Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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Start with a Bang: a Personal Journey

by James R. Preston

Close up photograph of a line typed by an old fashioned typewriter with a black over red ribbon. The line reads "Once upon a time..."

“A beginning is  the time for the most delicate care that the balances are correct.”

Princess Irulan
The Manual of Mauddib

The Princess had it right, and so did Frank Herbert when he chose her quote to open the magnificent Dune. Welcome to 

Start with a Bang: a Personal Journey through Openings Old and New

First let’s set some limits. I’ll talk about books I like, or know about. Most of the books will be genre fiction or pop lit. We’ll limit ourselves to fiction since writing the opening to A History of Spoon Collecting has a different set of problems. Hmmm. Ok, there’s one book here that I hope is fiction. Stay tuned. 

In an age of instant books, digital Samples delivered at the click of a mouse, and the AI’s helpful, “You might also like . . . “ (and don’t you just hate it that the AI is right so often) does anybody stand in a bookstore aisle reading the first page before deciding to buy? I think the answer is contained in the question. You can look at two dozen Samples in the amount of time it takes to walk from Mysteries to Science Fiction. So yes, the first few words are still extremely important. 

“I poured a few drops of an ‘87 Mondavi Chardonnay into her navel and leaned down to slurp it out 

Jennifer’s eyes closed and she purred. “Do you like that?” she breathed. 

“Of course,” I said. “Eighty-seven was an excellent year.”

Lawrence Sanders McNally’s Secret

This opening tells you a lot about the story that follows. It says up front that it’s a lighthearted tale, and that if navel-slurping is not, so to speak, your cup of tea, this one’s not for you. Contrast this with — 

“They found me in the gutter.”

Mickey Spillane, The Girl Hunters 

Ok, here you clearly have a no-holds-barred tough story with Mike Hammer, as tough a protagonist as ever strapped on a 45. 

Both openings tell the prospective reader that it’s a first-person story; both give a pretty good idea of what to expect. 

“On February 24, 1815, the lookout at Notre-Dame de la Garde signalled the arrival of the three-master Pharaon, coming from Smyrna, Trieste and Naples. As usual, a coastal pilot immediately left the port, sailed hard by the Château d’If, and boarded the ship between the Cap de Morgiou and the island of Riou.

“At once (as was also customary) the terrace of Fort Saint-Jean was thronged with onlookers, because the arrival of a ship is always a great event in Marseille, particularly when the vessel, like the Pharaon, has been built, fitted out and laded in the shipyards of the old port and belongs to an owner from the town.”

Alexandre Dumas The Count of Monte Cristo 1844 — 1846

Times have changed and with them the way writers entice you to read their work. Here Dumas invites you to settle down, perhaps with a glass of wine, because this is going to be a long story, full of rich detail. He’ll get you to the end, but it will take a while, so enjoy the ride.  

“A MAN WITH BINOCULARS. That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road, on a crest overlooking a small Arizona town, on a winter night.

Lieutenant Roger Shawn must have found the binoculars difficult. The metal would be cold, and he would be clumsy in his fur parka and heavy gloves. His breath, hissing out into the moonlit air, would have fogged the lenses. He would be forced to pause to wipe them frequently, using a stubby gloved finger.

He could not have known the futility of this action. Binoculars were worthless to see into that town and uncover its secrets. He would have been astonished to learn that the men who finally succeeded used instruments a million times more powerful than binoculars.

There is something sad, foolish, and human in the image of Shawn leaning against a boulder, propping his arms on it, and holding the binoculars to his eyes. Though cumbersome, the binoculars would at least feel comfortable and familiar in his hands. It would be one of the last familiar sensations before his death”

Michael Crichton The Andromeda Strain

All right, confession time. At the outset of this personal trip I said I was limiting my selections to fiction and, while that is true, Andromeda Strain is fiction dressed, at least in the Introduction, in the somewhat stodgy three-piece suit of a government report describing a “five day crisis,” I imagine some readers who picked up the book expecting dashing heroes wielding ray guns as they fought off a bug from outer space were surprised, to say the least. Here Crichton wants to immerse you in what appears to be real science, and much of it is. 

“NOVEMBER 14, 01:33 A.M.

THE BRITISH MUSEUM

LONDON, ENGLAND

HARRY MASTERSON would be dead in thirteen minutes.

If he had known this, he would’ve smoked his last cigarette down to the filter. Instead he stamped out the fag after only three drags and waved the cloud from around his face. If he was caught smoking outside the guards’ break room, he would be shit-canned by that bastard Fleming, head of museum security. Harry was already on probation for coming in two hours late for his shift last week.”

James Rollins, Sandstorm

Rollins does several interesting things in this opening. First, he sets the time and place precisely. Second, he introduces a character and at once tells you he’s going to die, so don’t get too attached to him. Viewpoint: omniscient. Tone: pretty serious. You get all of that in less than a minute of reading, and readers who notice such things — like you after reading this essay — will be prepared for Rollins’ breakneck pacing. 

This next one is fiction, I think, or it might be a true account of the wildest trip to Vegas ever, layered with exaggeration. 

“We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I said something like, “I feel a bit lightheaded, maybe you should drive” and all at once the car was surrounded by bats. . .:

Hunter Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Thompson at once tells you this is going to be a wild ride, told from the POV of an unreliable narrator, by his own admission under the influence of a multitude of uppers, downers, screamers, zonkers and you name it.. (I’ve driven that stretch of desert many times and never encountered the bats.) But it grabs the reader because they know there aren’t swarms of bats attacking cars on the highway.

“Even if she hadn’t been the last person to walk through the turnstile at Warren Street tube station, Jack Barker would have noticed the tall, slender woman in the navy blue, thigh-length jacket with a matching pleated skirt short enough to reveal a well-turned ankle. She had what his old mother would have called “bearing.”A way of walking, with her shoulders back and head held high, as she pulled on her black gloves while managing to hold on to a somewhat battered black document case.”

Jacqueline Winspear Maisie Dobbs

“The tavern was awash with blood. Cidra Rainforest saw splashes of crimson everywhere—seeping from a gash in a man’s forehead, staining the front of another’s shirt, trickling from still another’s mouth. Glancing down, she saw that there was even a spatter of blood on the hem of her early-evening surplice robes. To Cidra the delicate yellow-gold fabric spun of the finest crystal moss was not just soiled but frighteningly scarred.

She was surrounded by a scene she had never before experienced, never even been able to imagine, and she found herself incapable of coping with it. It wasn’t just the sight of so much blood that held Cidra immobilized with shock. All around her the vicious fighting continued unabated, even though Cidra knew that by now the combatants must be experiencing unutterable pain. Yet they raged on. The violence of it horrified her.”

“Grunts, obscene oaths, and desperate shouts filled the long, low tavern hall. One man had been knocked unconscious by a deftly swung tankard of Renaissance Rose ale, but no one paused to help him. Rather, everyone was participating in the free-for-all with an air of what Cidra could only describe as lusty enthusiasm. No one was lying in a fetal huddle, whimpering on the edge of insanity, as Cidra would have expected, as indeed she herself would be doing had she not been using every ounce of her disciplined training to control herself. The scene around her was incredible. It was, she thought, just as the novels had described it.

A large, scarred, brutally strong hand clamped around Cidra’s arm, shocking her out of her stupor.”

Jayne Ann Krentz Sweet Starfire

This one’s subtle. At first glance it’s the same old “innocent hottie in a bar fight about to be rescued by the hero,” but look again; Cidra’s reactions are not what the cliche calls for. She’s not afraid. Her only thought is for the pain the combatants must be feeling. Yes, this opening drops you right into the action, but it raises many questions.

Full disclosure: I have not read all of Sweet Starfire; this Jayne Anne Krentz title was suggested by my wife and editor Nancy, but when I read it and gave it some thought I realized it was something special. Starfire is now in my “stack” of books to be read.

And we’ll close with perhaps the greatest opening of them all. 

“Once upon a time . . . .”

Start by sharing an opening you like and tell us why. Feel free to share the opening to something you have written. Here, I’ll go first. ‘I was folding Kandi’s underwear when the home invasion began.” That’s how I start Pennies For Her Eyes.

I think Princess Irulan would approve your effort to get the balance right at the beginning by this bit of study. Now it’s your turn. 

About James

Portrait photograph of James R Preston wearing a black t-shirt. The photo is taken outside against a partly snowy background.

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.” His books are collected as part of the California Detective Fiction collection at the University of California Berkeley. 

Find out more about James at his website.

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The Triangle of Writing Structure

by Sarah (Sally) Hamer

Story triangle with child hands spelling story.

Most writers have heard of the Hero’s Journey; a basic structure of how stories have been told from the beginning of storytelling. We always start with a protagonist, whether a hero or a heroine, who has some sort of a quest, and has to learn lessons, gain allies, create enemies, and fight a huge battle at the end.

There are dozens of different folks who teach this process, from Joseph Campbell, who did much of the original research on storytelling in the 1950s, to Christopher Vogler, who was instrumental in  Hollywood’s use of it in the 1990s, to Blake Synder, who popularized it for novel writers.

Each of them (and many more) utilize a different number of stops on the journey, from twelve to one-hundred-twenty, all depending on how deep a writer wants to go.

But what I’ve discovered is that even the best of writers can have glazed eyes by the time we try to use all the information these systems entail.

What if we can make the Hero’s Journey easier?

How about three steps? We really can simplify it by reducing the journey to its core elements: the Inciting Incident, the Reversal, and the Black Moment.

Different people call these three steps different things but they all are found in the story in basically the same three places, which break down into points on a triangle.

Triangles are the strongest structural element in buildings, so why not use them to build our stories?

Go look at any old bridge. Or an old screen doors. Or even the legs on some tables and chairs. Many of them use the shape of a triangle because it provides a solid, stable base. Some of those bridges have been standing for thousands of years.

The strength is in the distribution of weight. We do the same in our books. We need a huge hook at the beginning (the Inciting Incident), a strong, heart-wrenching ah-ha moment in the middle (the Reversal), and a satisfying ending (the Black Moment) in the stories to create great ones.

And, even if you don’t use any of the other nine or one-hundred-seventeen stops, if you can make these three powerful and solid, you have the basis of an amazing story.

The Triangle of Writing Structure

So, let’s break them down in a simple and easy way. (There are thousands of articles and blogs on the internet if you want more information.)

The Inciting Incident is also the “exciting!” incident.

It’s the place where the protagonist (in a character-driven story) figures out there is something missing. Most protagonist goals are centered around something – to find the treasure, to protect the family, to get the job, to have the relationship. So first, we have to decide what the protagonist wants badly enough to do the work. The Inciting Incident is where that realization hits. It changes the direction of the entire story and, ultimately, is determined by the journey itself. (The Inciting Incident is usually about 1/8 of the way into the story – in a 100-page story, it falls around page 12.)

The Reversal is usually almost dead center (page 50 in a 100-page book).

Prior to the Reversal, the protagonist is searching for the treasure, but everything is going wrong. At the Reversal, the protagonist realizes that, without an inner change of attitude, the treasure will never be found. It’s a place of deep thinking and immense soul-searching. But once that understanding has been made, the character now has the ability to go forward with new knowledge.

The Black Moment

Finally, the Black Moment is the place where the conflict escalates, the sacrifice is made, the battle is won. It usually falls in the last 1/8th of the story, in between page 80 and 90. It can be short – one scene and over – or long, across a dozen scenes. Regardless, it is where the protagonist takes the new knowledge and applies it to the situation. And the original goal is re-evaluated. Was the “treasure” what the protagonist really wanted? Or was it simply a will-of-the-wisp dream and the real desire now is within grasp?

Some Movie Examples

I’m going to show this in a couple of different movies, one old and one new, with the hope that the reader has seen or at least heard of one of them. I also am willing to help with any movie in the comments.

The Wizard of Oz

In The Wizard of OZ, which most have at least heard of, Dorothy’s goal is to save Toto. (No, it’s not “to go home” until later in the story.) So, her Inciting Incident is when Toto is going to be “put down” by the neighborhood witch because Toto snapped at her. Dorothy will do anything to save Toto and runs away. But she doesn’t have the knowledge, experience, or wisdom to save either Toto or herself.

Dorothy is transported to Oz via tornado and accidently kills a witch.

She’s told that all she has to do is “follow the yellow brick road” because the Wizard will send her home. But that’s not what happens. Even after she makes the long, perilous journey, the Wizard demands that she “pay” for his help by bringing him the Wicked Witch’s broom.

Here, in the Reversal (right in the middle of the story), Dorothy realizes that she can’t depend on someone else for her safety; she’ll have to figure it out on her own. (This particular reversal is not the strongest example but more people know the story.)

After more problems, she kills the Wicked Witch by saving Scarecrow and marches back into the Wizard’s great hall to demand her payment – a much different attitude than the last time she was there. The Wizard offers to take her home in his balloon.

Black Moment? Toto jumps out of the basket and chases a cat. This leaves Dorothy in a quandary. She’s done what she had to, she’s learned all her lessons, and she still may not get home.

But has she indeed learned everything she’s supposed to? Which will she choose? To stay in Oz with Toto or to go home without him?

Since her first and most important goal was to save Toto, and she now (because of new understanding of herself and her role in life from the Reversal) has the courage to take charge of her own life, she stays with Toto and is rewarded by the knowledge within to go home.

Do you see how the three points of the triangle all fit together perfectly? Each is directly and intimately connected to the other. Without one, the other two collapse.

Dune, Part 2

The “new” movie is based on an old book and is a part 2 of a series, but it also works well in the triangle.

Paul starts the second movie with revenge in his heart. His Inciting Incident is a series of things – Paul’s father is murdered in the first movie, he and his mother have to escape, leaving everything they had behind.

The Fremen rescue them but Paul has to fight Jamis to prove himself, and he has to admit that he is not the Lisan al-Gaib and ask for training to survive in the desert. Every one of these things could be called the Inciting Incident, so you can pick the one you want, but they all are wrapped around his goal of avenging his father.

His Reversal comes in about the middle when he is basically forced to travel to the South deserts, even though he knows it’s not only dangerous for him but for the woman he loves and his mother. He’s transformed by the Water of Life and then has to make earth-shattering and terrifying decisions that will change his entire world.

The Black Moment is when he knows, even as he’s telling Chani that he’ll “love her as long as he breathes,” that he’ll betray her by marrying the Emperor’s daughter.

This one also hangs together beautifully – Paul never wavers from his desire to avenge his father and every decision, even when he has access to the memories of all the Reverend Mothers of the past, is directed towards killing the perpetrators of the murders and also keeping his family alive.

Final Thought

This is VERY simplified. Of course, there are all of those steps enumerated in the Hero’s Journey that I’ve left out but, at the point of developing or editing the book, they aren’t as important as these three.

I hope you consider the Triangle when you write your next book. Having that journey mapped out, at any level, can help immensely!

Do you have any questions or observations? Want or need any more clarification? Please weigh in and we’ll chat about it more in the comments!

About Sally

Sarah Sally Hamer

Sarah (Sally) Hamer, B.S., MLA, is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twenty years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at www.margielawson.com and hosts symposiums at www.mindpotential.org. Find her at info@mindpotential.org.

Photo credits:
  • Top photo built in Canva by Writers in the Storm
  • All others from Sarah Sally Hamer
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Creative Ways Authors Can use AI to Help Market Their Books

by Penny Sansevieri

CLoseup image of the keyboard of a laptop computer  with the Letters "AI" inside a compass like circle superimposed over the keyboard and screen.

We hear a lot about AI and the issues content creators are facing with duplicate content issues, AI generated books, and now with Amazon’s Virtual Voice – the space is filling up quickly. But, while copyright issues are concerning, AI can be a helpful tool if used to help enhance what you’re already doing. 

Let’s dig into six ways that sites like ChatGPT can help you increase your promotional efforts! 

Writing book descriptions is tough, especially if you’re going it alone. One thing I love to do is pop a somewhat lackluster book description in ChatGPT and ask for a rewrite, because I’m always surprised what the system does. Often, it sparks new ideas and while I generally don’t recommend using the rewrite verbatim, with a few solid edits you can absolutely make it your own. In some cases, it may even inspire a complete rewrite. ChatGPT can sort of be a second brain, if you use it correctly. 

Sometimes coming up with new social media content is hard – this is where an AI can help to spark some new ideas, or new direction. In some cases the system may also be able to recommend hashtags, but you’ll want to always check these to make sure they’re truly viable options. But dropping a request into an AI and asking it to create a series of engaging social media posts is a fun way to brainstorm some new ideas, for sure! 

You’ll want to kick this off by describing your book (and upcoming launch if your book isn’t out yet) and ask it to generate a series of social media posts, including countdowns, quotes, and interesting trivia related to the book.

Sometimes coming up with a social media posting plan is hard, and I absolutely get it. Put your objectives into the AI, let the system know if this is a book that’s already live or whether you’re planning a book launch. Be sure to describe your book and your readership and ask the system to generate 30 days (or more) of posting ideas along with pacing of these posts!

While I’m a huge fan of digging into the Amazon algorithm to help determine subtitles, and even book titles (mostly for non-fiction) – it’s also fun to experiment with this in AI, too. And especially if you’re struggling to come up with a book title. Punch in a description, or plot into an AI and see what it comes up with. The fun part about title and subtitle generation is that you can keep asking for more ideas. Start by asking for five and then go from there. But be sure to check these recommendations against the Amazon system to not only check it for the optimization value, but to make sure that you aren’t duplicating a title! 

Cover design is important and I’m a huge fan of using a book cover designer, but sometimes it’s hard to come up with ideas and, ideally, you want to give your book cover person as much direction as you can. One thing I suggest is finding other/similar books on Amazon that you can share with your designer in terms of covers you like. But if you’re a fiction author this can be tricky just in terms of cover models. We’ve seen so many covers with the same model, and this is particularly true in romance. But with sites like Leonardo.AI, you can ask the AI to create a model for you – I’ve had a few of my authors do this and it’s pretty amazing what the AI can generate in terms of characters for the covers. 

This is something that authors so often struggle with, but if you have a really solid book description an AI tool may be able to help you with crafting an elevator pitch. Just plug in your book description and ask the AI to reduce it to a two-sentence blurb and see what it produces. Again you can ask it to keep churning these out till you have something you feel you can work with, and in the majority of cases you probably won’t want to use these verbatim, but they can certainly help give you a solid direction.

Photograph of a woman's hands on the keyboard of a laptop with a handshake between a human hand and a hand of an AI clasped in a handshake.

AI can be a fun tool if it’s used responsibly. Using a tool like ChatGPT to help inspire new ideas, or perhaps guide you to a better path with your book description, social media content, or even help you with some creative cover ideas!

One thing to be careful of though is that ChatGPT doesn’t weigh heavily on one side or the other so you’ll definitely want to edit through any suggestions that the AI gives you and make them yours, give them your “voice” – your readers and fans will appreciate it! 

Photo of Penny C Sanserviere with half her face visible  on teh right side of the image. She's looking out the corner of her eye at a bookshelf full of books.

Penny C. Sansevieri, Founder and CEO of Author Marketing Experts, Inc., is a bestselling author and internationally recognized book marketing and media relations expert. She is an Adjunct Professor teaching Self-Publishing for NYU. She was named one of the top influencers of 2019 by New York Metropolitan Magazine.

Her company is one of the leaders in the publishing industry and has developed some of the most innovative Amazon visibility campaigns as well offering national media pitching, online book marketing, author events, and other strategies designed to build the author/book visibility.

She is the author of 18 books, including How to Sell Your Books by the Truckload on Amazon, Revise and Re-Release Your Book, 5-Minute Book Marketing for Authors, and From Book to Bestseller. She also hosts the top ranking podcast Book Marketing Tips and Author Success.

AME has had dozens of books on top bestseller lists, including those of the New York Times, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal.

To learn more about Penny’s books or her promotional services, visit www.amarketingexpert.com

Image Credit:

Images purchased from DepositPhotos.

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