Monday, February 29, 2016

Where To Start Your Story


As a Pitch Wars mentor, I get some of the most wonderful emails from newer writers thanking me for so selflessly taking the time to critique their work.  Now here’s my confession: it’s not so selfless.  Having the opportunity to read so many WIP’s has taught me more about writing than any class or workshop I’ve ever attended.  Why?  Being required to pinpoint why or why not an opening chapter is working has given me a much greater understanding of how to grab a reader from the very first page.

The most common mistake I see among Pitch Wars submissions is not starting the story in a place that immediately engages readers.  Many writers are hesitant to trust that readers will understand their characters’ dilemmas and motivations unless the story opens with a recounting of the events that has brought them to this point.  Others are convinced if you don’t fully get to know a character’s interior life in the opening pages, a reader won’t stay tuned for the drama to follow.  Then there are those who go to the other extreme: opening on a scene that keeps you guessing – and not in a good way. 

So what is the right place?  How do you know you’ve hit on that perfect moment that will compel your reader to keep turning pages?  Here’s what I’ve discovered in the Pitch Wars slush pile:


I’ve heard agents say they dislike prologues, and now I understand why.  Probably 20% of the submissions I received in my two years of mentoring had prologues, and apologies if you fall into this category, but pretty much all were unnecessary.  In fact, I started playing a game of skipping the prologue and going right to the first chapter to see if it impacted my reading experience.  The result was a more exciting and interesting read every single time.

“My readers will need the information presented in the prologue to understand what happens in the book,” I’ve heard writers argue.  That may be, but too often prologues are used as an expedient way to info dump.  I’m not saying every prologue is a waste of paper and ink, but in the YA world, which is where I dwell, I would encourage writers to dramatically weave that information into the main body of their novels if possible.  If you do decide a prologue is necessary to best tell your story, please make sure it contributes to building conflict, stakes, and has a direct bearing on what’s about to befall your main character.

Starting Too Soon

How do you know if you are starting too soon?  If any of these apply:

·      *  If nothing’s happening.  I’ve seen opening chapters with main characters washing dishes while reflecting on their problems, or watching a parent cook dinner while reciting expository dialogue.  If it is not significantly developing your character or furthering your plot, open with a different scene.

·     *   If the opening contains only backstory.  Spending the first five pages catching us up on the MC’s problems is not the same as starting your story.

·     *   If there’s no goal, conflict, or inciting event.  I once happened to have Kass Morgan’s THE 100 sitting on my desk when I was explaining this concept to a writer.  The first line in the book is: The door slid open, and Clarke knew it was time to die.  There is goal (Clarke wants to live) and conflict (someone is planning to kill her) all wrapped up in one killer sentence.

So Where Do You Start?

One tool I use to determine where to begin a story is to write a one or two page synopsis, the kind you will have to write anyway if you plan to query an agent.  No matter how much outlining and advance planning I’ve done, the short synopsis is the best way I’ve discovered to insure I’ve structured a well-plotted story with satisfying conflicts and stakes that continue to build throughout the book.  If the synopsis is boring, or the stakes aren’t well defined, or the story isn’t working for whatever reason, this is the time to fix the problem – not after you’ve written an entire manuscript.

A synopsis also tells me what the first dramatic event will be.  It’s the moment from which all others will spring, and without it there would be no story.  Your MC should be proactively pursuing a goal or involved in a conflict that will then be connected to the book’s main goals and conflicts.  If my MC can’t authentically be engaged in either in the opening scene, then I know I’m starting in the wrong place.

Another approach is to see the first pages of your book as a film.  Screenwriters often start a script with an "action opening," which generally refers to big, noisy, attention-grabbing scenes.  I don’t necessarily start a book with explosions and car chases, but I often aim to put my MC in action from the very first page.

Polishing those opening pages to hook a reader or land your agent is challenging enough.  By starting your story at the exact right place, you’re already one step closer to publishing success.

*** I'd love to hear about your technique for creating a gripping opener.  Please find me on twitter: @kestrester.

Friday, February 26, 2016

World Building Tip: Does my reader need to know this detail RIGHT NOW?

Fantasy writers know all about world building, but no matter what genre you write, you’re going to have to convey the characteristics of your main character’s world. The trick is finding the right balance. Too much detail can turn into pages of info-dump, where plot and your MC takes a backseat to purple prose describing things no one cares about. Too little detail and there’s no context to engage your reader.

I write contemporary fantasy, and I’m always struggling with how much info to include about the fantastical details of my world. One trick I’ve found especially useful is asking whether, if the novel was not taking place in a fantastical world, I’d include that piece of background information. I find that by doing this, I can learn whether a particular detail is essential to the plot. If it’s not essential, out it goes, no matter how interesting or fun it might be.

Let’s say I’m writing a contemporary novel about my MC’s first year at college. She’s away from home for the first time and trying to find her place in the world. I can’t imagine a scenario where I’d even consider including the history of the university, a blueprint of the grounds, or who sits on the board of directors. Heck, no. I’d focus on my MC’s actual conflict and include only those details about the college that were necessary to the plot.

Now switch it up. Same plot—my MC is attending her first year at the magic academy, and she’s away from home for the first time and trying to find her place in the world. Does the world building change? Is it now okay to include snippets of the history of the university, a blueprint of the grounds, or the board of directors? No. No. And No. The same rule applies—I’m only going to include details about the academy that are necessary to the plot.

This is not to say I don’t think about other aspects of my fantastical world. But that I thought of how or why something is the way that it is doesn’t mean I have to include it in the novel. If that detail is not important to what is going on with the MC at that exact moment, it has to stay out. We’ve all heard how every word has a purpose and how important it is to kill our darlings. These concepts hold true with world building too. If there’s no particular reason for a detail about your world to be included, it must go, no matter how interesting that detail is.

Fellow Pitch Wars mentor Charlie N. Holmberg’s The Paper Magician series is a great example of keeping the world building tied to the plot. The series takes place in the late 1800s where magicians specialize in a field: paper, glass, metal, etc. The MC, Ceony, graduates from magic school and is assigned to study paper magic, which she feels is the lowest form of magic. She then learns paper magic, falls for her instructor, and becomes involved in warding off practitioners of dark magic.

At no point in the series did Holmberg explain how or why Ceony has magic propensities while others don’t, how magic is used in the world outside of Ceony’s experience, how magic was discovered, or anything about the use of magic in the world that wasn’t directly tied to Ceony’s actions. All of the world building is on a need-to-know basis and explained to the reader only in the context of what is happening to Ceony at a specific point in time. This is perfect world building. The novel isn’t about the Ceony’s magical world. The novel is about Ceony, and by not including a zillion unnecessary details about the magical world, the focus remains on Ceony.

Everyone should totally read The Paper Magicians series—it’s great fun. But there’s plenty of other examples of successful world building being limited to the plot. Go back and dissect The Hunger Games. In the first book, we get very little on how and why the districts were formed. It’s not until later in the series, when the overthrow becomes central to the plot, that more of the history into Pan Em is described to the reader.

To sum up, I know it’s tough editing out world building. We spend so much time developing our world we want everyone to know we put in the work! (And hey, it helps with reaching those word count goals too.) We just have to remember that the story is what’s important, and unnecessary details will slow down the plot and risk boring the reader.

So what about you? What tips or tricks do you utilize to keep your world building in check? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

C-C-CHARACTERIZATION (the task of creating characters)

“My name is Indigo Montoya you killed my father...” I bet you know what comes after. Maybe you even said the ending to yourself just now. *

What about this: “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversation?” Do you know who said that, and what book it’s from? **

The above is to prove the point that well established characters stick with us long after we leave them. I don’t think anyone will disagree that characters are the most important part of any story. So the question is: how do we create ones that are every bit as real and memorable?
Hi WWM readers, I’m author Rebecca Sky and the above question is something I continually try to achieve. I’ve spent an ungodly amount of time reading blogs and books on the craft of characterization. For today’s post, I thought I’d share some of my top findings with you.

1. Trigger your readers Senses:

a)      What does your character LOOK like?
        “Start with a specific physical description of each character. It doesn't have to be long and it doesn't have to occur when you introduce the character; however, we shouldn't get to the end of the book and discover that your protagonist has a purple birthmark on his face, or is six foot seven and came from the planet Krypton, unless you were trying to surprise us.
        Make sure that your description is not generic. Don't describe a potential romantic interest as "tall, dark and lanky." Pretend that you're reciting his attributes to a police officer who's looking for a burglar. Every trait is important, particularly the ones that will make him unique. Brown eyes or brown hair are mundane. A nose ring or a skeletal tattoo is not. Give your characters a goatee, holes in their jeans, stiletto high heels, platinum hair, a vaccination pockmark or a military crew cut. Do anything to make them different.”- from the blog
b)      What does your character SMELL like?
        Does your character work at a bakery and smell like flour and chocolate? Or maybe the love interest is a carpenter and smells of woodchips, or a landscaper that smells of fresh cut grass. Or maybe they saved a child from a burning building and weeks later still can’t get the smell of smoke out of their hair.
        “Oh, I think the explanation might be you've been fooled by a simple olfactory misdirection, a little bit like ventriloquism of the nose. It's an elementary trick in certain parts of the galaxy.” – The Tenth Doctor, Doctor Who

c)      What does your character TASTE like?
       It rubs the lotion on its skin…
       Um, no one is going to eat my character. I’m not writing a cannibalistic horror. Ok, I get it, this may seem like a weird question, but taste is used quite a bit. Maybe your character wears cherry lip gloss when she kisses her partner. Or maybe one character busts another in a lie when they have smoky breath from the cigarette they snuck behind the garage (this could be smell or taste). Here’s a line from my WIP: “Without warning his soiled hand comes crashing across my face. The blow reopens my old wound and the coppery taste of fresh blood fills my mouth.” In this case, taste is used to characterize the person who hit her, to add to the intensity of the action.

d)      What does your character FEEL like?
       Perhaps they have calloused hands from all that rough work as a carpenter. Or maybe one of them is mixed raced and has long springy curls another character can’t help playing with. Or maybe when your character’s kiss, the stubble jaw of a man, too busy building his new business to shave, scratches against his partner’s cheek making them giggle.

e)      What does your character SOUND like?
       Maybe your villain is in a wheelchair and the familiar squeal of the wheels is what your hero hears when hiding in the darkness, fearing for her life. Or maybe your character is happy-go-lucky and whistles everywhere he goes. Like the other senses, sound helps deepen characterization.
       “Noise soup. I just made it. Taste it with your ears.” -Jarod Kintz

2. Add Depth:
Where did your character come from? What was his childhood like? Happy or sad? What were his relations like with his parents? His brothers / sisters? If his father was (say) extravagant, what impact did this have on your character? if his mother was (say) easily tearful, how did this affect him then? And what about now, in particular where his relations with women are concerned?
Were there key incidents in childhood that shaped him in a way relevant to your book's story? Think these through and note them down. It really helps if your examples are concrete and show your character via their actions and choices in specific situations.

All your key characters MUST have a well-defined character arc through a novel. This is true even of all-action adventure stories, if you want them to be any good. The standard arc might be something like (1) Susan has a fear of commitment, (2) she encounters a situation in which that fear is put to the test in the most (for her) dramatic and challenging way, (3) she either passes or fails the challenge. Either way, she's different at the end of the book than she was at the start. So put this arc into writing. Link it to the challenges of your story; to their back story; and to their personality. In relation to this central issue, you should aim to understand your character as well as a therapist might. It's critical you get this part right!

It's usually a good idea to come to this issue a bit later than other things, as your ideas will have more depth and subtlety when some of the structure is already in place. But start to answer as many questions as you can think of. For instance: Does your character laugh easily? Are they sociable? What impression would they make on a casual observer? What about if they spent an hour talking to someone in a bar? Do they get angry easily? Cry easily? Are they self-conscious? What political party would they vote for and why? Are they conflict avoiders or conflict seekers? Do they drink, smoke, take drugs, drink too much coffee, eat junk food? If so why? What is it about them that takes them to these places? What are their feelings about sex? Are they screwed up in any way? Are they sensitive or selfish lovers? How involved do they get emotionally?

Your central character will almost certainly have a key romantic / sexual relationship in your book. Good. But make sure this relationship is deeply sewn into your study of character arc and action. For example, perhaps your central character seeks to avoid a certain painful truth, and this is the challenge around which your story revolves. In that case, that character's key relationship should perhaps be with a person who challenges him to face up to that truth - or perhaps colludes with him to avoid it. If you handle it like that, then the romantic element in your novel will be as core as everything else. It won't just be thrown in for the sake of it.
But don't stop there. Elaborate. Why has your character chosen this particular partner? Is he / she like the partners your character normally goes for? Try and explore their intimate dialogue? Do they go in for cutsie baby-talk? Or hard-edged flippancy? Or reflectiveness? What are their pet names for each other? Do they encourage maturity in the other or bring out the less mature side? What are their disagreements about? Do they row, and if so how? How do they mend rows? What does one love most about the other? What do they most dislike? What is your predicted future for the relationship beyond the end of the novel? Do spend real time and thought on this exercise/technique, especially if your novel revolves around romance or relationship. If your answers feel good and true, you WILL start to develop real chemistry between your lovers. (Tip: read your favourite authors and see how they handle these things. You can read Harry Bingham's analysis of a number of well known novels in his How To Write.)

And don't just write about all the important things. Write about the unimportant things too. What food does your character like? What clothes do they choose? How do they wear them (ie: sloppily, stylishly, fussily, self-consciously, etc)? What makes them laugh? What does their laugh sound like? If your character were an animal, what sort of animal would they be? What films do they like? What books? Are they creative? Do they fart? Can they speak French? Are they good with money? Are they absent-minded? Do they like oranges? Have they ever used a gun? What is their favourite pub game? How do they fidget? Describe their hands.
And so on and so on. Many of these questions will have no direct relevance to your book. But the more questions you ask and answer, the better you will know your character.
      ***this chart is from

b) A little more on personality:
There are two main personality classification systems, the Meyer’s Briggs and Carl Jung’s personality theory.
Here's a link to a Meyer’s Briggs chart that shows where popular fictional characters fit in this clarification:
Here is a link to Carl Jung’s common archetypes:

c) personality tip #3: A Great resource for understanding your character’s personality traits is the: Positive and Negative Trait thesauruses by Angela Ackerman! I have them next to my desk when I’m writing and I use them like a bible when I’m first putting my character profiles together!  

3. “Action is character.” -F. Scott Fitzgerald
       Great, but what does that mean? Have you ever heard the saying, Love is a verb? What it means is that it’s not what your character says that reveals who they are, (though dialogue is very important and we will get to that in a moment), but it’s what they do that shows who they truly are. Actions show the person’s true nature, whereas dialogue shows the person’s intended self.
        Example: If I tell you I’m environmentally conscious, but use throwaway Styrofoam containers for lunch and drive a Hummer, you’ll probably think I’m a liar or doubt my understanding of being environmentally conscious.
       Note: If your character is a liar, this is a good technique to use!

       “Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”- Kurt Vonnegut

4. Flaws: Not too hot, not too cold…just right.
     “No one wants to watch a movie about a character who has his or her awesomely perfect life all figured out; talk about a snoozefest. But the other extreme is just as unwatchable. It’s nearly impossible to root for a character who is so tragically flawed that they’re a total a**hole. Yet I have read many a script where the protagonist immediately alienates by being rude, narcissistic, immature, intolerant, and intolerable.
     Although making a character flawed gives him or her ample room to grow and arc, characters that are too unlikable and unredeemable make it impossible for the audience to develop any emotional connection to them from the start. Find a healthy middle ground in which your character is somewhat flawed but still sympathetic and relatable so that you’re not trying to get your audience to root for a giant jerk.” - Caitlin Durante

5. Dialogue
            a) Keep language timeline appropriate: If you’re writing a historical fiction and your character says, “Hey dude, what’s up?” or “That dress is so fleek.” your readers will picture the character in a modern setting.
b) Keep the phrasing consistent: How old do you think these speakers are?
“I hate when you boss me around!” (I think of a teenage girl).
“It frustrates me when you tell me what to do.” (I think of an older person).
It’s the same message, but the phrasing gives an impression of their personality. Are they mature, patient, funny, annoying etc, try to find dialogue that supports those traits.
c) Avoid obvious exaggerations: Things like, “I read this book a thousand times,” or “you always forget me.” These type of comments give your character personality traits you didn’t intend for them to have, such as exaggerators, which could make your readers not trust them or think of your characters as annoying. Because let's face it, when someone exaggerates to us it can be annoying. Note: If you’re trying to make your character annoying, it is a good tool to use.
d) Here’s a great article that goes into more depth on dialogue:

I hope all my coffee-coma-internet-scouring-hours brought you some insight on characterization!  I’d love for you to share with me, in the comments below, some of your all-time favorite characters. Mine are: Anne (Anne of Green Gables), Fennel (The Scourge), Peeta Mellark (The Hunger Games), Sherlock (Sherlock Holmes), Luna Lovegood (Harry Potter).

Thanks for reading and hanging out on WWM! If you have any questions for me, please feel free to drop me a line on Twitter (@RebeccaSky).

Xo Rebecca

*“…prepare to die.” (If you didn’t know, you probably haven’t seen the movie Princess Bride— It’s one of my favorites! Not to mention a cult classic. You should probably go watch it now…I’ll wait).

**Alice, from her self-titled memoir Alice in Wonderland, (not really, Lewis Carroll wrote it, but you knew that).