for authors

Cheat Sheet for Great Beginnings

Beginnings and endings are my favorite parts of books to write. Not just because with one I am starting a new exciting journey and the other I’m finally crossing the finish line. Endings we’ll talk about another time, but beginnings…

Beginnings I love because I get to use a relatively small amount of real estate to get readers invested while setting up the entire rest of the story.  I’m not talking about the first page, but the first roughly 10%. Sounds like a lot, but it’s not. Which is what makes it so exciting as a writer. It’s a challenge I love to dig into.

In the beginning

So… what goes into writing a great beginning?

That is a HUGE question. And we could spend days/hours/many, many blogs on things like GMC (goal, motivation, conflict), building/establishing/developing characters, setting up your plot, and so forth. All fantastic tools to use as a writer, but for this blog, I’m going to assume you’ve practiced all of that (or at least know what it is). 

For me, once I’d learned/read/taken workshops/watched videos, it helped to have a “cheat sheet” of reminders pulling from those teachings and putting them together with my own personal preferences and experience.

Here’s my cheat sheet for great beginnings:

Wait… first I have to share this…

The PIXAR Example

The best help I’ve ever had with beginnings I came across just this year. It’s a short video from Michael Arndt on his website, Pandemonium Inc. Michael is a writer at PIXAR who examines great beginnings in this video. Watch and thank me (and Michael) later…

Beginnings: Setting a Story in Motion from Pandemonium

Okay, now that I’ve shared that, HERE is my cheat sheet great beginnings:

1. Start with Action

I critiqued a beginning written by my friend Mia Darien once, and it has stuck with me for years. Why? Because she immediately kicked the beginning off with a scene full of action, but, layered in that action, we met interesting characters, got a bit of background, and set up quite a bit of conflict.

We didn’t need to meet the characters first and learn their entire history to understand why this scene was important to them. She made it obvious within the scene. But that action was so gripping, I can still close my eyes and picture it. I still want to know what happens next. 

In other words… JUMP IN to your main character(s) life. Don’t bore the reader setting up every detail of that life first with a ton of internal thought, exposition, or you (the writer) telling the reader who this is. 

2. Equilibrium

This was the first ah-ha for me from that PIXAR video. Show what your main character (or characters) lives are like/worlds are like now. However, this isn’t just things like they eat breakfast, get dressed, and go to work (unless this is The Matrix and that info is critical to the story). Show them in their world doing what they love most / what they are about to lose / what’s about to change. 

BTW… by doing this you’re also getting in setting, introducing your character(s), and even a bit of backstory. Add to the action, and readers will be hooked. 

3. Fatal Flaw

Show your character(s)’s fatal flaw. Only this isn’t that they swear too much or don’t wash their hands. This is something that is going to impact them in a major way and eventually bring about their troubles/conflict/downfall. Is your hero arrogant or brutally honest? Does your heroine struggle with speaking her mind too much, maybe not at all? Want a list of possibilities?

Even better, tie the flaw to what they love most, what they are passionate about, or what they want.

For example, in The American President, the flaws are pride & popularity – Sydney is good at what she does and loves it, takes pride in it. Meanwhile, the President has a high approval rating which he needs to get his job done.

4. Limited / Purposeful Backstory – The “Salt” of the Story

On Writers Helping Writers, James Scott Bell shares a terrific article on incorporating backstory (and agrees with my immediate action thing, too). James and I both agree that backstory should only be shared if it’s important to the scene/story. Also, think of backstory like salt. Sprinkle it a little here and there. Don’t overwhelm the food with it.

I love James’s suggestion to go back through your beginning and highlight all the backstory. It will help you see when you’ve put in too much in one section.  My advice is to limit backstory mentions to 1-2 sentences at a time. I’m not always successful, but keeping that in mind helps.

5. Save the Cat

Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is a book recommended to most writers, and I’ve found it very helpful to help me tighten my plot. There a ton of plot points to consider, but for my cheat sheet on beginnings, I always try to remember to save the cat.

This is especially true if one of my main characters is a tough one (love me those antiheroes and snarky heroines). By having them do one small act of kindness (doesn’t having to be literally saving a cat), I immediately make them human/likable/relatable in the reader’s eyes. 

6. The Meet Cute

I write romance, so this is important to me. The meet-cute is that moment when the hero and heroine meet. It is critical to the romance and (usually) happens pretty quickly. Longer books (like historicals) might stretch it out. Personally, I love it when the meet cute happens fast. 

I have a list of things I try to incorporate into the meet-cute.

  • Fitting for the book/characters.
  • Unusual or unique in some way.
  • Snappy. I want it to move quickly.
  • I want witty banter that sets up the H/H interaction for the rest of the book.
  • And I especially love it when the meet cute can also be incorporated into other aspects of the beginning–like it’s also the inciting incident (#7) or the insult to injury (#8).

7. Inciting Incident

This is one of those basics, but your entire story hinges on you getting it right. By the way, the inciting incident , just by rule of thumb, should hit about 10% into your book. This means you’ve set up quite a bit before you yank the rug out.

Your beginning doesn’t end until the conflict for your character has been “incited” (challenge accepted). Which means you need to know the conflict so you can set it up. What is going to kick that off? This is an event that is going to send your protagonist(s) down a new path into the main action of the story. 

Without an inciting incident, we’re just watching a character keep doing what they always do. One of the best examples… Katniss volunteers as tribute in The Hunger Games.

8. Tie #6 to the Grand Passion

Remember the video. If you can tie the inciting incident to the character’s grand passion (what they love or want most in this life–that you established in the equilibrium), it makes the turn of events that much more gripping for the reader. This was a huge “ah-ha” for me (thanks Michael!).

You take that passion/love/interest/need already established and then you twist it, flip it, throw a fly in the ointment, or take it away altogether.

Back to my Hunger Games example. Prim is who Katniss loves most. Only her name being selected could make Katniss step up that way.

9. Add Insult to Injury

This was a fun ah-ha from Michael’s video for me. What is your inciting incident and what would make it worse for your character? Rub salt in that wound. In the video, Michael’s example is that not only is Mr. Incredible no longer allowed to be a hero (because he saved someone being a hero), but now he works in insurance. That just…sucks for him. 

I have to say I have a great time coming up with ways to add insult to injury. Torturing characters is really fun. 

10. Less Is More

This is the hard part. With each and every element above as well as other elements like dialogue, descriptions, internal thoughts, showing the GMC (goal, motivation, conflict), you don’t need to write a dissertation for each piece. Think of it as a playing a piano. If you hit the same note over and over, listeners will tune you out pretty quickly. The goal is to play lots of different notes in a way that makes music. Same with your words, especially at the beginning when you have to establish so much.

Like James’s suggestion with backstory, read through your beginning multiple times. Each time focus on one element to tighten/trim/perfect/whittle as needed.


Depositphotos_136729114_xl-2015

So when I start a new book. On top of established my GMC, plot points, and various other character development notes, I also list out the following for my beginnings:

  • Beginning Action
  • Equilibrium for Hero
    • Love/Need/Want
    • Fatal Flaw
    • Save the Cat
  • Equilibrium for Heroine:
    • Love/Need/Want
    • Fatal Flaw
    • Save the Cat
  • Meet/Cute and Inciting Incident 
    • Tie to Love/Need/Want
    • Tie to Fatal Flaw
    • Insult to Injury
  • Remember to…
    • Limit Backstory
    • Read several times to see if any one element is in there too much or too little

I highly recommend to writers that you spend time look at books like Save the Cat and and taking workshops on GMC and other techniques. Writing a book takes many tools in an author’s kit. It’s also incredibly personal. This cheat sheet is what works for me. Put together your own of things that work for you. (Feel free to borrow!)

How I Create a Character #MFRWAuthor Blog Challenge

The character is the heart of the story in my writing world. I figure out the characters long before I figure out the plot. Maybe because memorable characters are what I look for in books, movies, and shows I love. Maybe because I feel like who a character is will determine how they react to the external and internal impacts going on in his/her life.

I’ll be honest, I don’t have a single, guaranteed, this-always-works method for determining a character. Sometimes they pop into my head fully formed. More often than not, they start out as a vague entity. I do, however, have several tricks I use to help me profile my character and turn them into something real.

Here are my top 4 methods for setting up my characters:

Character Archetype

51pp-s0SCEL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I’m a romance writer, and my go to, kick things off tool for creating characters is the book The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes.  This book is fabulous because not only does it give several archetypes for heroes and heroines, but it also gives a how would one type of hero work with one type of heroine.

I don’t take these and just write my characters out. What I do is take bits and pieces that I think will work particularly well within my story. I also use it as inspiration. Ex. The librarian is quiet but will stand up to the boss when her intellect tells her to. How can I use that in my story?

Write the Blurb (GMC)

I will frequently write the blurb first. My blurbs always have one part for the hero and one for the heroine and essentially lay out the GMC (goal, motivation, conflict) in one paragraph for each.

The hero/heroine has a problem/need/opportunity resulting in a required action/mission/quest/job (goal) with obstacles that block his/her path (conflict) with something at stake (motivation).

(This sentence is pulled from a workshop with Larry Brooks – I highly recommend you take it!)

By having a simple sentence that breaks down the cornerstones of my characters, I can reference that throughout my writing to keep myself on track.

Character Verbs

Last year at RWA I took Damon Suede’s Power Couples workshop. If you get a chance, take it! The biggest element I use from that workshop is Damon’s use of verbs. To paraphrase… He assigns a powerful verb to a character. Then he uses variations/synonyms of that verb for each of their scenes. There’s also a way to make sure your H/H have verbs that help create conflict.

Picking a verb for my H/H is one of the first things I do. But seriously, take that workshop. I can’t tell you about it as well as Damon can. 🙂

Pick 1 Particular Thing

I use this technique any time I feel like a character is coming in flat–a main character or a secondary character. Even, sometimes, random characters. I try to think of one very unique thing about that character and I build a backstory around that unique thing. Slipping that 1 particular thing into the story ALWAYS ends up making that character come alive.

Unique things could be a multitude of elements. Usually I try to make it something observable by other characters. For example:

  • a tattoo
  • a scar
  • a particular word they use
  • a favorite song
  • something they don’t like
  • something they notice or are drawn to

I could keep going. Hopefully you  get the idea.

I used to just start writing and see how a character developed. Sometimes I still do that (you can only make a pantser plot so much). But These techniques have become so effective for me, that I find I’m addicted and have to do them every time. If you’ve read my books, can you pick out any of these in my characters? I’d love to see if my craft is showing. 😉

I am participating in MFRW’s 52-week blog challenge, and it’s a blog hop! If you want to see how other authors approach this topic, stroll on over to the other authors participating and find out how they deal with character profiles. Each author does it differently.

Sometimes It’s All About Scheduling

Between deadlines, releases, running AOAD, my gig as a VPA, and momming, I’ve had several author friends ask how I do it. How do I keep on top of everything?

First of all…I don’t. I am not superwoman or a magician. Things fall through the cracks on a regular basis. Plans don’t work out the way I set them. I get tired and cranky and have even been known to skip a day of doing just to give myself a break. And yes, I have a tendency to say YES to too many things. I get it done, but sometimes with a cost.

Part of what helps is that I’m blessed with an odd combination of stamina and ADD. Yeah. I said it. The ADD bit means that, to help me focus, I need tons to keep me busy. Sounds strange, but it’s true. I don’t sit and do one thing well, so it helps to have lots of things to do. The stamina helps because I can go non-stop from the second I get up until the second I go to bed, and not really stress about it. Helps that almost all of what I do during that time is stuff I love. If I was in a job I hated, that would be a different story. which means I need.

But here’s my real secret…I schedule. Everything.

Like everyone else, I schedule my life, my appointments, my kids’ activities, and so forth. But I also schedule reminders for monthly/quarterly/yearly tasks. I schedule my social media calendar and posts. And…I schedule my writing.

MAKING THE SCHEDULE

I have figured out how many words a day I can get in without feeling like I’m overloaded (for me this is 2-2.5k/day), and still get in my VPAing, my AOADing, my kids (of course!), and everything else. I take a deadline and everything I need to get done to hit it and back it up from there–at a weekly level. I include:

  • Writing the first draft
  • Writing/editing subsequent drafts
  • Beta readers to read
  • Me to apply beta readers’ comments
  • Deadline

Post-deadline I include a guess at:

  • 2 rounds of editing (1-2 weeks each)
  • Copy-editing – a few days
  • Galley reads – a few days

THE RULES

In my schedule, if I have books that aren’t contracted yet, but I have high hopes for, I’ll still include those books as placeholders. I also apply some extra rules. For example…

  • I don’t schedule anything else (other than beta readers reading, which doesn’t require me to do anything) during the 1st two weeks and last week of a 1st draft.
  • I block off holidays (Christmas, Spring Break, etc.)
  • Anywhere that doesn’t have those blocked off I put a Secondary First Draft as optional.
    • After I hit 2k words for the day for my main WIP, I give myself the option of getting in 500 words on a WIP scheduled later down the road.
    • This allows me to get ahead, but with no pressure.
  • I TRY (but usually doesn’t happen) to have the 2 weeks after finishing a first draft blocked off so I don’t start any new first drafts – giving my brain a break and letting me focus on 2nd/3rd drafts of that completed work.

ADJUSTING

My schedules are never set in stone (except contracted deadlines of course). I use them to both keep me on task (in order to hit those deadlines), but also to help determine where/when I can do more. That way, if new contracts come in, I can be honest and fairly accurate with what/when I can produce.

I will also adjust my schedule any time something major changes–I get way behind, any given step takes longer (or shorter) than anticipated, etc. Adjust the schedule. I live and breathe off this thing daily.

 

So that’s me. Like I said, I’m not perfect and I do miss things, mess things up, and collapse sometimes. But I will say that since implementing this calendar, I hit my deadlines with a lot less angst (and a lot less of a pile up of work at the end). Authors, what about you? How do you handle your deadlines and writing schedule?