So You Want to Be a Writer?

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An open letter to new and aspiring writers:

First and foremost, the "aspiring writer" does not exist—there is the writer and the not-writer, but you cannot aspire to be a writer any more than you can aspire to be a reader (do you read or not?) or an artist (do you create art? Yes? Then you’re an artist). If you want to be a writer, the first thing you must do is eliminate "aspiring" from your vocabulary. You either write or you don't. Decide.

But first make absolutely sure that you want to be a writer—there can't be any doubts in your mind, you must know that you want to write like you know that you need to breathe to live. The words "maybe" "might" "perhaps" and "possibly" are not acceptable terms. You must know this with your heart, mind and soul.

Once you have decided that you are, indeed, a writer, you must, of course, begin to write. Chances are if you're reading this, you've already done so, but if you haven't you must begin immediately. Write as much as you can—write awful, melodramatic poetry and ridiculous, clichéd short stories and novels that go on for 100,000 words with little character development, a bald, moustache-twirling villain and an ending that features your protagonist waking up and realizing it was all just a very strange dream. Share it with your family who will tell you it's fantastic. Forget about editing and write query letters to top agents around the country, then receive your first and second and third and fourth form rejection letter.

Throughout this time, you should be reading. Read everything—trashy novels and books from the children's section and long, classic novels that make you want to tear your eyes out. Read the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful, non-fiction and novels, poetry and plays. If you don't have time to read, then you most certainly don't have time to learn how to write. Accept this and start reading widely, even if it means reading just a couple minutes at a time.

Eventually, you will probably realize that your first novel is terrible. This is good—it means you're learning. Don't let it discourage you—put your first novel away and start the second. And third.

If you want to get serious about writing, you must learn to edit. You'll have to make painful decisions—decision like tossing the first 50,000 words of your first draft or eliminating characters entirely or adding another 40,000 words to your novel long after you thought you'd be finished.

Read about writing as much as you can—blog posts, non-fiction, advice from agents and published writers—this is your bread and butter, the food that will mold you into the writer you want to become. Read it, apply it to your work then write some more.


Don't read about those writers who published their very first novel and became New York Times bestsellers. Don't let jealousy paralyze you when you see others around you get book deals, or when your best friends become successful and pat you on the back as you continue to slog through this disease called writing.

Accept that your friends and family will not understand your passion. Don't let this stop you.

Over time you will get tired. You'll be working a non-writing job or going to school or raising a family or all of the above and there will be bills to pay and long hours at work and family members who will smile politely when you talk about your writing and ask when you're going to get published.

Know that it will likely be many years before you see any of your writing in print.

Know that your debut novel will probably not be your first book. Or your second. Or your third.

Know that even when you do get published, chances are you'll probably still need that other job.

Know that there are much easier ways to make a living.

Are you sure you want to be a writer? Are you absolutely sure? Because the road of the writer is not an easy one—it's long and often lonely and frustrating. It's exhausting and not unlike repeatedly smashing your head into a wall.

Above all else: you must love to write.

If you're sure—if you know you love writing—then know this: as long as you don't give up, you will one day succeed. It might take two years or six or ten or twenty. It might be your fourth novel that gets published or your sixth or your thirteenth. But if you're sure this is the road you want to take and you devote your spare time to improving your craft and falling in love with your stories over and over again, one day you'll make it.

Being a writer isn't always easy or fulfilling or fun. But if you're sure that's who you are, don't let go of your dream—never let it escape you.

Because it's up to you to make your dream come true.

So now, tell me: are you a writer or aren't you? 

Character Development: Fear

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Everyone is afraid of something—most of us, many things. That may seem a bit cliché or redundant to say, but while we do our best to avoid fear in our everyday lives, we should punctuate on it in our writing.

What do I mean?

Fear humanizes us. It's something we all share as a species and an emotion that our characters should share as well—even the bravest and baddest of them all. You see, a character without fear is automatically unbelievable and more difficult to connect with—not to mention missing out on plenty of plot opportunities a character with a few fears has.

When looking to develop your characters, I highly recommend you get to know their fears—five each is a good place to start. The fears should range from anywhere as deep and integrated into the plot such as the fear of dying alone, to something as silly and simple as the fear of butterflies (which is a real fear by the way, linked to the fear of moths and called lepidopterophobia, but I digress).

It's not enough to be aware of our characters fears, however. Once you've developed a list, it's time to take a look at them and figure out how you can incorporate a couple of them into your plot.

Is your main character afraid of rabbits? Make sure she comes across a field full of those adorable little bouncing fluff balls.

Is your secondary afraid of bright colors? (again, a real fear believe it or not)—send him on a trip to Vegas.

Is your antagonist terrified of losing a loved one? Incorporate it into the plot.

I'm sure many of you noticed in my last example I used the antagonist, which brings me to my next point: evil characters have fears, too.

Yes, I know, it sometimes seems like an oxymoron to think of our antagonists as actually afraid of something, but the best, deepest antagonists have fears of their own that often color their actions and—at times—even causes them to make some fatal mistakes.

When it comes to fears, your antagonist should be no different from your main character —even the most nefarious of villains must be afraid of something to be believable. Their fears could be simple and linked to the plot—fear of losing power, for example, or fear of failure. I recommend, however, that you try to give your antagonist a normal, humanizing fear as well.

What if your antagonist's greatest fear really was losing a loved one? What would happen if his fear came true—or, perhaps, if it already did?

Discovering and developing our character's fears is a fantastic way to deepen your host of characters and make them more believable—not to mention the plot possibilities it provides you (how many times did Ron Weasley have to face his fear of spiders, for example? Or Indiana Jones and his phobia of snakes?)

Then once you've figured out what your cast is afraid of, it's time to start incorporating them into the plot.

Do you know what your characters are afraid of? Have you exploited their fears in your WIP?

Why I Don't Auto-Follow Back

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In a little change of pace, I'd like to take a moment to talk about some social media etiquette that often comes up for debate.

For any of you who use Twitter (and those of you writers who don't, I truly believe you should give it a try), you know exactly what I'm talking about just based off the title of this post: Auto-follow backs. 

Every new Twitter user will quickly come across the question that has many debating and scratching their heads over—to automatically follow someone back or not?

If you glance at my Twitter profile for even a second, you'll see pretty clearly based off my follower/following ratio that I very obviously don’t—but it’s probably not for the reason you might think. Truth is, I believe that automatically following everyone who follows you indicates that you’re completely missing the point of social media.

You see, when you ask for more followers or hound others to follow you simply because you followed them, you're focusing on the numbers rather than the people. Following people becomes a game—a race of let's see who can get the most followers the fastest. We become concerned no longer with the content of our streams or the relationships we're building—simply the number beneath the "Followers" count on our profiles. 

And from there, it's a slippery slope. Because the moment you lose sight of the people behind the numbers, you start to forget what this whole social media thing is all about: relationships.

I challenge you to look beyond the numbers. Sure, they're fun to look at every once in a while, particularly at a milestone, but I challenge you not to lose sight of the greatest gift social media has to give. 

How you decide to do that may differ—for me it meant only following people back who I've started to create a relationship with—people who I've carried a conversation with, who I have word sprints with, who are friendly and greet me in the morning and make a point of reaching out occasionally to say hello and answering when I welcome my new followers. 

Because when you encounter those kind of people you know that they get it—that you're not just a number, that they're willing to make the little extra effort to build a relationship with you. 

And that's when I click the little blue follow button to make sure I can connect with them again. 

What's your Twitter follow policy? Do you automatically follow people back? Why or why not? 

On Character Motivation

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It has occurred to me that while writing, one of the best things a writer can do is question every action from every character. Why did your protagonist say that? Why did your secondary react to that snide remark so violently? Why did your antagonist plant a bomb in a toy factory? Why won't that random taxi driver stop talking?

What I mean to say is that every action any character in your novel takes must have a motivation (and P.S: speaking is an action).

Think about your everyday life for a moment—from waking up in the morning to climbing into bed at the end of the day—and I think you'll find that there is very little (if anything at all) that you do without any motivation or reasoning at all. Even something as simple as eating lunch (motivation: you were hungry) or playing video games (motivation: you were bored, or didn't want to do something else, or really just wanted to reach that achievement, etc.) has some form of reasoning behind it.

What's my point? We don't do anything without motivation and neither should our characters.

This tends to be an obstacle when certain plot points need to be met, so our characters must do stupid or evil things in order to accomplish our goals for the manuscript. Without enough planning, when looking back at the WIP, writers often stumble across scenes where characters do something without a clearly defined motivation.

This happens most often with antagonists. In most novels, the antagonist must do some pretty terrible things to the main character in order for the plot to progress—whether it's stealing his lover or trying to kill him or embarrassing him in school (or at work)—antagonists must set our characters back and create conflict.

But antagonists are characters too, and they need to be well developed with believable motivations or their actions will fall flat.

Because I love the Harry Potter series and one of the best ways to learn how to improve your writing is by taking a look at the expertise of the greats, I'm going to use the most evil and yet still believable bad guy I have yet encountered in a book.

That's right: I'm talking about Voldemort.

As most of you know (regardless of whether or not you've read the series), Voldemort does many a terrible thing to our main character Harry. Without spoiling anything for those of you few readers who have yet to read the series, Voldemort kills Harry's parents when he's a baby, tries to kill him a dozen or so times throughout his lifetime, frees the most evil of wizards from Azkaban (wizard prison), murders many of Harry's friends and loved ones as well as tortures and kills others, goes through a very painful process of fragmenting his soul and murders his loyal followers when their usefulness expires.

And yet, Voldemort doesn't do things only because he's evil—he has a goal, a motivation: to be the greatest wizard who ever lived—greater even than the famous Albus Dumbledore. Above all else, he wants power and immortality.

Unfortunately for Voldemort, there's this pesky orphaned teenager who keeps getting in his way.

Despite all the evil, horrendous things Voldemort does, never once did J.K. Rowling fall into the trap of making him do things just to be evil—everything he did led back to his number one goal, every horrible action he took had a motivation.

Can you say the same for your characters?

Take a look at your WIP. Can you justify your characters' actions with motivations--or are they simply acting for the sake of the plot?

How to Gather Distance from Your WIP

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In my last post I may have said something a little flippantly that went along the lines of if you’re not 100 million percent sure that the beginning of your novel would grab you, it might need some work and I sort of might of accidentally insinuated that getting that kind of distance from your manuscript is not only entirely achievable, but easy enough that I don’t even have to talk about how insanely difficult it is.

So on that count, I apologize for that accidental insinuation, because as I’m sure many of you know, getting that kind of distance from your WIP is not an easy feat. However it’s not impossible.

I mentioned this briefly in a post I wrote a while back about the cooling off period, but I’d like to talk about it again both because I’m currently in that torturous don’t even look at your WIP phase and because I think it’s important enough to talk about twice.

You see, in order to glean the best insight on how to improve your WIP, you need to “forget” that the words on the page are ones that you put there yourself. You need to be able to read the words with a critical eye and look specifically for weaknesses—whether it’s a cliché phrase, a shallow character, lack of motivation, too much or too little explanation, etc.

The question, of course, is how? How do you distance yourself from a novel you’ve practically memorized, from words that you agonized over to get on the page?

Truth is, achieving the kind of wow, I entirely forgot I wrote this distance from you book takes time—a lot of time in fact, as in months to a year of doing everything but looking at your WIP, which probably (but doesn’t have to) includes writing other stories and reading a lot. Don’t panic though, I’m not suggesting that you have to take a year away from your WIP in order to edit it correctly.

I do suggest that you take a month off after you’ve finished writing a draft before you start editing. Although you most certainly won’t forget the words after a month, I’ve found that 30 days tends to develop enough distance so that you can look at your work more critically. Even then, however, you need to go into editing mode with the right mindset.

You see, after a month you will have developed distance from your WIP—distance enough to start editing, at least—but you need to be aware that despite that agonizing month of not looking at your WIP, you’re still about twenty thousand times closer to your manuscript than any outside reader who comes across it. When you start editing your WIP, you need to look specifically for weaknesses.

Before you start editing, ask yourself:

What do I already know needs fixing?

What do I hope to achieve with this round of editing?

Once you’ve answered those questions thoroughly, you can start reading. Even while you’re going through your WIP though, there are more questions you need to ask. Questions like how can I make this situation worse? Did my character respond realistically? Is this situation believable? What are my characters’ motivations? You need to be on the lookout for clichés and lazy shortcuts like information dumping and telling rather than showing.

You need to be aware that unless you proactively search for mistakes, most of them will hide from you.

Let’s be honest, subconsciously, most of us don’t want to find weaknesses in our WIPs. And it’s only natural—we love our stories and we’ve probably already worked on them for ages and the thought of having to do even more work can be a little scary.

Don’t let it scare you.

When you hone in on the weaknesses in your story and it starts to become overwhelming, think of how much better your WIP will be once you’ve finished. Tackle one issue at a time and don’t worry about the other things. Prioritize what needs to be fixed first and cross it off your list when you’ve finished.

Then, when you’ve finished, let your critique partner have at it and start all over again.

What tips do you have for distancing yourself from your WIP? 

Reading: How Do You Decide?

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A short post today.

As I've been attacking my 2012 reading goal with a vengeance and will most assuredly surpass it this year, I've been doing a lot of reading. I’ve also read a Mount Kilimanjaro-sized flood of samples in the past few weeks and it got me thinking.

When it comes to book buying, what’s your deciding factor?

After devouring sample after sample and organizing them into “must read” and “not interested” piles in my brain, I’ve come across a rather unexpected discovery about my reading tastes.

You see, I always knew that voice was an important factor for me, but I never realized until recently just how important it is to me. I'd always assumed that genre would pretty much dictate what I choose to sample (and thus, even consider reading), but I've found that if I come across a book out of my normal reading genre with a great voice, it doesn't matter—chances are I'll add it to my "must read" pile anyway.

And if that means I'll be reading a little more widely from now on, well, let's just say I'm not too broken up about it.

Voice, however, isn't the only thing that matters. I've read a sample from at least one novel I can think of off the top of my head that had a fantastic voice and an interesting story, but the villain was so evil and cliché that I put it down immediately and moved on to the next sample (which is a shame, because I was about ready to buy it).

I think there's an important lesson to be learned from our reading habits—specifically from how we decide whether or not to buy a book. For me, the largest factor is the voice, followed closely by the depth of the characters—are they believable and interesting or do I want to laugh at their swirly moustaches when they're introduced?

We can apply our reading habits to our own novels by taking a step back and examining the beginning of your book. If you weren't the author, would you buy it based off a quick sample? If the answer isn't a 100% absolutely yes, then it might need some work.

I'm sure not everyone's book buying habits are the same as mine, however. What factors determine whether or not you decide to buy a book?

Why Use Past Tense?

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Continuing from Friday’s post on the pros and cons of using present tense in your novels, we now move on to the much more widely used past tense.

Truth be told, you could write the same exact story nearly word-for-word in past or present tense. The difference lies in the way you’d like the novel to feel.

You see, while present tense’s effectiveness is largely due to its immediacy, past tense’s reflective nature is its great strength. The connotations of past tense are entirely different from present—in present tense the narrator is telling the reader the story as it happens, while in past tense the narrator is retelling the story events to the reader. In past tense, the narrator already knows how the story ends—in present, he does not.

Between the two, past tense is the more realistic tense. By this I mean it’s much easier to believe that the character is retelling their story than it is to believe that they’re announcing their story as it happens. We retell stories to friends and family all the time, and when we do it’s obviously in past tense. Reading novels in past tense, then, feels much more natural—which is a large advantage. While it’s not unheard of for a reader to dislike a book because it was written in present tense, very rarely will you find a reader who disliked a book simply because it was written in past tense.

Let’s take a look at one of my favorite lines from The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (via

It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road.

I love this line for many reasons, but I chose to use it here because it really punctuates on the strength of past tense. If you’ve ever read The Catcher in the Rye (which I hope you have), you know that Holden Caulfield (the protagonist) is very much a reflective character. Written in present tense, I don’t think his musings would be quite as strong.

But don’t take my word for it. Let’s try translating that line into present tense:

It’s that kind of crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you feel like you’re disappearing every time you cross a road.

As if often the case with this type of thing, which you like better comes down to opinion and there isn’t really a right or wrong answer per say, but the difference between the two is pretty clear. The same images are present as well as the same voice and tone—but the feel is different. In the past tense line you’re remembering—it’s as if the memory of that incredibly cold day is your own. The present tense line is more immediate—it’s cold now versus it was cold then.

For certain novels like The Catcher in the Rye where the main character is indeed a reflective character, the choice between past and present tense is pretty clear—as the reflective tense, past tense is the way to go. For other novels however, the choice isn’t as clear and it’ll depend largely on whether you (the writer) prefer an immediate or reflective feel for your novel.

Past tense is a great option and, for some writers, easier to write, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own hurdles to overcome. You see, when compared to present tense, past tense tends to be more difficult to establish a connection with the reader. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying at all that it’s impossible to make a connection with the reader with past tense, but as illustrated by my lovely closeness chart from the last post (reposted below), you start off a step further away from the reader as far as closeness goes (in case you missed it, the explanation of closeness is here).

It’s easy to fall into the storytelling trap with past tense—where the narrator is merely telling the story without truly connecting to the reader. It’s a hurdle, and one that can (and must be) overcome, but it’s one that you should be aware of as you work on your past-tense story.

In the end, neither past nor present tense is greater than the other—they both have their strengths and weaknesses and hurdles to overcome. Once you decide how you’d like your novel to feel however, choosing one over the other becomes markedly easier.

What do you prefer to write in—past or present tense? Do you have a preference when it comes to reading?

Why Use Present Tense?

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So after reading my post on first sentences, a certain fabulous blogger suggested that I write a post on the choice between present and past tense, which, in my opinion, is totally brilliant and a bit of a wonder that I hadn’t done so already. However, I’ve come to realize that this post is going to be enormously long if I try to cover both, so while today’s post will primarily focus on present tense, Monday’s post will cover past.

Quick note: for the sake of this post I’m going to focus on first-person POV, but the same principles apply to third-person as well.

Stylistically, the differences between past and present tense are pretty subtle—and both function well in their respective novels. Books like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi, Across the Universe by Beth Revis and The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson were all successful with their use of present tense while books like The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Immanuel’s Veins by Ted Dekker and The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer by Michelle Hodkin worked well with past tense. (Note: I haven’t fully read all of the books I mentioned, but I’ve at least read samples if not the whole thing, and found the voices to be particularly interesting).

So what’s the difference between the two? Why use one over the other?

Having read (and written in) plenty of both, the biggest difference that stands out to me is the sense of immediacy and closeness. Now I’m aware that closeness isn’t really a technical term to describe writing and I should probably use another more professional-sounding word, but closeness is the word I currently have in my head. So.

By “closeness” I mean the proverbial distance between the reader and the narrator. I’m sure you’ve all read a novel and found that the narrator felt distant, which made it difficult for you to connect or empathize with the protagonist (and you probably put the book down unless you were forced or felt particularly compelled to read it for whatever reason). That’s the distance I’m talking about—the closeness.

In my experience at least, I’ve found that this closeness correlates directly to the tense the work is written in, and the relationship is something like this:

So...this is a little hard to read, but hopefully you get the idea. 

Now, that’s not to say that books written in third-person past or even omniscient past can’t create a close relationship to the reader—it just in many cases takes a little more effort on both the writer and reader’s part.

You see, when a novel is written in present tense, the reader is in essence experiencing the events of the book at the same time as the narrator, and it’s this feeling of going through the plot together (immediacy) that tends to create an instantly closer relationship. Books written in past tense of course can create the same sort of relationship—as I said the differences between the two are very subtle—but the effect of the narrator recounting the story (as is the case in novels written in past tense) is a half-step farther than the narrator experiencing the novel with the reader.

The immediacy of present tense works particularly well in fast-paced, action-packed novels—which is why I think it worked so well in The Hunger Games. For these kind of novels, present-tense adds an extra edge—the characters are going through their battles with the reader. The protagonist hasn’t experienced this already—and thus isn’t telling us about a battle three years ago that they very clearly survived from or else they wouldn’t be around to tell the story—so there’s an added sense of vulnerability. Although it’s very rare for protagonists to die, the sense that things are happening now can give the added feel that anything could happen—even, possibly (although unlikely), the death of the protagonist.

But like every tense, there are weaknesses you must be aware of.

Present tense (especially first-person present tense) can be more difficult for some readers to adjust to. Whereas it’s reasonable to think that a narrator may be telling you about something they experienced before (as is the case with novels written in past tense), the idea that the narrator is actually standing right there in front of you narrating exactly what they’re doing right now is a hurdle that readers must get over in order to enjoy the story. Obviously no one (sane) goes around announcing to some invisible audience everything that they’re doing as they do it—which for some readers is a fact that makes it rather difficult to enjoy novels written in first-person present tense.

For this reason, present-tense can be a little more difficult to write convincingly. Your voice and story must be strong enough to make readers overlook the fact that realistically, the protagonist should not be describing everything that’s going on at this present time.

If done well, however, present-tense is a perfectly viable option that can function really well for certain types of novels.

What do you think? Have you ever written in present tense? What novels have you read that used present tense well (or that didn’t)? 

What Makes a Great First Sentence?

“When it comes to selling your book, the most important words you’ll ever write are those on page one.” –Jodie Rhodes, President, Jodie Rhodes Literary Agency (from Hooked by Les Edgerton).
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Most readers and writers alike can agree that the first page—and even more so, the first line—of a book carries a very heavy responsibility. I’d even go as far to say that the first line in your book is the most important sentence in the entirety of your WIP. Why?

The first line determines if the reader will go on to the second (then third and fourth, etc.) line (obvious, I know, but important).

The first line is the very first impression readers (and agents, and editors) have of your manuscript.

The first line carries the responsibility of hooking your readers into the story, or else they likely won’t move on. (No pressure).

Most of us can agree that the importance of the first sentence is undeniable. But what makes a good first sentence?

Hooked by Les Edgerton focuses on, as the title suggests, hooking your readers with your first scene and naturally, your first sentence (it’s a good read for those of you who’d like a really in-depth look at the topic beyond the little bit that I talk about here, but I digress). My favorite point in the book however, came with his theory on the two things that should belong in first sentences.

According to Edgerton, every first sentence should hint at trouble and raise a question. Taking a look at some great (in my opinion) opening lines, I have to agree with him. Let’s take a look:

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”—The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I’ve seen this line used time and time again as an example of a great first line and I don’t know about you guys, but I think it’s brilliant. It also holds up to Edgerton’s theory—although the trouble isn’t stated directly (it rarely is in first lines), there is certainly a sense of foreboding as our main character wakes to a cold, empty bed. The question of course is obvious—why is the other side of the bed cold? Who was she (Katniss, the protagonist) expecting to be there?

“I’ve been locked up for 264 days.”—Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi

The trouble and questions are pretty clear here—the trouble is clearly that our protagonist (Juliette) has been locked up for nearly a year. We don’t know where exactly, but by the term “locked up” we can assume it’s some kind of prison. The question of course is why? Why lock someone up for that long? What did she do to deserve imprisonment? You must read to find out.

“I see darkness.”—Saint by Ted Dekker

Trouble? Well, waking to darkness isn’t often a good thing and although we know little about the protagonist’s situation from this first sentence, we most certainly have a sense that something bad is about to happen—or perhaps something bad already has. Either way, we want to know why our main character only sees darkness (the question), so we have to read on to find out.

“There is one mirror in my house.”—Divergent by Veronica Roth

The trouble here is a little more subtle than in the last two examples. We don’t know for sure from the first sentence that anything bad is going to happen, but just the fact that we have to ask why our main character only has one mirror in her house (and why, as we quickly find out, the mirror is hidden) gives us a sense that something isn’t quite right.

“Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” –Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

How could I go through this kind of post without including Harry Potter? Obviously, I couldn’t.

In all seriousness, this is the kind of sentence that uses a sort of reverse-psychology. Just the fact that Mr. and Mrs. Dursley feel the need to say that they’re perfectly normal indicates that they probably aren’t (which foreshadows trouble) and also leads the reader to ask why they feel it’s important everyone know that they’re normal. Do people think they’re strange? If so, why? We must read on to find the answer.

A sense of foreboding and raising questions can go a long way to grab your readers’ attention right from the first line—are you using this technique in your writing?

What are your favorite first lines? Do they create a sense a trouble and raise questions? I’d love to hear them! 

Joining the Dark Side with a NOOK

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A few months ago I wrote a slightly hyper post possibly influenced by a sugar rush explaining why I didn't yet have an e-reader.

For those of you who didn't read it (or else don't click that pretty blue link up there), I came to the conclusion that the e-reader I wanted was out of budget, but we would see how I felt around Christmas.

WELL. As some of you most astute readers probably noticed, I did indeed write those summarizing sentences in the past tense there is indeed a reason for that.

I received a gift, you see. An e-reader gift. Specifically, a NOOK gift (the e-ink Simple Touch variety). So for those of you who still swear completely by print books, I suppose I've joined the dark side. And I'm not apologetic.

Firstly, I still love print books and just because I'm officially the owner of an e-reader and, naturally, a few e-books, doesn't mean I won't continue to buy print books. I will— in fact, that hardest part I've found is now deciding which books to buy for my NOOK and which to buy for my bookshelf. It's a much more difficult decision than you might think, but I digress.

Secondly, I have discovered that owning a NOOK (or any e-reader for that matter) is a dangerous thing for writers and readers alike. For anyone who's friends with me on Goodreads, you've probably noticed that in the past couple of days I've added about a bazillion books to my TBR pile (ok, I exaggerate— I've added a little less than ten in four days, but STILL). The reason for this is indeed my NOOK.

You see, having an e-reader is basically like having a bookstore on your lap. If you see a book that interests you online, you can whip out your e-reader and read a sizable sample. If you're bored and flipping through covers on the online bookstore on your e-reader and see something that interests you— download a sample and read it. One of your Goodreads friends finished a book you haven't read and loved it? Go get that e-reader and download a sample to read STAT.

As you can imagine, I've read quite a few samples. In fact, they're pretty much what determines whether or not I buy the book 100% of the time.

Because I came to realize it's not so different from what I do in a bookstore. At bookstores I walk through the shelves, pick up something that interests me, read the blurb—and if I like it—move on to the first few pages. If I don't like it, I'd put it down and move on.

Turns out, it's the same thing with e-readers. Samples that I don't like get archived. Samples that I read and love are left to torture me on my NOOK until I finally cave in and buy it.

I think I'll be reading much more this year.

So for those of you who are wondering, quick pros and cons of the NOOK Simple Touch.

Pros : It's affordable (only $99), the e-ink screen is very easy to read on (as opposed to backlit screens which can tire your eyes out), it's small and light enough to be easily portable and the battery life is pretty fantastic. I read online that it's something like 14 days with heavy use. I charge mine every couple of days once the battery starts dipping below 50%, but I have to say I'm pretty impressed with the battery's resilience. Also, you can add storage through an SD card which I suppose is always a plus.

Cons: There isn't any color! Yes, I obviously knew that my NOOK Simple Touch wasn't going to have color as it has an e-ink screen (which I'm finding more and more that I actually enjoy reading on), but it makes me a little sad inside when I flip through my little virtual bookshelf and everything is in black and white. The covers just aren't nearly as pretty as the ones sitting on my bookshelf (or my iPod, for that matter). And, you know, the new book smell isn't there when reading an e-reader. Which is a little sad.

I've also noticed that Barnes and Noble tends to have less promotional little things for their e-books (in comparison to Kindle books). I can't tell you how many times I've seen free or discounted offerings for a Kindle book, when the NOOK counterpart was, erm, not. That combined with Amazon's constant LOOK! SHINY KINDLE! DID YOU BUY ONE YET? on their homepage (I'm a Prime member, so I suppose I kind of asked for it) while I'm all noooo Amazon, I have an e-reader, kthanks can be a little irritating, but hey! It's a minor thing, really.

So that about covers it, really. I think I'm going to go read now.

Thoughts! Do you have an e-reader? If you do, what do you think? If you don't, tell us why you're holding out! There are e-readerish things to discuss!

How to Find Your Inner Sadist

Photo credit: Katie Tegtmeyer on Flickr
Here's a secret: I'm relatively convinced that every writer has a sadist buried deep down insideafter all, you are writing a story where you make things as bad as possible for your characters, aren't you? Some writers, however, may find it a little more difficult to tap into their dark side than others.

If you're one of those struggling writers, have no fear. You'll be embracing your inner sadist in no time.

It starts by taking a look at what you've written (or plotted) thus far. Let's say your main character is a high school student who is more than a little familiar with the principal and pink detention slips. Her problem is that if she gets written up one more time, her parents won't allow her to go out with her friends for the rest of the month. As it's her best friend's birthday this weekend, she has to behave herself.

When facing your main character's current problem, the best thing you can do as a writer is ask yourself how you can make this as difficult as possible for your protagonist at every turn.

Let's take a look at a couple of things that could complicate matters for our protagonist:

  • She has a hot temper.
  • She forgot to set her alarm so she wakes up late.
  • She runs to the bus stop and misses the bus.
  • She runs to her first period class and is not only late, but slips and falls on another student when she enters the classroom.
  • The student she fell on is her ex-boyfriend— who is now dating a girl that hates her.
  • In her rush to get out the door, she forgot her homework on the kitchen table— but her teacher doesn't believe her and thinks she didn't do it again.
  • The ex's girlfriend sees her fall on him, thinks it was done on purpose and starts an argument with her.

The list goes on.

The point is, it's your job as a writer to chase your characters up a tree infested with rabid squirrels, throw rocks at them, then set the tree on fire and make it rain acid. There shouldn't be any easy escape routes for your characters, or anything easily achieved for that matter, even if it's something as menial as getting to school on time. 

In short, you need to be mean to your characters all the time. Make them fight for everything—even at rest their thoughts should be conflicted. Then, when they finally get what they want, make the next goal even more difficult.

When editing, go through your manuscript and take a look at your scenes. Have you been too nice to your characters? Is there any way you could make it even worse for your protagonist than you already have? If the answer is yes, it’s time for you to get to work. You know what to do.

What books can you think of that have successfully employed this technique?

Every Writer (Should Be) a Sadist

Photo credit: jdxyw on Flickr
If you're a writer, you're a sadist. I don't necessarily mean when it comes to your friends and family (although I won’t pretend there aren't any writers who are sadists in that aspect of their lives as well), but when it comes to your characters, you should be digging deep to find your inner sadist. If you don't, well, you're missing out.

You see, the most interesting and exciting stories are those in which everything that could conceivably go wrong for the protagonist does— and then some.

Don't believe me? Let's take a quick look at the beginning of the Harry Potter series.

In the very beginning of The Sorcerer's (or Philosopher's) Stone, we meet young Harry, who lives in the cupboard under the stairs at his highly unlikable aunt and uncle's house. As a wizard who doesn't know he's a wizard living with his Muggle (non-magic) relatives, it's expected that there should be a couple of problems along the way.

An inexperienced writer might have skipped most of the beginning introductory things that Rowling included and gone straight to the inciting incident--Harry receiving his letter from Hogwarts. There are very few problems in this kind of beginning so I imagine it'd be a pretty short first chapter.

A good writer might have created a couple of problems for Harry such as using his annoying cousin Dudley to lead to an argument (and punishment) from his aunt and uncle and perhaps making it more difficult for Harry to receive his letter.

But master writer Rowling takes out all the stops and makes it difficult for Harry at every turn. Dudley isn't just annoying— he's a spoiled brat and a bully who can do no wrong in his parents' eyes. When Harry is permitted to go to the zoo, he accidentally releases a snake into the public. When his letters start to come in, his aunt and uncle aren't just irritated— they're downright terrified and make it their mission to keep the letters from reaching Harry, which of course eventually leads to them running away until a certain half-giant with a pink umbrella hunts them down.

Much more interesting than the version from the inexperienced non-sadist writer, I think.

But creating one problem after another for the protagonist doesn't always come naturally to every writer, and when it doesn't, it may be time to sit down and tap into your inner sadist. How to do so will be covered in Friday's post.

Have you tapped into your inner sadist?

Book Review: Matched by Ally Condie

Photo credit: Goodreads

I have to say I was pretty excited to start reading Matched. I’ve found that I really love dystopian novels and I’d heard a lot about this book long before I got my hands on a copy.

The premise behind Matched was certainly enough to pique my interest. The summary from Goodreads is as follows:

“Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander's face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows with complete certainty that he is her ideal mate... until she sees Ky Markham's face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.  
The Society tells her it's a glitch, a rare malfunction, and that she should focus on the happy life she's destined to lead with Xander. But Cassia can't stop thinking about Ky, and as they slowly fall in love, Cassia begins to doubt the Society's infallibility and is faced with an impossible choice: between Xander and Ky, between the only life she's known and a path that no one else has dared to follow.”

As is the case with many YA novels, Matched is written in first person from the POV of the protagonist Cassia. I’d heard a reviewer say that they didn’t feel the voice sounded very much like a teenager and I have to say I somewhat agree. However, considering the strict society that Matched takes place in and the way Cassia was raised, the voice—which wasn’t quite emotional enough to fully feel like a teenager to me—didn’t kill it for me.

Without spoiling anything, my biggest hurdle came in suspending my disbelief—not due to the dystopian society or some of the rather less-than-pleasant methods that the Society employs, however—but with the love triangle between Cassia, Ky and Xander. Xander has been Cassia’s best friend for most of her life, so it was easy to believe that she was ecstatic when it was decided that she would marry him. I found it a little more difficult to believe, however, that Cassia would so easily start to fall for Ky, who she even admits she barely thought about until the turning point in the novel. Again, it wasn’t a deal-breaker for me, but I did question it, especially at the beginning.

Despite that, Matched kept me interested. The strict rules imposed by the Society threw one obstacle after another and kept the tension pretty high throughout the novel, not to mention the conflict of forbidden love, which always makes for a pretty decent page turner. I thought the characters were well developed, interested and flawed enough to feel real.

Matched was an entertaining read—if not a little more slowly paced than I would have liked—and a good start to what should prove to be an interesting series. I certainly found the dystopian Society that Condie built to be interesting, if not a bit disturbing (a world where you’re only permitted to know 100 Stories, poems, histories and songs is one from any writer’s nightmares) and I still recommend it to fellow dystopian fans who enjoy a classic love triangle.

Have you read Matched? What were your thoughts?
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