Grabbing an Agent's Attention: How do you start your story?

 Fire update: Our family is still on standby evacuation. The heroic fire crews have made huge strides in fighting the Waldo Canyon Fire. Hopefully the wind here in the mountains will not complicate things. If you're interested, here's a simulated video fly-through of the fire. It starts in my town and flies down through the fire area.

My first manuscript began with a scene of an orphan girl and her encounter with a peddler. It started kind of slowly, and culminated in a violent end. As a novice writer, I read that first chapters were important for grabbing an agent or editor's attention. I didn't think my first chapter was up to snuff (despite the fact it placed in a contest), so I changed it.

My new first chapter had my orphan running from a group of bandits. She's terrified, and has to fight for her life. Full of action, and emotion, I felt sure it was better.

It wasn't. Why?

Because even though I dropped the reader into a life-or-death situation, I didn't give the reader a chance to connect with my character. They didn't care what happened to her, so even though the situation was compelling, the reader's emotions weren't involved.

Kristin Nelson's recent blog post explained this well. I confused an action scene with an active scene. I thought my original slow start wasn't enough, and that I had to have action from the first sentence. Not true. Read through Nelson's post to see what the difference really is.

So, I got thinking about novel beginnings, and what advice others had. Here's a sampling of what I found:

Though it's for short stories, this post lists seven types of story openings, and why you might choose one over another.

Fiction Notes uses actual novel openings to come up with ten common ways to open a novel.

Helium collected a nice list of blog posts on how to write an excellent first chapter.

And two sites with great first chapter advice: Terrible Minds and Story Openings by Theresa Rizzo.

So I've decided to stick with my original first chapter. Once my readers are invested in my character, I can throw her into all kinds of situations. First of all, my job is to connect my readers to my characters.

How about you? What kind of first chapter have you written? Is it more active or action oriented? Have you made changes to it as you've learned more about the craft of writing?

A Bittersweet Day

I had every intention of posting a "normal" post today. But after watching a huge section of Colorado Springs burn last night, it's hard to focus on plot and character.

Yesterday, the Waldo Canyon fire grew from 5000 acres to over 15,000 acres, burning an unknown number of homes and businesses as the wind drove it into the city. Many friends are in the terrible situation of knowing the fire burned through their neighborhood, but not knowing if their home still stands.

At the same time, today is my 25th wedding anniversary. How do you celebrate one thing, while you mourn something else? 

I appreciate everyone's encouraging words on the blog and on Facebook. I feel so blessed. I'll leave you with one last image from my friend and neighbor Kristy Simons. She took a photo of the smoke plume we saw from our town yesterday, and it's amazing to see a face in the cloud.
photo by Kristy Simons
So, a day to celebrate and mourn. Do you ever have days like that?

How does a writer evacuate in an emergency?

Kind of a weird week here. A new fire was started on Saturday afternoon much closer than the one I mentioned last week. My son works not far from the spot where the fire began and he saw the fire start up. 

If you want to see what I see when I look out the window, check this webcam from time to time.

There is a possibility our family could be ordered to evacuate. Just a few streets away, homes are on pre-evacuation orders. We're gathering what we'd need in case that happens.

So what does a writer bring in an emergency? 

I live in Woodland Park, at the top of the image.
Laptop. The obvious choice for keeping posted on news, it also holds copies of my manuscripts (though not the only copies!). I also use the free DropBox service to back up all my manuscripts. It's a painless way to ease my mind about my writing.

Flash drives and backup hard drive. These hold stories and manuscripts from the last several years.

Notebooks. I have binders of story ideas, character 'bibles', and other writing-related records. 

Kindle. Rather than take up room with my favorite writing books, I can make use of the ones on my Kindle, and I can always add more.

Computer and Kindle charging cords.

That's all I can think of right now. How about you? If the unthinkable happened, what would you grab along with your important papers and photos?

Book Review: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer's Guide to Character Expression

You've heard me mention The Bookshelf Muse on the blog before. Writers Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are some of the most generous writers I know, offering a huge amount of information to writers--free.

If you've never checked out The Bookshelf Muse, you need to head over there. Ackerman and Puglisi have assembled a constantly expanding series of thesauruses (or is it thesauri?), which has earned them a spot in the Top Ten Blogs for Writers.

On , you'll find a character traits thesaurus, a weather & earthly phenomena thesaurus, a color, shape & texture thesaurus, a setting thesaurus, and a symbolism thesaurus. The emotion thesaurus has recently been gathered into an ebook, which makes it an amazing and handy reference for writers trying to evoke emotion without settling for cliches.

And, generous as they are, Ackerman and Puglisi are offering a sample of the book for free. In the sample .pdf file, you'll find "15 specific conditions (Pain, Hunger, Thirst, Attraction, Exhaustion, etc) that can alter a character's physical and mental state." Once you check it out, you'll probably see why having the book on your computer or ereader would be so helpful. For even more examples from the book, check out the sample entries here.

The $4.99 price is a small amount to pay for seventy five emotions, complete with all the details of how to show those emotions. From body language, internal sensations, actions and thoughts, writers will feel confident in keeping their writing fresh.

Do you have any tried and true resources for showing your character's emotion? Do you act things out yourself, or watch movies depicting the emotion?

Keep Writing No Matter What

Crazy days here in Colorado. There's a wildfire twenty miles west of here, causing evacuations for many of my friends. Last week I put my two daughters on a plane to New York City, where they'll work for the summer. And on Monday, what was supposed to be a minor pre-cancerous skin removal turned into a ten-centimeter, 15 stitches scenario.

It's easy to get distracted and forget about writing. But Rachelle Gardner's post yesterday reminded me that writing should be 90% of what I do writing-wise (with platform-building getting the other 10%).

And this image on Facebook this morning is a wake-up call for those ready to give up.

From "Exceptional Living" on Facebook.
So today is a writing day. I'll rework the first chapter of one of my manuscripts to send off to a writing conference scholarship contest. How about you? What are you working on today? What's keeping you from wanting to?

Note: check out Kenda Turner's wonderful post today about the same idea, very motivational! Check out Restart the Engine: Revving up the R's.

More Writing Advice from Randy Ingermanson + a free book

Back in October, I reviewed a book of writing advice from authors Randy Ingermanson and John B. Olson. They cleverly inserted four appendices on writing at the end of their award winning sci-fi novel, Oxygen. And now they physicist/biochemist duo has done it again with the sequel, The Fifth Man.

The Fifth Man comes complete with three meaty appendices (over 60 pages) that are worth the price in themselves. It's like getting the novel as a bonus. Here's more about what you get in Ingermanson's own words.

Imagine pitching a story idea in such a way that an editor turns off her inner critic, breaks out her pom-poms, and becomes your instant fan.
Think that's over the top? I've seen it happen, over and over.

My writing buddy, John Olson, has developed a battle-tested technique for taking almost any idea and turning an editor into a salivating puddle.

It's not about the presentation. It's not about the polish. It's certainly not about boiling the story down to a one-sentence "elevator pitch."

It's a psychological technique for creating a special kind of "high concept" that worms inside an editor's brain and stays there. John explains it all with examples in one of the appendices for our new e-book.

We're now releasing an e-book, the new and improved edition of our novel, THE FIFTH MAN, which we coauthored years ago. Since John and I are the publishers, we get to decide what goes into the book.

We've added three appendices for aspiring authors. Here's what they include:

* Developing The Big Idea -- how to find great ideas.

* Developing A Powerful High Concept -- how to get your editor salivating over your story.

* Every Scene Is A Story -- how to find the perfect structure for every scene in your novel.

THE FIFTH MAN is a space adventure with a strong dose of romance, suspense, and humor.

Valkerie Jansen is tough, beautiful, and being pursued by every man on the planet. Literally. The planet in question is Mars, with a total population of four.

Days before a giant dust storm is projected to strike their camp, Valkerie is attacked by an unseen assailant. Fortunately, there are only three suspects.

Unfortunately, all three of them . . . are innocent.
Within the appendices, you'll find out the big five story drivers writers need to be aware of. You'll absorb a detailed explanation of the six roads to a high concept story. And you'll get a thorough education in proactive and reactive scenes--a technique that will take your writing to a whole new level, and make your story difficult to put down.

To read the first three chapters, and find links to the book on all platforms, check out Ingermanson's Fifth Man page. I really like how the authors, though successful, are taking the time to give back to the writing community. They're candid about their experiences and missteps, and the appendices are entertaining to read. When you're successfully published one day, what will your advice to aspiring authors be?

When Your Words Count Against You

For writers on the road to publication, it's a good idea not to alienate the agents and editors who make that possible. Submitting a manuscript that runs far too long (or shorter than the norm) is an easy way to a quick rejection. Learning the typical word counts for your genre is part of understanding the business of publishing.

Try to think like an agent. Two manuscripts come across your desk, and both exhibit strong writing and great ideas. One project is 150K, and the other is 90K. Which will you choose to spend your time on? One book will need extensive editing and revision, including convincing the author to cut a significant number of words. The other may need some revisions, but is more or less ready to go.

How many is too many?

Keeping your manuscript in the ideal range will make it easier for you to find an agent, and for your agent to find a publisher. Let's run down some lists of word counts.

Chuch Sambuchino on word counts for different genres.

Agent Mary Kole on word counts for children's books.

And a recent post by agent Colleen Lindsay about the latest in word counts.

Why can't publishers just print it the way I wrote it?

Another point regarding word counts concerns the economy. The longer your manuscript, the more it costs to print, ship, and store. If you're a debut author, why should a publisher take a greater fiscal risk on an unknown?

But what about Twilight, you might ask? There was a debut author with an exceptionally long manuscript. Check out what agent Kristin Nelson has to say on the subject.

Agent Nathan Bransford explains why there's a trend toward shorter books.

How do I keep my words down? 

If you are planning a book, read Nathaniel Cassani's post about how to estimate the length before you begin.

And if you've already written your manuscript ant need to tighten it up, read through this post

Also, check out the cool "paragraph squaring" method.

How do you keep yourself from being too wordy? Or do you let yourself go and cut later?

Inventing New Characters: Time to Morph

Writers have all kinds of ways to come up with character descriptions. We adopt a favorite film or television actor, sometimes we comb through the rosters of modeling agencies, and other times we pick someone we know--or a stranger off the street.

But how cool would it be to morph your own character? You know how two friends get married and you can't wait to see how cute their kids are? Well, it's possible to find out now. And not only can you see what two people's kids will look like, you can blend any two people into a third person with ChangeFace.

Let's say you found a photo of a man whose dark looks you like, but you also admire another man's piercing eyes. Load them both into ChangeFace and see what you come up with. The site is pre-loaded with all kinds of celebrities, but you're welcome to upload your own.

Here's an example of a combination of Jackie Chan and Leonardo DeCaprio:

It could be fun to play around with. And if you're feeling creative, check out these other links and posts to flesh out your characters:

Writing Roulette: generators for writers who need inspiration, Part 1 and Part 2.

Kenda Turner's post on coming up with unique character names.

Give your character a quiz or psychological questionnaire to understand them better.

Sources for historical and modern day photos, including photos of every beard you can imagine.

So how do you come up with a new character? What do you use to find unique names, and describe the person you have in mind?

Combating Distractibility in Writing

Do you anxiously await the dryer's end-of-cycle buzzer? Are you relieved when the phone rings, or someone bugs you with a question? Do you end up wasting hours hopscotching from blog to blog?  I can totally relate. Chore that I normally dread seem compelling when I'm looking for excuses not to write. Then, I waste my most productive time when I first sit down to the computer. I have a couple ways to combat this:

I don't have wireless internet. I have to plug in. That way, if I just move to a different location in the house, I have no online distractions. Such a simple solution, but it works well. Yes, it would be convenient to check my email from bed, but seriously, I need to have some places in the house where I can't be reached by the long arm of the internet.

I try to schedule blog posts in advance. It's the days when I don't plan ahead that I end up stuck at the computer far longer than I'd planned. Michael Hyatt has an excellent post on how he writes his blogs. I've also heard advice to have a small stockpile of blog posts just in case there's an emergency or something else unexpected. Think of it as a savings account for blog posts.

I lock myself out. If I'm in a place where wireless is available (like a coffee shop), I turn on a program called Freedom, which locks my internet capability for the time period I've chosen. I posted about it here. There are other programs that do the same thing. I also like Dr. Wicked, which encourages only writing.

As far as the chores go, I'm trying to save those for the afternoon, when it's harder for me to write anyway. And I try to use that time for brainstorming plot and character ideas, so I'm getting something extra done, too.

And now it's time for me to get back to writing! How do you keep from getting distracted by chores or online surfing?

Gumroad: A New Way to Self-Publish

I love my dad. He often sends me links to websites that might be interesting to feature on my blog, and this one is no different. Gumroad is a brand new way to sell your content online, eliminating the middlemen (read Amazon and Barnes & Noble), and netting the author more in the process.

Created by Sahil Lavingia, a Pinterest designer, Gumroad is a no-frills, no-fuss way for entrepreneurs to put their products in the hands of their followers.

Gumroad hosts, takes payment, and delivers your product for you. Whether it's an ebook, a photo, or software. Any kind of digital file. Here's an example of a book for sale on Gumroad.

Gumroad gives creators the bulk of the money. The cost for using Gumroad is just 5% + $0.25 for each transaction. If you sold your ebook fo $2.99, you keep all but $0.40, which is immediately deposited in your PayPal account. There's no earning cap, or pricing restrictions.

Gumroad makes buying easy. It doesn't have a long form for buyers to fill out with their name and shipping address. Why collect all that information, when the product is sent via email. Check out how easy it is to make a purchase with this simulation. As Lavingia says in this interview, "I just want the online equivalent of handing you a dollar in person!"

Gumroad is designed to go hand in hand with social media. Having been so connected to social media already, Lavingia wanted to make it easy for creators to sell their products to those they were already friends with. Gumroad is intertwined with both Facebook and Twitter, making it simple to connect with those you already know. See how it works.

For more info, see the FAQ page, or this review on

What do you think about a new way to sell books? Do you think you'd give it a try?

Buckle Into Your Summer Writing Routine

My kids on an incredibly scary swing.
I'm back from vacation, and ready to get settled into my summer writing routine. How about you? Our family took some time last week to play in a couple of Colorado ski towns. When you have teenagers, it's hard to fit a family vacation around everyone's work schedules.

So now it's summer. It's really tempting to let fun activities and home projects take over writing time, but I'm setting some goals so that the summer doesn't slip by without dedicated progress on my manuscript. Here's what I'm thinking.

Eating at a vintage drive-in.
Each day will begin with writing time, before anything else. If I can get a good hour or two in, then any writing time the rest of the day is a bonus. And I'll keep the internet turned off till I'm done.

I'll make use of time on the road. Some of my best ideas come while I'm riding or driving for hours. I can really flesh out novel scenes and work through plot issues. There's something about watching scenery and disconnecting from stuff at home that spurs my imagination. Have you ever road-tripped a novel idea?

Projects will have a purpose. I'm replacing floors in my house, and doing some painting. What better time to think through a character's backstory, or develop new ideas? The more monotonous the project, the better.

How about you? Do you have goals for your writing this summer? How will you manage to keep summer activities and fluid schedules from eating up all your writing time? I'd love to know--I need even more ideas!


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