Friday Links

Happy Friday, and welcome to October! It’s the month for fall colors, crisp apples and shiny pumpkins, Halloween costumes, and NaNoWriMo prep (for those of you who go for that sort of thing). Of course in my neck of the woods, it’s supposed to hit 100 degrees again over the weekend, but I’m studiously ignoring that fact and planning a good fall housecleaning; time to haul old electronics out for recycling and to donate books to the library.

What do you have planned for your weekend? A short getaway? A cozy couple of days at home with the family? Some quality time with your WIP? Whatever you’ve got on the schedule, I hope you enjoy. And if you’re looking for a bit of a break, I have a huge list of links this week to offer up some distraction. Happy writing!

12 Essential Essays for Writers – A great roundup with inspiration for all.

First Pages: Tips to Avoid Cliches and Weak Writing – Some good advice on how to craft a strong first page.

10 Lessons from Real-life Revolutions that Fictional Dystopias Ignore – Food for thought if you’re writing a dystopian novel (or considering it).

Fiction Podcast: George Saunders Reads Grace Paley and Barry Hannah – Sit back and enjoy.

How I Forgot to Write – An interesting look at how the business of creating a career can alter your intended trajectory.

For Sale: Gloucester Home, Possibly Haunted by T.S. Eliot – An inspirational location, regardless.

When Science Fiction Grew Up – An intriguing look at the genre from the late 1950s through the mid-1970s, including a long list of titles. Great for anyone looking to brush up on their sf history/reading.

Friday Links

Summer just keeps flying right on by. It’s Friday already. I’ve a busy weekend ahead, starting with dinner and a show this evening, to help celebrate a friend’s birthday, and then some more socializing Saturday, and tons of work-related reading all in between. And somewhere in there I need to squeeze a few loads of laundry.

Weekends like this, where real life buts up against the things you want to do, make me truly nostalgic for summer vacations of my childhood, when I was too young for a real job and didn’t do much with my days besides read my way through the public library. When you hear that old cliche about kids not appreciating how good they have it, that’s the exact scenario I picture: me lying on my stomach in my childhood bedroom, the AC blowing at me while I’ve got my nose in a book.

Okay, enough with memory lane. I have Friday Links to share! I hope you enjoy them, and that they help kick off a great weekend. And if you sneak in a little good old fashioned reading time, all the better.

The Art of the Opening Sentence – We discuss how important first sentences are all the time, but this article gives you a wonderful peek into why that’s true.

A Game as Literary TutorialThe New York Times looks at how many of today’s writers were influenced by playing Dungeons & Dragons when they were kids.

What We Talk about When We Talk about Manuscripts – The folks at Algonquin give an inside look into some of the things they consider when reviewing submissions. (Hint: Most editors and agents will look for these things.)

Why Readers, Scientifically, Are the Best People to Fall in Love With – Preaching to the choir, but still interesting to read.

A Primer on Modern Japanese Literature in 10 Minutes – A quick rundown for anyone looking to diversify their reading list.

False Starts and Late Beginnings

Many writers start out on a new project, write for a while, and then look back at what they have and realize they started far too early in the story — that whatever point they are currently writing is, in fact, the beginning, while the chapter or so they’ve already completed (or five pages, or sometimes fifty pages) was just them getting into the swing of the characters/world etc. It serves as interesting backstory for their own edification, but doesn’t really work as a way to draw in readers. This phenomenon occurs with even the most savvy, published author; sometimes you just need to write yourself toward where you need to be.

Those of you who started a new project recently might be facing this issue about now, especially if you’re writing diligently every day and accumulating pages at a steady rate. So I thought I’d offer you some expert advice on all that beginning stuff — balancing character and story, planning where you want to go, and so on. Because if you find yourself kicking out some of your early pages, you might want to take a moment to reassess your overall plan for the project.

Fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss runs a series of storyboard panels on YouTube’s Geek & Sundry channel, and he got together with fellow author Mary Robinette Kowal earlier this year to talk about beginnings. I defer to their interesting and entertaining advice: Begin at the Beginning.

When Things Fail to Go Precisely as Planned

Imagine you’ve slaved over your beloved manuscript, polishing each word, perfecting your plot, making your characters as real and engaging as you can. Your agent has sold your book, and you and your editor and copy editor have gone several more rounds to make sure your story is the best that it can be. Someone has designed a lovely cover for you. Review copies have gone out into the world, to newspapers and bloggers and anywhere else that might garner your book a little bit of attention. You have told all of your friends and family and local librarians and bookstore owners about your upcoming publication. Excitement grows. Finally, a box arrives on your doorstep, filled with copies of your brand new book. You crack it open, pull out the topmost volume, and run your hands lovingly over the cover. Then you start to read… and realize something has gone terribly wrong. The first sentence of your book is… not there.

This is what happened to author Mary Robinette Kowal this week. Her novel Glamour in Glass, the second in her Regency-with-magic fantasy series, underwent a printing mishap and was published absent her opening sentence. Instead, the book starts with sentence number two. The sentence was there when it left her hands, and her editor’s hands, but somewhere along the way there was an error regarding which corrections were to stay and which were to go, and the book went to press minus its opening.

So, what did Mary do? Well, she blogged about it and Tweeted about it, and she set about finding ways of fixing the problem. At her launch party last night in Portland, OR, she hand wrote that first sentence back into the books she was autographing. She’s offering to send readers bookmarks with a copy of that first sentence if they’d like one, and has also provided the same bookmark for download at her website. There are now adorable t-shirts for sale online that feature the book’s title and original opening line. She created a quiz where people see if they recognize the second lines of famous books, and she challenged people to write their own opening sentence for Glamour in Glass. In other words, she’s taken a mishap and turned it into a veritable party. Was she upset by the printing error? I’m sure she was. But rather than wallowing in her disappointment, she turned the tables on the situation and made the best of it. Future editions of the book will fix the printing error, but in the meantime, Mary is showing her spirit and class by handling the situation in a creative manner.

These sorts of printing errors are rare, but they certainly do happen. You hear about books where a section of 64 pages was bound into the volume upside down, or where a segment of the book is missing entirely — or else repeats. Pages are cropped unevenly so one margin is too wide and the other non-existent. And yes, occasionally the wrong version — an uncorrected version — goes to print instead of the most updated copy. No system is perfect.

Sometimes things are going to go wrong along the way to publication day. Just as with any aspect of life, it is impossible to control every single variable, and if you try, you’ll just make yourself crazy. The only part of this final process you can truly control is your reaction. You may never face this sort of mishap in your own publishing career, but if you do, look for ways to make the best of it and move on. Your readers will learn far more about you as a writer and as a person from your gracious behavior than they might have from a missing sentence.

Starting from Scratch

Where do story ideas come from? It seems to be a universal question, one I frequently hear asked of published writers when newbies are able to corner them. Where did you get that idea? How did you find that premise? Whatever made you think of that?

More often than not, writers seem unable to respond. At least not with any specificity. Sometimes they can give you a where or a when — “I was touring a rain forest on my vacation…” or “It was New Year’s Eve, 1997, and I was home with the flu…” But this is unusual. They’re even more unlikely to reply with a step-by-step explanation of the story’s evolution. Not because they’re being difficult, and not because they can’t recall (though I suspect sometimes they cannot), but because the answer is neither simple nor straightforward.

Story ideas are complicated things. Writers might come up with a kernel that they suspect could bloom into a story, but often it gets tucked into the back of their minds to play with the other kernels — for years, in some cases — until they rub up against each other, and make friends, and figure out which ones should continue on together into a more fleshed out concept.

Of course, that makes the process sound magical, and the reality is that it’s not. The reality is that generating ideas — great ideas, that can grow into salable manuscripts — is work. Real work, not daydreaming or wool gathering or whatever label non-writers sometimes put to writers’ efforts. If you simply wait for inspiration to strike, chances are you’ll be staring out the window well into your dotage, with very little to show for it.

The truth about writing is that “Where do you get your ideas?” is the wrong question. The question people should be asking is “How do you create your ideas?”

So, you’re starting from scratch. You sit down at your computer and open a new document, or pick up your pen and notebook and turn to a fresh page. Whatever project you’ve been working on is completed — turned in to your agent or editor, or off with your critique partners, or sitting in the bottom drawer until you’ve sufficient distance for your next round of edits. Today you’re starting a new project, and you have no idea what it will be.

Sound terrifying? Or exciting? Maybe a bit of both. But what do you do? Put the date at the top of the page, perhaps. Then it’s no longer blank. But it’s not a new idea, either. So how do you set about beginning?

Chances are good you already have something in mind. Even if it’s not a story or novel idea yet, you have a character, a brief encounter or situation, a location, even a weird object that you’ve been obsessing over for whatever reason. So you write that down.

Then begins the idea generation, because kernels are just the start of an idea, not the idea itself. You play the “What If?” game — what if this happened or that? What if the character got a phone call or a telegram or a visit from a stranger? What if war broke out? What if someone’s recently died and there’s no will? What if there’s more than one will? You write a bit, and then ask again. What if? What if? If, then, if, then. It builds a pattern. Not all the details will capture your fancy. Maybe you’ll start over and head in a different direction. Perhaps you’ll like the latter parts of the scenario best, and discard your original kernel entirely. Maybe you’ll file the entire thing away for further thought, and try something different instead.

How else can you generate ideas? Read nonfiction. Skim encyclopedias (or Wikepedia — do encyclopedias even exist anymore?) for intriguing facts. Scan the newspaper for real-life events, crimes, fundraisers. Read the obituaries to discover interesting career paths or inspirational lives. Borrow from everywhere to build a character or a community or a disastrous event.

Sit in a coffee shop and eavesdrop. Listen to conversations in the locker room at the gym. Wander through an antique store or a flea market and imagine who used to own the shabby items on offer. Go through an old family photo album and check out your oldest relatives — people you may never have met. Note their poses, their clothes, their expressions. Who were they? Who might they be in your imagination?

Do you have other methods? A system you use to come up with your next project or to fill your idea book when you’ve got a few spare moments? Please feel free to share.

Ideas rarely come from somewhere. They aren’t floating through the atmosphere, trying to determine whose mind to grace. Writers create ideas — they craft them, search them out, uncover them, design them. Generating ideas is the first step to generating the larger story. Start from scratch and build from there.

One of my favorite writing quotes comes from author Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to go after it with a club.” Words to live by. Happy writing.

Gearing Up

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you all enjoyed the holidays and are energized for 2012. I’ll admit to feeling a little sluggish when I got up this morning, but since then there’s been a four-mile run, coffee, and an e-mail from the office letting me know my sales figures for 2011 (much higher than for 2010). That combination seems to have been the magic carrot required to help me hit the ground running.

Given that it’s a short week, my plans include digging out from all the holiday e-mail, touching base with a few clients, reading one or two things that filtered in from them over the past couple of weeks, and tackling the ongoing submissions pile up. Basically, a lot of desk work, but I’m excited to read some great new client projects and to — I hope — discover some wonderful new writers in my crowded inbox.

Many of you participated in last month’s writing challenge here. I’d still love to hear how it went for you, so feel free to leave a comment here, or at my year-end post. I’ll leave you to work at your own paces in January, but come February I hope to have a new, fun challenge to get your juices flowing, so be on the lookout.

So what are your plans for this week? For the new year? Any writing goals that have you excited? Fabulous books you’re dying to read? Love to know what you’re all up to for 2012. Meanwhile, have a great day and happy writing!

Begin as You Mean to Continue

I am going to start right here by saying that all parts of your book are important, beginning, middle, and ending. A reader can quit on you at any point, so you, of course, want the entire book to be as well written and tightly crafted as possible, with strong characterization and clever plot, intriguing twists and details that capture the imagination. However, if your beginning does not jump off the page, if you cannot start your story in a way that grabs the reader and drags them along for the ride, then the rest of your story will never get a chance.

There is a lot of advice available on how to start your story, how to grab those potential readers (including agents and editors). Books on the subject, classes, plus of course the example of all your favorite published works. And there are probably several ways you could effectively kick off any of your own projects–it’s just a matter of figuring them out and then deciding which one works the best for you. As with most things involving storytelling, there is no right answer, just a series of choices with varying impact.

An opening sentence can take various approaches. If you look at classic novels, the types of things we study in school, you’ll notice that many of the openers deal out generalities that apply to the story to come. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way— in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”  Or, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” These start to set the scene immediately, signaling to the reader that they will be reading a history, or a novel about courtship and marriage. Others kick off with an introduction to a character through the declaration of an incident. “When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm broken badly at the elbow.” This sets the stage for a book about childhood experiences, narrated by Jem’s sibling–we do not know who that is quite yet. But it also signals potential drama; Jem “got his arm broken”, as opposed to broke his arm, which suggests more than a simple accident.

Modern novels, particularly those in popular genres, tend to throw a lot at the reader from the very start. Even more quiet books cram a great deal of information into opening pages, with details and character information blended into the first pieces of action. I suspect writers are acknowledging the impatience of today’s reader, working to win them over before they jump to some other distraction. But while this might be an admirable (and perhaps even necessary) approach, there are a few things to keep in mind when you’re penning those first few lines and paragraphs.

1. Readers want to know who to root for. If you’re introducing your protagonist in the middle of a conflict with a number of other characters, you must make it clear whose side we’re on, and why. Better yet, allow a bit of space to let us know the protagonist before making us stand behind him in a conflict. This is particularly true in fantasy or historical novels, where I often see manuscripts that start in the middle of a battle. Yes, it’s exciting, but who are these people and why do I care?

2. Blend characterization and action together as you move forward into the story. Another common mistake I see is an exciting paragraph or two of action to start the manuscript, followed by three pages of character back story and exposition, or, heaven forbid, a virtual list of characteristics, that throws all momentum out the window. Make those introductions, but weigh your words and leave most of the information to be spread out through the rest of the book. Only give the reader those character details that are vital for the first part of the novel, so you can continue on with whatever exciting or dramatic situation you have used as your opener.

3. Avoid signaling that your opening is not what it seems. Do not give us a past tense description of a harrowing experience and end your opening with a phrase along the lines of “but he soon was to discover just how wrong he was.” This takes the reader out of the book, losing whatever tension and curiosity you’ve developed in those opening paragraphs/pages. It also reminds us that the narrator already knows what’s going to happen–and that the narrator exists. Just let the reader discover that the character was wrong (or whatever) as the book unfolds. Allow them to be surprised. That’s what you want–for them to be anxious to continue to read. Don’t undo the work you’ve done.

Several blogs have been discussing a new book by Sara J. Henry called Learning to Swim, focusing almost entirely on the power of the novel’s opening. I have not read this book yet, but I will say that, after reading the first few paragraphs, I immediately ordered a copy. It is compelling writing, combining tense action with intriguing character development. My response seems to be the consensus. I’m not saying you need to run out and buy this book–and I have no connection to it other than now wanting to read it–but do please read the opening below and think about what the other has achieved.

If I’d blinked, I would have missed it.

But I didn’t, and I saw something fall from the rear deck of the opposite ferry. It could have been a bundle of trash; it could have been a child-sized doll. Either was more likely than what I thought I saw: a small wide-eyed human face, in one tiny frozen moment as it plummeted toward the water.

I was on the late afternoon ferry on Lake Champlain, the big one that takes an hour to reach Vermont. It was overcast and misty, one of those in-between Adirondack days just before summer commits itself, and I’d pulled on a windbreaker because of the occasional chilly gust of wind. I was the only one out on deck, but the closed-in lounge with its narrow benches and tiny snack bar makes me edgy. And I love watching the water as the ferry carves through it. Today the water was calm, with no other boats out except this one’s twin, chugging stolidly in the opposite direction.

What I did next was a visceral reaction to those small eyes I thought I saw. Without conscious thought I vaulted onto the railing I was leaning against, took a deep breath, and dived.

It’s amazing what you can do if you don’t stop to think. The coldness of the water seemed to suck the air out of my lungs, but instinctively I curved upward, fluttering my feet.

In the weekly mini-triathlons in Lake Placid where I live, I’m always one of the last out of the water. The closest I’d ever come to underwater swimming was picking up my hair clasp at the bottom of a friend’s pool, and that had taken two tries. And whenever I see a movie with scenes where the hero has to swim through a long, narrow passageway, I always try to hold my breath. I never make it.

But I was in the lake, committed, and surging strongly underwater. By the time I broke the surface, I’d traveled more than a third of the way to where I’d seen the thing go in. Both ferries had gone onward, in their opposite directions. There was no one in sight. No shouts of alarm, no ferry slowing and turning about.

I kept my eyes fixed on the water ahead, and saw something bob up, too far away. My stomach gave a nasty twist. Then I swam, harder and faster than I ever had in a mini-triathlon with middle-aged tourists coming up behind me.

When I reached what I thought was the right spot, I took a deep breath and dived. The water wasn’t clear but not exactly murky, sort of a blurred translucence with a greenish cast. I didn’t get very far under, and had to try again. This time I saw only a few flat, colorless fish skittering by before I had to come up for air.

Gasping for breath, treading water while I sucked air, reason began to creep in. I wasn’t just cold; I was close to numb. I was alone in a very deep lake twelve miles wide, diving after what could be a bag of garbage somebody didn’t want to pay to haul to the dump. I was none too sure I had enough strength to get to shore. But I dived once more, and this time something led me straight to it.

It wasn’t a bundle of trash. It wasn’t a doll. It was a small boy, arms entangled in what looked like a dark sweatshirt, straight dark hair floating eerily above his head. For one awful moment I thought I was looking at a corpse, but then I saw a small sneakered foot kick weakly. By the time I got close enough to grab a handful of sweatshirt, I’d been without air far longer than I’d ever managed to hold my breath. watching underwater scenes in movies. My throat was convulsing in an effort not to suck in water instead of the air that wasn’t there.

Troy Chance, the book’s narrator, discovers she has saved a little boy named Paul. Other than telling her his name, he is completely silent, leaving her to search for his parents with few clues to go on. When no one steps forward immediately, having missed their child, the situation grows more suspicious and Troy decides to find out what led to Paul falling off the ferry.

All that aside, think about what you’ve learned in those opening paragraphs, the details of setting and character that Henry includes even as you wonder what fell in the water, and what will be the result of the narrator’s rash leap off the ferry. Think about what makes you want to read a book–any book that drew you in immediately. And keep those things in mind when you’re writing–and revising–your own opening pages.

Above quotes take from: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry.