Thursday, September 23, 2010

Post #19 - Building Better Opening Paragraphs

Building Better Openings – Drop-In Versus Action Openings

The opening sentences for anything written are critical. They can establish tone, pace, style and give the reader an expectation of what they can look forward to in the coming hundreds of lines and thousands of words.

Of all the different ways to start fiction, two are most often used. They are relatively polar.

In Media Res – “In the middle of things” Meaning that the story opens to and with an action sequence, such that the reader is drawn directly into something evocative and something occurring at the first present-moment of the story.

Most often this is done to create a sense of tension, or to establish a speedy pace and connect us immediately with the character(s) involved in the action.

Drop-In – Also called a “cold open”, this is a slower approach, often focusing on setting or backstory and not a specific character, such that the reader can gain a particular foothold of information before the story accelerates or gains traction.

There is no superior choice here, it is a matter of preference.

Use In Media Res when…
· You want to start off with a large bang and a lot of action
· You want to connect us more with a character, especially when that character will be greatly tested throughtout the story
· You want to set up a very fast pace, with a very short fuse

Use a Cold Opening when…
· You want to present a lot of general information early, and get it out of the way
· You want to ground or anchor the reader in the world, moreso than in one character (in case you believe the character is not strong enough or too incredible)
· You want to give a sense that the reader is “zooming in” gathering progressively tighter and tighter focus until they reach the characters or action beat.

Again, preference rules the roost, but remember you do have some points to consider:

1. Establish for the reader (whoever they are) that you have a particular way of writing, a certain rhythm and cadence to you words

2. That you have created a world that is worth investing the reader's imagination and emotions into (because you want the reader to care about what goes on in the they keep reading)

3. That you're not writing this whole story (possibly hundreds of pages) just so that some other human can write you a check (it's nice, but aren't you doing this passionately?)

4. That you have created a character (or characters) that feel fully-developed, and live as realistically as possible.

Remember, we're painting onto the minds of the readers, so while this opening is the first brushstroke they see, hopefully, it's not the last.

Go practice.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

From the Mailbag: I wrote a draft, am I a writer?

So I wrote a draft, am I a writer?

Technically we can argue that whenever you write, whether it’s a grocery list or a stack of sonnets, you’re a writer.

But I challenge you to not take such a pedestrian and boring stance. While there’s nothing wrong with calling yourself a writer because you’ve put words on paper, because there are thousands, if not millions of people who have written something and it’s never gone past the computer screen or a readership of the four other people in the Gossip Girl fan-fiction message board.

There was a time when I would argue that the simple act of writing makes you a writer, but there is a sad fact there – not all writers deserve to be published, and some don’t even deserve to be read. I am well aware that this stance makes me a bit of a jerk, and entirely unpopular among many writing groups, but I’m not writing these notes so that people like me, I’m writing these notes to get you writing.

So I’ll say it again – You’re a writer when you commit to get published and throughout that process. In all other efforts, you’re a storyteller.

The world needs storytellers so don’t mistake my segregation. But the world needs writers and authors, and you can be one but for that to happen, I have to quote my high school teacher, who said I’d never amount to anything in any field that included words:

1. You have to write today better than you did yesterday
2. You have to write everyday, even if the guy next to you writes twice as much half as often
3. You have to get your head out of your ass and screw it on straight.

If you’ve not realized this yet, publication is a job. It’s not a reward, it’s only barely a consequence of good writing. The whole process takes a lot of time, dedication, patience and talent. And if you’re lacking any of those, you’re not going to make it. You can build patience and determination. You can find time. The only thing you can’t create is talent, so if you’re entirely lacking at the start, it’s not going to work. But, if you have even an inch of it, you can develop it.

Sad truth though – not everyone has the talent.

Talent isn’t measured in rejection letters or how often you get published or paid. Talent is measured in the reception of your work by multiple audiences. It is not a matter of paychecks or the number of people who cite your work in their own. Talent is a matter of making a difference in the imaginations and passions of whoever reads your work.

Writing is the expression of the imagination and creative spirit by way of that talent. You can’t and won’t get far without out it. Until you take all necessary steps to make writing a job, and make all the other steps to press your talent into service for the rest of your mind, you’re not a writer.

Plain and simple.