Lessons Learned in 2015

2015, oh what a year you’ve been. Last year was a difficult year for me for many reasons, and so 2015 was necessarily a recovery year. A healing year, a growing year, a year of broadening mind and narrowing focus. It started off with a bang in New York and slowed down for a period as I focused on volunteering and breathing and just generally getting well. So much love to my husband who supported me through this period, physically, emotionally, financially. I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me this year.

The second half of the year was tightly controlled madness as I started a new job, went back to uni and wrote like a mad thing in whatever time was left. It’s breathtaking to think of the girl I was 12 months ago and how far I’ve come since. Of the fortitude I’ve developed, the sense of peace, and yes, the physical strength. 12 months of yoga and a very physical day job and dude. I have all the muscles. It feels so good to know just what my body can do. To feel functional and not merely cerebral. I’ve spent so much of my life living inside my head, it’s refreshing to embrace the physical world in such a way.

Because this year has been so growth-centred, I can sum it up pretty simply with the five biggest lessons I’ve learned this year:

When you spend your whole life looking for signs, you start to forget what you already know. 
I don’t know when I became this person, relying on outside markers to set my path. I’m not  talking about superstition — a black bird flew anti-clockwise on the third Thursday of the month — none of that. I’m talking about validation. An encouraging word on the right day to take me a little further. A good mark on an exam. Answers to prayer just when I need them.
These are all good things, but they all come from outside of me. My friends, my husband, my lecturer, some random stranger on a street can’t decide my path for me. They don’t know what I know. Because let me tell you, the world won’t know what you’re made of until you show it how far you’re willing to go.
And friends, from a more spiritual perspective: When God speaks He expects you to listen. It’s not His job to follow you around, reminding you again and again what you already know. Trust what you know. Trust what God/the universe/that little voice inside has told you. How many times do you have to hear something before you start to believe it’s true?
I lost sight of these things this year. I started to forget what I believe in. In looking for validation from external sources, I began to forget what I already know. I don’t need you to tell me I’m meant to be a writer, a philanthropist, an adventurer, a friend. I already know.
Hope is a choice. Faith is a choice. Joy is a choice. 
I was looking through some notebooks from three years ago the other day. My notebooks are filled with writing notes but also just general notes on life, the universe and everything. I was looking for a specific note but what I found was that the tone of my journals back then were so… filled with hope. I don’t know when I lost that.
Hope, to me, has always seemed like a limited resource, dolled out in unequal measures. Some people have it, some don’t. You can’t make your bowl bigger. You can’t change your capacity for hope.
This is a lie.
That day, the day I found the notebooks, I decided to hope again. I decided to believe in the future I envision. I decided to trust what I already know. And oh, oh, it’s made all the difference.
Try it. You’ll see.
Your body can tell your heart how to feel and your mind how to think. 
In recovering from a truly terrible bout of anxiety, earlier this year I turned to yoga. Exercise has always been calming for me, but I didn’t realise just how powerful it could be. For so long my emotions have controlled my body. For so long I’ve been crippled by stress-induced headaches, insomnia, breathlessness, and other, more serious things. For so long I sought to control my body by controlling my emotions. It never worked.
This year I discovered I could change my emotions by controlling my body. By using my muscles, deepening my breath, stretching long and slow, I can change how I feel. I can find focus again.
Two other things: a fake smile turns real given enough time. And there are some awesome apps out there if you are struggling with anxiety. Pacifica is one I particularly like — the breathing and meditation exercises help me take what I’ve learned in yoga out into the world. It’s with me when I need a reminder to breathe.
Writing the true things sometimes takes longer. Sometimes it takes no time at all. 
Basically, it takes the time it takes. Repeat that after me: It takes the time it takes. Love your process. Embrace it. You’re stuck with it; you might as well 😉
There is a brilliance in first drafts that can’t ever be recaptured. Be careful whose voices you let in when you change it. 

I was looking through some of my old writing the other day, searching for a particular passage. I love this scene. I’ve always looked on it as one of the favourite things I’ve ever written. But it took awhile to find. I’d written somewhere around six drafts of this particular novel and I had to go all the way back to the first one to find the scene I so loved. I’d made so many changes through all those drafts I’d lost what magic inspired me to write it in the first place.

Revision is so, so necessary. Don’t think I’m dumping on the editing process; I’m not. But first drafts are where the magic is, I really believe that. You don’t get that sense of discovery ever again. I don’t know what the answer is, but I know I’m going to keep my eyes open next time I revisit a draft.

I guess my lessons from 2015 can be summed up as this: Choose magic. 

Choose [you are in control] magic [all good and wonderful things].

Chase the good things with everything you have, and when you catch them, hold them as tight as you can.

Choose hope, friends. That’s the best advice I can give you going into 2016.

Love and light to you this Christmas.

Draftcember, by the way, is going FABULOUSLY! This is my reward for reaching 30k: cocktails at our local Cuban restaurant. It was amazing. Onwards! We still have a few days of Draftcember left to go!
Draftcember, by the way, is going FABULOUSLY! This is my reward for reaching 30k: cocktails at our local Cuban restaurant. It was amazing. Onwards! We still have a few days of Draftcember left to go!
Lessons Learned in 2015

Avoiding Revision Fatigue

In my post about things I learned from the Sea Story, I mentioned the importance of love: loving your story and loving the act of writing itself. I’m a butt-in-chair writer. I don’t believe in just waiting for inspiration, because inspiration has never gotten me much further than a pretty line or an interesting character — it takes work to make a novel. But the Sea Story taught me something important about love and I thought it deserved its own post.

I’m not a huge fan of revising. I understand its importance, and I throw myself into it wholeheartedly with every novel, but for me, a revision will never compare to the messy, beautiful process of getting a story down the first time. I’ve compared drafting to riding downhill before, and the metaphor still works. First drafts are exhilarating, breathless and free, while subsequent drafts are like riding on the flat: long, tiring and often boring.

I’ve always known this about myself, but what I didn’t know was that weariness I feel when I’m revising can creep into the draft itself. I can, entirely by accident, revise away the best parts of my story. Knowing this, I’ve started assembling techniques to combat revision fatigue, and just in case you are experiencing something similar, I thought I’d share:

Too Many Cooks

A few months ago, McDonalds Australia ran a crowd-sourcing campaign to create a new burger. People all over the country voted for their favorite burger toppings, and for a limited time the resulting burger was sold in stores. I tried it. It was perfectly fine. Turns out, most of Australia loves your standard burger: beef patty, bacon, lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions,  and cheese.

The problem wasn’t that the burger wasn’t good, it was that there was nothing all that unique about it. It didn’t stand out in any way.

Sometimes, we fall into the trap of crowd-sourcing our novels. I don’t mean in the drafting stage, where it’s just you and your story. I mean in the way we get and receive critiques. Critiques are important — my critique partners are the most valuable weapons in my arsenal — but there is a point where too many voices start to crowd out your own.

What makes your novel special isn’t having a character everyone loves, or plot that’s completely inoffensive. It’s you. You are the special ingredient. Don’t revise yourself out of the story.

Trust Yourself

Before you ask for a critique, it’s important to have a very clear grasp on what you love about this story. Know what you want to keep, what you’re going to fight for, and what makes the manuscript unique, so when you start getting those critiques back you know when to bend and when to stand by your choices.

But it’s not only critiques you need to protect the story from… it’s yourself. Lately I’ve been noticing an insidious trend in my own drafts: changes I’ve made because I think someone might object to them. No one has actually said anything negative about the abrasiveness of a character in this scene, or the way this character cries or lets her anger get the best of her, but I imagine someone one day will, and I take it out. The result is… bland. When you fail to trust yourself and your own choices, when you let all those other voices in, you can accidentally revise the spice out of your story.

Know what you love about your story, and hold it tightly. Don’t let anyone take it away from you, not even yourself.

Take Breaks… Long Ones

I’m terrible at this. Even when I do manage to take a break from my manuscript, while waiting on critiques or leaving a draft to settle, I still spend every waking moment thinking about it. With the Sea Story in particular, I love it so much I’m afraid to let it go, and that’s been detrimental to my own revising process. In the whole year and a half since I started drafting, through 500,000 words of discarded drafts, I don’t remember a single occasion when I felt like I had fresh eyes to see the story.

A strategy I’ve started using lately, with great success, is dual-weilding novels. I never thought I could work on two novels at once, but so far it’s working great! The way I handle it is, I’ve set extremely tough daily and weekly word count goals for my WIP. The only time I’m allowed to even brainstorm the revision on my second novel is when I’ve met those goals. Most days I run out of time. But in those stolen moments, in the midst of the heady rush of a first draft, I’ve found my enthusiasm for the story I’m revising again. Maybe it’s the excitement of an illicit relationship, maybe its the enjoyment of my first draft bleeding over into my other story, but I’ve found the love again. Just as importantly, I’m having fun.

Other Ideas

Another thing I’ve tried is having a theme song for my novel, a song that reminds me of everything I love about the story: the atmosphere, the tension, the drive of my MC. I can’t listen to it too often, because I tend to burn out on songs. After awhile they start to lose their impact. But when I do, I feel it: that spark that started it all.

You could also try moving to a different location. I love working in coffee shops — the right kind, with good coffee, quiet music, just the right number of customers, and staff who don’t bother you too often. But even just working at my kitchen table rather than at my desk can spark something for me and get the words rolling.

Sometimes what I need is space — physical space. Going for a walk and clearing my head always seems to bring that sense of freshness back to my spirit and onto the page. Cleaning my desk and adding small touches of beauty to my workspace helps as well.

Lastly, I’ve become a Pinterest convert. I didn’t really get it at first, but it’s become instrumental for helping me remember what I love about a story. Spending a few minutes before I sit down to write lingering over a story’s Pinterest page and searching for new images to capture my story can be just what I need to get the ball rolling. Somehow, switching over to a visual medium just sparks something for me. For my WIP, I’ve even started doodling in a notebook, drawing scenes and images that recur in the story. Try it — it might help!

So. Maybe you’re one of those gifted folks who love revision, or maybe you’re like me and think nothing can compare to a first draft — either way, I hope you’ve found something here to help you hold onto the love and make the revision process just that little bit smoother.

A spark for the Sea Story
A spark for the Sea Story, taken October 2011
Avoiding Revision Fatigue

What I Learned from the Sea Story

For most people, writing is a narrow, rocky path littered with obstacles. Occasionally you’ll pass another writer on your way and you’ll nod to each other before continuing on. Sometimes you’ll find a stream along the side of the path and you’ll fill your water bottle and maybe lay down for awhile. Some people never get up again. And every now and then you’ll pass a marker that tells you exactly h0w far you’ve come — though not how far you have to go.

These markers are important. They’re the little boost we need to get over the next hill. They show we’re still moving forward, even if the landscape never changes. They tell us that we’ve achieved something — and we have! Not everybody gets this far. You could have given up a long time ago. Half your friends are still back there by that stream. We’re going places. We should acknowledge that.

One of the ways I acknowledge my own little markers is by writing a blog post at the end of every book, listing the things I’ve learned from the experience. I actually used to write these posts at the end of every draft — back then it felt like there was so much to learn, so much ground to gain, and I leaped from marker to marker with energy and gusto. Now, the markers are a little further apart. The things I’m learning are amorphous and harder to put into words. But I think it’s important, still, to pause and take a little Instagram snap of where I am and what I’ve learned.

None of these are dos and don’ts. They’re not rules to follow. They’re just things I’ll be aware of next time when making decisions about a character or a story, things that might make my life easier to avoid. Or, if I decide to include them, things to use with care and intention.

What the Sea Story has taught me:

1. The trouble with outsider characters

I’ve always written outsider characters, characters that are either new to their world, or on the outskirts of it. We all understand what that’s like, to feel like we don’t belong, to be the new person, to be alone in the world. It’s relatable. But while writing the sea story I realized for the first time how difficult it can be to construct a story with an outsider main character.

Dialogue is a powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. It achieves so many things at once: it reveals character, it creates conflict and suspense, it reveals information, and it advances the plot. Outsider characters have less opportunity to interact with other characters in a meaningful way, and you can fall into the trap of having scene after scene of your character just thinking about things. Give your characters friends, siblings, parents, enemies. Dialogue is where conflict happens; it’s the lifeblood of your story.

The other difficult with outsider characters is worldbuilding. If a character knows about her world, she can convey it to the reader, but if she’s new to it, every bit of information must be fed to her (and us) by other characters. If she’s also an outsider in the social sense, this creates additional difficulties.

Outsider characters are important and all these things can be overcome, but next time I will know exactly what I’m getting into before I decide to write this kind of story.

2. The weight of back-story

Imagine your novel in its first chapters is an infant. Still young, not quite able to hold its own head up yet. What you’re hoping as you go along is for that infant to grow, to learn to walk, and to become its own person. Now, imagine your back-story has a physical weight. It’s a metal chain that you loop around your story. In small amounts it can be beautiful — an adornment, a necklace — but too much begins to weigh your story down.

An adult can carry great chains across her back and it might even make her stronger. But even the smallest chain can be too much for an infant. A story will never learn to walk or talk or cover great ground when its first chapters are burdened with back-story.

I knew all this going in to the Sea Story, at least intellectually. But without realizing it, I created a story that was completely reliant on its back-story. The back-story was built into its bones — all forward movement was based upon events from the past. My poor first chapters struggled under the weight of it.

Back-story is not a bad thing in and of itself. But if you’re creating a story that relies upon its back-story, rather than using it as decoration, you will need to be especially creative in your execution. My advice? Make your back-story your front-story. Maggie Stiefvater often begins her story at that one important moment in the past that determines all that is to come. Julie Murphy, Jandy Nelson and Gayle Forman have all used unconventional story structures in order to incorporate events of the past into their manuscripts.

(*If you have any other examples of unconventional story structures in YA, please send them my way!)

Back-story is a hurdle, but when used well it can be beautiful.

3. The trouble with first person narratives

I love first person narration. All three of my novels are first person. But when you’re writing a story with a complex world and events happening in multiple locations, a single, first person narrator has its limitations. Your character either needs to be in the heart of the action at all times or have someone else tell them what’s going on — which can lack the drama of seeing it for themselves.

Another difficulty with first person narration is suspense. Alfred Hitchcock, master of the genre, once gave the illustration of two people sitting at a table while a bomb ticks away underneath. If the viewer is unaware of the bomb (as in a first person narrative), then the eventual explosion is surprising but not suspenseful. If the viewer is aware, if they saw the bomb planted there and they know it will explode at a certain time, they become involved in the narrative and long to warn the characters. This is suspense.

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.” — Hitchcock

It’s all about what kind of story you’re trying to tell. This was the first time I even noticed these limitations, and I made first person work for me regardless, but with my WIP I’m giving third person a try. I have a larger kind of story I want to write and I’m looking forward to exploring it from a wider lens.

4. Love

Sometimes, when writing feels like work, when you’re weary and stressed, it shows in the writing.

Sometimes, when writing is a joy, when you’re writing with the exuberance of pure creation, it shows in the writing.

For me, with this story, it was important to maintain the “mind on fire” spirit of writing. When I didn’t feel that, when an entire draft felt like work, that was a huge clue that something wasn’t right. And readers could tell.

I read this great piece by Hilari Bell the other day about embracing failure, because it means you’ve tried something and learned from the experience. Go read it; it’s a good one.

These are the ways I tried and failed while writing the sea story. These are the lessons I learned.

Next time I will fail better.

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” — Samuel Beckett
A new friend for a new story
A new friend for a new story
What I Learned from the Sea Story

The Road to Pitch Wars Part 2: Working With a Mentor

Last week I spoke a little about the process of entering Pitch Wars, the contest that led to me signing with the wonderful Ammi-Joan Paquette back in February. A lot of things happened between those two events, and that’s what I want to talk about today. For me, the singular draw of entering Pitch Wars was the chance to work with a mentor for five weeks, to improve my writing and come out the other side with a stronger manuscript.

I was very lucky to be chosen as a mentee by the incredible Stacey Lee, along with alternates Rebecca Thomas and Shanna Miles (go #TeamOrca!).

Before I go into what it was like to work with a mentor, I want to quickly note that every mentor and every mentee is different. We all have different needs and expectations. The best thing Stacey did upfront was to let us know what to expect in terms of communication. If your mentor doesn’t do this, ask. It’s very important you’re both on the same page about this. Last year, a couple of the mentors spoke about their mentees expecting too much from them, and I believe this could have been avoided if both parties set down ground rules at the very beginning.

If you’re accepted into Pitch Wars, your relationship with your mentor will likely be very different than my relationship with Stacey, but I hope this post will be helpful or at least interesting to you regardless.

What it was like to work with Stacey

Shortly after the list of mentees and alternates went up, Stacey emailed me to introduce herself and talk a bit about what she liked about my entry. I also received emails from the other mentors I’d applied to, congratulating me and/or telling me why they didn’t choose my entry. All the mentors I communicated with were smart and professional and any mentee would be lucky to work with any one of them, but I was terribly excited to be picked by Stacey.

Over the next week, while Stacey read and critiqued my novel, we started an email chain for #TeamOrca and started getting to know each other. It was a lot of fun. Shanna and Rebecca are incredible writers, and I had the privilege of reading and critiquing both their entries over the following weeks.

Stacey asked me if I preferred to receive her notes in sections or all at once, and I said all at once. I like to start on the bigger things first and work down, but that’s just my process. Once I received her notes, I dug in and got to work right away. We emailed several times a week about my pitch, our writing processes and what was going on in our lives, but for the most part I worked alone. That’s just how I prefer to do it, and I know other mentor/mentee pairings approached things differently.

About a week before the agent round I finished revising, and Stacey was kind enough to critique my first few chapters again, even though she was on deadline herself. If I’d been faster, it’s possible she would have had time to read the whole manuscript again, but I wouldn’t have expected this of her unless she offered.

That last week was also pretty hectic as all of #TeamOrca raced to perfect our pitches ahead of the competition. While the pitch you send to mentors is in query format (about a page), the pitch for the agent round is just a few lines — much harder! And let me tell you, I sucked at this. I sent Stacey so many pitches, and none of them did my manuscript justice. In the end, Stacey drafted a pitch for me, and I made some small changes to it. You’ve probably clued on by now that any success I had in this competition was purely because of Stacey. Truth.

Scope of revisions

This will vary from mentee to mentee, manuscript to manuscript. I’ve heard of mentees who withdrew from the competition because they realized the revision was far too large to complete in five to six weeks, and I’m certain there were others who only needed line edits. I came somewhere in between the two.

Stacey gave me notes on structure and pacing that pretty much saved the manuscript. Basically, my first half was far too slow and meandering, while my back half was like a zipline, rushing you through to the climax. I called the manuscript a literary thriller and it was true: the first part was all literary and the last all thriller.

At the mid-level, certain relationships were strengthened and certain characters fleshed out. Stacey helped me zero in on the questions I needed to answer for the world to make sense, and I spent a good deal of time on the central mystery in the story.

In terms of line edits, boy did I learn a lot. Language is probably one of my biggest strengths as a writer, but that doesn’t mean I’m perfect. I still used a lot of filters and telling verbs (as Pitch Wars mentor Monica Wagner details here) and wow did I love my dialogue tags.

I know that sounds like a lot, but I’d taken off time from work and I was ready to do what needed to be done. I worked so hard over those five weeks, and I’m proud of what I achieved with Stacey’s help.

What I learned

In my experience, working with a mentor is a lot like working with a critique partner. The biggest difference is the balance of power. What I mean by that is, when you submit work to a critique partner, you do so as equals and friends. There are feelings at stake and a relationship to maintain. When you submit to a mentor, you are there to learn and you expect them to be more experienced than you. A mentor doesn’t know you, so their critique might be more in depth than one from a CP. I also felt more comfortable asking stupid questions about writing mechanics from Stacey than I would from a CP, because the embarrassment factor wasn’t there.

The other difference is that once I receive a critique from a CP, I don’t expect anything more from them. My CPs are wonderful and always offer to answer questions and re-read sections, but I’m acutely aware than any time spent on my manuscript is time away from their own. A mentor’s time is no less valuable, but it’s already been allocated to you. They are there to help you as much as you need, within the boundaries set up at the beginning of your relationship.

One of the biggest surprises about working with Stacey was that the relationship didn’t end once the competition did. She was there to help me perfect my query and compile a list of agents to submit to (even if I didn’t end up having time to query most of them!). When I got my first offer, she gave me advice on what to look for in an agent and what questions I should ask on my call. Stacey has been available to me throughout the whole process and I’m endlessly thankful for her time and advice. THAT’S the best thing about Pitch Wars: if you are kind, humble and willing to work, your mentor can become your friend as well as teacher.

Next week I’ll talk about the agent round and what happened after, so stick around if you’re interested. I’ve pasted below a few of my terrible pitch attempts (there were hundreds!), as well as the one we ended up entering with. I hope you’ve found this helpful as you embark on your Pitch Wars adventure!

My revised pitch

Terrible pitch 1:

When a series of drowning deaths reignites a conflict between an isolated island community and their resident orca pod, outsider Anna must disprove the strange island beliefs and find the real murderer before the islanders mount a hunt to kill the whales.

Terrible pitch 2:

Based on Pacific Northwest folklore surrounding killer whales, THE SEA WOLVES follows outsider Anna, a girl who has lost her faith, as she faces up against an island community that believes the impossible in order to solve a series of mysterious deaths, her father’s among them.

Revised pitch:

17-year-old Anna stirs up trouble in an isolated Pacific Northwest community when she discovers a number of unexplained deaths, including her father’s, are connected to a mysterious pod of orca whales, and local folklore hides a dangerous truth.

Writer, adventurer
Writer, adventurer

See part three in the series here: The Road to Pitch Wars Part 3: What Comes Next

The Road to Pitch Wars Part 2: Working With a Mentor

The Gamer’s Guide to First Chapters

I reached the end of a project last weekend, and one of my rewards was finally picking up a few video games I’ve been saving for myself. It’s something I love but don’t have a lot of time for. There are always things that come higher on the priorities list, such as writing, reading, health and caring for a rambunctious Labrador. Because my time is limited, I’ve found I have little patience for a slow opening. If I can’t figure out the controls right away or have to wade through 30 minutes of boring in order to get to the good stuff, I won’t play on.

I have a feeling the same is true for your average reader. We’re all time poor, and any activity that requires a certain amount of solitude and focus can be hard to schedule in. For most people, reading means knocking other things off the list, such as socializing or exercising or showers. People only allocate a finite amount of time to reading, and this means writers have only a finite amount of space to hook their readers. Maybe a paragraph. Maybe a page. Or (if you’re lucky) all the way to the end of the first chapter.

One thing my favorite video games do well is hook me in right away and keep me playing. It’s not an easy task. The first “chapter” of the video game is a tutorial that teaches you how to play and gives you all the skills you need to get through the rest of the game. It’s important, but unless it’s handled well, it can also be incredibly boring. We want the real story to begin!

Novels face the same challenges. The first chapter of a book pulls a lot of weight. It sets up the world, introduces the characters, establishes a tone and a voice, and gives the reader a strong idea of what they’ll be facing throughout the rest of the story. All this, and it still needs to hook the reader. Only the most patient reader will struggle through a boring beginning to get to the good stuff, just as only the most dedicated gamer will make it through a weak tutorial to play the entire game.

Because I can’t do anything without comparing it to my own craft, I’ve come up with a few ideas on what successful and unsuccessful video game tutorials can teach us about writing the perfect first chapter:

Introduction of rules and mechanics:

The central purpose of a game tutorial is to introduce the rules and mechanics of the game, or at the very least, this first section of the game. A gamer (especially the casual kind) is just as likely to get frustrated by being unable to understand the game controls as by a slow beginning. The same is true for a first chapter.

A few decisions you have to make upfront:
– Who is speaking (first person or third)?
– Are they telling a story that has already happened (past tense) or are they telling the story as it happens (present tense)?
– When is the story set (historical/future/present day)?
– Where is the story set? This should be clear right upfront.
– Genre: If you are writing a fantasy, there should be at least a hint of magic in the first chapter. If you’re writing a thriller, there should be tension. If you’re writing a mystery, there should be an unanswered question.

The goal here is twofold: clarity and brevity. Get in and get out without the reader ever knowing you were there.

Character:

Character is just as important in a video game as it is a novel, and the best tutorials set this up right away. In Alan Wake we discover in the first scene that Alan is a writer who is tortured by nightmares about his characters seeking revenge for their untimely deaths. In Uncharted 2, we begin with Nathan Drake injured on a train hanging off the side of a snowy mountain. It is clear from the outset that he is an adventurer come on hard times.

Who is your character? What would best express this, right up front? The Scorpio Races, which is about a girl who enters a deadly horse race against carnivorous water horses, begins with Puck saddling up her pony and racing her brother to the beach. Puck is defined by her love for her horse, and that is where we find her at the beginning of the story.

A microcosm of the story at large:

I touched on this when I mentioned genre above, but I think it deserves a little more attention. A good first chapter, like a good game tutorial, is an introduction to the larger story. We should know immediately what kind of game or book we are about to experience. Alan Wake and Uncharted do this really well, but not all game tutorials are created alike.

An example of a game that does this badly is Heavy Rain, an otherwise brilliant game. The tutorial stars with the main character waking up. He goes to the bathroom. Shaves and brushes his teeth. Wanders around the house for a bit. His wife comes home and he takes out some plates. This goes on for awhile.

What kind of game do you think this is going to be? Certainly not the film noir thriller it turns out to be. The very next scene shows the main character losing his son in a crowded place and it introduces a lot of the tension that was missing from the tutorial. This is how the game should have started.

The same is true for your novel. Begin as you mean to go on. If you’re writing an action story, begin with action. If you’re writing a character piece, begin with voice. If you’re writing magical realism, the world needs to feel a little bit strange right from the first chapter. Your first chapter is your ambassador for the story. Let it be a good representative for the rest of the novel.

Immediate immersion:

This is where tutorials and first chapters rise and fall. Sure, the purpose of the tutorial is teaching you how to play the game, but the more this feels like a learning experience, the less interested the gamer will be. The best games hide their tutorials in story. Take Uncharted 2, which is the game I’m currently replaying, so it’s freshest in my mind. Nathan Drake wakes injured on a train hanging off the edge of a cliff. Right away, the character is thrust into action. He needs to climb back up the side of that train and shoot a bunch of bad guys on the the mountain before he can get his bearings and figure out what’s going on.

A good first chapter teaches you about the story by putting you in it. You should feel like you’re right there with the character, dodging explosions or racing a horse or finding a dead body on the side of the road. Of course, not all stories are thrillers. Anna and the French Kiss begins with Anna arrival at her new French boarding school and meeting the people who will change her life over the course of the next year. Harry Potter begins when strange things start happening in Harry’s town, and to Harry himself. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, if I remember correctly, begins when the pants in question are first purchased and their magical properties discovered.

You’re shoving a whole lot of things into the reader’s head right away, but they shouldn’t be aware that this is happening. All they should be aware of is story and character and how much fun they’re having.

So, go forth! Write brilliant beginnings! Keep me up to 3am because I just can’t put your story down.

Begin as you mean to go on. (And play video games).

The beach is pretty in winter.
The beach is pretty in winter.

 

The Gamer’s Guide to First Chapters

Two Hearts

 

I have two hearts beating in my chest.

The first is my writer heart. She craves quiet and home and routine. She is protective of her time and declines all invitations. She avoids distractions and stress. She loves the sound of rain, the particular quality of light through windows, and every variety of tea.

 

Tea and sunset

 

Her work, her life ambition, is the traversal of a vast, uncertain inner landscape.

She is strong, especially now that I am so close to the end of another story. But she cannot survive on her own.

Her sibling heart is adventurer. My adventurer heart craves escape and open road and impulsive decisions. She longs for difference: different places, different people, different experiences. She loves mountains and wilderness and driving with no destination in mind.

 

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Her occupation is the wild and willful exploration of the outer landscape.

She often grows small under the weight of her ambitious sister heart, but she never dies completely. There can be no writer heart without adventurer, gathering experiences and details and stories to tell of. There can be no adventurer heart without writer to make sense of what I see.

But they cannot grow at the same time. I cannot write while I am adventuring. I cannot adventure while I am writing.

 

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There are some small things that satisfy both hearts, and I have learned to seek them out.

Running with my puppy, tromping through the bush, yoga outside at sunset, are all joyful expressions of my adventurer heart. They also fit neatly into my writer’s routine, waking my body and sharpening my mind before my evening work.

Finding and capturing inspiration: photography, Pinterest, Instagram. Both hearts grow in the presence of beauty. It’s a cough drop, a salve, and it does not cure me, but it satisfies the ache for a moment.

 

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My adventurer heart is ill. She yearns for air and trees and maps and escape. I turned 25 a week ago and I gave her the whole day. I ran, I swam in the ocean, I hiked up a mountain and I ate at a different restaurant for each meal. I laughed with friends and wore a new dress, let myself be surprised and stayed up later than was wise. I wrote something wild and crazy and new.

 

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I whisper to her in quiet moments: soon. Soon my writer heart will be satisfied and I will give her more than a day. I will pack up my husband and puppy and drive somewhere I’ve never been before. I will breathe deeply and live largely and love a world I’ve only watched through windows. Soon.

But for now I search out sweet little diversions to satisfy both hearts. I have a new project brewing, something that rose up completely unexpectedly and has come to fill all my waking thoughts. It was not what I planned to write next, but I’ll follow it for a spell. And if it leads me to adventure, all the better.

 

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I have two hearts.

I am writer, adventurer.

 

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Two Hearts

What the Water Gave Me

I’ve had a hard couple of days, writing-wise. The details aren’t important. What is important is there’s a epigraph at the beginning of my novel —

“The cure for anything is salt water — sweat, tears, or the sea.”
— Isak Dinesen

— and I’d tried the first two already, so it was time to go to the sea.

I went to this same beach on the day I received my first agent offer. On that day the sea gave me sun and foam and easy beauty.

My beach.
My beach.

Today, the sea gave me wind. It gave me rain so fine it was hard to tell if it fell from the sky or sprayed from the waves. It gave me cold and wet and grey.

Before the rain.
Before the rain.

It gave me wet rock cut deep by the encroaching sea.

The old lifeguard station.
The old lifeguard station.
Wet. Oh, so wet.
Wet. Oh, so wet.

A stormy sea. A plank of wood. A deserted beach.

Rock, sand and sea.
Rock, sand and sea.
No Prince Eric attached, unfortunately.
No Prince Eric attached, unfortunately.
Not a soul.
Not a soul.

It whipped my hair into wild tendrils, froze my fingers, smudged ink on the pages of my notebook. It grew wilder and ate up the beach, reaching for me, coming closer with each break. No part of me was dry. No part of me was warm. Even my tea grew cold.

And in the end, it gave me exactly what I needed.

The cure for anything. Sweat, tears, or the sea.

What the Water Gave Me