I’m currently teaching my First Five Pages class at Lawson Writer’s Academy. I love helping writers strengthen their all-important openings. Joe Zarek is one of my students, and has agreed to allow me to share his ‘before and after’ first page. Kudos to him for working so hard and being willing to share his work to help others!
Here is the before:
“There shall be violence, bloodshed, and death.” The Marshal of the Field’s voice cut through the air, sharp and savage. He scanned the crowd made up of the Queen’s Royal Household, modern-day groundlings and a few goth-girls-in-waiting.
Cheers rang forth from the packed crowds on either side of the jousting field.
Boone smiled—Ah, mid-day May clear blue skies. Cheering crowds thirsting for blood. What’s not to love?
A nasty sinking feeling stirred in the pit of my stomach.
Whoa. That’s weird. Boone thought.
I pat Henri on his firm neck and shoulders, and my eyes fall upon his head and ears.
Henri’s standing fine, but the cock of his ears, and tilt of his head screams something’s off. But what? My eyes bounce from one side of the stands to the other. But, nothing’s out of the ordinary. Ah, it’s a horse thing. Henri’s new to jousting, and Flynn’s horse is older.
“Come on, Henri, we got this.” I pat and rub his shoulders a little firmer.
The Marshal signals us to come forward.
Flynn and I ride towards one another, striking the tips of our lances together.
“Sir Flynn, I love you, brother, but today I win the Queen’s favor,” I said, a slow grin quirked across my mouth.
“Yes, yes, Sir Boone. You’ve said so many times before when you turn twenty-two, you shall best me.” Flynn said, a hint of mockery edging his mouth.
“You know what else I say, Sir Flynn.” A smirk splashed across my face.
“What’s that, Sir Boone?”
“More jousting and less talkie-talkie,” I said, pinch-flapping my fingers.
I lower my visor.
“Good one,” Flynn replies, dropping his visor and bobbing his head up at me.
We part, ride to the ends of the tiltyard, signal each other, raise our lances, and gallop towards one another.
The massive adrenaline rush galloping, horse hooves pounding vibrate up my spine.
We lower our lances at each other’s shield.
Our eyes lock.
A smile explodes from the corners of my mouth.
This time Flynn your mine.
Our lances pass one another, and my eyes focus on the prize—Flynn’s shield.
Nowhere to go now, Flynn.
No, wait. What…? Was that an air horn?
Flynn’s mount throws him.
Flynn’s blazing baby blue eyes and mine both pop wide.
My thoughts: Great tense scene, and well done on the first paragraph; it's not easy to set the scene as contemporary while describing a joust.
I got where Joe was going with this, but there are awkward sentences, tons of dialog tags, and name repetition. Paragraph breaks convey speed and tension, but when there are more than necessary, it makes the read choppy.
It took about four pass through edits, but here is his final version:
St. Louis Renaissance Festival, Wentzville, MO 2020
My horse shifts beneath me, restless. I scan the crowd made up of the Queen's Royal Household, modern-day groundlings, spectators, and a few goth-girls-in-waiting.
All fell silent as the Marshall of the Field sauntered to the middle of the jousting arena. "There shall be violence, bloodshed, and death." His voice cut through the air, sharp and savage.
From the packed stands, cheers ring out.
Ah, mid-day May clear blue skies and cheering crowds thirsting for blood. What’s not to love?
A nasty sinking feeling stirred in the pit of my stomach. I glance down at my mount. He’s standing fine, but the cock of his ears and tilt of his head screams something’s off. I scan the field, but nothing’s out of the ordinary. “Come on, Henri, we got this.” I pat his neck, not sure which of us I’m trying to convince.
The Marshal raises, then drops his hand.
Flynn and I ride forward, striking the tips of our lances together.
“Sir Flynn, I love you, brother, but today I win the Queen’s favor,” my ginormous grin spreads.
“Yes. You’ve declared that when you turn twenty-two, you shall best me. Such donkey prattle is ever amusing, Sir Boone.” His crinkling eyes mock.
“You know what else I say.”
“More jousting and less talkie-talkie,” I say, pinch-flapping my fingers.
"Good one" He deadpans.
I lower my visor. We spin and canter to the ends of the tiltyard, then turn, raise our lances, and gallop towards one another.
The crowd roars, and the massive adrenaline rush of pounding hooves vibrate up my spine.
We lower our lances and raise our shields.
Our eyes lock.
This time, you’re mine.
Our lances pass close, and I stay focused on the prize—Flynn’s shield.
“BWAAAT.” An air horn spooks Flynn’s mount. It rears, and Flynn’s blazing blue eyes pop wide.
See how the scene didn't change at all, but the hundred micro-edits made this scene sparkle? Every single line of your beginning is that important. Spend the time until you are happy with the word choice, cadence, clarity and emotion of every sentence.
It'll be worth it, I promise.
Do you struggle with a story's beginning? Share your questions (and your how-to lessons) down in the comments!
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Laura Drake was one of the founding bloggers here at WITS, and she has a new website! Check it out, and sign up for her newsletter.
Laura is re-releasing her small-town series, Widow's Grove, set in the Central California wine country. Her Road Home released January 7, and The Reasons to Stay releases on Valentine's Day! Check them out!
by Lisa Hall-Wilson
After launching my Deep Point of View Frequently Asked Questions series here on Writers in the Storm, I’m working my way through those questions. Today’s question is: I struggle with the mindset, how to get there and know when you’re there.
The goal of deep point of view is for the reader to feel immersed in the story, to that end, deep point of view (DPOV), works best when you eliminate the feeling of being told a story.
We don’t narrate our own thoughts or actions do we? We’re alone in our own heads. That’s the shift I call the mindset. We need to shift how we capture story. It’s the deep pov drip – like readers are on a direct drip line to what the character is thinking, feeling, deciding, learning, etc. If you can get that right, then telling often ceases to be a problem.
Are You Telling A Story Or Letting Your Character Live Out The Story?
When you, the writer, begin telling a story, the reader doesn’t feel like they’re IN the story any longer. This style is not wrong, but it adds distance and in DPOV the goal is to remove as much distance as possible between the reader and the POVC.
Quite a lot of telling in deep point of view is more properly called author intrusion – places where the author has inserted themselves in the story solely to give the reader information. It’s anywhere that feels as though the writer is now walking alongside the POVC, shushed them and turned to the reader to give them extra info, and then nods to the POVC – I’m done. Carry on.
There's Bob, Cindy's fourth boyfriend this year, but what's he done to his hair?
Can you picture it? The POVC walks into a room and sees Bob. Thinks – there’s Bob. The character knows who Bob is so wouldn’t need to explain to themselves who Bob is or give Bob context, but the writer needs to make sure the reader knows. The writer leans into the story, shushes the POVC and turns to the reader – he’s Cindy’s fourth boyfriend this year. The writer nods to the POVC – they’re clear to continue.
But there are ways to give the reader the necessary info without the writer inserting themselves into the story:
There's Bob, was he Cindy's third or fourth boyfriend this year... What's he done to his hair?
Red Flag Words That Tattle On Storytelling
Sentence construction using "when" or "and then" or "when this" and "then that" often tattles on storytelling. Instead, shift the mindset so that the character is living the story. Does that mean you should never use those words? Of course not, but they are red flags.
I was three days into my one-week vacation when the phone rang.
I walked down the street and then a dog bit my leg.
I hugged myself to keep all the emotions inside when this was the last thing I should've done.
This construction feels like storytelling. Alone in your head with your thoughts, this isn’t how you talk to yourself is it? Would you narrate your day like this to yourself?
Can you see the shift that I’m talking about? There’s no immediacy and there’s a ton of distance. The reader isn’t IN the story, but they’re being told a story. Not wrong, but not deep point of view.
This is written in real time as the character performs these actions: She didn't remember driving home or climbing into bed and falling asleep.
In this context, this is author intrusion because if the character doesn’t remember doing it, how can they tell the reader they’re doing it?
Thinking verbs are a red flag for telling. Would you talk to yourself in this phrasing as you’re performing these actions? Probably not. Rather, it feels like storytelling.
Here’s some ideas on how to fix that in the same context.
She wrestled her way out of the car, keys jangling with each stumble, begged the lock to turn, and fell into bed. (no internal dialogue, no introspection, little emotion)
She woke up and looked around. Where was she? She shut her eyes to shut out the morning sun and pressed the heel of her palm to her throbbing temple. She swallowed. Her teeth felt furry. Right... The bar. The drinking. So much drinking. But how did she get home?
Do you see the mindset shift? The telling is removed by capturing the story as the character lives it.
Provide Evidence For Emotions
Another place where the shift in mindset is important is when the writer draws a conclusion for the reader about their emotions.
She loved that his voice changed when he recognized her voice on the phone.
“Hey, it’s me.” She rocked back on her heels and bit her lip. Would he know who it was?
A grin split her face and she clamped a hand over her mouth to squelch the giggle. He remembered her name! She forced her voice to remain even. “Yeah. I had fun at the dance last night so …” Deep breath. “I asked Justin for your number. Hope that’s OK?”
“I just texted Justin for your number.” He laughed. His tone warmed, got deeper and softer. “I wanted to see if you were busy tonight? If maybe, you wanted to do something?”
Is Version 1 wrong? No, of course not, but it’s not in deep point of view.
The gap between the information the reader has and the conclusion the character reaches disappears by shifting your mindset. That gap is usually bridged with telling without the mindset shift. Put the reader IN the scene as it’s happening and make sure the reader has all the information the character does when they make that decision/conclusion.
Love is subjective and, in this case, means more than the version 1 sentence would imply it does. Secondly, we don’t narrate our own thoughts very often and very few people are able to label an emotion as they’re being swamped by it.
Let the reader draw their own conclusions, your job is to present enough evidence for them to draw the conclusion you want them to.
What do you think? In the examples above, do the deep point of view versions make you feel more like you’re IN the story?
Lisa’s 5 Day Deep Point Of View Challenge is launching again on February 10th!! Make sure you join in on the fun and bring a friend!
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Lisa Hall-Wilson is a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels. Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers, at www.lisahallwilson.com.
by Angela Ackerman
Have you been in a situation where someone acts erratically, and not in a good way? It takes you by surprise, doesn’t it? Imagine this scenario: you’re sitting around the lunch table with coworkers and pop out a joke. Instead of a wave of laughter, one of your tablemates begins to sob. Or they jump up, shove the table, and walk out.
Your emotional response? Befuddlement (What just happened?) Guilt (What did I say?) Judgement (Wow, she’s unstable.)
It’s always a bit uncomfortable when we can’t follow the logic of cause and effect. A joke should prompt laughter, head shaking and a grin, or maybe if poorly delivered, an awkward beat of silence. These are reactions we expect.
Cause-and-effect is very important in the real world.
This sequence helps us navigate life. When we know what to expect, we know what to do.
Study for a test to pass it.
Pay the mortgage to have a safe place to live.
It also helps us know what not to do.
Drinking too much causes a hangover.
People who leave a paper trail get caught.
If I tell the boss what I really think, I’ll be fired.
Cause-and-effect helps us plan and gives us a sense of control over our lives.
Guess who else is hardwired to notice cause-and-effect? Readers.
What helps us navigate life also helps readers navigate the story. In fiction, this means paying attention to your character’s behavior. How they react to situations in the story is EVERYTHING. Their decisions, actions, and choices will tell readers what’s really important, what the character wants and needs, who to root for, and what outcome is ideal.
As authors, we want to make it easy for our audience to “read” our character’s behavior. If a reader is confused about why a character does or says something it might pull them out of the story, or they could grow frustrated or even lose interest.
So how can we always “know” how our characters will behave? By understanding them down to their bones: what they care about, who they are. What they want and fear. What they believe in. By exploring a character’s deeper layers, we learn everything we need to know to determine what they will logically do in any situation. (And knowing this? WRITER’S GOLD. Your story will practically write itself!)
So, whether you like to plan up front or prefer discovery drafts where characters start out as more mystery than flesh, here are important factors that greatly influence how your character will behave.
Every person has a baseline when it comes to emotions: reserved or expressive, share feelings openly or keep them to themselves, things like that. Characters are the same. Understanding what this looks like helps us know the difference between “typical reactions” and “escalations.” After all, conflict and friction will push the needle, causing your character to be more emotionally reactive. It’s great for the story too; emotional extremes push them out of their comfort zone, lead to missteps and mistakes, and create MORE tension and conflict.
To figure out your character’s baseline, imagine everyday situations. How do they express emotion when they feel safe and when they do not? What do everyday emotions (contentment, nervousness, joy, worry, and fear) look like for them?
Once you get a feel for how they show typical emotional responses, this serves as a baseline, and when you add a nice dose of pressure or raise the stakes, you will know what more extreme behaviors and reactions should look like. (More on Determining Emotional Range.)
Traits that make up your character’s personality steer their behavior. Take Paul Graham, a character I build using the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers. After choosing his personality traits I went through the lists of behaviors and attitudes associated with each to choose ones that fit my vision of him.
Personality traits reveal a character’s moral code, impact how they interact with other characters, how they view the world, and how they go about achieving goals. Here’s a partial screenshot of some of behaviors associated with Paul’s personality traits (via the Character Builder):
Traits that make up your character’s personality steer their behavior. Take Paul Graham, a character I build using the Character Builder at One Stop for Writers. After choosing his personality traits I went through the lists of behaviors and attitudes associated with each to choose ones that fit my vision of him. Personality traits reveal a character’s moral code, impact how they interact with other characters, how they view the world, and how they go about achieving goals. Here’s a partial screenshot of some of behaviors associated with Paul’s personality traits (via the Character Builder):
Planning Paul’s positive traits helps me see what behaviors will help him solve problems in the story, and his negative traits (especially his primary flaw) shows what behaviors and attitudes hold him back and keep him from his goal. I can also see what he must change about himself (character arc) if he is to achieve his goal. (More on Planning Personality Traits)
We are all products of our past, and characters are too, meaning a character’s history is a huge factor when it comes to their behavior. The people in their lives before the story began acted as either positive influencers (people who taught the character to be self-sufficient, imparted knowledge, and boosted their self-esteem) or negative influencers (people who made your character doubt themselves and their worth, manipulated them, or hurt them in some way).
Both groups have taught your character how to solve problems, in good ways and bad, which will carry forward to your story.
Another huge aspect of backstory are the character’s past experiences. Good ones give them a positive outlook and worldview, and negative ones create emotional wounds. These painful negative events are transformative: who the character is before a wounding event and who they are afterward are very different. Paul’s wound was finding out his wife was not who she thought she was, and this was the fallout:
Because an emotional wound makes a person afraid that they could be hurt the same way again, they protect themselves by changing their behavior, often in negative ways that we call Emotional Shielding. These dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes are meant to keep people and situations at a distance so they cannot hurt the character. Unfortunately, emotional shielding also keeps a character chained to fear and ultimately gets in the way of what they want most. Here’s a partial list of Paul’s dysfunctional behaviors and attitudes:
Reading through these, you can see how they are dysfunctional and will cause problems for Paul. Past hurts always reveal emotional sensitivities and fears, which influence a character’s actions.
While a character enters the story with a lot of baggage and “set” behaviors, one factor can change everything: their motivation. What they want most in the story is powerful. Their goal, if achieved, can fill the hollowness inside them and erase the unmet need that keeps them from feeling happy and complete.
No matter how many hurts your character has endured, what they fear most, or how jaded they are at the world, they can and will change if it means getting what they want most. Here is a sampling of common character motivations:
A strong story goal should not be easy to obtain, and will require the character to transform their mindset and behavior to achieve it. So knowing the goal will also help you know how they will behave, especially as they grow and evolve.
Bottom line, readers want books written by authors who show authority. This authority comes from knowing a character so intimately that every action, choice, and decision rings true. Readers should have no trouble following cause-and-effect.
If you need help with seeing how all the character pieces fit together, try the Character Builder. It contains the largest character-centric database of information available anywhere and prompts you to go deeper step by step, making character building much easier.
As a reader, does it bother you when characters behave in a way that isn’t explained? Let me know in the comments!
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Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of the bestselling book, The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression, (now an expanded second edition) and its many sequels. Her books are available in eight languages, are sourced by universities, recommended by agents and editors, and used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world.
Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers, as well as One Stop for Writers, an innovative creativity portal for one-of-a-kind tools that give writers exactly what they need to craft unbelievably rich stories and characters. Stop by and give their free trial a spin...writing can be easier! Find Angela on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Readability is a critical part of editing that doesn’t get a lot of attention. Whether we're imparting instructional analysis or immersing readers in elaborate fantasy worlds, knowing our audience’s preferred reading level is key.
What is readability?
Readability formulas are calculations which are written to assess the reading level necessary for the reader to understand your writing easily.
Readability refers to how easy and enjoyable your writing is for the reader.
Good readability can make a reader quit in paragraph 1 or race through the whole story, so consider readability to make your work sparkle for readers.
Writers Rock When They Meet Reader Expectations
Readability grade level testing is common in elementary schools to categorize books. Length of sentence and the complexity of the words are measured, but grade-level appropriateness does not mean what age a person has to be to read it. Adults use preferred readability levels with different types of text.
Writers benefit from aiming at those levels and better engage their readers, but what age level should a writer use?
General Reading Levels are Lower Than you Expect
If you write technical instructional manuals, you may write at the 13th grade level, but the general public has a surprisingly lower average.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics on Adult Literacy in the United States, 21% of adults (about 1 in 5) are below a functional reading level.
- For Basic or Below Basic readers, texts should be written at a 6th grade level or lower.
- For the General Public, the average reader, texts should be written around an 8th grade level.
But what if your book is for those avid readers, devouring everything literary? Writing for middle school readers would offend those avid readers, right?
Writing at a reader’s preferred level doesn’t push them away, it draws them into your work. It enhances their reading experience, allowing them to spend their energy on the content and quality of writing, rather than having to work to read. It enables them to get lost in the story and enjoy it.
We Want Our Readers to Keep Reading!
Is your reader a busy professional? Give them easy-to-read content in the limited time they have. A savvy writer takes the extra steps to make their writing clear and easy to understand. It will be appreciated.
Is your reader a graduate student on holiday? Or a busy mom with a few quiet moments? Allow them a reader’s escape into a tense battle scene or an easy romance, without making them dissect complicated language. Your reader will feel like you are the perfect writing 'host' of their mini getaway.
Is your reader in grade school? Many young readers make breakthroughs and jump quickly though the reading levels, lured along by a good story told well in plain, simple English.
Is your adult reader a limited English speaker or someone who was raised in a culture primarily different from your own? Be sensitive of language barriers that require the reader to work harder to understand your writing. Using appropriate readability will make your writing accessible to a broader audience.
Above all, know your audience! Text-based reading assessments are only a tool to assist your craft. If your audience expects a literary prose with clever turns of phrase and succinct displays of vocabulary, then do so.
How can a writer determine the reading level of their work?
Some tips and resources to help assess your manuscript's readability:
1. Use editing software programs to identify long, sticky sentences, and harder to read passages. Many won’t tell you the reading levels but working on these spots will organically bring the level into General Reading acceptability.
2. Hemingway is an online software that also comes as an app. The program has a free and paid version, but the free was enough for smaller chunks of text when I used it.
When the writer adds their text, Hemingway highlights each sentence with colors to show its reading level. Editing problematic paragraphs within the program helps you achieve a smoother more consistent reading level.
3. Use beta readers to check how logically ideas flow.
Great beta readers will find those confusing places in your book. Run those passages through some readability software. Simplify the work and polish it to it's smoothest readability. Sometimes your readers' confusion comes from the writing itself, rather than the plot.
4. Keep the reader engaged with visuals. Especially for tricky content-dense passages, particularly in non-fiction, use graphs or visuals where appropriate.
5. Use white space as a natural break to focus the reader’s attention.
6. Vary your sentence structure, including shorter passages withing those denser paragraphs to lead your audience. Even when you're writing about complex ideas, sometimes we just need to say what we need to say.
Readability shouldn't detract from one’s style, or keep an author from using higher level vocabulary and structures. In fact, including some of those literary elements in lower reading levels helps readers become more literate!
To sum up, it is up to you, the writer, to make your words more engaging to the reader.
Concise, jargon and cliche-free writing makes reading a joy to readers. Best of all, it will build a loyal and diverse audience, and build stronger readers in the process.
Is assessing readability part of your editing process? Have you found additional tools to do so? Please share them down in the comments!
Additional Reading: Does your Novel Pass the Readability Test?
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Kris Maze has worked in education for 25 years and writes for various publications including Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish and Writers in the Storm. Her first YA Science fiction book, IMPACT, arrives in June 2020 and is published through Aurelia Leo.
A recovering grammarian and hopeless wanderer, Kris enjoys reading, playing violin and piano, and spending time outdoors with her family. She also ponders the wisdom of Bob Ross.
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Trapped underground with a mysterious scientist named Edison and his chess master AI, can Nala Nightingale find the will to live and to love in a dystopian future?
To find out more about IMPACT, click here.
by Jenny Hansen
We're two weeks into the new year (and a whole new decade!) and I know plenty of writers who made some lofty resolutions. Here at WITS, we keep it simple and stick to one word to guide our writing journey in the new year.
Frankly, one word is about all I can handle at the beginning of January.
The holidays have usually left me breathless. Someone in my family is often sick over that holiday break (this time it was everyone). My house is predictably a raging mess in early January.
But I can do One Word.
I don't know about you, but I print the One Word post out. I tack my paragraph up somewhere noticeable in my house. I make a drawing out of my word. I ponder it.
But here we are mid-January, with 2020 stretching before us -- the Good, the Bad, and the Election. Ugh. I've caught my breath and there are goals to be outlined, and dreams to be chased.
If you are a writer, published or unpublished, I'd guess you’re hoping this New Year will be one that builds your career. So, let's do this!
I challenge you to make at least one concrete writing goal for 2020.
I'll start you off with ideas from one of our early WITS contributors, wise-woman Charlotte Carter. She wrote almost 60 books before she passed on and she knew how to get the work done.
Charlotte's advice for writing success.
1. Make writing a priority. It’s way too easy to get off track if you don’t stick to your guns. Family and friends make demands on you. A good movie opens at the local theater, you promise yourself that you’ll get back to your writing schedule tomorrow. Don’t count on it!
2. Spend time with other writers. No one understands a writer’s fears, failures and successes like another writer. Not even your mother.
3. Don’t let the business get you down. Nora Roberts says, and I believe her, that it was hard to get published when she started writing. It's still hard. Get used to it.
4. Develop a presence on the Internet. Editors do check authors’ blogs and websites. But remember Resolution #1 - don’t spend all of your writing time fussing with your online exposure and forget about your career goals.
5. Improve your craft. Attend workshops and conferences, take classes online, find a critique group that will encourage you and help you to grow. This is part of making your writing a priority.
6. Keep yourself mentally and physically healthy. Yep, you do have to exercise, spend time with friends and family, and find ways to fill your creative well.
7. Read. A lot. Both in and out of the genre you’re writing. I guarantee that won’t be a burden.
Now it's your turn, WITS Readers! Instead of One Word, what is your One Thing? A class you've dreamed of...a story that won't leave you alone? Perhaps you've been waiting to tackle a different genre or start a blog. Share your One Thing with us down in the comments!
Here’s to making one of your dreams come true in 2020...
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By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18 years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.