“If you’re close to your character, they’ll show you what’s important to them.”
Do you know about MagicalWords.net? I’ve been referring to the “Magical Words” panels, but I realize I might not have put that in context. This is a fantastic forum for fantasy authors to talk about the craft and business of writing. ConCarolinas has provided a great forum for the leading authors to share their expertise with participant writers. Three of the founders, David B. Coe, Faith Hunter, and Misty Massey, led these “Magical Words” panels at ConCarolinas.
The themes of the “Beginnings” panel centered around the essential elements of a good story; drawing readers into your story and keeping them there; attracting that first important reader, an editor; and managing POV.
Stories rely on good presentation of
- Pacing (with escalation of conflict)
- Scene setting
The first line / page / chapter must establish all of these in a way that compels the reader to keep reading. Often referred to as “bait and hook” – setup your bait and then hook the reader and draw them in on your line.
Faith Hunter read the 1st paragraph of Skinwalker, the first in the Jane Yellowrock series. It’s 1st person POV, and does an excellent job of setting the scene/setting, voice/tone. The 2nd paragraph establishes the central conflict of the whole series: Jane’s a vampire killer who’[s going to work for the vampires. Yes, in two paragraphs, Faith set the stage for a whole book series!
Misty says it all comes back to who-what-where-when-why
Your hook will usually either be character or back story
You can’t put too much back story in the first few pages. If you feel you must, then the story is probably starting in the wrong place…
Cinematic opening: start distant (omniscient narrative) and focus in to close 3rd or 1st POV – popular in literary fiction, not so much in current speculative fiction trends
Intimacy (with character) and Immediacy (of conflict/action) draw reader in
If you pull editor/reader through the first page, they’ll probably give you 5 more. Then they might give you 20…
The triumvirate (essential elements) of every story:
Character * plot * setting
Harsh reality: Editors aren’t looking to love your story. They have to get through a slush pile. You have to give them a reason to keep reading, without moving on to the next story in their pile! Lock them into your story, on your terms: through your character, plot, and setting.
This does not mean you write “to” the market”. You have to write what you love. But you have to be realistic about what is selling, what is attractive to readers (and therefore editors) in today’s market. Styles change. Popular subjects change. Themes come and go. What sold 20 years ago might not sell today. And yes, successful published authors can “get away with” more than a novice! Don’t make it hard for an editor to say yes to your story!
1st and 3rd POV use different parts of the writer’s brain. If you’re stuck on story telling in one, try the other. You can always revise into a different POV later if you wish.
Great audience question to the panel authors about how each of them approaches writing a scene. Do they see it like a movie in their head? Are they in the POV character’s head as the character is experiencing it?
Misty said she sees it as a movie, has to work not to include absolutely every detail that she sees – only what’s important to the scene, and what’s noticed/experienced by the POV character
David interjected about POV and characters in crisis/immediate danger – the character’s attention will focus to the setting and action around the danger, not notice every little detail in surroundings.
If the POV character is in a familiar setting, they’ll notice more, because they don’t have to think as hard about it.
If you’re close to your character, they’ll show you what’s important to them.
Great discussion about chapter length – short or long. How do you know what’s right? Extremely variable – no hard and fast rules. Faith has found she prefers no fewer than 10 pages, or it feels too short.
Great discussion about POV changes – OK within a chapter with scene breaks, but ot within a single scene without breaks. When changing characters, it should make sense to the forward movement of the story. Don’t be too jarring, or it jerks the reader out of story
Audience question to each panel author: how often do you get the 1st sentence right the first time? Faith wrote Ashes to Ashes 1st 50 lines in one go and barely changed them – but they had been rumbling around her head for a couple of weeks beforehand. David’s never gotten it right on the first go.
Guideline: You’ll spend as long on your first sentence as you do on the rest of your 1st paragraph. As long on your 1st paragraph as you do on your 1st page. As long on your 1st page as you do on the 1st five, and as long on your 1st five as you do on your 1st 20 pages.
Don’t think of your story as your “baby” or your “lover” – it is a product. If you want to sell it, you will have to work with your editor to make changes to make it the most saleable product you can.
Focus on forward progress more than word or page count. When Faith started, her goal was 5 pages a day, and if she made 25 pages by Friday, she could take a day off. David doesn’t participate in NaNoWriMo (for instance), because he thinks he should be writing 50,000 words or more every month.
If a point is important to your story, bring it up as a brief line or sentence in the 1st 3rd, again in the 2nd 3rd, and bring it to fruition in the final 3rd of your story.
You won’t want to miss my next blog, featuring the Saturday late night “sex panel” – and my surprise winning goodie basket!
June word count