The First Rewrite

Joe’s Post #179

Last Wednesday, at 9:44 pm, I finished my first rewrite of my novel, Yager’s War. Or my second draft of it, depending on your point of view.

So, what’s it like to do a rewrite?

Best I compare it to cake, cuz, I’m hungry and I’ve been thinking about cake a lot.

If my book were a cake, this is how I imagined it before I wrote a single word.

When you start out to write a novel, it’s because you have some amazing idea or story or character you MUST write about.

Like a wedding cake, at this point, the story is perfect beyond perfect (because you’ve not written a single word and just have something in your mind.)

You can imagine the sweeping character arcs, the brilliantly described settings, the epic emotions everyone will feel and, of course, the perfect way the plot all comes together.

Then you do your first draft. My first draft had the title, The WW2 Dutch Novel. Like calling something, The Cake. And, if I continue the metaphor, imagine making a cake when you’ve only seen one made by a master. The ingredients are listed, but not the amounts. The cooking time is only hinted at. And, as for the icing, there’s merely a note saying that you need some.

But if you take seminars, go to conferences like the Surrey Writers or attend workshops, you can get the idea you might need 2 eggs instead of one and maybe use some sugar at some point.

So, off you charge to make your cake, all excited cuz, you know, you like to make cakes.

This is what a first draft cake looks like. And it tastes like it looks.

Here is the result. And, guess what, it doesn’t even taste that good.

For some writers, this is as far as it gets. To fix that first draft mess requires a lot of work. Even Stephen King says he looks at what he’s done, sighs, puts it in his drawer and looks at it at a later date.

It’s not like I didn’t try to make a good cake, I simply had to see what worked and what didn’t. And hey, it kinda looks like a cake, right? Kinda a different color than I imagined, and I think I used salt instead of sugar, but now it’s time to fix it.

Can you fix it?

No. Not really. I mean you could put it in a blender, but really, you have to start over. So, in cake creation, like in writing, you start from scratch, again. You work hard to make it look better, taste better, smell better. You also realize that achieving that perfect perfection may be a little harder than you originally imagined.

The first reworking of the cake. See, it looks like a cake, smells like a cake, even tastes like a cake, but is it what you imagined?

The result is the next stage. The stage that I just finished. It looks ok. It even tastes kind of cakey, but you know you can do better. You just know it.

But you have the basics of what your cake will become. You’ve learned a bit about how to make it, how to add some interesting details and it is beginning to take shape.

Now, comes the next step. Refinement.

This is where you take a look at all your parts, all your ingredients, all your techniques and ask the simple question. Can’t I just go buy a cake instead?

Well, you can, but the question you really need to ask is How can I make this better? Then better than that? Then, even better still.

That whole process will take a lot more time, but when people bite into your cake, don’t you want them saying, OMFG is that ever good, I couldn’t stop eating it, this is the best cake I’ve ever tasted.

Now it’s time to work on those final details. The right mix of ingredients.

So, too, does it go with my novel. Now I need to work on making it the absolute best it can be before I send it off, because, as my published writer friend Sean Slater said to me, Joe, you only get one chance at a first impression.

Next week, a quick update on this progress. I think I’ll make a system because I’m all about systems.

Now for some cake.

 

ABL – Always Be Learning

Joe’s Post #178

Always. Be. Learning!

I’m going to bastardize a quote from one of my favourite movies.

Always Be Learning.

This is in the top 3 of my personal things to live by, or at least I’ll admit living by.

  1. Always be learning.

2. Never sniff the hockey gear.

3. Be kind to everyone because you never know who’s going to pee in your soup.

If you need a few more motivational quotes to live by, here are 50!

But for writing, here’s what I was looking at this week and wanted to pass along.

Agent Irene Goodman wrote a great article in Writer’s Digest. 16 Things All Historical Fiction Writers Need to Know.

Now I had the pleasure of listening to her at the Surrey International Writers Conference. She spoke about Non-fiction book proposals and I have to say, she handled the crazies there pretty well.

“So, how come no one wants to buy my book about quantum mechanics and the relation to me not getting girls?”

Her: “Uhm, make it simply about quantum mechanics. Like a text book. There’s a market for that.”

“Then girls will like me?”

Her: “Ah, next question please.”

Anyway, there’s a ton of great advice in that article if you have a moment to read it. I personally love #9, but am deeply afraid of #11. I so want that one not to be true.

 

Always. Be. Feeling.

Another read, (albeit a bit longer) is Don Maass’ latest book about putting emotion into your writing. Ok, he called it The Emotional Craft of Fiction, and it’s one heck of a good read. See, the thing is, as a reader, I remember a book that made me feel. I don’t often remember something with a good line about ducks, or on-fire dialogue, but man, do I remember a book that made me cry.

I’m currently doing my best to make sure I put a bit more emotion into my story. It’s a new journey for me as I usually write something like ‘Joe feels sad’ and leave it at that. But there’s so, so much more that can be done.

So, buy it on amazon. Borrow it from a friend (mine is full of notes, though), or take it out of a library.

Lastly, Surrey International Writers Conference is where I learned so much last year. Or learned so much more. It won’t be long until there’s early registration and I would love to see a few more of my writer friends there. We can learn stuff together, share our learning and become better writers.

ABL!

For the websites, in case you missed them, they are here.

Irene Goodman

Don Maass.

SiWC

Writer’s Digest

So what learning are you doing this week?

Next week – what it’s like to do a rewrite. I should be done my 1st rewrite on my novel and have a few things to share.

 

 

Success @ Surrey International Writers’ Conference

real-life-schoolOddly enough, I am more comfortable talking about my failures. I mean, hey, failures make for better stories, while successes, well, who wants to read about a hero who just succeeds? But sometimes we writers forget to celebrate our wins. So, please, indulge me…

With all my pitching done, that left Saturday to actually learn something, maybe even have some fun. And there was one workshop I didn’t want to miss. SiWC Idol.

It’s where authors submit their first page for the amazing Jack Whyte to read, then a panel of agents raise their hand the moment they would reject it. The goal was to have the entire page read, the agents not stopping the reading at all, but eager to find out what happens next.

simon-cowelSure, one year it was bad, with agents going all Simon Cowell on everyone, and even some of the good stuff was getting slaughtered in the name of making people laugh. I suspect a lot of people complained and rightly so. It’s hard to have your stuff read out. It takes courage to submit that one page, and for those agents to savage the writing and writer, well, it was just wrong.

But it never happened again, and so I was pretty excited to submit my 1 page. I thought it was decent enough, perhaps even good, so I thought, hey, roll the dice. One of the agents I had pitched to would be there and if I managed to get read, and she liked it, it might cement that idea that my book has a real chance.

However, if my writing failed, if I’d convinced myself it was better than it really was, then the reverse would be true. She’d leave thinking, my goodness he was handsome and charming and had a good idea for a book, but couldn’t write to save his life (and my book would die an ugly death in the slush pile.)

So, a lot at stake.

And all of it depended on a good bit of luck as well. See, there are about 200 people who show up for this event, and it takes 5-10 min to go through the first page and give feedback, so that’s about 20 or so pages that can be read.

I crossed my fingers.

The first ones that were pulled out and read, were hit and miss. A few good ones, but mostly they needed work. However, the agents were very respectful and even helpful, offering some greats suggestions on how to make it better.

Then Jack Whyte pulled out a submission from my writer’s group. And when he read it, he read the chapter title. It started off with a date and a place, instead of just saying chapter 1.

But the agents hated that, and before we’d gone not far past the chapter title, they’d rejected it!

On the title of a chapter!

Now I went into a panic.

That’s exactly how MY submission started.

If jack Whyte read my chapter titles, then I would be done. All my hopes of making a good impression dashed.

I shut my eyes, and now wished for my submission not to be taken.

More submissions were read. Time began to run out until only 10 minutes remained. Some total asshat submitted 2 and both of them got read. How unfair for the rest of the people. There was only 1 submission allowed. Only 1.

But that left only a few minutes for those last submissions.

And then Jack Whyte began to read mine.

He didn’t read the title.

Thank God.

He read the opening sentence. Then the opening paragraph. Then the rest. With him reading it, with his incredible voice and Shakespearean delivery, he made it sound amazing. Not a single agent stopped him from reading.

And when he was done, they were all so very nice and complementary, especially the agent I’d pitched to who said she knew who the author was and got me to stand up. Then she gave me a thumbs up.

Everyone seemed to love it and it was the best moment that I’d ever had at SiWC. That moment of validation. That feeling that maybe I have a chance at publication. That thumbs up.

But that’s the conference for you.

Ups and downs.

But this time.

On this day.

Totally up.

*****

And here’s Jack Whyte reading from his novel to give you an idea of how well he can speak!

 

 

SiWC – The Best of Times (Plus more cool links!)

Ah, that Budda guy, he knew what he was talking about.

Ah, that Budda guy, he knew what he was talking about.

Ever have one of those days that just goes right?

I don’t often get them.

I usually get the type of day where you have to get a boy to an early morning hockey practice and set your alarm for 5pm instead of 5am practice, then, already late, you hit every red light on the way, then forgot some vital piece of hockey gear like the jock, then you have to race back, but find you didn’t fill up the car and HAVE to get gas or you’re not making it home, then you find your credit card is maxed and you only have nickels and dimes to pay for gas, but you put in $1.35 anyway and race off only to return to a completely empty room because the team has been relocated to another dressing room and you have to go room to room carrying a jock and asking, has anyone seen ma boi?

No?

Well, try it sometime.

But it wasn’t one of those days at the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. Everything went my way. I managed to get an additional agent appointment early in the day and still had one tucked away for the afternoon. So, after my success with the first agent, the incredibly nice Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein, President and senior agent at McIntosh & Otis, I saw another opening.

A great read from a great author, Michael Slade

A great read from a great author, Michael Slade

Not with an agent, but with a writer who has always given me great advice. The great storyteller Michael Slade.

So I booked a moment with him, a ten-minute session called a blue pencil (where an author looks at your work, gives you criticism, then you go home and cry a lot). But I wanted his opinion on the opening of my book, especially since I had plans to submit it for a public reading on Saturday and didn’t want to be that guy who gets his stuff read and has agents rolling their eyes and shaking their heads and wondering why they make the effort to come out.

However, Mr. Slade loved the writing and went through the first chapter step-by-step remarking on all the things I’d done right. He only had one suggestion, but that one was bang on (and as soon as I left, I made that change right away.) But as much fun as that was, (and it was FUN), he didn’t have any appointments afterward so we talked about war and fathers and writing and all sorts of things.

For about over an hour!

Like we were long, lost friends.

They had to kick us out for lunch, but it was so incredible to have that time with someone who’s farther down the road than me as a writer and such a great storyteller.

Then it was back to work. I needed to find another agent at lunch, the best writing coach I’ve seen and perennial favorite at SiWC, Don Maass, but by the time I arrived, the whole ballroom was filled to capacity and I couldn’t spot him. So I ate my lunch, chatted with my writer’s group, chatted with people in line, chatted with a few of the people seated at our table, then when lunch ended, I began my search again.

Luckily, someone had nabbed him before he could leave!

Again, I felt so nervous as I approached him. I trembled like an 11-year-old girl about to meet Scott Helman (look him up, I had to!).

It’s that fight or flight thing. I really wanted to run and hide in my basement, snuggle under a blanket and read my books in the pool of lamplight, but I had put on my big boy pants and needed to do big boys things.

I marched over and sat beside him. Like an awkward orangutan fidgeting with everything he could get his hands on, I waited until he had finished talking to others, then with only minutes left before he had to rush off to a workshop or scheduled interviews, I threw my pitch at him with all the skill of someone just clubbed in the head with a baseball bat.

But he liked it. He wanted to see the entire manuscript. Entire. Manuscript!

Win!

The editor I saw after that, while challenging me on if my story was a mystery or thriller, wanted to see 50 pages after I was done sweating and mumbling.

Win!

Not a pretty one, but a win never-the-less.

Anne Frank - Who cannot be moved by her story?

Same thing happened when I pitched at the end of the day to Irene Goodman, who was so very kind and understanding at my complete inability to form complete sentences at that point.

She loved my story’s connection to the holocaust and we shared our moving experiences from when we visited Anne Frank’s house or the holocaust memorial museums.

Another win!

I went home exhausted and so excited.

But an even bigger win was to come. Not a sale, cuz those things don’t happen at conferences, but something I’ll remember forever. In a good way.

******

More links!

Writer – Michael Slade (check out his books here!)

Agent – Don Maass (His new book on writing, The Emotional Craft of Fiction is coming out in January, Here. But he has some amazing writing books already out.)

Agent – Elizabeth Winick Rubinstein

Agent – Irene Goodman (a great article hereIf You Want to Be a Writer, Be a Writer)

 

 

 

 

 

SiWC – Pain and Pitching Novels (With Links)

Some things need a plan

Some things need a plan

As with any great endeavor in life, (a marriage proposal, a writer’s conference, a popcorn lineup at the movie theater), it’s best to have a plan.

My plan for Friday was simple but very stressful. I had to see and pitch to 3 agents and 1 editor.

As luck would have it, I thought there were 4 people there who might, just might, be interested in my historical novel. But the Surrey International Writers’ Conference only allows you to book 1 appointment. To see other people, you need to get in a line and see if there’s an opening or find a way to bump into them at a workshop they are running (or find the table they’re sitting at for lunch/dinner.)

Being me, and being Canadian, the latter choices are particularly hard. I hate bugging people. I know that sounds totally not like me given that I bug my friends constantly, but really I hate bugging strangers. I hate sitting down and interrupting their meal to say, hey, hi, please put down the spaghetti, I need you to listen to me talk about my novel. Badly.

But at some points in your life, you have to nut up. You have to find a way to push through the nerves and get the job done. Or, as the great philosopher Will Ferrel said, put on your big boy pants.

So, even before the first keynote speech of the morning ended, I had to get up and stumble out of the hall to go stand in line for another appointment. If I could get one, it would make my life a lot better since I wouldn’t have to pitch to anyone while they were in a toilet stall.

The stars aligned and I got myself one right off the bat. 10:20. Nervously, I waited, rehearsing what I would say or at least the points I hoped to highlight. Much like the speech I did at my wedding, I had to semi-wing-it. I have no ability to actually memorize anything, as best exemplified by my ability to sing the wrong lyrics to pretty much every song, nor am I good at pitching just off the cuff. So I hybrid rehearse.

Open with what the story is about. Mention character for the love of God. Look the person in the eye. Do not scratch my balls no matter how itchy they become. Talk about why I love this story. Remember to breathe. Talk slowly. Enunciate my words. Tell them about why it matters to my hero, Kurt Yager, that he find his sister. Mention the time crunch and the stakes if he doesn’t find her. Breathe.

But no matter how much I prepared, the moment I went over to talk to the agent, my heart pounded so quickly that if someone had pricked me with a needle, I would have shot blood 100 feet out like a fire hydrant releasing water. I honestly thought about running outside to get some fresh air, but it was too late.

I reached the table where the agent sat and held out my hand. God, was it sweaty? Would I remember my name? Would I be able to talk at all?

She shook my hand as I introduced myself and sat down.

And I began with a shaking voice.

By the end of my pitch, my entire body was soaked with sweat, but she seemed interested in the story. Genuinely interested. She asked to see 50 pages, said she loved the premise, the characters, the setting.

I nearly jumped out of my seat and hugged her.

But instead, I thanked her for her kind words, promised to get her those 50 pages as soon as I could, and left with her card.

Success! At least as much as I could hope for at this point in the writing process.

1 down, 3 to go.

I wasn’t sure my nerves could take it.

*******

Here is a link to an article from Writer’s Digest on Pitching.

Here is a link to pitching from the Writing World.

Here is a link from SFU.

Here is a link from The Professor.

Lots of good stuff! Please check out the links.

 

 

 

Surrey International Writers’ Conference 2016 – Do or Die

One of the great minds of our time

One of the great minds of our time

What’s the definition of insanity, again? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result?

Yeah, that’s it. Einstein, right? Or Bieber? I can’t remember. Some great mind, anyway.

So, let’s be clear, going to the Surrey International Writers’ Conference was an act of insanity for me.

It’s a conference where you can learn new stuff, meet new people and pitch your projects to attending agents or editors. I’ve been going on and off for about 10 years, and the result has always been the same. I go to workshops, listen hard, try to learn a bit, then go home and try to make my writing better.

Don Maass, one of the best writing teachers I've ever seen.

Don Maass, one of the best writing teachers I’ve ever met.

That’s all good. Sometimes, especially with the Don Maass workshops, I learn a ton and it makes my writing a WHOLE lot better. He just has a way of making me think about how I can make any story better, deeper, more entertaining.

But sometimes, I don’t get as much. Sometimes it’s just stuff I already know.

As for the ‘meeting new people’ part, well, let’s just say I’m far more comfortable sitting in the basement in a dark room and writing alone, than having to talk with people. It’s the secret side of my nature. The extreme introvert. If you want to see what it’s like when I make conversation, I have a video for you.

This is me going to talk to someone. Only I’m less cool.

However, the big fail for me has always been the pitching part. I stress for days over what to say, how to say it, then, when I actually sit in front of someone, my nerves get the best of me.

The conversations often go like this…

“So, I have this book I’ve written, no, wait, I mean novel, cuz a book could be, like, you know, hahaha, a non-fiction thingee or anything, so uhm, yeah, I have this novel and it’s completed and it’s about this guy who does something and must solve some problems and then, at the end, it’s all resolved except for the parts that aren’t resolved. And it’s science-fiction. Did I mention that?”

Bring on the full body sweat.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that not a lot of agents or editors are interested in my stories. More surprising is that I’ve sometimes been escorted out by security or had the agent/editor look quietly away while I weep uncontrollably.

Ok, it’s not that bad, but last time I ate a lot of rejections, and that stung. I thought I had a pretty good story, a pretty good pitch and, yet, yeah, zip. Nada. Not even a pity send-me-ten-pages requests.

So why go back if that’s all going to happen, again?

Why?

Because there is always that hope that this time will be different. Maybe one day, I’ll pitch the right story to the right agent/editor at the right time.

See?

Insane.

But what happened this year was not something I expected at all.

 

Rebooting the Group

Joe’s Post #171

So, can you reboot a writing group? Refocus it? Get its writers writing, again?

It turns out, *spoiler alert*, you can.

On June 13th, we all met and made our declaration of writing intentions. While not as impressive as the declaration of independence or a declaration of love, it did allow us to find a way back to writing, albeit via a winding, and somewhat meandering path.

I don’t think a single one of us went home and wrote 50 pages. But, we did get writing done. Myself, I managed to get 32 pages done, mostly (due to my horrific tendency to procrastinate), in the last week.

But before that, I spent time going back to the basics. Working on my characters, helped by my writing friend and published author, Sean Slater.

Here’s what I learned in this part of the journey

  1. More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    More beautiful because of her flaws. Like me.

    I found that if I had a picture of my character, a whole ton of things fell into place for that character. When I looked at my protagonist’s sister, the one he rushes off to Europe to save, I saw a beautiful woman who didn’t like to smile because of her teeth. And from that, I built not a plot device, but a real person.

2) A book is defined as much by the villain as the hero. It’s something I’ve worked on a lot in the past, but it’s something I REALLY worked on this time around. Again, it started with an idea, I added a picture and then spent two days writing his life story, his fears and hopes, and his hidden secrets.

3) I stopped stressing about drafting the PERFECT opening line. I know it matters, I do. I get that. But I can spend weeks, I kid you not, trying to find that perfect line and still fail. So,  I let got of that and just wrote.

4) I signed up to attend the Surrey Writer’s Conference, and while that alone didn’t inspire me to write more, there is an editor there who may just be looking for the exact type of book that I’m writing. So that inspired me. (So, if you’re thinking of going, know that we’ll be there. At least 3/5 of the 5/5/5).

5) Like playing tennis after not playing tennis for 25 years, it’s hard to do. You get rusty. Nothing flows. There’s lots of sweating and swearing. But if you keep at it, you’ll get better. Faster. Stronger. Like the million dollar man. Personally, I’m not there, yet, but if I keep at it, I have to believe I can get there.

So that’s a quick update.

siwcWho’s going to Surrey this year? Who wants to buy me a drink so I can pitch my novel without it sounding like this, “it’s a story, ah, about, um, a guy, who does this, err, thing and stuff gets in his way, so he has to, you know, do more stuff?”

Hugs!

 

To go or not to go

Joe’s Post #153 —

headerThat is the question.

I’m talking about the Surrey Writer’s Conference. Oct 23rd -24th.

It’s a toss-up this year. Pros and cons.

So I did what I do when I can’t decide.

I make a list. And drink. Here’s the list.

the authors

My best writing buddies, The Five

Top 6 Reasons to Go

  1. I could pitch 2 books to an editor who’s interested in my genre.
  2. There are 3 agents there I could take to about my books.
  3. 9/10 times I get inspired.
  4. The food’s pretty good.
  5. I love to learn and there’s always something to learn.
  6. My best writing buddies are there.

 

Top 5 Reasons Not To Go

  1. don maassDon Maass is NOT there. See #3. He is my biggest inspirer.
  2. No Chuck Wendig, so that means I won’t spend 2 hours laughing my ass off and I do love to laugh my ass off.
  3. It costs a lot of money at a time that I don’t have that money.
  4. Most of the agents showing up don’t want to look at the books I write, or I’ve pitched to them and they’ve rejected my brilliant stories.
  5. I can’t find a full day of things I want to do. There’s a bit Friday and Saturday, but that’s a huge cost for basically 2 half days.
  6. My best writing buddies will not be there. Joe sad.

I tell ya, it’s a tough call. Not that there aren’t some great people there, not that there aren’t a few good workshops, and it’s always amazingly well organized, but this year, I may choose not to go. The weight of the list is clearly on the No side, but then there’s #1 on the Go side.

Is it worth it?

Thoughts?

 

This day we write

this-day-we-write

Silk’s Post #127 — Last week, for the first time in our collective effort to blog our way to writerdom, four of the 5writers missed our posts. Ouch.

It’s time for me to step up to the booth and say my confession. Bless me, readers, for I have sinned. It’s been four weeks since my last blog post. I throw myself at your mercy. I’d welcome the chance to clear my conscience by saying 20 Hail Shakespeares. If it were only so easy!

But redemption doesn’t work that way for writers. As much as I cherish that writing flame within, being a devout, practicing writer really requires only one thing. And it requires it absolutely, as an article of faith.

You must write.

Even if it’s shit. Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if your life is full of good, or bad, distractions. Even if you question your calling and are struggling to believe in yourself. Even if you’re overcommitted and all your time is spoken for. Even if you’re bored or uninspired. Even if your routine is disrupted. Even if you’re so consumed with guilt about your lack of productivity that you’ve gone into avoidance mode. Even if you’re too stressed, or too sad, or too worried, or too tired to care. Even if you’re consumed by some other seductive passion that demands your attention. Even if you fear your words have left you.

You must write anyway.

Or forget being a writer. Do something else. Find another route to spiritual, emotional, intellectual fulfillment.

Harsh, I know. The truth often is. And we sensitive creative people may wither in its presence. Or do the opposite: rebel, catch fire, grab the beast with two fists, bay at the moon.

Start writing again, just to prove nothing can stop us.

I sat down to write this post without having any clear idea of what I wanted, needed, to say. I just knew I had to explain to myself why I haven’t blogged in a month, or touched my manuscript in far longer than that.

My first stream of thought, unsurprisingly, was the litany of reasons why I’ve put off writing. As I enumerated and examined them in my head, disruptions that had been posing as perfectly good reasons were unmasked, one by one, and revealed to be mere excuses. Just a lot of blah blah blah.

And what I concluded was that none of that matters. The road to hell – to no one’s shock, I’m sure – really is paved with good intentions. No wonder it has so many potholes.

A few years ago at the Surrey International Writers Conference, we were treated to one of the most inspiring keynotes I’ve ever heard by bestselling author Robert Dugoni. It was his own becoming-a-writer story, and he told it like a song – or maybe a hymn – the narrative given power and energy with a repeated chorus: This Day We Write. SIWC has adopted the refrain, with Mr. Dugoni’s blessing, as its own mantra.

As T.S. Eliot famously said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal”, so I have no compunction about appropriating This Day We Write as my blog title. Repeating it, with appropriate devotion, is a penance that can save lapsed writers.

We need these rituals in our passion play.

Being a writer is, in a way, the simplest of jobs. You just write. You learn and develop craft with every word, every sentence, every book. There’s really no other secret to it.

The 5writers’ road to salvation will begin here. We’re planning a writing retreat, hopefully in June. The agenda is as simple as this vow: This Day We Write.

 

 

 

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

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)