Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Writing Tips #1

Once a week I thought I'd share some writing tips that I've learned over the many years that I've been publishing.

Today, I'm focusing on beginnings ... a handy topic as I'm just starting book 4 of my Angel's Bay Series.

First chapters are so important. They serve several functions, introduce the characters, start the story rolling and set the tone, three critical issues. The opening must be compelling. It has to grab the reader by the throat and not let them go. And that has to happen even if you're not writing a suspenseful story. You still have to set a plot in motion that creates a question in the reader's mind, a reason to keep going.

I always dither about my openings. I probably rewrite the first chapter a dozen times over the course of the book, often going back halfway through the story to foreshadow something I hadn't anticipated. Which brings me to my first tip -- Push past those opening lines even if they're not perfect. Just write something -- anything, kick off the story. You can always go back and fix it later.

Another important tip about openings is that the reader has to immediately care or connect with one of the characters. It doesn't have to be instant liking -- in fact it can be just the opposite -- fascinated horror, but whatever the tone, you don't want the reader to look away, which means you have to introduce just enough details to make us curious about the character. Tell us something about them, not a lot, because we don't want to get bogged down in back story. But something that makes us realize they're about to hit a turning point, a crossroads, and the path they choose will forever change them.

In my book, DON'T SAY A WORD, the heroine is visiting a museum where she is planning to have her wedding reception in the garden area. As she is wandering through the collection, she is struck speechless by the fact that the painting of a famous Russian orphan looks exactly like her, but she's never been to Russia and she knows who her parents are -- at least she thinks she does ...  That painting makes her question everything she thought she knew about herself.

In my book, GOLDEN LIES, the hero, former war hero, accompanies his elderly grandmother to an antiques roadshow.  She has a red wagon filled with her attic treasures hoping that one of them will make her rich.  They discover that the ugly dragon statue that has been gathering dust for the past fifty years might just be from an ancient Chinese dynasty.  And suddenly more than a few people want that dragon, including the heroine and her family.  The hero's good deed in helping his grandmother with some spring cleaning changes his life forever.

In my book, ON SHADOW BEACH (Book 2 of Angel's Bay), the heroine returns home, the first line of the book ... "It was just like before ... the front door was open, the lights were on, the TV blaring, but no one was there. We learn quickly that the last time the heroine found the house in disarray, her 15-year-old sister had just been murdered. It's been 13 years, since she's been back, and she's only returned home now because her father is ill.  Her past and her present are colliding and as much as she wants to run away, she knows that this time she has to stay and finish it.

Hopefully, all these examples of beginnings make the reader want to know more about the story. Each one starts with the "day that was different". It's a moment of change for the pivotal character. Whenever you're debating where to start your story, think about "the day that was different".

Don't bog down your first chapter with a lot of details. Readers want to know what's happening now, and they're far more likely to want to know what happened in the past if you hook their attention in the present.

I personally love a good prologue if it's short, compelling and tells me something important. Some readers hate prologues, so it's something to consider when plotting out your beginning.  If you can relate that information elsewhere, then why not do that?  But if you have something out of the past, or some key moment that really seduces the reader into the story, I say go for it.

My last tip for beginnings is to make sure that Chapter one ends with the same compelling need to go as it begins.  I'll talk more about transitions in one of my upcoming writing blogs.

Hope these tips have helped. Any questions? Ask away.


  1. Great advice! I've done all that with my newest book, and it really made all the difference. It was picked up by a new publisher. It's good to know I am on the right track.

  2. That's great Jennifer -- Congratulations on your success! Whenever I read contest entries, I'm always surprised at how easy it is for authors to meander their way to the really important stuff. Sometimes, I put a little too much backstory in the opening pages as I'm telling myself the story, and then I have to go back and ruthlessly take it all out!

  3. This is awesome advice. Thanks! I'm about to dive back into revisions on my third book, and I'll be staring at that first chapter which I know right now doesn't really mean much.... Yay!

  4. Hey Rachael -- no matter how many books I write the first chapter is always the toughest! I can't quite get on a roll until I know it's right!