The First 200 Words

 

Some other John Biggs?I Do Not Like Green Eggs And Ham

I approach reading a new novel—or piece of short fiction—the way a five year old adds a new food to his dietary repertoire.

“Just a paragraph or two. You never know whether you’ll like it unless you try.” Well that may be true, but the five year old and I have tried to expand our frontiers before and have been sorely disappointed. The truth is, we probably won’t like green eggs and ham and will wind up with indigestion and a bad case of “incompletion guilt”. We started something we didn’t finish and, “there are millions of fiction-starved Chinese who’d love to read those paragraphs.”

So I start reading. I ease into new stories the way agents and editors do. Slowly carefully, looking for a reason to quit before I’ve invested too much time and energy. The over-read professionals typically ask for fifty pages and a synopsis, but they probably decide whether they are going to like a piece of work by the time they’ve read the first 200 words.

One thing I know for sure. You can’t hook a reader with a synopsis. When seventy thousand words are boiled down to a single page they really don’t make a lot of sense. If you can pull a semblance of a plot out of a massive reduction like that, you certainly can’t maintain things like character arcs, and themes, and subplots, and minor characters. And figurative language be damned.

So what you have left to hook the reader is that first 200 words, the beginning of your story. It doesn’t matter how fantastic the narrative gets on the third page or at the midpoint. Readers will be disgusted by the time they get there—and they probably won’t get there at all.

Do’s, Don’ts & Cautions

 In the first few paragraphs of a story the writer has to convince readers to keep on turning pages so they can find out what happens next. The easiest way to do this is to introduce a likable character or two, someone any sensible person would like to spend some time with. Even in stories that are mostly plot driven need characters the readers care about, which brings me to a piece of advice I think is given too infrequently. Don’t start writing too soon.

The most spontaneous, outline free writer has to have at least a general idea of how the story is going to go. That may change so much as to be unrecognizable by the time it is finished but a narrative idea is critical. Characters are going to have to carry the action of that narrative so the writer should get to know his character’s well before the writing actually starts. Here are five basic things the writer should know about every character: 1. What do they want, 2. What do they need, 3. What do they love, 4. What do they hate, 5. What are they afraid of. It wouldn’t hurt to know what they eat for breakfast either, or how they take their coffee, and a few embarrassing moments that made them what they are today.

In addition to making the reader love (or at least like) your protagonist in the first 200 words, you need to stimulate curiosity, create a compelling problem, and hide a few Easter eggs if possible (hints at things that are likely to turn up later in the story so the reader will be searching for them).

The good news is you don’t have to have your hook when you finally do get around to writing. You can start writing a story at any point in the narrative and figure out the best place to start later on. Writers who use outlines will have a much easier time isolating the best start point. I don’t personally work from an outline, but I construct one after the first draft is “finished” so I can look at the structure and see how it needs to be changed.

There are two general ideas about the best starting place for a story. Ab ovo (from the egg) and In res media (in the middle of things). Many writers start off ab ovo and switch to in res media by the time they are finished. Don’t fixate on a start point early on.

Here are a couple more don’ts: 1. don’t dump information, 2. don’t mislead the reader. Data dumping is probably the most common problem among writers. You’ve got all this information about your plot, and your characters and it’s literally burning a hole in your keyboard. Try to satisfy that urge by hiding a few Easter eggs. Notice I said a few.

Misleading the reader is a less common problem, but some writers try to make a story seem more interesting by disguising romances and cozy mysteries thrillers. Don’t starting off with a major disaster (earthquake, airplane crash, terrorist attack) that has no real connection to the theme or plot. Especially don’t start of with a dream. Nothing makes readers angrier than being lured into a plot that didn’t actually happen.

There are plenty of opening techniques are perfectly acceptable but must be used with caution. Writers are fond of similes. This figurative language technique can be used effectively when it relates to the event it’s being being used to illustrate, but similes use a lot of space and are ineffective unless the reader knows something about the circumstances and emotions—which they usually don’t in the first 200 words.

Bad simile: He had kind eyes and a little tremor that shook his head back and forth like an aspen leaf in the wind.

Better simile: He had kind eyes and a little tremor that shook his head back and forth as if he were trying to refuse.

For God’s sake avoid the temptation to make your writing beautiful. Good narrative writing is clear. It is not poetry. Shakespeare pulled it off. You aren’t him.

Here is an actual line from a story submitted to a contest (courtesy of K.D. Wentworth) that describes an object we have all seen every day. I took me a good 60 seconds to figure out what the writer was talking about: “ . . . the orb that makes the day the day.”

I like to use quotes in the first 200 words because they can take you right into a character’s mind and right into the action of the scene and with no description. Quotations can establish a moodand provide a lot of information. However—there is always one of those isn’t there—the reader is barely into the story and doesn’t know anything about the speaker yet. The quotes have to be short and convey some insight into the character of the speaker.

Prologues are often discouraged by agents and editors. I love them, but they have to be used with extreme caution. A prologue automatically sticks the writer with two openings. That’s not so bad, because every chapter has an opening of sorts. But prologues usually happen at an earlier time than the main narrative, and the protagonist of the prologue is usually not the protagonist of the main story. Writers frequently start off with a prologue and by the end of the story, they decide to put all that information in through back story techniques, like flashbacks, conversations, and hints.

I Can Hook That Reader in ________ Words

 In recent years it has become popular to hook the reader with a blockbuster sentence. Stun them quickly and then go in for the kill.

——————-

“I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.” ~Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner. 21 words

 “They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.” ~Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked. 12 words

“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”~Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude. 26 words

—————————-

Compelling sentences like these work well in the hands of a skilled writer, but if there is even a hint of confusion or a minor misuse of words the effect is lost. If an author uses this type of opening, the readers will expect to be “thrilled” again every page or so.

An alternative is to ease the reader into the story, usually after the main conflict is well underway. Information is dribbled in at an easy pace and there is plenty of time to hide Easter eggs and build curiosity.

——————-

While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. I’d been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out: and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom. By day I sat on the foot of the bed straining to puzzle out the Dutch –language news on television (which was hopeless, since I knew not a word of Dutch) and when I gave up, I sat by the window staring out at the canal with my camel’s-hair coat thrown over my clothes—for I’d left New York in a hurry and the things I’d brought weren’t warm enough, even indoors.”~Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. 148 words

—————————— 

And there is my own personal favorite, which I refer to as the quicksand approach. This method usually brings the reader into the story closer to the initiating incident, although it can work just as well with the in media res approach. The reader steps right into the scene with no especially compelling sentence, and no gradual introduction into the action. A quotation works particularly well in this technique.

——————————————–

“Double stick orange today.” The H-Unit guard puts down his red and white insulated cooler and shakes hands with the Reverend Richard Harjo. “Strawberry tomorrow. Grape the day after.”

Richard knows the routine. Death row inmates get popsicles when the air conditioning can’t keep pace with summer. June, July, and August. Sometimes the first week in September.

“Name’s Anton Leemaster.” The guard points to his nametag. “Just transferred in from visitation.”~John T. Biggs, Popsicle Styx. 71 words

————————————–

What Information are you trying to provide?

 No matter what kind of opening you choose you need to show the readers what kind of story you are inviting to join. If possible, you want to let them know the time, the place, the mood, the theme, the protagonist and one other character—no more than two. Information overload is a sure way to convince the readers they don’t like green eggs and ham, and they probably won’t be interested in trying anything else you might have cooked up. Here’s a good example of a bad opening. How many errors can you find?

————————————–

Bill Baker lifted the pistol and pointed it at Cathy. He pulled the hammer back and watched the reaction of Cathy’s brother John and her best friend Julie.

“Think about what you’re doing,” John said. His hands trembled like an aspen leaf in the wind.

A high pitched noise filled the room, like the sound of a mosquito magnified a thousand times. Bill recognized the sound. He opened his eyes and reached for his alarm clock. It was all a dream.

————————————-

Exceptions to Standard Rules of Writing

 Some very creative and successful authors do things with openings they wouldn’t do in any other part of their narratives. They will sometimes start off with a paragraph which has the omniscient point of view typical of old time storytelling. This pov often involves extensive telling—but never data dumping. They spend as few words as possible pulling the reader into the story the way a mother pulls a child into a fairy tale and then they slide seamlessly into a different pov (usually third person limited) and the storyteller fades away.

————————————-

“Folks say he was born the same year the state was, 1907, but you won’t find a public record to prove that or deny it. Some say he was first cousin to Tom Joad and second-cousin-once removed to Pretty Boy Floyd’s family in Salisaw—except the Joads weren’t real Okies, they were a made up clan, and it’s certain the Floyds never claimed him. You’ll even hear it claimed from time to time that he was kin to our most famous favorite son, Will Rogers, but that’s just a tall tale. To be honest, the Oklahoma son Harlan Singer favored most was the one from Okemah, but we disowned that Okemah boy on account of he was a communist they say, and anyhow, Singer had vanished in the hills by the time Woody Guthrie began to make a reputation.”~Rilla Askew, Harpsong. 139 words

————————————— 

Bookends

 There is a lot more to writing a story than hooking the reader, which is why I delay the actually writing the narrative until I have a good understanding of the characters and at least a preliminary idea of where the plot is going to go. The final product seldom resembles bears more than a faint resemblance to the original idea. Often I’ve changed my mind about the protagonist. Usually the plot has taken some twists and turns I didn’t expect. The characters always surprise me.

Eventually every story comes to an end whether we want it to or not. All those characters who occupied so much of our time go back home to live their lives while we aren’t watching.

Endings are difficult, but they can be made substantially easier if we remember they should be at least obliquely related to the beginning. The classic play, The Odd Couple is a perfect example. The first scene and the last are men gathered around a poker table. Even though their major conflict has been worked out, we know the characters are going on with their lives after the curtain closes.

Some authors hide an Easter egg in the opening paragraphs that is found in the closing scene. They give the reader a clue so it will be clear when the story is over. It gives reader a feeling of completion. The beginning and end don’t have to be identical. A similar environment, or a similar object or a similar mood can give the desired closure effect. A solid plot supported by two bookends.

 

 

 

 

 

Butterflies and Bandits

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Michoacan, Mexico. The countryside.

Things have gotten pretty bad in Michoacan (one of the 31 states of Mexico) in recent years. The murder rate has skyrocketed. Politicians are being assassinated in record numbers. Crimes against women are among the highest in the world. The Universities are under siege with students battling against municipalities and against non-students who are clamoring to get in.

A vigilante group who call themselves THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR, organized to fight the ZETA criminal cartel. After a decades long bloody battle, the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR have

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

Police cars stationed around a park in Morelia, Michoacan.

taken over most of the ZETAs criminal activities and have opened trade with organized crime syndicates all over the world. Now a new vigilante movement has taken hold and there is open warfare between them and the KNIGHTS TEMPLAR and remnants of the ZETAS. Soldiers in the new vigilante movement include members of Latino gangs from the U.S., who have either been deported or who have voluntarily left United States jurisdiction to avoid prosecution.

The Mexican government has sent in federal troupes because the municipalities are corrupt and the police can’t be trusted. The U.S. State Department has issued travel warnings advising citizens to avoid all but essential travel in Michoacan. U.S. government employees are prohibited from traveling by land in The Mexican state except on federal toll road 15D during daylight hours.

Monarch Sanctuary

Monarch Sanctuary

So my wife Margaret said to me, “Lets visit the Monarch butterfly sanctuary in Michoacan while we’re in Mexico,” and I said, “Sure, why not.” Ignorance is bliss.

Who wouldn’t want to see the Monarchs? There are undeniable mystical overtones to the Monarch migration, perfect for a writer who dabbles in Magic Realism. Up to a billion of these delicate creatures leave their home in eastern Canada and fly 2,500 miles to the mountains of central Mexico. They arrive when locals are celebrating the Day of the Dead (October 31 to November 2).

Monarchs clustered in pines

Monarchs clustered in pines

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the holiday, it is a remnant of an Aztec festival that was celebrated at the beginning of summer. The Catholic Church tried to eradicate it but was only able to shorten it and move it to a time that coincided with a vaguely similar All Saints Day festival. On the day of the dead, the spirits of the ancestors visit the living. The living throw a party for the occasion with feasts and costumes (mostly skeletons) and parades. The locals in the mountains of Michoacan say the butterflies are the ancestral spirits. The timing is right, and it does seem like quite a coincidence.

There’s more. The typical Monarch life cycle lasts 4 to 5 weeks, starting as an egg, going through the larva period, morphing into a pupa until it reaches the adult stage when it reproduces and then dies. But when summer is over in Canada and temperatures drop drastically, a special generation is born. This new group will fly all the way to Michoacan where they can hibernate, feed, mate, and then travel back home. This different kind of Monarch is known as the Methuselah generation. These migratory Monarchs live as long as eight months. This age old miracle is observable, measurable, and totally without explanation—practically the definition of Magic Realism.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

Monarchs drinking from pools of water.

We hired a driver—I’m so glad we did—who took us to the Butterfly reserve. We climbed the mountain and witnessed millions of Monarchs clustered in the pine trees so thick they bent the branches. When they swarmed, we could hear the sound of thousands of wings moving the air. It was a spectacle I will never forget.

Follow this link to see and hear Monarchs taking flight IMG_0344

I never thought once about the dangers—or knew about them truth be told—until we were on the highway to Morelia, the second part of our trip. The toll booth (yes, they have those in Mexico too) just before we got into the capitol city of Michoacan had been taken over by about 20 young men our driver called “the boys”.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

Monarchs seem to prefer white flowers.

They were students, he told us, or they would be students if times were better. Until things moderate, they hijack toll booths and demand money before they let cars pass. The going rate was 100 Pesos (about 7 U.S. dollars). There were several Michoacan police cars on the other side of the booth. They didn’t intervene.

“Sometimes the boys get aggressive,” our driver said. “Sometimes they block traffic for hours. This time we were lucky.”

For better or for worse, that’s what it’s like in Michoacan these days. Luck is an inexpensive inconvenience that could have been worse. There are butterflies and there are bandits. Unforgettable, but I don’t think I’ll make that trip again.

 

The Red Stick War & Magic Realism

Why am do I write about Native Americans?

Why am do I write about Native Americans?

“Why do you write so much about Native Americans?” is a question I get all the time. In practically every story the hero and / or the villain as well as multiple supporting characters will be tribal members.

“I think Indians are about the most interesting people in the whole world,” doesn’t sound nearly intellectual enough—even though it is exactly right—so I usually say something like this: “The unbroken thread of mysticism that runs through Native American culture fits perfectly with my concept of magic realism.” If that doesn’t clear things up, I try a little harder.

Drawing of the Great Comet of 1811

Drawing of the Great Comet of 1811

Great events we don’t remember have mainstream Euro-Americans throwing salt over our shoulders, avoiding black cats, stepping over cracks, and leaving the thirteenth floor out of our buildings for reasons we don’t understand but must believe on some level. The same thing applies to Native Americans. They have a history that reaches back fifteen thousand years. Most of it isn’t written down but it’s been carried into the present by legends and ceremonies and lessons learned around the evening meal. It’s part of who they are.

Hale Bop Comet

Hale Bop Comet

Native American history is unique, so the way they approach the world is unique too. Whether they are lawyers, doctors, ministers, teachers, artists, writers, politicians, unskilled workers, soldiers, or criminals they put an American Indian spin on everything they do. That spin is what makes them the most interesting people in the world.

To get an idea how different background leads to different world-view, consider the Red Stick War.

Tecumseh

Tecumseh

In March of 1811 the brightest comet in recorded history made an appearance in the night skies over the United States. The Great Comet of 1811 didn’t lose the title of the biggest and the brightest until the appearance of the Hale Bop Comet in 1997. Remember what happened in southern California then? If you don’t, Google Heaven’s Gate.

When a Shawnee mystic named Tecumseh saw the comet he took it as a sign. He traveled around the country telling everyone who would listen that the fuzzy light in the sky was a supernatural message. The very nature of the Indians’ relationship with their tribal lands was about to change.

He encouraged tribes to unite against further white incursion on their lands before it was too late. He found a willing audience when he visited the Muskogee Creek, whose tribal territory (most of what is now Alabama and part of Georgia) was starting to look very good to white farmers.

Tecumseh promised a sign would follow his visit, which would prove his prophecy was true. When the New Madrid earthquake struck in December, a large number of Creek were convinced.

The Muskogee who joined the Tecumseh Confederation were known as the Red Sticks. The name may have come from red war clubs they carried, or from bundles of red sticks they used to count the days between strategic events. Half the Creek Nation joined in the movement and the other half were firmly against doing anything that would provoke the U.S. government. The division started a civil war inside Muskogee territory.

Ordinarily, the Red Stick war would have played itself out on tribal land but the War of 1812 had just started. The British armed the Creek Red Sticks and their Seminole allies and encouraged them to attack U.S. Army positions. When that happened, General Andrew Jackson moved his troops into Creek lands and by August 9 of 1814 he forced the tribe to sign the Treaty of Fort Jackson.

In memory of Tecumseh

In memory of Tecumseh

Despite protest of the Creek chiefs who fought the Red Sticks alongside Jackson, the Creek Nation ceded 23 million acres (93,000 km²)—half of Alabama and part of southern Georgia—to the United States government.

Eight years later, President Andrew Jackson forced the Creek to sign the Treaty of Cusseta, relinquishing their remaining lands east of the Mississippi and accepting “voluntary” removal to Indian Territory. The Army force-marched nearly 20,000 Creek across Tennessee and Arkansas starting in 1834. Three thousand five hundred Indians died in the process.

The Great Comet of 1811 really did portend a significant change in the Creek’s relationship with their land, even if it didn’t go exactly as Tecumseh planned.

That’s the unbroken thread of mysticism that fits perfectly with my concept of magic realism.

Evita Peron

Evita's picture displayed on a popcorn stand.

Evita’s picture displayed on a popcorn stand.

Evita (little Eva) Peron’s beginnings were about as humble as a person could get in Argentina. Her father, Juan Duarte, was a rancher who already had a wife and children. He took Evita’s mother, Juana Ibarguaren, as his mistress and started a second illegitimate family that he kept on the edge of poverty in the little town of Junin. Continue reading

Are You Self Published?

IMG_4053“Tell people you are a writer.” My publisher gave me this advice, so did my wife and about a hundred of my closest friends. That statement is the foundation of a platform (don’t you hate that word). Things should move on logically from there.

Strangers are supposed to ask, “What are your your books about?” So I’m ready with an ultra short synopsis or two. One thing leads to another and pretty soon they’re asking for my cards looking for my Amazon Author Page on their smart phones and promising to tell all their friends, who happen to be intensely interested in books exactly like mine. Continue reading

“I 35” was a lot rougher road than I expected

IMG_0057

I wrote a little story entitled, “I 35” mostly in my head on my way to visit my sister in law in Bisbee, Arizona. By the time I got there I had the plot worked out, a couple of catchy lines and knew all there was to know about the characters. It was pretty easy. The story actually happened almost like I planned to tell it in the living room of my 1950’s childhood home. Continue reading