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.

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“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

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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.

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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

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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.

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“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

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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?

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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.

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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.

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“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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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

What is that Goose Bump Feeling? ASMR

Most dogs have a special spot.

Most dogs have a special spot.

Most dogs have a special spot that if touched will make one leg do a meaningless little dance. It’s pretty obvious they like it. Nobody has the slightest idea why, especially not the dog. Sounds can have similar effects. Sirens make dogs howl. My mother told me it was because their ears hurt, but look at a dog’s face when he does it some time, and what you’ll see is the look of joy. Continue reading

My First Library Book Fair Ever

Jim Stovall at the Hardesty Regional Library Book Fair

Jim Stovall at the Hardesty Regional Library Book Fair

Jim Stovall was the motivational speaker at my first Library Book Fair ever. The event was held at the Hardesty Regional Library in Tulsa on Saturday, Sept. 13. 2014. I didn’t have the slightest idea who Jim Stovall was or why I should be really happy he was speaking at an event. Shame on me.

I had no idea Jim Stovall was blind or that after losing his sight he went on to become:

  • An International Humanitarian of the Year
  • A National Olympic weightlifting champion
  • An Emmy Award winner
  • The Founder and President of the Narrative Television Network
  • One of the Ten Outstanding Young Americans awarded by the U.S. Jaycees
  • A National Entrepreneur of the Year
  • A recipient of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce National Blue Chip Enterprise Award
  • A world-renowned author and speaker
  • The author of, The Ultimate Gift. Best seller and now a 20th Century Fox major motion picture
  • Karen Marie Graham, author and publisher

    Karen Marie Graham, author and publisher

    It takes me—and most authors—from six months to a few years to finish a book. Jim Stovall has managed to write fifteen best sellers including two that were made into major motion pictures by dictating them. At his Hardesty lecture he said The Ultimate Gift was dictated in five days start to finish and sent off to the publisher with no edits. This book was then made into a movie staring James Garner (another Oklahoman everybody should know about) and Abigail Breslin.

For his work in making television accessible to our nation’s 13 million blind and visually impaired people, The President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity selected Jim Stovall as the Entrepreneur of the Year.  He was also chosen as the International Humanitarian of the Year, joining Jimmy Carter, Nancy Reagan, and Mother Teresa as

Sean Al-Jibouri, Jazz guitar.

Sean Al-Jibouri, Jazz guitar.

recipients of this honor. Steve Forbes, president and CEO of Forbes magazine, said, “Jim Stovall is one of the most extraordinary men of our era.”

Aside from having one of the greatest speakers ever, the book fair went pretty well. Forty authors—including me and Jim Stovall—were there signing and selling books. It’s safe to say he sold more than I did (probably more than everyone else combined) but commerce was brisk all around, exposure was good, and everybody went away smiling.

Karen Marie Graham, author of Promises You Keep, and children’s book, Thank You God for Everything, did an excellent job of organizing the book fair. When she isn’t writing or organizing events, Karen is the driving force behind the Oklahoma publishing company, Books-A-Daisy.

In the quiet moments between events, entertainment was provided by the outstanding jazz guitarist Sean Al-Jibouri.

 

 

Ghost Writers?

Ghosts got a lot of attention in the U.S. from the end of the 19th through the first half of the 20th centuries. Seven hundred thousand men died in the Civil War, one hundred

Elijah Bond's Ouija Board Head stone

Elijah Bond’s Ouija Board Head stone

seventeen thousand Americans (out of 37,000,000 total casualties) died in WWI, and just when things were looking up, along came WWII. That one killed off 2.5% of the world’s population, including 420,000 Americans. Practically everybody had sons and nephews, fathers and uncles who were prematurely sent to the other side, and people wanted to stay in touch.

My mother’s family got its start in Spiritualism when my Great Grandmother visited France as part of the post WWI Gold Star Mother’s program. She bought flowers to put on her son’s grave but there were millions of war casualties and they’d been buried under

Elijah Bond

Elijah Bond, inventor of the Ouija Board

numbers in a disorganized field. She narrowed the graves down to two choices and divided her flowers between them. When she got back home she attended a séance and asked if she got it right. She had, according to her medium, and the other dead soldier appreciated the flowers too.

In the early days of American Spiritualism, ghosts communicated with knocks and bumps. It was extremely time consuming, especially when professional mediums weren’t around. To make things easier, Baltimore attorney and inventor Elijah Bond patented the Ouija Board. He “borrowed” the idea from a Chinese prototype developed in the 12th century.

Bond named his board by combining the French and German words for yes, Oui-Ja. The device was a flat rectangle marked with the letters of the alphabet, the numbers 0–9,

Ouija Board

Ouija Board

the words “yes”, “no”, “hello” (occasionally), and “goodbye”, along with various symbols and graphics. It came with a heart shaped planchette that would be guided by the spirits to spell out messages one letter at a time. Eventually Hasbro acquired all patent and trademark rights. About ten boards are sold today under various names.

The board’s popularity has faded in the 21st century, but it was widely use not so long ago.

In 1913, a St. Louis housewife, Pearl Curan, was introduced to the Ouija Board by her friend Emily Grant Hutchings. At one of their frequent afternoon séances, the Ghost of Patience Worth (who lived in Dorsetshire England in either 1649 or 1694) spelled out, “Many moons ago I lived. Again I come. Patience Worth is my name.” The message is

Ouija Board with circular alphabet

Ouija Board with circular alphabet

pretty typical of Ouija Board , experiences, but Patience went on to channel seven books, voluminous poetry, short stories, and plays. Her works are virtually forgotten today, but the prestigious Braithwaite anthology listed five of her poems among the nation’s best published in 1917, and the New York Times hailed her first novel as a “feat of literary composition.”

Pearl Curan’s friend, Emily Hutchings went her one better. She wrote Jap Herron: A Novel Written from the Ouija Board while the recently deceased Mark Twain dictated it using one of Elijah Bond’s Spirit Boards. The book received less than favorable reviews and was denounced by Samuel Clemens surviving daughter, Clara. Harper and Brothers publishing company, which had sole rights to publish Mark Twain’s works, sued to halt publication. Rather than face a court battle Ms. Hutchings and her publisher decided to stop distribution.

In 1982, James Merrill released a 560 page epic poem entitled The Changing Light at Sandover. According to Merrill, his book was written using a Ouija Board. It received the

Just Sayin'

Just Sayin’

National Book Critic’s Circle Award. Some of the poetry in Changing Light at Sandover had been previously published as part of a collection, Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Not bad for a ghost written book.

Ouija Boards have turned up in the news as recently as 1994. A convicted Murderer, Stephen Young, was granted a retrial after it was learned that four of his jurors had conducted a Ouija board séance and had “contacted” the murdered man, who confirmed Young was his killer. No literary connection here, but this would make an interesting detail in a novel.

I’ve written three novels so far—one published and two on the way—and numerous short stories. I admit to having my share of writers block on each and every one. The next time that happens to me, I think I’ll dust off the old Ouija Board and see if Earnest Hemingway has any advice.

If you’ve been meaning to buy a hard copy of Owl Dreams but haven’t gotten around to it, my publisher is running a 20% off sale for the remainder of this month on all their books. Or, spirits willing, you can pick up a Kindle copy on Amazon.