HOW TO START A NOVEL

How to Start a Novel: A Checklist Posted by Laura DiSilverio

Great opening lines

Consider the following . . .

“All this happened, more or less.”  Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.”  The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

“‘What makes Iago evil?’ some people ask. I never ask.”  Play It as It Lays, Joan Didion

“The snow in the mountains was melting, and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we understood the gravity of our situation.”  The Secret History, Donna Tartt

“I don’t think my stepfather much minded dying. That he almost took me with him wasn’t really his fault.”  To the Hilt, Dick Francis

“Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.”  Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Did these first lines draw you in, make you want to go find the books and read them? Look what a single sentence can do!

No one will deny that a novel’s beginning is key to its success. Some might argue that its ending is even more important, but we’re not here to have that debate. Instead, we’re going to talk about how to start a novel—specifically, how to craft a stellar opening line and great opening paragraphs.

The writer’s goal for page one

Before we can discuss the specifics of how to start a novel, we need to talk about a writer’s goals for a story’s opening paragraph. Your primary goal is to make the reader keep reading. Sounds simple. But we know from our own experiences as readers, that it’s not so simple. How many times have you pulled a book off a library shelf, perhaps intrigued by the cover, read the first line or three, and re-shelved it? Hundreds of times, right? Do you read two or three pages, or an entire chapter while standing in the bookstore? I don’t. If a writer hasn’t snared me by the end of the first paragraph, I don’t pull out my Visa.

What keeps a reader reading?

Books and articles on how to start a novel sometimes list dozens of things that will keep a reader reading. In my experience, they boil down to only two reasons: a compelling character (not necessarily “likable”) and/or getting swept into the action. Both of these hinge on evoking curiosity, making the reader want to know more about the character or find out how the action turns out, and setting up conflict. (There is a special, third way to start your novel, that I’ll discuss at the end.)

How to start a novel with a compelling character

No one technique will snare all readers, but we can make some generalizations. For the purposes of this section, let’s consider the opening paragraph, only three sentences, of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.*

Raise questions.

If your opening line or opening paragraphs raises questions in the reader’s mind, she is more likely to read on to discover the answer. The immediate question Gaiman’s first line brings to mind is “What did Shadow do to end up in prison?” We keep reading, hoping to find out.

Introduce a multi-layered, interesting character.

Shadow’s a big, apparently tough dude in prison, but he’s teaching himself coin tricks, of all things, and he loves his wife. These front-and-center contradictions pique a reader’s interest (and all promise conflict). As a bonus, he’s sympathetic. We tend to be drawn to smart, curious people (teaching himself coin tricks), and people who love their family members, so we’re pre-disposed to like Shadow, even though the first thing we learn about him is that he’s in prison.

How to start a novel with action

In his book The Watchman, Robert Crais opens with the kind of action that keeps a reader reading. (Note: This great opening paragraph is only two sentences.)

The city was hers for a single hour, just the one magic hour, only hers. The morning of the accident, between three and four A.M. when the streets were empty and the angels watched, she flew east on Wilshire Boulevard at eighty miles per hour, never once slowing for the red lights along that stretch called the Miracle Mile, red after red, blowing through lights without even slowing; glittering blue streaks of mascara on her cheeks.*

Engage the reader in the action.

Confess—you don’t want to keep reading this to find out who the woman is as much as to see if she crashes and what happens then. Will she die? Will she kill someone? Crais has roused our curiosity and promised conflict with “the accident” and what we think is an impending crash. Book beginnings like this make us keep reading.

Introduce a character.

Any character. Even when opening with an action sequence, you still need a character. There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story about a screenwriter pitching a producer on his script. The screenwriter describes in great detail an opening sequence featuring a Mercedes speeding down the road, skidding off a cliff, and bursting into flames when it hits bottom. The producer asks: “Yes, but who’s in the car?”

Part of the reason we keep reading The Watchman is because there’s a woman, and she’s got fanciful ideas about the city, and maybe she’s crying (the mascara on her cheeks). She is by no means compelling (certainly not like Shadow in the earlier example), but she’s there and she’s got the hubris to think of Los Angeles as “hers.” It’s enough, in concert with the action, to make us read on.

How to start a novel with the power of language

I know I said that readers keep reading only if you arouse their curiosity by introducing a compelling character or involving them in action, both of which promise conflict. There is, actually, a third method, less often used because it requires a master’s hand, that I call “the power of language,” that does neither of those things. It can be a descriptive passage, a ruminative nugget of interior dialog, or some other bit of narrative that bowls the reader over with the beauty of the language and the narratorial voice. Consider this opening from Alice Hoffman’s The River King.

The Haddan School was built in 1858 on the sloping banks of the Haddan River, a muddy and precarious location that had proven disastrous from the start. That very first year, when the whole town smelled of cedar shavings, there was a storm of enormous proportions, with winds so strong that dozens of fish were drawn up from the reedy shallows, then lifted above the village in a shining cloud of scales. Torrents of water fell from the sky, and by morning the river had overflowed, leaving the school’s freshly painted white clapboard buildings adrift in a murky sea of duckweed and algae.

There’s no character here, no action. It’s a description of a past storm and its effects. Put like that, it’s not very compelling, is it? The only whiff of present-day conflict lies in “had proven disastrous from the start,” which seems to foreshadow more disaster in the story ahead. But Hoffman’s description, her use of conflict-laden words like “precarious,” “disastrous,” and “torrents,” and that one beautiful image of a shining cloud of scales, reel us in. We want to lose ourselves in this language, in the world Hoffman is creating, and so we keep reading.

You cannot spend too much time getting your first line and opening paragraph right, making them great. Here’s your checklist for how to begin a novel:

Does it raise one or more questions?

Does it promise conflict?

Does it introduce a compelling character?

Does it sweep the reader into the action?

Does it exhibit the power of language?

If you have included one or more of those elements when you are starting your novel, you’ve probably got a great opening paragraph. (If not, you may have veered into some of the classic ways not to start a novel.)

What’s your favorite opening line of all time? Tell us on our Facebook page.

 

LAURA DISILVERIO is the national best-selling and award-winning author of 21 (and counting) novels, including standalone suspense novels and several mystery series. Her teenagers coaxed her into writing a young adult novel, and the result is the dystopian Incubation Trilogy, an Amazon bestseller. She is a past President of Sisters in Crime and a frequent keynote speaker and teacher at writers conferences and events.

 

 

THE IMITATION GAME: Learning How to Be a Copy Cat!

THE IMITATION GAME: Learning How to Be a Copycat!

In Writer’s Digest magazine this month, I was stopped in my tracks, when I saw this article by Karen Krumpak. I thought…What?

But then reading on, I realized that this is what artists do all the time. The apprentice artists are required to copy their “Master’s work” in paintings, watercolor, and pastels. Okay, I thought, but how is copying, word for word, another author’s work going to help me? And is this a good idea? In my effort to understand this “Game”, I read on.

And, I then discovered that this is a practice game to improve writing skills. Great, I thought, I am hooked! It was a relief though, to know I wouldn’t be the only copycat. I was in good company: Jack London, Benjamin Franklin, and Hunter S. Thompson (I honestly don’t know who this man is or was.)

Next step: Learning to Copycat or rather finding a writer I love and want to copy, but, as I found out, this is not as easy as pie…it takes work! Work?? More work??

Okay…I am Game! (pun intended)

Ms. Karen Krumpak, the author of this article, states that “You will learn to have your own Voice and your own Distinctive Style!”  This sounded like magic to me, as I imagined my own Strong voice, and my own Distinctive style!

Or, would I be, “The New Copycat Killer of Words?” (secretly, I wondered if I would finally learn to properly use punctuation, and even learn how to use italics with confidence.) I have a secret love for italics—don’t ask me why, I don’t know. Italics are very pretty to look at, aren’t they?

The first thing is to sort through your personal library for a writer that you would love to imitate.  So, several hours later….I finally made a decision!

I chose a book with 870 pages: THE MISTS OF AVALON.  I figured that after 870 pages…I would really have my own Strong voice and my own Distinctive style! This would be the “Cat’s Meow” (Pun intended)!

This choice was perfect for me with my love of legends, fantasy, fairytales, and most of all, the Magic of Morgan Le Fay, in other words; the magic of a legends, and the magical saga of all the women behind King Arthur’s Throne. Ah Ha!  This is true…there are always women standing behind a man’s throne! (Just to be sure he didn’t forget anything. We women are so helpful.)

Next step: Learn how to be a Sherlock Holmes, but where is my Watson? Well, as Karen Krumpak states, “forcing yourself to impersonate another writer takes off the pressure of writing? Really? What pressure?

Soon, I am told, I will start reading like a writer. But, I do that already…maybe. Normally, I just read, for the pleasure of it. But, if I must, I will.

Soon, states Ms. Krumpak, I will learn to stretch my skills and improve my technique. This better work…if it doesn’t, well, I will have enjoyed immensely, re-reading The Mists of Avalon, just like a real writer reads a book. Good to know!

 

Suspense Writers: Here’s How to Keep Your Readers Up All Night

Suspense Writers: Here’s How to Keep Your Readers Up All Night  https://careerauthors.com/creating-suspense-in-fiction/

For many writers (and readers), “suspense” is a genre. However, it is also a key element in almost all fiction—if you want your readers to keep reading, that is. Tools for creating suspense belong in every writer’s toolkit because they help arouse expectation or uncertainty about what’s going to happen.

And that worry pulls readers deeper into your story, whether it’s a romance (will the woman find out about her boyfriend’s lies?), a thriller (will the hero find the terrorist in time?),  literary fiction (will the main character forgive her mother?) or any other genre.In an earlier article, Hank detailed some ways to increase emotional suspense for a novel’s characters. In a sense, all suspense is tied to eliciting emotions—anticipation, worry, fear, hope—in the reader.

You may find one or all of the below tips helpful in adding suspense to your novel, no matter where you’re at in the writing process, from drafting to the 14th revision.

Foreshadow

Plant clues early and often that something bad is going to happen. Readers will pick up on them and be worried on the protagonist’s behalf. You can do this for minor negative happenings (a radio report of a traffic jam, the protagonist must catch a flight, readers worry she’ll miss it), all the way to catastrophic ones (the main character is dropping things more often, he makes a doctor appointment,  the doctor runs tests, and all the while readers are on the edge of their seats wondering if he’s got ALS or is just klutzy). You can use foreshadowing many, many times per book, layering it in.

Ratchet up the stakes

In the miss-the-plane example, readers will feel concern only if the consequences of missing the plane are significant. Will she miss her best friend’s wedding, be late for an important job interview, not reach her father’s deathbed before he dies? Make the character’s goals clear from the get-go, and her reasons for wanting/needing to achieve them, and the stakes will come into focus. As the book progresses, the stakes should get higher (and you can—and should—foreshadow those early on, too).

Use surprise

If suspense is based on uncertainty, then predictability is the kiss of death. On occasion, when you foreshadow something negative, flip it around. Maybe the plane the character missed ends up hijacked, crashed, diverted to Islamabad, or parked on the runway for twelve hours. Surprise—she’s better off for having missed it! Maybe missing the plane forced her to turn to her ex-boyfriend with the pilot’s license to fly her to her best friend’s wedding, and they rekindle their romance. If you do something like this early on, the next time readers pick up on your foreshadowing, they won’t know what to expect and that will build suspense.

Take away your protagonist’s weapons, team, and defenses

Toward the end of many books, there is a climactic meeting between the protagonist and the main antagonist. For maximum suspense, the protagonist must meet his antagonist alone. This is why Dumbledore (and many another mentor in literature) had to die. When you strip the protagonist of her gun, her allies, and possibly her sanity (temporarily), you throw the outcome into doubt and that creates suspense.

Be creative when thinking about your character’s “weapons.” Yes, it could be an AR-15, a death ray, or a dragon, but it could also be professional respect, self-confidence born of a solid relationship, a logical mind, or other psychological element.

Use these techniques, and don’t feel bad that you’re keeping your readers up late at night, turning the pages to find out what happens in your books.

What authors do you think are good at building suspense? Have any tips of your own you want to share? Come tell us on Facebook.

LAURA DISILVERIO is the national best-selling and award-winning author of 21 (and counting) novels, including standalone suspense novels and several mystery series. Her teenagers coaxed her into writing a young adult novel, and the result is the dystopian Incubation Trilogy, an Amazon bestseller. She is a past President of Sisters in Crime and a frequent keynote speaker and teacher at writers conferences and events.

 

A Halloween Poem: The Witch of His Dreams!

THE WITCH OF HIS DREAMS

She comes to him at Midnight,

The Witch of his Dreams,

Her eyes a forest green,

Her hair, dark and long,

Her voice, a sweet magic,

Calling out his name,

He could not help but watch her,

Dance among the flowers,

Beneath a waxing moon,

She whirls and cast her spells,

Upon him,

A haunting chant she sings,

And soars into his soul,

On gossamer wings,

She whispers things he longs to hear,

Of secret longings in his ear,

She enchants him with delights,

Though she must fly into the night,

She tells him of her love,

And casts her spells upon him,

To love him evermore,

Though never shall she return,

For she was only ever,

The Witch of His Dreams.

Composed by K. D. Dowdall October 2017

How to Beat the Query Game: The Truth About the Slush Pile

How to Beat the Query Game: The Truth About the Slush Pile  by Paula Munier 

Everywhere I go I hear writers complain about the black hole that is every literary agent’s in-box—the slush pile—that dark and dangerous place where their queries and manuscripts go in, never to be seen again. Kind of like all those socks that go into the dryer, never to be seen again.

I sympathize, up to a point. Here are the slush-pile facts of the matter, and what to do about it:

Some slush pile stats

I receive some 10,000 queries a year. I got more than a thousand of them my very first week as an agent, and I’ve been behind ever since. Way behind. Most of my fellow agents are drowning in a similar tsunami of unsolicited material. Note: This doesn’t count all the material—queries, proposals, sample pages, partial and full manuscripts—that we’ve asked to see.

For this reason, many agents do not read unsolicited queries at all. Nor do most publishers. I know, I know, it’s a Catch 22.

For many of us who do read unsolicited queries, well, that’s why God made interns. I can hear you cursing at me from here, mortified that the precious job of finding talent should be relegated to interns. I repeat: 10,000 unsolicited queries a year. And may I point out that my actual job is not to read unsolicited queries, my job is to sell my clients’ work.

Only 1 in 200 queries is well-written enough, well-conceived enough, and well-targeted enough to prompt me to ask to see more material. Why? Because many writers simply write a one-size-fits-all query, set up a mail merge that includes every agent in Literary Marketplace, and hit send. This means that they haven’t done their homework and they know nothing about me or the kind of projects I represent. Note: The salutation “Dear Paula Munier” is a dead giveaway.

What to do about it

You can beat the odds, simply by making sure that your queries and proposals and manuscripts fall into the solicited, rather than unsolicited, category.

Research the literary agents you pitch, and only pitch those who rep your genre. Go to conferences, and meet the agents. Hang out on twitter, and meet the agents; participate in online and offline pitch contests and meet the agents; go to your genre association functions and meet the agents. Then, when you follow up, you can set your communication apart by referencing your previous contact in the subject line.

As in: “Requested material from Bouchercon” or “Nice meeting you at the Boston Book Festival” or “Twitter pal writes mystery” or “Loved your panel at the MWA meeting” or “WD says you’re looking for Domestic Thrillers.”

By putting this kind of headline in your subject line, you’re far more likely to catch the agent’s attention. I always skim the subject lines of all the emails that come in, and if I see something from someone I’ve met, I’ll look myself. (The rest of the slush pile I often leave to the interns.)

Beat the in-box odds

Whenever you send out an unsolicited query, you are in effect making a cold call. Any good salesperson will tell you that cold calling sucks, and that the best leads are the qualified leads. So use these end-runs around the slush pile to figure out which agents to approach, make initial contact, and beat the query game.

Research and networking pay off in publishing as in any business, and they beat cold calling any day. All evidence to the contrary, agents are people, too, and face-time and familiarity make a difference.

I’ve edited bestselling authors from a myriad of worlds with vastly different viewpoints: Judge Robert Bork, Michael Chertoff, GenXer Doug Coupland, Irish rebel Gerry Adams, conservationist Mark Kurlansky, activist Rita Mae Brown, among others. I never questioned whether any of these authors should be published. I believe all voices should be heard.

In my editorial role, it doesn’t matter if an author makes a point with which I personally disagree. I strive to help that author clearly articulate their vision, making it comprehensible to readers.

I sometimes encounter passages in which I fear a novel’s readers may misconstrue an author’s intent—for example, a hypothetical margin note might read, “I worry some readers could view the portrayal of this character as stereotypical. Want to tweak the characterization so the character becomes more vividly real for readers?”

Ick

Err. Actually, I feel the need to digress, recalling an anecdote illustrating a notable exception to my high-minded “publish everyone” screed just above. Years ago, with a millisecond’s adeptness, an assistant clicked through a telephone caller that had been bothersome to my boss: “Dana, David Duke for you.”

Oy! The former Grand Wizard of the KKK had heard that the imprint where I worked published “controversial books,” as he put it, and Duke had a book to sell. My last name made him assume I was Jewish so I proudly was for that one day. Astonishingly, he quickly told me how before World War II the National Socialists had a plan to settle European Jews in Madagascar. I managed to end the call. Unfortunately, only later did I think of all sorts of wise, witty, pornographic comebacks I might have lobbed back at him.

Anyway—him. He shouldn’t be published.

Hate speech should not be published.

Paula Munier

PAULA MUNIER is a Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Notch Literary Services. She boasts broad experience creating and marketing exceptional content in all formats across all markets for such media giants as WGBH, Disney, Fidelity, Gannett, Greenspun Media Group, F+W, and Quayside. A dedicated writing teacher, Paula is a popular speaker and lecturer at writing conferences, workshops, and retreats both online and on-site across the USA.

 

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An Interview With Judy Rumsey Bullard, Book Cover Designer, This Saturday, October 20th!

 

 

 

 

 

As writers and authors, we know or should know, the importance of creating a book cover that shines. The cover should also represent as much as possible what the novel is all about. On October 20th, 2018, I will be interviewing Judy Rumsey Bullard, a very talented Book Cover Designer, who will talk to us about Book Cover Designing. She will be displaying 6 more of her great designs, and will talk to us about what it takes to be a successful Book Cover Designer! Here are three Book Cover designs that she designed for three of my novels and I love each one!

 

The Soulful Arc of the Universe

 “….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand dark midnights. Let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.….the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

MLK