Why You’re Starting Your Novel in the Wrong Place

Does your book start at the most interesting point in your character’s life? It should. 

The number one problem I see with sample material, and even client material sometimes, is that the book doesn’t start in the right place. If you are starting with the beginning of the day (waking up or eating breakfast) I don’t trust it’s starting in the right place. If you take 50 pages to introduce the conflict there is no way you’re starting in the right place.

HOW TO START YOUR NOVEL IN THE RIGHT PLACE:

  1. At the end, go back and rewrite your beginning. There is no way by the end of your novel you should have the same opening when you started the draft. Characters change, plot trajectories change. You don’t know what your novel is going to fully become until it’s over. So why keep the same opening? Revise to make sure it is the proper opening for the novel it became.
  2. We don’t need a car crash, but we do need a secret. “Starting with action” is often misconstrued as starting with a bomb going off. For some genres that works, for many it doesn’t and shouldn’t! What we do need to start with is knowing that your character has a secret. Action can be many things, but no matter what we need to know something big is coming. We can’t be reading about a normal day in your characters’ lives.
  3. Are you introducing too many people? We should meet the main character on page one and maybe one or two others–but that is it. Introducing too many characters is very confusing to the reader. We don’t know who’s who yet. And we don’t know who to care about. Establishing a bond between main character and reader starts on page one.
  4. Alternately, information dumping won’t win us over either. Want us to know everything right off the bat? Guess what…we don’t want to know everything on page one. Or else what are we reading about?! Give the reader some credit and let them connect the dots. Trusting that your reader is smart will win them over too.
  5. How do we know this is a novel? Something happens. As I said at the top: your book should start at the most interesting point in your character’s life. Or else why are we reading about them? What is the moment when everything changes? Why? And why does the reader care to find out what happened? These seem like simple questions but they’re the crux of getting readers’ invested in your characters from the moment we meet them.

Q: What do you worry about with your beginnings?

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3 Biggest Relationship Writing Mistakes

LJIZlzHgQ7WPSh5KVTCB_TypewriterMost fiction has a romance of some sort. Historical, literary, suspense–most plots, even if they’re not a romance novel, have a romantic subplot at the minimum. And actually, most of this advice can be used for all sort of relationships between characters (mother/daughter, best friends, lovers).

The interaction between your characters is what brings a book to life. No novel is written without dialogue, secrets, plot and emotions that cross between the characters in your novels. So how does this all come to life and become real for the reader?

3 BIGGEST RELATIONSHIP WRITING MISTAKES:

1. Coincidence. It’s not that easy.

There is nothing more transparent than characters who come together serendipitously. It’s easy for a writer to have characters bump into each other on the street. What’s hard is to plot interaction naturally for each character’s own motivations and goals separate from their relationship to each other. Comb your writing for things that seem too easy; chances are, the reader can see right through it.

2. Can they just get in a room together?

The opposite of coincidence is a similar problem. If your relationship issue could be solved by two people simply being in the same room and talking it out–it’s not plotted deeply enough. The characters have to be up against something external and bigger than themselves. If they themselves are the limitation to their happiness or coupling then the reader will get frustrated very easily.

3. Technology. The curse of modern relationship writing. 

I know writers, this one isn’t easy. But, setting your novel in the 90s isn’t the answer either! (The reason for writing a historical novel has to be more than just avoiding the cell phone or internet.) Even having a characters’ cell phone drained of battery is hard because of the modern conveniences of car charges and backup chargers. No reader will believe this unless it’s a character quirk and even then we’re all frustrated by our own friends who don’t travel with a fully charged phone! Plus, there is wifi everywhere we go, so of course in a modern novel there will be the same amenities for your character. Therefore, you can’t make your plot too simple or else we’re back at Problem 2 (i.e. why can’t they just talk?). If you have to keep them away with a forgotten cell phone or dead battery then the see above (i.e. external conflict!).

Q: Which one of these is the hardest for you?

Things I Wish I Knew: 5 Things To Know When Writing Diverse Characters by Dahlia Adler

You might know Dahlia Adler as an author, a blogger, a Twitter enthusiast (follow her)–or all three! But I know her as an intelligent advocate of marginalized voices and talented writer of diverse stories. She’s our next expert in the “Things I Wish I Knew” series.

Writing diverse characters is a life skill for a writer. It starts with the complex question: how does any writer write about things that they haven’t lived? Writing a diverse cast of characters has always been important, but with the (much needed) push of the We Need Diverse Books campaign among other things I want it to be clear that diversity is not a trend. Diversity reflects the way we live our lives in the real world–we’re all different and everyone deserves to have themselves reflected in what they read.

For advice on writing a diverse cast, please hear from the one and only Dahlia Adler…

5 Things To Know When Writing Diverse Characters

1. Diversity is not a monolith. We hear that phrase a lot, but what does it mean, practically, when writing a character? It means throwing out your preconceived notions of “A character being Black/Latina/gay/blind/Muslim/Jewish etc. means This.” The one thing being marginalized means across the board is that the characters have likely faced microaggressions in their lives, and been made conscious of ways in which they are different from the most privileged. It does not mean they’re resentful, it does not mean they view the ways in which they are marginalized as a shortcoming or something they do not celebrate.

2. Listen and watch how people within a community talk to each other, without your participation. Consume media by that community for that community. That’s where your authenticity is gonna come from more than anywhere else. You can ask someone a million questions about their identity but those things that most strongly resonate are also probably so strongly ingrained, they’d never think to tell you. As an example of this, I always remember seeing an Asian woman on Twitter (I’m sorry, I wish I could remember who!) reacting to the way Jessica on Fresh Off the Boat cut fruit in the pilot episode. It was such a bone-deep familiar thing, but I don’t think it’s the kind of detail you’d ever think to express to someone who asked; you just see it and you know – this was written by someone who Knows who I am.

3. As important as “What must be in the depiction of a marginalized character in order to write it” is “What must not be.” When doing your research, see what those people are sick of seeing, are inaccuracies, are lazy stereotypes, are stories that have been done to death in one way or another. For instance, as a Jewish person, I am very, very tired of the Holocaust being the setting for all of our stories. Yes, it hugely impacted my life. But A) we are people beyond it, and B) it perpetuates a very monolithic idea of Jewish identity as being of Eastern-European origin, when in fact there are huge, important, thriving Jewish communities of North African, Middle-Eastern, Spanish, and other origins. Is it offensive to set a book during the Holocaust? No. But is it perpetuating things about our culture and its place in media many of us would like to stop seeing perpetuated? Yes, and that should be relevant to you if you are using our culture for your story.

4. Don’t throw one community under the bus for another. I see this a lot in queer literature, where there’s a bisexual secondary character who’s some “slutty” foil to lesbians, for example. Don’t do this. If your character creation is reliant on other people looking bad so your character looks good, you are unquestionably writing a weak character.

5. There will never be a unanimous agreement among the writing community about who is permitted to write what, so think long and hard about your values in that conversation, and also the people it most deeply affects. If you’re writing outside your lane, deeply consider what already exists by creators of that group and how you can support them as well. Deeply consider why you have chosen this perspective, and why yours is a necessary voice on it. And most of all, really deeply consider your readers and the importance to them of you doing your research and how you present them. The kids seeing themselves in your books. The kids who may be doing so for the very first time. And let them guide you most of all.

More About Dahlia:

I’m an Associate Editor of mathematics by day, a Copy Editor by night, and I do a whole lot of writing at every spare moment in between. I’ve also been a Production Intern and Editorial Assistant at Simon & Schuster, a Publicity Intern at HarperCollins, and a Fashion Intern at Maxim. (I’m kind of into that whole publishing thing.)

I’m the author of the YA novels Behind the Scenes, Under the Lights, and Just Visiting, and the NA novels Last Will and TestamentRight of First Refusal (March 15, 2016), and Out on Good Behavior (Spring 2016). For information on those books and where you can buy them, check out My Books!

I live in New York City with my husband and our overstuffed bookshelves, and you can find me on Twitter at @MissDahlELama and blogging at B&N Teens, The Daily Dahlia, and YA Misfits.

Things I Wish I Knew: Q&A with Author Andrea Dunlop

http://books.simonandschuster.com/Losing-the-Light/Andrea-Dunlop/9781501109423

http://books.simonandschuster.com/Losing-the-Light/Andrea-Dunlop/9781501109423Hi, all. I’m starting a new series on the blog called “Things I Wish I Knew.” I’ll be featuring some of my clients talking about their book deals, their writing careers and their platforms. I’ll also be talking to some industry professionals too. “Things I Wish I Knew” is going to be about everything from things people actually wish they knew when they began their career (as a writer or publishing professional) or a way to reflect back on how far they’ve come. Let me know what you think of the new series in the comments.

Now to our first feature: my client Andrea Dunlop. Her first novel LOSING THE LIGHT is in stores tomorrow! Buy it here.

Debut author Andrea Dunlop has a background in publicity and marketing in the publishing industry. She’s currently the Executive Director of Social Media and Marketing for Girl Friday Productions in Seattle. Helpful when you become a debut author, right?! Not only does she know what the industry expects from writers, she has also assisted other debuts launch their own books. However, knowing the industry side of things is a Catch-22 when you’re an author.

One of my favorite parts of this interview is Andrea talking about publisher’s internal and external responsibilities: “I think it helps to understand that no one at the publisher actually works for you. They have responsibilities to you, sure, but they don’t ultimately answer to you. They work for the publisher, who has many other priorities and concerns that have nothing to do with your book.”

Read on…

What do you wish you knew about expectations during the publishing process?

I was pretty well-prepared in terms of expectations from all the years I’ve worked in publishing. I definitely knew enough to keep them in check, namely. From the time you and I sold the book (about a year and a half ago), I’ve really tried to come from a place of making plans, rather than having expectations. Mostly because the former is more active, more about what I could do than what was going to happen to me (or not). To be frank, whatever expectations I allowed myself to have about what getting published would mean for me, after a decade of working in the industry, were pretty minimal. On the one hand, simply getting published fulfills a lifelong dream, on the other I know enough to understand that it’s neither a panacea for all of my other problems, nor is it a guarantee of future success. That said, my experience thus far with you, with Atria, with Booksparks, and with all the other fellow authors and friends who make up my support system for this book has been wonderful. I know exactly how rare it is for things to go as well as they have with my book: working with my editor Sarah was a blast and went smoothly, the first cover I saw, I loved and everyone in-house—the social media, marketing, and publicity folks, the sales team, the publisher—has been a dream to work with. I never imagined that the book would go into a second printing before going on-sale. I won’t lie and tell you I don’t have any nerves or fears about the book coming out, but really I’m mostly excited and grateful to everyone who’s worked so hard on the book thus far.

You came from the publishing side to the author side, how did that help your understanding of how to be a good collaborator? 

I think it helps to understand that no one at the publisher actually works for you. They have responsibilities to you, sure, but they don’t ultimately answer to you. They work for the publisher, who has many other priorities and concerns that have nothing to do with your book.

This may sound obvious, but you’d be surprised (well you wouldn’t be surprised, but other folks might) how many authors seem to be confused on this matter. You can expect support, you can expect good communication, and to be treated with respect by your team—but ultimately, it’s your book. You need to show up for it. And by that I do not mean that you need to micromanage your book: let the pros do what they’re good at and figure out where you can be most helpful. I’m in a great spot with my background, because I knew what to ask for and what to just plan to take on myself or use my advance to pay someone else to do. I went into it thinking “Here’s what I’m going to do, anything my publisher does is gravy.” And they’ve done a lot! So, it’s been great.


What is the best part about being a debut?

Connecting with other authors. I’ve been on one side of the fence for all my life: as a reader, then in my day job as a publicist, now social media and marketing director. I’ve known lots of authors, obviously, but getting to be one is just its own singular joy. Getting support, getting blurbs from people whose work I so admire—Laurie Frankel, Katie Crouch, Courtney Maum, Miranda Beverly Whittemore, Taylor Jenkins Reid—I mean, what could be cooler than that? So many people have reached out and have been so genuine and supportive. It took me a long time to get here, it feels good to have arrived at last, especially since the natives are so welcoming.

What advice would you give to other debut authors beginning the journey?

Anyone who works with authors knows that the lead-up to a book’s publication—particularly a debut—can be joyful or miserable, sometimes both in the same day. You don’t have control over a lot of things: what happens at the publisher, whether your publicist is going through your divorce or your editor moves to another house six months before pub. But there is a great deal, in this day and age however, that you do have control over. Learn about social media, learn about the industry, invest in your own career by hiring whatever help you need. I recognize that not everyone has a decade of experience going into their debut the way I do. But there are so many good resources out there which authors can learn from—including this very blog: Jane Friedman’s is another essential, there are a dozen more I could name. Do what you can, enjoy the moment, and live to fight another day. Being an author is a lifelong occupation. This is not an industry for the faint of heart, so decide you’re not going to be that.

What are you reading right now?

My TBR pile is an ever expanding monster that I co-exist with happily. Right now, I’m reading Flood Girls by Richard Fifield, another February debutante. It’s about a woman who returns to her tiny, completely bonkers Montana hometown to try to make amends for a couple of years of damaging shenanigans. It’s super funny and weird, I’m loving it.