Tag Archive | books

The first chapter…

In reading over several manuscripts, I ask myself, how does this writer introduce information about the characters? How much belongs in the first chapter?

Handling background information is one of the trickiest parts of writing. The general rule is to include only what’s needed up front, then gradually provide additional details. The problem is, how do you know what’s needed?

You want to involve the reader immediately with the story and characters. Anything that slows down that process, unless the information is essential to the scene, should be pared. However, the reader needs to feel grounded. Where are we, in what time period, and roughly how old are the characters (just a hint — don’t have to be specific)? Gender’s important, too, especially if you’re writing in the first person.

Don’t drop information in an awkward lump. It can be subtle. We know it’s present day if a character uses a cell phone. If she’s an atypical eighty-year-old who text messages, provide other clues.

Warning: avoid the cliché of having the hero or heroine see him/herself in the mirror. If someone’s shooting at the heroine and she’s running for her life, she might reflect that, beneath the streetlights, her blonde hair is probably turning her into a target. Or, in a different situation, she might compare herself with someone. For instance, she considers her friend’s shiny dark hair much more striking than her light brown curls. Or have someone else comment on her coloring, height, etc.

Make sure details reveal character. To say the heroine’s wearing a business suit or a cocktail dress is often sufficient, but if she’s klutzy, she’ll have a stain on that outfit. If she’s wearing a business suit at a cocktail party, perhaps she’s a workaholic, or an absent-minded exec.

Furnishings, too, should be relevant. If she’s an impoverished heroine in a Regency romance, show the threadbare sofa and chipped porcelain bowls.

Drawing the reader into the story immediately is essential these days. Unlike in the 19th century, when novels could begin at a leisurely pace, we have to compete with TV, DVDs, videogames, and cell phones. In commercial fiction (literary fiction has its own rules), what are we trying to accomplish on Page One?

Make the tone fit the genre. If it’s scary, make it tense or eerie. If it’s funny, keep the tone light. Aim for sparkling prose and dialogue. Prune clichés and chitchat. In a romance, introduce a hero or heroine that the reader can care about. If we can’t tell the protagonists from the secondary characters right off the bat, you’re in trouble. Establish a clear point of view. Try to keep it to a single point of view per scene. Watch out for frequent shifts, also known as head hopping, especially on the first page.

What you want to do is make your beginning draw the reader in. Actually, you want to do this with the entire book, but it’s especially important in the beginning. If you don’t get them then, you’ve lost them completely. Most people don’t have time these days to wade through a hundred pages to get to the good stuff. Put the good stuff up front, and keep it there throughout the story. That will win you readers.

The Plot Thickens, Part I

One of the first questions you should ask when you’ve finished your book is “What is my book about?” Try to boil it down to a sentence or two. This is the basis of your plot.

Plot is what your story is about. If you just string together a group of sentences that have no coherency, you don’t have a plot. You don’t have a story. You just have words. In order to have a plot – and, therefore, a story – you have to be writing about something, preferably something that is includes conflict. If you write romance – the basic plot is: boy gets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl back (usually with a bit more action thrown in for interest.) Or you can think of it this way: plot is two dogs with one bone.

It is important to have a plot that draws the reader in – and keeps him or her reading. Proposing hypothetical questions the reader may ask does this. Consider the following passage from my story, “Prime Time”:


Deena studied the newest crop of lunar tourists and transports milling around the huge domed reception area as her partner began his spiel for his audience. On the far side of the shuttles, she caught a quick glimpse of Security leading out a sorry-looking group in binding collars.

One of the prisoners broke from the line and dashed for the shuttle. He never had a chance. The guards triggered his collar and took him down before he got ten steps. Deena winced as they dragged the unconscious man to a cart and dumped him. She hoped for the prisoner’s sake he never woke up. He’d be much better off. The guard glared at her and she turned away. She was here to do a job and forget whatever she might see. She could do nothing for them. Nothing.


The questions that arise are: What is Deena doing there? Why can’t she help anyone? Why would it be better if the prisoner never woke up? Is Deena a prisoner? What is going on here? Each question leads to another – and thus, the beginning of a plot.

Plot can take two basic forms, or even a combination of the two. It will usually be either a three-act structure (beginning, middle, end), or, from Joseph Cambell’s writings, be a mythic journey. It can also be a combination of the mythic journey within the three act structure.

In the three act structure, you have the beginning (Act I) in which you introduce the character(s), set the tone, establish the setting, introduce the story problem and urge the reader to move on to the next section.

Act II is where you expand on these issues and set up the final moment of the story.

Act III is the final battle, the tying up of loose ends, and leave the reader satisfied.

The Mythic Journey, as explained by Christopher Vogler in his book (which I urge you to get), consists of:

Hero in his ordinary world

The call to adventure

Answering the call

Tasks and challenges


Allies and opponents


Final test

The return


In addition to these structures, most plots can be boiled down to patterns:

The quest – Indiana Jones looking for the Ark of the Covenant

Revenge – Inigo Montoya in “The Princess Bride”

Love – choose any “chick flick”

Change – Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol”

Adventure – Dorothy in “Wizard of Oz” or Luke in “Star Wars”

The Chase – “The Fugitive”

One Against – Batman in “The Dark Knight” or Erin Brockovich

One Apart – Rick in “Casablanca” or Han in “Star Wars”

Power – Lord of the Rings

Death Overhanging – death can take three forms: physical, emotional, or professional. For physical, “Titanic”; emotional – “Inception”; professional – “Pretty Woman”


Sometimes it helps to have something in the ending reflect back to the beginning of the story. You can do this with an object or with a situation that mirrors one in the beginning. For instance, if you had a story about a blackout, you could have the hero flicking the light switch at the beginning and – nothing. He goes through the apartment searching for candles. The story continues and on the last page, he flicks on the light switch and gets light – then turns it off and lights a candle.

 Or you could have the very nervous heroine entering a particular building and at the end, she enters that same building, but this time, everything has changed, especially her.

When checking on the plot line, ask yourself what is the hero/heroine’s goal? If he or she doesn’t reach the goal, so what? Why should the reader care? What makes the goal so important that we need to read? If the goal or conflict is too simple, you’ll end up with the reader saying “they could have done that on page one”, and if they could have, that’s not a good novel. If the goals aren’t important, neither is the story. Having your character take a shower merely because she wants to isn’t a compelling action. It only becomes important if she happens to be staying at a place called “The Bates Hotel”. (If you don’t understand that reference, check out a little movie called “Psycho” by Alfred Hitchcock.)

Once you’ve set the stakes, raise them. And raise them again. And again. Keep the story growing.

In a full length novel, you will probably have several sub-plots as well as the main plot. A sub-plot is similar to a plot, but may involve secondary characters. Even with other characters, they should have something to do with the plot, a link that ties them to the main story line. Like a plot, they must be tied up at the end.

Next week – Part II of Plot


I’m going to talk about an event that’s going to take place this week for myself and my friends. We will all be jumping in our cars and driving 3-4+ hours to reach an incredible place where we will spend the next three and a half days at a writing retreat.

This is a time of fun, getting together with like-minded friends who also happen to be writers – and writing. Lots of writing. Or editing. Or brainstorming. Or outlining. If it has to do with writing, we do it. There are no workshops to attend, no agents or editors to impress, no schedules to adhere to (well, almost none, but I’ll get to that.) It’s just an intense time of writing and is something we look forward to all year. This will be our tenth year of doing this.

When we first started the retreat, it went from Friday evening to Sunday morning. So actually, we only had one full day of writing. It was fun and we got a lot done, but still… one day. That wasn’t much. So we expanded it to now include Thursday to Sunday right before lunch (though most of us do leave right after breakfast because of the distance involved).

Now you may think that two days isn’t much time to get anything done. But you’d be wrong. You’d be surprised how much you can get done when you have nothing else to worry about. We stay in a hotel-like establishment. Our meals are provided for us as well as snacks. For those who need breaks, there are hiking trails (though at least two of our members are no longer permitted on them without a GPS – a story for another day), exercise and activity rooms, and a small museum on site. The only schedules we adhere to are meal times. And we do take some time both Friday and Saturday evenings for a little relaxation and time with each other (but those are optional – if you’re in the middle of an intense scene – keep on writing!).

We go full of excitement and anticipation; we work hard, play harder and return exhausted and brain dead, but usually satisfied with what we accomplished.

So my suggestion to you is… plan your own writing retreat. It doesn’t have to be as elaborate as ours. Can you get away for a weekend? Or even just an hour? Yes, you can have a retreat for an hour. You go into your room/office/place of writing – turn off the internet and other distractions and concentrate on nothing but your writing.

You might be surprised what you can get accomplished – even in just an hour.


Today’s Notes: March 5

dangeronxyone_msrIn addition to the birthdays, quote and tips, I’m happy to announce the print version of my futuristic romance, Danger on Xy-One, is available from Ellora’s Cave Blush. It’s been available as an ebook, but now will be in print format as well. The publisher is Ellora’s Cave found in their “Blush” line (the non-erotic portion of the site). It is a futuristic romance full of danger, mystery, and, of course, romance. A story in the Hunters for Hire series.

Aleksia Matthews is an asteroid assayer who would like nothing better than to be left alone. Her life is soon turned upside down when a band of ruthless pirates attack her ship. Shemanages to escape, but fears the worst for her brother. Ali swears revenge. Although well-trained by Fleet Security, she knows she can’t do the job alone. When she literally runs into a stranger, Jason Cole she knows she has met the perfect partner — in more ways than one.

Special agent and Bounty Hunter, Jason has spent the past year tracking the pirates who killed his brother Zack and Zack’s family. He’s always one step behind, too late to help the victims. There are never any survivors — until now. It is up to him to keep Ali alive and out of trouble until the gang can be captured, and maybe longer. Buy here: http://www.ellorascave.com/danger-on-xy-one-1.html#

Birthdays: Mark Handley, Michael Resnick, Howard Pyle

Tips and Teasers: Go to your nearest public library and browse the stacks. Check out areas you don’t normally go. What can you find that’s new and different for you?

Thought for the day: “When I sit down at my writing desk, time seems to vanish. I think it’s a wonderful way to spend one’s life.” – Erica Jong.

Today’s Notes: March 4

Today is “Hug a G.I.” day – actually, for what they do and endure, that should be every day. Thank you to the men and women of the Armed Forces.

Birthdays: Alan Sillitoe, Johann Wyss

I’m not overly familiar with Sillitoe, though I should be, but Johann Wyss? Even if you don’t know the name, I know you’re familiar with his most famous work – The Swiss Family Robinson. Sillitoe was a prolific writer of fiction, poetry, plays, and more.


Thought for the day: “The muse whispers to you when she chooses, and you can’t tell her to come back later, because you quickly learn in this business that she may not come back at all.” – Terry Brooks

Tips and Teasers: What is your book about? Boil the answer down to no more than two sentences. This becomes the basis for your pitch to editors and agents.

Today’s Notes: March 3

Birthdays: Emile-Auguste Chartier, Sidney Lanier

Okay, I have to admit, I’ve never heard of either of these authors. But I did look the up when their names appeared on the birthday list. Interesting people. Go ahead, check them out. Lanier was a well-known American poet who has a school in Alabama named after him. And Chartier was a French philosopher and essayist who wrote under the name “Alain”.


Thought for the day: “I know some very good writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts” – Anne Lemont.

Tips and Teasers: If you are not hearing impaired, try watching TV without the sound on, using closed captioning. What do you feel like you’ve missed, if anything? Write down your feelings about going all day without sound.

Today’s Notes: March 2

Birthdays: John Irving, Philip K. Dick, John Jay Chapman, Theodor Geisel

Okay, I’ve heard of all of these, but my favorite is Theodor Geisel, aka Dr.Seuss. His lessons in silly rhymes educated and amused me for years, and still do. As a young librarian, my students used to challenge me to see how fast I could read “Fox in Socks” (a lot faster than I can now) and “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” went to each of my children as they graduated, and has become a classic gift for that event for thousands. And can anyone forget Horton and his care over eggs and tiny Who’s? His birthday (today) is the inspiration for Read Across America.


Thought for the day: “Sometimes, it’s simply best to rip it all up and start over.” – Chuck Leddy

Tips and Teasers: Find a Dr. Seuss book (or several) and sit down and read it – to yourself, or someone else, it doesn’t matter – listen to the words – the sounds, the rhythms. Then write your own Dr. Seuss story.

February 27th

Birthdays: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Steinbeck, Irwin Shaw

Longfellow was a popular poet and writer whose work has stood the test of time. From “The Song of Hiawatha” to “Evangeline”, his lyrical verse sings as well today as it did in his era. Like Longfellow, Steinbeck’s prose has stayed in the forefront for decades. There are too many to list here, but some of the more well known ones include “The Grapes of Wrath”, “Of Mice and Men”, “East of Eden” and “Travels With Charley”. There are many more and I highly recommend any writer read at least one of them. Irwin Shaw was a prolific dramatist, screenwriter, novelist, and more. Read any of these three to expand your writing and reading horizons.


Thought for the day: “The creative writer is usually captive to his next book.” Fannie Hurst

Tips and Teasers: Choose an inanimate subject (object, place, idea, emotion) and describe it using action verbs. It’s not as easy as you might think.

Style Questions

Style Questions:

  1. Have you checked for redundancies, repetitions, homonyms and other word choice issues?
  2. Have you used all the senses?
  3. Is the writing more active than passive?
  4. Have you over-used modifiers?
  5. Have you checked for malapropisms and Tom Swifties?
  6. Have you used the proper language for the time period and geographic area in your book?
  7. Have you used the correct customs and manners for the time period and area?
  8. Is your history correct? Don’t invent or discover something before it’s been done in reality and don’t misplace actual historical people or places.
  9. Have you check the housing, transportation, food, dress, etc. for the time period?
  10. Have you kept a time line so your scenes follow a logical path?
  11. Have you checked for consistencies not only in time line, but also with characterizations?
  12. Have you used or overused similes and metaphors?
  13. If you used a motif, did you use the same one consistently

Write Your Novel: Characterization

Now that you’ve gotten the building blocks of your story, you need people to put in there – the characters.

Point of View

Point of view (POV) is defined as the person who is telling the story and from where s/he will tell the story. Ideally, it should be one person – two at the most – protagonist (hero or heroine) and antagonist (villain). Occasionally, a second hero’s or heroine’s point of view is also used, especially in romance novels. If you do decide to use two or three people, it is imperative that you keep their POV’s separate. This is done by having each POV confined to either a chapter or scene or, at the very least, a lengthy paragraph. The point of view should not skip from sentence to sentence. That’s called head hopping and, like watching a never-ending tennis match, becomes tedious and gives you a headache.

The first person point of view is told by “I”. This gets the reader immediately into the character’s head, but it limits you in perspective because you can only tell what’s going on from his or her perspective. Do you have some vital information that only the bad guy or the best friend knows? It doesn’t matter. Unless the hero finds it out for himself, you can’t use it. Nothing can happen that “I” doesn’t know. It limits who the reader gets to know, but it does allow the reader to get to know the main character really well. Note: the main character must be a strong individual in order to carry the entire story.

Third person POV is a story told by he/she. It allows you to be in the minds of multiple people and to see what’s happening in other areas away from the main character. This is the most common point of view used in today’s writing. It limits how well you get to know any one character in particular but allows you to know a little bit about a lot of things.

The omniscient point of view was common in books of the 19th century. In this one, the narrator of the book can directly address the reader. You’ll find it common in books by Lewis Carroll and Charles Dickens when they address you, “dear reader”. It is not used in modern writing.


When you create a new character, you have the chance to make him or her however you want. What you want, though, is a well-rounded character, not a cardboard cutout.

As children, most of us played with dolls. Whether they were GI Joe’s®, Barbie’s®, or even Cabbage Patch Kids®, each type had one thing in common – their size, shape and clothing. If you had a nurse’s outfit for your fashion doll and your best friend also got the nurse, you had identical outfits. The office outfit consisted of a dark suit, white blouse and briefcase. For GI Joe®, well, olive drab is still olive drab. Unless you were creative with a needle and thread, your doll looked the same as everyone else’s.

Is that the way your characters look?  Do your heroine’s all have long, luxurious hair that falls in natural waves to their hips?  Are the women all tall, athletic with enough curves to keep it interesting, fair skin and exotic eyes?  What about your heroes?  Are they all tall, dark and handsome?

I once judged a writing contest in which every one of the seven manuscripts I read had a heroine who was tall with reddish hair and green eyes. Oh, there were subtle differences between the seven, but not enough to make them unique. After the third red-haired, green-eyed siren, I started looking for something – anything – that would make the character different. If this sounds like your characters, then you need to get out your writing needle and thread. It’s time to do some creating.

Stereotyping characters is something many writers do without even thinking about it. Not all people of Asian descent are small of stature with eyes that tilt up at the corners. Some of them are quite tall and have eyes that tilt downward. People of African descent aren’t just “black” or of basketball player size. The colors run the entire spectrum from palest coffee to deepest ebony and some of them are actually a bit on the short side. And not all Germans are Nazi madmen or jolly rotund women toting pots of coffee and serving strudel.

Even identical twins have something that allows their parents to tell one from the other. It may be a subtle mannerism such as the way one tilts her head a little further to the right than the other, or a physical attribute such as the number of freckles. The trick is to find the trait and identify the person with it.

The same is true for your characters. If you have an office worker, instead of putting her (or him) in the same dark suit/white blouse as all the other workers, why not give her a bit of flare?  Give her a brightly patterned scarf to go with that suit or put him in a pink shirt. And give her a reason for this. If you’re going to break the pattern, you should have a good reason. If it’s a character quirk, it has to be consistent with the rest of her life. You can’t have her being conservative in all aspects of her life and then suddenly wearing that bright yellow scarf for no reason at all.

Instead of long flowing hair, why not a short, perky cut that stands on end when she runs her hand through it in frustration – as she often does. Or make one eye green and one eye brown. I actually know a young woman with eyes like this. I asked her one time why she didn’t wear contacts to even the colors out and she said it gives people an interesting way to start conversations. She was in sales and did quite well. She used her quirk to her advantage.

Make your hero somewhat on the short side. It gives him something to overcome and still come out the hero. While this won’t work for all fiction, it may work for some. If he has to be tall and muscular, what about making him blonde with brpwm eyes?  Or even a (gasp) redhead?  In all my reading, I’ve never seen a redheaded hero. Granted, men with red hair are unusual – but it could work. Why not try something different?

So what makes a quirk and what is just an annoying mannerism?  Go to any public place and sit down for a while with your notebook and watch the people. A mall is a good place to do this. Pick out a couple of people and watch them (without being obvious). How do they walk?  Is her head up like she owns the world or down like she’s afraid to face anyone?  Is his stride long and powerful or a short shuffle?  How do they carry their packages?  How do they move in relationship to other people?  Does she make people move aside for her or does she move to the wall to get out of the way?  Does anybody stand out in the crowd?  Why?

Now, pick out one or two of the people that really got your attention and give them a background. Who are they?  What do they do?  Why are they acting the way they are?  What are their other physical attributes?  Do these add or detract from their personality?  Take a good look at the people around you. No two people are alike and neither should your characters be.

For each scene, decide how you’re going to refer to your characters at the beginning of the scene and be consistent with it. If your character is Mary Doe, you can refer to her as Mary, Mary Doe, Ms/Miss/Mrs. Doe or some other name, but it must be consistent throughout the scene.

Another thing you want to remember, especially when creating your main characters, is no wimps allowed. Save wimps for the secondaries – unless there is a compelling reason for your main character to be one. In this case, he or she may start out the story as a wimp, but has to end up the story as a stronger person (character growth).

When creating a villain, you need to evoke sympathy. The best villains have some reason for what they do and it has to resonate with the reader. Granted, this doesn’t happen all the time (the emperor in Star Wars has no redeeming value whatsoever), but it’s better when he does (Darth Vader).

Secondary characters should not take over a scene unless there’s a very good reason. They are there to support the main characters or add color to the story, not to be the main reason for the story. If they start to take over, then maybe you’re telling the story from the wrong point of view.

Questions to answer on characterization:

  1. In each scene, how much time did you spend describing a new character? Is his or her importance worth the amount of time?
  2. Have you introduced the entire cast of characters on the first page? Don’t character dump – introduce multiple characters gradually. This allows you to introduce more information about each character.
  3. Do you have too many characters? Can you combine several secondary characters into a single character without losing the story?
  4. Have you told us about the character’s emotions? Or shown them through actions?
  5. Which point of view are you using? Have you been consistent throughout the story?
  6. Do your characters seem like real people? Do they have both good points and bad? Even bad guys have good points and good guys have flaws.
  7. What do you like about your main character? Does s/he have traits that you like? What about ones you dislike? The more enjoyable you make him or her, the more time your reader will want to spend on them.
  8. Does your main character change or grow through the course of the book? If not, you may have to go back and check on the premise of your story.
  9. Is your antagonist (a.k.a. villain or bad guy/girl) morally bad and not just a bully or brat? Those with bad morals are more interesting and have more to lose/gain.
  10. Does your villain have charisma or something that attracts or charms other people? (Power, wealth, charm, fame, etc.)
  11. Have you humanized your villain? Readers will identify with him/her if s/he has some good qualities.
  12. Have you been consistent in how you refer to your characters?
  13. Are the characters plunged into rising conflicts?
  14. Have you told us about the characters’ emotions? Or shown them through actions?
  15. Is each character a unique individual?