writing

Endings

I’m done with a lot of travel and can get back to writing posts — but then I just looked at the calendar and saw how quickly the holidays are approaching, so I think this may be the last “official” writing post this year. I’ll take a bit of a hiatus and come back in January with a lot of new ideas (I hope!). But I do hope to be better about blogging about other things. I’m just trying to avoid having scheduled obligations.

So, to conclude the series on parts of the story, let’s talk about endings. I’ve heard it said that the beginning is what sells this book and the ending is what sells the next book. The ending has to take care of a lot of things. That’s where the climax of the story goes — the peak action, where all seems lost until the hero prevails (or fails entirely). It’s also the culmination of the hero’s character arc, when he has to make some kind of change in order to prevail or perhaps because he prevailed. It’s when the loose ends are tied up, relationships secured (or ended), and we see just enough of the new normal in the aftermath to know how things are going to look for the hero going forward. If there’s a sequel, the seeds for the sequel may be planted to tease readers into coming back for more.

At the end of the middle, our characters have recovered from whatever their big midpoint ordeal/midterm exam was. Now they need to gear up to deal with things once and for all. They may have to return to the point of their failure to try again, they may have to race against the villains to get somewhere first in order to take care of business, or they may have to go where they will confront the villains. However it goes, it needs to be (at least figuratively) do or die. If this attempt fails, all is lost. There may not be another chance. This is also a moment of truth for our hero, who’s been resisting the kind of internal change she/he needs to make. If she doesn’t make this change, she probably won’t be able to succeed, but making that change is scary and leaves her feeling vulnerable. There may also be a moral choice — do things the right way and there’s a chance you won’t win, do things the wrong way and you might win, but there will be a huge personal cost. Making the right choice is a leap of faith. This is when the hero will be tested again on whatever he might have failed in the middle of the book — if he failed because he was too impulsive before, now he has to be able to wait for the right moment. If he failed before because he wanted to go it alone, now he has to trust in his team. It works best if whatever the hero needs to learn is closely tied to what he has to do to win.

Even though in genre fiction we’re pretty sure the hero is going to win, you have to trick the reader into wondering if maybe this time is going to be the exception and the hero will lose. The odds have to look bad, and there needs to be a good chance for failure. Victory should come at some cost. Secondary characters who are important to the hero may die. How far you go with this depends on the tone of the book you’re writing.

And then, victory! It’s best to end the book as soon as possible after that climax so there’s not a huge letdown, but you do need some winding down because readers want to savor that victory and see how it affects the characters. There may be celebration or mourning. We need to see at least a glimpse of what our hero is going to be like now that she’s been transformed. How will that affect her relationships with other characters? What do other characters think of her now? How have these actions and events changed the world of the story? You probably don’t want more than a chapter or so of aftermath, but you need enough to reassure readers that everything’s okay and all is right with the world (at least, until the sequel, and then you need to leave just a little bit that’s not entirely right). How you wrap things up depends on the effect you want to have — do you want to leave readers sobbing or sighing?

One common way of showing how things have changed is to reflect the beginning. In a quest, the character may have returned home, and we see the contrast between the hero and his surroundings. How is he different from the person who left? How has his view of his home changed? Will he be happy there? Or you can reflect an incident from the beginning and show the changes. In my Enchanted, Inc., the book opens with the heroine seeing strange things on the subway that no one else seems to notice, and it bothers her. At the end, she’s on the subway seeing strange things again, but now she understands them and is part of their world. You could do something similar with an encounter between two characters that goes differently or by showing the character facing a similar challenge in a different way. Or the character may have embarked on an entirely new life, so we need a glimpse of how she fits into that new life and new world and how it’s different from her old life.

Some genres have specific expectations of what happens in the end. A mystery requires the hero to find and unmask the killer, who’s brought to justice, and there often isn’t much aftermath wrap-up, unless there are relationship subplots to be addressed. A romance requires some kind of emotional commitment between the characters, so that you know they’ll be in a relationship going forward.

One of the best ways to learn to write a good ending is to look at the books whose endings have stuck with you and see if you can analyze why you like those endings. How many pages are left after the climax and main plot resolution? What events happen? What emotional tone is struck? That will help you figure out what you need to do.

In general, it’s a good idea to leave readers wanting a little more — give enough to be satisfying, but not enough to start to get boring. It’s better for readers to wish for just one more page than to have them flipping ahead.

And with that ending, I’ll close out the writing posts for the year.

My Books

Christmas at Halloween

Happy Halloween! I’m not really doing much for the holiday because I’m leaving on a trip in a couple of days and I have so much to do. I do have some candy and some little toys I can give out, but as it’s supposed to be cold and rainy during Trick-or-Treat time, my porch light is burned out and I haven’t gotten around to replacing it, and I never get trick-or-treaters because you can’t see my front door from the street, I suspect the candy will be all mine.

I’m actually already thinking ahead to another holiday, since a week from today, my first Christmas-set romantic comedy novella will be released. I know it seems early, since I refuse to do Christmas stuff before Thanksgiving, but hey, Hallmark has already started their non-stop Christmas programming. I figure by releasing after Halloween, that gives people time to become aware of this book in time to read it during the season. It’s an e-book only (but you can find apps to let you read all the major e-book formats on your computer) because it’s really too short for a print book.

Long-time blog followers may remember when I tried to write a script for a holiday movie a couple of years ago. I think it was a pretty good script, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to go through everything it would take to find a screenplay agent and sell it, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to do more of them. Since I loved the story so much, I rewrote it in prose form, and now it’s a holiday novella. If you like the Hallmark Christmas movies — or, really, more the Lifetime, ION, or what used to be the Family Channel movies, since it’s got more magic than you tend to get with Hallmark — then you might like this. It’s short enough to read in one or two sittings, so it’s perfect for that busy time of year when you have just a moment to yourself to curl up with a cup of hot cocoa, turn on the Christmas lights, put on some seasonal music, and relax with a fun book.

Twice Upon a Christmas cover

The story is kind of a holiday spin on the Sliding Doors concept of exploring two possible life paths, only in this case, the heroine is aware that she’s experiencing both possibilities, so she can take what she learns in one life and use it in the other. Eventually, though, living every day twice gets confusing and frustrating, especially when that means she’s spending half her time away from someone she’s come to care about. Twice Upon a Christmas is now available for pre-order. You can buy now and have it ready for when you’re ready to get into the holiday spirit. You can get more info and links for buying it on the book’s page.

And if this one turns out to be a success, maybe I’ll write another one for next year. I already have an idea … And if I do more of these, I may put them together in a collection in print.

writing life

Travel Catch-Up

I’ve been quite remiss in my blogging lately, but I seem to have been either getting ready for a conference or convention, at a conference or convention, or recovering from a conference or convention for the past month or so.

There was FenCon in September, which was local, so I didn’t have to worry about packing and travel, but I’m on staff, so I had work to do in addition to being a guest. I started getting sick on the last day of the convention, and I spent much of the following week in bed.

Then I recovered just in time to go to the Missouri Library Association conference, where I was the keynote speaker for the young adult librarians breakfast. That was a quick trip, just one night, and it was a lot of fun because librarians are cool people. I went out for barbecue with a group the night I arrived, and then there were some interesting discussions the next morning at breakfast. Librarians always give me food for thought.

They put me in a room on the club floor at that hotel, so I felt very special. I have new incentive to write more and sell more books because now I’d like to get on the club floor whenever I travel. I’m going to get spoiled.

I had about a week to recover, and then there was another local event, Writers in the Field. This was kind of a writing conference, but it was more hands-on and real world. It was held at an event space in the country, and it was an opportunity for writers to learn about horses, archery, swords, guns, and that sort of thing that we might need in our books.

The following week, it was Necronomicon in Florida, my first time to be a convention guest of honor. Again, I felt like a celebrity and I could get used to that. I met so many great people that weekend and really enjoyed myself. I may be spoiled for conventions where I’m not a GOH now.

And now I’m gearing up for the World Fantasy Convention next week. I just have one panel, so it’s less of a working convention for me. This is supposed to be more of a networking event. I’ll have to see how that goes because I’m terrible at networking. The very thought of “barcon,” where you do your networking while hanging out in the bar, utterly terrifies me. I usually make it to the threshold of the hotel bar, feel like a new kid on the first day of school, looking for someone to sit with in the cafeteria at lunch, then flee in a panic. It doesn’t help that my body has decided that I’m now a morning person, so I’ll probably be falling asleep before barcon gets in full swing, and my energy levels drain rapidly in noisy, crowded places. Maybe I need to spearhead “morning walk con” for the non-night owls.

I’m giving myself permission to treat this as sort of a working vacation. I’ll go to the panels that interest me, I’ll attempt to be social in the con suite/bar/lobby, and otherwise I’ll enjoy San Antonio. I have a list of places where I want to eat and things I want to see and do.

After that, I get to stay home for a while, though I do need to plan a vacation. I volunteered to get bumped on an oversold flight on the way home from Tampa, so I have a voucher toward a flight, and I’ve decided it should be used on fun, not a business-related trip. I just need to decide where and when to go. But first I want to be at home for a while.

writing

Middles, Part 3

I’ve been talking about the various parts of a story, and now we’re getting close to the end. I’m not even sure I’d call the next part of the story part of the end. Maybe part three of the middle?

After we’ve had the big semi-climactic moment in the middle of the story, the audience and the characters need a chance to recover and catch their breath so they’ll be ready for the end. There’s usually some kind of quieter interlude after that big middle part. On a chart, this would be falling action. You need some less intense times so that the intense times will be a contrast, but that doesn’t mean this part of the story is allowed to be boring.

This may be an emotionally intense part of the story, even if there’s not a lot of action. You see a lot of love scenes in this part of a story. Think about The Terminator — after Sarah and Kyle escape from the police station and have a big car chase, they make it to safety in a remote motel. There, they talk and get to know each other a little better. He tells her about the future he came from and her role in it as the mother of the leader who’s helping humans fight back against the machines, and he tells her that he came through time because he’s always loved her — at least, the idea of her. They make love. This scene may seem slow in comparison to the rest of the movie with all the car chases and gun battles but, in a sense, it’s the most critical scene in the story, since it’s when that future leader is conceived.

Another example would be the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which they’ve made it safely to the ship with the ark after that big chase and fight scene, and Marian tends to Indy’s wounds, trying to find a place where it’s safe to kiss him without hurting him.

If someone — usually the mentor figure — got killed during the midpoint semi-climax/ordeal sequence, this is when the surviving characters mourn that person. If they weren’t very successful in what they tried to do in the midpoint, they may regroup here. There may be planning sessions or an analysis of where they went wrong.

This may be a time when the hero has some doubts. If he failed in the midpoint, he might fear that he’s not up to the task. He might question the goal. Sometimes he might even try to sneak away, feeling everyone else is better off without him.

Or, if everything went right, they may think they’ve won. They may have obtained the quest object and are celebrating. Because they don’t know they’re characters in a story, they don’t know that the story isn’t over yet. They may think everything’s okay or that the rest of it will be easy. Surely the most difficult part of the quest was getting the charmed amulet out of the evil wizard’s secret base. Now all they have to do is get home and use it to save their land.

But, of course, the story isn’t over yet. That knowledge allows the writer to maintain some tension even in this quieter part of the story. Readers can see that there are still a lot of pages left, so it’s not over. There won’t be a hundred pages of celebrating. The villain is still out there and not ready to give up. That cyborg will track them down and continue trying to carry out its mission. The Nazis aren’t going to give up on the ark, and they have a lot of resources. The evil wizard is going to try to get his amulet back. The hero can’t just give up and walk away. We know this, and that makes any celebrating, bonding, or rejoicing bittersweet. We enjoy seeing the characters get to be happy for a little while, but there’s a sense of dread about what they’ll face next.

writing

Middles, Part 2

I skipped a week on writing posts because I was sick last week, and I’m not sure that anything I wrote would have made much sense. But now I’m back in action and ready to tackle the topic of part two of story middles. As I mentioned in the previous post, the first part of the middle is about the hero getting to know the “new” world of the story. It’s Dorothy arriving in Oz and setting out on the Yellow Brick Road, where she encounters the Wicked Witch and gathers her traveling companions on her way to the Emerald City.

And then part two of the middle happens, and things start to get serious. This is when the hero has to go from learning about things to really doing things. You might say that the hero is entering the special world within the story’s special world. The hero’s journey calls this “the approach to the inmost cave,” and there is often some kind of cave-like imagery. There’s a sense of the world closing in. The hero’s options are becoming more limited. If you look at it like a decision tree, at the beginning of the story the hero has virtually unlimited options, but by making one choice, all the other potential options are cut off, and he’s down to only those that stem from that choice. The next choice narrows things still further. Now he may only have a few possible options as he moves forward.

The hero may get a new assignment — like the Wizard telling Dorothy she needs to get the Wicked Witch’s broom — or there may be a briefing scene in a cop or action movie. The hero might get the specific weapons needed for this task. Sometimes you find a bonding scene at this time, something bringing the team closer together. If there’s a romantic element, this may be when the couple expresses emotions or has a love scene. That’s a nifty emotional trick for raising the stakes. It gives the hero something to fight for, and it makes us care about those other characters as we go into some danger. This is when Dorothy and her friends head toward the witch’s castle through the scary forest, or when the Millennium Falcon gets pulled into the Death Star. The characters are in a new, unfamiliar place, and they’ll have to accomplish a goal in order to survive and escape.

This is all building up to what you can think of as the secondary climax of the story. The real climax happens later, but this one is almost as intense and may even take up more time in the story. It’s a bigger set piece. You can think of it as the midterm exam of the story. It tests the heroes on what they’ve already learned, but it’s not the final exam. The heroes can’t have ultimate victory here, or the story would be over. At best, it’s a partial victory. They may get what they need, but they still haven’t accomplished their story goal. In a classic quest story, the hero may obtain the quest object, but he still has to get it back home to use it to heal his land, and the bad guys are going to do everything they can to stop him. Dorothy obtains the witch’s broom, but she still needs to get the Wizard to send her home. Luke and the others rescue the princess and escape from the Death Star, but the Death star is tracking them and will soon be in position to destroy their secret base.

Or, the hero may even fail at this point. He hasn’t learned his lessons, is still trying to do things his way, disregarding advice, and when he faces the villain, he loses, barely escaping with his life. He’ll have to make some changes before he can face the villain again and win. If you look at the original Star Wars trilogy as one story, that would be Luke facing Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. He loses that battle because he wasn’t properly prepared for it. He rushed into it impulsively without knowing for certain what he was doing, and he failed. There’s often a death of one of the team members during this segment, which shows how serious and dangerous this task is. Quite often, this is when the mentor figure dies, leaving the hero on his own to figure things out for the rest of the story. Or we lose one of the team members the hero just bonded with, which gives him added motivation for the rest of the story. Be careful using that trope, though. You don’t want to use a character’s suffering as nothing more than giving motivation to the hero. It’s particularly cliched for something to happen to the love interest to motivate the hero.

While there are all kinds of hero’s journey mythological reasons for this phase in the story, from a practical standpoint, it mostly serves to keep things exciting between the initiating incident and the resolution. Something needs to happen in the middle of the story. The next time you watch a movie on TV/cable/DVD/streaming, look for the length of the movie, figure out what the middle of the movie would be, and take note of what’s happening at that point in the movie. If it’s an action movie, there’s probably some big action sequence. If it’s not an action movie, there’s probably some big, intense, emotional sequence, like a confrontation between characters, a love scene, or a big dilemma. Open a book to the middle and see what’s going on, and you may find the same thing.

I find that this is the part that tends to be skipped by beginning writers, and it was learning this trick that taught me how to really plot a story. We tend to think in terms of what happens to kick off a story and what happens to resolve a story, and it’s easy to look at the rest as filler. By making sure you’ve got some important event midway through that doesn’t resolve the story but that tests your characters, your story will become a lot more interesting.

Books

Recent Reading

I’ve been so busy lately, and it’s only getting worse! Last week, I finished the book I was working on and sent it to my agent Monday. I’ve already started a new book and have written 8,000 words — all in one day. Now I want to top that number, so we’ll see what I manage to do today. Then I have an event every other weekend until November. This weekend is FenCon in the Dallas area. I have a weekend off after that, and then I’m going to the Missouri Library Association conference. I get a weekend off, and then I’m going to Necronomicon in Tampa. I get a weekend off, and then I’m going to the World Fantasy Convention in San Antonio. Probably not the best time to start writing a new book, but I’m behind and am trying to get back on schedule. A few 8,000-word days will help.

But I have also made time for reading and discovered a new-to-me series, the Sanctuary books by Carol Berg. These are set in an Italian Renaissance-like society in which the magical people consider themselves superior to the “ordinaries” and set themselves apart to the point of having strict rules about interacting with nonmagical people. They even wear masks while in public because it’s forbidden for nonmagical people to see their faces. In the first book, Dust and Light, our hero, a young artist, finds himself suddenly demoted from his job painting portraits of the elite and sent to work for the city’s coroner, using his magical talent to paint a subject’s true self to create portraits of the dead for use in identifying them and possibly solving their murders. That’s bad enough for him, but things go downhill from there as his life is totally upended by a vast conspiracy. It seems his talent has an element he wasn’t aware of — he not only paints his subject’s true self, but things from that person’s history also tend to show up in his paintings. That means some interesting things showed up in his portraits of the elite that they would rather not be made public.

It’s hard to talk about the second book, Ash and Silver, without spoiling the first one, but it does involve one of my favorite fantasy tropes, memory loss. More specifically, the question of what would you be if you didn’t know who you were? (I’m not a fan of the more romance novel style amnesia plots, but I love it when magic is used to erase identity. Go figure.) There’s an order of magical knights, and part of their training is to have their identity and memories associated with their identity erased so that they focus on training without personal baggage like status, loyalties or history. After training, they get their memories back so they can decide whether to enter the order for good or return to their old lives. I find that a really interesting concept because it’s all about these men discovering who they really are in the course of training and choosing who they want to be.

These are definitely “put your characters in a tree and throw rocks at them” books, so sometimes they got a bit intense with the hero’s suffering. I just wanted to give the poor guy a time out to rest and have a cookie and not have everyone scheming against him for maybe five minutes. So, perhaps not the best read if you’re feeling stressed and can’t deal with suffering, unless that sort of thing puts your own life in perspective. There were parts I kind of had to to read from between my fingers, and I ended up flipping to the end to make sure things would be okay before I could continue reading. On the other hand, that’s a good sign that I was invested in the character. It was fascinating watching him grow from all he endured and figure out who he could and couldn’t trust.

Apparently, these books are set in the same universe as one of her other series, so I’ll have to look for those. The worldbuilding is really intricate, and I’m intrigued by that world.

Meanwhile, I’ve found myself wondering if there’s a market for whimsical, tame, low-stress adventures for reading when you’re too stressed to deal with life-and-death sakes in fiction. There are days when I’d be all about an entire book about playing with a basket of puppies, because that’s about all the stress I can take at the end of the day.

writing

Middles: Part One

I just did a whole series of writing posts about beginnings, and now it’s time to move on to middles. While beginnings are important for snagging the interest of editors, agents, and readers, the middle has a lot to do with whether a book sinks or swims. A strong beginning doesn’t help if the middle sags. Many authors find the middle to be the most difficult part of the book to write. It’s tricky keeping the pacing and tension going without resolving everything too soon but also while having very good reasons that things can’t yet be resolved.

You can generally divide the middle — the part that comes after the hero has chosen (or been forced) to take on the story goal and before the build-up to the resolution — into two parts. There’s the getting used to new circumstances, meeting new people, and figuring out the situation part, and then there’s the setup for the climax.

If you’re thinking about it in terms of the Hero’s Journey, the first part would be Tests, Enemies, and Allies. In a way, this is the “ordinary world” of the special world of the story. You probably don’t want to spend a lot of time in the beginning showing the ordinary parts of the ordinary world, but this is where you can play with your worldbuilding, showing how things are different now that the hero has taken up the challenge. The hero really may travel to a different place — going to Oz, Narnia, or some other fantasy world, or possibly just leaving the familiar to go on a journey or quest within his or her own world. Or the hero may stay in the same place but encounter different people and situations. It may be a new job with new co-workers, a new home in a new neighborhood, or a new group of friends or colleagues. The hero has to learn the rules of this new situation, how it all works, and who to trust. The protagonists will learn more about the villain, more about what they have to do to achieve their goal, and may pick up skills and weapons that they’ll need later.

In his book Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this part of the story “the promise of the premise.” It’s when the things you expect to happen in this kind of story happen. In a fantasy quest story, it’s when the questing party really comes together, and they may have a few lower-stakes adventures and encounters in which they learn what the dangers of their quest are likely to be. In a space opera, this is life on the spaceship and meeting the crew, maybe having a minor space battle that shows off the skills of the various crew members. In a romantic comedy, it’s the part where the hero and heroine are stuck in a situation together, with witty banter, and we meet their various friends.

Think of some familiar stories: In The Wizard of Oz, it’s when Dorothy has arrived in Oz and been given her quest by Glinda, and she sets off down the Yellow Brick Road, picking up her traveling companions along the way and having a few encounters with the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys. In Star Wars, Luke goes with Obi-Wan to the cantina, where he gets a glimpse of what Obi-Wan is capable of and meets Han and Chewbacca, and then they escape in the Millennium Falcon — a sequence in which we learn the capabilities of Han and the ship — and Luke starts his Jedi training.

The challenge is keeping readers interested after the beginning. There is a natural slowdown after the big bang of the opening, but you can’t let the pace or the energy lag. Things need to happen. There need to be some stakes, even if it’s not entirely do-or-die at this point in the story. This is a good place to set up the things you’ll need for the climax and resolution — the hero learning or gaining things, trying and failing at something he’ll later need to do properly to save the day, encountering the villain and surviving but not winning. The conflict that keeps the story going through this part needs to be real, not contrived. If the story would end if two characters who are capable of having a conversation just had a conversation, you need more going on. If the story would end if the characters just figured out a rather obvious thing, you need very good reasons for them not to know about or notice that very obvious thing.

If you’re struggling with a story that feels like it’s sagging at this point, look at the conflict. Is anything stopping the heroes from achieving their goals? Are there any intermediate goals on the way to achieving the story goal, and what’s getting in the way of those goals? Finding a good reason for the heroes to struggle will usually fix a sagging early middle. You can also have conflicts among the characters, like Han Solo’s disdain for Jedi ways and Luke’s disdain at Han’s greed.

Next time, I’ll look at the second part of the story middle.

movies

Don’t Blame the RomCom

I’ve been scarce online lately as I finished a draft of a book, and I have another draft to go and a lot going on this week, but I have a rant brewing that must come out.

Twitter’s been all abuzz about this article about a man playing the piano in a park as a way of getting his ex-girlfriend back, vowing to keep at it until he knows that she knows what he’s doing. It was initially presented as a romantic gesture, until people pointed out that it was creepy, manipulative behavior. If she wants to get back with him, she knows where to find him. The big, public gesture to get attention and acting like she owes it to him to listen to how much he loves her is a huge red flag.

And I totally agree with that. What I have issue with is that most of the commentaries that have come out on this issue have blamed romantic comedy movies for teaching that this kind of grand gesture works. They criticize the fact that stalking and big public manipulative gestures are shown as positive things in movies. However, as a huge fan of romantic comedies, I can’t think of any that really fit this circumstance. Movies are being unfairly blamed here. When there is a big, public gesture, it’s usually the person who did the rejecting or who otherwise messed up showing that he/she learned a lesson and is trying to make up for it.

Usually, the image used to illustrate these commentaries is the scene from Love Actually in which the guy who has a crush on his friend’s wife comes to their house and declares his love in a series of posters. And, yeah, that’s creepy, and rather a jerk move to declare his love to his friend’s wife. Also, very selfish, because it’s about making himself feel good, not about what it does to her. The movie does treat it like it’s a sweet gesture — but it’s also unsuccessful. She more or less pats him on the head and goes back inside to her husband. He later moves on and finds someone else. This is not shown as a successful way to get the girl.

The closest I can think of to the “stalking will win you the one you love” message might be Bringing Up Baby, but there it’s the woman going after the man. She keeps arranging ways to make him be stuck with her as a way of getting to know him and forcing him to get to know her.

Maybe there was some stuff like that in the Doris Day era, but there was a whole lot of creepy stuff going on in those movies. In the modern era, I’ve seen the reference to the boombox outside the window from Say Anything. It’s been a while since I watched that movie, but I don’t recall it being him forcing her hand. It was more of a declaration of his feelings and a show of support for what she was going through.

Otherwise, there was Billy Crystal’s public declaration of his feelings on New Year’s Eve that was his way of showing Meg Ryan that he didn’t see her as just another conquest. In Notting Hill, she made her declaration of love that he rejected, then regretted rejecting, so he made an even more public declaration (though I always felt she owed him an apology for jumping to the worst possible conclusion about him earlier). Leap Year was essentially a remake of It Happened One Night, where she realized she had chosen the wrong guy and went back to see if the right guy was interested. And I could go on.

Now, there may be some selection bias, as I’m not likely to remember or have in my collection a movie I found creepy, but I can’t think of any romantic comedy film equivalent of playing the piano in public to force an ex to deal with him. Where you’re more likely to see that kind of thing is in TV sitcoms or in romance novels. I can think of way too many books in which the guy declares at the beginning that he’s going to win the woman, she rejects him, and he spends the book relentlessly pursuing her until she gives in.

But stop blaming romantic comedy films in general. Cite specific examples of the behavior being referenced.

writing

What Makes a Good Beginning?

I’ve been talking about writing beginnings in my writing posts. Beginnings really are difficult, but there’s only one absolute rule: your beginning must make people want to read more. If it does that, nothing else really matters.

But how do you do that?

  • You can write a real grabber of an opening line that makes readers want to know more — a killer first line.
  • Show just enough of your story world to keep readers intrigued — enough to give them a sense of place and what’s going on, but don’t answer all the questions up front, and don’t give an infodump near the beginning of the book.
  • Show the protagonist’s potential — whether you’re writing a true hero or an antihero, your main character is probably going to change and grow during the story. The antihero may have a redemption arc. The hero may learn some valuable lessons. Let readers get a sense of what the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses are, what their goals are, and what they’re going to have to overcome. But, again, don’t tell everything. Questions and curiosity help keep pages turning.
  • Present the story question the plot will hinge upon — will they beat the villain/complete the quest/save the day?
  • Show the stakes if the protagonist fails

The job of the story’s beginning is to:

  • Introduce the main characters — preferably one or two at a time so readers have a chance to get to know each one instead of being hit with all of them at once. When you go to a party, are you more likely to remember names and something about the people you meet when you’re introduced one-on-one or when you’re brought to a group and quickly given all their names?
  • Set the stage — show us just enough of the world to allow us to understand where/when we are and what’s different from our world, but leave us curious about seeing more.
  • Set up and then show the inciting incident that kicks the story into motion.
  • Define the story goal that comes out of the inciting incident and the stakes.

The lovely thing about writing a novel is that you don’t have to get the beginning right from the start. You can always go back and revise it. Don’t get hung up on getting the opening just perfect before you move on. Chances are, as you get deeper into the story, you’ll learn a lot about your characters and world, and that knowledge will help you go back and improve your beginning. Making the beginning perfect before you’ve written the rest of the story may even be a waste of time. The things you figure out along the way may lead to you changing the way you start your story. What you write as an ending may give you better ideas for how to begin. The ending will show you what your characters really needed to learn, which will allow you to hint at that need in the opening. You’ll know from the ending how the world will change, so you’ll have a better sense of what you need to show in the beginning. You may even find that the opening scene as you’ve written it is entirely unnecessary, and the story really begins later. Writing the rest of the book may give you ideas for that brilliant opening line.

So, don’t fret about your beginning until after you’ve written the book — especially for a first novel. More experienced writers may start writing proposals to sell books, so they only write a few chapters, but that usually comes after you’ve written some complete books. For an early novel, just worry about starting in a way that sets the stage and gets your characters going. You can make it better later, and that will be better than if you sweat over it before writing anything else.

My Books

Once Upon A Fairy Tale

I’ve found myself taking a journey down memory lane the last few days, thinking about the origins of my least-appreciated series, the Fairy Tale books. It was at about this time in 2009 that I took my research trip to New York to prepare to write the first book. I guess I started thinking about that this week because there was all the talk in the news about a tropical storm approaching (now it’s a hurricane), and a tropical storm hit New York while I was there. The first day of my trip was gorgeous — warm and sunny. I spent the afternoon wandering Central Park. It rained the rest of the time I was there, something that found its way into the book. I didn’t mind so much because I love rain, but it did get heavy at times, and one downside of rain is that it doesn’t offer many opportunities to sit down and rest while you’re outside, unless you want to sit in a puddle on a wet bench, so my feet and legs were killing me by the end of the day.

A Fairy Tale

I do hope to write more books in that series. I know some character arcs I want to do, but I’m not quite yet clear on a big-picture plot, and since those books make the least amount of money for me, and they take me a lot longer to write, they’re lower on my priority list.

Still, I really do love them. I think part of the reason that they’re hard to write is that they come from a dreamlike place in my brain, and that makes translating them into words difficult. The character of Sophie came to me in a dream around the time I was right out of college. She had a different name (the name she had in the dream ended up being the name of a main character in a TV series that I saw not long before I started writing the book, so I had to rename her), and she didn’t have all her traits, like being a dancer or having an unusual heritage, but the personality was what was in the dream. I’d been auditioning that character for a leading role in every story idea I came up with, but she wasn’t quite right until I had another dream of a woman in a floaty floral dress walking a bulldog down a city street and disappearing into the mist. This woman was the character who’d been living in my head all that time, and I wanted to figure out the circumstances of where she went and what was going on. I woke up in the middle of the night one night and wrote down the scene in which Sophie wakes up, realizing that something has happened to her sister and she needs to go to her aid (before I knew what happened to her sister). Another night, I woke up and wrote down an early phase of what would be the back-cover copy. The book changed a lot after that, but the central concept was a Southern belle queen bee type taking on a fairy queen. From there, I started researching fairy folklore and related literature. There was the Tam Lin story about rescuing a lover from the fairies, but I also loved the Christina Rossetti poem “Goblin Market,” which was about sisters. That’s probably what influenced that midnight waking scene about having to rescue a sister. Other story fragments, like the elderly sisters with a shop, attached themselves to that image, and then it took me ages to tease the plot out of all these pieces.

Before I took that trip to New York, I already knew about the dual worlds, but the weather helped me with that because it really was like two different worlds, the park I saw my first day when it was warm and sunny and the park I saw the second day when it was dark and pouring rain. The colors were different. The first day, the park was full of people, and later it was almost deserted. The sounds were different. I noticed the lampposts, since the lamps were all lit, and that made me notice things around the lampposts that I hadn’t seen on a sunny day.

I think I was in the middle of writing the book when I first heard a song that I felt perfectly described Sophie, and I took a detail from the song to add to the character — the mismatched eyes, which ended up being a perfect metaphor for her nature. The song is actually supposed to be anthropomorphizing the month of August, on the cusp between summer and autumn (well, in northern Europe — here, it’s the height of summer), but it still seems to fit this mercurial character.

Hmm, I may have to bump up brainstorming another book on my priority list because I’ve realized how much I miss these characters.