Saturday, May 30, 2009

One More On Beginnings

So, continuing on the topic of beginnings, if a writer really wants to fix a weak start there are three ways it can be done.

We’ve already said a weak start is one that lacks drama. Drama always involves tension, or conflict, and usually also involves action. So some combination of tension/conflict and action is necessary, right up front.

One way to put it up front is to begin the novel farther along in the story. How? Just read from the beginning of the manuscript and look for the first real drama, then begin the story there. Any important information in the skipped section can be tucked into other scenes later on. Braveheart has written a great action scene but it doesn’t come until well into his story. If he wanted a greater impact with his beginning, he could choose to begin his story with this action scene and introduce his protagonist as he’s running from the bullets.

A word of caution if you choose this solution: It’s generally not a good idea to begin a novel-length piece of writing at an exciting point and then go back in time to begin the actual plotline. It can be done, but you risk a couple of potholes.

First, doing this will technically make your whole novel a backstory. We’ve already touched on why backstory is dangerous. Backstory destroys forward action, and forward action is something you have to maintain in order to keep your reader chugging happily down the reading road. Readers don’t want interruptions to their train of thought. They don't want to have to stop to fix a flat tire.

Second, if not done skilfully, an action-packed opening followed by backstory can look suspiciously like a writing device. You don’t want your reader to feel you’ve tricked him into reading the story. So, if Braveheart chooses to spice up his beginning this way, he’ll have to convince the reader there’s a good reason for doing so, and the real story, when it picks up again, will have to be exciting too. The travel brochure can't be more beautiful than the actual road trek.

I really think Braveheart’s action scene is in the right place in his manuscript, however. He’s right in thinking that much needs to be said, and could be said dramatically, before his protagonist begins dodging bullets. So, for Braveheart, I would recommend a different solution.

He could choose to begin at the same place and time, but recreate the scene with more drama.

As it stands now, his opening scene is primarily inner dialogue by the protagonist as he sits at breakfast and occasionally talks with the waitress about his meal. BH does a great job of introducing his subject matter through the interior dialogue, but neither the dialogue, nor the conversation with the waitress, nor the action of eating, contributes drama to the situation. The waitress is too pleasant. The meal is too ordinary. The information is pretty academic. Even the weather is too placid to stir up any hint of suspense.

If BH introduced an antagonist here, or gave us some sense of foreboding in the setting, as in "It was a dark and stormy night,” or even just gave his protagonist some kind of inner turmoil, the scene would immediately become more gripping.

A third way to deal with weak beginnings is to begin the story earlier. This might also be a good option for Braveheart. His story begins with the protagonist already started on his quest. That’s okay, but I think there are opportunities for great drama in the planning of the quest, or even in his choosing to begin the quest.

What obstacles does his protagonist have to overcome to begin this journey? Human, or psychological, or even physical? Could he have a broken leg?

Or what, about the quest, captures his interest in the first place? Perhaps an offhand remark he makes to someone that causes an extreme reaction? Maybe even an action that threatens the protagonist’s life? Or the life of the person he loves most?

And what is it about this character that makes him vulnerable to this kind of a quest? Does he have the kind of curiosity that kills cats?

If this looks like brainstorming, it is. Brainstorming is an important activity for writers. It’s especially helpful when first developing characters and story ideas, but it’s amazing how useful it can be at any point later on when characters or their plotlines need some added zip. The wonderful thing about a book manuscript is that it can always be changed at any time in the pre-publishing process. And change is good.

No matter how Braveheart chooses to deal with this problem, it definitely needs to be done if he’s interested in publishing.

That’s a pretty firm statement. Reminds me of the time I gave a fellow writer my critique on a draft of his manuscript that I thought was pretty rough. I suggested major re-writes to put more action and drama in his beginning. He thanked me politely. A few days later he e-mailed saying that Zondervan had seen his manuscript (in the form I thought was rough, and without his making any of the corrections I’d suggested) and loved it. He’s got a contract and the book will come out in 2011.

Dang. That’s not a very good thing to say. I’m trying to develop credibility here.

Oh well. Enough with beginnings. Next post will give us some fun and easy things to do to make our writing better using a great Microsoft Word function.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tips for Writers on Beginnings

Today I’m starting a blog series called “Tips for Beginning Writers.” I’ve recently met a delightful writer who’s WIP (work in progress) uses DaVinci Code-style intrigue to uncover some astonishing, historically accurate secrets in the foundations of the government of one of the world’s most well developed nations. He has graciously given me permission to use portions of his manuscript to illustrate the writing concepts I want to talk about in this series. In the great and glorious tradition of All The President’s Men, I’ve given him, my secret source, a nickname. From now on I will refer to him as Braveheart, for reasons every writer who submits to critiquing by someone else will understand immediately.

We’ll begin our tips for beginning writers, appropriately enough, at the beginning. *

Braveheart’s beginning has some problems. This is not unusual. In fact, it should be considered normal. The beginning of a novel is a really hard place to start. Even if you think you know where your story should start, pitfalls abound when you try to put the beginning on paper.

Most of the problems with beginnings result from the need to give the readers enough information to get them into the story, while creating enough suspense to make them want to read on. This balance between information and suspense is a delicate one. Braveheart’s main problem is that he skews heavily on the information side. His story begins with an overload of background information that mires the reader in details without giving him/her an emotional reason to care about the details.

Braveheart will probably decide, later on in the writing process, that much of the information he gives here at the beginning is unnecessary. It’s all part of his own backstory—the things he needs to know about his character that the reader will never need to know. He may also find that the necessary pieces of information he’s given here will come out more naturally later on, as the story progresses. He would do better, here at the beginning, to go heavy on the suspense and dole out the information later.

Here’s the essence of the first tip for beginning writers: Braveheart needs to pound into his writer’s mind the need for forward action. Forward action will be an important objective all the way through the novel, but it is essential in the beginning if he wants his readers to stay with him.

I’m not going to hold The DaVinci Code up as an example of good writing. Most experts agree it isn’t. But Dan Brown has the right idea about the use of suspense to grab an audience. His information is communicated to his readers in the midst of emotionally-gripping, gut-wrenching, forward action. Admittedly, Dan Brown’s method of communicating technical information is somewhat bizarre. It’s hard to imagine how the intricacies of interpretations of the Holy Grail could be effectively communicated while the protagonist and his partner are running down the hallway dodging bullets, but, though the technique wouldn’t work in real life, it’s apparently effective for grabbing readers’ attention and holding it. (Millions of readers can’t be wrong, right?) The real trick is to engage and communicate at the same time. It would be even better to do both without asking the reader to suspend disbelief as Dan Brown does!

Next blog post will elaborate on this opportunity for building suspense and communicating necessary information at the beginning of Braveheart’s story. But for now it’s important to note that a weak beginning is not a major problem at the beginning of the writing process. The beginning is a stepping stone for the writer as well as for the reader. A starting place only. Once you’ve gotten past the beginning—gotten into the rhythm of the writing and found your pace—the story will take off and almost tell itself. You can always go back and fix the beginning after you’ve written the story. In fact, once you’ve gotten closer to the end of the story, you may find the beginning will fall into place naturally and easily.

* Don’t ever write like this. In blogs you can play silly word games—you can Be a Ludicrously Obnoxious Gabber—if you want because blogs are about what you want to write, not about what other people need to read. But in the real world of writing you want to avoid cleverness at all costs. People—especially editor-types—will roll their eyes and toss your manuscript in the wastebasket if you write like this for them.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Seriously Great Advice for Christian Writers

I just read Greg Laurie's e-devotional for today and found it very pertinent to Christian writers ( Greg admonishes us, as Christians, to "T.H.I.N.K. About it!"

It's so easy to "sound off" when we read or hear something that offends the Christian faith. But those gut reactions need to be filtered through Paul's admonition to "speak the truth in love" if we're going to be effective apologists.

Greg Laurie recommends we consider the acronym "T.H.I.N.K." before we speak.

T- Is it Truthful?
H- Is it Helpful?
I- Is it Inspiring?
N- Is it Necessary?
K- Is it Kind?"

I can't “think” of better advice to Christian writers.

One of the best examples of a writer who communicates this way is Randy Ingermanson. Randy says his only "claim to fame" is that he's "the only theoretical physicist who writes Christian fiction," but I believe he's being too modest. He has written some powerful Christian fiction (, but he also produces the largest e-zine for writers in the world.

His e-zine services 14,000 subscribers and receives 4000 to 6000 hits on a typical day. When I asked him how many countries those 14,000 subscribers were from he wasn't sure. His guess was between 50 and 100.

His e-zine is a "must-read" for Christian writers. His advice is invaluable. (He helped me solve a huge problem with the beginning of my current WIP.)

When he's not working on his e-zine or his current novel manuscript, Randy is writing thoughtful, respectful responses to critics of the faith. Check out his response to the Jesus Tomb controversy if you're interested (

Randy does what thoughtful Christian writers must do and he does it well. He engages with this culture in a way that makes a difference by speaking the truth in love.

Go to if you'd like to sign up for his free Writer's e-zine.

Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. Colossians 4:6