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Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Goldilocks Time

Please welcome guest blogger Shannon Donnelly

At risk of stating the obvious, beginnings are tough. Nothing new there. We all know that. So the question is, what to do about that 'hook', the super opening that grabs the reader and doesn't let go? Since it seems to be judging season right now for contests, I've been thinking about this. Because, honestly, the writing lately in contests has been good. Often very good. But the stories...well, not so much of the grabbing.

The balance is always too much information and too little. This is particularly tricky with paranormal, and if you add in romance, both have to be there. That's a lot to get in front of a reader. Add in the reader needing to understand the world, the rules of the fantasy, and yeah, pretty much everyone is going to get the too much or too little thing going. It's Goldilocks time.

Now, in the interest of learning from fairy tales, let's look at Goldilocks. She did not find the perfect bed on the first try. She did not eat the perfect porridge with her first taste. She had to try different options. And I think this is one place where folks are having trouble because sometimes you have to write a scene different ways in order to find out what works best. It's far too common for a writer to fall in love with a scene (particularly an opening) and not want to change it. That way to disaster, my friend.

But why not try the bigger bed (add more information, details to enrich the world and the story)? Try the smaller bed (try a bare-bones opening). Try the middle bed after taking on the other two to see what's the best balance (and a couple of readers here can be very helpful).

Why not try a different character's viewpoint for the opening (to see who really has the most emotionally at stake)? Why not try on first person to see how it feels and stretch your skills?

Now here's what I've noticed in teaching workshops--folks want to apply everything to the manuscript in hand. And want it all to work right off. That kind of focus can be a good thing. But not everything you write will (or should) make it into the book. So why not try new things on? Write scenes just so that you, the author, know the information. Interview your characters to get to know them better. Try writing the book as every page is the ONLY page you'll get anyone to read. And try writing a scene that you don't want in the book--see if you can keep it a secret scene.

IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE HERE: Withholding information from the reader is not suspense, it is irritation. Withholding information from the characters which puts them in jeopardy gives you suspense--so stop saving the best stuff for chapter five and later. Give the reader the best stuff right away, and then go think up even better stuff.

Now to balance this--after all Goldi didn't like the too hot or the too cold porridge, and let's not get into why bears were eating porridge--the other side of holding out on the reader, giving too little to go on, is loading the reader up for bear.

Personally, I think there are two kinds of writers: those of us who over-write and must cut and those who under-write and must layer in details that reveal the world to the reader. It's good to know which camp you fall into so you can compensate. If you're like me and you love the details, you have to learn to be picky about which details you use. And you have to learn to edit and cut. Even more important is to learn to layer and weave in back-story in small bites--a sentence here or there, instead of a few paragraphs here and here and here and here. If you're the type who writes sparse, that's good, but make sure there's enough details that a reader can see the same world that's in your head.

One caution here--it's boring to get too much information about people you haven't learned to like. So that's task one--engage the reader's emotions. Make them care for the characters and get them interested, then you can start peeling back the layers of the characters.

NEXT IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: What you show your characters doing matters more than what you tell the reader about your characters. If you want a reader to think a character is brave, she must be shown doing something brave. That's why showing matters so very much.

Speaking of brave, there's one other lesson that Goldilocks offers, other than that a life of petty crime isn't that bad, and this lesson is that it pays to be picky. Goldi is a high-maintenance gal. If it's not just right, she's not putting up with it. That's a good trait for any writer--don't put up with crap, not even from yourself. Be very picky about the opening and getting it just right (you only have that one chance to hook a reader). Be picky about the words you use. Be picky about making sure it's not too hot or too cold, or too hard, or too soft. Be picky about the character's dialogue, about opening with a strong scene that SHOWS the reader something important about the main characters.

LAST IMPORTANT SIDE NOTE: Start the story as close to where the main character's life changes forever--but start also with a scene that sets the reader's expectations for the mood and type of story. (There is a reason to start off with Bella moving up North and not sooner or later than that.) It's very hard on folks when they're in the mood for fish and they pick up what looks like a fish and you've said it's a fish, but the first bite is all batter and breading.

With the last comes the first, and we're back to where a lot of beginnings seem to struggle. It's damn hard to write a good beginning without having the ending done. That's my take on it. I almost always revise the opening based on where the story ends up, but this is just about impossible if you don't have the book done. Which leads us back to Goldi.

The last lesson we can take from Goldilocks is that kid didn't give up. She ransacked that whole house--food, chairs, beds, everything she wanted. Start to finish, our Goldi girl. That's often where you can find your great opening, in that strong ending that gives you a mirror back to how it all started. You show your character at the end now able to do what was impossible at the beginning (in a romance, you show the character now able to have a relationship that was impossible at the start of thing). You KNOW where this story has to start because you know where it has to end.

And maybe that's what we need more of--contests for great endings. Ones where Goldilocks starts off a wear-bear herself and ends up married to the handsome were-bear of the family.

Shannon Donnelly's writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the "Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer" contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA's Golden Heart, the Laurel Wreath, the Winter Rose, the Bookseller's Best, and multiple finalists in the Holt Medallion, the Colorado ACE, the Golden Quill, and others. Her work has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: "simply superb"..."wonderfully uplifting"....and "beautifully written." In addition to her Regency romances, she has had novellas published in several anthologies, has had young adult horror stories published and is the author of several computer games. She can be found online at sd-writer.com

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Kelsey Card said...

Excellent post, Shannon. I love the analogy and the lesson to try stuff out and don’t settle for the first thing that comes to mind. It's also great advice to pick and chose the details. Not everything needs to be in that first chapter.

Tales of magic, adventure, and romance

Charlene Sands said...

Shannon - again another brilliant blog on craft. You say so many things I agree with. Beginning a story right,is crucial. And I agree that the writing in contests is great, but the story, and it's delivery is often wrong.
I struggle with every "start" to m stories. Love the analogy of breaded fish! Makes so much sense.

Mia said...

Love the analogy and I needed to be reminded to free myself by just writing scenes. Excellent blog, Shannon. Thanks! Maria

Sharon said...

I've been so focued on the beginnings, where contests concentrate, haven't thought about the endings, being a panster (although have some general sense of the ending). I think it is an excellent idea to finish the book and then go back and re-do the beginning. Afterall, it is what hooks the reader, and the agent, and the editor!
Thanks for the sage advice.