Lately I’ve been talking a lot to new writers. People who are ready to follow their dreams, to really sit down and do the work, but aren’t quite sure how to get there. The good news and the bad news is, all it takes is desire, persistence, and willingness to learn. Continuously. Writing is a game you never win, an art you never master. But that’s the fun part. For those who are interested in what I have to say, here’s a list of advice for beginners. Part 2 continues the trend later in the week.
Your average person has the attention span of a goldfish. This truth is not disrespectful, just realistic. Your reader is taking time out of their busy day to read for fun: not for an assignment, not because they have to. But because they want an escape from real life they don’t want to work for. Treat your readers with respect, but also don’t waste their time. Be clear. Explain things. And get and hold their attention. That can be an emotional connection with a character or an action scene where you blow things up, but either way, keep your reader’s attention span in mind. On revision, cut away anything that detracts from your story.
Concept and drama will get you a long way. People will stick in there for an awesome idea in a way they won’t for something typical. Go for the visuals, the description, the big questions. But also make sure you have the craft to back it up. A strong character in an impossible situation is better than an impossible situation on its own. Go for the specific, strong details that sell your concept.
Strong verbs and nouns will sell anything. The refuge of the beginning writer is adverbs and adjectives, words that “tell” rather than “show.” Ask yourself whether you can show the timidity or the strength through a noun or a verb – the right noun or a verb.
Be active. People like people who do things, especially in fiction. Make your hero or heroine an active participant in their fate – give them hard choices and have them deal with the consequences. Also, use active voice (Jacob punched Nicolas) rather than passive voice (Nicolas was punched by Jacob, or worse, Nicolas was punched) unless you have a good reason to do otherwise.
Rewrite your beginning until you bleed – then rewrite it again. As a consequence of the whole goldfish attention span thing, a good beginning has to accomplish six impossible things before breakfast. A good beginning needs to (1) capture the attention of the audience, (2) show the important bits of the backstory and any information we need going forward, (3) establish the world and setting, along with any story rules, (4) show us what kind of book this is going to be including any genre expectations, (5) plus make us connect with the hero or heroine (6) without slowing down the action. Scared yet? It can be done, and when in doubt, study the people who do it well. Amazon will let you download a free Kindle app for your computer and you can see almost any book’s opener for free. Read several of them and take notes on what they’re doing and how they do it. Study the successes as well as the failures in several genres and ask yourself what you can learn from each. Extra points for debut authors, who often have to be more on point than the established ones just to get published.
A complete “story” asks questions and then answers them. Want to know if your ending is complete? Go back and find out what issues and questions you brought up in your beginning. If you haven’t addressed them all (even if the answer is open-ended or ambiguous), you haven’t finished the story. On the debate team in high school, the fastest way to lose was to forget to counter an opponent’s argument. You may have one all the big points, but one forgotten little non sequitor will float to the end of the round and assassinate you. It’s like that in fiction. Tie up all of your loose ends. Hint: in short stories, keep the strings tight – don’t ask a lot of questions.