Sunday, 29 November 2015

Writing that Sizzling Opening

“If you don’t know where to begin your story, try introducing readers to the protagonist’s unmet desire, vividly show them the location, and give them something to worry about.”
Steven James, Story Trumps Structure

Getting started is the toughest… you’ve written so many openings that just fizzled… right? I've written the opening to my next novel about 10 times and it's still not quite right.

I'm trying not to agonize too much. I'm hoping that the perfect opening will hit me once I'm well underway. I'm sure I'll re-write it a hundred times before I'm happy with it… and then re-write it again!

Looking for inspiration I just grabbed a couple of my favourite novels off my book shelf and then headed to Amazon and took advantage of the 'look inside' option of some best sellers.

Here are a few I came across that definitely grabbed my attention (a few contemporary and a few classics):

“When the first bullet hit my chest, I thought of my daughter.”
No Second Change by Harlan Coben

America was never innocent. We popped our cherry on the boat over and looked back with no regrets.” American Tabloid, James Ellroy.

“Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.” Brighton Rock, Graham Greene 

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fibre and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind.” Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984, George Orwell

“I was 37 then, strapped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to Hamburg Airport.” Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami

“I am ninety.” Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen

These are all opening lines that would keep me reading. But, not all great novels start with a punch in the gut, a tug at the heartstrings, or an edge of the seat type line. So, it’s not just the opening line… it’s what follows. The key is to keep your reader turning the pages.

So, does the opening really need to ‘sizzle’? Does it have to be ‘gripping’? Or can it just gently draw the reader in as you lull them into an acceptance of living in the world you’ve created, even if it’s just for the evening or a few hours.

I guess it depends on your reader and what they’re looking for and the type of genre they enjoy. What grabs one reader might repulse another.

Which of these opening lines would make you read on? Ask yourself why.

  • “The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.” It, Stephen King
  • “They built it out of stone - dark grey stone, pried loose from the unforgiving mountains.” Asylum, Madeleine Roux
  • “On the day of the miracle, Isabel was kneeling at the cliff’s edge, tending to the small, newly made driftwood cross.” The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman.
  • “In the darkness he touched her arm and said, ‘Stay here.’” She did not move, just waited. The smell of salt water was strong.  She heard the faint gurgle of water.” State of Fear, Michael Crichton
  • “In Pakistan’s Karakoram, bristling across an area barely one hundred miles wide, more than sixty of the world’s tallest mountains lord their severe alpine beauty over a witnessless high-altitude wilderness.” Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
  • “The day I left for Brunei I took the subway up-town to Beth Israel, schlepping behind me a green flowered suitcase.” Some Girls – My Life in a Harem, Jillian Lauren
Some may sound pretty ominous, or terrifying. Do you want to be ‘terrified’ when you sit down to read a book? Some people do. Some openings are more descriptive of a geographic location, appealing to a world wanderer but not someone who wants to jump right into the action. Note that the last two are memoir not fiction, but some memoirs are certainly gripping!

I hope this give you some food for thought when crafting the opening of your novel. Feel free to share some of your favourites.

Happy Writing!

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Sunday, 15 November 2015

7 Steps to Outlining Your Novel

“First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!” Ray Bradbury

Over the past five years, which is actually when I started writing fiction, I have grappled with the question of whether I’m a plotter or a pantser. You know, the plotter being the writer who is keen to develop the entire plotline, laying points on a graph, identifying the ‘inciting incident’ and all the ‘energetic markers’ and where they appear, above or below the plot line; and the pantser being the writer who writes by the seat of his or her pants.

I definitely pantsed my way through my first novel and then got stuck mid-way through my second and the only way I could get unstuck was to complete a chapter outline. Not necessarily a plotter move, but somewhere in the middle.
My favourite - supposedly JK Rowling's outline for Order of the Phoenix

So here I sit, happily in the middle, swaying from one side to the other, as needed. When preparing for my recent Paradise Writers’ Retreat, I decided to do a workshop on outlining and to share a happy medium method I have cobbled together, based on my own experience and tons of resources and references I have combed through by authors much further along in their journeys than I and to whom I regularly turn for writerly advice.

When you sit down to contemplate how your book is going to pan out, whether it’s a novel or a memoir, you can look at it from several different structural formulas and no one method is right… or wrong.

Story Trumps Structure vs. The Plot Whisperer

Two of my favourite writing books are diametrically opposed. Steven James’s StoryTrumps Structure touts ‘organic writing’ and Martha Alderson’s The Plot Whisperer strongly recommends to not start writing before completing a comprehensively developed plot line… yet both books sit on my desk with sticky notes, underlines and highlights awaiting my return.

Whatever approach is more comfortable, it’s a good to get your ideas down so you have a road map to follow.

But… how much detail to include in an outline or the preference to create a full-blown plot map, is totally up to you to decide.

For those who prefer to write organically, E.L. Doctorow says,

“It's like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

According to C.S. Lakin (Live, Write,Thrive), one of the most important things to keep in mind (whether you’re writing a novel or a memoir) is the four primary pillars of novel construction:

  • A concept with a kicker
  • A protagonist with a goal
  • Conflict with high stakes
  • A theme with a heart
Of course, all while keeping in mind the narrative forces that keep a story alive and interesting - Causality, Believability, Expectations, Continuity, Fluidity (or pacing), Polish, Dilemmas (moral quandaries) and Meaning. 

So, taking all I’ve learned so far, here is my handy-dandy checklist that I ‘loosely’ follow (I still believe I am what James calls an ‘organic’ writer but know that the way my mind is or isn’t working these days, I definitely need some solid notes):

7 Steps to a Solid Outline

1. Choose your genre
Whether a romance, mystery, urban fantasy or erotica, the genre you’re writing in will give some basic idea of how the storyline will go. There will also be some common features that readers who love that genre have come to expect (typical settings, character types, events, situations, plot devices, themes, tone, mood).

The best stories combine elements of different genres like ‘Historical Mysteries’ or ‘Scientific Westerns.’

2. Develop your concept/theme(s)
What is the basic idea of your story? What is the main theme that is carried throughout the story?

3. Decide Point of View (POV)/Narrative Perspective
1st person – ‘I’
2nd person – ‘You’
3rd person – ‘He/she’

Narrative perspective:
- Omniscient: narrator is objective, all knowing, and not a character in the story world. 
- Limited: story is told from the main character's point of view. The reader only knows what the main character knows and sees and cannot know the thoughts and feelings of other characters, except where they can be noted by the main character from personal observations or knowledge shared by others (not always reliable). 

- Minor Character Narrator: story is being told by a character in the story world (not the main character) who plays no significant role in the events but observes sometimes from afar. 

- Multiple: story switches between more than one character's point of view.
4. Create the Setting
Where/when does the story take place? Build your world, whether it’s real or imaginary. Describe how people get around and interact. What is the environment/terrain like? What is the tone of the story (attitude) and the mood (atmosphere)? The genre will give some indication of these.

5. Describe your Protagonist
Who is the main character?
What is the PROBLEM she faces? (story-worthy vs. surface)
What is her goal, objective?
What does she want?
Why does she set out on her QUEST?

6. Identify the Main Conflict
What is inciting incident? What happens that changes everything?
How does CONFLICT (internal or external) interfere in the QUEST?

And, finally…

7. Do a Chapter Outline
Write one or two lines describing what happens in each chapter (the main scene). Consider the following questions:

  • What would this character naturally do in this situation?
  • How can I make things worse?
  • How can I end this in a way that’s unexpected yet inevitable?
Get these steps done, record them using whatever method works for you... sticky notes on the wall, index cards on a bulletin board, a spread sheet, table or using a cool software program like Scrivener (which I've just recently started to learn). Once you’ve gone through these seven steps, I guarantee you’ll be ready to sit down and write your book. The words will just flow!

What has your experience with outlining been? I’d love to hear from you.

If you’d like to receive my newsletter, book launch announcements or information on upcoming writing retreats, go ahead and sign up for my newsletter. When you sign up you’ll also receive a free copy of my ebook, 10 Steps to a Successful PR Campaign – a Do-it-Yourself Guide forAuthors.

Monday, 7 September 2015

And the Winner is… Awards Programs for Fiction Writers

Getting recognition for your writing in the form of an award is not only a boost in confidence but it’s
also a great marketing and PR opportunity. Having an industry stamp of approval from an unbiased judging process is a great endorsement of the quality of your writing and gives you fodder to help rise
2013 IPPY Awards in NY
above the noise of the competition.

One of the most highly regarded awards programs for indie authors is the IPPY Awards, which was started by Independent Publisher Magazine 20 years ago. My first novel, Mental Pause, was a bronze award-winner in the best adult fiction ebook category in 2013. I was both shocked and pleased, as it was the first awards program I had ever entered. The publicity alone was well worth it, not to mention a great party in New York!

The point is, including awards programs in your book launch marketing plan is a solid strategy. It’s great exposure for both you as an author and for your books.

Here are the awards programs I’m submitting or have already submitted my latest novel, Deep Deceit, to (fingers crossed). They all have different submission guidelines and some charge entry fees so click on each to visit the website for more details. This is certainly not a comprehensive list so if there are others you know of please feel free to add them below in the comments section…

IPPYAwards, deadline Feb. 27, 2016
EricHoffer Book Award, deadline Jan. 1, 2016
IndieFab Book Awards (Foreward Reviews), deadline Jan. 15, 2016
IndieReader Discovery Awards (Alliance of Independent Authors), deadline March 2, 2016
InternationalBook Awards, deadline Feb. 2016
NationalIndie Excellence Book Awards, deadline April 5, 2016
NextGeneration Indie Book Awards, deadline Feb. 12, 2016
Reader'sFavorites, deadline March 30, 2016
Writer'sDigest Self-Publishing Awards, closed now, opens in Nov. for next year's competition
Writer'sDigest Self-Published ebook Awards, closed now but keep on the list for next year
Writers& Editors, March 15, 2016
eLitBook Awards - Jenkins Group, January 31, 2016
BestKindle book awards - Next Gate Press, closed for 2015, watch for next year!

Feel free to share what your awards program experience has been. 

If you’d like to receive my newsletter, book launch announcements or information on upcoming writing retreats, go ahead and sign up for my mailing list. When you sign up you’ll also receive a free copy of my ebook, 10 Steps to a Successful PR Campaign – a Do-it-Yourself Guide for Authors.