Close-up of fear-filled eyes with text: Are Fears Holding You Back?

For those of you who have asked, I’ll share a quick health update before we get into today’s guest post…

Some of you might have heard about my emergency surgery a few weeks ago, which removed a re-infected chunk of my jawbone. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing if the surgery removed all of the infection this time, and antibiotics alone haven’t been enough.

So this time, my surgeon and I have been doing All. The. Things. to try to fight whatever might be left of it. Many of you gave suggestions (Thank you!), and we’re trying most of them.

Considering how problematic one of my antibiotics was/is, I’ve been willing to try just about anything. While that antibiotic is very good at getting deep into bone, it works by changing the vascular structure of cells.

Its side effects on my body have ranged from difficulty breathing (after just a couple of steps) to pulling muscles, tendons, and ligaments just by sitting (yes, really). There’s not much that can make you feel quite as pathetic as pulling your shoulder when simply unplugging something from an extension cord. *sigh*

Anyway, now that I’m off all the antibiotics, I’m hoping those side effects will fade, but it’s all a (very) slow process, and it might be years before we can say for sure whether the infection is gone. In the meantime, my wonderful friend Jenny Hansen is here, helping me out with a fantastic guest post.

(And if others have guest posts they’d like to share and help me out during this long, difficult recovery, send me a note through my Contact page. Thanks!)

Most of us suffer from self-doubt, and today Jenny’s sharing her insights about hanging on to our writing dream through all the doubts and fears. Please welcome Jenny Hansen! *smile*

*****

Enemy Number One of the Writing Dream

by Jenny Hansen

Open notebook with quote: "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty and the power of their dreams. ~Eleanor Roosevelt

Dreams are a funny thing. Some nightly dreams fade in the morning rush and some scorch our consciousness forever. Then there’s the waking dreams. Dreams that are really wishes we keep tucked inside our hearts as we journey through our days.

Writers excel at these waking dreams. We chase them every day as we put our fingers to the keyboard. Waking dreams are our constant companions—so real we can see them, so fragile we worry they’ll break.

I watched Tangled the other day with my daughter. She loves the music and the movement and will sit, mesmerized, through this whole story of Rapunzel. This particular Disney movie rivets me too, and do you know why?

Tangled is about dreams.

Chasing them, the fear of achieving them. . .and the wistfulness of letting old dreams die. From the beginning of the movie, when the dreaming baby is stolen, through songs like “I’ve Got A Dream,” Disney is punching this dream theme home.

There’s a scene just before the end of Act 2 that perfectly describes the funny, capricious nature of dreams:

(In the boat, Rapunzel sighs)
Flynn Rider: (noticing the look on Rapunzel’s face) You OK?
Rapunzel: (whispers) I’m terrified.
Flynn Rider: (softly) Why?
Rapunzel: I’ve been looking out a window for eighteen years, dreaming about what it might feel like when those lights rise in the sky. What if it’s not everything that I dreamed it would be?
Flynn Rider: It will be.
Rapunzel: And what if it is? What do I do then?
Flynn Rider: Well that’s the good part, I guess. You get to go find a new dream.

This scene sums up why so many writers trip over their dreams:

Reaching for your dreams is scary.

It takes some serious nerve to lay your heart open and shout to the world, “This is what I want more than ANYTHING.”  To throw your “all” into the fray and reach for a dream takes guts and—something I struggle with—patience.

Because dreams don’t happen all at once. They take baby steps forward, twists, turns, and diagonal crossings up one-way streets. Dreams take time to achieve. LOTS of time, which is a commodity most of us are short on.

This fear hides in all kinds of strange disguises—fear of failure, fear of success, fear of public embarrassment, fear of Spanx…

Oh. That’s just me. (Seriously, have you ever tried to get out of those suckers?) *shudders*

Why is it scary for so many of us to do this thing we love? How does our traitorous psyche manage to kick our butts so soundly?

Because we worry.

We creative types worry about the darndest things! And we often allow that worry to defeat us. Chuck Wendig wrote a post over on TerribleMinds where he nails this phenomenon: Writers Must Kill Self-Doubt Before Self-Doubt Kills Them. (Run and read that, all worry-warts…we’ll wait!)

So what do writers worry about the most? An informal Facebook survey showed these as the Fearsome Five:

  1. What if I write the book and nobody buys it?
  2. What if I write the book and everybody buys it…can I be that brilliant again?
  3. What if I can’t meet the deadlines of a publishing contract?
  4. Who would want to read what I have to say?
  5. When I say what I have to say, they’ll know who I am.

Writing is personal. Super personal. For most artists, if our work is found wanting, it feels like we are being rejected too.

How is the worried artist supposed to cope?

I am a huge fan of titanium panties.

titanium-panties-best

Seriously, just strap on your Big Girl (or Boy) Titanium Underpants and do the next thing. For myself, if I stop and think about the fear, I’ll hyperventilate. I have to keep going, even if I work on something different than the thing that’s scaring the crap out of me.

What have I observed other writers doing when things are in the crapper? When rejections roll in and plots stall, when blog posts bomb and the WIP rises up like a scary beast?

  • Friends and family are great when the going is rough.
  • Some days wine is a requirement. Ditto for chocolate.
  • A supportive critique group is amazing.
  • A writing network is priceless. This could be your local writing chapter, online groups like www.SheWrites.com or NaNoWriMo. Maybe you’ll like Twitter communities like #myWANA, #ROW80, or #1k1hr.

Dreams are important and scary and real. Chasing them is the hardest game in town. But we are WRITERS. We’re not sissies. Certainly we’re not quitters.

We have morning coffee, writing pals like Jami Gold and Janice Hardy, and Titanium Underpants. We’ve got this.

*****

About Jenny Hansen

Jenny HansenBy day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes news articles, humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

When she’s not at her personal blog, More Cowbell (where undies are a very hot topic), Jenny can be found on Twitter at JennyHansenCA or at Writers In The Storm.

(Note from Jami: If you’re not familiar with it, the Writers In The Storm group blog offers lots of great writing advice!)

*****

Thank you, Jenny! This whole post applies to me on so many levels (fear of failure and of success? *raises hand*). Fear can hurt us and our dreams in many ways.

For example, we talked about fear #4 (“Who would want to read what I have to say?”) in regards to feeling like a fraud. That fear might hold us back from marketing or promoting our work or a dozen other ways.

But, wow, #5 of the Fearsome Five list (“When I say what I have to say, they’ll know who I am.”) really resonated with me. Like many, I want people to like me, and we can fear that if people knew us—really knew us—they’d discover how flawed we are and not like us anymore.

I can’t even imagine all the ways that fear might hold us back. Maybe we decide against meeting people in real life at conferences or book signings. Maybe we stay away from social media where we’re supposed to be ourselves. Maybe we write less-risky (and less-authentic) stories.

However, Jenny is right. Sometimes the best way to get over our fear is to find ways to not think about it. We can stay busy and work on the next thing, and we can not let the fear paralyze us. *smile*

Does it scare you to chase your dreams? Which fear resonates the most with you? How do you deal with the fearful part of chasing dreams? What do you do when it’s time to make a new dream? Jenny would love to hear your thoughts down in the comments!

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Do You Share Your Work in Progress?

by Jami Gold on August 23, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Keyboard button labelled

The stereotype of a writer pounding away in isolation still applies in many ways. Unless we have a writing partner, we alone can type the words for our story.

However, the online writing community gives us more options—and thus more decisions to make—about how isolated we want to be throughout our writing process. We can work in secrecy, not revealing our work until it’s ready for the public eye. Or we could involve others in our writing process by sharing our work in progress (WIP).

There’s no right or wrong answer, but we should take the time to figure out which approach works better for us. That choice can affect how we go about getting feedback and engaging with others, so it’s best to figure out where we stand before being swept along by something that might make us uncomfortable. *smile*

We Have the Potential to Share Everywhere

It seems like every social media platform provides ways we can share from our WIP if we wish:

  • On Twitter, some authors tweet short excerpts or a cool line they just wrote, using hashtags like #WIPlines or #1lineWed.
  • On Facebook, we play along with games like “Post the first seven lines on page 77 of your WIP and tag seven friends.”
  • On Instagram and Pinterest, we share pictures of our first page on our computer monitor or character inspiration images with one of their lines.
  • As part of National Novel Writing Month, we might post the line that pushed us over a word count goal.
  • On critique forums, we might share whole chapters in hopes of receiving feedback.

There’s nothing wrong with any of that behavior, but we should think through our choices before taking each step of sharing. I’ve written before about how we can share our progress on our work to increase our accountability (like with word count widgets), but I want to get into more details for other pros and cons we might run into when sharing our in-progress work.

What Are Our Goals for Sharing?

As with many aspects of our writing path, the first step to figuring out the best choices for us is to identify our goals. A non-fiction author might have many reasons for blogging about their topic—such as gathering content for a blog-to-book process or to establish themselves as an authority—but let’s stick to fiction WIPs for these lists.

Why Might We Want to Share from Our WIP?

We might want to…

  • gather feedback
  • participate in a social game
  • get kudos or cheerleading for our growing word count
  • express our excitement for a new story and see if others are interested too
  • participate in a one-chapter-at-a-time critique group
  • boast about a cool line we came up with
  • start building anticipation for our next book
  • create curiosity about our characters or premise
  • ask for help on a sticky plot or character development point
  • check on a research detail
  • feel like “we’re all in this together” by sharing progress with a group, etc.

Why Might We Not Want to Share from Our WIP?

We might want to…

  • avoid posting unedited work that might give a poor impression or change significantly later
  • avoid feedback from those we don’t know and trust
  • avoid giving away a cool concept idea to others before we’ve published our version first
  • avoid opening ourselves to criticism that could ruin our excitement for our story during drafting
  • avoid creating a competition of comparing word counts with others
  • avoid giving away plot points in a previous book of a series that others might not have read yet
  • avoid receiving pressure from readers about when the story will be finished and released
  • avoid opening ourselves to the potential of plagiarism of our ideas or lines before we have an official copyright
  • avoid posting less-than-perfect work that will remain in Google forever, etc.

Think It Through…

For each of those “why we might want to” goals, there’s a potential downside.

Some of us struggle to find critique partners or beta readers, so we might search for a critiquing forum where we can receive feedback. That solution might work great for us—many writers find lifelong friends that way—but it might also leave us open to harsh criticism from those who don’t know our genre or care about our feelings.

We might want to stir up interest in our upcoming story by sharing excerpts while we draft. But what if the characters or storyline changes? Or what if readers get impatient for their chance to read the story?

Some of us like the cheerleading aspect of sharing our word count, lines, and new plot and character ideas with a drafting group. But what if someone in that group calls our idea stupid or accuses us of copying one of their stories?

Can We Survive or Minimize the Downsides?

The drafting process can be a vulnerable time for many writers. We might not be sure what story we want to tell until we finish the draft, so we might be less strong in our ability to fight off derailing suggestions or negative comments while writing.

If we lose our connection to the characters or our joy in the story, we might not even be able to finish our draft and have to set the story aside. (For a famous example of how some authors need isolation to maintain their connection to the story and characters, look no further than Stephenie Meyer’s abandonment of Twilight‘s related story, Midnight Sun, after the in-progress opening chapters leaked online.)

Only we can know what the potential upsides and downsides are for our situation, so the right choice for others might not work for us. Maybe we have a strong sense of our story, even while drafting, and we won’t be deterred by negative comments. Or maybe we’re willing to take more risks.

But even if we want some of those potential upsides, we can try to minimize the downsides. For example, if we need to post in semi-public areas for feedback, we can search for forums that encourage constructive criticism or that focus on our genre.

If we want the cheerleading aspect, we could post only in smaller, vetted groups, such as among our writing buddies or our author Facebook group. Or if we enjoy sharing our story excitement with others, we could look for a middle ground of sharing aspects we’ve already drafted and keeping quiet about story elements that are still in progress.

Because of my writing-by-the-seat-of-my-pants process, I keep my work secret during the drafting process, as I don’t want outside suggestions contaminating my idea until I have a strong grasp of the story. I want to listen to my characters—not others’ conceptions of them. Plus, I don’t want to risk losing my joy for the idea before the draft is complete.

To that end, I share word counts and high-level story premises but not details. For Facebook games and the like, when I participate, I share lines from a complete drafted-but-not-edited WIP. When I get stuck on a story problem, I turn only to my close writing buddies for help.

Some might not want to share even that much. Others might enjoy a wider audience for their drafting process or want feedback as they go to fix issues right away. There’s no wrong answer.

How much do we want to share? That will likely depend on what we get out of sharing. Only we can decide if those benefits are worth the risks of the potential problems.

Before we find ourselves sharing more than we intended, or before we share something without thinking through the possible consequences, it’s good to think about where our comfort level lies. We don’t want to feel forced to give up on a story just because sharing made us lose our connection. *smile*

Have you shared your work in progress before? What did you want to get out of sharing? Did it work? Were there downsides to sharing your work? Can you think of other pros or cons to sharing from our WIP?

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Person's shadow on the beach with text: Developing a Character's Arc

There are almost an infinite number of ways we can develop our story. Some plot every scene in advance, some plan only the high level story beats, and some write by the seat of their pants.

At the same time, some writers start with the plot and then work out the characters inhabiting that world, and some start with the characters and then brainstorm their situation. Some are inspired by an idea for a scene, and some find inspiration in a big-picture premise. Some write linearly (writing scenes in order), and some piece out-of-order scenes together later.

I could probably go on with several more examples, but I hope the point is clear. Especially as we mix and match these various approaches (a pantser who starts with character vs. a pantser who starts with plot), variety is the name of the game.

These story development processes are all valid. As long as we end up with a finished book, our process worked for us. *smile*

What Is a Character Arc?

No matter what process we use, we’ll probably have to come up with an arc for our protagonist at some point. A character arc (sometimes called their emotional or internal arc) refers to how a character changes and/or how the story or plot affects them.

We’re not talking about a character’s appearance, job, or family situation here. Instead, a character arc is about their internal journey:

  • What do they learn about themselves or the world?
  • What are they able to do at the end of the story that they couldn’t do before?
  • How do their beliefs about themselves or the world change?

Author K.M. Weiland has a great series on her blog about the three types of character arcs: positive, flat, and negative.

  • Positive arcs are the most common, as they’re found in many genres, providing a happy ending when the character learns and improves their life.
  • Flat arcs are common in some genres (such as mystery or thriller series), where the protagonist doesn’t change much but confronts the world around them.
  • Negative arcs are found in some styles of literary fiction (and occasionally some genre fiction, such as horror), as the story is about a character’s failure.

Just like the variety found in the overall writing processes we might use, we have many options for how to come up with our protagonist’s arc as well.

Elements of a Character Arc

A complete character arc (especially a positive arc) will usually include most of the following elements:

  • a way the character is unfulfilled (a longing, an internal need, etc.)
  • a backstory wound affecting them in the present
  • a fear making them unwilling to take certain risks
  • a false belief (or rationalization) holding them back
  • a weakness or flaw that needs to be overcome for them to improve
  • a “mask” they show the world to hide their wound/fear/weakness
  • a potential of how they can improve and reach their desire
  • a demonstration of how their current path isn’t working
  • choices forcing them to question their beliefs/morals/current path
  • an acknowledgement of what they need to change
  • a motivation for their desire to change (stakes/consequences/goals)
  • a lesson about what they need to do to implement the change
  • a self-realization of a truth about their wound, false belief, and/or fear
  • a demonstration of how they’ve changed

Methods for Developing Our Protagonist’s Arc

As mentioned above in regard to story development processes, there’s no “one right answer” for developing our character’s arc. Different processes can all lead us to a complete understanding of their arc, but the starting point or the creation journey can vary.

There’s no one element of a character that has to be a foundation upon which we build everything else (no matter the bazillion blog posts that tell us otherwise). Just like with the validity of starting with plot vs. character, we can build in many different directions and still end up with a finished arc.

Every story might challenge us in a different way. We might find ourselves using one method with one book and experimenting with another method for a later book. So it’s good to understand our character-development options in case our default method isn’t working for us.

We could start with…

  • an understanding of the ending (how they change, what they learn, what goal they reach, etc.) and work backward to develop a contrast from beginning to end
  • a theme we want to develop and figure out what we want them to learn to illustrate that theme
  • a scene that demonstrates a turning point choice they make and figure out what motivation would lead to that choice
  • an understanding of the backstory wound and develop the false belief and fear that would result from it
  • a fear or false belief and ideas for how they might overcome it
  • a character flaw/weakness and brainstorm how they might move forward
  • Etc., etc.

I came up with this list of approaches off the top of my head, but I hope it’s enough to demonstrate how it doesn’t matter what element we start with.

I’ve seen countless blog posts asserting the “proper” way to develop a character arc. They’ll act like one element is the foundation for all the other elements, but the truth is that they all interrelate.

Yes, in a story’s chronological order, the backstory wound causes the fear and false belief holding them back. However, a false belief such as “people aren’t to be trusted” could be caused by many different wounds, so the specific wound of our character could be decided later, even though it happens first in our fictional chronology.

Similarly, if we start with the plot, we might know what the character needs to learn to win the final showdown with the antagonist. From that, we could figure out the fear and false belief they need to overcome to reach that point.

The same applies to the other elements. In fact, we could start with any of those elements listed above and develop the other elements around that point.

Whatever the seed idea for our character, our story can feel complete, demonstrate a theme, and inspire readers no matter how we construct our protagonist’s arc. So don’t believe the blog posts acting like there’s one right way. If we get stuck on one point of development, we can always try another angle. *smile*

Do you struggle with building character arcs? What makes it tricky for you? Have you seen blog posts acting like one element is the foundation for all the others (implying that we have to start there)? Do you usually start with a certain element or do you vary your approach as needed? What elements come most easily to you? Which are hardest?

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Pile of screws with text: Publishing: Thinking of Doing It Yourself?

Not so long ago, a sharp division split the writing community. An “us vs. them” attitude drove some authors to choose sides among two camps: traditional publishing and self-publishing.

In fact, many would say that division still exists. However, from my perspective of watching the industry over several years, the current attitude doesn’t seem nearly as bad as it used to be.

The many successes of self-published authors—including awards based on quality measures—have proven that self-publishing isn’t a “lesser” path by any means. Hybrid publishing—when an author chooses to publish some stories traditionally and other stories independently—has won converts from both sides, illustrating that there’s no “one size fits all” for every project.

At the same time, new writers enter the field, and every day, experienced writers finally reach their ready-to-publish stage—all potentially questioning which path they should take. What advice do they encounter?

Which Advice Should We Trust?

The semi-permanence of the internet means that posts with pros and cons of our options and advice on tips and tricks can stick around long after the information loses validity. Articles conflating self-publishing and vanity publishing (paying a company to “publish” our work, typically without distribution services) still exist out there.

Even though the division between the self-vs.-traditional camps isn’t as deep or as rooted in an attitude of superiority as it used to be, we can still easily find articles advocating one path by being dismissive or insulting of the other.

Facts can get twisted, opinions can be stated as facts, and contrary information might not be revealed at all. So when we’re researching our options and seeking advice, we need to be aware of the source.

  • How old is the information?
  • Does the advice still apply to the current industry landscape?
  • Can we separate facts from opinions?
  • What path did the article’s author choose?
  • What is their agenda? Etc., etc.

Agenda? Does Everyone Have One?

In our books, we often try to share a message. Maybe our story’s themes attempt to get readers to think a certain way by teaching a lesson or by demonstrating one of life’s truths. Or maybe our characters explore a certain perspective on the way to proving it true or false through storytelling.

And if our fiction writing has an agenda, we can bet the non-fiction format of blog writing has even stronger messaging. The agenda is whatever an author of an article is trying to accomplish by sharing their thoughts.

When it comes to publishing advice, even the most seemingly unbiased, informative blog post might contain persuasive arguments. Those arguments are an attempt to convince readers of something.

Are Agendas Always Bad?

I’ll be honest. I try to convince people of certain things all the time in my posts. *smile*

I try to get my blog readers to believe that their stories are worth telling, that self-doubt doesn’t have to hold us back, that it’s important to be aware of our goals so we can work to reach them, that we’re capable of improving our skills, etc., etc.

In other words, an agenda isn’t necessarily bad. My agenda is to push back against bad writing advice that can make us feel like we’re doing something wrong just because we use a different approach (i.e., writing by the seat of our pants isn’t the fast track to failure).

I try to be transparent about my agenda because I want everyone to be able to make up their own mind about whether my advice or insights applies to their situation. No one should follow my path just because they’re taking my word for it. *smile*

Publishing Path Agendas

When it comes to publishing paths, the division between traditional publishing and self-publishing has made these agendas more pushy than some other writing-relating debates. I’ve seen many blog and forum posts on both sides outright state that those on the other side are stupid for their choices.

Yet we must remember that we all approach writing and publishing with different processes, strengths, weaknesses, and goals. So what makes sense to us isn’t necessarily the same choice that would make sense to others.

In addition, as the industry continues to change, the right choice for us might need to adjust. New tools, resources, or benefits could balance out our weaknesses or the cons of a path we’d previously dismissed. Or as we work on new projects, the right choice for our last book isn’t guaranteed to be the right choice for all future projects as well.

My Publishing Path “Agenda”

Here at my blog, I’ve tried to remain publishing-path neutral. That means that while I have my opinions for my own situation, I don’t try to convince others to follow in my path.

My agenda—if it can be called that—is to provide information so everyone can make the best decision for them. I encourage others to be aware of their goals so they can choose the best strategies to reach those goals. Informed decision-making is my goal.

I hope I’ve never made anyone feel less for their decisions, but I also know I’m not perfect. So before I go any further, I want to explicitly state that if a path is working for someone, that’s the right path for them, no matter what my personal choices are.

That said, I’ve chosen the self-publishing path for myself—so far. And as part of my usual sharing of what I learn, I’ve amassed more posts here than I realized with a focus on indie publishing.

Exploring My Self-Publishing Articles

I never wanted to focus so much on self-publishing articles here that other writing, craft, and publishing topics were cheated. However, my years of blogging and my indie-focused guest posts at Janice Hardy’s Fiction University have added up anyway.

So for those of you who do want to learn more about the self-publishing path, I have a new link collection for all my self-publishing-related posts:

Self-Publishing Your Story

Self-publishing insights, tips, and techniques. Sample topics: my Fiction University guest posts about Indie Publishing Paths, cover artist and editor selection advice, formatting issues, creating print versions, etc.

This link now resides permanently in my “For Writers: Tips & Advice” sidebar, as well as on my For Writers page, where I have link collections for many of my blog topics:

As a relative newcomer, I’m far from an expert on self-publishing, but I try to share everything I’ve learned. I hope this information helps everyone make those informed choices for what path will make the most sense for our situation and our goals. *smile*

Do you think the us vs. them feeling for traditional vs. self-publishing has abated over the years? Have you seen recent posts that assert one choice is unequivocally better than the other? What agendas do you see from writing and publishing posts? Do you agree that agendas aren’t necessarily bad? Do you have any suggestions for my blog as far as organization or self-publishing topics?

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Story Beginnings: Do You Have Context?

by Jami Gold on August 11, 2016

in Writing Stuff

Lone footprint in the sand with text: What's the Context?

Story beginnings are difficult (some might even say near impossible) to get right, especially in a first draft. We have to introduce the characters, the story, and the setting. We want to hint at what the protagonist longs for and show an immediate obstacle in the way that creates a near-term goal. Etc., etc.

At the same time, we have to avoid confusing readers, which is tricky. Most of us have probably started reading a story and felt so confused by the first page that we had to read it a second time.

Many readers won’t take the time to reread. If a reader can’t grasp the story, settings, characters, or situation on the first page, they’re likely to give up.

I’ve written before about the steps we can go through to discover the best scene to open our story with and the elements we should reveal. But there’s a big gap between knowing what to write about and knowing how to explain it to readers starting off in the dark. Let’s take a look…

Finding the Right Balance

We’re probably familiar with many of the common problems of story openings that include too much or bad information:

Most blog posts about story beginnings focus on avoiding those issues, so many writers “know better.” However, problems exist on the other end of the scale as well.

In fact, most stories I come across now as a beta reader or editor suffer from the opposite problem in that they don’t include enough of the right information:

  • lack of setting or description (readers need an anchor to understand the situation)
  • lack of connection to the character (readers need to know about the characters before they’ll care about even life-and-death issues)
  • lack of tension (readers need to know there’s a point to the story)

Each of those problems can leave a reader confused or ambivalent about our story. And readers who aren’t immersed in our story are less likely to continue.

Many of us would struggle if we were tossed into a foreign situation. Just imagine waking up with amnesia and having to decipher our surroundings, from those around us to potential threats. Yikes! Yet that’s essentially what readers encounter with our first pages.

As with many things regarding writing, we’re not likely to get this balance right the first time around. Feedback from beta readers, critique partners, and editors is crucial for giving us insight into how an “in the dark” reader will interpret our story opening.

What to Look for in Feedback

When I first started writing, I didn’t understand how many elements of writing require finding the proper balance. So, I’m ashamed to admit it now, but when I first started getting feedback on my opening pages, I would sometimes ignore the issues.

Feedback along the lines of “I don’t understand what’s going on here” were excused with “Just keep reading, and it’ll make sense.” And yes, sometimes that’s an acceptable answer, but more often, that type of feedback is a red flag for a confused reader.

Story questions that create mystery and curiosity in readers are good. Confusion is bad.

How can we tell the difference?

Is the Question about an Element That’s Meant to Be a Mystery?

If so, we might be okay to ignore them, such as with these examples:

  • “Why doesn’t she get along with her dad?”
  • “Why does he have this false belief?”
  • “Is there a reason why she doesn’t do xyz?”

Again, questions in readers are good. Their curiosity to uncover the answer will keep them turning pages. But that last example is one that might still be a red flag.

If xyz isn’t part of the story, we might need to address the question to avoid a plot hole. If it is part of the story, we might need to give a reason why that approach doesn’t work for this point in the story yet to avoid the impression that we’re just dragging out the plot for story convenience.

Is the Question about Unclear Context?

These types of feedback questions are definitely red flags for clarity issues:

  • “Where are they?”
  • “I can’t picture this.”
  • “Who is this character?”

Readers need to be anchored in the setting and situation right away. I’ve seen beautiful writing that didn’t make any sense because there wasn’t any context.

For example, unique metaphors about fragile objects on page one needs enough context so readers can decipher the comparison. If we know we’re at an archaeology dig, we’re going to picture different objects that the metaphor is referring to than if we know we’re in a hospital with a young child.

Readers also like knowing enough about characters to connect. Fine, someone’s hanging off the side of a cliff with another character nearby. Why should we care? Is one a good guy and the other a bad guy? Who should we root for?

Without context to see how the character fits into the situation, readers won’t start the process of connecting with the story. For all readers know, both characters on the cliff face are bad guys, and they should be rooting for them both to fall. That’s not a recipe for readers becoming invested in the outcome.

Our Goal: Provide Enough Context to Avoid Confusion

Chuck Wendig (in his usual NSFW style) recently mentioned this issue of “not enough” information in his post listing the reasons he stops reading a book:

“Crafting the first thirty or so pages of a book is itself a vital and elusive art. You are required to pack so much into so little while at the same time not overdoing it. But the greatest thing missing from too many books is context.

… I don’t need all the details, but I need some sense of what’s going on and why. … If I don’t know the stakes — what can be won, what can be lost, what’s on the table — then why am I reading? Why are we here?”

The human brain likes connecting pieces of knowledge together. Memory tricks teach us to remember people’s names by connecting their name to something about them. Facts without context aren’t memorable, and the same applies to fiction.

Readers will get invested in a story if there’s a hint of why the story is important. Readers will root for a character if they know why they should care or why the character acts the way they do.

Context avoids confusion, hints at stakes, and provides motivation. Without understanding of story situations, stakes, and motivations, readers can’t become immersed in the story.

Case Study: Treasured Claim‘s Opening Paragraphs

In my post about weaving information, I analyzed the first two paragraphs of my debut, Treasured Claim:

Jewelry trickled through Elaina’s fingers, scattering reflections across the peeling linoleum of her bathroom floor. Each piece hinted at how she’d acquired it for her collection—a broken clasp on a silver chain, earrings missing their backs, a loose sapphire she’d rescued from a sink drain. But the precious ornaments lacked the satisfying clink of gold coins when they landed in the safe-box at her knees.

Humans didn’t make treasure like they used to. Such a shame.

These paragraphs establish setting (including how she’s kneeling), so readers can visualize the scene. They hint at characterization and backstory, with her odd collection of broken jewelry and appreciation for the clink of gold coins. And they start to set up worldbuilding elements.

Now, let’s take a look at what those paragraphs used to look like in early drafts:

Reflections danced on the peeling linoleum of Elaina’s bathroom floor as jewelry trickled through her fingers. The priceless ornaments lacked the satisfying clink of gold coins when they landed in her safe-box. Humans didn’t make treasure like they used to. Such a shame.

Similar, but what’s missing? The context.

In addition to stronger sentence structures and rhythm, the revised version specifies that these jewelry pieces belong to her and that she was responsible for acquiring them. The context makes it clear that this isn’t just random jewelry.

The new version also adds details to create a mystery of why the jewelry is all broken (which ties into the worldbuilding). And it improves the setting visualization by describing how she’s kneeling in front of her safe-box rather than just having her “float” in the room.

Tiny differences, but they can make a difference for connecting readers to our story. So whenever we get feedback questioning aspects of our story opening—even if we want a mystery—we should ask ourselves if a bit more context would improve clarity or strengthen stakes or motivations.

Yes, we still want to layer information by weaving elements together. (Dumping a bunch of information before it’s needed isn’t the answer.) But context can help readers understand the situation, stakes, and motivations, and that understanding can connect readers to the story and keep them turning pages. *smile*

Have you been confused by the beginning of a story before? What made it confusing? What types of context do you think are most helpful to readers? Do you struggle with finding the balance between too much information and not enough? Other than getting feedback from others, do you have any advice for how to find the right balance?

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Stuck on Plot? Start at the End — Guest: Janice Hardy

August 9, 2016 Writing Stuff
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Today, Janice Hardy shares her tip for getting unstuck with our plot. Whether we’re plotters or pantsers, working backward from the end can help us figure out our story’s plot. Sometimes we need to shake up how we do things to get the creative juices flowing again, and working backward can be the key we need.

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Self Publishing? What’s Your Newsletter Plan? — Part One

August 4, 2016 Writing Stuff
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One way we can keep our readers from one book to the next is to start a “new release” newsletter. But first, we have to know the best practices for newsletters.

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When Is a Shocking Scene Necessary…or Gratuitous?

August 2, 2016 Writing Stuff
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As authors, we need to be careful when dealing with shocking, horrifying, or potentially problematic story elements. Let’s explore the steps we can go through to figure out the right approach for our genre, story, and characters.

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Do You Belong? Or Are You a Fraud?

July 28, 2016 Writing Stuff
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The RWA session I enjoyed the most was with Dr. Valerie Young, an expert on the “impostor syndrome.” Her presentation was so eye-opening that I want to share some of her insights…

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RWA16: Industry Insights from Data Guy and More

July 26, 2016 Writing Stuff
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This year at RWA, I was eligible to attend special published-authors-only workshops geared toward those with more experience, and I want to share some of the highlights from those workshops, as I think we can all benefit from many of the insights.

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