I've been asked lately by a number of authors about issues relating to the use of other people's photographs in their work (largely copyright permissions issues, and some questions about the creative commons). I have a new blog post up at Savvy Authors that addresses many of these questions. Feel free to jump over there and take a look if you're interested.
Earlier this year, I had the great pleasure of meeting YA author, Lisa Luedeke at the Highlights Foundation. We got to talking about her work and she was kind enough to share with me a copy of her debut novel, SMASHED, and to answer some questions about it and her writing process. I hope you enjoy what she has to say ...
I typically start with a problem or situation that interests me, and then work my way out from that situation. In this case, that problem involved alcohol, a car accident, and the impact it would have on the main character’s athletic scholarship. The situation has to be interesting enough to sustain my interest and this one did. The character emerges from the situation: who would find themselves in this predicament? What led up to this moment? And more specific to Smashed: Where are the parents? Why has no one found them? Why is she in a car with someone she doesn’t even like? The very first scene I wrote—the scene the night of the car accident—I wrote to figure out the answers. All the other things you mention eventually evolved from this and my desire to make it as true to life as possible
ME: Your novel has been compared favorably to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. Is Anderson one of your influences as a writer? Whose writing do you think has influenced you the most?
LISA: Laurie is one of my influences as a human. Her career, the subjects she’s tackled and how she’s handled challenging responses to her work are all an inspiration to me. I never actually read Speak until after Smashed was written, edited, and delivered to Simon & Schuster because I knew that book also takes on the subject of sexual assault and I didn’t want to be influenced by her work in ways that weren’t visible to me or get derailed by comparing my work to hers. Comparing is a suicidal tendency among authors. Instead, I read all her historical fiction, which I loved (I’d like to write historical YA, too, one day.) Her writing is amazing. When I did read Speak, it actually reminded me in certain ways not only of Smashed, but also of the new book I am working on now.
The YA author who influenced me the most is probably Robert Cormier. When I read his books, way back in the late nineteen-eighties, I said to myself, I want to write like this someday. Archie in The Chocolate War inspired my Alec in Smashed. From Archie, I learned that a clever antagonist is the most intriguing and can be the most despicable. S.E. Hinton is a close second. From her I learned it is all about heart.
ME: Smashed is an extremely clever title with multiple layers of meaning. As many readers of this blog know, effective titles are very hard to devise. How did you come up with this one?
LISA: I’m notoriously bad at titles. In high school and college I would hand in my short stories (and other papers) without titles, which frustrated my teachers. I came up with one title I was proud of in my entire college career. In high school, when a short piece of mine was published in our school’s literary magazine, I handed it in untitled and the student editor gave it a title I loathed. You’d think I’d have learned from that.
I had a working title for Smashed that was horrible, so when the time came to come up with the real thing my editor and I got on the phone and decided to start brainstorming all the words we could think of connected to the book. Smashed was one of those words and we chose it precisely because of the multiple meanings. That’s what I love best about it.
ME: Your protagonist, Katie, faces some very difficult challenges throughout the novel, many of them a result of her own questionable choices. In other words, she’s a morally complex character. How did you go about creating her? Did she come to you fully formed, or did you have to spend a lot of time during the drafting process getting a handle on who she is?
LISA: That’s a tough question. My main characters so far have always come to me wholesale, at least the essence of those characters has. I feel like I know them from the start. Much of what they do flows out of me from that essential knowing. But that said, there are times when I hit a wall. What would she think here? What would she do? At times, Katie had to do things I didn’t like. I always try to stay as true as I can to this person I’ve created, as well as to real life and sometimes it takes time and reflection to accomplish—or rewriting when I realize I’ve gotten off course.
ME: One of the recurring themes in the novel is the impact of a parent’s conduct and choices on the lives of their children. Were you consciously playing with this idea in the drafting or was it something that came out organically in the writing?
LISA: Parental impact is something I tend to think about a lot, as a daughter and a mother, a former high school teacher, and in just observing the world, so, yes, I guess I was playing with it. It also came organically in the sense that it was part of building a realistic situation and characters. I had to ask myself, why can these two teenagers be out in the middle of the night—all night actually, the night of the crash—and no one has called the police? Where are the parents? What kind of home life might contribute to Katie’s low self-worth? What kind might produce an entitled young man who believes he should get whatever he wants and if he doesn’t he will take it? So I wrote to answer those questions and others. And sometimes there’s inspiration. I remember that I woke up one night early on in the writing and I said to myself, “Katie’s father disappeared.” From that moment on, it was just a fact. I just had to fill in all the details.
ME: What are you working on now?
LISA: The book I’m writing now is about ¾ drafted and (surprise!) does not yet have a title. It’s set in the same town as Smashed, but with entirely different characters. The challenge I set for myself this time is I have two very different narrators with very different voices. Becca and Skye’s lives become intertwined and they end up telling parts of the same story from different vantage points. I like figuring out how to best do this from scene to scene, especially scenes they are both in, because information is provided slowly to readers and other characters one piece at a time. I don’t want to talk about the plot, because there are elements that are meant only to be revealed as you go and I will ruin it. I will say that although one is primary, there several story lines and among them you will find secrets, lies, sex, love, and death: that is, life.
... Thanks for joining us on the blog, Lisa! We look forward to your next book!!!
Ever been confused about the public domain and the creative commons?
They both involve information an author or artist can use free of charge, but they're not the same thing, and sometimes the difference will matter.
Have a look at my recent blog post at Savvy Authors if you want to learn more about the key distinctions between public domain material and creative commons licenses.
(Cross posted from Savvy Authors blog, March 31, 2017)
So let's get legal for a bit on the blog ...
I’m going to start with a disclaimer that this is just for fun and is not formal legal advice, so there’s no pressure on you (or on me) to come up with the perfect answers. One thing you learn about the law in this area pretty quickly is that there are often no easy answers to what seem like the most simple questions.
Are you ready to take the quiz?
Here goes …
How many of the following statements are true?
DRUMROLL PLEASE …
none of them!
That’s right. Not one of those statements is completely, and unequivocally, 100% true.
Don’t worry if you didn’t know that.
Most lawyers don’t know that either, especially if they don’t specialize in copyright law.
That’s actually the first lesson of “learning to deal with the law as an author.” Not every lawyer knows a lot about every field of law. Like medical practitioners, lawyers also specialize. Most lawyers know the area(s) in which they practice but may not know much, or anything, about other areas.
In this blog post (and in the webinar) I’ll talk through some suggestions with you about when (and how) to find appropriate legal help, but before I do that, let’s go back to the quiz and check out the answers.
If you got all the answers right, that’s terrific and it shows you’ve been paying more attention than many creative artists to how the law might affect you.
If not, or if you’re not sure, let’s take a quick look at those statements again, and why they’re not true, or at the very least, not 100% accurate.
Statement 1: You must register your work at the Copyright Office for it to be legally protected.
This is not true because copyright registration is now technically optional. You generally hold copyright in your work as soon as you write it down. Registration provides a number of benefits in the litigation context (i.e. when you want to sue someone for infringing your copyright) and it gives notice to other people that you hold copyright in the work. But you don’t NEED to register your work to hold copyright in it. It’s a good idea to register, and it’s a simple inexpensive process you can do online via the Copyright Office website.
Statement 2: Anything on the Internet can be copied freely because it’s in the public domain.
Absolutely not true. Some works are in the public domain after their copyright expires (like the works of Jane Austen or the book versions of Frank L. Baum’s Wizard of Oz series – but not the movies which are still copyrighted). Other works are in the public domain because they predate copyright (like the Greek classics or the works of William Shakespeare). But copyright generally lasts for the term of the original author’s life + 70 years, so anything on the Internet that falls within a live copyright term is still protected by the law. You can’t copy it without permission. Some copyright holders might not mind if you copy their work that you found on the Internet, and some copying may be excused as fair use, but it’s always a good idea to ask first.
Statement 3: You are allowed to copy other people’s work for educational purposes because this is a fair use.
Not necessarily true. Some educational uses of copyright works are protected under the fair use doctrine, but not all of them. In the United States it all depends on how a court would interpret the fair use defense in relation to any particular educational use. Yes, there are some classroom guidelines that have been promulgated by the Copyright Office and others, but those guidelines are not legally binding. Relying on published guidelines about educational use is a good idea, but it doesn’t give you a definitive legal answer about whether or not your particular educational use is excused as a fair use.
Statement 4: Plagiarism is an infringement of copyright law.
Not necessarily. Plagiarism, which is about taking credit for someone else’s work, is not a legal wrong. There is no American law against it, except in very limited circumstances that won’t apply to most authors. If you copy someone else’s work without permission AND take credit for the work, you’ve committed both plagiarism and copyright infringement, but plagiarism only relates to the false attribution, while copyright focuses on the act of copying. In other words, you can commit both plagiarism and copyright infringement at the same time, but copyright law only applies to the copying. No law prohibits plagiarism, although it is often a breach of an academic honor code (in an educational setting) or a breach of market norms in an industry like the publishing industry.
Statement 5: Copying another person’s work does not infringe copyright if you include an attribution to the original author.
This is not true either unfortunately. While it’s always nice to attribute work you’ve copied to the original author, that doesn’t excuse you from copying that person’s work without permission. Copyright law will apply to any unauthorized copying or dissemination of another person’s work regardless of whether you admit it’s their work or not.
I’ve answered these, and many other related questions at workshops about legal issues for authors in the past. Consider the following as additional examples:
If you’re traditionally published with an agent and a commercial publisher, the likelihood is that they’ll handle a lot of these problems for you.
If you’re working more independently, with a smaller indie publisher, or self-publishing, you might have more trouble.
That’s when it’s important to know both WHEN you need outside assistance and how best to find it.
Unfortunately there aren’t a lot of freely available legal resources for authors and artists out there, but there are some. A number of writers’ organizations have lawyers on staff who can help: the Author’s Guild and the Author’s Alliance are examples of this. However, those organizations may well ask you to become a member (and pay membership fees) before you can use their services. This may be worthwhile, depending on your situation. There are also some organizations dedicated to providing legal help to authors and creative artists, such as Lawyers for the Creative Arts in Chicago. A Google search may help you find a group in your area that provides workshops, seminars and advice on the law for authors and artists.
While your friendly neighborhood lawyer (you know, the one who handles your real estate transactions and estate planning) probably won’t know much about publishing law, she may know people who do. It’s always a good idea to reach out to any lawyers you do know and ask them for recommendations. There are also now online services that give you ratings and specialty areas for lawyers in given areas: for example, avvo.com. Most lawyers should be prepared to do an initial client interview without charging for it and should set out their fees for you before you sign with them. Make sure you do your homework and talk to anyone you’re thinking of working with before you retain them to do anything for you.
You can also talk to law professors specializing in publishing law for suggestions both on whether you need a lawyer and whether they know any legal practitioners who can help you. I’m a law professor, but not currently a practicing attorney so, at the moment, I can give people information and suggestions, but I can’t enter into formal attorney-client contracts. Some law professors do practice law, and may be prepared to take you on as a client. Additionally, many law schools have legal clinics that help local clients free of charge. In these clinics, law students usually do most of the work supervised by practicing attorneys. Many of these clinics unfortunately don’t focus on law related to the publishing industry, but it’s always worth asking around.
In some situations, you’ll only need a lawyer to do something simple, like send a letter of demand to a copyright infringer and/or to, say, an online retailer selling infringing books, and that will be the end of it (and shouldn’t cost too much). If court proceedings are a possibility, you’ll have to take a more long term view and discuss with your lawyer whether the costs of proceeding are worth the effort. Sadly, often they’re not, although in copyright litigation, if you win your case, the damages awards can be very significant.
Hopefully, you’ll never be in a situation where you need serious legal assistance and, if you are, hopefully you’ll find someone affordable and knowledgeable. Law shouldn’t be a bar to creativity, and authors shouldn’t have to worry about the law too much in their day to day creative lives, but it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of your legal rights and obligations in case any issues ever do crop up.
At a recent Highlights workshop, I was fortunate to meet the lovely and talented YA author, Ash Parsons, whose debut novel, Still Waters, was released in 2015 and whose new book is forthcoming next year. Ash was kind enough to share her thoughts about both books and about her writing process. I hope you enjoy our chat ...
KC: Your debut novel, Still Waters, deals with a protagonist, Jason, who's effectively stuck within a cycle of violence and is forced, throughout the novel, to make some morally difficult choices. What did you find were some of the main challenges in dealing with these issues for a YA readership? Would you have handled anything differently if you had been writing for an older audience?
AP: The main challenge in writing this was that YA encompasses a vast array of books, and they are not all intended for the same readers. I think this is sometimes forgotten by gatekeepers who have content concerns, and that can be stifling. Having said that, I’ve been very fortunate to have librarians champion this book, and I’m so thankful for that support.
I wouldn’t have handled anything differently if I had been writing this story for adults. Telling an “edgy” story is very much a balancing act, especially if it’s set in the real world. I was also fortunate to have an editor who loves this story and understands its narrator, so it is exactly as I would have it.
KC: Jason is basically a good guy in a no-win situation (or at least that's how I read him). Is it difficult to create empathy for a character who does bad things or makes bad decisions?
AP: I think it is, and it’s even harder when readers don’t understand their own internal biases. But that’s the great gift of fiction, that if you can hook a reader you can grow their empathy by attaching them to what may seem to be a bad guy or an unlikeable protagonist. There’s this great trope called “save the cat” (also the title of a book about screenwriting) – it’s the moment early on when the main character does something purely good to clue the viewer/reader that the main character is a good person inside. Once you know it’s there you start to see it everywhere, except in redemption stories (A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me) or in wretched excess stories (Breaking Bad). It’s a useful tool to have in the toolbox.
KC: What inspired you to write this book? What are you hoping your readers will take away from it?
AP: Influences come from many places but I was specifically inspired by a memory of a murder that happened when I was in high school (and the rumors of why it happened which were all over my school) and also by a series of events that happened and students I taught when I was a teacher in a 7th – 12th grade rural school. I was struck by how violent situations devolve, and the stressors we never hear about or see until it’s “too late.”
I wrote this book with a very specific reader in mind – namely many of my reluctant readers and students I taught who didn’t always see themselves reflected in the books around them. Although I use the framework of a suspense story, I hope that beyond enjoying the plot my readers will either feel recognition and therefore a sort of affirmation, or that if these characters and situations are foreign to them that they will expand their understanding and empathy. It’s a pretty lofty hope, I guess, but I dream big.
KC: Jason is pretty much a loner, and lives much of his life in his own head. In other words, he's not the friendliest guy you might meet. As a writer, how do you create interest in a character who basically doesn't talk much and isn't particularly demonstrative?
AP: Well, that’s another gift unique to fiction and exclusive to books - that we can live in the head of another. This book is told from Jason’s perspective, and that made it easier. I feel like the characters I care about the most when I am reading are characters to whom I connect emotionally, and for me that connection is created out of emotion itself; what the character is feeling. So even if you have a “tough guy” who doesn’t show much emotion on the exterior – he’s like the Still Waters in the title – there’s a world going on under the surface. I first connected to the anger in this character, and I think that resonates with many readers.
KC: Who are some of your major influences as a writer? Who are your favorite authors?
AP: It’s my favorite question! Behold, as love-hearts shoot out my eyes. I have too many favorite authors to list, but specific influencers to this book are Andrew Vachss and Jim Thompson. After Dark, My Sweet is perfect, perfect, perfect- everyone should read that book. It’s a masterclass in noir and unreliable narrators.
The Outsiders influenced me deeply, and was an absolute joy to teach year after year which is rare. My kids always connected to it immediately.
And you know this because we were at the residency together, but Laurie Halse Anderson is a YA hero of mine. Her book Twisted was a comparison title I used when querying agents. I took it to get her to sign. I told her about the comp title thing, and she said that made our books siblings. I died. I am dead. I am speaking to you from beyond the grave. ;)
KC: What are you working on now?
AP: I’m finishing edits on my second book, The Falling Between Us, which will come out in March of 2018. It’s about fame and the pressures of fame - the dream of it versus the reality. It’s also about persona – performing as someone other than yourself, and how exhausting that is. The main character is Roxy, the girl-next-door best friend and now secret girlfriend of pop megastar, Joshua Blackbird. When the story starts, the grind of “being Joshua Blackbird” is putting a unique strain on both Joshua and Roxy and their relationship. On the cusp of his second world tour, the push and pull of fame drives them both towards a dangerous precipice…
And that’s coming next year!
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Ash. We can't wait to read the new book!!!!
Last week at a Highlights workshop, I was lucky enough to meet Kara Bietz, a YA author whose recent debut, UNTIL I BREAK deals with the difficult and often morally charged issue of school bullying. Kara was kind enough to share her work with me and her insights into her process in the following interview, as well as to give us a sneak peek into what she's working on now. I hope you enjoy our conversation ...
KC: The first thing that struck me about your debut YA novel, UNTIL I BREAK, (after the arresting cover design) is the way you handle the movement of time in the book, jumping back and forth from the present to the past. What were the main challenges of writing with that kind of structure, and how did you go about it?
KB: The first draft of this story certainly didn't start off this way! As I wrote that draft, I kept thinking that it would be a much more interesting story if we knew the ending FIRST, and then went back and built on why the heck this kid was standing in the school hallway with a gun. As I worked through a backwards version of what I had already written, I had another thought...that going backward wasn't getting to the heart of what was happening, either. That I also needed an element of "future". It was a very muddy writing process, that's for sure, but when I finally landed on the back and forth structure, the story unfolded easily. One of the challenges I did have once I decided on the structure was making sure that each individual timeline could stand on it's own, as well as mesh seamlessly with the other timeline.
KC: The book is written in the first person POV from the protagonist's (Sam's) perspective. Did you have any difficulties writing a first person narrative in the voice of a young man?
KB: When I sit down to write, usually what comes out is the voice of a teenage boy. I don't know what that says about me, honestly, but it's a voice I'm very comfortable with.
KC: The story is fraught with moral complexity. There are no real "good guys" or "bad guys." All the characters feel more like "works in progress," trying to cope with their pasts in a way that helps them to handle their futures, even when their decisions are troubling or morally ambiguous. Thus, they all feel very rounded and true to life. How difficult was it for you to craft characters who are neither all good, nor all bad, but who all make troubling choices?
KB: I think we all have those moments in our past when we've made REALLY TERRIBLE decisions that affected not only ourselves but the people around us as well. No one out there is perfect, and I think it's important to show that one bad decision doesn't have to define you. Will it change your life? Absolutely. Can you recover from it? Absolutely. Life is a series of these decisions...sometimes you make the right one and sometimes you don't. I believe it's imperative that, as writers, we write real people. The good, the bad, the ugly, terrible choices and all.
KC: Can you name some of the authors/books who have influenced you most as a writer?
KB: My favorite writer of all time is Laurie Halse Anderson. Her book SPEAK is what made me sit down and start writing again after many years of keeping that part of me silent. While there are several authors that write about difficult topics, that book in particular showed me that it was okay to write about the not-so-pretty parts of adolescence. The gritty and real things not everyone wants to talk about. Some other influences were Chris Crutcher, Francesca Lia Block and E. Lockhart. During the early drafting phase of Until I Break, I read Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. I remember finishing it and thinking HOLY CRAP...THAT'S how you tell a story. That, in addition to Speak, are books that have stayed with me for years.
KC: What are you working on now?
KB: I am in the thick of a first draft for a new contemporary YA that will be released from Riptide Publishing in the Fall of 2018. It is called UNAFRAID and it is an LGBTQ contemporary YA retelling of the Marius and Eponine story in Les Miserables, set in a football-obsessed, small town Texas high school. I'm really excited about it and proud to be writing it.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and your process with us, Kara! We look forward to UNAFRAID!!!!
When I started writing YA, I was quickly convinced that first person present tense single narrator stories were the way to go. That’s what was big on the market at the time, particularly in the dystopian genre which I loved (still do, actually!) Prior to that, I’d always written third person past tense stories, usually in omniscient POV or occasionally single narrator.
What I’d never done was trying ALTERNATING points of view, whether first or third person and whether present or past tense.
After being converted to first person, single narrator stories, I was addicted. I couldn’t get enough of them. Even if the present tense sounded clunky and sounded like EVERYONE WAS SHOUTING ALL THE TIME because of the immediacy of it, I couldn’t stop writing that way.
Even if I consciously tried to structure my narrative differently, my fingers always slipped back into typing everything from the single character’s POV and usually in the present tense.
Verb tense aside for now – because that’s a whole other blog post – a couple of writing instructors started asking me questions like: Whose story is this really? Should we be seeing some of this from another character’s perspective? For the most part they were right, at least for the stories I worked on with them. They suggested I play with alternating POV chapters. Even if I didn’t keep the new character perspective(s) it would still be a great craft exercise.
Before that advice, I often wrote the same scene in different characters’ perspectives as an exercise to better understand all my characters. However, I hadn’t ever consciously set out to write a story in multiple POVs.
Multiple POV stories have a lot of advantages. Writing this way can be very freeing because you, as the writer, are no longer indelibly locked into one single character’s head.
But a number of issues can arise that you should be aware of if you want to write in this form. They include the following.
Voice. If you’re writing alternate POVs, you have to create each individual narrator from the ground up which means each needs to have an authentic and recognizable voice. That doesn’t mean one of them should speak with a funny accent and the other shouldn’t, but it does mean you want to think about their speech patterns, their though processes, the way they relate to the world around them. How do they move? How do their bodies take up space? Maybe create a notebook or journal for each character with guidelines and rules for how they each speak and react. Then in revision, make sure character A’s traits haven’t slipped into the passages told from character B’s perspective and vice versa. A great example of keeping voices distinct like this can be found in The Walls Around Us by one of my favorite authors and MFA advisors, Nova Ren Suma.
Page Space. Are you going to give your characters equal page space? There are no rules about this. It doesn’t have to be: one chapter for character A; one chapter for character B; rinse and repeat. Character B could simply interject short chapters occasionally to round out the emotional depth of the story. A great example of this is I’ll Meet You There by Heather Demetrios. If the characters don’t have equal page space, there’s a good chance that they’re not joint protagonists i.e. the one with more page space is more likely the true protagonist (the main character who’s internal conflict drives the story) and the second character is more likely to be an antagonist, ally, or other kind of character who helps support or inform the main narrative in some way.
What Goes Where? In revising alternating POV stories, I’ve also found myself confused about which parts of the story should be recounted from which character’s perspective, especially if the two characters are in a lot of scenes together. In fact, if they’re predominantly in the same scenes together, you might ask yourself if the story would better be told from a single character’s perspective. Alternating perspectives probably works best where the second character brings new information to the page from sources unknown to the first character, which will usually involve the second character being in different scenes.
Overall Length of the Manuscript. If you’re writing two distinct leading characters with alternating POVs throughout the story (or possibly even more than two), this may well affect the overall length of your manuscript. While a single POV story can easily be told in a shorter book, the more significant characters whose stories the reader has to follow, the more pages this will take. Obviously that’s not impossible and many readers enjoy longer stories with multiple POVs as long as all the characters are sufficiently engaging to hold reader interest. Leigh Bardugo’s Six of Crows duology is terrific example of this: longer books with large casts of complex characters.
How Soon to Introduce a new POV. This is maybe a more tricky issue, and opinions will vary widely, but introducing a new character’s POV too late in a story can feel jarring to the reader. “How late is too late?” is a subjective inquiry. The answer will depend on your reader and on the story you’re telling. This is an area where a good beta-reader can make a lot of difference. Ask someone else to read the story to see if the new voice is coming in too late. There’s usually a way to introduce a short snippet of the new character earlier in the story that you may not have realized in your first draft, so it’s worth being aware of those opportunities.
I’m sure there are tons of other guidelines for writing in alternating POVs and I’d love to hear from other writers as to how they’ve handled the structure. I’ve not yet published an alternating POV novel, but I’m working doggedly away on a couple of drafts, and could use all the advice I can get!
… can spell the end of your book, or at least set you back a few paces.
It seems unfair that so much emphasis is placed on the first 10-20 pages of a novel. What about all those amazing plot developments in chapter five? That huge reveal in chapter seven that the antagonist is really the protagonist’s long lost [fill in the blank]? And that tear-jerker of an ending!!
But think about it. Are you going to keep reading a book that doesn’t hold your interest in chapter one? Or even page one, paragraph one, or line one?
The beginning of your book has a lot of important work to do:
How do we write that first line, first paragraph, first page, or first chapter with all the weight of the world (or at least the weight of the plot) on its (and our) shoulders?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that your first draft will not be your final draft, so take that weight off your shoulders right now and simply get something down on the page. It doesn’t matter if it’s terrible. It doesn’t even matter if it ends up not being the right place to start the story. In my work as a developmental editor, and in my own writing, I sometimes realize that where the story starts (as currently written) is not its true beginning. I’ll often advise other writers – or myself, as the case may be – to dump the existing first chapters and take any important information from them to sprinkle later into the story when the reader really needs to know it.
You may not know exactly what the reader needs to know at what point in the story until well after you’ve written the first draft, but that’s fine. That’s what revision is for.
A very smart author and one of my favorite M.F.A. advisors once told me that a novel’s beginning “should shake hands with the ending.” This is a reminder of how important the beginning is as the foundation stone of the story. What are you going to seed in the first chapter that will pay off in dividends later? Remember that in the classic hero’s journey (or heroine’s journey), it’s often said that when the hero returns home after her adventure, she must be changed in some significant way. The protagonist at the end of the book is different to the protagonist who first sets out on the journey. She’s been challenged and changed by the story events. Keeping the relationship between the beginning and the ending in mind when you write is a great way to keep a handle on character development.
One of my favorite writing exercises is to picture the final scene of the story and work backwards from there, either drafting or outlining. This will ensure a consistent storyline where the beginning does indeed shake hands with the ending. Most of us outline from the beginning to the end, but doing it the other way around is sometimes helpful.
Of course, now I’m getting into overall story structure when I’m supposed to be talking about beginnings!
What should be in a good beginning?
Well, that’s pretty obvious. I’m sure we’ve all heard something like the following in whatever writing classes we’ve taken or craft books we’ve read:
The first chapter should include a main character in a challenging setting with the promise of an adventure to come. It should introduce the stakes for the character, and the kinds of obstacles likely to be in her way. We also want to see a “hook” or “inciting incident.” As another of my M.F.A. advisors put it, “What makes this day different from any other day in the protagonist’s life?” In other words, what has changed that makes the character need to take action and embark on the story?
The problem is that you can do ALL of this and still have a bad beginning if you fall into any of the following traps:
The dreaded info-dump. This can happen when we’ve introduced all the key elements of the story described above, but have also added a ton of weighty and unnecessary exposition – information about the characters, setting, political scene etc that the reader doesn’t need to know until later, if at all.
Purple prose. Again, you can hit all the important points described above for a good beginning, but immediately alienate your reader with a florid, dense, or even dull writing style. Adjectives and adverbs usually aren’t your friends here. Neither are overly descriptive speech tags in dialogue. “Said” and “asked” are always your best bets.
Disorienting the reader. This is a tricky one. On the one hand we don’t want to give everything away in the first chapter. We want to avoid info-dumps and we want to give the reader some work to do in figuring things out. On the other hand, if you pull all your punches, relying on big reveals later, you may end up with a confused and annoyed reader who puts your book down. You may want your reader to be disoriented in a good way, in a way that makes them want to know more. However, you don’t want them to be frustrated and annoyed with you. In the YA dystopian genre, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi are good examples of books that disorient the reader in a good way. The reader has a lot of questions at the end of those first chapters, but also has a sense of who the protagonist is, what she’s like, what she wants etc.
A specific example of disorienting the reader too much is starting the book with a line of dialogue. Many authors, editors and agents suggest avoiding starting this way because the reader has no idea who’s saying the words, where they are, or why we should care. Of course, many great books and stories DO start with lines of dialogue. The most cited in children’s literature is probably Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. It’s hard to think of a better opening line than: “ ‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”
Note that: (a) this is a GREAT line of dialogue; (b) it does introduce the characters – a mother and a father and a young daughter are all included between the dialogue and the dialogue tag; (c) the fact that Fern and her mother are setting the table for breakfast tells you a little something about the setting. In other words, along with being an exception to the rule, this sentence also does a lot to orient the reader in the story. So if you ARE considering starting with a line of dialogue, make sure you give the reader something to go on about who’s speaking and where they are.
Some other tips about what NOT to start with (and these are all from agents and editors I’ve spoken to) include.
Of course there are exceptions to ALL the rules, like with the dialogue example above, but it’s easier to justify an exception if you understand the rules.
Beginnings are hard. There’s no question about it. And you won’t get it right the first time. You should think about what needs to be in your first chapter, and why, and proceed from there. Your thoughts will change as you draft more of the story and you may decide to draft or outline from back to front or completely out of order. That’s okay. You’ll go back to your opening lines and chapters again and again until they sparkle and they’re ready for prime time. Don’t sweat the early drafts!
(cross posted from Savvy Authors, Feb 1, 2017)
I’ve occasionally received two seemingly contradictory pieces of advice as a writer when I face a problematic section of a manuscript and feel like I can’t go on, so I thought, what better way to try and tease them apart than to blog about it?
Think about those days when you absolutely can’t write another word. You know you’re supposed to. It’s part of your writing schedule. You’re on track to finish this draft if you just get your butt into that chair and do it. You even know what’s supposed to happen in the next scene, so it’s not really writer’s block, but something is stopping you from putting pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard.
Smarter and more experienced writers than I have suggested two strategies to deal with this situation:
1/ Push through the pain and write on. The fact that you are resisting moving forward means there’s something worth digging into there.
2/ Give yourself a break. Maybe your writer’s well is exhausted and you need to take your mind off it and refresh your writing brain.
Both are good pieces of advice and both can work well in the appropriate situation, even though they seem contradictory. I suspect each works in certain situations, but not others, and I have trouble knowing when to move forward versus when to give myself a break. If I'm prevaricating over something I’m scared of writing, I probably need to take the first approach (move forward) but if I'm confused about what happens next, I probably need a break. The risk is that if I confuse the two situations and give myself a break when what I'm facing is fear rather than confusion about what happens next in the story, I might continue to give myself break after break and never finish.
How does a writer know which situation is which?
Sometimes if I force myself to sit and write for 20 minutes however washed out I feel, it becomes obvious pretty quickly whether my brain needs a rest or whether I was only scared. If the 20 minutes turns seamlessly into two hours without me noticing the time flying by, I was likely in the first (fear) scenario, but if I literally can’t write another word after five minutes, chances are that I was in the second (exhaustion) scenario.
What do I do if I can't even get as far as sitting down to write for 20 minutes?
Maybe I need to ask myself the question: Do I know what happens next in my story?
If I do and I’m simply resisting writing it, chances are I’m facing fear rather than exhaustion and I need to make myself sit down and do it.
If I have no idea what the characters are going to do next, chances are I need to refill my creative well before I write anything.
Has anyone else ever faced this “fight or flight” conundrum with a particular scene, chapter or story? Any other good tips for how to deal with the problem?
I’m delighted to be sharing my fourth (count them – four!!) interview with YA author extraordinaire, Mindy McGinnis, on her FOURTH novel today. She’s one of the most exciting and eclectic YA writers out there, and she also loves cats! When I asked her about her recently released YA novel, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, here’s what she had to say ...
KC: THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES is a very different book for you, although your novels to date have been somewhat eclectic in terms of genre (dystopian, historical fiction/horror, and now teen vigilante justice). In your author notes you say that you'd actually written a draft of this book 15 years ago and decided to dust it off now. What was the original inspiration for the book, what prompted you to dust it off now, and what were the main things that changed between the original version and the final published version?
MM: I was in college when I ran into the inspiration for SPECIES. I never had cable television growing up, so my freshman year in a dorm I was suddenly mainlining all kinds of things, but especially true crime. I watched a mini-doc about a girl who had been raped and murdered in a small town, but there wasn't enough evidence to convict. Even so, everyone knew who did it. I was watching this becoming more incensed, and realized, that if I were capable of it, I could easily find this town, find that mine, and take care of things myself. Then I thought it was probably time to turn off the TV.
KC: If I'm remembering correctly, this is the first book you've written from multiple/alternating points of view. Did you find writing the alternating characters' viewpoints challenging or freeing, or a little of both?
MM: It was my first time for alternating POV's, although I was also drafting a fantasy (GIVEN TO THE SEA) at the same time, which has four alternating POV's, two male and two female. Even so, SPECIES came first, and more importantly than being my first POV dive, it was my first time writing a male MC, first person. So that was something I wanted to make sure I got right. I had various male readers and critique partners, so that I would know I was in the head of a teen boy, both for the good and the bad.
KC: This is also your first contemporary YA - your previous books have been set respectively in the future and the past. How did you find the worldbuilding aspects of creating a contemporary township for this book versus a dystopia (in your NOT A DROP TO DRINK duology) and a historically accurate past (in A MADNESS SO DISCREET)?
MM: Ha - this one was a breeze in that respect! I've worked in a high school for 15 years, so I know the voice, I know the small town environment, and I know the narrators. Once when I was writing MADNESS I had to stop and do 15 minutes of research just to figure out what policemen were called in 1890 Boston. Here... so much easier!
KC: One thing that has stayed with me very viscerally since reading the book is your depiction of the scene where the cop speaks at the high school assembly about drug and alcohol abuse and does so in a very different way to what the students (and probably readers) were expecting. What was the inspiration for Officer Nolan's character and how did you come up with his approach to educating teens about alcohol and drugs?
MM: We had a task force come into the school to educate the staff about different drugs, their uses / effects and paraphernalia. The guy was amazing, because he made everything personal. But he also talked to us like adults (which we were), and I couldn't help but think, Geez, I wish he could come in and talk to the kids like that. Whenever there's an assembly that is about safety - drugs, alcohol, sex, whatever - it's typically condescending and very antiseptic. They kids are bored and it has no impact. So I wrote what I thought would actually work.
KC: Do you have a plan for your next book that you can share with us?
MM: I do! My first fantasy, titled GIVEN TO THE SEA will be releasing from Penguin/Putnam on April 11, 2017. It is the first in a duology. I also have another contemporary coming from Harper in the Fall of 2017, titled THIS DARKNESS MINE.
Thanks for sharing your time and thoughts with us, Mindy. Write on!
I love to read books and chat with other authors about their work. Here's where I share my thoughts about writing (the craft and business/legal aspects of the writing life) and my interviews with other authors. Feel free to visit and add comments anytime!