Red Lettering

Stories will not be written easily. A story without a heart is dead, and the only place it will get a heart is from the author.

Archive for the tag “Beginnings”

The Hardest Part of Writing the First Draft

The Hardest Part of Writing the First Draft

No one can deny that writing a first draft is a difficult, oftentimes painful experience. In spite of the fact that many authors consider it to be their favorite part of the process (and almost all prefer it over the dreaded editing), it’s not only pleasurable, it is necessary—which always means it will be hard.

Yet even through the long, sleepless nights, the lips chapped and bleeding from chewing on them (I’m guilty of this one, I’m afraid) and the worry about writing a reasonable climax, there is one thing that claims highest on the list of difficult things.

That, with no contest, is starting the novel.

Some novels start easily. IOTW originally started because I was curious as to what the NaNo Young Writer Program would suggest as my word count goal, so I started typing a random story in a browser on my sister’s computer. Somehow, a one-hundred thousand novel was born out of that. Strong, a novel from a few years ago, didn’t start too well; nor did Prince’s Rose, or Joy of Stars, all of which I had to start over several times on that first night of writing. Sometimes novels start easily, but sometimes—nay, usually, they are difficult to start.

We have to start the novel to go anywhere with it. People come up with bizarre ways of trying to get around the nervousness of beginning a novelnot the least of which ranked in oddity being starting in the middle and then going back to fill in the beginning later. I would think that my brain would die from such a lack of continuity that would result from that—but, worse, some people just give into the nervous, vaguely sick feeling in the pit of their stomach, and they never start what would be a brilliant story.

The truth is that there is only one way to remove this obstacle from your path. That way is to sit down, put your fingers on the keyboard, and start typing. You will have to fight your way through the nerves, for there is no way around them. There is only once chance, and that is to start, and start now. 

Yes, you may delete it. Yes, you may hate it. Yes, it may be horrible. My first few sentences of Prince’s Rose that I discarded ranged from being nightmare-inducing to a Grammar-Nazi to just plain confusing (“Wait… Was the floor creaking? Or was that the clock? Well, something’s ticking, so that must be the clock… Would that make it the floor creaking? All on its own?). It didn’t really matter, though, for those sentences, removed or not, gave me a springboard into the story. When I eventually settled on my final first sentence, I was ready to write the story, and my nerves had subsided.

You will most likely end up cringing at your first sentence at some point, maybe even cringing at the one you decided to keep. But as long as that first sentence is down and being followed by more words, it doesn’t matter, because you will have gotten through the hardest part of writing a novel.

One million miles,

It starts with a step or two.

(Michael W. Smith)

Just start. Take the first step, and write the novel. From this point on, you’re on the journey—it may be hard, but you’re well on your way to victory.

What have been your experiences with starting novels? Any first sentences that you would like to share? (If you share yours, I’ll share mine!)

Three Ways to Not Start a Novel

3 Ways to Not Start a Novel

Scattered all over the internet are a half-million ways to not begin a novel. When I looked them up a little while ago,  I could not help but think that—though I’m sure they’re all splendid, logical reasons—it would be more than slightly discouraging for a beginning writer to look through the eight lists entitled “100 Worst Ways to Start a Novel.” It was not that there was so many of them (though I do think that can be a bit overwhelming at times) as much as how they went about presenting their information. “Don’t do this. Don’t do this. I hate this. Don’t do this. This is terrible.” The sites that gave reasons why it’s a bad idea to begin your novel like that were few and far between.

Even fewer are the ones that say how to do it correctly.

While these are far from official publisher or agent-type openings to avoid, these are three things at the beginning of stories that bother me as both a writer and a reader.

It was— Wait. Stop there. You were expecting “It was a dark and stormy night,” weren’t you? Oh. Well, if you insist, we’ll get to that next. For now, though, let’s discuss the two words it was that are so frequent in the beginning of books. The to-be verb paired with the ever-mysterious it seems to be one of the most common beginning to beginning authors’ beginning novels. This, more than any others, is one of the openings that will make me moan and set the book aside.

Normally, it’s best to remove the to-be verb as much as possible (“are,” “is,” “was,” “will be,” and “were,” are all to-be verbs) when we are telling a story; there is almost always a stronger way of saying whatever you are trying to say. For example: “She was running,” or “She ran.” Do note, though, that this does not apply to dialogue. We want our characters to be speaking as normal people would.

Since it’s best to remove the to-be verb, keeping it out of the first sentence, which is the doorway into your novel, is a good idea.

Google defines the word “it” as “used to refer to a thing previously mentioned or easily identified.” As the first word of your sentence, first sentence in the novel, you can’t possibly have previously referred to something. The word it has now become a fairly meaningless word in this context. Remove it, and replace it with the thing you’re speaking of. If you’re talking of the morning air? Talk about the morning air, not a mysterious it which we know nothing of.

“It was a dark and stormy night.” Since we’ve already been over the “it was,” let us not speak of it again, but instead tackle this sentence as a whole. To put it quite simply, this is practically the most cliché beginning to any story. Once upon a time, the words were original.

That was a very long time ago.

Again, ignoring the it was, we come to “a dark.” Most nights—at least where I come from—are dark. I wonder if it’s different in the rest of the world.  That taken care of, we’re left with “and stormy night.” These days,  it’s not suggested that you start your novel with a storm at all, though it’s not strictly forbidden. If you must start it with a storm, try for perhaps a more original introduction to the storm.

The Main Character is in (slightly random) Mortal Danger. This sort of opening is one that usually only receives a blank look, though I sometimes feel vaguely bad about it, what with all the trouble the characters are going through to make it exciting.

At the moment, though, we don’t particularly care if the character dies. I’m afraid ’tis so, heartless though it might seem; if the character died, we would slowly blink, say, “That was odd,” and not be overly concerned about it, because at this point we don’t know the character. Perhaps there have been a few stories where abruptly dropping us into dramatic, life-or-death situations have been well done, but I imagine that if I ever were to find a book, I would keep reading not because I was concerned about this character whose name I did not even know, but because of the mystery behind it.

The main problem with this type of beginning, though, is that when it’s coming from beginning writers, I often see meaningless danger. It’s very exciting drama, but it doesn’t tie in with the rest of the story. That, combined with the fact that we wouldn’t mind if the character decided to go and die, makes for an irritating beginning to a novel.

How, then, do we do it? 

“Mark Royce arrived at the latest African crisis by way of a United Nations Chopper.”

“Rare Earth,” Davis Bunn.

While I’m not entirely sure his style is my favorite, Davis Bunn’s first sentence in Rare Earth, impressed me with all the information it held. In this first sentence, we are introduced to the main character— Marc Royce, discovered where he was—Africa (and the fact that there is a crisis there), and how he arrived—by a United Nations Helicopter.

From this one sentence, we gain a large amount of information; more information, perhaps, then we needed in the first sentence, but it was helpful information nonetheless.

“Hill House, though abandoned, had remained unscathed during the years of the Dragon’s occupation.”

“Veiled Rose,” Anne Elisabeth Stengl.

From this first sentence of Veiled Rose, we gain information not about the main character, but about the story. We learn from this that Hill House has been abandoned, and that there has been a Dragon occupation in the past couple of years. We learn a bit about the setting from the style of the writing and have a peek into the world we’re about to enter.

“Great and golden, like an enormous, newly minted doubloon, the Caribbean sun presided over the waterfront.”

“The Angel’s Command,” Brian Jacques.

Here, we learn not only a bit of the location, but also perhaps the time period and a bit about the character. We find that we’re at a waterfront on the Caribbean in the time of doubloons; and that the character automatically compares the sun with doubloons.

In conclusion: (No, I wasn’t randomly putting those first sentences of books in here just for the sake of doing so.) The first sentence is the first step into your world. Make it count.

All of the best first sentences, those that stick us straight into the story, tell us something relevant. It’s splendid sometimes when your world is cold, but unless this will be a real, large part of the story, perhaps it wouldn’t be the best option for a first sentence. Whether it’s something about the setting, something about the character, something about the upcoming plot, tell us something that’s worth hearing.  This is our first impression into your novel. Tell us something that, even if we don’t realize it at the time, will matter as we go through the novel.

What is your favorite type of first sentence? What is the first sentence of your story?

Beginnings

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There are very few things that are entirely obligatory to something written. A skilled writer might be able to manage a story without characters, and many unskilled writers write without characters (posing as characters are names and cardboard cut-outs). Many young writers have their stories without climaxes, and even published works have been found to be without endings sometimes.

But beginnings are entirely necessary. Good or bad, beginnings are always there; writers have to start somewhere.

I considered writing my first post on climaxes, or endings, just for the irony of it, but it wasn’t quite ironic enough for people to notice, so I decided against it.

I read three blogs dedicated only to writing that immediately come to mind, and probably five that have posts about writing well on them, but I don’t think that I’ve ever read a post on one of them about beginning a story. I have read posts about before you start writing, about assembling an outline, and about developing your characters before the start of the novel, but I do not recall ever reading one about the first few paragraphs of a novel. People often tend to ignore that beside the general, “Don’t begin a book on “a dark and stormy night,” or with your character waking up to the blaring of their alarm clock.”

Yet the beginning of a novel is important. Few agents or publishers will read past the first few paragraphs if they’re unimpressed by what they see there. Readers are more likely to continue, but once you make a first impression, it’s hard to change it.

The only question now being what makes a good beginning?

While there’s little on beginning novels, it’s not an entirely untouched subject, and there are some things that most writers know. The most obvious is to capture the attention of the reader. It’s exceptional advice… yet often, I think, writers take this a little bit too far.

There are many things that go into making a good beginning which won’t be touched here, but I think that the most important thing that I know is that people don’t care about your characters. 

Often I’ve seen both works-in-progress and published novels where authors almost immediately put their characters in danger. They leave us no time to get attached to the characters before expecting us to care if they die at all. We’re not heartless readers, but, truly, characters die all the time. We have no reason to care if particular characters die unless we’ve been given a reason, and if the authors immediately expects us to care, it only irritates us.

In Bryan Davis’s Raising Dragons, the story begins not in the middle of a battle, but in a normal, everyday life… that isn’t so normal anymore. Bryan Davis immediately shows us what is normal as well as showing us what’s changing the normal of the main character. For another chapter, the effects of the change are seen, but we don’t actually find the real, life-or-death danger until we care about the characters.

In Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s, Heartless, it opens with a brother and a sister playing by the side of a river on the edge of a forest that no one enters. A normal thing, but with a touch of mystery, of fantasy that makes us wonder, who is going to stumble into the Wood…or who is going to come out? After the prologue, we enter a normal day, a few years later, which is soon changed by the appearance of something out of the ordinary, but not something setting a blade to the character’s neck. It keeps us reading, and then the threat enters. By that time, we have found that, at some point without noticing, we got attached to the characters.

My favorite books have started by showing what is normal for the characters and threatening it quietly. Starting with a direct threat to the characters doesn’t seem to work for me, because I have no  interest in the characters, but if you show me something small that interests me enough to keep me reading until I’m attached to the characters, I consider it to be well done.  Sometimes there is a prologue, or a brief scene beforehand that shows a threat, but the books that I’ve remembered have not started with a sword-fight or the character nearly dying.

By the time characters are being shoved into close brushes with death, the reader should realize that they like the characters. They should realize that they’re ready to clobber the author if the character dies.

Then we, the authors, know that we’ve crafted a good beginning.

What are your favorite beginnings to stories? Do you agree? Disagree? What have you found about writing beginnings that’s helped you? There’s a neat little “comment” box below!

Welcome and Purpose

Greetings always seem to be exceptional places to start when beginning a new thing or when people have just arrived. Since I assume that you have just arrived, and I know that have just arrived—welcome! I am very glad that you have stopped by Red Lettering. 

The purpose of the blog is to encourage Christian writers of fiction. I intend to do bi-weekly character interviews, interviewing the characters of Christian writers, both published and approaching publication in the future. I hope to write articles, and invite other people to write guest posts. Author interviews are scheduled for once a month, and while I don’t at the moment intend to do very many book reviews, they and cover reveals are distinct possibilities.

I am not a published author, nor do I claim to be an authority on writing subjects. I’ve been writing for seven years and am learning still. I am learning how to improve my writing and characters, and hope to be able to post what I learn.

So I welcome you to my blog. I hope that you enjoy your stay here.

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