Writing can be a difficult and intimately personal undertaking. We all have different approaches, different voices, and different methods for the way in which we weave words. There are lots of ways to write a book, and a problem I’m seeing a lot in writing classes, blogs, and instructional books is the expectation of imparting the One True Way to write.
One of the writing classes I’m taking had a forum discussion where writers posted some of their most prominent worries when it comes to their novels, and one of the questions posted really struck me: the writer felt like their fantasy story was whisking from one location to the next too quickly. The reader, they worried, would get whiplash zooming around their fantasy map, seeing too many locations without any one of them leaving a deep impression.
Cue me quietly sweating onto my keyboard, because this is the realest concern, for any fantasy writer.
When you’re writing speculative fiction — or, really, any story that has a big, big world for the character to explore — there’s an instinct to show off that world. To move your character around a lot. Usually, it’s because the story requires it — characters have quests to go on, wars to fight, journeys to undertake, sacred mountains to hike up, haunted forests to fight through, scaly slobbery monsters in vast acid-filled lakes to bring fabled jeweled tea cups to — you get the idea.*
* Is this … not … a normal plot point for any novel?
But, sometimes, we writers can get carried away. It can be fun, and fruitful for your story, to take your characters on a dizzying roller coaster ride across your fantasy map. But how do you know when you’re taking your readers on too dizzying a ride? How do you keep that fantasy map from becoming one big, confusing, smeary blur in your readers’ heads?
Your character, especially in a quest or journey-based fantasy novel, shouldn’t just be walking through a sideways scrolling sequence of set dressings. Every location you showcase in your story should be there for a reason.
As far as I can tell (and I am by no means an expert on this), the trick is to make sure the locations have emotional context for the characters, and to root your settings in your story’s plot. Make your locations matter, in other words, to both your characters and to the story at large.
Let’s get a little deeper into what that means…
Rooting Your Locations In Your Story’s Plot
Let’s say your character is going on that epic journey where they hike up that sacred mountain to retrieve the mythical teacup, fight through that haunted forest to reach the acid lake, and then row across the poisonous waters to meet the sea creature whose ire can only be assuaged by the delivery of that bejeweled cup. You might have noticed something about each of those locations I listed…
They all have a clear purpose related to the story.
A lot of importance is placed on the first lines of novels, and for a writer trying to get their work published, there is no shortage of pressure heaped onto the opening line.
There is a lot of pressure on a novelist to write a perfect first chapter. These words, these scenes, these ten or fifteen pages will be the first impression a prospective agent, editor, or reader will have of your novel, and you want to make them count.
So, the question begs — what makes a good first chapter? What should the beginning of my story accomplish?
The short answer: your first chapter needs to set the scene, introduce the main character, introduce the conflict, and lead to the trigger/inciting incident of your story.
What does all that entail? Let’s get into it.
I have been meaning to do the Writer’s Tag (plucked from PaperFury’s archive ages and ages ago) for a very long time, and now I am finally getting around to it! There just aren’t enough writing-related tags and surveys out there for us writing blogs, and this one has some great questions for getting to know each other. So, sharpen those pencils and crack open those blisteringly white empty Word documents and get to it!
For genres, I’m definitely a fantasy nut, but I have several more modern and less fantastical WIPs on my docket for 2018, including a murder mystery and a zombie virus! I definitely tend towards speculative, whether it be fantasy, horror, or science fiction, though.
For styles, I don’t think I’ve ever not written in Third Person POV (usually with a focal lens privy to the inner thoughts of one or another POV character). And it’s past tense all the way, baby! Usually my outlines are in the present tense, and I do like the immediacy that present tense provides, but I always find I skimp on the description and that my pacing is WAY too fast when I stay in present tense for very long.
As for my writing style … I tend to get lyrical and long-winded when I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say, whereas when I have a firmer handle on the plot, my sentences tend to be shorter, more to-the-point, and sometimes even a little sparse on the details. Navigating between the two extremes when revising is a … special challenge.
Now, topics, that’s an interesting question! I answered a question on Twitter about recurring themes and images not long ago:
Forests, all the forests, every single kind of forest; an uncommon amount of fire; why have a sunny day when it could be cold and drizzling; and there’s always a mountain visible in the distance. always. unless they’re literally inside of one. https://t.co/7CIsAqp8UQ
— ❄️Christina ❄️ (@chuffwrites) November 29, 2017
No, but seriously, I have three — count them, THREE — WIPs in which the characters have either met, crashed into, or otherwise found themselves lost in a forest by the second or third chapter. What’s up with that??
Other topics that recur often in my writing: LGBT characters, self-deprecating humor (that often serves to lull the reader into a false sense of security before something AWFUL happens — is that mean?), fights against injustice, and characters that hate each other right until they become best friends for life.
Happy Monday, happy writers! This week, we’re going to discuss one of the most dreaded topics for any writer day-dreaming about publication: the query.
Is your stomach getting queasy just thinking about it? I know mine is…
What is a query? A query is the sales pitch in which you try to condense 300 pages of delicious novel-ly goodness into two or three paragraphs that are polished and perfect and pithy enough to convince a complete stranger to read your work. It’s the letter you write to your potential literary agent, or editor, or publisher, to sell your story to them.
Is there anything more stressful in the world? I mean, probably dangling over a tank of snapping and slobbering sharks on a lengthening and fraying rope … but even then, I’d have to say, the experiences aren’t dissimilar.
So, let’s go into it. How do you write a query that isn’t a total mess??
Opening a book for the first time, a reader wants to feel like they can trust an author to make good on their promise to tell a satisfying story. When writing a book, it’s easy for a writer to overthink your opening scene. You don’t want to inundate your reader with too much dense information, and you don’t want to open your book with a scene that does nothing to actually service the story. So, when you’re putting together your book’s opening, what should you be thinking about? What should go into that very first page?
The First Page
Have a first line that resonates — and pulls you right in.
It doesn’t matter so much if your first line is some intensely quotable sentence that will forever be immortalized on Best First Lines in Literature Listicles and bookish tote bags and inked on diehard bookworm’s forearms. What your first line needs to do — the only thing it needs to do — is make the reader want to read the second line.
The first line doesn’t have to be a show stopper. In fact, it needs to be a show starter. Your first line needs to part the curtains, switch on the lights, and pull the reader into the action on the stage. Try not to overthink this part, and try very hard not to overwrite it. Write exactly the sentences the scene needs in order to work, and worry about the first line of your novel only as an incidental consequence of starting your scene in the right place.
Set the tone.
Whether your book is humorous, fantastical, a tense crime thriller, or a sizzlingly steamy romance, you want to tonally represent those elements right off the bat. Your first page shouldn’t open with a scorching sex scene if the rest of the novel is a sexless political satire. Let your voice shine through right away, and let readers know exactly what’s in store for them if they stick around.
Introduce plot-affecting characters.
Ideally you would introduce your main character, or maybe antagonist, on the very first page of your novel. At the very least, make sure any character you’re introducing is important for the story that follows. Don’t introduce someone only to kill them off before the end of the chapter unless their death spawns the events of the story. So, make sure it makes sense, from a story’s perspective, to open with whatever character you choose.
For instance, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone doesn’t open with Harry. The first page introduces Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, the strict and rigid Muggles whose lives are about to be upended when an orphaned infant wizard is placed on their doorstep. Vernon Dursley is an active player in the Harry Potter series, with a role that persists throughout the seven books. It’s not egregiously out of place that the novel begins with him, especially as we consider Vernon’s section of the chapter a look at the Wizarding world from a resistant Muggle’s perspective.
Above everything else, your first page needs to start your story.
This is where understanding plot structure and really, really, really understanding the story you’re trying to tell becomes vitally important. Your first page should lend to your first scene, which should launch your novel like a bullet from a gun, sending the reader on a soaring trajectory that doesn’t let them go until the target’s red bull’s eye is struck. Don’t worry about explaining your character’s backstory, or providing dense chunks of worldbuilding. Think of your novel like a moment; decide on the opening scene that introduces your characters, your conflict, and your setting. A full scene, not the start of endless exposition, but a moment in your character’s life.
If you do that, if your first page starts your story, then everything else is icing.
Happy Writing. : )
Looking for more novel-writing advice? Try some of the following posts:
What are some of your favorite opening lines and first pages of novels? Are you confident in your WIP’s first page, or are you struggling with it? Leave a comment below, let’s chat!
Hello, Happy Writers, long time, no see! I didn’t mean to go on such an extended hiatus — Hurricane Irma scattered our lives for several weeks, then October flew by, and now NaNoWriMo is chewing up my life! EEK. But! I have returned to issue you your weekly writerly goodness. 🙂
So, we’re deep in the thick of it for NaNoWriMo (Become my Buddy!) and, by now, we’re all probably feeling a tad overwhelmed by the task we have set for ourselves. You might be feeling you’ve bit off more than you can chew with NaNoWrimo — or, in fact, with any of the writerly goals you’ve set yourself this month.
What is the answer? How can we set goals for ourselves, shoot hit, but not get overwhelmed at the same time? I’m constantly gripped with guilt over the amount of writing I haven’t done — and very rarely do I remember to feel proud for the work I have put down. Before you beat yourself up for not reaching whatever goals you have set for yourself, consider — it might be your goals, not your writing, that are the problem.
We all have those books that make us write better. The books we turn to when our creativity tank is running on fumes. The books that make us want to write. The books that made us feel like writing was possible.
I wanted to share five writing lessons I’ve learned from one of my favorite book series, Harry Potter. JKR’s fantasy series is lusciously liberal with description and teeming over with amazing characters; it’s no wonder that this is a book series that readers return to time and time again. Can writers learn something from JKR’s crafting of the Wizarding World? What are some of the elements of Harry Potter that make it so inherently, and insatiably, readable?
Confession time: I go through a lot of notebooks. A lot. I’m talking oodles of doodles, piles of paperwork, sizable, human-crushable stacks of my semi-legible scribblings. I may be single handedly responsible for the destruction of a hectare or more of precious Amazonian rainforest, who’s to tell??
I’ve already introduced you to my Revision Binder, where I keep all my editing notes for my WIPs. In addition to that binder, though, I like to keep a spiral notebook for all my daily scribblings and note-takings. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still fill files and files and folders upon folders on my computer with my brilliant (or belligerent, again, who’s to tell) prose. but there’s something about the tactile experience of putting pen to page that helps me to sort out my thoughts like no other. Sometimes I’ll stop writing a scene on the computer and switch to working it through in a notebook, just because it makes my brain feel better.
Now, when I finish these notebooks, they’re not always in the best of shape. I tend to ink the pages till they’re black and blue, and bend and twist the spine beyond all recognition. But, in the beginning, my notebooks are pristine, adorable, and earnestly organized. What I’m getting at is, it’s almost the start of the month, and so it’s high-time I put together my writing notebook for the month of September — and it’s highly advisable that I take photos of the process now, before I muck it all up with my sloppy handwriting and tendency to leave cold, wet drinks sitting on my open notes. (Oops.)
If you’ve ever been interested in creating a notebook dedicated to your writing, or you’re just curious how I set mine up, settle in! I’ve got pictures and an unhealthy addiction to washi tape to show you.