Have you ever picked up a new book and started reading, but for some reason you lost interest? Or maybe it was confusing and you got frustrated. As a beginning writer, you may be surprised to learn that the actual structure of chapter one is vital to the success of your novel. What your characters do in chapter one has the power to compel your readers to continue or toss down the book in frustration.
We’ve talked about expectations based on the genre of your novel, but readers also have expectations for the first few pages. Not only was I ignorant of this when I first started writing, but I didn’t want to be constricted by rules. I wanted to write something new and invocative, something fresh and in my own voice. Come to find out, it doesn’t work that way, at least not for beginners. When you’re struggling to shoulder your way into the market, why fight the recipe for success?
First of all, remember that most people don’t search through a bookstore hoping to spend cash on a book they’ll hate. There may be some doubt as they begin reading, but for the most part, readers hope they have found a story they will enjoy. They want the characters to be believable and someone they can care about, good or bad. They want the plot to be interesting, and the story to open up before them. If the reader starts out on your side, you don’t want to turn them away. Research has shown that a reader will go along with the flow for the first two pages of a novel before they begin to get frustrated or disillusioned. That gives you only about 500 words to get it right.
So what are these guidelines for a successful first chapter? There are many ideas out there but here are some basic strategies to keep in mind.
First and foremost, you don’t want to turn your readers off. The two quickest ways to aggravate a reader are to confuse them or insult their intelligence.
If you plan to write a flash-bang beginning and then resolve and explain the goings on later, be advised that you have two pages to hold the interest of your reader. You must somehow give them enough insight into your character, or even the setting, to keep them on track and compel them to keep reading. Some part of those pages must be believable, interesting, and ring true to the reader. If the reader has no idea what’s happening or why the characters are acting the way they do, you have only a few pages to fix it. At the very moment you’re trying to draw the reader in, you certainly don’t want them to think “This doesn’t make any sense,” or “What rubbish,” . (I’ve always wanted to write the word rubbish) Be sure to give the reader a reason to trust you and continue on with hope. Make them care.
What about suspense? Certainly some genres call for anticipation, but be very careful in those vital first few pages to make the problem clear, not confusing. In life we stumble about wondering what’s going on a good portion of the time, but a reader will most likely have no patience with bewilderment just as their getting started. Make the reader trust your competence to lead them through the story.
Writing can be very cathartic. You have the power to place yourself (or a character) into a situation and then control the outcome. We certainly don’t have this power in reality. With this in mind, some beginning authors place characters into situations they themselves have not figured out, which leaves the reader in the same uncomfortable position. You are the first audience for your novel. If it doesn’t make sense to you, it surely won’t make sense to a reader. If the first chapter feels lackluster or blurry to you, you can be guaranteed it will feel flat or be confusing to your readers as well.
Maybe you have a setting in mind for a story, and characters to place in the setting, but you’re not sure how to develop the characters in a way to draw the reader into your story. Maybe your character’s personalities and motivation are still a bit foggy in your mind. In the book Characters and Viewpoints, by Orson Scott Card, he suggest that you think “Who suffers the most in this situation?” Focus on the person who needs most to change things, and that person will be one of your main characters.
Next, to help you move forward, Card suggests you ask “What made this happen?” What is the purpose?” and “What is the result?” “What can go wrong?” By thinking about these prompts you can begin to pull out information about the character’s motivation, thus helping you decide what to include in those important first few pages to draw your reader into the story.
Readers expect to be introduced to the main characters right away, but be careful not to introduce too many characters in those vital pages. Hone your writing down to fundamental characters and leading ideas to cut down on confusion. Also be careful to not name your characters with similar names or names beginning with the same letter. In the beginning, your readers will have little patients for going back to reread and sort out who is who.
Consider how much of those first few pages you devote to describing minor characters or events. Don’t lead your reader’s early expectations down the wrong road, this can only lead to frustration.
We all want to write a finely crafted novel, but the first few pages are perhaps the most vital to your novel’s success. Unlike early in my writing career when I was driven to create something extraordinarily different, I’m now search for ways to fashion my stories in the most appealing and effective manner. Never hesitate to look for what is working in the marketplace. Successful people are often willing to share their secrets. Snap up these details like the jewels they are, and begin creating your story today!
You want to write a novel. You’ve got great ideas and you’ve named it. The characters are even ready and willing to go, but with your busy work schedule and hectic life, are the ideas stuck in your head? This blog post will offer you some ideas how to get the plot onto paper, be it pulp and ink or digital.
If your story is still unorganized characters running around having a great time, you need get control of the story. One way to get a grip is to make a mind map. Grab a piece of paper and pencil and start scribbling ideas on the paper. Don’t worry about organization or order, or even the type of idea, just write a phrase or a few words that will help you get a scene, a character, or plot idea onto the paper.
Once you can’t think of anything more, draw a shape (like a circle, square, or triangle) around each type of idea to identify what it represents. For example, an oval around characters, a square around scene ideas, etc. Once that is done, and don’t be scared to add ideas as they come to you, connect the thoughts that go together with a line. For example characters that go in a scene, etc. See the example below.
Once you have a visual representation of your ideas, you can begin to separate them into plot lines. If you’re now out of time, at least you have your story on paper! Look at your mind map often, scribble on it, adding ideas, lines to connect plots, use it as a map to guide to you through the story’s plot. Once you can see a story line worming through your map, you can put together an outline.
On the other hand, is the story all laid out in your mind pretty much from beginning to end? If so, you are one of the lucky few. Or maybe you’ve been rolling it around in your head for years, fine-tuning the whole thing over and over until it plays like a movie. If so, you’re ready to write an outline.
In the last blog we talked about story arcs, the parts of a story that make-up a solid story line in your genre. Now is the time to pull those out story arcs out and put them in order on the paper. I use Microsoft Word for Mac, but there are many tools available.
See an example of the story arcs I use below.
Next, begin to fit the scenes of your story where they belong between the story arcs. I make my story arcs bold and in red so I can clearly see them as the backbone of my story. Don’t worry about sentence structure or grammar, just ideas.
Usually at this point you’ll realize an important part of the story line may be missing. You can add ideas or leave it blank. Many times my outline is incomplete or changes as I write the story, so I continue to update, change, and fine-tune the outline as I work.
There are other tools you may want to use for outlining, such as spreadsheet formats like Microsoft Excel. Software is written specifically for authors, and offer editing tools etc. Examples are Ulysses, CopyWrite, and Scrivener (to name a few) but bear in mind that most editors, agents, and publishers will expect your work to be submitted in a correctly formatted Word doc.
Using a good outline helps to avoid writing yourself into a corner, or not knowing where to lead a character for a conclusion. Most people don’t head into the kitchen and start tossing ingredients into a bowl without an idea of what they want to cook. You either need a recipe, or at least an understanding of how the ingredients fit together, in order to come with a dish that is pleasing. Unfortunately, many beginning writers expect to start tossing story parts into a bowl and somehow create a cohesive novel.
Next blog we’ll talk about expanding your outline into chapters, but for now, get on the ball and get your ideas onto paper. No matter your approach, you can do this! Go write!
The other day someone said to me “Are you an author or a writer?” For a moment I was taken by surprise and didn’t know how to reply. I asked what they meant and the reply left a sting. Their answer was: “Have you published a book? If you have then you are an author, if not, you’re just a writer.” Just a writer? I nodded politely and walked away, not being big on confrontation with strangers, but true to my usual form, about two hours later I came up with exactly what I wish I had said.
I should have said that anyone who scribbles a note in order to remember a thought, even a shopping list, is an author.
Sticky notes have become an office staple, after all. We leave notes on a regular basis in the form of texts, posts, and tweets, even many of the alarms we set on our phones are a way to push an intention into reality. So what exactly is this thing we call a writer? Is it as easy as jotting down an inspiring thought and sticking it by your mirror, or is it more than that?
Maybe the difference between an author and a writer is form. Whether you write poetry or greeting cards, if you want to develop your writing from sticky notes or notebook scribbles into a recognized format, there is a process. Step one for a novel? Give your work a name! I tend to have a title I use to refer to each work, then I have a plan B and C in mind. Sometimes a story develops in a surprising way and the title no longer fits, but give your thoughts a title and start referring to it as a book. (For the sake of using correct terms, a novel is a work of fiction, so if you’re writing is historically correct, it won’t be a novel)
Once you’ve decided you’re writing a titled book, what comes next? I wrote two complete novels based on personal experience; trips, relationships, etc., where I changed a few names to protect the stupid. (Usually me) The plots of these stories rambled and meandered, as real life often does. I once asked a friend to read part of one such diatribe. I was particularly proud of the amazing job I’d done telling exactly what had happened, blow by blow. When my friend finished reading, he looked up and said it was okay, but it would never really happen. I was flabbergasted. Due to embarrassing content I didn’t want to argue that indeed it had, but I’ve since spent much time contemplating what makes a story feel “true”. We all know that truth is stranger than fiction, but where had I gone off track with the storyline? Of course many authors love to write about things that have never happened and never will, thus science fiction etc., but in my case I wanted the story and the characters to feel plausible. The content was real, but somehow I’d lost the reader and he couldn’t relate.
One thing I’ve come to realize is that most people have expectations when they pick up a novel. You certainly do if you have a favorite author. What all is wrapped up in the anticipation that causes someone to buy my book over another? I write contemporary romantic comedy novels, so I had to spend some time to understand what people who buy contemporary comedy romance novels expect. Of course I have the option to write my story how ever I want, but at some point I had to decide that instead of writing a wandering story of my choice, I wanted to create a story that would feel like a romantic comedy, thus meeting the expectation of my readers.
At first I balked against the rules of story development, feeling that it would somehow limit my story. After all, I’d once read that all I needed to do was put my characters up a tree, throw rocks at them, and get them down again. Yes, I thought I was somehow gifted enough to flout the rules and create from scratch, a wonder of literature. But once I swallowed some pride and tried to follow story development guidelines, I found that I was forced to write a much more complete and well-constructed story.
The guidelines I speak of are as follows: Stasis, trigger, the quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal, and resolution. The truth is, if you can construct a story around these eight story arcs, you can form a good solid story. Using this format, the plot will keep moving forward and come to a unswerving conclusion, which most authors know can be challenging. If you find that you have individual storylines wandering off into space that can’t be resolved, consider giving the side stories similar rules, or even their own book. There are many ideas out there on story development, but do some research into your genre and consider following good advice.
Remember that the general idea of a story is to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. If you keep getting bogged down or tangled up in the middle part, consider using some guidelines to help find your way out.
Next time we’ll talk about some of the tools you can use to keep track of your well-constructed storyline, but for now, keep writing!
Do you ever think you want to write a novel? Do you have thoughts to share or a story growing in the back of your mind? Are there characters so real in your imagination, that you know how they’d respond in a given situation? Maybe places you go feel like scenes in your story. If so, maybe you’ve wondered how to get organized, get started, or make your dream of writing a novel become reality.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but after writing multiple full length novels and publishing two through different publishers, I have some information about my experience that I’m willing to share. There are things I’ve learned the hard way, things I wish I’d known when I started years ago.
There are many ways to write and many options to publish, but it all starts with the story. Do you have a story line fully formed with a beginning, a middle and an end? Or maybe you have a group of characters that are bugging you to become a story. In my case, some of my books sprang from a need to write about my experiences. Writing was a way to analyze what I’d been through and share it with others.
No matter where you’re at in story development process, start getting your ideas on paper. Scribbled notes can become a story, or a spread sheet, even a little notebook tucked in your purse will help you organize your thoughts. My ideas come at times I can’t type them out, like when I'm walking the dog, so I put them in my phone notes or a keep a notebook handy. I tend to be very visual and once I have a group of ideas together I can begin to piece them into some sort of order.
Using an outline is vital for me to create a story. Once I have some ideas collected I start to lay out the storyline. Sometimes I realize my idea is too simple, but usually, once I begin to lay it all out, I see that it’s a bit tangled and needs to be cleaned up. Just remember that if you can’t get your story to make sense, neither will a reader.
In upcoming blogs I’ll write about outlines, storylines, character development, grammar, editing and even publishing. I’d love to hear your ideas and input as well you experiences. Let’s write!
The Shabby Chic movement, and my romance series it's inspired, are all about seeing beauty in the old and worn. My leading ladies find solace and satisfaction in some old thing with a great patina. This concept lends well to the core basics of Earth day, which this year is April 22. Reuse and recycle, love it and find a way to put it back to work, in order to help save the environment. No need to throw away items that could offer more function. My grandma always said “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” and I couldn’t agree more. Take a moment this week to talk to a friend or family member about the advantages of recycling, especially if your re-loved item turns out beautiful!
What is it about spider infested, filthy old things that make my hearts race?
How could dragging and manipulating a half ruined piece of furniture that weighs more than anything I ever lifted in my heyday at the gym, be so thrilling that instead of collapsing against the wall with my eyes bugging, I still have the energy to circle the thing with my eyes shining?
When did roaming the paint department looking for brushes and rollers and tape become more fun than the shoe store at the mall?
At what point of my life did I decide shabby was better than shiny, old was better than new, and something that needed completely worked over was so dang attractive?
When did I decide that an old farmhouse with no plumbing or electrical was my dream home?
I may never be able to pinpoint when the shabby chic bug bit me, but I’m so glad it did. I’m more productive, less wasteful, more creative, and far more stiff and sore. My thoughts wander through the possibilities of an item; what is once was, what it could be, and then what would it be if I did something entirely new with it. I stop to chat with folks about their gardens and their projects. I search out the odd little shop with an artistic owner rather than a brand name box store.
Did this happen when I wandered into that first little boutique and my mouth fell open in surprise and pleasure at someone else’s creativity? Was it the day I looked at the item thinking I understood what it was, and yet someone had come up with another way to use it that was gorgeous?
Or maybe my heart had simply forgotten how much I’d loved crayons and play dough and finger paints.
All I know for sure is that as my attention narrowed to focus on what some call a trend, my heart and mind opened to encompass a broader and far more colorful world.
Each morning I log onto my computer and spend well over an hour visiting my social media friends. First I visit my Romance Novels Face Book page where I post photography of shabby furniture and quotes about reading or things famous authors say, as well as snippets from my novels and blog posts. Then I open up Pinterest and visit the pages of the people who liked my pins. I see so many beautiful and inspiring things there. Sometimes I wonder how many of us have our home designs, travel, cooking, and wardrobe fantasies parked on that site.
This morning as I was scanning through photos of amazing places and fabulous ideas I got a comment on one of my novel pins! You may not think that a comment on Pinterest would make someone’s day, but I consider Pinterest one of my major marketing sources. I spend a great deal of time taking photos of my shabby style projects, as well as sorting, pinning and organizing pins that represent my novels. I get nearly half of all the foot traffic to my author website from Pinterest so to have someone comment on a pin of my novel cover was very exciting. To add to the warm fuzzies, she said that I was the first author she’d met on Pinterest! Is this a major breakthrough moment for me??!
My novels are a new concept in that they are novels about a lifestyle. The stories are very character driven and about ladies who find comfort, strength and satisfaction in shabby design. Tara saves and restores old homes, Julia works in her garden, and Lizzie love prairie style comfort; plus some sweet romance with a handsome man to round out the fun. Come by and check them out!
I hope you’ve all got a Pinterst page full of tabs containing things you love, and I hope you take the time to comment on a pin that touches you. You just may make someone’s day!
I want my author website to visually represent my novels, so this week I contacted a professional web designer to rework and redesign the whole thing from the bottom up. Now the big question, if I had to choose five or six pictures that would immediately bring to life my stories, what would I choose?
Those of us who love to rework, remodel, recycle, and pick through treasures know that shabby style is not a goal but a process. It’s a journey. It’s a vision not only to redesign a space, but to search out lost and unexpected gems that will come together in a way that is charming and meaningful.
Most of us have experienced the stress and joy of tearing things completely apart and pieced them back together. Shabby style is that excursion, the whole tour from ugly and horrible, (outdated and nasty dirty) to unthinkable, (How will I ever fix what I just uncovered?) to salvage, (I can except this) to fabulous, (Not exactly how I’d planned it in the beginning, but…) and then the never ending tweaking (Ohhh this would be perfect in the…)
The photos I select will need to include the bare and naked middle part of reworking a piece or a space, as well as the calm and serene, comfortable and beautiful part at the end; maybe a few piles of junk, stripped screw heads, or a second hand shop? Nothing could convey the aching back or the endless brain drain involved.
And what about the characters in my stories? How can I ever hope to capture the essence and wisdom of Winnie, or the meddlesome charm of Marge? How to convey frustration and sadness and joy?
They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but a thousand words mean ten thousand things to five different people. So perhaps I will use words to convey my design goals to the web designer and believe that her talent lies in translating them into visual representations of my novels.
I’m happy to report that this week I got back final proofs for book two of my Shabby Chic series! I received not only the book block, which is the formatted version of the text part of the book, I also received the cover design! Needless to say, this blog is late because I’ve been up to my eyeballs in proofreading.
For some reason I can work for months on editing and rewrites of a novel, but when I see the cover design, the book finally seems real. The digital artist at Friensen press, along with my author rep Brelan, have a done a great job on both novels to come up with designs that reflect the core of my story.
I loved the grubby feel of book one to represent Tara and her issues, and I am just as thrilled with the outdoor rusty garden jibe they sent me for Book Two. Julia would love the peeling teal paint and the roses on the back cover.
If you’d like to see what book two, Shabby Chic After All, will look like, you can check out the front page of my website. Authorkirstenfullmer.com
I’m home! After a month of travel out west, and enjoying my sweet new grandbaby, I’m finally home again. I’m stationed on the sofa with one leg tucked under me, my computer on my lap, and Bingo curled up and snoring by my side, just where I belong.
Yesterday I spent the morning making Mother’s Day cards for my mom and my mother-in-law. Both are in poor health and I’m not sure how many more Mother’s Days I’ll get to have the honor. I can never just pull out a few supplies to make cards, I have to drag out every box full of paper stacks, stickers, pencils and markers, embellishments, two sided tape, glue, stamps and stamp pads I own. Then I am forced to dig through each and every box to find the items that suit the situation and my mood. Yesterday, for some reason, I fixated on birds and flowers, spring theme. My table was piled with stacks of crafty items that had to be continually shifted and sorted and moved over to make more space to work. Am I the only one who can’t create without everything I may ever need in plain sight?
As for my own mother’s day, my sweetheart bought me a Yonana! For those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a cute little appliance that turns frozen bananas into what looks like soft serve ice cream. It tastes like guiltless smashed frozen bananas, but feels like a treat. My naughty sister Melanie told me I could also put chocolate chips and cookies through the thing to doctor up the banana, but I’m trying to forget that and stick with my low sugar frozen fruit. I’m thinking I can keep this up until at lease next week, when mother’s day actually happens.
Book number two of my shabby Chic series, Shabby Chic After All, is getting close to release! On Monday I should receive the final proofs for approval of the cover and finished text. It seems like it takes forever to publish and I’m very excited to get book two out to my fans. As soon as folks finished book one, Shabby Chic at Heart, their first question is always “When will book two come out?”
Book three, Shabby Chic Forever, is well under way, and I have to say that I’m loving Elliot. He has become one of the quirkiest male characters that I’ve written. Funny how they take on a life of their own!
I better get back to work now. I hope you all have a wonderful Mother’s Day. If you don’t have someone to celebrate with, may you search out someone who has mothered you and send them some love!