s classic “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Note that Irving does describe his face. More importantly, look at the specific details he provides. Irving’s writing is vivid and original. Even without the sentence describing Crane’s face, the description would still be fantastic. Enjoy it for yourself.

“He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock, perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.”

Things to Avoid in Chapter # 1 of Your Novel

While I can’t give you a “To Do List” for your chapter # 1, I can give a “Don’t Do List.”

Avoid the following first sentence/opening clichés:

Blood or other gruesome scene: “The blood was everywhere.” Is it shocking? Maybe it used to be, but not anymore. Actually, if it was something like “The frog’s blood was everywhere,” I might read on because that’s odd. The real problem with a “shock and awe” opening is that we don’t care yet. If a news article began with “Blood was everywhere,” we’d care (or might care—let’s be honest) because some real person has probably died and it is sad and horrifying. As a no name fictional character though, we don’t care. You have not given us any reason to care yet—we know we’ve just picked up a work of fiction and we have nothing invested in this world or anyone who might have died in it.

Detailed Physical description: Avoid the temptation to describe your main character. We actually don’t need this yet and we probably need less of it than you think. In the beginning, we need to know just the basics about the characters in the scene—as little background info as possible should be told (including character description). I’ve gone back and forth on this, but I guess the reader does need to know some very basic details so that he can form pictures in his head that won’t totally contradict the more elaborate description you may provide later. I think readers need to know the main characters age (approx), race, gender, and one telling detail. Sometimes, one telling detail is actually all you need. Don’t provide this information in “fact sheet” style.

Over writing: Don’t be wacky for the sake of being wacky or show off your mastery of alliteration. Simplicity is powerful. SIDE NOTE: Alliteration might be the least desirable type of figurative language as it takes the reader out of the scene. The reader will notice alliteration and say, “Oh hey, there’s some alliteration,” instead of “Man! That scene was intense!”

Drama for drama’s sake: Don’t have an exciting opening scene that exists solely to be an “exciting opening scene.” The scene/line should reveal something about the character, plot, premise, etc. It shouldn’t be surviving a plane crash if the main character just walks away, says, “Wow! That could have been awful!” and then goes on with his mundane life. If you start with a crash, the crash must affect him in a profound way.

Dreaming: I did this in my very first draft. I was able to provide a lot of character information, foreshadowing, and symbolism. But opening with a dream is horribly cliché and a bit of a cheat, so I deleted it and have never been happier.

Waking up: This is just as cliché as the dream. While we might learn a lot about your character by his/her routine, looking in the mirror, seeing his/her home, etc., it is still a cliché (and boring!) way to begin.

Pontificating: Beginning with a preachy soliloquy about life or the world rarely works. I suppose musing might be interesting if done well—if you begin with a particularly odd or fascinating question/situation (“It was only when I karate chopped my mother’s ghost that I considered the possibility I was insane . . .”).

Beginning with dialogue: I’m not sure I should include this one. I can think of some great books that start with dialogue. However, if you want to play it safe, the very first sentence probably should not be dialogue because some agents don’t like it. Others don’t mind it, though I’ve never heard anyone say that actually prefer starting with dialogue. I can’t imagine an agent dismissing a submission because it began with a set of quotation marks, but you never know. The safer bet is to provide a little context before the conversation begins (where is the scene taking place + some idea of who is in the scene or what is going on). Providing some context and setting should help the reader ease into the story, picture what is going on, etc. If you start with quotation marks, we don’t know anything about the setting, characters, etc. so that is off-putting.

I’m sure there are more. Let me know what I left off the list!

Some Great First Sentences

I read somewhere that authors should take an afternoon to waltz into a bookstore or library and read as many “first sentences” as they can. I did this a few years ago and think it was a worthy exercise: I learned quite a bit about what makes an effective first sentence. As an added bonus, I found a few great novels. While you might stay in the section containing your genre, I’d suggest moving around the store/library a bit.

The following is a list of “first lines” from books lying around my house and some of my favorite short stories. You’ll notice great variety in “what the sentence is about or says,” but the key element is that the sentence is interesting and makes you want to read on (or should).

Which of these is your favorite? What makes it effective? If you don’t like one, why doesn’t it work for you?

“It begins, as most things begin, with a song.” – Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

“When the blind man arrived in the city, he claimed that he had travelled across a desert of living sand.” – The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.

“Then there’s the time I went as Hitler for Halloween.” The Littlest Hitler (from the short story of the same title) by Ryan Boudinot.

“The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.” – The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan.

“Tyler gets me a job as a waiter, after that Tyler’s pushing a gun in my mouth and saying, the first step to eternal life is that you have to die.” – Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk.

“Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton.” – The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

“This book begins with a plane crash.” – Beauty Queens by Libba Bray.

“When she had packed all the artifacts that made up their personal history into liquor boxes, the house became strictly a feminine place.” – Mercy by Jodi Picoult.

“It was a pleasure to burn.” Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

“It’s hard being left behind.” The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.” – The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.

“Patrick’s house was a ghost.” – Shine by Lauren Myracle.

“They took me in my nightgown.” Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys.

“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 by Jane Austen.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single girl of high standing at Longbourn Academy must be in want of a prom date.” Prom and Prejudice by Elizabeth Eulberg.

“My desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split ups in chronological order:

1. Alison Ashworth   

2. Penny Hardwick   

3. Jackie Allen   

4. Charlie Nicholson   

5. Sarah Kendrew.”   

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby.

“Walking to school over the snow-muffled cobbles, Karou had no sinister premonitions about the day.” The Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.

“It’s hard to stop looking for something without simultaneously giving up hope.” “Zero” by Erica Krouse.

“When you’re seventeen and you’re the gay son of a Baptist preacher from Dallas Texas and you have a lisp and a drawl and a musical gift and you were names Oral because an angel told your daddy to do so in a dream, then New York City can seem like it’s saving your life.” From “Scordatura” by Mark Ray Lewis.

“The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge.” From “The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe.

BONUS ENTRY: My father emailed me his favorite first line and though I have not read the book, I agree it is rather catchy: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no one in the room but the corpse.” War in Heaven by Charles Williams.

The First Sentence

The first sentence is the most important one in your novel. Your first sentence must entice. If it fails to do so, no one will bother reading your second.

Readers (and agents) make quick judgments about whether a book is right for them. They can afford to be picky and they won’t simply dive into your book to take a nice swim—they’ll read the first sentence. If it doesn’t grab them, that’s all they’ll read.

You must strike hard and fast.

There is no rule regarding what should be “in” that sentence. It could be an interesting detail, some dialogue (though most people prefer some context before a conversation begins—at least in chapter one), an original perspective, a joke, a fear, a voice that is fresh and profound, a metaphor, an image, a question, an event, or none of those things. The only rule is that it must compel the reader to continue reading.

That being said, the reader subconsciously wants to know: “Am I in good hands with this author?” So although there isn’t a simple checklist for how to compose a great first sentence, you at least need to prove that you are a good storyteller.

Try getting to your conflict in that first sentence. Did I do that in my novel? No, but I can think of some good books that did (and they are published whereas mine is . . . awesome anyway, damn it!). I’ve written several hundred different first sentences for my one novel. In one of my favorites (the first example below), I gave my main character some personality with some witty dialogue that also helped set the scene, foreshadow some danger (that we would later find out was connected to the main conflict), and hint at genre. All of those things are good to “get out there” as quickly as possible.

Here are a few of my “first sentences” I’ve come up with for my novel. Of course, I only get one first sentence in the manuscript.

  • “Wait a bloody second,” Alanna said, “You mean you got zapped by lightning doing this? As in, you were setting up this same contraption we’re working with right now, then Boom! God went Old Testament on you?”
  •  Alanna O’Connor spun around, her long auburn hair taking sudden flight, and planted her thin palm against the castle’s sandstone wall, blocking Zoë’s path.
  • When Alanna declared that Zoë’s being struck by lightning was, “Wicked cool” and “Brilliant,” she meant it in the best possible way.
  • Alanna O’Connor was in no mood for this.

Each of the above is okay. Which is the best first line? I don’t actually know. Feel free to leave a comment.

Of Prologue and Prejudice

Kill your Prologue. Get rid of it. Never even mention you had one. Why? Because whether you or millions of readers enjoy them or not, it seems that many people in the industry (literary agents, editors, publishers) HATE Prologues. So unless you know you’re going to self-publish, having a Prologue may hurt your chances of success. Are there exceptions? As with everything else in publishing—yes, there are. But this seems pretty consistent.

When I attended the Midwest Writers Conference in late July 2012, all four attending agents (all of whom were wonderful) proclaimed their disdain for Prologues. This was expected, actually. I’ve never found an article or interview in which someone claimed to “like” Prologues, but I’d already read several in which Prologues were condemned.

Here’s how much agents hate them: I pitched my novel at that same conference and the agent was very interested in it. No, really. She was. She wanted the full manuscript and we had a good, animated conversation about my premise. And then I told her that I had two versions of the book: one with a Prologue and one without. I told her that a script evaluator praised my Prologue, saying that it was “wonderful,” so I asked if she wanted that version.

I thought she was going to rescind her request for the MS on the spot.

So I back-pedaled, said I agreed that Prologues sucked—which was why I had deleted it in the first place—and ran away to a church where I prayed she would forget that part of the conversation by the time my novel appeared in her Inbox.

I don’t mind Prologues, but I have a theory about why agents and co. despise them (I wasn’t brave enough to actually ask, but read on anyway). It goes back to a very simple rule/idea I stumbled on a while back (although the phrasing here is mine):

A novel/story should start at the last possible moment it has to, and not a second (or sentence) before.

That rule exists so that your novel will hook us with something interesting. It is very good advice.

With that in mind, I understand the prejudice against Prologues. In today’s market, readers need to be hooked by the first sentence, remain hooked by that paragraph, and be salivating by the end of the page—otherwise they’ll put the book back on the shelf and buy the one next to it. This means:

Get to the conflict ASAP—on page one if possible.

And if that’s the case—if chapter one, page one begins as it should—then a Prologue is simply in the way! The Prologue is unnecessary because it is “before the story needed to begin.” By definition, the Prologue is a road bump (possibly even a roadblock since the reader may quit reading) delaying the conflict and the real story.

Here’s another reason why Prologues get a bad wrap (Full Disclosure: the “wonderful” Prologue I wrote falls into this next category—probably the best reason for me to delete it): Some Prologues are really Flash-Forwards—and that is an obvious cheat. If you start with an exciting scene but the next chapter is a week or even an hour before that hook, you cheated. It’s a gimmick that screams, “I know the beginning is slow, but look! It’ll get really exciting . . . on page 74.” Re-think the story and begin at the last moment you have to.

So the Prologue Prejudice makes sense. Even if you have a great idea for a Prologue, don’t do it as a Prologue. Figure out how to make it the opening page of chapter one (legitimately—not just changing the title from “Prologue” to “Chapter One”) or—and this can work extremely well—have the scene later in the book as a cool reveal so that we sit back and say, “Wow! That explains everything and yet I didn’t see it coming because this book is written so well!”

R.I.P. Madam Prologue. We will miss you.