Show of hands – who’s looked at social media posts from favorite authors and coveted (no, that’s not one of the c words … keep reading) that author’s success? And since we all know how real those social media posts are, I’m going to share with you my C-tips.
We’ve all heard that there are no unique stories to be told, that it’s only our personal spin that makes a version of the story stand out. Our super-power as writers is to see the magic in the ordinary. A headline or inanimate object or a person in the grocery store line can trigger an avalanche of story ideas.
A couple of years ago, my son and I took an ice cream making class/tour at a local boutique ice cream maker’s factory. At one point while listening to the owner explain the process, I realized I was watching a character in the book I was working on. The character in the book is male and looks nothing like her, but I’d been struggling to who he was and what he did. I can’t tell you what it was about her that triggered the connection, but standing in front of me, waxing poetic about cream was the missing piece of my book.
Last year, while driving from Maryland to Ohio for a climbing competition, I was staring out the window (no I wasn’t driving), daydreaming (okay, trying to distract myself from the speedometer) when I caught sight of two signs—one for an artisan village and another for a lake-side rental community of tiny houses. Four hours later when we arrived at our hotel, I had the premise for my work-in-progress.
I don’t recommend eye-balling strangers or standing on the side of a highway and staring at road signs, but I do suggest keeping your eyes and mind open to everything around you. Creativity is taking a kernel of an idea and transforming it into a world with living, breathing people; a world that readers want to disappear into.
My trigger for writing is coffee. Anytime I sit to write, I have to have a mug next to me.
Don’t worry, I’m not trying to convert anyone (but if you’re interested, I can recommend a few amazing micro-roasters J ). For some, the trigger can be a diet Coke or tea or lighting a candle or whatever flips the switch on your brain from sloth mode to writer mode.
When I worked as an editor and then in the corporate world, my colleagues knew that when the big mug came out and I shut my office door, it was the equivalent of a do-not-disturb sign. I’ve never believed that writing happens when the mood strikes. Writing is my work. Writing happens when I sit at my computer. That giant mug next to me is the do-not-disturb sign to the brain squirrels (now if I could only teach those squirrels how to read that sign! And make coffee!!!).
This is a fun one and one I feel particularly well equipped to talk about because, my friends, I have the confidence of a chipmunk in an open field with hawks circling overhead.
When I first started writing fiction, it wasn’t with publishing in mind. I was looking for a creative outlet, nothing more. I didn’t even show my work to anyone for the longest time. But once the decision was made to pursue writing as a career, this little chipmunk had to strap on a helmet and tackle the gauntlet – critique partners, agents, editors, readers. And because I had extra confidence to toss about, I helped launch a writing association and started a side-gig as a book coach.
Want to see the helmet now? It looks like a golf ball. But here’s the thing, I’m still out there dodging the hawks. No, my writing style isn’t for everyone. And no, my critique/coaching style isn’t for everyone either. But it is for some and those people are the ones who help motivate me to keep moving.
Another fun one. I have a wee problem with control. I need it. So yeah, making writing my career choice may not have been the smartest move. Then again, we don’t have control over everything in life either, do we?
I’ve learned to focus on what I can control – write the best book possible, surround myself with writing buddies who are positive and supportive, retreat to my writing cave and disconnect from social media when I need an emotional break.
As for the things I can’t control – reviews, rejections, everyone else’s perfect lives on social media – I shrug off as much as possible. And on the days when my shrugger is broken, I refocus on something positive (or take a kick-boxing class).
Actually, cat memes or dog memes or squirrel memes or whatever entertains you when your brain starts spinning and spitting out nonsense words. Because, let’s face it, we can’t write all the time and – hold the judgement – social media can be amazing for inspiration (don’t believe me? Check out this post.)
I could have also used another C word here: crochet. The yarn projects are a fabulous way for me to work through plot problems or story frustrations. That whole “busy fingers, quiet brain” thing really does work. Whether it’s yarn or painting or exercising or baking or gardening or whatever releases your brain cells from the tight grip of creating and allows them to roam and relax, embrace it.
What are some of your tips and tricks for maintaining your sanity (stop laughing!!!) with your writing?
After years in the corporate world (most of it in the space industry), Orly Konig took a leap into the creative world of fiction. She is the founding president of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association and an active member of the Tall Poppy Writers. When she’s not taking pictures of her cats or chauffeuring her son around, she’s helping writers as a book coach and working on her next novel.
Readers may not judge a book by its cover, but they will judge it by its opening scene.
An opening scene has but one job—to establish the story and convince readers to read the next scene. That’s a lot to ask of a single scene, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds. Readers aren’t expecting the entire book in that opening, just enough to capture their attention and let them know the story is going to worth their time.
Here are three things you can do to ensure those readers stick around.
- Pose a Question Readers Want to See Answered
No matter what kind of book it is, there’s a story question that needs to be answered by the end. In a romance, it’s “How will these two people fall in love?”. In a mystery, it’s “Whodunnit?” Thrillers make you wonder “How will the heroes save the day?”
If a reader got as far as reading the opening scene, the general question of the genre or story type already intrigues them, so all you need to do is capitalize on that. Why should a reader want to see your couple fall in love? What makes this mystery a better read than someone else’s? What’s going to thrill in this thriller? Essentially, “Where is this story going?”
Many opening scenes that fail to grab readers don’t offer a question to suggest where the plot is going to go. They explain the situation, describe the characters, dump a lot of backstory, or show them existing in their world without anything really going on.
No questions. Nothing to wonder about. No sense of a plot or story unfolding.
A strong opening scene creates an interesting situation where something is left unanswered. It lets readers know the plot is moving forward and there’s something to pursue. They want to know what comes next, because you’ve clearly shown that there is indeed a “next,” and so far, it looks pretty cool.
A good example here is Jay Asher’s, 13 Reasons Why. A box of cassette tapes is delivered to Clay. On the first tape is Hannah, a girl at school (and Clay’s crush) who just killed herself. She says the reason why is on the tapes, and if you’re listening, you’re one of the reasons.
“Why did Hannah kill herself?” makes readers want to know, same as the boy who received the tapes. You know the story will answer that, and other questions as well.
Show readers the story is going somewhere, and that it’ll be worth their time to find out where.
2. Catch Readers Off Guard with Something Unexpected
I’ve bought books based on an unusual opening line or page alone, so don’t underestimate the power of the unexpected.
Defying expectations from the start lets readers know this won’t be the same old story they’ve read before (even if they love those stories). This one offers something new, a different view or angle, or even a fresh twist to a classic plot.
Things unexpected also suggests that the book will be full of surprises to keep readers guessing, and have a plot that isn’t predictable. They’ll pay more attention to what’s happening in every scene, because they’ll never know what twist or unusual detail might come next.
Even unexpected language or turns of phrase can catch a reader’s attention. Unusual pairings of words, an odd comment made at the right time, a wry way of viewing the world can all create a sense that this story isn’t relying on clichés or tropes, but offers a unique voice and perspective.
A fun example here is Susan Elizabeth Phillip’s Natural Born Charmer. It opens with a woman in a beaver costume on the side of the road, and the man who stops to see if she needs help. “You got a gun?” the woman asks. “Not with me.” “Then I got no use for you.”
It’s quirky, it’s unexpected, and it makes you want to know exactly how this situation came to be. But it also lets you know that this is a romance that won’t be boring.
Predictable is boring, so piquing curiosity right from the start promises readers this novel will surprise them.
3. Give Readers a Reason to Care
Not caring is a major reason for putting down a book, and it’s easy to lose readers in an opening scene. They haven’t read enough of the book yet to know why these characters are wonderful, or why this problem is fascinating, or how this puzzle is a brain bender.
All they know, is they read a bunch of “stuff” they didn’t give a hoot about.
Which is both harsh and hard, I know. This is the aspect most difficult for writers to pull off, because it’s ambiguous what “a reason to care” is. Every reader is different, and what appeals to one won’t to another.
In most cases, showing a character with likable or compelling traits makes them care. We like nice people, or people in situations we know are hard, or those in trouble we can relate to.
Maybe show the protagonist caring about or helping others, or have them display a likable trait, such as a clever wit or self-deprecating manner. Make readers laugh and you can hook them every time.
If the character isn’t likable (and not every protagonist is), show what makes them fascinating, or fearsome, or downright creepy.
It doesn’t matter what readers care about, as long as something in the opening scene makes them decide this book is worth reading.
In Jennifer Crusie’s Anyone But You, the story opens with the recently divorced Nina at the pound looking for a puppy. What she finds, is Fred, an old, morose basset hound on his final day. He’s the last thing she needs, but she can’t leave him to die, so she adopts and brings him home.
Saving a depressed dog on his last day is enough to make anyone likable, but Nina’s wit and charm and her instant love for Fred make her a character to root for.
Once readers make an emotional investment in the story, they’ll stay to see how it turns out.
How you open that novel determines whether or not your reader keeps reading. Any one of these can hook a reader and pull them into the book, but if you can do all three, you’ll increase your odds of hitting opening scene jackpot.
What are some of your favorite openings? What about them grabbed you?
Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy. When she's not writing fiction, she runs the popular writing site Fiction University, and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series. Sign up for her newsletter and receive 25 Ways to Strengthen Your Writing Right Now free.
by Fae Rowen
Not often, but sometimes I return to my teen experiences to help connect with a past emotion. It helps me get into a deep point of view by remembering something that happened. Since Young Adult Science Fiction is one of the genres I write in, this is a cool trick. But I also use it for my adult science fiction.
I vaguely remember my mother's words when she tried to soothe my first teenage love-gone-wrong.
Puppy love. He didn't deserve you. He lives too far away.
There were a lot more comments ranging from sympathy to aggravation on her part. For my part, I was just miserable.
How did it happen?
I was accepted to a National Science Foundation math program at State Diego State University. The six-week summer course included fifty math students and fifty chemistry students from around the U.S. It was an exciting way to spend the summer between my junior and senior year in high school.
I was in the math program, taking the equivalent of sixteen lower division units and nine upper division units of math and computer science classes from specially selected professors for the program. The female math and chemistry students were housed on the top floor of a dorm at the far end of campus.
The male students were housed in a dorm on the other end of the huge campus. You had to walk past fraternity row to get to the classroom buildings and the guys' dorm. Since the female curfew was 7 p.m., the chem guys, who had no curfew, visited our dorm. Every night. (I'm sorry to say that the math guys stayed in their dorm and did homework.)
Now, I was supposed to be doing tons of homework every night. But the chemistry guys were all so cute, and I didn't ever get to talk to them unless I hung out downstairs in the rec room, which I was happy to do since there was a pingpong table.
Did I mention I'd been playing pingpong every night since my eighth birthday, when my parents gave me a ping pong table for my birthday?
We set it up in our unfinished living room. Every night I'd lose to my father, who never believed in letting me win at any game.
But I got better. Unfortunately he did, too. Finally, I started winning. Sometimes. By that summer, I was unstoppable. In the dorm, the word spread, and every night there was a line of guys waiting to try to defeat me. That's how I met John.
Not John, but a close facsimile...
John was not only a gifted chemistry student, he was on his school's debate team and football team. And he was cute. After a week, he'd be waiting outside my math classroom to walk hand-in-hand with me to lunch and dinner in the cafeteria. When a food fight broke out the third night we were served "mystery meatballs," he shoved me under the table and threw volleys of food across the room until security broke up the fight. Nothing happened to the high school students, but we all got a lecture in our classes the next day.
On week-ends the program took both groups to local points of interest, including the beach. Even though my studies were suffering, I finally got my first kiss. It was so amazing. I don't think it was John's…
We promised to write, and we did. That summer, my family vacation came within a hundred miles of John's hometown. I went on a hunger strike for four days, and my father finally caved and agreed to drop me off at John's house and wait for an hour. I was so excited.
John's mother opened the door and told me John was at football practice. He wouldn't be home for two more hours. When she found out my dad was outside, she invited him in, and gave us something from the kitchen. I don't remember what it was. I was in shock. I don't remember what they talked about, either. It probably wasn't anything good for John and me.
After an hour, my dad and I left. He didn't lecture or tease me.
John's letter arrived in two days. Full of apologies. In a month he'd be traveling five hundred miles to a college two hours away from me for a debate tournament. Could I meet him there?
I talked my dad into letting me take the car there. Alone.
I watched John debate. He was good. He won the tournament. And it was football season. He looked great. But we didn't have that much time to talk and I drove home, feeling sad. I knew my long-distance romance wasn't going to last.
We wrote-not so often-into our freshman year in college, but we were just friends by then. He told me about his girlfriends; I told him about my boyfriend.
With the wisdom of age and experience now, I recognize the bittersweet feeling of loss. I understand that first blush of love—innocent and laced with boundless hope and excitement.
And that's what I relive when writing in my YA voice. I become that girl on the roof of my three-story dorm throwing water balloons at the guys arriving at the dorm. I become the wishful, dewy-eyed innocent wishing for that first kiss—afraid to make the first move because I had no idea what that move should be and, heck, I was a mathematician-in-training. I needed to be able to prove everything was correct before I committed.
Young Adult stories are all about the new emotions, the conflicted yearnings, the fears—if you get what you want AND if you don't get what you want. Yes, it's not easy going back to those times and reliving your own feelings, but that's where your own YA voice is. Reminisce. Dust off your teen voice. Your adult WIP will thank you.
Have you used your own YA experiences in your writing? A riff on them?
Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.
P.R.I.S.M., Fae's debut book, a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, and love is now available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.Fae's second book in the series will be available for pre-order October 1, 2019.
by Chris Lentz
Every “book baby” presents challenges. But when I was honored to be asked to write the biography of an incredible entrepreneur and philanthropist—who’d just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which briskly became a death sentence—my latest book baby became a unique challenge altogether.
As if the project wasn’t daunting enough, the subject was my father-in-law.
I write fiction, but I found that much of the strategy and craft authors use with a romance or a thriller applies to constructing a biography, like:
- Introducing the hero and his/her dreams and desires
- Enabling readers to experience the hero’s journey, with its many conflicts and conquests
- Presenting the hero’s transformation
After researching, compiling and writing Opening Doors: Jim Swenson’s Life of Grit, Gratitude and Giving, I came away with a list of top five lessons. They may work for you. They may not. All I know is this approach resulted in the book landing at #5 on an Amazon HOT NEW RELEASES list for biographies and a review that said, “I couldn’t put it down and I burned the corn on the stove.” Cool, huh?
Lesson #1. Do your homework
If the person is alive, your best source of information is that person. Before you start interviewing, make a list of questions that dig into:
- Events that shaped or changed the person’s life
- Obstacles the person overcame
- Risks that paid off and those that didn’t
Also, ask questions that go beyond the what the subject did to focus on the why.
It was clear that Jim was going to have to be vulnerable for this book to work. For a first-born, overachiever, Jim was not known for vulnerability. I had to strategically and creatively approach him with questions and prompts to get the stories behind his stories.
I also asked about the parts of his life that were more jagged than smooth. Like hunger. Like alcoholism. Like death. Those kinds of struggles often spark a significant change and accomplishment in life.
My advice: Surround yourself with mountains of information that you can mine later in the writing process.
Lesson #2. Think broadly
I suspect that many first drafts of biographies resemble history textbooks. But if you’re hoping to attract, enlighten and entertain readers, then a different approach is needed. With Opening Doors, I determined the best book I could write wouldn’t be Jim’s entire life story. Rather, it would be a story about his life and the impact he had—and continues to have—on others.
I needed to review and study the high points of his life so I could tell his story in a panorama with the broadest of strokes and unify it with a theme. The idea: opening doors…doors that had been opened for him and the many more he continues to open for others.
My advice: Identify a theme and connect as much as you can back to that theme.
Lesson #3. Write narrowly
The book needed a structure that met the needs of today’s readers: bite-size nuggets, easy to scan, lots of dialogue and some clear takeaways.
My decision was to work within a three-part structure:
- What he did
- What he learned
- What he’s remembered for
In the first section, the milestones of Jim’s life are laid out in decade-specific chunks. To help transport the reader back in time, I incorporated some headlines of the day. The goal here was to set the context for the next section.
In the middle of the book, the focus is on 13 tried-and-true tips for opening new doors that Jim wished he’d known back when he faced far too many closed doors. This is where his recollections and anecdotes support each of the 13 tips.
The final section is all about tributes. Readers will find eulogies, testimonials and various articles and posts about Jim and his accomplishments.
My advice: Let the subject of the book tell the story, but also allow other voices to tell their stories about the impact of the biography’s subject.
Lesson #4. Capture and connect moments
Jim was a storyteller. And, thankfully, he was a consistent storyteller. His stories were usually grand on their own telling. No fish-story treatment was needed or occurred over his lifetime.
What we did together during his final weeks was search for and capture the meaning of those stories…the feelings, the emotions and, most importantly, the lessons.
In researching ways to write a biography, I realized and shared with Jim that we needed to keep in mind that his stories are his, the events they’re about are not. Memories of those events also belong to friends, family members, co-workers…none of whom asked to be in the book.
After Jim’s passing, I scoured the manuscript to find any passages that might be problematic. And, I held back entire incidents and/or details to protect people who may not be ready to have that information shared about them.
My advice: Tell the truth.
Lesson #5. Write with your heart
You’re going to be devoting much time and energy to this project. You might as well care deeply for your subject, either positively or negatively. Your emotional connection to the subject will bleed through.
I worked hard to publish a book that creates an emotional journey…one that puts the reader in the subject’s shoes. I wanted readers to come away knowing what Jim dreamed about, struggled with and was successful with.
My advice: Devoting your energy and resources to a project like this should be for the joy of it.
Some readers will need more than text, so the print version of Opening Doors features more than 130 photos. And, because of Jim’s love of reading, education and children, the purchase of Opening Doors supports Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library book-gifting program.
Those are the top five lessons I learned writing my first biography. I suspect everyone’s encounters with projects like this one are different. Please take a moment to share your thoughts below.
Are there any tips you’d like to offer about writing a biography? What do you like most/least when you read a biography?
* * * * * *
Christopher Lentz is the acclaimed author of Opening Doors (biography, 2019), My Friend Marilyn (historical fiction, 2018) and The Blossom Trilogy (historical romance). His books are about hope, second chances and outcasts overcoming obstacles. But most of all, they’re about how love changes everything.
Lentz made his mark as a corporate-marketing executive before becoming a full-time storyteller. He resides in Southern California with his high-school-sweetheart wife and family. To learn more, please visit www.christopherlentz.org or www.blossomtrilogy.com.
"Where do you get your ideas?" Every writer has been asked this at least a dozen times. In fact, famous authors have come up with outrageous answers, so they don't have to go into it. Think I'm kidding?
"From the Idea-of-the-Month Club." – Neil Gaiman
"The Idea Book. It’s loaded with excellent plot ideas," he said. "I have a subscription, of course, and as soon as I get my copy I write in and select half a dozen ideas and get clearance on them, so that no other subscriber will go ahead and write them. Then I just work up stories around those ideas." – Lawrence Block
I don’t get them, they get me. – Robertson Davies
I've always been fascinated by this subject. At the same time, I'm reluctant to talk about it. Because I don't know. After all, if you're not in control of the ideas, they could just stop coming, and then where would you be? It's probably my biggest fear as a writer. Every new idea I have for a book is golden, because I wasn't at all convinced I'd get another.
Stephen King said once (sorry, I can't find the exact quote) that it's like there's this invisible stream over our heads, and writers tap into it, and the idea flows to them. Someone also said an idea is like a buried stone you trip over, and you think, "What is that'?" And dig until you see it all.
Michelangelo had another version:
Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.
I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.
Wherever they come from, our job is not only to recognize ideas, but to get GOOD ones. Who hasn't had their interest piqued by an interesting tidbit, only to realize that it's not enough for a full-blown story? (And the goal is to discover this before you write the whole book, right?)
I don't pretend to know where ideas come from, but I do know where I'm more likely to get them. I don't mean a physical location—I mean my state of mind. My best ideas came when I was bored. I got my very first plot idea on the back of my husband's motorcycle (I hadn't started riding my own yet). We lived in Southern California, and it's hard to get anywhere without going through desert. Nothing against deserts, but after hours, your mind wanders, plays, and begins to put disparate things together. That's the state of mind we avoid in our busy everyday lives, but for me, it's where ideas live.
I've talked to a lot of artists—painters, writers, musicians—many of whom have had great ideas on trains. The only explanation I have is all that stuff is coming at you while you're relaxed, so somehow it kicks you into hyperspace in terms of brain function. – Peter Gabriel
Neil Gaiman told his daughter's class of seven-year-olds: "You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it."
Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don’t see any. – Orson Scott Card
Let's get one thing clear right now, shall we? There is no Idea Dump, no Story Central, no Island of the Buried Bestsellers; good story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere, sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn't to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up. –Stephen King
Like the ideas for some of my other novels, that came to me in a dream…I fell asleep on the plane, and dreamt about a woman who held a writer prisoner and killed him, skinned him, fed the remains to her pig and bound his novel in human skin. His skin, the writer’s skin. I said to myself, "I have to write this story." Of course, the plot changed quite a bit in the telling. But I wrote the first forty or fifty pages right on the landing here, between the ground floor and the first floor of the hotel. – Stephen King on Misery
One night, I was lying in bed and I was very tired, and I was just sort of channel surfing on television. And, I was going through, flipping through images of reality television where there were these young people competing for a million dollars or a bachelor or whatever. And then I was flipping and I was seeing footage from the Iraq War. And these two things began to sort of fuse together in a very unsettling way, and that is when I, really, I think was the moment where I really got the idea for Katniss’s story. – Suzanne Collins
Where do you think ideas come from? What is your state of mind when ideas come to you?
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