I’ll start with this:
Joanie was sitting on the bus and looking out the window when the truck hit George.
It’s not a compelling sentence, much less a great first sentence. It doesn’t tell us if Joanie actually saw the truck hit George, does it? It uses the boring ‘was sitting’ and ‘looking’ verbs, too.
So—I’ll begin with what I’m trying to say. Here are the facts the author knows, but so far, the reader does not:
Joanie’s on a bus. What kind? School bus. Where is it? Boca Raton, Florida. Where was she seated? Second row behind the driver—window seat.
Who is she? A public school attendee. How old? Fourteen. Where is she going & why? She’s headed home after school, presumably to have a snack & do her homework.
Who is George? A young man from Texas. How old? Twenty-five. Was he in a car or in the street when he was hit? He was running and darted into the street. Does Joanie know him? No.
What kind of truck was it? An F150, black. Who was driving it? An old man. Did Joanie see the accident? Yes.
Where were they when the accident happened? On Palmetto Park Road heading west.
That’s enough facts to get me started with a better opening. I don’t have to use all those facts in the first sentence (or in the first paragraph), of course, but I do want to pique the reader’s interest.
So, second attempt:
Yawning, Joanie shifted in her seat as the school bus jolted over the train tracks and returned to staring out the window.
Okay, it’s better—way better—especially the verb choices, but is it compelling? Starting a book with a yawn may not be the best thing to do, either. Unless the sentence becomes overly long, the action involving George (and other details) now has to happen in subsequent sentences. And that’s okay. But if I want a power-packed first line, this won’t do it.
As Joanie relieved her boredom by staring out the school bus window, a dark-haired man ran from the sidewalk into oncoming traffic, and a huge black pick up slammed into him.
Still ‘eh’. Also starts with an ‘as’. And it sounds ‘passive’—like the storyteller is bored telling it. It doesn’t put the reader into the scene. The reader is merely watching from afar.
Stop for a moment and assess—what are the most important facts to establish?
Joanie’s young. George gets hit. Joanie witnesses it.
I’ll try again:
Bored and tired, Joanie switched her gaze from her phone to out the school bus window just as a dark-haired man darted from the sidewalk into traffic, and a huge black pick up slammed him into the air.
I’m getting close. We know Joanie’s a kid, because it’s a school bus. We know George gets hit. We know Joanie doesn’t know him, or the sentence would use his name—being in Joanie’s POV.
I’m going to add ‘screaming’ to George’s description—to show he wasn’t simply careless. Something was terribly wrong that made him think his only option was going into the street. I’m taking out ‘out’ because it’s an extra word that doesn’t need to be there. We can assume when she switches her gaze to the window that she’s looking out of it. I’m taking out ‘just.’ It’s a word that almost never needs to be there. ‘As’ tells us the action happens at that exact moment.
Bored and tired, Joanie switched her gaze from her phone to the school bus window as a screaming dark-haired man darted from the sidewalk into traffic, and a huge black pickup slammed him into the air.
This works for me. It tells me it’s a normal day. Whether Joanie’s either on her way to school or on the way back (morning or afternoon) will be established soon. She looks out the window in time to see a crazed man running into traffic and get hit by a truck.
To assess, we have to put ourselves in the reader’s head. What questions come to their mind immediately? What question comes first?
I think the first is—what was so wrong that a man would risk running in front of a truck? Then—because of the word ‘slammed’, not ‘hit’—oh, my God, where did he land? Is he alive? The reader is seeing the carnage in their head without my having written a word about it. What was he running from? Was someone/something chasing him?
Next is concern for Joanie, the school girl. No one ever wants a kid to witness that. Did any of the other kids see it? What about the driver? Does the driver stop the bus?
It’s safe to say by re-writing it the way I did, I’ve piqued the reader’s interest, yes? I’ve gotten them involved in the story from the first sentence.
Let’s look at the verb usage. Switched, darted, and slammed. No ‘was watching’, ‘ran’, ‘looked’, ‘changed’ or ‘sat.’ The verbs are dynamic, not boring.
Notice I didn’t say ‘up into the air?’ Directional words are extras that aren’t needed and slow down your writing. There is no other way but ‘up’ if you’re tossed into the air (from Earth, that is), so it’s not necessary.
I used ‘huge black pickup’ instead of F150 because we’re in Joanie’s POV, and most fourteen-year-old girls don’t know or care about truck models. (Your character might, but mine doesn’t.)
I didn’t use the word ‘crazed’ in the sentence, because that’s a judgment call on Joanie’s part, and that’s also telling, not showing. By saying a screaming man darted into traffic, I’m showing that he’s crazed.
Also notice I didn’t describe how anything looked, other than George’s dark hair and the fact the truck was black. We have to put tiny bits of detail into the sentence, or the reader can’t create as full a picture. I picked dark-haired, because Joanie’s fourteen, and she’d most likely notice his hair, as his face might have been a blur, since it happened so fast. The truck’s color is black, because it paints a more ominous picture than a red or white truck, or no color mentioned at all. We don’t really care what anyone’s wearing at that moment, or whether Joanie is black, white, purple, blonde, brunette, or a redhead. Keeping the description to a bare minimum keeps the action going. Details of all sorts can be added in subsequent sentences.
And voila! I have a first sentence. Next time, I’ll work on what comes after.
(First written for and published on Janice Hardy's Fiction University Blog - Dec. 2017)
When you’re starting your writing career and finish your first full manuscript, what should you do next? Besides celebrating by opening that emergency bottle of bubbly you keep in the back of the refrigerator? What was that? You don’t keep a bottle of Champagne on hand? You absolutely should, because finishing the first draft of a novel is a big deal. So take an evening to celebrate, then get back to work.
Should you write a synopsis, or two, or maybe even three, so you’ll have a single paragraph one, a one-pager, and perhaps a multiple pager? Do your homework and drive yourself further down the road to a nervous breakdown as you write, and seemingly forever rewrite, your query letter to send to literary agents?
Well, yes. But not yet. The first draft is only the beginning. A thorough self-edit or two comes next, along with finding a few beta readers to give you feedback. More about choosing those later.
What you absolutely must do, if you want to produce the best book you can write, is take a good, hard look at your ego. Because it’s about to get seriously banged up if you don’t prepare yourself. When we type The End, it feels like giving birth. And that baby, your book, is as precious and perfect as a baby. To you. To everyone else, not so much. (The book, not the baby, who I’m sure truly is/was perfect and precious.)
This is a tough lesson to learn, and you are far better off if you learn it early. If you don’t, your pride in your accomplishment will blind you to any faults in the manuscript. Beta readers and a critique group, if you choose them wisely, will tell you things you don’t want to hear. You’ll go on defense, get mad, and argue with them. You’ll refuse to accept advice from seasoned writers who are trying to help you. Basically, after all that work, not getting your ego out of the way for the next steps is like shooting yourself in the foot.
And, if you do, over time, get the ego under control and ask for help once more, those same people who you sniped at the last time are not going to want anything to do with it—and quite possibly you—again. You’ll have marked yourself as difficult.
Find a few beta readers. They cannot be a relative, in-law, or a good friend. Because they love you, and no matter how many times you stress that they should be absolutely honest with you—they will not do it. If your book is terrible, they will lie and say it was great, while swearing they are telling you the truth. This is not a bad thing. The people who love us want to protect our feelings. It’s kind of their job.
So—how to find readers who will be honest? Ask your friends who belong to book clubs for the names of members you don’t know who regularly go for your type of book. Or call that friend who reads a lot, they’re bound to know others who do also. Don’t ask someone who reads/loves thrillers, horror, or fantasy, and zero cozies at all to read your cozy mystery. When you find these people who do not know you, call them and ask if they’ll read a PDF copy. Then ask if they think they can be brutally truthful. Explain to them that you’re most interested in getting any weak spots corrected before you send it out to agents, and they’d be doing you a wonderful favor. That the only way to be sure you’re sending out your best efforts depends on them. That way, you’ll have given them a mission. They’ll want to be helpful and will make notes about pages or sections that weren’t clear or anything else that bothers them.
This is where a lot of newbies panic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “But how do I know they won’t steal my book and try to publish it as theirs?” There are a few reasons that won’t, and doesn’t, happen, but perhaps the best way to allay any such fear is—these days, when you create a document on Word or Libre, or whatever you’re using, it’s immediately time/date stamped as being created by you—using your name. The software does it automatically. And every time you make a change, it notes that as well. You’ve got an iron-clad chain of custody for proof that it’s yours. So take that worry off the table.
When they’ve finished the book, ask them questions. Lots of them. Take notes. And listen. Don’t interrupt their answers with a defense. Take your ego out of it. Ask them if the oh-so-clever plot twist you put in Chapter Twenty surprised them or did they see it coming? What part or parts of the book dragged for them? Did they find themselves skimming over pages? Which ones? Why? Do any of the characters seem shallow? Like they’re out of central casting? Which ones did they like best/worst and why? Was the ending good or predictable? Did the overall plot make sense? Did they get a solid image/understanding of the setting or time period? I could go on all day, but you get the idea.
After many years of training, I finally have my mother able to give me honest feedback. I want hers because she reads everything. She’s voracious. If my plots or characters seem trite or done to death elsewhere, she’ll tell me. But I think my mother is the exception to the rule, and it did take years to get her there.
I’m telling you all this because I wish someone had told me in such an unvarnished fashion. I didn’t get belligerent way back when, but I did put up defensive barriers. In doing that, I delayed my progress as a writer. In not knowing the advantage of putting ego aside, I found criticism and rejection so hurtful. Had I known to find avid readers to test-read my book, I would have saved so much time in getting to the polished version it finally became.
Do yourself a huge favor. Send your ego on a long vacation.
POV stands for Point of View.
It's writing/viewing the scene from inside the head of a particular character. Usually, the deeper you can get into a POV, the more connected a reader feels to that character. Obviously, the writer doesn't always want you to know what's in every character's mind, so part of the creation process is deciding how many, and whose, POVs to write from for the story.
It's not always easy to determine, either. I know lots of authors who have gotten halfway through a manuscript before it dawns on them that the POV should be from a different character.
Here are the basics:
First person POV - is when the main character refers to themselves as 'I'. The story is viewed/experienced from that one character's point of view. Sometimes an author will do a 2nd or 3rd POV in combination with that - either from the first person or the third person. Diana Gabaldon does that in her Outlander series. Claire is always written in the first person, and Jamie - her husband - and all other characters - are written in the third person.
Example of first person from my book, Blinke It Away - When Bess Blinke is up on Mount Kaala
The air smelled sweet and clean. I picked up the scent of something earthy and - apples? Hawaii didn't have regular apple trees, but rose and mountain apples grew there. I climbed and searched for them. Soon, a group of mountain apple trees were within sight, bursting with massive clusters of the small, red fruit. Smashed ones lay on the ground under and surrounding them. I hurried closer, hit something slick, slid downhill, and landed when my back slammed into a tree trunk. The impact made the pain in my head throb all over again.
Third Person POV - is when the 'narrator' (the author) tells you what a character is thinking or doing.
Example of third person from my book, Alias: Mitzi & Mack - From Stanley & Catherine's first meeting. It's in Stanley's POV. Notice that, although I'm telling you both characters' actions and words, you only know Stanley's thoughts, not hers.
If she wanted sympathy from him, she wasn't going to get it. "Just the same, I don't like being treated like that. I still think we should forget the whole thing. Don't worry. I'll never tell a soul I was here."
"Please don't go." She stood, then approached him. "I'd like to find out more about you. I'll pay you a thousand dollars if you'll simply sit once more."
A thousand dollars to sit? "Okay." As he sat, he wondered if she also threw money from the car windows for the fun of watching poor people fight for it.
I have a workshop presentation for POV that goes into much further detail. Contact me if you'd like me to present it for your group.
Read enough writing advice books, and sooner or later, your head's going to ache.
'there are rules - but nobody knows what they are' - is a common meme among writers.
I've been lucky to belong to a very tough critique group since 2004. We know 'the rules', and sometimes, the rules must be ignored. The bottom line is - does your story keep moving, does it keep the reader engaged? Or do they yawn and put it down - perhaps to never pick it up again?
One of the things we've discovered for sure is - when the writing is chock full of 'had's, 'had been's, 'that's, and 'ly' adverbs - it 'slows' everything down. Oh, it doesn't matter so much in a paragraph or two, but if such boring, extraneous words populate your entire book, it can lead to lethargy. It just 'feels' slow. The reader doesn't know exactly why they don't pick up the book again, but they know it makes them not interested enough to continue.
Everything you do as a writer should be aimed at one goal - make the reader keep turning pages. Make them not want to put it down. Getting rid of unnecessary 'that's and 'had's helps with that - it makes the reading feel more active.
So, when are they unnecessary? here's an example of when you can get rid of the 'had's (and a 'that'):
Four years earlier, she had designed the woman's penthouse. She had purchased that ten-thousand dollar sofa that had been such a boondoggle. The woman had been thrilled when it arrived.
So - a more active way to write it:
Four years earlier, she designed the woman's penthouse. (since we've told the reader it was four years ago, the had is not necessary.) She purchased the ten-thousand-dollar sofa that became such a boondoggle. (Don't need the 'had' or the 1st 'that'.) The woman loved it when it arrived. (Got rid of the 'had' & by using 'loved it' instead, we also get rid of the passive 'was thrilled' that would have replaced the 'had been thrilled'.)
Read over your sentences, and if they make sense without the 'had', 'had been', or 'that' - leave them out. It just reads faster.
I believe the only way to get through the slings and arrows life throws at all of us is to find the humor.