There is something to the saying, “you only have one chance to make a first impression.” When you’re writing a novel, you have to make sure that opening page, the opening chapter, stand out and make your reader want to come back and read more.
Openings can be tricky, there are many ways to start a story. Some people launch right into the plot, still others set up the premise, still others use the opening pages to introduce a character. One method is not better than another, it’s up to you as the writer to decide which option is best for your particular story.
Opening the Curtain for your Readers
Let’s look at some examples. First, the opening to Badge City: Notches:
Curled up under a tree in the middle of Coal Hill Park, the girl lay in such a way that Detective Deidre Tordano could almost imagine that she was sleeping and dreaming of princess and ponies, sunshine and rainbows.
The camera flash could be mistaken for a parent taking a picture of her sleeping child, wanting to hold that memory for years to come.
The leaves crunched under Deidre’s feet as she got out of her car.
“Got the call an hour ago, jogger found her on the trail. She was left with her backpack that had an ID in it. Grace Miller.” Officer Hamilton walked up to her, clipboard in hand.
A gust of wind blew past them and Deidre pulled her trench coat closer. “Coroner’s here?”
“Just arrived a few minutes ago. CSU is almost done with the scene.”
There are two things out of Badge City: Notches that I’m especially proud of are the climax and the imagery of the opening two paragraphs. Here I am, embarking on my first murder mystery and I open with that scene.
What do I establish in this opening?
The Protagonist, Detective Deidre Torando.
The victim, Grace Miller, and that she is a child.
That she was murdered, and it staged so you wouldn’t be able to tell it was a murder scene.
That this novel is a police procedural, and implies that it will strive for accuracy.
There’s something about crime fiction that people can’t seem to get enough of. There are spin offs of both “NCIS” and “CSI” (with “NCIS” still beginning its 15th season this week) along with a handful of other shows spread across the networks all dealing with crime and the people who solve them.
With a mystery, hooking them into the idea that it’s there’s a crime to be solved might not be a bad idea.
But, let’s look at another set up, from my upcoming “Midnight”:
Dr. Rosella Tassoni looked over the auditorium full of half-asleep freshman and quickly remembered why she usually only agreed to lecture upper-level courses.
“Since the beginning of time, man has told stories. When a written language came along, these were written down. Some would surpass their own cultures, becoming what we know to be legends. Today we call the study of those legends mythology. Every culture has their own distinct legends, yet many share a similar foundation. Max Müller considered these legends ‘a disease of language,’ but clearly they’re something more. I prefer Tolkien’s explanation for legends in his essay ‘On Fairy-Stories,’ originally delivered to students very similar to you. ‘The history of fairy-stories is probably more complex than the physical history of the human race, and as complex as the history of human language.’”
Rosella clicked the slide over before reading the quote. “What are the origins of, as Tolkien would call them, ‘fairy-stories’? ‘I am too unlearned to deal with this question in any other way than with a few remarks…It is plain enough that fairy- stories (in wider or in narrower sense) are very ancient indeed. Related things appear in very early records; and they are found universally, wherever there is language. We are therefore obviously confronted with a variant of the problem that the archaeologist encounters, or the comparative philologist: with the debate between independent evolution (or rather invention) of the similar; inheritance from a common ancestry; and diffusion at various times from one or more centres.”
Turning away from the screen she studied the crowd. “Tolkien is considered one of the greatest fantasy writers in the history of mankind. His books are still widely read and have even inspired a popular MMORPG.”
That comment helped her pick out the gamers in the audience by their grins. She could tell a couple of them were thinking about playing that as soon as class was over. In fact, the way one boy’s head shot up, she couldn’t help but wonder if she looked at his screen if she would find Middle-Earth.
“But, more than that, he was one of the great philologists, with an intense knowledge of language’s history—and the mythology that has always clung to it. Gilgamesh, after all, is our earliest surviving written record. Tolkien acknowledged Müller’s quote though and had this to say, ‘Max Müller’s view of mythology as a ‘disease of language’ can be abandoned without regret. Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may, like all human things, become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology.’”
That caused her to chuckle. “I prefer to agree with Tolkien on this. After all, that quote is how I earn my living, in a sense.”
As she walked across the stage, clicking through slides, she eyed one of the students. He slipped into the back of the lecture hall, border-lining the time that it was socially acceptable to arrive late. Which was, also, the time it was polite for Rosella to be late. She’d earned her doctorate. At least according to the old myth—Rosella preferred to be on time to speaking events, not in the mood to waste not only her time but the time of those listening. The student quickly opened his laptop and tried to look attentive, but his shoulders were tense yet his face portrayed a different story. His face appeared to be relaxed but his clenched jaw told her he was stressed and a little over focused on the task at hand. Not only that but she could see his wire from here. He must be new, he was too tense. That or he hadn’t been warned that she was pretty good at reading body language.But seriously, Quantico was slipping if they thought that act was covert. She assumed he was wired simply to test him in the field, in a safe situation. Baby’s first op.
“Some stories are to teach a lesson, it’s the reason we have fables and how Aesop became a household name. Others are fun stories to tell around a campfire or a childhood sleepover or to be turned into the next Disney movie.”
“Others take a darker side, or rather people choose to let them.” Another click another slide.
“Serial killers, immortalized in this day and age by the influx of crime dramas which seem to occupy most major networks. People are obsessed with the idea of the forensic sciences.”
Now she had their attention.
“Sometimes, the two meet. Killers think they can hide behind the myths. Forensic Mythology if you will.”
Here, instead of a crime, I set up the concept of not only the story but the series that will follow. I introduce the character before properly introducing the plot. I allow Rosella to tell you what she does and what to expect from her investigations.
What do I establish in this scene?
The protagonist, Rosella Tassoni
The tone of the series
Her approach to her work
That while this is not specifically a police procedural, it remains an accurate approach to police procedure
Her relationship with college-age people, which will be expanded on later.
Both approaches, for all their seeming differences, draw the reader in and establish your story.
Conclusion: Openings are Important
They’re the first thing your readers see when they open your book. I’ve said it in this column before, but I have put books down because they failed to capture my attention.
Sometimes, when writing, finding the proper place to start is half the battle. Remember the story I wrote about a couple of weeks ago that I’m having problems with? The opening scene has shifted at least a half dozen times. I’ve changed the circumstances, location, characters involved, all to find what fits the story I’m trying to tell best.
Keep in mind, if you go with a plot base opening, you need to be careful that you don’t give too much away. But, you want to give enough to hook your readers in.
It’s a balancing act and you get a sense of where the line between enough and too much is (and this is another instance where a good editor is invaluable).
Whether you’re doing a plot based opening or a character based opening, make sure that these opening pages shine. This is your story you’re telling. It’s something you will spend hours upon hours on and you want to give it its best chance at succeeding.
I ran into an interesting problem last week, and I hope that by talking it out with all of you we can figure out the solution.
Several times in the past, I’ve mentioned my hatred of outlines. Sure, to an extent, I know where the story is going (except for when I don’t and have on occasion written a chunk of a story without knowing some rather important details) but I tend not to write detailed outlines.
“Tapestry” (Lauren Finkle)
The story I’m currently working on is one where I figured out a rough idea. I know the who, what, where, when, why, and how.
But still, I find myself stuck.
It’s like I’ve hit a wall in my writing and I can’t see my way around it. I know where this story is going, but I can’t make it go there.
I’ve heard the advice, especially around NaNoWriMo, that you should just write, it doesn’t have to be perfect (in fact it won’t be perfect) but get words on the page.
Yet this time, I sit here finding myself unable to do that.
Here are some things I’ve tried, they didn’t help me this time, but they have in the past so I figured it wouldn’t hurt to share them with you in hopes that you can use them next time you’re writing feels as if it has slammed against a wall.
1) Put Some Space Between You and Your Writing
I’ve done this several times with this particular story. I’ve taken days where I’ve worked on other things and then tried to come back.
The thing with writing is we often get extremely close to what we write, especially if it’s longer work. The amount of hours planning, researching, planning some more, writing and editing, cause us to miss some of the flaws because we are too close to see the ultimate design. We become lost in the individual threads, not seeing the full tapestry.
We have the privilege of knowing things our readers might not know, which hinders us in seeing how the whole forms for the reader. What we see as the ultimate design while working individual threads, may not be the ultimate design we’ve created.
Sometimes, by taking a few days, you can put some space between you and the project, allowing your head to clear a bit which might allow you to see what’s wrong.
The downside to this is that sometimes you realized what you wrote before is a giant pile of crap and you want to start over but sometimes time will not allow you that luxury.
2) Come From A Different Angle
This one was my latest attempt to make this story work. I had an opening partially written but I wasn’t even remotely happy with it.
With “Midnight” I found myself extremely happy with the opening and felt like it allowed the story to have a solid foundation to stand on.
This story however, has a flat opening that feels forced. And I’m not sure how to fix it. I rewrote it again but still it feels forced.
That just means I have to try again.
3) Take Another Look At Your Outline
Maybe there’s a plot hole, maybe something is missing. Maybe there’s something there that can help you figure out where to go from where you currently are.
When I use outline here, I do mean it in a vague sort of term .Some people don’t outline (yours truly is one of them) and instead have a vague idea of “here’s point A and I’m going to point B.” Other’s have pages upon pages of outlines.
I was reading a screenwriting book the other day and it had an entire section on how to draw up the outline, before it showed you how to format the script itself.
Maybe that outline holds the information you need. Or, at the minimum, it lets you try and avoid plot holes early on.
4) Return To Research
As previously mentioned in a post, research is highly important to any writer. I spent over a month doing research for Badge City: Notches before I even wrote the first sentence. I watched documentaries covering similar material, I read books on police procedure, I read report after report on serial killer psychology.
Maybe that’s the problem, you haven’t researched enough.
A few months ago, I wrote a post about The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax by Andrew Cartmel. And if you didn’t take my advice then to come and read it, I suggest you do so now.
Seriously go to the bookstore, buy it, and then come back. I’ll be here.
One thing Cartmel does in the book is that it has two parts (like a vinyl record has two sides). It was a cliffhanger worth of a penultimate episode of a television show. Like I said before but I’m going to say again, Cartmel has a fantastic way of weaving all these threads together to make the beautiful tapestry that is The Vinyl Detective: Written In Dead Wax.
Recently, I was working on something and doing so on a very tight deadline. To attempt to keep myself from getting overwhelmed (you can ask James–I wasn’t overly successful at times) I tried breaking it down into sections.
Going from section to section, I wanted to link them all together with hooks. Sometimes it was a struggle. With a hook inside a story, do you want to go big and bad or do you want to do something smaller yet compelling to press your readers forward.
How can you get your readers holding your book at 3AM unable to sleep because they’re so involved in your story?
That’s the golden question, isn’t it?
Here’s some things I’ve either learned or observed about hooks.
Learn from Television
I’ve been watching NCIS through for the first time, these last few months, and made it to Season 11 in the last week. The Season 10 cliffhanger was interesting; it utilized a time jump to leave you hanging.
Not particularly caring what time it was (luckily it wasn’t too late), I of course hit “next episode” to watch the Season 11 premiere. They took most of the episode to resolve the cliffhanger. It worked really well. It kept you on the edge of your seat, wanting to know what happens. Keep in Mind this is an advanced tactic. It can easily be done poorly. James has thrown books out which skip over the dramatic event, playing with revealing elements of it, instead of exploring it outright. Don’t join these books in James’ trash. But it is an option.
Television lives and dies by its hooks, which convince you the show really is worth sitting through those commercials for. Strong hooks can keep your readers, well, reading.
When considering how to insert hooks into your story, use television shows as an example. The space between commercials in a television show are called Acts. It used to be that shows were set on a four act structure but in the last five years or so, shows have been moving to six. Each of the acts have their own little cliffhanger that gets you to stay through the commercials to see what happens.
How Does this Apply to Prose Writing?
There is the idea that you need to hook your reader in the first chapter of your book. From there the trick is to find reasons to keep people reading–find the hooks to keep them reading. Just because you keep them past Chapter One doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to keep them the whole book.
I have sat down a book, partially read. Sometimes it’s because of writing errors–sometimes, they haven’t given me a reason to keep reading.
The most common form I’ve seen in fiction is chapter to chapter hooks. Often times, people will read to the end of the chapter, and then sit the book down. You need to be their reason to pick it back up
Another thing I often ask myself is why should readers care? Why should they keep reading?
What can be used as a hook?
1) Plot Points
This is the most common type of hook. You end the chapter with a new plot point. In my own writing, I often use this in the form of killing yet another character (though in Notches I also used it for kidnappings as well).
Even if you don’t outline, you’ve got a general sense of where this story is going to go. In the instance of Midnight, I had a bunch of plot points:
Introduction of Suspects
Sometimes, transitioning from one point to another can help you use plot points as hooks.
2) Character Beats
Regularly relegated to the B-story, character moments can serve as hooks. This is especially handy in a series where you’ve set questions about a character and are ready to answer them.
Often, a revealing character moment can be more powerful than plot point. What is happening to your characters in your story?
In my short story, “All that Jazz” (from the brilliant Nicole Petit’s Speakeasies and Spiritualists), I close every section on a hook. Most of these hooks relate to Margaret’s stress and mental state. She witnessed a particularly gory murder, and as she tries to solve it the images and emotions keep getting thrown back at her. This was much more impacting than having another new dead body every few pages.
Often, stress is put on hooking your readers in and making sure that they stay from cover to cover and story to story.
By weaving in things to hook your reader, to keep them reading scene to scene, chapter to chapter you will hook them in.
I once was reading a book about screenwriting and throughout the book, they provided different examples of shows. Their reader should go and see the actual examples.
One show was Commander In Chief. It ran for one season, the year after The West Wing went off air. It’s currently on Hulu.
Tentatively, I would recommend you take a look. Whether you are interested in screenwriting or just writing in general, there’s lessons to be learned from this show.
Initially, my assumption was that the show went off air because it is nowhere near as well-done as The West Wing. In the shadow of that show, it folded. I’m not entirely sold that that didn’t play a factor, but it’s not the only reason the show had such a short run.
Commander in Chief is fascinating to me. The writing is actually, except for one thing, sold. It’s witty, they did their research.
But the one thing is what killed them.
After watching twenty-two episodes, I discovered that, as the finale faded to black, that there wasn’t a single character that I cared about.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. People come to your story for the premise, but they’re going to stay (and come back again and again) for your characters.
1) Make Sure They’re Well-Rounded
There’s nothing worse than a story full of flat characters. You’re going to have them–background characters who really are just there to move a plot forward (the officer who greets your investigator as they walk up to a crime scene, a witness who saw something relatively unimportant, things like this).
These characters have no depth, but we also barely see them. If they even receive a name, you forget it ten pages later and it doesn’t matter.
But your main characters, even the ones on the side, need to be fleshed out, well-rounded. Make the characters seem real, thus allowing the stakes of your story to seem that much more real.
2) Establish Reasons for What they Do
For those of you wanting to argue suspension of belief, it only goes but so far. You have to be careful with that. It is not something to depend on.
Let’s use Psych as an example here.
Shawn Spencer is extremely intelligent and extremely observant. But, if you aren’t looking for his tells, you won’t see it underneath the joking exterior, except for rare moments he lets it out.
His near-perfect photographic memory? His father helped him develop it since he was a small child, same with his impressive deductive ability.
The way he remembers pretty much everything he hears? He inherited his Mother’s tonal memory.
All theses extraordinary abilities he displays are justified throughout the series. And they aren’t in your face about it either. He hides them behind humor and childish activities and all of these make up his character.
3) Make Your Readers Care
When I finished watching Commander in Chief, I realized something. I didn’t care about any of the characters. I wasn’t emotionally invested. I was okay with the show being over.
The trick with writing is to hook your readers. One way to do that is with solid characters. These are the people who are bringing the story in your head to life in the pages (or e-readers) in your reader’s hands.
I have asked myself, why should someone care?
As writers, we care because the story is our baby. It’s something we’ve spent hours upon hours on. But sometimes that causes our judgment to be clouded and we don’t see mistakes in our own writing or we don’t see that this character needs improvement.
It even applies to characters. Why should people care about your character, their hopes, their dreams, their fears?
Answer that and you are well on your way.
People may come for your premise, but chances are they’ll stay for your characters.
About six weeks ago, I started Krav Maga lessons as a way to get into shape. I’ve found the lessons to be a fun challenge.
How many crutches M.H. needs. (“And also a pile of crutches” – Nadya Peek)
I’m sure you’re wondering, what does this have to do with writing, Mary Helen?
Well. Most Tuesdays on The Time Travel Nexus, I write a weekly television-related post. Usually news, sometimes multiple stories, sometimes I fixate on one. Mondays and Thursdays usually find me at the gym, training, and this past Monday was no different. After a meeting with James to work on an upcoming short story, I found myself cutting it close to class and figured I would write yesterday’s post when I got home.
This is the part of this post where I put a note to consider submitting columns in advance.
This is also the part where I acknowledge I rarely follow this advice.
I arrived at class with minutes to spare and we begin. During one of the exercises we do (in fact, I feel the need to note for dramatic effect–we do this particular exercise every single class) I went to dodge, felt something pop in my ankle, and down I went.
First off, let me tell you that it HURT.
I sat down, watched the rest of class, and ended up calling for a ride to take me home so I wouldn’t have to drive.
And as I put ice on my ankle and wanted nothing more to lay down, I realized something.
I didn’t have a post for The Time Travel Nexus.
Between, Tina Marie Delucia, William Martin, James, and me, we worked to figure out how to make it work, to reach our goals.
We ended up with a stockpile of posts for The Time Travel Nexus. They really stepped it up.
Writing is often thought of as a solitary activity. You sit for hours at your computer typing away at the work of art you are creating.
But it’s far from it.
Writers need editors, publishers, other writers to bounce ideas off of. We need our friends and family to encourage us, to cheer us on, to understand why we say no to plans when a deadline looms ever nearer. When I joined The Time Travel Nexus, we were a team of three. Now we number around a dozen and are looking for new writers (you can find the information here). No matter what the fashion, writing is a team sport.
Especially when you’re sitting with your foot propped up, wrapped in an ace blanket.
Technically, the goal of this column week to week is for me to share what’s going on with my writing. Sometimes, I extend that to commentating on things I’ve seen or read recently.
What I’m currently going through right now is learning that sometimes, it’s important that I push myself to write even if I don’t feel like it. Stephen King mentions in “On Writing” that he writes every, single day – Christmas and his birthday included.
I have often confessed that I don’t have that kind of discipline.
But sometimes I have to push myself. After all, as a writer it is important I meet my deadlines. And with pushing myself, comes the satisfaction of overcoming obstacles to complete the task.
I had fun going through Doctor Who’s Series 10 finale with Mark Twain’s rules of storytelling. I felt the Arrowverse deserved the same treatment. When I initially planned this post, I had only one rule in mind. But by searching through the rules to find the specific one I wanted, I found that the Arrowverse shows, The Flash, in particular, has violated several.
Before we begin, let me define terms for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term Arrowverse. The Arrowverse is made up of four television shows based off of various DC Comics: Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl. All four shows air on The CW and have a habit of crossing in and out of each other on various occasions.
Background established, let’s examine the mistakes that these four shows have made.
4) They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there
Honest truth, most of the shows do well with this. The Flash is the one that drops the ball, with Iris West in particular.
If you take a hard honest at the first three seasons of the show, you’ll see that her sole purpose is to create drama. Her character has done nothing to move the story forward, and she has no character traits outside of “creating drama.”
When writing characters, make sure they serve a purpose a purpose within the story. They have to move the story forward. They cannot take it back in an attempt to create angst and drama. There are few things that will turn your audience off like forced drama.
6) They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
Once again, this goes to The Flash. With Barry temporarily out of the picture, someone has to take the lead on Team Flash. There are three characters who could take that role, all of whom make sense within the story that the creative team has set. There is one character that does not, Iris.
Yet, when the show returns back she is leading Team Flash. I’ve not-so-jokingly said that this is their attempt to give this character purpose.
These two rules play hand in hand with each other. The character must serve a purpose and they must fit the role you’re giving them.
In this example, nothing in Iris’ time on the show has justified the decision to let her lead Team Flash. These sorts of snap decisions, even if made with the intent of giving a character purpose, will turn off your audience.
Another example is Kara Danvers from Supergirl
From what was said, Kara is going to spend some time having a pity party over the fact that due to the events of the season finale her boyfriend had to leave Earth, never to return. This girl seems to be taking her forced breakup harder than she’s taking the death of her planet and people.
In fact, the so-called theme of the season is “what does it mean to be human?” A sensible measure of grief would be a great place to start.
Supergirl–who is supposed to be a strong, independent woman–is having a pity party and ditching her alter ego. She’s supposed to be the girl of steel. Instead, all of this is forced drama instead of a natural development to her established characterization.
This rule is about consistent characterization and having your characters not do things that seem out of character. Especially when you are writing a character in a series like these shows do. There’s a difference between letting your character grow and change and having them do something that doesn’t sit right with their character.
Make sure you’re on the right side of that line.
Those are the big two rules that were broken so far. I’m curious to see that if in the upcoming season, the shows course-correct. If you want more of my thoughts on the shows as a whole, check out my article on the Time Travel Nexus. (Speaking of, The Time Travel Nexus is doing an open submission period for new writers. If you are interested in writing about anything and everything time travel, take a look.)
A few weeks ago, I did an article on preparing a proposal. I had found myself in a position where I was doing several at the same time. Over the course of May, I had four proposals I submitted for different projects.
This past week, I heard back from the first of the group and found myself facing the never-pleasant rejection.
We all know that rejection is part of being a writer, that people say you have to be rejected x number of times before you get one acceptance, yes. We all know the line about how you learn from rejection, and it helps you grow as a writer.
But that doesn’t mean it makes you feel any better.
When the submission period for All The Petty Myths closed, I was faced with stories knowing that I was going to have to accept some and reject others. After reading through them, I knew what had made it and what hadn’t.
Once that decision was made, though, I was faced with the task of being the one to send the never-pleasant rejection letters.
If you’re a publisher or a curator who is faced with the task, let me give you a piece of advice. If you truly want to help someone grow from rejecting them, add a personal note to tell them why it doesn’t work.
Even if it’s something simple like “this just doesn’t fit with what we’re doing” that helps them know how to improve for next time.
That being said writers…
WHEN SUBMITTING TO AN ANTHOLOGY, READ THE GUIDELINES BEFORE YOU SUBMIT.
I’ll admit, rejection hurts. Part of me thinks I’m more annoyed that I got sent a form rejection letter than I am upset that I got rejected.
This was something I’d spent a lot of time working on and I was really excited about the concept.
What do you do when you get the dreaded rejection email?
1) Shake It Off
It’s going to sting for a minute. Don’t push it down, necessarily. You worked hard on a pitch and no one likes rejection. I called James and had a little pity party. But then I turned around and wrote a post for the Nexus.
Sulk for a bit and then shake it off.
2) Keep Writing
Maybe this project didn’t work out. but the next one might. I’m going to take that rejected story and tweak it and use it elsewhere. Within an hour of the rejection, I already had a plan to use it elsewhere so my work isn’t wasted.
While I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t write every day, I don’t stop just because I got rejected. Maybe I take the day off but then I have to keep going.
Deadlines will do that to you.
3) Look at Other Options
You got rejected. There’s a chance it’s simply because your story wasn’t a fit for that project. But perhaps there’s another home for it somewhere. Keep it in your mind. There are Facebook groups with open calls for short stories and perhaps you’ll find a home for it elsewhere.
One of the hardest things I’m finding with Rosella’s first full-length book is that, for the first time, I’m struggling to write things in order. Usually, I write a story straight from start to finish but this time, I’m finding it hard to do so.
Because transitions are hard. I know what’s at both point A and point B but I’m struggling to figure out how to connect them. Part of it is that I’m excited: I went back to the basics on this one. I’ve really sat down and worked out the mechanics of writing mysteries, wanting to get this one just right.
I plotted and planned and I’ve got scenes coming up in the story that I want to write now and I’m struggling to write the scenes in order.
And, to an extent, I’ve given up on that fight.
I have a handful of scenes written out that need to be worked in. I’ve already worked in a couple and have a few floating in the research portion of my Scrivner document.
A Popular Argument Amongst Writers
Everyone seems to have their own opinion. Before now, I was very much a fan of writing start to finish. But now, I see the appeal of the other approach.
Because there are a couple of scenes where I see them more clearly than I see what’s next in my story. There’s moments that my fingers are itching to write and I might give in and just do it.
One one hand, I see the value of the start to finish approach. Bouncing around a story can cause you to feel a bit disjointed. But on the other side, I wonder if bouncing around might help you with that dreaded writer’s block.
What are your thoughts on it?
Start to finish?
Bounce around and then tie them all together?
With Jazz Street I did the first 12K or so (about 50 pages) from start to finish. That’s where I hit the metaphorical wall and started to bounce a little. Then, I plugged a scene or two in, and wondered if this approach might be better…
One thing I tried to do to help was to take my usual approach. I’d write out a calendar with the events of the book. I have the start, the climax, and the resolution all marked out. Then I’d fill in-between with various events.
With Badge City: Notches this approach wouldn’t have worked, as the bulk of the book took place in the same 72-ish hour period. Hence, why I did things differently: I drew lines that represented each day trying to keep it straight. And someone said I got my math wrong.
Maybe I did, but with as much math as I did that day, I would be surprised.
Sometimes in the column, I give you advice and wisdom from my experience. Today, I’m using it more to sort out my own thoughts on what’s currently going on in my writing career.
Maybe, this will help me figure out where to go next.
But before I go, Let me leave you with this hint. The highly anticipated anthology Speakeasies and Spiritualists, curated by the lovely Nicole Petit, is due out this week. There’s a story written by yours truly in it. Check it out, there’s something in that story that you’ll see again sometime soon.
I remember the first time I let a group of people read my work. This was just at the beginning of the period of time where younger me considered that, hey, maybe this hobby of mine could be something more.
Two Roads in a Wood
One thing I still clearly remember is the fact that I was completely and utterly terrified. This was my work, something I’d spent ages on, and now I was just going to read it for these people–and throw myself at the mercy of their critiques?
I’ve done it quite a bit since then. But every time I take my work to a writing group to have it critiqued, I get that feeling. Granted, it’s smaller than it was that first time, but it’s there all the same.
But from what I’ve witnessed over the years, it’s better than the alternative.
And just what is that alternative?
The alternative is letting it sit there, letting yourself make edit after edit after edit trying to make it “perfect” and hope that one day you’ll share it with the world. That alternative is having half-started project after half-started project.
I’ve seen both versions of that alternative play out, and I can tell you neither is good for a writer.
But Mary Helen, you don’t understand. You’re just saying it’s hard for you to release your work.
I’m really not. I even admitted it in this week’s Raconteur Roundtable.
So what are ways you can set your work free?
1) Start a Blog
Or write a column for an existing blog (like yours truly does). Either way, it has two benefits. The first is that you are getting in the habit of writing regularly. The second is that you are putting your work out there for the world to see on a semi-regular basis.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be fiction. It can be articles, thoughts on what’s going on in your life or in the world, or reviews of your favorite books series or TV show (if it’s this option and it has time travel, shoot me a message and maybe we’ll talk about getting you to write for the Time Travel Nexus). It doesn’t really matter what it is, it matters that you do it.
2) Find a Writing Group
I’ll admit, it’s been awhile since I’ve been to one. Life does get in the way. But I did find this beneficial. You can find these in three places.
In the Community
There is a local group here in my hometown. I went for years, before life just got in the way and my schedule became a bit hectic. But for a while, week to week, I took a bit of my work to this group and let them help me find ways to make it better.
They pushed me. I needed to write every week so I would have something to show them. It also got my work out to a small audience and allowed me immediate feedback.
And sometimes, you really just need that.
At Your School
Yes, this one really only applies to students. But considering James and I met at our alma mater’s creative writing club I can’t help but point out that that is one place you should look.
If nothing else, you might find a friend for life. I did (two, counting the always fabulous Nicole Petit).
I was actually a part of an online writing site for a while. It was fun because it pushed me in a different way, and also gave me a place to go on a daily basis that allowed me to not only get feedback but build friendships with fellow writers.
I sometimes miss those days. It was like Cheers.
That being said, it isn’t necessarily hard to find somewhere to go to share you work and by doing it with a small group of people, it makes the big releases easier.
Here’s Another Confession
The week Badge City: Notches was released I think I was checking Amazon every hour on the hour while I was awake to see how it was doing.
I needed that validation to tell me that people were actually reading something I wrote. I had written a book and it was out there–and people liked it and read it.
But if you don’t let your work go then you don’t get to experience that feeling of relief and joy.
And what’s almost worse is that this idea, the one you’ve dedicated a lot of your time to, that you are probably really passionate about, won’t ever have the chance to shine.
So let it go.
Let it go out in the world for all to see.
It might not be perfect, it might have spots you regret down the road (yes, I’m eyeing my first ever short story).
But it’s your journey as a writer.
And unless you make that first step, your journey won’t go nearly as far as it could.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
A lot of people write in their spare time as nothing more than a hobby. Shoot, until about five years ago, I was one of them. But then, with the encouragement of some friends, I took the road less travelled and let my work out into the world.
You can too.
Because I will be the first to tell you, it makes all the difference.
On an episode of The Raconteur Roundtable, James and I sat down and broke down the first half of Series 10, taking a look from both a content and a writing standpoint. I would like to extend that look today, and examine the last two parts of Doctor Who’s tenth series.
“World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls” were the two-part finale that all but ended both Steven Moffat’s and Peter Capaldi’s time on Doctor Who.
As I get started, I’d like to put my traditional disclaimer up. Peter Capaldi’s run on Doctor Who had many problems. Yet, I do not blame Peter Capaldi for a single one of them. If nothing else, I can see where he tried so hard to save it.
To assist me in analyzing the two-part finale, I’m going to pull Mark Twain’s nineteen rules governing literary art, from his classic essay, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.”
Serious spoiler warning for the two-part finale of Series 10 of Doctor Who, “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls.” To illustrate the rules, I will not be withholding spoilers up to and including the last minute of the show. If you have not had a chance to watch and do not want to be spoiled, I’ll see you back here in a couple of days after you watch.
Let’s get started, shall we?
1) That a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.
Take an honest, objective look at the episode and tell me where this went? If you say from one end of the ship to another, I’m going to stare at you.
What did it accomplish?
In fact, “World Enough and Time” could have not existed, and could have been shoved into the first five minutes of “The Doctor Falls.” We would not have lost a lot.
The same thing can be said of “Extremis” earlier in the season. Though, with “Extremis,” that was glossed over in a line in the second part.
The Doctor, Bill, and Nardole go through this whole adventure, shoot there are even two Masters running around too. But at the end of the day, when the dust settled and everyone more or less moved on from this, what was accomplished?
The Cybermen are still on the ship. Nardole is stuck there. Bill is…. Well we’ll save that one for a later rule. And the Doctor… actually we’re going to save that one for a later rule as well. No-one has changed, as characters. The Masters are fundamentally the same, shedding whatever attempts at character development the series has given them. Nardole is the same. The Doctor is the same. Bill is the same.
The plot is static. The characters are static.
Two hours of footage have gone nowhere.
2) They require that the episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help to develop it.
As already stated above, we could have done without the first part of the two-parter. The sole purpose of this episode was to remind us that time moved faster at the bottom than it did at the top of the ship.
Let me state that one more time in case you didn’t notice it here or in the episode, time moves faster in the bottom of the ship than it does at the top.
In fact, Whovians have taken the time to diagram this.
But seriously, what happened in “World Enough and Time”? Bill is killed (in the most obnoxious and unrealistic way – if you’ve seen the scene in question you know what I mean). But then she’s not killed, she’s partially and then later fully converted into a Cyberman.
The Master is around, two of them. One, Missy is with the Doctor the other is in disguise helping Steven Moffat leave his mark on canon by changing the origin story of the Mondasian Cyberman (keep in mind these are the Cyberman who we meet in the 1966 serial The Tenth Planet).
And of course, countless references to time moving faster in the bottom of the ship than it does at the top.
This entire episode could have been condensed and added in, giving Part 2 some much needed tension and help.
3) They require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.
We first met both Bill and Heather in “The Pilot” where Heather ends up (according to the Doctor) dead due to a weird space oil thing that’s not fully explained and is the one vague point in the only solid episode of Series 10.
Is she dead?
According to the Doctor, yes.
Is she living?
According to Heather, yes. It’s just a different kind of living.
Either way, the distinction isn’t made clear.
4) They require that the personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.
Heather, who came to assist in Bill’s exit is an excellent example of a violation of this rule.
We never saw any sign of her and her puddle all season long.
Until we did.
Until, such a time as it was convenient to the plot for her to show back up. And convenience to your plot is not a sufficient excuse to randomly throw a character back into a story. Her presence was unestablished. She is the worst kind of Deus Ex Machina.
5) They require that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.
There’s a balance between character-building dialogue and cutting into your action sequence with needless dialogue that really doesn’t belong here.
There’s two particular times where the dialogue really stood out as unnecessary and did nothing more than to further bog down an episode that was already bogged down.
Let’s take a look at the first one.
MASTER: You can’t win.
DOCTOR: I know! And?
MASTER: Come on, Lady Version. I honestly don’t know what you see in him.
Both turn and begin to walk away.
DOCTOR: No! No! When I say no, you turn back around!
The Doctor runs, catching up with them before cutting their path off by standing in front of them.
DOCTOR: Hey! I’m going to be dead in a few hours, so before I go, let’s have this out, you and me, once and for all. Winning? Is that what you think it’s about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because, because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun and God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do, because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind. It’s just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live. Maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, you know, maybe there’s no point in any of this at all, but it’s the best I can do, so I’m going to do it. And I will stand here doing it till it kills me. You’re going to die too, some day. How will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand, is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help, a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?
MASTER: See this face? Take a good, long look at it. This is the face that didn’t listen to a word you just said.
He walks off.
DOCTOR: Missy. Missy. You’ve changed. I know you have. And I know what you’re capable of. Stand with me. It’s all I’ve ever wanted.
MISSY: Me too. But no. Sorry. Just, no. But thanks for trying.
First, let me take a second to point out that I’ve never been a fan of this buddy-buddy thing that Moffat has been doing with the Doctor and the Master. They were friends once upon a time, but that ended a long, long, long, long time ago.
All through classic Doctor Who, the Doctor and the Master fought each other. There were plenty of times where if he’d had the chance, both would have killed the other.
The Master didn’t hesitate to torture him in Series 3, now did he?
Yet, all of a sudden the two are all buddy-buddy.
If the Doctor knew he was going to die (and he did) and got to have it out with the Master one last time, this doesn’t seem to be what they would discuss. Especially not after all the lead up Steven Moffat has planted all season long.
Another example of this happens a few minutes later and this one has been annoying me just as much. Take a look:
DOCTOR: Yeah. This is it, I’m afraid. So, if there’s anything we ought to be saying?
BILL: I can’t think of anything. Can you?
BILL: But, hey er, you know how I’m usually all about women and, and kind of people my own age.
BILL: Glad you knew that.
Both know this is the last conversation they’ll get to have with each other and this is what they spend it on?
So much potential for one last touching character moment. And that’s how they say goodbye.
6) They require that when the author describes the character of a personage in his tale, the conduct and conversation of that personage shall justify said description.
Series 10 was almost completely void of characterization. The Doctor was never consistent episode to episode. Besides being gay and the bit with her mother, we never see a lot of what makes Bill Bill. Writers bounce back and forth between portraying her as intelligent, or so stupid that, as a physics student, she doesn’t know what CERN is.
The Doctor acted in and out of character the whole series. In several episodes, I would see him act in a way that he never would have (siding with the emoji bots in “Smile” is a good example of this).
Another thing that was extremely out of character were the Masters. Let me make one thing perfectly clear.
The Master would never shoot himself.
In fact, all through classic Who, most of his arcs were about him finding ways to prolong his life. Shoot, the entire Doctor Who TV movie (1996) exists because the Master just won’t die.
So he/she goes and stabs themselves in the back, twice?
It’s not in the Master’s character to do something like that.
7) They require that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.
This requires a character to have consistent characterization which is something Twelve is noticeably lacking. I get the character shifting a few times in the first few episodes, he’s getting a feel for his own skin as well as the writers getting used to him.
But for three seasons for his character to shift, rather dramatically at times and then flip flop back to previous versions for no reason?
8) They require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as “the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest,” by either the author or the people in the tale.
Why on Earth would the Doctor set the Cybermen databanks to target him, Missy, and the Master. I get the idea of trapping the two of them, but he also traps himself.
And why does he keep fighting this battle. I get it’s because it’s “Kind,” but it’s pointless. For the first time ever, I find myself agree with the Master on something.
But because the Doctor claims it’s who he is, it’s suddenly okay.
9) They require that the personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.
Heather is another point. She magically comes in at the last minute to give Moffat a cop out of actually killing Bill.
Actually, why didn’t Bill die in the explosion the Doctor set off?
Another thing was that the Doctor suddenly expected the Master to change after millennia of the two bashing heads and fighting across the cosmos?
Talk about exploiting miracles.
10) They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones.
It has been years since I’ve felt like I’m invested enough to care what happens to the characters in Doctor Who. I honestly felt nothing during “Angels Take Manhattan,” and while “Face the Raven” was a good exit, said exit was later voided—thus promptly voiding any emotional impact it had.
Why should I care if Bill was shot? We’re really not given a lot about her character. She couldn’t afford school, she sold chips, the Doctor decides to take her under his wing. She’s gay, she lives with her Aunt. Her mother died when she was little.
All of this information was given to us in “The Pilot.” But none of this is built or expanded on or really presented in a way that makes me want to care. The only thing we learn later is she’s really into the lost Roman legion, which hardly gives us anything else to latch onto.
Even with all that time with the Ponds, it was such shallow character development that I had nothing to latch onto and be interested in.
All these goodbyes are happening and I felt nothing. I was not invested.
11) They require that the characters in a tale shall be so clearly defined that the reader can tell beforehand what each will do in a given emergency.
Yes, to an extent, part of the Doctor’s character is that there is a certain degree of unpredictability.
But this surpasses it.
He wants to have a heart to heart with the Masters. He lies to Bill. He tricks Nardole in basically waiting a few extra years and then dying anyway because he is in an impossible situation.
12) Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
All through Series 10, the Doctor and the Master have seemed to be attempting to rekindle their friendship. They dance around it, especially in “Eaters of Light,” as we lead into the penultimate.
Another place where this rule may have been broken was with Bill and the Doctor as they said goodbye (see dialogue with rule 5).
Series 10 seemed to love to beat around the bush and never actually give you a moment to get attached to the characters.
13) Use the right word, not its second cousin.
All of a sudden, the Mondasian Cyberman developed a laser canon on their heads. Bill discovers this by getting angry with the Doctor.
Off and on, he got her to use it a couple of times and referred to it as “could you get angry on this.”
14) Eschew surplusage.
That’s all that that means. And look, I saved you a trip to Google.
Moffat bogged down his entire last season in the need to be technical and make himself appear clever.
Let’s be clear on something. Nothing makes you look less clever than someone being able to tell you were trying to be clever.
By bogging down a script with useless things that only hide the point of your episode (or book or whatever it is you’re writing, you find yourself in the position where someone like me is making this list.
15) Not omit necessary details.
For this one, I’m going to go back to “Oxygen” for my example. What was this mission doing? Why were they there? How and when did the suits malfunction? Why did no one remember Nardole is a robot and could handle the vacuum of space better than Bill? Why would any company supposedly interested in making money kill its highly-trained employees, when getting new ones would surely cost more? How is bringing down one company supposed to end capitalism forever? Why are the employees seemingly familiar with films from thousands of years beforehand?
One necessary detail from the two-parter that would have been included, especially because it would have been a fun technical detail, is more on the relation of time throughout the lower parts of the ship. It seemed as if each floor worked on a different speed of time but how much did they differ?
16) Avoid slovenliness of form.
Quite frankly, Doctor Who slovenly this entire two-parter. Yes, usually the Doctor is coming up with and executing a plan on the fly. But usually it’s not so slipshod as he was here. Yes, in one way, the Doctor was being written towards his regeneration, but you can write him there without him actually going there.
Look at Three, look at Nine, look at One and Two. The others (besides Ten and Eleven who were intentionally omitted from the list) I’m not as familiar with their regeneration stories to be able to make the comparison.
But while they would end up at their ends, they still kept on the adventure like normal.
For some reason, the tenth Doctor got it in his head to throw himself a giant episode long pity party about regenerating and every regeneration since has also had it.
And I’m quite frankly over it. But that’s a post for another time (and maybe for the Nexus instead of here).
All of this is beside the true slovenliness of form that’s haunted the entire 10th series—broken pacing, here in spades, of overly-long set-ups and rushed conclusions.
17) Use good grammar.
The one rule that “World Enough and Time” and “The Doctor Falls” manages to avoid.
Mainly because this rule is meant for other mediums.
18) Employ a simple and straightforward style.
Everything has to be this big ball of complicated. Look at the River Song arc. It lasted from 2008 to Christmas of 2015. Sure, for binge watchers, this approach may work, but for causal watchers and for posterity—who might not watch this in a straight line—this approach is not beneficial to the show.
It shoots Moffat’s Doctors in the foot because some of their notable serials will have trouble translating to posterity in the way classic Who does. Twelve has three good episodes. Husbands of River Song is bogged down by her plotline. The Return of Doctor Mysterio to an extent because they constantly mention the previous episode. Which leaves “The Pilot” all alone for clear, heavy-continuity-free, recommendations.
Overall, the two-part series finale to Series 10 was flat, lackluster, dragged in its pacing, and often made truly inexplicable decisions.
Truly, the best part was the last minute where we get the first on-screen appearance of the first Doctor since the 1983 serial “The Five Doctors.”