Keep your promise to your readers

Helga’s Post # 106: During our recent downsizing from house to condo I was forced to part with a multitude of boxes containing heaps of notes and articles about writing. I lovingly and dutifully collected this treasure trove over years at writing workshops and conferences. I had even hoarded term papers from writing classes of my university years.

A painful process, judging what to keep and what to shred. Most of it went to the shredder. I did not want some dumpster diver getting his hands on my early manuscripts, basic though as they were.

I still recall some of my creative writing classes at Simon Fraser University, and the first year I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Like a dry sponge I absorbed every word of dispensed advice! I made copious notes of everything my professors and workshop leaders offered. More importantly, I believed every word from my classes and conference workshops. Passionately.

Then came the second year of the Surrey International Writers’ conference, and the third, and more after that. They turned out to be still interesting, but much of the information was by now repetitive, and quite a lot of it contradictory. The most obvious that most of us are familiar with: Always outline. You can’t ever finish a novel without. Never outline. It will stifle your writing. Each camp has its devoted disciples.

Gradually, I sifted through all the learning from my early writing years and applied what sounded most practical for my style. Not only ‘applied’, but relied on it. But here’s the rub: I got increasingly stuck trying to squeeze the multitude of ‘rules’ into my writing. I tried to use them all. I spent more time trying to write to the ‘rules’ than letting my story flow. After a while I felt like getting buried in an avalanche.

Until I realized that it wouldn’t work for me. Time to change tactics. To find a better way.

I am not suggesting that new writers should disregard writing rules. Every writer needs some rules. But the key is to be selective. Just as some writers absolutely have to outline, it would stifle the writing process for others. We need to apply the rules that suit our individual style and preference. Cherry-picking, rather than one-size-fits-all.

Nonetheless, some cardinal rules apply that have stood the test of all writing styles. Take those related to starting your story. Mountains of books have been written about the pivotal ‘First Chapter’. If it doesn’t start right, nobody will read your novel. Those rules are ironclad. Ignore them at your peril.

Some of the cardinal rules that have been most useful for me are also the most basic. They continue to serve me well. Here they are, in a nutshell:

Start your story with an action scene. That applies to all genres from romance novels to thrillers. Start with the ‘real’ tension and conflict. Don’t start with the main characters reflecting on life, thinking about their current or past situation, or contemplating doing something.

First chapters are a bit like speed dating. A reader knows within a few minutes if they will be interested enough in your story to continue. They might hold a really good book in their hands, but your story has to grab them or they’ll drop it and never buy another book you wrote.

Avoid backstory on your first pages at the fear of torture. Don’t spoon feed your reader with detailed explanation. Let them guess – less is more. Use dialogue instead of narrative. And by all means, use conflict. Ideally the main conflict of your story should be clear at the end of the chapter.

In my early attempts at writing I made the mistake of introducing my protagonist in a way to ‘force’ my readers to like him/her. I did this either by ‘telling’ a heroic quality early on, or by giving her/him some kind of flaw, counting on the reader’s empathy. Reading through my first manuscripts I notice how hard I tried to have my readers ‘like’ my main character in the first few pages with all kinds of backstory, when instead, I should have focused on an action scene to keep my readers turning those crucial first pages.

Consider this: Your first chapter is a promise to the reader. It tells them what kind of story they can expect to get. Without going into details, or worse, backstory, the reader should know the main conflict of the book and have some sense of the main character’s personality.


Headhunters: How did we get from this…

Keeping the promise to your reader is of utmost importance. We can all think of a book or movie that broke that promise, and we feel cheated at having wasted our time. For example, I watched ‘Headhunters’ on Netflix the other day, a movie based on Jo Nesbo’s book by the same name.

I was intrigued the way it started: Stylish Scandinavian setting and actors, beautiful house and art exhibits, great theme (high-end art thefts to support a lavish lifestyle), all the right things. Our protagonist gets in trouble, finds his wife cheating him, etc. But then the theme gets derailed and confused.

.... to this ?

…. to this ?

Suddenly I find myself watching a horror movie, with some disgusting scenes including when he has to hide inside the dump hole of an outhouse. All the way, deep down, and then we are forced to watch him emerge in glorious detail. And on it goes for most of the film. So where’s the theme? Suddenly the lavish lifestyle is gone, and all we get is blood and disgusting other stuff. To me, this is a good example of a broken promise. If the film had started differently, fine, I knew what to expect. But that way I felt kind of cheated. As an aside, book reviews praise this standalone work by Nesbo. I assume the filmmakers used his theme as a platform for the gory version.

After all the lectures and conferences I’ve attended over the years, the first and most useful rule then, is this: If you’re writing a murder mystery, don’t start your first chapter like chick-lit. Or vice versa. Set the tone and stick to it.

Once you got your first chapter down and you haven’t lost your reader, things will get easier. And more fun.

(Until you get to the sagging middle)

Northern serenade


St.Petersburg, Russia

Helga’s Post # 47 — It was the best of times.

Still, it feels good to be back home after a month of Northern Europe and Russia. A month without my trusted laptop and only occasional Wi-Fi. A month of walking, gawking, even stalking.

Yes, even stalking. After all, I have an excuse. I’m a writer. I have to collect images to be filed away in my mind for future use. One cannot have too many images saved. So I spy when I can. I would walk behind an interesting person or group of people, trying to glean as much detail as possible before they disappeared. Trying to listen to their speech, making up a story of their background. Amazing what plot ideas come about when you do that. People’s details prompt you to speculate about their lives, their background and their character. Before you know it, you’ve got a fictional character planted firmly in your head. A plot idea will surely follow.

We criss-crossed ten cities in ten countries in 14 days. Walking on uneven cobblestones laid by people who lived five hundred years ago or longer. Some of these cities were founded a thousand years ago. A different language is spoken in each of those countries, the total area of which is a fraction of that of Canada. (I am only referring to Northern Europe, not counting Russia).

Fortune teller. Riga, Latvia

Fortune teller. Riga, Latvia

If visitors are asked what most impressed them about these countries, they would probably answer it’s the magnificent historical buildings and architecture. Impressive indeed. Beyond words in fact. What impressed me equally though was the rich literary history of the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, and of course Russia. This is what most of this post is about.

Think about it: some of our most treasured stories when we were kids likely had their roots in some of these countries. Take Danish author Hans Christian Anderson. Who hasn’t read (or had someone older read to you) The Little Match Girl, The Princess and the Pea, The Emperor’s New Clothes, to name a few. More recently, Denmark has produced some excellent crime authors, including Peter Hoeg (Smilla’s Sense of Snow)

Changing of the Guard. Royal Palace, Stockholm

Changing of the Guard. Royal Palace, Stockholm

Sweden, not to be outdone, gave us Astrid Lindgren’s beloved Pippi Longstocking, and of more recent past, Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Lisbeth Salander.

Or take the paintings that inspired literature and fiction. Like the famous painting by Dutch painter Vermeer, Girl with a Pearl Earring, which spawned American author Tracy Chevalier’s novel by that name.

Moving on along the literary path of the cities we visited: Jo Nesbo from Norway. He is famous for his crime novels about Detective Harry Hole, but he is also the main vocals and songwriter for a Norwegian rock band. Huge multi-talent here.

On our wanderings through these cities we came across many beautiful bookstores. Yes, bookstores! People over there still prefer printed books to Kindle, and shopping in person to online. I watched with a sense of nostalgia, being reminded how our own reading culture has changed in recent years.

The list goes on. Interestingly, over the past decade, crime novels set in the Nordic region have become best-sellers in the U.S. and Canada, and given rise to a number of blockbuster movies.

And that doesn’t even include Russia, which is a totally different kettle of fish. The country has produced some of the highest regarded literary giants. Aside from the obvious classic writers, Russia has some very good crime fiction writers. Boris Akunin is one, having written Murder on the Leviathan and over 50 others. His wry, fast-paced, intricately plotted detective stories toy with the conventions of classical Russian literature. The Fandorin novels, which first appeared in 1998, have sold thirteen million copies in Russia alone. They’ve been adapted for television and film, and have made their author well known and wealthy.

Not surprisingly, Russia also has some great noir writers, including Alexander Anuchkin, Igor Zotov, Irina Denezhkina and Anna Starobinets. The genre must have something to do with the long and bleak winters. Or their history. In general, we thought Russian people seem less friendly and relaxed as their European neighbors. When we arrived in St.Petersburg we were warned not to engage the immigration officials in conversation. ‘Not even a one-liner or zinger’.

They made up for it with their magnificent palaces and churches. There is simply nothing like it anywhere. But you’ll have to go there yourself to find out. It’s worth it! It’s like entering a fairytale. Gold and glitter everywhere in a setting of magnificent gardens and fountains. And then there is the Hermitage: One of the largest and oldest museums in the world, it was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great and has been open to the public since 1852. Its collection includes more than 3 million pieces of art. To demonstrate its size, people say that if you spent one minute looking at each piece of art in the Hermitage museum it would take you eight years to get through the whole thing.

Mind-numbing. Incomprehensible. As it must have been to the common people of Russia. The reign of the Romanov Dynasty, started in 1613, came to an end with the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Their elaborate palaces have since become museums.

But now the time has come for getting back to writing my novel without delay. Serious writing, that is.

(The painting below is to help Joe with writing sex scenes)

Titian, Hermitage, St. Petersburg

Titian, Hermitage, St. Petersburg