13 February 2013

The First Line

Every story has a beginning. More specifically, every written story has a first line that sends the reader into the world of that story. Like me, you’ve probably read from dozens of books or blogs that state just how important it is to have a well-crafted first line. While this is certainly true, if you focus too much on making it perfect, especially in a first draft, you could be headed for disaster. Or even a broken heart.

I’m going to say something that I didn’t even realize I believed until I started writing this. The first line isn’t as important as people make it out to be. Think about some of your favorite books. Do you remember the first lines off the top of your head? Probably not. But at the same time, if you look back at those books and read the first lines, they’ll most likely resonate with you. So while it isn’t necessarily going to make or break your whole novel, it is important.

The first line is a fickle creature. You need the perfect balance of vagueness and intrigue. You don’t want to give away the whole novel in the first line, but you do want to give away enough to make the reader curious. It can be simple, but not dull. Sometimes a simpler sentence will be more intriguing than a complicated one. And it will be a jumping off point for the next few paragraphs or pages, where you will have more space to expand your ideas and themes.

Once you have that first line written, keep going with your story, but every so often go back and see if the first line is still a good fit. Even if you think it’s perfect, take another look. Because while writing the first line can be difficult, rewriting it can be even harder. If you leave it alone and move on, you become used to it, and thus attached to it. You won’t see any other way of starting your novel besides that one sentence. So when it comes time to really edit, you’ll be incapable of seeing its flaws. Because to you, it’s already perfect.

Let me explain more about the attachment. I’m in an interesting situation because of a contest I’m looking to enter for novels-in-progress. I’m just over halfway through my work-in-progress, but now I’m forced to go back and edit from the beginning in order to submit the first fifty pages. So it’s kind of like draft 1.5. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but I feel I have time to make it better from what I already have.

So of course, the first thing I looked at was the first line. When I adapted the first chapter from the short story I wrote, I didn’t change the first line. This could have been a huge mistake, except for the fact that I already wasn’t satisfied with it, just didn’t know how to improve it at the time. I’ve had this experience before, where I became so attached to the first line of a novel I rewrote twice, that when I looked back on it, it didn’t seem to make sense anymore. But at the same time, I felt that I couldn’t change it. How could I possibly change it when this had been the only way to open the story for the three years I had been working on it?

This time around I approached it differently. What I focused more on was what the words were saying, and not how they were saying it. The idea behind it was more important than the phrasing. Here is the original first line as I had written it:

            I started failing geometry right around the time that I stopped liking girls.

I knew that these two details were important to the first line. Creating a sort of parallel between them seemed important to start the story off, because by the end of the chapter, my narrator has a crush on his male math tutor, which is the jumping off point for the entire story. So the context was never a problem, but I was never satisfied with the wording. It seemed a bit clumsy and also didn’t provide a proper insight into his character. Here is how I rewrote it:

            I decided to fail geometry around the same time that I stopped going out with girls.

My first goal was the fix the choppy writing that existed in the first draft, which wasn’t all that difficult. But I tweaked a few things not only to make the voice clearer, but to get the reader to keep going. I wanted to make it clear that his failing is a choice from the very beginning, at the same time that he chooses to stop dating girls. Nothing is accidental for him. And hopefully, the reader will be intrigued enough to keep going, to discover why he has made these choices.

Am I done? Probably not. But like any rewriting, it’s a process. You write, then rewrite, then rewrite again. Then when you finally get published the editors may change it, too. I would advise you to constantly rewrite your first line, even if it’s just a word at a time. Or at least keep in mind that it needs to change. You may not have the right perspective until you finish the entire first draft. 

04 February 2013

The Blame Game

I do this a lot, and I’m really sorry. I’ll blog for a while, then stop for a really long time, and then come back saying how I’m gonna do things differently. And I never follow through. There are a lot of reasons and I seem to be trying to explain them to you every few months or so. I know the muse thing is my gimmick (I say this only to keep you from thinking I’m insane, ‘cause, you know, he’s real and everything…). But I also have to take the blame for my lack of writing. It’s easy to blame the fact that you can’t write on your imaginary friend. I'll spare you all my lame excuses or a thorough plan of how I'm going to fix everything. My plan is a bit simpler this time. 

1. Stop trying to plan.

I really, really, do want to blog three times a week. And I have ideas for certain days. And I'm going to try. But if I try to schedule myself, it never works, and I just end up doing nothing. So my goal is to just write. Even if I end up rambling about nonsense for an entire post, then that's ok. 

2. Accept the muse for all his flaws. That's why I love him. 

Do you think it's easy being platonically in love with an impulsive, promiscuous little sociopath? Because it's not. But I did create him so I have to live with him. Writing my book certainly isn't going to happen without him. Imagine if you spent years on your work in progress and then suddenly had to completely change your main character? Sounds heartbreaking, doesn't it? You're probably curling up into the fetal position just thinking about it. I have no intentions of getting rid of him, and probably couldn't even if I tried. 

3. Accept my own flaws. 

Yes, I struggle with getting things done. I get depressed. I hate my job. I have no time. I have next to no self-confidence. But I wouldn't be doing this if there wasn't a reason, if I didn't feel I have a story worth telling. I've never been that good at telling my own story, but creating something out of thin air seems to be worthwhile. I've seen stories unfolding in my head since I was eight years old. I don't really understand how other people don't. 

So that's it. If I blog three times a week, or even once a week, then at least I'll be accomplishing something. And maybe by some miracle I'll get my book done. Or come up with a title. Fingers crossed. 

17 December 2012

Fun Facts: Volume Two

I'm finishing up a chapter tonight (hopefully) so as a fun little side project I've been making a list of things my characters are always doing. You probably don't notice these things when you talk to someone in real life--the sighs, shrugs, and all the tiny little movements we make that reflect our moods or what we're saying. In writing, these things are usually filler, especially in scenes with a lot of dialogue. They help make the scene more real and break up the line after line of speech. However, if you're like me, you end up using the same actions again and again. And again. Sometimes this can be useful, if say, one character has a particular trait that is shown regularly. But when you're constantly bombarding the reader with these little action tags, they might learn to just glaze over them to get to the juicy dialogue. So this is my list, and I am most certainly poking fun at myself. Maybe you'll notice the same things you make your characters do.

Things My Characters are Always Doing

  • Sighing
  • Shrugging
  • Smirking
  • Rolling eyes
  • Frowning--This wouldn't be so bad, but having a first person narrator realize that he’s doing it feels a bit odd
  • Smiling sadly--EEK! An adverb! With an oxymoron! Kill it! KILL IT!
  • Glaring at each other/eyes narrowing--If I put Jordan and his mother in a scene, my God...I'm surprised they can see enough to walk around with all the glaring.
  • Staring
  • Grinning
  • Taking deep breaths/exhaling slowly
  • Sticking tongues out--Ok, that's pretty much just Jordan. He's a cranky little boy who likes getting his way.
  • Shaking heads--Interesting note, not a lot of nodding. Apparently my characters are always disagreeing with each other. 
  • Groaning--In frustration! My God, get your mind out of the gutter!
  • Moaning--Ok, proceed to the gutter...
  • Snatching things--cell phones, wrists, and a chin once to steal a kiss, but I'm not getting rid of that. It was adorable. 
I'm sure there's more, but these are my worst offenses. I hope they were good for a laugh.

02 December 2012


Just in case somebody wanders on here today or early tomorrow, I'm in the process of changing the look of my blog. So far just the template, and I probably won't work out all the kinks until tomorrow (day off, woo!). So if it seems weird, or if you've been here before and you have no idea what's going on, just bear with me! Or if you've never been here before, by all means, keep reading.

<3 Sarah

But no love from Jordan. He told me to tell you that.

29 November 2012

The Problem with Chapter Nine

If you’re like me (crazy), as you write your novel, each new chapter becomes your favorite one. I feel this is a good thing; at least on some level, this points to improvement in your draft. Either you’re enjoying the story more as you get into it, or you feel your writing is getting stronger as you go along. The only downside is that each new chapter has to live up to its predecessor. Not every chapter, or at least every scene, is always going to leave you on the edge of your seat. So what about those in between moments? What do you do when you have a scene that is entirely necessary to the plot, but just not that exciting?

I finished Chapter Eight of my novel about two months ago. While I certainly haven’t stopped writing since then, I just can’t bring myself to complete the next chapter. I’ve been writing random parts of the story—namely, the scenes that interest me. Because while I have the entire next chapter planned out, I’ve recently come to the conclusion that it’s just not all that interesting. The logical step would be to cut it, right? Therein lies the other problem. Skipping to the next chapter would leave a gaping hole in the narrative. I guess the whole point to my book is to show the very slow progression of a relationship. In the next important scene, the characters are too close, too familiar with one another. They weren’t at this point at the end of Chapter Eight. So I still have to get them there.

I guess the problem with Chapter Nine is that nothing exciting or earth shattering happens. I’ve tried everything to spice it up—amusing dialogue, sexy make out scenes, etc., etc. But I can’t shake the feeling that something is missing. How do you deal with this sort of downtime within your narrative? If you think about real life, obviously not every moment is exciting. In fact, excitement is rare. But you don’t want to bore your readers with the mundane everyday life. What’s the solution?

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you the solution. Well, obviously I don’t have it, or this chapter would be complete. But I do have some theories. An overly exciting book can be interesting, but exhausting (The Da Vinci Code comes to mind, where every two page chapter ends with a cliffhanger). But on the flip side, a book where nothing happens will never keep the reader’s attention. Forgive me for the most extreme of clichés, but you should treat your narrative like a roller coaster. There are the moments that build up with suspense, the high points that are intense and exciting, and then the low moments that come in between. If you need a slow moment in your book, the most important thing to consider is what purpose it serves. Does it help the reader recover from an intense scene that happened before? Is it building up to the next one? What are we learning about the characters?

So far my plan of action has been to skip ahead. There’s an important scene in Chapter Ten that I’ve almost completed. Once it’s done, I’ll look back, see what’s missing from the end of Chapter Eight until this particular moment. What needs to be said or done to get my characters to this point? Then what’s important—what’s necessary, even—will be much clearer. If Chapter Nine ends up being a short chapter, then that’s all right, if that’s what it needs to be. It’s important to listen to your narrative; sometimes it will tell you what it needs. 

08 November 2012

The Fight Scene

The first rule of fight scenes is you do not talk about fight scenes. No, wait, that’s fight club. Fight scenes, you have to talk about. If you have a fight scene in your novel, then you won’t want to just skim over it. There has to be a reason for it, so the reader should be able to experience it fully—be in the moment, feeling all the rage, heart pounding, and blood spattering that your characters are experiencing. Of course, there are two kinds of fight scenes, and I actually have both in my WIP. One is your average teenage boy scuffle (cliché? Perhaps. Bear with me) and the other is a heated argument between lovers.

Honestly, for me at least, I find the physical fights easier to write. You have to be so in the moment, so focused on the physical elements that you don’t really need to focus on anything else. If your character is in a fight, how much time do they really have to think about their next move before their opponent strikes? The pace on the page should follow this sort of mindset. It’s not like a video game where you hit your opponent, then do nothing as they hit you, then bounce around while you decide which attack to use next. If someone is hitting you, then you’re probably at least trying to shield yourself, if not hitting back. Is your character being attacked or did they start the fight? Their fighting techniques may be different, depending on whether they’re trying to inflict pain or just avoid it. Unless it’s an epic battle or climactic shootout, it’ll probably be over quickly (or in my case, broken up by adults). I happen to like this little snippet of a fight scene in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club:

Last week, I tapped a guy and he and I got on the list for a fight. This guy must’ve had a bad week, got both my arms behind my head in a full nelson and rammed my face into the concrete floor until my teeth bit open the inside of my cheek and my eye was swollen shut and was bleeding, and after I said, stop, I could look down and there was a print of half my face in blood on the floor. (51)

The entire fight is summed up in one paragraph, so it’s short, but at the same time graphic and intense. The fight itself is actually one sentence, so it feels almost like a stream of consciousness. You’ll want to be completely in the moment when writing a fight scene. Your character won’t be thinking about the phone call he had the other day, or the homework assignment he has to do tonight. He’ll be thinking about how he was just punched in the jaw, and whether or not he wants to hit back.

Then there’s the other type of fight scene, or the argument. There are several different levels of arguments, from “why didn’t you take out the trash?” to “why did you sleep with my best friend?” If an argument is stemming from a small issue, chances are it will either fizzle out or escalate into something that was never really about the trash in the first place. As the fight goes on, it usually becomes more intense. What starts as a minor disagreement can escalate into screams and insults. Usually with verbal fights, each person always believes that they are right. I find in real life, the most frustrating part of a fight is trying to make the other person listen to you and see that you are right. People generally do not want to listen. You can feel like you’re not being heard, and that just makes you angrier. Think about what you have felt when you’ve argued with someone. There’s a lot of emotion to be found and your characters will probably be at their most out of control. As far as dialogue goes, obviously there will be a lot of it, but you won’t want to overdo it, either. You’ll want to trim it down to the most important lines so it’s not too overwhelming, and unlike a physical fight, there are more opportunities for your characters to be thinking about what they want to say, or even reacting to something they said without thinking.

Of course, the fight will need to come to an end at some point, maybe with one character storming off or slamming a door. You can bring the intensity down to where it started, try to resolve the issue, or you can leave it high and uncomfortable, with your characters still feeling the anger and frustration (which may make the reader immediately start the next chapter, just sayin’). If your characters are angry enough, they may want to hurt each other in order to get the upper hand. For my scene, one character says the worst possible thing he could say to the other, knowing that it will devastate him. If your characters know each other well enough, then they’ll know exactly where to cut the deepest. No matter how you end your fight scene, you’ll want to leave an impact.

You really want to ask yourself why your characters need to fight at all. I realized the reason I had an argument at a particular moment was to throw a wrench in the plot, even move it toward the end. Things can never be the same for the characters after they have this fight. Really, this should be the goal in any verbal fight scene: that things aren’t the same any more. If you have your characters fight only to immediately make up, then why did they fight at all? Maybe you had a different reason for the fight. Maybe the fight revealed something huge, that someone had a secret, they cheated, etc. There are several good reasons, but things can’t go back to just peachy after such a big reveal. Like any other moment in the narrative, the fight has to move the plot forward, even if it’s in a negative direction. If you still want your happy ending, then your characters just have more to work through in order to get there.

Fight scenes, whether physical or verbal, can be intense and emotional. Often the before and after is just as important as the fight itself. I suppose the best advice would be, don’t water it down, and don’t hold back. A weak punch isn’t going to get you very far. 

02 November 2012

Friday Night Ramblings

As usual, I thought I was going to blog about one thing and end up blogging about another. I had a set plan in mind, but I've been up since six o'clock this morning after waking up from a dream that I was about to drown in a flood. I tried to be productive but I was tired all day. And I just spent the last four hours packing to-go orders at work, which involves a lot of running back and forth and screaming at people for french fries and extra sauce. And as soon as I got home I stuffed my face, so I'm bound to slip into a coma in about half an hour. I figured I'd get some ramblings done before then. Also, I'm watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the third time, partly because there's nothing else on TV, partly because I'm almost done reading The Girl who Played with Fire but I'll never be able to keep my eyes open if I start reading, and partly because I have a bit of a crush on Daniel Craig (what?!).

But anyway (agh I'm worse than Jordan...), I had a few ideas today that were worth sharing. I might actually, finally be on the verge of coming up with a title for my book. I don't want to share too much yet because I don't want to jinx it, and there's certainly a good chance that I'll change my mind tomorrow and hate the idea. But I had one of those moments where an idea hits you out of nowhere and you actually gasp when it happens. It wasn't actually a phrase, but sort of an idea that I can work with, probably with the use of a thesaurus and a math book. And several hours.

So that got me to thinking about titles. Sometimes you come up with them before you even begin writing the story; sometimes it takes you months to figure it out. I think it can be hard because how do you sum up your entire work in one phrase, maybe even one word? It seems like you could be trivializing something that is extraordinarily complicated. Plus you want it to be catchy, something that will interest a prospective reader.It's a hard thing to figure out. You have an entire novel full of words to express your ideas, but then you have to pick a select few that will truly sum up those ideas.

The thought of important words brought me to another idea--a project of sorts. I want to make a list of words and phrases, sort of like a stream of consciousness, moving from one to the other without much thought. All of these words will have to do with my book, but on a thematic or symbolic level. Basically what I think the book is really about, not describing plot or characters, but boiling it down to the underlying issues. I think it would be fun and insightful. If you know what you're trying to write about, it'll be easier to focus your ideas.

So if it works out, and if I actually finish it (because it could be never-ending), maybe I'll post it here. Or maybe I'll keep it a secret.

Well, I think it's time to pass out. Goodnight!