Beginnings

Oh hey, it’s 2016! I suppose the start of a new year is as good a time as any to talk about beginnings and endings.

Beginnings

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The intimidating first page. Many writers struggle to conquer it and write the perfect beginning. Sometimes it scares them so much they never start. What to do? How do you write the perfect beginning for your story?

Just do it!

You can never write your story if you never put words on the page. Guess what, you don’t have to write the beginning first! Liberate yourself from the pressure of the perfect beginning and write. If you’re feeling lost for your beginning, you can start anywhere. Get into the story and the awesome beginning scene will come to you.

Even if you think you have the perfect beginning planned out, often times you will reach the mid-point of your story and realize the story really starts in a different place. Some authors advise to always throw out your first chapter and start in chapter two. While I don’t personally advocate that practice, I do advise that you write knowing that anything you put down is expendable and rearrangeable.

Some writers start too soon in their story, some writers start too late. At this point in life I fall in the latter category. I’m always going back and adding stuff to the beginning. In fact, for my current book series, I’m having to go back and write almost an entire book’s worth of new beginning since I skipped over it in my impatience to get to “the good part” (a.k.a. the only part I had figured out). I’m missing out on all sorts of key scenes and important character development. Oops. Outlining ahead of time might have helped me there.

What goes into the beginning?

The main purpose of the beginning is to hook the reader and reel them into the story. You hook them with your first sentence, then spend the next few paragraphs to pages reeling them in. With readers you have a few pages, but with editors you only have a few paragraphs. So, pretty much your story needs to be awesome right from the start and keep building from there.

You need intrigue in the first paragraph, even in the first sentence. Establish that something is unique about your story. Show them the characters, setting, and conflict. You don’t have to introduce your main character at the start, but don’t stay away from them too long.

Beginnings build a sense of the story’s tone.

A good idea for learning about beginnings is to pick up good books and read the first few paragraphs and pages. Take notes. What does the author do? What catches your attention? What about it makes you want to keep reading?

Tip: One way to decide where to start is to ask yourself what is the most interesting scene to start with, and who has the best view of it? (It doesn’t have to be the protagonist.)

What NOT to do.

Do not start with a weather report. 99.9% of manuscripts starting with weather reports go straight into the trash at the slush pile because they are overdone. The 0.1% that don’t are astounding works of word art, and are probably written by already well established authors who can get away with things.

Don’t start with a report of the character waking up and their regular morning routine. It’s boring. The only reason to start with a morning routine is if something is different right off the bat.

Don’t start with dreams. Editors don’t like it, and it is also overdone. Only rare exceptions make it through the slush pile.

Don’t start at the protagonist’s birth unless something about it is unique, like in Natalie Whipple’s Transparent where the doctor drops the baby because she’s invisible.

DO NOT start with a bored character. Bored character equals bored reader. We don’t want them bored at the start. We want to hook them and get them interested. It’s hard to be interested in boredom.

Prologues, yay or nay?

Prologues are really a personal preference thing.

Prologues can either hurt or help. If they add to the story, then they help. If they bog things down right from the start, then they hurt. Some people skip reading prologues. Some people read them. If the information given in the prologue is important to the story, then you can just make it your first chapter. If it’s not important, but gives some cool insights on the world or characters you can leave it as a prologue. However, that cool stuff can probably be worked into the actual story as well.

Prologues should be SHORT. Readers want to get to the meat of the story as fast as possible. Don’t slow them down more than necessary.

Don’t waste time or characters to sacrifice just to show that there’s a monster in the story.  Well, you can do it, but be aware that it’s cliche. If you do, I advise making it key to the plot.

Don’t use the prologue as an info-dump. Any information about the world or backstory important to the story should be worked into the actual story itself. Anything extra you want to share can go in an appendix or on your author blog/online community you build for your special little tribe of readers. J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling are good examples.

So there you have it.

I hope this helps you with your challenge of writing the beginnings in your stories. They aren’t easy, and there’s no one right way to write them, but I know you can do it.

Now go forth and write!
Your Writing Senpai

Much of this post came from what I learned from:
LTUE 2015 panel with J. Scott Savage & Larry Correia
Carol Lynch Williams
Writing Excuses

Writing Notes # 5- Writing Combat/Action Scenes

More notes from LTUE 2015! These are notes from the writing combat panel I went to. I can’t remember everyone who was on the panel at this point, but it did have Larry Correia and Maxwell Alexander Drake. For more details and depth on the subject you can go to Mr. Drake’s website www.DrakeU.com and listen to his lesson “The Anatomy of a Fight Scene Parts 1 & 2.”

Why write violence?

Because it’s fun. What other reason do you need?

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Larry pointed out that the more peaceful a civilization is, the more violent their entertainment becomes. For example, look at the Romans. The gladiator battles and violent entertainment happened mainly when the Roman Empire was settled and fairly peaceful.

Another big reason is because violence taps the deepest into human emotion. It makes the characters grow the most. During violence, conflict, and danger we get to see their raw cores. We see what makes or breaks them.

How much of a particular fighting style do you need to know in order to write it?

Think about what your audience will know. If your audience knows a lot, then you need to know a lot in order to not throw them out of the story. For example, Larry is a gun nut and writes for an audience of gun nuts. If you were writing for that audience you would need to know a LOT about guns in order to keep them happy. Larry rants on his blog about all the things he sees authors do wrong with guns (Larry says that the only nuts worse than gun nuts in this aspect are horse enthusiasts.)

If your intended audience doesn’t know a lot, then you don’t need to know as much and can get away with smoke and mirrors/hand-wavium (as Brandon Sanderson would put it). However, knowing the art can give you insight to all sorts of cool details that make for wonderful immersive description that helps it feel real.

Another thing to keep in mind is how much does your protagonist know? Unless the hero is some super awesome veteran at their art, people tend to revert back to their most basic training. For lots of people that basic training is scream and run. If your protagonist is a master at this art, then it would be good for you to do some in-depth research so you can pass them off as one.

Humor?

Random things pop into your head while you’re in combat.  It’s a crazy dangerous thing and your brain needs to relieve the stress, so humor is very appropriate.  In real life the darker someone’s job is, the better at humor they are. (Or so they claimed at the panel. It makes sense, though.)

How do you decide what to put in?

First decide what you think would be AWESOME, then make it happen.  You can write the entire book around making that awesome thing happen.

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How do you write violence and have it make sense?

While fighting is chaotic, you need order to the chaos to keep the reader grounded and in the book. You can slow things down for a moment to focus on a detail, like how the hero feels their knuckle split in a punch and the blood oozing into the crevase between their fingers, then go back to the chaos. Some grounded, specific details give the reader something to hold onto. Also, don’t leave stuff out or the readers will notice. If you have a bunch of people fighting at once, then you need to know what’s going on with all of them. Even if you’re writing 1st person you can give hints at what’s going on in the background to let the reader know stuff is going on. Otherwise they’re going to wonder why the guy across the room didn’t just shoot the bad guy and save the protagonist.

Know all the surrounding of where the battle takes place. That way the hero can be clever with their surroundings. For example, if their gun gets chucked across the room, why don’t they pick up the chair next to them and brain their opponent? Remember how your character thinks. It might take them a while to realize they can use their surroundings, if they ever do, but know what options they have.

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Be realistic with your consequences. If the person gets broken ribs, they won’t be able to move without a ton of pain. A person goes into shock when punched in the face, removing their ability to be mentally articulate at that point. If a gun goes off in your ear you won’t be able to hear. Know what the potential consequences are for the physical damage you’re dealing your characters. Use it to make things more interesting.

Even super heroes are affected by pain. Don’t use the excuse of “Oh, they’re super powerful or magic or whatever,” to ignore the consequences of battle. Even if the character is super powerful or magic, they still have to deal with the consequences and rise above them. Use that to your advantage.

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Most importantly, focus on the characters. Focus on the combat and violence going on around your viewpoint characters. Show us what’s in their head. Dig into their heart. Keep the reader anchored to the protagonist or whoever is the viewpoint character at that point. After all, we’re reading the story because we care about the characters. The jeopardy feels more real and potent when we stick with the characters we care about.

And there you have it!

I hope this little bit about combat makes sense and helps you.

Now get writing!
Your Writing Senpai

Writing Notes #4 – LTUE & Writing Excuses – What Makes Good YA

Some of this comes from LTUE and some of it comes from the Writing Excuses podcast Season 2 Episode 2 “Writing for Children with Brandon Mull.”

What is YA?

First of all, let’s define what exactly the YA genre is.  It overlaps with Middle Grade and New Adult (which is a new genre working on blooming at the moment).  The main thing that determines which of these genres your story fits will be the age of your protagonist.  For YA it can range from 14-18.  New adult targets the ages 18-30.  But what about 12 & 13, you might ask, aren’t they teens also? Well, they’re middle grade. (And actually, 13 is a tricky age publishers hate and work hard to avoid, so it’s just best to make your protagonist 12 or 14 most of the time.) An easy way to break it down is that middle school is middle grade, and high school is YA.  Anything after high school is probably New Adult.

YA can then be further sub-divided into the genres you see in adult fiction. Examples: romance, science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, and so on. In adult fiction these genres have strict rules to divide them, but in YA these rules become blurred and sometimes non-existent. YA is a very fluid, plastic genre where anything goes.

So, really the only key to writing good YA is to know how to write a good story tailored to your audience. That brings up the question:

How do you tailor a story to a teenage audience?

I have some tips and things for you to remember that should help with that.

1. DON’T BE PREACHY.

I know you might want to teach teenagers and young adults important life lessons, but nobody wants to be lectured or preached to, especially teenagers.  We go to church and school for that.  That’s not usually why we read.

Remember WHY kids read.  YA is the genre where the readers start choosing the stories for themselves instead of having the stories handed to them by their parents.  They will put your book down if it doesn’t satisfy their needs and desires for reading.  Personally, I read and write to have fun, to feel emotion, and to be moved by something deep.  Other people read to escape harsh reality, have a laugh, experience romance, or one of many other reasons.  None of those reasons include getting preached to.

However, that doesn’t mean your story can’t teach a lesson.  It does mean that when you teach a lesson it has to be deep in the story as a guiding theme.  Be subtle.  Show and don’t tell.  Let it be a natural part of the story, more like a side-effect than the main purpose.  They’ll get it and appreciate you not rubbing it in their face.

2. Make the characters memorable.

What makes a memorable character? Don’t worry. I’ll write a post entirely on that and link to it here when I do.

3. It doesn’t have to have a romantic subplot.

Really, it doesn’t. There’s more to life than romance and sex, and some people don’t even have that on their radar. They don’t care and don’t want to read about it.

The world is already bursting with stories about sex. We could use more stories about different things.

4. How important is family?

It depends on if it adds conflict. Ever wondered why so many protagonists are orphans? Well, if those protagonists had happy safe family lives at home they might not have ever left on whatever epic quest their story took them on. Harry Potter wouldn’t have ever needed to face Lord Voldemort if his parents hadn’t died. Simba would have happily grown up a spoiled child at pride rock if Scar hadn’t killed Mufasa. Think of some other stories about orphans or children with one parent. If they had a complete happy family, would their story ever happen? Probably not.

Every aspect of a story needs to add conflict and push the plot forward. Most often a happy home life doesn’t do that. An unhappy home life, however, does. Families can be an important part of the main character’s conflict. If having a family will make the protagonist’s journey more difficult, then by all means add one in! Dealing with family can be an entire story or character arc of it’s own. There’s no need to avoid letting your main character have a family as long as it doesn’t detract from the story. If it does, get rid of it or change it until it helps instead of hinders.

5. Teenagers can carry the world on their shoulders.

YA needs to deal with problems that affect young adults, but young adults deal with a lot. Their external issues  can be anything from battling inter-dimensional space dragons to save the world, being a teen parent or oldest sibling who has to take care of their family, to taking out the non-metaphorical trash. Some teens deal with “normal” teen issues, while others have to be adults before their time. The important thing to remember is that while their external issues might be the same as an adult’s, they will be dealing with them with the mind of a teenager. Their internal issues need to match their metal age. Even mature teens are still teens.

This doesn’t mean you downplay their mental reasoning or maturity. Teenagers see themselves as grown up and mature, so treat your character that way. I liked the way Bryce Moore put it while speaking in the LTUE panel:  “However old you are is the oldest you’ve ever been, so you’re mature, dang it!”

6. Diversity is cool! (Except for when it isn’t.)

Diversity helps make your story more interesting and unique. By adding diversity you broaden your own mind view as well as the view of your audience and make the world a better place. At least, that’s the theory. If abused and used when it shouldn’t be then diversity becomes a gimmick and fails to benefit your story.

So don’t treat diversity like vegetables in a meal. You know what I mean, with that “I have to eat them because they’re healthy” attitude so you stick them in everything.

Just because diversity is cool and something people are pushing for doesn’t mean you have to add it to your story. Don’t force it if it isn’t right. You don’t have to add a multicultural character just because it’s what’s expected. That does your story and people of other cultures or backgrounds an injustice. For example, I have a story based in Colorado. There are almost no people of color there, so adding in a black person just for the sake of diversity would be wrong. It would go against the setting. (And hey, it’s already got werewolves and other magic beasts. Do I really need to add anything?) However, in my sci-fi story based in a futuristic space station game center, making everyone white would be wrong. That setting requires a large diversity of cultures, skin-types, and species (like aliens!).

Diversity in your story can be subtle or complex and up-front. Find things that are different and cool about the location and culture of the area and make them an integral fun part of the book. If diversity will add to your story, then great! If it doesn’t, don’t worry about it.

That doesn’t mean you should just shrug diversity off and never worry about it. Seriously consider diversity for your story and whether or not it will work. If you want to make your story more diverse, but don’t see a way to with your setting then ask yourself what you can change. Would a change of location help? Maybe instead of basing your story in bleached white no-name USA, you could take it to New Orleans, Chicago, Cuba, or even Canada. Or you could change the time period. You could even change the race of your main character (which might require a location change). There’s a multitude of ways to add diversity.

Just make sure to thoroughly research whatever type of diversity you’re putting into your story. You don’t want to make/encourage stereotypes. That defeats the purpose. If you’re going to have diversity in your story, then do it justice.

Also, secondary world fantasy is a cool, growing genre to consider. What’s that? Well, it’s fantasy based on cultures other than the standard western medieval ages. A good example is Drift by M. K. Hutchins. Personally, I love stories like this and want to read more. I will write at least one someday.

And that’s it!

So there you have it. Six things to remember to help yourself tailor your story to a teen audience. Now go forth and write!

-Writing Senpai

Writing Notes #3 – LTUE – Tips for Writing Fantasy (& Writing in General)

This past weekend I went to LTUE (Life, The Universe, and Everything) a writing conference in Provo, Utah.  I went to many helpful panels and took lots of notes.  I plan to share them all with you!  First off, some notes on writing fantasy:

Why fantasy?  Because it’s cooler.  Because dragons.  (That was one guy’s go-to answer for everything.)  Because it’s a safe place to explore things that are touchy in real life.  It lets you see the interior of a character better than most other genres.

How do you avoid tropes?  It’s all about execution because there are no original ideas.  You can’t avoid tropes.  Just write the best story ever.  Write the best trope ever.  Romance publishers look for specific tropes, so depending on your genre tropes are a good thing.

My own thoughts – Personally, I don’t even bother worrying about tropes.  I focus on making amazing characters and staying true to them.  Everything else will follow.  Forget about tropes.  Go forth and be free!

Things not to do?  Don’t do something convenient, like deus ex machina.  Need to have a smart way to figure things out.  Don’t start too big and overwhelm yourself.

Things to do?  You can write a short story or a stand alone to develop your skills.  When getting advice use your own filter and take away the stuff from others that will work for you.  Always keep something with you to write in so you can keep track of you ideas and never forget them.  Start working.  Sit down and do it.