Monday, February 25, 2013

The First Five Pages, Part 2 The Opening Line

A couple of years ago, I took an online class on writing a great first chapter. (At the time I was sort of an online class junkie. Figured if I only learned one thing in every class I'd be light years ahead of everybody else. LOL!!!) Anyway, lesson one dealt with first lines. The workshop instructor was a newly published writer who was also new to giving workshops, so when no one posted their first line I jumped in to save her from embarrassment and from a crappy first lesson with my brilliant first line...

"I'm pregnant."

She lambasted me. (By this time I'd written 30 or so books and THAT LINE was the first line of one of my most successful books and she lambasted it? Wow. Bummer.)

She said things like, Sure, it makes me curious...but I don't know the people I'm curious about. I don't know who the people are who are involved. Who is she telling that she's pregnant?

Um...THAT'S why your eyes move to line 2. You ARE curious. And that's the biggest purpose of your first line. To get readers to read line 2 because they are curious.

Readers keep reading because they want to find out what comes next. Or as in my example above, they want to know who was speaking and who was she talking to and is this pregnancy good or bad.

Lots of writers believe the purpose of a first line is to "get readers in the mood" of the story which can be true. But if you give me a description of a forest I'm not going to be as curious from your "mood" first line as I would be if you said... My mother always told me to look before I leaped.

That's a mood line.  It's kind of curiosity laced with oh, yeah, I know THAT feeling. LOL Technically "look before you leap" could also be the book's theme. But primarily that line makes you curious. Readers wonder...Oh-oh, what did she do?

And they move to line two.

But notice they don't just move to line two out of habit. They move with curiosity driving them and questions in their heads. And looking for answers to those questions is what will keep them reading.

Notice, also, that good first lines... "I'm pregnant." and "My mother always told me to look before I leaped." both have TOTAL BOOK implications. The pregnancy is the heart of my category romance marriage of convenience.  "My mother always told me to look before I leaped" undoubtedly relates to a big complication which opens the story and probably drives the story.

You can use "Who stole my car!" as an opening line but if that stolen car isn't relevant to the whole story, your first line won't have the impact that readers long for. It will be one of those false openings that hook readers in then disappear in a puff of smoke. Readers are okay with those. But, ah, the other ones...the grabber first lines that have total book implications...they just work so much better!

Readers also want a little polish to your first line. "I'm pregnant." Is elegant in its simplicity in my marriage of convenience.  Using a "theme" first line like "My mother always told me to look before I leaped." shows thought.  The author had to think through the story before she could write her first line...which is why some authors don't finalize their first line until they write the whole book! (Unless you know your theme when you first begin writing!)

Unfortunately, it's the very fact that readers expect a "polished" first line that causes writers to believe the "setting" first line is so wonderful. It is easy to write something beautiful -- poetic even -- about the moon, the sky, the stars, the trees, the flower beds...and lots of writers use this first-line technique successfully. But go back to those books and you'll probably see that the moon, the sky, whatever, either leads right into theme or affects action.

ie The crisp light of the harvest moon led Sabrina Brown through the forest as she ran for her life. Crisp light of the harvest moon shows polish and gives a vivid image...but it also takes us right to action. Before our first line is over, we're running with Sabrina. We're also curious about why she's running and who is chasing her!


The sweet scent of sugar cookies drew me to the kitchen and the mom who believed sugar equaled love.

Reading that we realize that the protagonist's mom and 'sugar equaled love' are important to the story. And don't you wonder, after you read that first line, if our protagonist has a weight problem? Or if she's home because something drastic happened and she needs her mother's love?

Of course you do.

So the job of your first line is to make people curious! You can do it through action. You can do it through dialogue. You can tell the theme of your book in your first line and make readers curious as to how it's relevant.

But your first line has to make people curious!

Happy Monday...and I'll see you next week when we talk about backstory. (Shudder)


Monday, February 18, 2013

The First Five Pages

I was out of ideas for a blog this week so I asked my current online class (I'm teaching CAN THIS MANUSCRIPT BE SAVED) and I got three great ideas. Storyboarding I've already done. Same with subtext. But we've never really talked about the first five pages.

When I started thinking about it, I realized we might have more than one blog here. There's the way you "begin" the book...the first line. The decision of what's the best opening scene. And the ever present bedeviler...backstory.

Today we're going to talk about the decision for your opening scene. Next week we'll talk about the first line and the week after getting in backstory.


How do you pick a first scene? What do you want to show people in that all important first five pages?

1. You want to start the book with action. A book that starts with action immediately gets rolling. You don't have to wonder what scene two will be because you will have started the action/reaction/decision ball rolling.

Which means...the first thing you need to decide is what ACTION will immediately drop readers into the story?

Now, I don't mean a fight. LOL An action can be something as simple as the Main Character meets his old girl friend in the post office of their small town and, as always, it's awkward.

Or the pregnant Main Character wakes up achy and sore, rubbing her belly, praying today is the day she has this baby! Her unsympathetic husband dashes off to work and her water breaks.

Someone drops a letter into the post office box.

Someone steals a diamond.

The Main Character receives a note saying his daughter has been kidnapped.

The Main Character buries his dad.

The Main Characters are read a will and told they will be sharing a mansion for the next year ... or they'll lose their inheritance.

You can easily see how any one of those could get a book going!

2. This action scene should also DISPLAY character.  Why? Well, my definition of plot or journey steps (take your pick) is "All the scenes/steps it takes to get your character from who he or she is at the opening of the book (the terrible trouble, inciting incident or the day moment everything changed) to who he or she is at the satisfying conclusion." Which means the first thing you need to do is SHOW or DEMONSTRATE who your main character IS in the book's that as the story progresses we can see how he has to grow and ultimately have a measure for how he has grown. Obviously, if your MC isn't the star of the first scene, (if you're writing a thriller and the first scene is the terrorists...for instance) then this part is delayed until the first scene he's in.

So how do you "display" character?

In the scene where the MC meets his old girlfriend and it's awkward...You can get a lot of character into that scene, most of it through action. He fidgets or she fidgets. Gazes might go anywhere but on each other. Or maybe they'd hold each other's gaze? Maybe your MC would wonder what the hell happened to the relationship he thought so perfect? Or maybe he'd wonder if she's plotting to kill him! LOL

A lot of that depends on the kind of book you're writing...

Which takes us to #3

3. Your first scene should DEMONSTRATE what kind of book you are writing.

Why do we want to demonstrate what kind of book we are writing? Reader expectation. You never get a second chance to make a first impression!

Whether we like it or not readers are accustomed to certain things and you don't want to disappoint -- or confuse -- them. I've read many a contest entry where the book opened with a horrific murder, then segued into a light romance. The one time I got the opportunity to ask a contest entrant why she’d done this, she said she was “told in workshops” to open her book with something jarring that would cause readers to keep reading. So she murdered someone. The murder was relevant in terms of the fact that the person murdered was the hero's uncle and his death caused the hero to come home for the funeral -- which is how he meets the heroine in her romance, but when a book opens with something like a detailed murder, readers expect to be shown how the murder is solved. You can't open with a murder and then drop the subject. . .even if the funeral is what brings the hero home so he can meet the heroine. Too many questions would be raised in that murder. None of them would be "satisfactorily" solved without an investigation.

A scene wherein Dad gets a ransom notes tells us we're about to read a thriller or a suspense. The meeting of the old girlfriend and boyfriend probably heralds in a romance (or a suspense if he's worried she's going to kill him!) A scene with a teenager fighting with his mom could herald in a coming of age, or YA.

To sum up...

Your first scene should draw (draw, not drag) readers into the book...the real story you are telling.
You can draw readers into the story with an "action" of some sort that doesn't merely give you a chance to DISPLAY character but also leads to a reaction that leads to a decision that leads to another action and on and on until readers are suddenly in chapter three! But that won't happen unless you have the right opening for the kind of book you are writing.
Make sense?
Happy Monday ...

Monday, February 11, 2013

Are your readers on the edges of their seats?

In the beginning of my career, despite the fact that I was one of those book-a-day readers for about a decade, everything about the romance genre was fresh.

Though Harlequin had always liked their authors to have “something of the same” voice, Nora Roberts used a unique “voice” for her work which opened the door for all authors to push the envelope with how they told their stories.

I could tell you the name of the first author I found who used deep point of view correctly and effectively, but I think I was a little late coming to that party and I’d embarrass myself! LOL Still, despite my lateness, deep point of view gave us another interesting shift in writing and revitalized the genre.

So did romantic suspense. And paranormal romances. And romantica…the combination of romance and erotica. It seems every four or five years the romance genre reinvents itself, drawing in new readers and consistently entertaining existing readers.

But even as it reinvents itself, it stays the same. Readers love the process of falling in love. Enhanced by danger, fueled by great sex, surrounded by glitz and glamour or told in a POV so deep the reader really is the character for the few hours she indulges in the story, the process of falling in love still enthralls us.

Why? Because love makes the world go round? LOL Maybe. But I believe it’s more because love makes life worth living. There’s also a risk involved. To love correctly, you give yourself, you risk your heart, you open yourself up to rejection, humiliation that your love might not be returned.

That risk…that suspense item in the story that could keep the lovers apart forever, that werewolf who is as much to be feared as loved, that unsolvable internal conflict…that’s what puts readers on the edges of their seats, wondering in breathless anticipation how this story will ever work itself out.

But when it does work out, when that risk is rewarded, there is no other feeling like it in the world. That’s what we all read for!

Have you ever read a book that did that for you? Put you on the edge of your seat, left you breathless with fear that this one time, this one book, the hero and heroine weren’t going to be together? And wasn’t the rush at the end of the story worth it!

 Now...authors, does your book do that?

susan meier

Monday, February 4, 2013

Show Don't Tell.

There are a lot of times I excuse telling. Seriously, if you showed every darned nitpicky thing that happened in a book...without ever once saying...Two days later...your readers would go insane from the details. So I forgive myself and other writers of a "telling" piece of two.

But last month I had an experience that really brought home the value of show don't tell.

I wrote the eHar story for May. I was assigned the version that's one "chapter" a week for eight weeks. Now, you need to know that that "chapter" is only 1250 words...or 6 pages. You have to tell a whole romance in 48 pages. Piece of cake, right? Not hardly.

Everybody thinks writing something short will be easy. (I laugh every time I hear somebody say that...esp when they are setting out to write their first novella. LOL) The truth is every ding dang word counts in a short story.

Every word.

I started the story with the H and H getting into his private plane. He's brought his daughter because his ex wife dumped her on him...3 days before mother's day...the trollop...

Anyway, I use a paragraph of physical description to 'get in' his personality as the heroine sees it, more or less showing his personality through his looks. Then I wrote three chapters of "stuff" that happened, showing their growing feelings etc. etc. etc. I was feeling okay with this until I wrote Chapter 4.

In Chapter 4 the hero is on the beach and his assistant comes walking out of his beach house in a bikini.  Because he'd never seen her nearly naked before, his reaction was priceless. And interesting. And fun. It was the "true" beginning of the book.

But also...

Because I'd opened that chapter with action, everything that followed was action. So I made Chapter 4 Chapter 1, trashed everything I'd written before that, and let the action roll. The result was a story that told itself. Instead of a story I was telling readers. Details were crisper. Every action was relevant...not because I told the readers it was...but because they could see it was.

In those original 3 chapters, I'd made the mistake of thinking that because my word count was so slight, I had to (or was allowed to) tell readers what was going on to set the scene and/or reveal character in ways I didn't have time (or available words) to write. When I wrote the bikini scene and the story took off on its own, I suddenly saw that a good scene, a scene that acts out the journey step (or plot point) is a hundred times better than a bunch of matter how pretty your praddle.

It goes without saying that as an author you're always looking for the action to demonstrate your plot points. But it's even more true when you don't have a word to waste. And, when you see that in action, suddenly 'show don't tell' becomes the most important phrase in your world.

So try this this week...Pretend you don't have a word to waste. Not one word. And the actions that you choose to play out your story for readers are all you have. Only actions.

Not only will you write tighter, but your story might just come alive in a way it never has before.

Happy Monday...