Articles on Writing

Writing a Great Beginning

by Alison Goodman

A short while back, in preparation for a writing workshop I was about to run, I asked a few international publishers and literary agents what they looked for in the first two pages of a novel. Here are a few highlights of their advice:

  • I look for a strong, individual voice that immediately engages me.  I also look for “authenticity” – which is difficult to define, but I suppose essentially boils down to writing and storytelling that feel natural, not forced; quietly confident and sure-footed.
  • Leave the reader wanting more; compelled/intrigued enough to read on and keep turning those pages.
  • I need to feel immediate engagement with a character and be given a reason to turn the pages.
  • An immediate sensation of dramatic tension…I like to be plunged into the writing that tells me the author knows what she or he is doing, knows where they are and where they’re headed, writing that makes me feel I’m in a safe pair of hands…

Great answers, and every one of them is essentially about emotion. How the writing is making the reader feel: compelled, intrigued, in safe hands, engaged, and at the very basic level, interested enough to keep reading. And that is the key to a great opening: make your reader feel something. As writers, our trade is to create a journey of emotion for our readers whether it is the peaks and troughs of joy and grief, the thrill of suspense, or the intrigue of brilliant worlds and ideas.

But how do you actually achieve this emotional engagement, particularly in the first few pages of your novel?

First, let me just say that I write genre novels – fantasy, science fiction, crime – and that my advice about openings is tuned to that kind of book. In my novels the main protagonist makes decisions in response to large external events that usually have life and death stakes (plot arc), and every one of those decisions contribute to an irretrievable change within that protagonist (character arc). Having said that, I believe the same basic requirement of emotional engagement is important in any kind of storytelling. When I read, I want to be emotionally engaged and that is what I aim to achieve in my writing. It is also what I teach, so the following strategies are geared towards creating maximum reader engagement. They won’t suit everyone or every type of fiction, but maybe there will be a few ideas that click with you and your writing.

So, first, let’s look at one of the main challenges for the maximum engagement writer – creating an immediately sympathetic protagonist, a character who the reader wants to follow through the next 80,000 + words.

This, of course, assumes you are writing the whole novel through the point of view (POV) of one main character. For the purposes of this article, that is the assumption I will make, as I don’t have the space to address shifting points of view or omniscience. So, if you have one main character in your novel, then it makes sense to have him or her up front in that very first scene to establish who the reader is expected to bond with and follow.

If the protagonist does not appear in the first scene, then there should be a good story structure reason behind that decision. An example of this would be the crime or horror story that starts with a victim who is killed by the end of the first chapter, and then in the second chapter the sympathetic detective character appears to track down the killer. Yet even in this scenario, the writer’s first scene job is the same: to create enough sympathy/interest in that victim so that their death creates a compelling question that can only be answered by reading the book.

Back to that main protagonist on page one. First anchor the protagonist (and thus the reader) in time and place. That starts to give the writing that elusive quality of authority mentioned in the first quote. Readers want to be placed in a time and setting, although not laboriously. Think of the three s’s, and be selective, specific and sparing in your descriptions. Definitely do not info dump your entire setting/world history/character background at the beginning of your novel. Nearly all of the agents and publishers I contacted cited info dumping as a sure fire way of losing their interest. Info dumping is tedious to read, distances the reader from the action, and in most cases the majority of it is not absorbed because there are too many details in one dense lump. Of course every novel has background and world information that must be supplied to the reader, but it needs to be sparing and carefully placed in the novel for maximum effect.

Here’s an interesting exercise if you are in the early drafts of your novel – take a look at the third or fourth paragraph of your first page. Does it work better as an opening paragraph? It is amazing how often this is the case –the first two or three paragraphs are often just “warm up” with far too much setting and background – then, BAM, the writing takes off in the third or fourth paragraph with some action.

Which is my next point; introduce your protagonist and their world through action. I don’t mean the kind of action that requires a grenade launcher aimed at their arch nemesis (although that can sometimes work), but in some kind of situation that is dramatic. And by dramatic I mean creating a scene using the show don’t tell method of writing. Show your protagonist dealing with some kind of conflict using dialogue, actions, and thoughts. Conflict is the cornerstone of drama and for a compelling read, most of your scenes should be built around some type of conflict, whether it be the inner conflict of your character (e.g. ethical, moral) or external (e.g. other characters, environment, society). I would also say it is preferable that this first scene conflict is external as that gives an opportunity to introduce other characters, and with them can come deftly shown information about the world and the place of your protagonist within it.

The way your protagonist deals with the conflict should show some sign to the reader that he or she is interesting enough to want to follow through a whole novel. The protagonist does not have to be victorious – in fact it is probably more effective if they are not (think Harry and the Dursleys) – but they do have to show some quality that makes us warm towards them or identify with them, or aspire to be like them. Personally, I always feel warm towards the indomitable character (I reside with a Jack Russell terrier), but other qualities are forbearance, kindness, self-sacrifice, and defense of the weak. You get the idea. And again, by plunging the reader straight into the immediacy of a scene, you are asking them to build up a picture of your world for themselves through the dynamic mode of dramatic action – which in itself creates reader engagement. It also shows that you are confident enough to let your scenes develop your story, and that is about as authoritative as you can get.

So now we have a protagonist who is in the middle of a conflict and dealing with it as best they can. Within the dialogue and action of that scene is the deftly woven-in setting that anchors the reader and creates the “world” in which they live. Now comes the most important part; building in the questions that will ultimately be answered throughout the novel. The questions that will keep the reader glued to your book until 3 am on a work/school day, and for which they must find the answer, because you have made them care about your protagonist and made the stakes so important that they cannot put your book down.

Again, you don’t want to pile in all the questions of the novel in one lump at the beginning like a thematic info dump, and it is essential for a successful novel that new questions and their answers are staggered throughout the book. However, in your opening you will at least want to start seeding in the information that will create some of that driving need to know more. And if you want a really tight, thematically linked opening then consider making that first scene conflict work as a launching pad for at least one of your novel’s big questions (and by that I mean one of the questions that takes the whole novel to answer). Construct your opening scene as a micro version of the conflicts to come with the big question embedded within it. For example, in the first scene of my novel EON (aka The Two Pearls of Wisdom), the main character Eon is bullied by a sword instructor who pronounces our hero a disgrace with no chance of becoming a dragoneye. And embedded within that humiliation scene is the first big question of the novel – will Eon become a dragoneye?

There is a lot more I could say about openings – I haven’t touched on scene construction, or character portals or dilemmas, for instance.  Nevertheless, the above is a good starting point. Just remember, your first scene is your calling card. It not only sets up your novel, it will go a long way towards your carefully prepared three chapter submission shifting from a slush pile to that other exciting stack: request full manuscript.

© Alison Goodman 2016

Not Writer’s Block, Writer’s Pause

By Alison Goodman

A while back I attended a party in honour of a visiting bestselling author. I was duly introduced and ended up chatting to him about the obvious: the way we write. Convinced a rapport was developing, I ventured a more personal question.

“So what do you do about the self-doubt?”

He stared at me as though I had just spat in his mouth. “What self-doubt?”

I stared back. Lucky man, I thought. Actually, my first thought was, what a git, then I thought lucky man. What would it be like to never feel overwhelmed and underqualified?

I think there would be very few fiction writers in this world who do not have moments of “Am I good enough?”

Ralph Keyes, in his marvellously reassuring book, The Courage To Write, says,

“Fear is never enjoyable. But nerves are part of the writing process, perhaps even an essential part. That’s what most working writers come to accept. Anxiety is always there.”

Fear is always going to be a part of writing, because writing is risky. Artistically, financially, personally, and sometimes even socially, risky. Of course, fear is not the biggest part of the writing process, or always uppermost in the mind, but it is guaranteed to be lurking and ready to jump you when you are feeling tired, unhappy, angry, stressed, or uninspired.

Most of the time we live with our writing fears and often use them to spur us on. But sometimes fear can stop us in our tracks. It can halt the flow of words until we stare at the blank page screaming inside with frustration. We want to write, but when we reach inside, we come up empty. I’m not going to call it Writer’s Block because it sounds so insurmountable. I’m going to call it Writer’s Pause, because a pause is just a moment before you move on. And you can.

To try and address the many kinds of fear that can hold back a writer would be a book in itself and, and in fact, Ralph Keyes has written that book. I think it is one of the must-haves for every writer – a brilliant resource to draw on when it’s hard to face the page. My goal is far more modest. I’m going to attempt to unravel two of the specific fears that may be behind a Writer’s Pause, and offer a few ways to move through them. As Ralph Keyes says, the difference between writers,

“who are paralysed by fear and those who are merely terrified is that…the latter come to terms with their anxieties. They learn how to keep writing even as fear tries to yank their hand from the page.”

Digging Deep

As research for this article, I took a straw poll amongst my writer friends and asked them to list the top fears that could bring their writing to a grinding halt. The one that emerged over and over again was the fear of “digging deep”.

Robert McKee, writing guru and author of Story, has a motto that appears on his website and all of his resource material – write the truth. He doesn’t mean it in any down-the-line facts kind of way. McKee is urging the storyteller to “bring to the work a vision that’s driven by fresh insights into human nature and society”. He has encapsulated one of the tenets of modern fiction writing; an author is meant to explore the human mind and spirit through story, and find some illumination about the human condition. Of course, as any fiction writer knows, that is about as easy as ripping out one’s toenails with one’s teeth. To do it, most of us use some level of our own experience, even if it is just the first-hand knowledge of our emotional states.

There is a certain amount of exposure inherent in every story we write. And if you happen to be excavating personal memories, traumatic events, or family history to create your fiction then the risk factor soars. If I write that, you realise, then I (and/or my family) will be exposed.

Sometimes that exposure is not a problem, and sometimes it becomes such a big problem that it will stop the creative process. Shame, or even the threat of it, is a powerful fear.

To double the anxiety, it is often accompanied by the fear of dragging up all the emotions that are associated with the memory or event that we want to, or must, write about. And sometimes we fear what we are going to find there – perhaps not the person we thought we were.

At the very least, such exploration is going to be uncomfortable and, as humans, we are primed to avoid discomfort. With all that going on at a subterranean level, the writer may find themselves stuck on a particular scene, unable to move on, and not understanding why. Cue the screaming frustration.

The first step in moving through this kind of Writer’s Pause is, of course, to recognise that it is born from a sense of shame and a wish to avoid pain. I count myself lucky to have been taught the craft of writing by Gerald Murnane, and I remember him saying to me once that if I was doing everything to avoid writing a scene, then most likely it was where the real emotional truth was waiting to be uncovered.

That’s when I realised that such avoidances were an opportunity. It was a huge neon arrow pointing me toward something that I should explore. As Toni Morrison once said about the anxious moments of writing a novel,

“When you stiffen, you know that whatever you stiffen about is very important…the fear itself is information.”

If a fear of digging deep has stopped you from writing, try this exercise, inspired by Wild Mind, Natalie Goldberg’s delightful book about living the writer’s life. Decide to write about what disturbs you – see it as an opportunity – but put a time limit on it. Ten minutes only. Or twenty. That way, feeling those emotions is not an endless prospect. And when you have done your ten or twenty minutes, get up and go for a walk or garden or do something physical that you enjoy. Work the emotion out of your muscles and let your mind consider that opportunity for truth.

Being Perfect

There is a pernicious myth about writing that has been handed down to us from the great Romantic idea of the artist. It goes something along these lines: if I am going to be any good as a writer, then my first draft should be brilliant. And if it is not, then I will never be any good.

As you can see, this myth is a fabulous way for writers to set themselves up for a fall. It’s an idea of perfectionism that can never be achieved. I always hope that, with all the books and interviews about the writing process available, this myth is fading. However, I think it has just been driven into the subconscious. It occasionally pops up in an interview with an author. “I don’t rewrite,” the author will say, meaning see my genius. As if rewriting is a mark of the hack.

Rewriting is actually the mark of a working writer. I can’t stress this enough. Rewriting is as much a part of the process as that first joyous flush of ideas. Brilliance will not just fall from your creative soul onto the page in one draft. Probably not even two, or three. But if we are unconsciously buying in to the myth, then that is what we expect. Instant brilliance. And if it is not instant – if writing is hard, as it inevitably will be at times – then the myth’s faulty logic tells us that we are not good enough.

Ironically, a Writer’s Pause created by perfectionism can often take the form of rewriting, but it is not useful rewriting. It is that obsessive going over-and-over one paragraph or one chapter with no forward movement through the story.

Julia Cameron in The Artists Way, her enlightening twelve-week program to rediscover creativity, says,

“Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right…Perfectionism is not a quest for the best. It is a pursuit of the worst in ourselves, the part that tells us that nothing we do will ever be good enough – that we should try again.”

Perfectionism is about the fear of failure. It is the fear that we just can’t do it. No wonder this idea of perfectionism can halt a writer in his or her tracks, or at least create a lot of torment.

Anne Lamott, author of the witty and wise writing guide Bird by Bird, suggests taking the pressure off your writing sessions by aiming to complete a short, defined assignment rather than an overwhelming amount of something you have not really specified. One paragraph, for example, about your character leaving her house, or a description of a sunrise over a river. That’s all. Eminently achievable.

Julia Cameron has another approach, which is an essential part of her twelve week creativity program but works particularly well against the scourge of perfectionism. She calls it “morning pages” and it is three pages of longhand, written every morning when you first get out of bed. The pages are meant to be stream-of-consciousness meanderings, not “Art” or even good writing. The morning pages are about moving the hand across the paper and writing whatever comes to mind. They can be whiny, self-pitying, boring or stilted. It doesn’t matter. Morning pages help evade the damaging Critic within us and get the flow of creativity back on track.

Digging Deep and Perfectionism are just two of the fears that can be behind a Writer’s Pause. There are many others, and the books I have mentioned above explore these and many other aspects of living the writing life. However, you may have noticed that the exercises that I have suggested are a variation on the same theme. Keep writing. Whether it is timed exercises, morning pages, short assignments or even notes, just keep writing. If you do, that terrible feeling in the pit of your gut will, at some point, be overtaken by the joy of creating again.

©Alison Goodman 2016