Tag Archives: novel

Effective Beginnings: The Secret Ingredients

On the popular blog, Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey offers a recurring piece called Flog a Pro. Rhamey identifies six key ingredients that the opening page of a novel must feature: story questions, tension (in the reader, not the character), voice, clarity, scene-setting, and character.

Here he breaks down the opening page of the runaway best-seller Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.

While it’s not a requirement to have all six ingredients, Rhamey writes, an author has a better chance of hooking a reader if many of these elements are present.

I am in the midst of refining the beginning pages of my work-in-progress and this effort got me thinking about effective beginnings. In researching this topic, I found a lot of advice from agents and editors about what not to do in the opening page of a novel:

–Start too slowly

–Dump a lot of backstory about the main character

–Include too much exposition

–Introduce the story with a dream sequence

–Begin with slam-bang action, mayhem, maybe even a few deaths. Action without context will only confuse the reader.

Here are more types of bad beginnings from agent Chuck Sambuchino:
Chuck Sambuchino

Rhamey’s list is a solid starting point, but it needs elaboration. There’s one more essential ingredient and it relates to one of his ingredients, character. One inviolate rule about effective opening scenes is the writer must make the reader care about the main character. What does that mean? To me, it means the writer must create an emotional connection between the reader and the character. This is by far the most challenging aspect of crafting an effective beginning.

I found a lot of great advice about opening scenes and I want to share it here:

This post is a fantastic mashup called the 21 best tips for writing your opening scene

Here are more tips from the Editor’s Blog. Here’s a post on how to hook your reader.

And some tips on opening sentences from the blog Fuel Your Writing.

Will Greenway offers eight rules.

Chuck Wendig, 25 things to know about an opening chapter is irreverent, funny and true.

To these many words of wisdom I add one more and this I cannot stress enough: spend whatever time is necessary to make the first scene sing. If you are not spending more time on the opening scene than on the rest of your manuscript, you’re not trying hard enough.

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Reboot Your Novel

You might find yourself with this dilemma: you are on your third or fourth draft of your novel and it’s not working. Rapidly losing enthusiasm for the work-in-progress, you search your brain to figure out what is wrong. You don’t want to throw away months or years of effort, but you cannot figure out what is wrong. As the IT folks like to say, “When in doubt, reboot.”

How do you reboot a novel? There’s no on/off switch on a manuscript, but you can turn off the writer switch and shift to the reader switch. Read the manuscript straight through without any distractions. Do it in one pass if time permits. Take precise notes on what is wrong with the manuscript. During this self-assessment stage, you must be brutally candid about the flaws in your work.

In my experience with my work here are some of the flaws I’ve identified:

• Lack of high-impact resolution to the story.
• Word count that is too long (125,000-plus) or too short (50,000).
• Lack of cohesion in the story; too many detours or low-impact scenes.
• Weak character development.

These types of flaws can be fixed. What is more difficult to fix is the problem of bad story structure. Like a house, if a story is structurally unsound it cannot stand.

Once you have finished a frank assessment of your story, ask yourself this question: what is this story really about? We’re not talking about the theme here, but what is the essence of the story. Is Harry Potter a story about a powerful wizard or is it about an adolescent boy’s struggles growing up in a world where he is different and must learn to use his assets to make sure good triumphs over evil? When you figure out what your story is about, writing it and filling in the blanks will become easier.

Ask yourself these questions:

• How can I make the story concept (what the story is about) pay off?
• What are the main character’s external and internal conflicts and how can I best maximize them?
• What are the weakest aspects or scenes of the story? Can they be improved or should they be deleted?
• Which characters don’t work? Are they worth saving?

Rebooting a novel is hard work. It could entail tearing the story apart and piecing it back together again. You may decide it’s not worth the effort. If you decide to go for it, go for it and reboot your novel.

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Book Review: “The Beginner’s Goodbye,” by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler’s 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is about holding on and letting go. Aaron Woolcott and his wife, Dorothy, have a typical marriage, with ups and downs, love and pain, and unspoken grudges. One day, after a minor spat, a tree topples over on the sun room of their home, killing Dorothy.

Set in Baltimore, where many of her novels take place, the story centers on the months following Dorothy’s death. After 11 years of marriage, Aaron cannot let go. He doggedly goes about his business, rejecting the sympathies and kindness extended by friends, until one day Dorothy’s ghost appears. In the hands of a lesser writer, this device might seem like a cheap ploy. Tyler uses the ghost of Dorothy to delve into the unresolved issues that haunt Aaron. Through his unexpected meetings with Dorothy, Aaron probes the small hurts that festered during their marriage as he yearns for resolution.

Aaron is a sympathetic main character. He is an unremarkable every-man, who has a crippled arm and leg and speaks with an occasional stutter. He was initially attracted to Dorothy, a doctor, because she took no notice of his handicap.

Although this is one of Tyler’s shortest books, at roughly 200 pages, it has a lot to say about love, marriage, and the fragility of intimate relationships. When his marriage is cut short, Aaron struggles to find normalcy in his life. He drags his feet on repairing his home until his take-charge sister, Nandina (a sharply drawn character) nudges him into action. His friends try to cheer him up. There is one hilarious scene where two of his male friends invite him to a restaurant for dinner and spend the entire evening not talking about their wives because they don’t want to bring up the memory of Aaron’s loss.

Tyler finds the most interesting occupations for her main characters. In this case, Aaron works in the family business, a boutique publishing company in which the authors pay to have their work published. This is perhaps a wry observation and commentary by Tyler of the current state of the publishing industry. The publishing house’s speciality are “how to” books called “The Beginners” series, which explains the title of the novel. In one scene, Aaron struggles as he slogs through a deadly memoir of an old man’s experiences in World War II in which the writer described every boring detail of his life as a soldier, and none of the terror of war.

This story ultimately is about love, loss, reconciliation, and forgiveness. Like all of Tyler’s work, The Beginner’s Goodbye is a masterfully prepared and satisfying entre, spiced with quirky, loveable characters.

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Book Review: “Generosity: An Enhancement,” By Richard Powers

Richard Powers, winner of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2006 novel, The Echo Maker, writes at the intersection of science and the humanities. The reader would do well to have a copy of  Merck’s or the Physician’s Desk Reference handy when tackling Powers’ work.

His latest, Generosity: An Enhancement, published in 2009, is lighter on the science than some of his past work, but plumbs issues of genetics and bio-ethics. With genetics as the backdrop, Powers poses large questions in this novel: what is it that makes us happy and how can we be happy all the time? And, even if we could be happy all the time, would this state of bliss rob us of the essence of what makes us human?

At the center of this story is a Berber Algerian refugee, the always happy, Thassadit Amzwar. She is a student in a college course called Creative Nonfiction, Journal and Journey. Her professor is Russell Stone, a down-and-out editor for a self-improvement magazine. Stone is an adjunct faculty member at a mediocre college in Chicago. Stone’s entire class is mesmerized by Thassa’s sunny nature and they take to calling her, Miss Generosity. None is more obsessed with the young Kabylie woman than Stone. He does exhaustive internet research on the Algerian civil war and the psychological literature, looking for studies on what causes people with such a bleak upbringing to be so optimistic.

Stone consults a mental health counselor at the college named Candace Weld, who is likewise drawn to Thassa’s sunny aura. Stone and Weld become lovers and both are under Thassa’s giddy spell.

Early on, Powers introduces the reader to Tonia Schiff, who produces documentaries on cutting-edge scientific discoveries for a show called Over the Limit. She is interviewing Thomas Kurton, a renowned geneticist who is something of a celebrity, a more self-confident version of the pop psychologist, Dr. Gerald Webber in The Echo Maker. Kurton has started a biotech company devoted to better living through chemistry. Kurton’s quest is to allow humankind to achieve perfection on earth through genetic engineering.

The first turning point of the story occurs when one of Thassa’s classmates attempts to rape her. It is the type of urban crime that may go unnoticed outside of Chicago, except that Stone, when interviewed by the police, uses the term “hyperthermia” to describe the woman, whose name is not divulged by the police. A researcher for Kurton comes across the term during a daily internet keyword search and he decides he must track her down for his study. Kurton locates and arranges a meeting with Thassa and convinces her to undergo a series of tests for his study. Anxious to publish his findings, Kurton refers to Thassa in his study as “Jen.”

In the second dramatic turn, a classmate reveals Thassa’s identity through social media and her email box is flooded with requests, ranging from religious fanatics who see her as some sort of messianic figure to sad sacks who believe she can cure them. Soon, Thassa is an instant celebrity and is invited to appear on an Oprah-style talk show, Oona.

The struggle between science and the humanities is best illustrated by an earlier scene when Stone, Weld and Amzwar attend a debate between a Nobel Laureate and Kurton, the geneticist:

“The novelist’s argument is clear enough: genetic enhancement represents the end of human nature. Take control of fate, and you destroy everything that joins us to one another and dignifies life. A story with no end or impediment is no story at all. Replace limits with unbounded appetite, and everything meaningful turns into nightmare.”

The geneticist responds:

“Kurton praises the long, mysterious journey of literature. ‘Imaginitive writing has always been the engine of future fact.’ He thanks his opponent. ‘You’ve made a lot of good points that I’ll have to thank about.’ He concedes that genetic enhancement does force major reconsiderations, starting with the boundaries between justice and fate, the natural and the inevitable. ‘But so did the capture of fire and the invention of agriculture.’

“He invites a thought experiment. Suppose you want to have a baby, but you’re at high risk for convening cystic fibrosis. You go to the clinic, where the doctors, by screening your eggs, guarantee that your child will be born free of a hideous and fatal disease. ‘Not too many prospective parents will have a problem with that…’

Thomas Kurton sees only the audience. “Now suppose you come to the clinic already pregnant, and tests show cystic fibrosis in your fetus. Assuming that doctors can bring a treatment risk down to acceptable levels…’

Later in the scene, Kurton addresses the role of literature:

“Russell comes alert when Kurton invokes the use of literature. ‘For most of human history, when existence was too short and bleak to mean anything, we needed stories to compensate. But now that we’re on the verge of living the long, pain-reduced, and satisfying life that our brains deserve, it’s time for art to lead us beyond noble stoicism.’”

The novelist concludes: “The misery business will remain a growth industry. When fiction goes real, reality will need a more resistant strain of fiction.”

It’s hard to say where Powers comes down on this debate. His skill is that he presents both arguments forcefully and leaves it up to the reader.

Powers is the author of nine novels. He has received a MacArthur Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, and the James Fennimore Cooper Prize for Historical Fiction. He teaches a graduate course in multimedia authoring, as well as an undergraduate course on the mechanics of narrative, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he is the Swanlund Professor of English

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Book Review: “The Night Circus,” By Erin Morgenstern

One of the strongest elements of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was the setting. Rowling created a highly detailed and sweeping world that was both magical and scary. In her dazzling debut novel, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern attempts a similar feat. Like Hogwarts, Le Cirque des Revers (Circus of Dreams) is vivid, whimsical and highly developed. That’s where the similarities end.

Unlike Harry Potter, the stakes in The Night Circus do not involve the fate of the magical world. The stakes are personal as Morgenstern explores issues of love and obligation, competition and collaboration, fantasy and reality, free will and coercion, and the pursuit of one’s dreams.

The story centers on a bet between two illusionists in the late 1800s: Prospero the Enchanter, also known as Hector Bowen, and the mysterious Mr. A.H., also known as Alexander and the man in the gray suit. Prospero puts up his daughter, Celia, against a gifted orphan, Marco Alisdair, handpicked by Mr. A.H. The venue for the competition is a fantastical night circus, designed by theater impresario M. Chandresh Christopher Lefevre (you’ve got to love the names Morgenstern gives her characters).

The two stern taskmasters train their protégés without divulging the rules or the nature of the competition. They don’t even tell their competitor the identity of their adversary. Telling a tale like this is tricky high-wire act for any writer, but Morgenstern’s writing has a seductive quality that cajoles the reader into going along for the ride.

The strength of this story is the highly imaginative and detailed world of the circus. Morgenstern evokes all of the senses in her description of setting, making the circus come alive in the reader’s mind.

Eventually, Celia and Marco catch on to the game. They fall in love and, instead of competing, they decide to collaborate. But they must figure out a way to end the game without triggering a catastrophe.

I’m a fan of ambiguous endings because real life is that way. Rarely do people live happily ever after. However, this ending felt a little too ambiguous. It was as though Morgenstern wrote herself into a corner and couldn’t bear to end the story by making a more painful choice. That’s as much as I can say without spoiling the ending.

My only other criticism is that Morgenstern spends much more time describing every detail of the setting than she devotes to character development. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more about how Celia and Marco fell in love. It seemed to happen quickly without a lot of contact between the two rivals.

Still, these are minor flaws. I found The Night Circus to be an unusual and enjoyable novel.

How important is the setting to your novel?

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It’s Here! My First Novel: Small Change

Small Change. A Novel. By CG Blake

I launched my first novel, Small Change, over the weekend, culminating a five-year journey. I don’t even know where to begin in sharing with my fellow writers what I learned on this journey. Instead of one of those obnoxious “buy my book, buy my book” posts, I am going to highlight some of the major lessons learned:

The book you start out to write may not be the book you end up writing. Small Change began as a short story I wanted to bring into my local critique group. The premise was the wonder a small child feels when he experiences his first family vacation. I was going for a Jean Shepherd-type story. Jean Shepherd was a writer, radio talk show host and raconteur whose book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, was the inspiration for the TBS classic, A Christmas Story. My main character was John Sykowski and his family was from the Chicago suburbs. As I began developing the characters and the boy’s family, I realized I needed another family for them to meet on their summer vacation at a lake resort in Wisconsin. This family would be the opposite of the main character’s family. That family became the Crandales, from rural Iowa, headed by a second-generation minister. As I began writing, I realized the story of these two families had more potential than I imagined.

Do outline, but don’t be afraid to make mid-course adjustments. After I abandoned the short story in favor of a full-blown novel, I prepared a bare-bones outline of about a dozen milestone scenes. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter when it comes to outlining. The first draft served as my outline. I made one major change during the first draft. The character Rebekka, the daughter of the minister, was originally envisioned as the classic “wild child” of a clergyman, who drank and got high and had promiscuous sex. The problem with that was that I already had such a character, her younger brother, Ben. I completely redrew Rebekka as a painfully shy child and I explored the possibility of a romantic relationship with the main character, John.

Your first draft is only the beginning. I completed about eighty percent of the first draft during a period of feverish inspiration and activity in the fall of 2007. By the summer of 2008, the first draft was done. I put it aside for four weeks and then began the revision process. I realized how far I was from a finished product. I began sharing selected sections with members of my critique group. In the spring of 2009, I sent the first 50 pages to two agents I had met at a writer’s conference. They were extremely helpful, but passed on the project. One agent told me I sounded like an adult trying to sound like a 10-year-old child. John was 10 when the original story began. After numerous attempts to fix that problem, I decided the story started in the wrong place. I wrote a new chapter that started the story when John was 14, an easier voice for me to write.

Don’t be concerned if the theme is not immediately apparent. I worried constantly during the writing of my first draft about the theme. The story didn’t seem to have a theme. It wasn’t until a comment made by John’s mother on her deathbed that the theme hit me in the face. The mother, Marge Sykowski, tells John that every family must have its secrets. It’s what keeps families together. It was an “ah-ha!” moment for me. Once I knew the theme I embellished it during the revision process.

Build in plenty of time for the editing and critique process, but set a schedule. This was where the project got way off track. I sent the manuscript out for review and then I just waited. I didn’t feel comfortable setting deadlines for my reviewers since they were graciously volunteering their time. I lost more than a year while I waited. In the meantime, I started and finished the first draft of another novel. I lost my focus on Small Change and it was difficult to get back into it.

Weigh your publishing options carefully. I really wanted to go the traditional publishing route. I believed strongly in this work and I was confident I could secure a publisher. However, all of my queries were met with polite rejections. In researching the publishing industry, it became apparent that first-time authors faced long odds in the current environment. In deciding to go the self-publishing route, I was heavily influenced by a guest blog post by Victorine Lieske on JA Konrath’s blog. A self-published author, Lieske said she initially queried a handful of agents for her novel, Not What She Seems, and was relieved when they rejected her work. She said she knew it could take five years for her to get published and she didn’t feel she had the time to wait. She also didn’t want to sacrifice her other responsibilities in the pursuit of traditional publishing. I felt the same way. As an author in my mid-50s I don’t have five years to wait. I want to get published and write more books. So I decided to publish through the Kindle Direct Publishing program.

Writing a novel is a team effort. You cannot do it alone. So many people helped me along this journey, from my local critique group, a friend who is a graphic designer, my family, my book editor, our state authors and publishers group, and many friends who offered encouragement along the way.

I will be sharing other lessons in future blog posts. If you do want to buy the book:

Buy Small Change

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Book Review: “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides

In the beginning section of Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel, The Marriage Plot, a college professor states that the novel reached its apogee in the 19th century with the marriage plot and never recovered once the movement toward sexual equality begun. As far as the professor was concerned, “marriage didn’t mean much anymore, and neither did the novel.”

The Marriage Plot is very much concerned with the state of the novel, but it also works as a coming-of-age story as three Ivy Leaguers prepare to leave the safety of the college campus for the real world. The story begins on graduation day in 1982 at Brown University, but there is none of the joy and anticipation associated with this occasion.

The story centers on three main characters who are about to graduate. Madeleine Hanna is the well-heeled, attractive daughter of a college president. Maddy chooses English as her major “for the purest and dullest of reasons: because she loved to read.” Leonard Bankhead, a brilliant, charismatic and troubled student from the Northwest, becomes Maddy’s lover during their senior year. Mitchell Grammaticus is an earnest religious studies major from Detroit and Maddy’s trusted friend. Mitchell carries around an intense crush on Maddy, vowing to someday marry her.

This love triangle sets the stage for a story that is as much about the state of the novel as it is about the journey to adulthood.

As a student, Maddy becomes fascinated by the marriage plot, which reached its peak in literature during the 19th Century. After a difficult day in her semiotics class, Maddy retreats to the comfort of The House of Mirth, by Daniel Deronda. She reflects, “How wonderful it was when one sentence followed logically from the sentence before! What exquisite guilt she felt, wickedly enjoying narrative! Madeleine felt safe with a nineteenth-century novel. There were going to be people in it. Something was going to happen to them in a place resembling the world.” Her relationship with Bankhead causes Maddy to leave her comfort zone.

After breaking up with Leonard earlier in the spring, Maddy discovers on Graduation Day that he has been admitted to the psychiatric ward of a hospital after a breakdown. She skips her graduation ceremony and rushes to his side. Madeleine then follows Leonard to Cape Cod, where he has landed a science fellowship in a prestigious lab. As Maddy learns of the depths of Leonard’s bipolar diagnosis, she stays by his side to support him. Meanwhile, Mitchell is off to India to explore religion and mysticism and even serves a stint working for Mother Theresa’s charity.

Eugenides alternates between the points-of-view of Maddy, Leonard and Mitchell, devoting the most time to Maddy’s perspective. Yet, for me, Maddy is the character I felt I knew the least. His portrayal of Leonard is brilliant as he brings the reader into his head and the reader feels the pain of a person suffering from bipolar disorder. Mitchell feels like the author’s alter ego, but the reader has a clear sense of his longings and confusion.

The novel gets bogged down in several places. Unless the reader studied literature, the references to Barthe and Derrida in the opening section will leave you scurrying to Wikipedia. The section that introduces Leonard’s point-of-view begins with 16 pages of his back story (pages 231 to 247). Despite these side trips, the intertwined stories of the three characters’ journeys move the story forward.

This book is about three things: the novel’s place in society, the difficult transition from college to the real world, and the complexities of human relationships. The three Ivy Leaguers, for all their academic brilliance, are ill-equipped for the harsh world of the early 1980s. They also discover that the things they desire may not be what they really want or need.

What I especially liked about this book is the ending. It is said that good endings are both unexpected and inevitable. Eugenides has managed to succeed on both counts.

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