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Action Openings

It’s time for another Writing Wednesday post, and I’m following up on my previous discussion of beginnings.

One good way to start a book off with a bang is with some kind of action. This sort of beginning is called “in media res,” which just means starting in the middle of action. You don’t really know what’s going on, just that something is happening, and the combination of action and curiosity about what the action is about serves to hook readers. But it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve heard agents complain about getting too many submissions that start with the protagonist running through the streets, being chased. The problem is that if you don’t know who this character is and have no reason to sympathize with him, why should you care if he gets caught? Reading about a random person running through the streets isn’t actually all that entertaining. We’re pretty certain that the main character in the story isn’t going to get caught and thrown in jail in the first scene, or there’s not going to be much of a story — unless the story is about him in prison or this is a prologue and the story is about what happens after he gets out of prison — so there isn’t a lot of suspense about whether or not he gets caught.

So, how do you make this kind of opening work? (And, really, these tricks apply to any opening, but if you can make them work with running through the streets, you can apply them anywhere.)

First, the character whose viewpoint we’re in needs a goal. It may not be the story goal at this point, but there needs to be something the character wants — other than not getting caught — and a reason for him to want it. Something needs to be at stake, and not just his freedom. Is he a thief escaping the police? What did he steal, why did he steal it, and what will happen if he gets caught? Will his daughter/mother/wife not be able to get medicine if he doesn’t get the money from this theft? Was he stealing a magical amulet from the evil wizard? Reclaiming his family’s heirloom that was stolen by a more powerful person? This goal gives us some suspense — we’re pretty sure the hero won’t get caught, but will he succeed in what he’s trying to do? Will he get into some other kind of trouble? It may not be the story goal and main plot at this point, but it should lead into the main plot in some way — say, the person who helps the hero evade the police then demands that the hero take on some other mission as paypack for the help, and he won’t be able to carry out his initial mission until that’s done.

There also needs to be some kind of context that draws us into the story. A chase scene is a good way of showing what the world looks like — is it a futuristic world with robot cops on flying motorbikes, a fantasy world with guards armed with swords, a contemporary world? Is it an unjust world with the rich and powerful not answering to laws while poor people are oppressed? Is crime common or unheard of? Is it an oppressive regime, and the hero is being chased just for being a rebel?

Beyond these plot-related things, you need to create empathy for the hero so that we care what happens to him as a person. There are some tried-and-true tricks that can be used here.

  • Make him an underdog — an ordinary guy fighting against forces that are far bigger than he is
  • Show him being extremely competent — he knows his way around the city, is able to hide, climb walls, or disguise himself
  • Give him a sense of humor — he tosses quips at the people chasing him or has an entertaining internal monologue during the chase
  • Show what other people think about him — the people in the city step up to help hide him or send the pursuers in the wrong direction, which shows us that people like him and are willing to take risks for him, so he must be a good person
  • Have him “save the cat” — that’s a Hollywood term for doing something we associate with being good and kind. This kind of action makes people quickly like a character. If our hero in the chase scene stops to help someone else in spite of his own danger we’re more likely to warm to him.

If you think about popular books and movies, you can probably think of examples of these. The opening of almost every James Bond movie has Bond being extremely competent and tossing off quips during an action sequence. When we first meet Indiana Jones, he’s expertly navigating an obstacle course, and the sequence is capped by the revelation of his fear of snakes, which humanizes him. The opening of the animated Disney version of Aladdin manages to include just about all of these. He’s an orphaned street rat being pursued by the city guards, so he’s an underdog. He clearly knows his way around the city and is clever at evading capture, so he’s competent. He does it all with wit and flair. He hands over the food he stole to a starving child, for a “save the cat” moment.

The action beginning can work if there’s a reason for the action and if you can very quickly make readers care about the character.

writing

Beginnings

After focusing on writing life for the last few writing posts, I thought I’d get back to craft, and what better place to start than at the beginning?

Beginnings are tricky because this is where you hook readers. It’s where you sell the book, whether to a publisher or to the reader. If the first few pages don’t suck someone into the story, readers will never know that the middle is engrossing or the ending is terrific.

The beginning also seems to be the part of a novel that changes the most over time. The openings of books published just twenty years ago are different from what’s being published now. The change is even more drastic if you go back farther than that. I’ve tried re-reading some of my favorite fantasy novels from the 1970s and early 80s, and I have a hard time getting into them. I’m not sure that some of them would be published today. There’s not a lot of room for the opening chapter being about peaceful life on the farm before the mysterious wizard shows up and tells the entire history of that world and then asking the farmboy to join him on a quest. Our entertainment landscape has changed so much that attention spans are getting shorter and people expect to get right into the story. There’s also so much competition for eyeballs. If your opening doesn’t grab people right away, it’s too easy for them to instantly get another book on an e-reader, or find something to watch on Netflix, or surf the Internet.

One thing that seems to be going by the wayside is what you could call the “ordinary world” part of the story. That’s the first stage in the hero’s journey, and too many writers interpret that to mean showing what a regular day is like. I’ve heard agents and editors talk about reading sample chapters that show the character getting up in the morning, getting dressed, going to work, etc., before the story kicks in. You might be able to get away with that in the movie if that’s what’s playing out during the opening credits while a catchy pop song is playing and if the character on the screen is played by a known and loved actor. In a novel, it’s deadly.

Not that we don’t need any “ordinary world” element. We do need to get a baseline so we can contrast it with how things change once the story kicks off. If it’s science fiction or fantasy, we need to see how that world works and how it’s different from ours. If the world is in danger, we need to see what’s at stake — what will be destroyed if the hero fails? We need to see what the hero is like in his initial surroundings to get a sense of how he’s changed by the events of the story.

The trick is to make this an exciting part of the story rather than just exposition. It helps if your hero has a life that’s already pretty exciting. The opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indiana Jones gets past all the booby traps into a tomb, outruns a boulder, and then flees angry tribesmen, is actually his ordinary world. It shows his skill set, what kind of work he usually does, and establishes his rivalry with the villain. That way, when we get to the actual inciting incident of him being asked to go get the medallion that can lead them to the Ark, we understand that this guy is up for the job.

Before the kids go to Narnia, they’re already in a strange world when they have to leave home and stay in a mysterious manor because they’re escaping the bombing during the war. That allows us to spend some time exploring the house before stumbling upon the wardrobe — but there would probably be a lot less of that if the book were published today.

Or you can contrast the hero’s ordinary life with a threat he or she doesn’t yet know about, but this only works if you have multiple viewpoints to work with. The Terminator opens with time travelers arriving in the present and a killer cyborg hunting down women named Sarah Connor. Then we watch a woman named Sarah Connor go about her ordinary day. Her ordinary day of going to work as a diner waitress becomes tense and frightening because we know what’s going on elsewhere that might affect her. But we probably wouldn’t be too interested if we spent pages and pages of her ordinary day before she realizes that people with her name are being killed. If it’s all in her perspective, she’d need to learn that really quickly. I think if I were writing that story as a novel entirely from her point of view, my opening line would be a coworker quipping to her about being murdered, and her seeing the report on TV. Then I could go back and show her boring ordinary life, contrasted with that fear of what’s happening to other women with her name, and build a sense of dread.

You don’t necessarily have to open with the ordinary world. You can dive right in with the inciting incident or call to adventure, and then while the hero is balking at that (in hero’s journey terms, “Refusal of the Call”) you can show what the ordinary world is like and why the hero is reluctant to leave that world. Or you can weave in bits of what might happen with the story world into the ordinary world. That’s how I opened my Enchanted, Inc. — the heroine is going about her ordinary day, taking the subway to work, but she sees strange things on the subway that no one else reacts to. She gets to work to find a strange job offer in her e-mail, and then we get scenes of what her normal job is like. I tried to weave in hints of the fantastic while also showing an ordinary life she might want to change.

But none of this does any good if we don’t care about the character, so that’s what I’ll tackle next time.

writing life, writing

Change vs. Persistence

In my last writing post, I talked about dealing with discouragement. One of the pieces of advice was to change what you’re doing. There’s the often quoted saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you don’t like the results you’re getting, it makes sense to change what you’re doing.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for persistence. What you’re doing may not be wrong. It may just be a case of sticking with it and building up momentum. In the business book Good to Great, Jim Collins brings up the concept of the “flywheel.” In a factory, this is a large, heavy wheel that takes a lot of effort to get moving, but once it’s moving, it can be kept moving with minimal effort. The idea behind the metaphor is that in your career, it may feel like you’re not getting results at first, but if you stick with something long enough, you’ll eventually reach the point where it keeps turning on its own. If you keep starting and stopping or changing to something else when what you’re doing seems to be difficult, you’ll never build any momentum.

Which advice is right? It all depends on the situation.

In some cases, the need for change is pretty obvious. If you’re not selling enough stories, then it makes sense to write more stories and/or work to improve your writing. Sending out the same story over and over again, even after everyone’s rejected it, isn’t necessarily the good kind of persistence. The persistence there is continuing to write and submit rather than giving up at the first setback.

Other situations are more difficult — is it better to stick with a publisher and hope that you’ll gradually move up in the ranks and eventually have a book chosen to be a lead title, or is it better to move on and hope that you can find a publisher who’ll give you more attention now? Is the agent who launched your career the best fit for you when you want to move to another level? Should you continue with your current marketing efforts and hope that you can build an audience if you just let it build momentum, or should you drop some things and try some new things?

One thing to consider is how much you’ve sunk into doing things the way you’ve been doing them. Sometimes, that investment means you should stick with it, but that can also hold you back in making needed changes because you don’t want to lose that investment. Would starting over do you any good? Are there any opportunities waiting for you if you stick with where you are? Is there a potentially better use for the resources you’re currently devoting to what you’re doing now?

Have you given it enough time and opportunity to take off? If you’ve given what you’re doing a reasonable amount of time and aren’t seeing results, change makes sense. Are you seeing a positive trend? Are things getting better over time, even if you’re not yet where you’d like to be? If things aren’t improving even after you’ve given it some time, then change makes sense.

Here’s an example from my own career: I’ve been hitting science fiction conventions as an author since soon after my first fantasy novel was published, more than ten years ago. Travel to conventions was the biggest part of my marketing budget. Last year, I started thinking about whether that marketing strategy made sense for me. I realized that even that far down the road, I was still relatively unknown at the bigger conventions. I don’t seem to be making a name on the convention circuit or among that particular crowd. I’ve had one invitation to be a guest of honor at a convention. I mostly see the same faces in the audience when I do readings. I got a big boost from conventions early in my career when I went from being unknown to being slightly known, but I don’t seem to be growing beyond that level. I’ve given it more than ten years, which is long enough that if I were building momentum, I’d have seen it by now. The results seem to be tapering off. There are more effective ways I could use that time and money, so I decided to back off from conventions unless I’m an invited featured guest. Instead, I’m attending professional development and networking-oriented events and library and school events. I’ve used the travel budget on getting a new logo and website developed, and I’m working on other activities that I hope will get my name out in different ways. I’m also using the time I would have spent traveling to and recovering from conventions to write. I wasn’t feeling the momentum, so maybe I can build momentum in a different way that might allow me to hop back into conventions at a level where I can see more results, or at least do it for a different purpose, meeting fans instead of building a name.

If the answer is to stick with it, you may still need to make changes, like improving your writing, increasing your output, or finding new ways to build word of mouth. You can seldom get over any kind of slump by just continuing to do exactly what you’ve been doing all along. At the very least, changing something makes you feel more empowered and may help change your frame of mind, which makes it easier to weather the discouraging moments.

writing life, writing

Dealing With Discouragement

When I was at the Nebula Awards weekend last month, I was on a panel about dealing with discouragement. While preparing for that panel, I thought a lot about that topic, so I thought I’d share some of the ideas I came up with, only some of which actually made it into the panel discussion.

I think just about every writer deals with discouragement in some form or another, and at every stage of his or her career. When you’re just starting to write, you may be discouraged about being able to find time to write or struggling to get all the way through a book. Later, you may be discouraged about your work being rejected. Once you’re published, you can get discouraged by reviews, by the way the publisher treats your book, by sales figures, by the kind of recognition (or lack thereof) you receive. That’s why it’s important to learn and practice good coping skills so you can turn your discouragement into a positive force.

One thing to know is that it’s okay to be discouraged and even angry. The trick is to channel it in a more positive direction rather than letting it fester and become a negative force on you and your career. Eat chocolate, rant and rave a little, throw a beanbag at the wall, vent to your friends. However, do all this in private. A social media meltdown could come back to bite you. It may be a turnoff to industry professionals who may want to work with you in the future, and you don’t want readers or potential readers to think of you as an angry whiner. That doesn’t mean you have to always be Little Mary Sunshine, but you should probably think about and process your discouragement before expressing it publicly rather than ranting out of pure emotion on a public stage. I would also caution you to not get too physically unhealthy in your emotional coping strategies. A little chocolate or a drink with your writer friends is one thing. Drowning your sorrows in alcohol isn’t going to help matters. You also don’t want to stay angry and bitter without moving forward because that will affect the quality of your work — and your life.

Once you have the raw emotion out of your system, you can get more analytical. What, exactly, is it that’s discouraging you? Write it down and try to get to the core of it — I’m struggling with the middle of the book, which feels boring; I can’t seem to get beyond the form rejection stage; my publisher did absolutely no publicity for my last book, then blamed me for the bad sales; I’m getting horrible reviews.

Now identify the factors that you can control and do something about. You can’t change what publishers do, what reviewers say, how agents perceive your work. But you can change what you write, how you write, how much you write, what professional activities you participate in, how you promote yourself, etc. So, for example, if you’re getting nothing but form rejections, you can try writing something different — maybe there’s not much of a market for what you write — or taking some workshops to try to improve your writing. You can get into a critique group or find a critique partner to get some feedback on your work and see if you can identify what might not be catching editors’ or agents’ attention. You can go to conferences to network with people, maybe get some face-to-face pitch sessions so that you can get some up-front feedback if it’s what you’re writing that’s being rejected, or you may get a more personalized response that identifies what it is in your writing that isn’t working. Develop a plan based on things you can control and do something about to address the source of your discouragement. Set goals and targets that you can measure, and keep track of your progress. That not only puts you on a path to correcting things, it makes you feel more empowered, which makes you feel less discouraged.

Unfortunately, there are still a lot of things you can’t control, and that becomes more true the higher you go up the career ladder. You can’t make publishers decide that yours is the book they want to promote, you can’t make reviewers review your work and like it if they do review it, you can’t make your book get nominated for or win awards, you can’t make readers buy your book and tell others about it. How do you deal with it if the source of your discouragement is something you can’t control? I think this is where positive anger comes into play. That’s using anger as a motivation to persist and improve. Even at this level, the things you control are still the same. It just may take a lot more work to get enough change to make a difference, and it will take a lot of motivation to power through. If you’re not getting a push from publishers, what it takes to get it is a book that makes everyone in the publisher excited about its potential, or else a track record of steadily rising sales that makes the publisher feel like this can be the book that breaks out. That means working hard to find the right concept, executing it brilliantly, maybe some networking to build support and establishing a professional reputation. That’s possibly even more difficult than writing a first book, and you’re going to need all your righteous anger to fuel you and remind you that you need something too awesome to be ignored. It may help to have a motivational mental image. I’ve joked about what I’ll demand when I ride into New York at the head of my conquering army, with maybe a few dragons circling overhead, but that mental image does spur me to get back to work when I’m ready to settle for “good enough.”

I think the worst way to handle discouragement is to focus on the things you can’t control without having any kind of plan in place to deal with the things you can control. Then you just have that free-ranging disappointment and anger, that sense that the world is out to get you. I find that it really helps to dig into what’s causing the problem I’m having and what I can do about it, then focus my thoughts and efforts on what I can control.