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)

Writing rules?

timmiesJoe’s Post #119 – So there I was, bum in chair, a Timmies coffee steaming beside me, the sounds of skates and coaches yelling just beyond the plexiglass in the Langley Sportsplex, and I was just about to write another riveting, nay, epic tale about my research.

But no. Though I’ve learned some amazing things about Holland during the war and my books have all come in (including a text-book on Anglo-Dutch relations during the war, and I don’t mean a sex book) I thought, based on the last posts by Silk and Paula, that I’d talk about a book.

The reason I want to talk about it is it’s a book I read on recommendation, a book that’s been turned into a movie, and a book that does something (actually a LOT of things) different.

gone girlIt’s Gone Girl.

Oh, it’s a massively clever book, this one. It’s a writer’s book. And it’s one that all writers need to look at in their darkest moments, when the rules of writing or a teacher’s words about what to do and what not to do come haunting us in the dark.

First off, it’s got two “I” perspectives, or what I like to call ‘first person perspectives’. That’s odd right there. Two you say? Why, yes, two. One from the present, the other, mostly, from a diary. How many times have we heard that can’t be done? Well, Gillian Flynn did it. And did it well.

Second, backstory. It starts on the 2nd chapter.

Wait, what? I thought we couldn’t have backstory right off the bat? Well, looks like you can.

Third. Two, count them, two unreliable narrators. I don’t want to give away plot points or twists or spoilers, but both lie their asses off to the reader, either by omission or by outright deception. Now, who has heard we can’t have unreliable narrators? Who thinks you can’t write a book, a book in 1st person that has things hidden from the reader?

Well, Gone Girl did just that.


In your face.

So, I ask you, are there any hard-cannot-break-rules for storytelling? Really? Did she outline or not outline? Did she worry about making her characters likeable or unlikeable? I dunno.

What she did was write a brilliant story. It’s seriously one of the best books I’ve read in a long, long while. She told the story she wanted to tell and told it the way she wanted to tell it.

It’s compelling because it has a great question that needs to be answered. It works because the voices in the book are unique, brutally observant, and (frankly) deeply disturbing. It’s amazing because the plot is so tight, so tense that it’s impossible to put down. (Oh and check out her verbing of words – like someone “mosquitoing around her.”)

So here’s the thing, at least for me, and it harkens (yes, I said ‘harkens’) back to something one of my writing gurus said. “Just write a good book.” “But how, dammit, how?” I cried out. And there are ways to do it, techniques to use to hook a reader, to make them not be able to stop at the end of a chapter, to have characters we loathe and love, etc, etc, but when it comes to writing that book, just write it.

Anyway you want.

I think I’ll do mine in my own blood. I hear agents love that.

Dark and Dangerous

Image courtesy Pando Hall Magnus

Image courtesy Pando Hall Magnus

Helga’s Post #31 — Today, I spent my time on something naughty: I buried my nose in EROTICA.

Inspiration came via email from Kobo. They recommended two new titles for me. The first, which I am looking forward to read, is Khaled Husseini’s new novel And the Mountains Echoed. If it’s as good as The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, then his legions of fans, including me, will be in for a treat.

The second title Kobo recommended for me (for reasons unknown) was ‘Entwined With You’ by Erotica queen Sylvia Day. Never heard of her? Take note of her accomplishments:

#1 New York Times and #1 international bestselling author of more than a dozen award-winning novels sold in thirty-nine countries. A reader favorite across several genres, there are millions of copies of her books in print worldwide. She has been nominated for the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Author, has won the RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award, and has been nominated for Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA award twice.

I was intrigued. I was also in search of a topic for today’s post. So I started reading those ‘Look Inside’ freebie sample pages that Amazon offers.


When I got to the end, I sat back, trying to decide if I should take a cold shower or get seriously depressed. Or start laughing out loud. The shower would be the obvious option if I wouldn’t be a writer. Seriously depressed is not my personality, so that left ROFL (‘rolling on the floor laughing’ for people of my generation).

Because, if you are a writer in a genre other than Erotica, reading the stuff will amuse you  no end (unless you are a fan of the genre, in which case writing style is irrelevant).

Think about it. We are trained, brainwashed, indoctrinated, beaten into submission, whatever, to follow some pretty universal writing rules. Such as, ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Or ‘Avoid adjectives and adverbs’. Reason being, they are your interpretation of the facts. You, the writer, should not have to do that if you present the right facts.

We pay good money to learn that stuff. It’s drilled into us from the day we start writing fiction.

It seems though that breaking the rules is quite okay for publishers of Erotica. In no way am I passing judgment on the genre. It’s good fun to read now and then if you’re able to suspend judgment on style. But I am intrigued as to how many books are published that break those rules we’ve been taught to avoid like the plague.

Not surprisingly, men are often big supporters of their wives reading the stuff. As some Erotica websites claim, husbands may be cowering under the sheets while others are writing thank you letters to these authors who have inspired their wives to turn into veritable pussycats in bed. Or tigresses. (Shades of the the fifties and sixties?)

E L James’ Fifty Shades Trilogy has sold more copies to date than the Harry Potter series (and counting). Even people who had no previous interest in contemporary romance have jumped upon (or are thinking about it) this runaway train and delving into the naughty tale of BDSM.

Help me out here, please. What does that tell us about the book publishing industry? Or (I really, really hate to pose this question), about readers? Wished I knew. What I do know is this: If I would submit chapters of my work similar to some of the books published in the genre to my critique group, they would shoot me down without so much as an apology. Instant death. Go hide below your desk and shame on you. If you survive your justified suicide attempt, go back and fix your garbage. And re-submit again without your boisterous shit and your adjectives and adverbs, and your characters no one can relate to, because they may as well live on some distant planet.

We can’t argue with success, though. I concede that I may be naïve (privilege of a certain age). Perhaps Erotica gets a ‘Get Out of Jail Free Card’ when it comes to writing rules. Whatever. It does make me ponder a fundamental question though, which one of my favorite bloggers I follow has raised:

‘Is publishing a book more important than writing the story I want to tell?’

Ah, oh. Not an either/or question. Because if we want to tell a story, by its nature, we want people to read it. And if it’s not published, that ain’t happening. But that’s a topic for another post. So in closing, for your titillating pleasure, here are some Erotica excerpts from Reflected In You (they refer to the same man):

– His glorious shoulder-length mane of inky black hair

– He was a testament to leashed power. There was no need for him to shout when he could get people to quake in their shoes with just a look or a tersely spoken word.

– At the ridiculous age of twenty-eight, he was one of the top twenty-five richest people in the world.

– I was positive he was the hottest man on the planet. And he kept photos of me everywhere he worked.

– He turned, pivoting gracefully to catch me with his icy blue gaze.

– Dark and Dangerous. And all mine.

– Those sculpted cheekbones and dark winged brows, the thickly lashed blue eyes, and those lips… perfectly etched to be both sensual and wicked.

– That look conveyed how hard and deep he wanted to fuck me – which he did every chance he got – and it also afforded me a glimpse of his raw, unrelenting force of will.

– The soft rasp in his smooth cultured voice was nearly capable of making me orgasm just listening to it.

– Confronted with that breathtaking face framed by that lustrous dark hair, I felt my knees weaken just a little.

– I was pretty sure he owned a significant chunk of Manhattan.

– He was outrageously gifted in bed. And he knew it.

– The paparazzi followed his every move.

– With a soft groan he sealed his chiseled mouth over mine.

– He straightened, shrugging off his brooding sensuality and instantly capturing me with his severe intensity. So mercurial – like me.

– His luxurious living room; his private elevator; his black Bentley SUV; a quick glance at my Rolex (all in one paragraph)

– Long enough for his brow to arch over his piercing blue eyes.

– He caught me in his fierce blue gaze.

– He purred, sprawled against the seat with the predatory insouciance of a sleek panther who’d neatly trapped a mouse in his den.

Excited yet? Take a cold shower. Or ROFL. Whatever your inclination. Either way, this genre is the ticket to riches if that’s what you’re aiming for. And you won’t have to worry about adjectives and adverbs. LOL.