Category Archives: Writers’ Caffeine

Your Opening Pages—Pitfalls to Avoid

In countless writing classes and workshops, aspiring writers are urged to make their opening pages memorable, to “hook the reader” from the outset. Easy to say, hard to do,  judging from the common problems I see in opening pages I’m asked to critique.  Here are some pitfalls you may want to avoid on your way to drawing readers into your fictional world, and some suggestions for making your opening pages shine.

Spending too much time describing the protagonist’s ordinary routine. Showing your protag waking up, getting dressed, making coffee, reading the paper, commuting to work slows your story and makes the reader impatient to know how is this day different from any other. Because it’s that difference that makes us keep reading,  give it to us right away.

Beginning with a flashback.  If you must use one at all, make it later in the story, after your reader has invested emotionally in your protagonist.

Beginning with a phone call  or an alarm clock that wakes the character is a cliche. Don”t do it.

Beginning with action for the sake of excitement. Opening your story with a bank robbery, a runaway stagecoach, a hurricane can work, if the action is tied to your main character so that your readers can root for her to foil the robber, rein in the horses, escape the rising waters. The opening action must be  related somehow to the plot and not be there only for the sake of excitement.

So then, how should you begin? First of all, try hinting at your story problem on the first page. In her novel, Beyond this Moment, Tamera Alexander does this beautifully. In her opening sentence the heroine steps off the train in a new town. Three sentences later:  “Each step was heavy, coerced, a reminder of  what had brought her to this place. And of just how far she had fallen. ”   Let the reader know your protagonist’s goal, and give  some clue to the choices she  will have to make to achieve it.

Create an immediate disturbance for your character, something that draws him out of his ordinary world. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler refers to this as the call to adventure.  In  The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell reminds us that people read books in order to worry. The writer’s job is to immediately create a  significant problem for the main character. Will the detective find the killer before he finds his next victim? Will the schoolmarm win the affections of the taciturn cowboy? Will the time traveler find his way back to the worm hole before it’s too late?  “Speed in the opening is a matter of disturbance, not high levels of action,”  Bell says. “The faster we worry about a character, the quicker the bond. And the greater our desire to turn the page.”


When Readers Hate Your Characters

So. Beauty For Ashes released last month, and the reviews came in from bloggers and from Amazon readers. I’ve received my share of positive reviews, but I’ve been surprised at the strong reaction to one of my secondary characters from some readers. One reader said Mary made her so mad she wanted to throw the book across the room. Another said Mary is a woman you love to hate.  One very thoughtful reviewer asked whether disliking a character meant the author had done her job and if so, was it fair to award fewer stars.

I’ve been a student of writing fiction for almost twenty years, published  since 1995,  and one of the first things I was taught was that stories must have conflict. A second lesson: characters must grow and change as a result of the events of the story.  In the case of Mary Stanhope Bell, she first appears as a demanding, thoughtless and even lazy person who gives my main character, Carrie, a hard time at every turn.  Conflict! This was by design. I wanted my readers to identify with Carrie’s struggle to get along with Mary, and I wanted them to see by the end of the book how Carrie’s kindness and duty to her family changed Mary’s heart and transformed her into a more sympathetic character. But it seems that some readers focused only on Mary’s faults and  ignored her growth as the story unfolded.

I had a talk with my editor about this. She supported my portrayal of Mary as both realistic and essential to  the central theme of the story. But it’s clear that  some readers wanted Carrie and Mary to be best friends…no accusations, no harsh words, no slammed doors. Everything all sweetness and light. But life isn’t like  that. At least mine isn’t.  And  stories without sufficient conflict aren’t compelling enough to keep me as a reader engaged. I’ve always felt that if  my stories evoke strong emotions in the reader, then I have done my job. Of course I’d love it if every single reader fell in love with my stories, but that is as unrealistic as a story without conflict.

A novel is a fictional expression of a universal truth. I intend to continue writing stories peopled by characters who are flawed, cantankerous, even at times unlovable. Not to do so would be to avoid truth, to deny our very  humanity and to ignore our potential for change and for grace both mortal and divine.

What about you? Do you like reading and writing about characters that make your blood boil? Or do you prefer stories without much conflict? Inquiring minds want to know.

Jake Love writes about Life With Author-Mom

Hello Humans. Dorothy is busy getting ready for her big Author Chat Party next Tuesday night on something called FaceBook. I don’t  understand it, but she’s all excited because reader people will be joining her online to talk about books and win prizes.  As far as I can tell, there are no milk bones or Frisbees to give away so I’ll probably sleep through it.  Anyway she asked me to fill in for her today on Writers Caffeine and I thought you might like a dog’s eye view of what happens around here when Dorothy is at work.

First, we get up before the crack of dawn. The alarm goes off at 5 am. While Dad peep showers and gets ready for work, Dorothy takes me and Major outside to sniff around, check for squirrels, and….well, you know. Then it’s on to breakfast. After Major and I eat, we position ourselves on the kitchen floor, in case Dorothy happens to drop a slice of bacon or a pancake. You’d be surprised how often that happens.

After Dorothy and Dad Peep finish eating, he goes back into the bedroom to finish dressing for work and Dorothy has her” quiet time.”  During which she reads her daily devotional and sometimes writes in her journal. In quiet time I am not allowed to bark at the neighborhood cats. Or the squirrels.

After quiet time, Dad Peep leaves for work, and then Author Mom and I go upstairs to her office. This is the really boring part of  the day because all she does is make the keyboard clatter. Sometimes she mutters to herself. Sometimes she wads up paper and tosses it into the waste basket. Sometimes I catch it and try to be helpful by shredding it, but she really prefers that I don’t.  Every so often she punches numbers into a little word counter thingy on her desk, and when the right number pops up we take a break for lunch and another trip outside and then Author Mom is happy.

After lunch, she writes emails and makes phone calls and signs copies of her books to mail out. When Dad Peep gets home, we have dinner. Sometimes Major and I take Author Mom and Dad Peep for a walk. Sometimes, we supervise them while they work on a jigsaw puzzle, or watch the Smithsonian channel on TV. Before bed, we get another walk, and a bedtime snack.

It’s a pretty nice life for Major and me, but I still say it would be way more fun if Dorothy would let me shred that paper.

Oh. If you want to come to her Author Party on March 20th,  and maybe win a prize, here’s where to go:

And now if you will excuse me, quiet time is over. And I see a cat.   Love, Jake