Thirty Words

IMG_0163This month’s ISWG question: If you could use a wish to help you write just ONE scene/chapter of your book, which one would it be? (examples: fight scene / first kiss scene / death scene / chase scene / first chapter / middle chapter / end chapter, etc.)

Hrm…it all kinda depends if you’re asking about a one-time, specific fix for my current story, or are going for a more general, permanent “wish”.

The answer, either way, is not as easy as you would think.  It’s not easy because it involves admitting publicly the areas in which you struggle.  I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t actually talk all that about much about the specifics of where I struggle and need to improve.  Oh, I look at those problem areas — all the time — but being as private as I am, I tend to keep such things pretty much to myself.

Still, I’ll take a stab at answering: the opening scene.

Look, I write very character-focused stuff.  More than that, I write stuff focused on characters that are flawed and screwed up, that are broken.  My stories are all about the changes those characters undergo — or don’t undergo, in some cases.  But, starting from that initial point of broken and flawed can offer some real challenges…and one of those is getting the reader involved straight away.

Take Connor, the (anti)hero of Somewhere Peaceful and Silence (and a planned third story).  Put simply, Connor is a street kid — he’s a thief and a conman, a drug addict with no dreams beyond the next score, and the next high that score will buy, and no prospects beyond a very likely early death.

In the opening scene, all of that has to be communicated about Connor…while still making him likable and sympathetic.  Don’t get me wrong, if I can get the reader to give me thirty pages, I know Connor will endear himself…but a new story by an unknown writer doesn’t get thirty pages to hook someone, it gets thirty words.

That ain’t easy…

One of the things I do is study writers I admire.  I study their characters, I study how they share information and details (and how they withhold the same)…I study their plotting, and their pacing…I study their use, or avoidance, of words and wordiness…and I study their openings.  How do they hook the reader?  How do they get you to the next paragraph, and the next page, before you even know who the hell is who in their stories?

I’m not going to list everyone that I’ve tried to learn from here, but I do want to offer one example of what I’m talking about.  Although it is a book I like, it is nowhere near being a true favorite of mine.  But the first line…the first damned line…yeah, that line hooks you:

“The boys came early to the hanging…”*

*”Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett, if you’re wondering.

What hanging?  Who is being hung?  Why?  WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING?!

One of the reasons why I started doing micro-fiction pieces, in fact, was to tighten up my writing…to try and work on how I hook a reader in just a handful of words.  That really is all you can do as a writer: keep writing.  Oh, you can learn by reading and studying others’ work, but the only way to actually improve is to write.  The only way to get an opening scene right, is to get it wrong twenty times before…

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