Monday, July 5, 2021

Six Vital Elements in Your Novel's Opening Chapter- Guest Blog C. S. Lakin

 Hope you enjoy and GROW by this great blog by C. S. Lakin on her blog, Live, Write, Thrive.  It's a keeper for us novelists!  --Elva

The 6 Necessary Elements in Your Novel’s Opening Chapters  By C.S. Lakin



Writing a novel is a massive undertaking. It doesn’t matter if you’ve written one or thirty.

And even after studying countless how-to books on fiction writing and taking workshops and listening to podcasts, many aspiring writers still flounder.

Why is that? Because there is so much to learn, and if you undertake this mission to learn without focusing first on the most important elements of a story, you can waste a lot of time.

Yes, it’s important to learn how to craft great characters. And write distilled, effective dialogue. And have a riveting plot. But that’s not enough.

I do more than 200 manuscript critiques a year, some by beginning writers and others by seasoned authors. Regardless, I can tell you this as fact:

Very few of these manuscripts hold up structurally. Very few have stellar writing.

Very few accomplish what those first few chapters must do.

What is that, you might ask?

  1. Setup of a strong, compelling, empathetic protagonist. You need your reader to bond with your protagonist in the first page or two (of the first scene he or she is in). Unless you have a terrific prologue to launch your story (meaning, it’s just what your premise and story line need), you should be starting your novel with your protagonist. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, but if you’re a novice writer, I would highly recommend this course. If you’re not clear on how to create a compelling protagonist, read some of my posts on the topic. Just know, though, this is paramount. Without that compelling protagonist, your novel is going to flop.
  2. Get the protagonist’s core need, motivation, and life situation clear. You might think this is a no-brainer, but this is severely lacking in a lot of manuscripts I critique. Part of setting up that main character is revealing these key facets about him. Start your story in the middle of something important happening in his life that will reveal his living situation, his immediate problems and concerns, his work and lifestyle, his deepest hopes and dreams and fears. This is all key to story structure and preparation for the inciting incident to come.
  3. Present the inciting incident. This comes close to the start of your novel. Usually by the 10% mark. But when you are just starting your novel, you don’t know what will end up being 10%. So it’s easier to think in terms of scenes. Get the opening scene or two setting things up so you can slam your character with that incident. Without proper setup of your protagonist, which means risking the bond and concern for what happens to him, that incident may fall flat. You need to first get your reader to like, care, and understand—to some extent—what he’s about.
  4. Introduce key supporting characters. These opening chapters need to set up your protagonist’s world populated by character types: family, friends, rivals, love interests, etc. These all need clear roles and should have unique personalities and voices (which includes the narrative voice if they have their own POV scenes).
  5. Hint at the stakes, and make them high. The more stakes, both personal and public, you can create, the better. But they need to be believable and appropriate. In other words, if you have a boring, weak concept without any kicker, throwing in a ton of danger and conflict that is random and meaningless won’t do anything to hype up the tension in your story. Again, I have gobs of posts and chapters in my writing craft books on conflict, stakes, and tension. Do your homework if you need to learn all this.
  6. Get that protagonist’s goal in sight! Fifty pages will sometimes get you to that 25% mark in the novel, at which point the hero’s goal for the novel is locked into place. If you’re writing a long novel, by page fifty, your character might not be at that turning point yet, but he should be getting close. All scenes should be propelling your character to that important point. What I see in a lot of novels is a string of scenes, random events and interchanges that don’t seem to have any point to them.

While there is a whole lot more needed in the opening chapters, these are just some key ones that you need to be aware of.

Those opening scenes work as a litmus test for the rest of a manuscript. In other words, if these first scenes reveal serious flaws, more than likely the rest of the scenes will be infected as well.

Here’s the thing: if you haven’t written a lot of novels and gotten professional feedback to show you what you’re missing or weak in, you may spend years pumping out drafts of novels and getting nowhere.

How serious are you about writing a terrific novel? So many writers wouldn’t think about spending their hard-earned money on hiring an editor or writing coach. While serious about developing a writing career, maybe even hoping to make a real “living” at it, they don’t think they need to invest monetarily in their “training” other than to perhaps buy some books.

Think about the amount of money people pour into education and getting a college degree. Or maybe think about what you spent on that trip you took (pre-Covid), a week maybe of fun on holiday but left just fleeting memories.

How much is your writing career worth?

Here’s the thing about writing fiction, though: you often don’t know what you need to improve upon until someone with experience points it out. It’s not like in basketball where it’s obvious your jump shot or free throw sucks.

Writers can spend years trying to improve their stories, thinking they’re applying all the many things they’re learning. But the most egregious issues are often staring right at them and they can’t see them.

It is a bit of not seeing the forest for the trees.

Think about how much time you’re willing to tinker with your writing, hoping one day you’ll write well enough to hit those best-seller lists or get gobs of 5-star reviews.

Wouldn’t you want to know if you are wasting your time? Wouldn’t you like to know what your strengths and weaknesses are so that you can target those weaknesses and improve and bolster those strengths to develop a strong writing style? It’s doable!

Consider having a fifty-page critique, maybe even an outline critique. If you’re struggling with your ideas and story concept and need help putting it all in order, or you want to know if your premise has potential, book a phone consultation with me and we will discuss!

You can read all about my critique services, rates, and formatting requirements HERE. Don’t waste another moment guessing what’s wrong with your manuscript. Make the commitment to do all you can to become the best writer you can be!

                                                                    ***


Hope you're having a blessed, safe summer!

Elva 


Elva Cobb Martin is a mother and grandmother who lives in upstate South Carolina. She is the president of  ACFW-SC Chapter. All her Christian romance novels have spent time on Amazon's 100 Bestseller's list for Women's Religious Fiction. 

Link to her books on Amazon https://amzn.to/2ksRfTw

Connect with Elva


Monday, June 7, 2021

 Researching my current novel in progress, The Captain's Governess, which is set in Jamaica, I came across this timely historical note for today, June 7. Here's the scoop of Port Royal's destruction one sunny summer day. Was it a judgment of God? Some thought so.

   

Here's how history records the destruction:   On June 7, 1692, a massive earthquake devastated the town of Port Royal in Jamaica, killing thousands. The strong tremors, soil liquefaction, and a tsunami brought on by the earthquake combined to destroy the entire town.

 The earthquake occurred without warning on the morning of Tuesday the 7th June at 11:15a. m., and continued for less than 15 minutes, during which time it destroyed every building or other substantial structure in the Island, a total of nearly 3000.

Port Royal was called the "wickedest city on earth"; a den of pirates, prostitutes, and slavers unlike any the world had ever known. ... It was a city so overrun with liquor, slavers, and prostitution that one in every four buildings was either a bar or a brothel.

Members of the Jamaica Council declared

 "We are become ... an instance of God Almighty's severe judgment," therefore every future "seventh of June ... be kept and observed by all the inhabitants of this Island, as an anniversary day of fasting and humiliation, in hopes that acknowledging "manifold sins and wickednesses committed against his Divine Majesty, may "appease God's imminent wrath and prevent heavier judgments."



Eye-witness Rev. Emmanuel Heath, the Anglican rector for Port Royal, had finished his morning prayer service at St Paul's Church and was meeting with John White, president of the island's council, when the floor began "rowling and moving" and they "heard the church and tower fall." 

Rev. Heath wrote:  "Port Royal was terribly destroyed by an earthquake and breaking in of the sea upon it. The destruction was sudden ... in four minutes multitudes were killed by the falling houses. I believe God I never in my life saw such a terror ... the earth opened and swallowed up people before my face ...The sea swallowed up the greatest part of that wretched sinful place ... They are so wicked, I fear God ... will utterly destroy all by this dreadful Judgment ...

 By this terrible judgment, God will make them reform their lives, for there was not a more ungodly people on the face of the earth."

So goes the story of the destruction of Port Royal on June 7, 1692. Today the site is one of the most important underwater sites in the world with its rich repository of historic shipwrecks and the city of Port Royal.




Hope you find history like this as interesting as I do.

Blessings,
Elva 


Elva Cobb Martin is a mother and grandmother who lives in upstate South Carolina. She is the president of  ACFW-SC Chapter. All her Christian romance novels have spent time on Amazon's 100 Bestseller's list for Women's Religious Fiction. 

Link to her books on Amazon https://amzn.to/2ksRfTw

Connect with Elva

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

No Error-Free Books - Guest Post by Editor Ramona Richards

Why Perfection Is the Impossible Dream

By Ramona Richards, Editor, Iron Stream Media & award-winning author


In a fair land far away (Tennessee in the ’70s), I majored in English. Twice. The first time I had a minor in Modern European Studies (multiple classes in history, politics, and foreign languages) and an emphasis in grammar and composition. I took advanced classes in both. I can diagram sentences from James Joyce (yes, that was one of the exercises). I loved it.


Repeat that. Loved it. Correct grammar became a passion. People were afraid to write me letters. I became a grammar dictator.

 

The second time, for my master’s degree, I had to take a foreign language. German. Which taught me even more about grammar (German and English have similar Indo-European roots). By the time those degrees were in hand, I had Harbrace, and Turabian, and the Chicago Manual of Style, and Strunk & White memorized. I had a red pen grafted to my left hand. I was ready for publishing.

 

Then … I actually got a job in publishing. And here is the first lesson I learned in publishing: There is no such thing as a perfect book.

 

Not that I absorbed this lesson easily. I still remember that first letter of correction from a reader. I was devastated, even though I’d had nothing to do with the book. It had been published long before I even graduated from college.

 

My boss, however, was quite nonchalant, with her “no such thing as a perfect book” lesson. “Ramona, if you get upset over every mistake in a printed book, you’re going to spend your life in a tizzy,” she said gently. “Humans make mistakes. And grammar changes.”

 

Wait. What? Grammar changes?

 

Definitely not something I heard back in that fair land far away. I was just beginning to learn how far away it was. I soon began to read publications like The Editorial Eye, which covered the ongoing changes in grammar. Now I read grammar blogs and CMOS Q&A pages. I went from being a prescriptivist (one who dictates how grammar should beused correctly) to a descriptivist (one who describes how current grammar isused correctly). And I discovered that editing content, editing story, is far more satisfying to me.

 

Above all, I began to truly appreciate the overwhelming beauty of this whackadoodle language we call English. It’s fluid and flexible with rules that guide yet shift. It allows for different stylebooks to flourish (Associated Press is not CMOS is not APA style, and serial commas are not universal). It allows new words to be added and old words to change or vanish. Words are allowed to evolve. Nouns become verbs, and vice versa. Googol, a noun, inspired Google, a proper noun, which became a verb.

 

In fiction as well as nonfiction, English allows for the development of an author’s voice through selective syntax, dialogue, and dialectal phrasings. And I’m always amused at people who desperately fight some usages until they’re added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Then they’re OK, accepted by the “authority” of the OED, which has always been a descriptivistpublication.

 

So what’s my point?

 

My point is that every book has mistakes (even if you don’t catch them) and some grammatical “mistakes” aren’t actually mistakes. When reading a book, try focusing on content, on story, not on the occasional trip-up by a copyeditor. Because if you let a few grammatical mistakes or typos upset your reading of a book, then you are going to overlook some of the most beautiful and well-written (if not well-proofed) books in our language.

 

Don’t get me wrong; in some ways this attitude (books must be perfect) is helpful to authors and publishers. We do take emails about mistakes seriously, and often readers find things that should be corrected. And, once upon a time, complaints about things that are not, in fact, wrong used to have little impact. (I once had a woman complain to me about the use of parentheses in the King James Version of the Bible, since nothing in God’s word is parenthetical. I had to explain to her the evolution of parentheses as punctuation and that in older versions of the KJV, they were perfectly acceptable.)

 

But now we have the internet, where a campaign against a mistake can cost an author a career.

 

Think I’m exaggerating?

 

A publisher I worked for was startled when they were notified that Amazon had pulled the “Buy” button from one of our books because of one reader’s complaints about the “mistakes” in the book. They sent us the list. Of all the “mistakes” on this reader’s list, one was a typo. One was a continuity error. The rest were not mistakes at all, but out-of-date grammar or the author’s voice in dialogue. So, no, these weren’t going to be changed, no matter how much one reader protested. They weren’t wrong; she was.

 

But even though this reader was incorrect on most of her complaints, she cost the author sales. And she has a platform to continue to complain. This was not justified nitpicking; this was just mean.

 

So, I beg of you, when you see mistakes in a published book, don’t grab a red pen and a platform. Don’t wail and jive in Amazon reviews about the lousy copyediting. Be biblical—go straight to the source first. Contact the author or publisher (we’re online everywhere these days), and alert them to the problem. Give them a chance to respond.

 

And if your grammatical knowledge is based on what you learned before 2001, please do not mention split infinitives. They’ve been acceptable since at least 1983, if not before.

 

Or to quote a CMOS Q&A column: “In this day and age, it seems, an injunction against splitting infinitives is one of those shibboleths whose only reason for survival is to give increased meaning to the lives of those who can both identify by name a discrete grammatical, syntactic, or orthographic entity and notice when that entity has been somehow besmirched.”

 

Another reason to love the CMOS folks.

 

It really is OK for us “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

 

And other places.

 

(Photos courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net, Stuart Miles, and digitalart.)

 

TWEETABLE

There is no such thing as a perfect book. When you see mistakes in a published book, don’t grab a red pen and a platform. via @RamonaRichards (Click to tweet.)

 

Ramona Richards is a forty-year veteran of the publishing industry. She is the author of 12 books, including Tracking Changes: One Editor’s Advice to Inspirational Fiction Authors, from which this post was adapted. She is currently an editor with Iron Stream Media and is working on books 13-17. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Seven Things You Can Do with Dialog - Guest blog by Mia Botha



Dialogue is a powerful, but often underutilized, tool in writing. 
Dialogue lets you move away from narration and it allows you to bring your story to life.

TOP TIP: Learn to write better dialogue with The Dialogue Workbook

Good dialogue does the following:

1. Dialogue Advances The Story 

Dialogue forces the writer to make the characters interact. When characters interact you create events and scenarios that bring them closer or further away from achieving their story goal. Get your character off the couch by making them do stuff.

Example:

‘We’re out of milk.’ – what happens when you character goes to the store?

1.     Do they run into an old acquaintance?

2.     Is their card declined?

3.     Do they get caught up in a robbery?

2. Dialogue Makes You Show 

When we only use narrative to tell our story we give our readers a secondary version of the events. When we use dialogue the story comes to life and the readers experience the events for themselves. Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to move your story from telling to showing.

Example:

Telling: Jonathan didn’t want to enroll for a business degree.

Showing:  Alison upended the third and final draw. ‘You have to know where it is. It’s your college acceptance letter. It’s your entire future.’ She rifled through the papers on the desk.

‘I really don’t know, Mom. I haven’t seen it.’ Jonathan didn’t look up. He was putting the finishing touches on his newest drawing. He held the paper up to the light. You could still see the faint outline of the logo that read Harvard Business School, but he darkened the shadow and it disappeared completely. ‘I haven’t seen the letter anywhere. Maybe Dad threw it out when threw out my sketches.’

3. Dialogue Introduces Conflict

Conflict, whether subtle or overt, is a vital part of fiction, but it doesn’t always have to be physical. Dialogue is a great source of conflict.

Example:

‘You never told me about the invitation.’ He stomped to the fridge. The bottles rattled as he yanked open the door.
Beryl took a deep breath and smoothed her skirt. ‘Yes, I did. I said that we were invited and that I accepted.’
‘Well, this is the first I’m hearing of it.’ The bottles rattled again and he slammed it once more. ‘And we’re not going.’
Beryl gathered her clutch and courage. ‘Well, then I guess this the last you’ll hear from me.’ And walked out the door.

4. Dialogue Reveals Character

How we speak reveals so much about who we are. Use your characters’ words to show who they are.

Example:

He adjusted his name tag and moved towards the customer. He needed to close at least one deal today. Aaron stuck out his hand to the nearest guy praying the hulk of a man wouldn’t crush it. ‘Aaron Bronson, pleased to meet you.’
‘Impossible.’ The man loomed overhead. ‘The Aaron Bronson I knew was  a sniveling little brat who tattled to the teacher.’
Aaron tried not to flinch as the bones in his hand cracked and groaned under the increasing pressure. ‘Jonty?’ he squeaked.

5. Dialogue Reveals The Setting 

When you use dialogue to convey setting it will help you to avoid writing long blocks of description.

Example:

Ally followed the dim pool of light as it bounced down the passage. ‘What is this place?’ She shone the torch into a room crowded with old metal beds.
‘It used to be a psych ward. They closed it down in the sixties.’
Candice sounded so nonchalant, but Ally wasn’t fooled.
‘Why are there handcuffs attached to the beds?’
‘It was a ward for the criminally insane.’

6. Dialogue Gives Information 

We need to share a lot of information with our readers. We also should vary how we present our information. Dialogue is a good tool to do that. 

Without dialogue:

He heard them coming down the passage and prayed they weren’t singing for him, but the dreary rendition of ‘Happy Birthday to You’ limped closer and closer to his desk.

With dialogue:

‘Come on,’ someone hissed, ‘light it.’
Jeff cringed. Please don’t. Please don’t let them be coming here.
‘One, two, three.’ A staged whisper. A whiff of sulphur from the matches and then it began.
‘Haaaaa-ppppp-yyyy Birthdaaaaaaaay, dear Je-ffffffff.’
They sang. He shrunk, but they kept limping closer and closer with that off-key twang.

7. Dialogue Increases The Pace

Sometimes we need to speed up our stories and sometimes we need to slow down. Dialogue speeds up the story. Use it when you need to add a bit of a punch to your scene.

Slower:

The crime scene tape fluttered in the breeze. The detectives approached the crime scene with caution and dodged the press by crossing to the other side of the street. They needed to be careful and could not afford another blunder. They were on thin ice with the captain already.

Faster:

Brett glared at the journalists.
‘Vultures,’ he hissed as he crossed the street.
Don held up the crime scene and he ducked under it. The wind tugged at his notebook.
‘Can’t fuck this one up. Not again.’ Brett mumbled as he knelt next to the body.
‘Captain will kill us, that’s for sure.’

The Last Word

Dialogue is an amazing tool to enhance your writing. There are many things you can do with dialogue. When you are stuck or when your scenes seem a little flat, make your characters talk.

TOP TIP: Learn to write better dialogue with The Dialogue Workbook by Mia Botha

                                                                           ***

Hope you enjoyed this guest blog by Mia!

Spring Blessings,

Elva


Elva Cobb Martin is a mother and grandmother who lives in upstate South Carolina. She is the president of  ACFW-SC Chapter. All her Christian romance novels have spent time on Amazon's 100 Bestseller's list for Women's Religious Fiction. 

Link to her books on Amazon https://amzn.to/2ksRfTw

Connect with Elva