Tuesday, July 9, 2013

So You Want to Write a Book...Sit Down and Start Writing!

In this series, I've already written about questions you should ask yourself before you start writing, as well as ways to capture the ideas that you have at odd times, and tools that I use to write and publish my books.

"Yeah, yeah--that's all well and good, but when do I get to start writing?"

Right now.


Not so easy, is it?

This may be the most difficult part of starting a book: your first opening.

A lot of people stress about the start to their book for good reason: it's arguably more important than ever to hook a reader in the first few pages. Amazon and other retailers allow people to "Look Inside" the book at the first several pages. If they don't like what they see, you can imagine they'll just move right along to another, more interesting book.

Believe me, I know. I asked a buddy of mine to read a rough draft of what will eventually become the Debt of Souls series of books. The first comment he made was, "You kept saying the same thing over and over again for the first ten pages, but after that, it got a lot better."

You know what? He was absolutely right. A lot of folks get bogged down in the academic mindset of describing every...little...thing in a room in excruciating detail. My first attempt at a short story back while I was in law school was ten pages of a guy waking up, followed by me cataloguing his apartment as he brushed his teeth and showered. I know--really original!

The same goes for non-fiction books; no one wants to read a dry summary of the rest of the book up front. After all, if you boil the book down to a few bullet points, what incentive is there to read the rest of it?

Here are a few tips on how to avoid these common pitfalls.

Non-Fiction: Know Your Audience and Start With an Engaging Anecdote

I'm still plugging away on a non-fiction book about wine. I could have gone on some flowery rant about how wine is the drink of the "civilized person," but my goal is to write about the opposite; how someone who thinks that wine is for snobs can come to enjoy and appreciate wine without all of the brow-beating and condescension usually associated with it.

I should know; I used to be one such person, until [aha!] my first trip out to Napa. I quickly dashed out the story of the first time I had an educational wine-tasting out at Cakebread. There's a protagonist (me), a villain (a snobbish fellow tour-goer), and a surrogate for some of the wine knowledge I wished to impart (the wine professional in charge of the tasting).

In so doing, people hopefully get a chance to see a bunch of things; that I'm not fond of wine snobs, that I'm all about opening up wine to a broader audience, that I have some expertise and facility with wine-related terms, and that I'm setting an at least partly humorous tone from the get-go.

Think about starting your non-fiction book similarly, even if you have to fudge facts a little (but just a little) to make the story fit your purposes.

Fiction: Action, Emotion, and Intrigue

I was an avid Lost watcher back in the day. I tore through the first season DVDs in a matter of days while killing time studying for finals. I couldn't believe how hooked I was; whenever each DVD was finished, I drove over to Blockbuster for the next disk (yes, yes, if you're under twenty-five, you likely have no idea what I'm talking about. Just imagine that you actually had to go somewhere to get TV and movies back in the day instead of downloading it immediately. I know: we were barbarians.).

Even though the ending was ultimately a huge let-down, Lost drew everyone in with a combination of action (Plane crash! Pilot is dead! Trees sucked out of the ground!), emotion (Character-based flashbacks! Ooooh, they have to do with what's going on on the island!) and intrigue (What killed the pilot? Why does it sound so weird? Why is this John Locke guy so creepy?).

I think my openings have gotten better with each successive story. In Jesus Was a Time Traveler, I was still a bit verbose, chewing through a bit of backstory in the first chapter, though I stand by it because it's absolutely what the narrator, Phineas Templeton, would do.

Hack was a little more straightforward and to the point; an old guy gets bad news in a hospital right away. By chapter three, he's made a big, life-altering decision and is caroming around in an enormous old car without any regard for pedestrians in his way.

Rogue is probably my best yet: a man, waiting in another man's apartment for some unknown reason. They have a conversation. "He" is upset (who is "he?"). There's a big day the next day, a lot is at stake, the two men are friends, but they fight (why?). It's basically the penultimate scene of the book up front; then the book goes back and catches the reader up to that point until the third act. It's an old trick called a framed narrative, that's been employed by writers for ages; find an intriguing scene toward the end of the book, put it up front to create mystery, and work up to that point.

If you get too much into a character's surroundings, unless there are active chainsaws being dangled from the ceilings and swung from one side of the room to the other as a character desperately tries to dodge them, you probably need to fast-forward to another scene for your opener. Once you have a solid, action or emotion-packed scene, then you can go back and determine if your initial description-laded scene still fits later on in the book; odds are that it doesn't.

Sit Down and Write

I'm going to be honest: unless you're some kind of freakish prodigy (it is possible, but unlikely), you'll look back one day on your first opening and think, "Man, I really could've tightened that up."

That's perfectly fine; writing is a constant learning process. It's okay to experiment a bit with your openings until you get one right.

The important thing is that you try. No book was ever written because someone kept mulling over problems with an opening in her head. Especially for your first book, any opening will be "good enough." By "good enough," I don't necessarily mean "publishable;" rather I mean  "good enough" to get you writing. Once you have something down on the page, everything gets a lot easier, and you can go back and cut-and-paste as necessary.

Do you have any specific tips for starting books? Anything that gets those words to flow onto the page just a bit easier? If so, leave them in the comments.

Previous Posts In This Series:
#3 Tools of the Trade ("What You Need to Indie Publish Your Book For Cheap")

Next Time: Write More Per Day
D.J. Gelner is a fiction and freelance writer from St. Louis, Missouri. Check out his books, available at his Amazon Author Page and on Nook, iBooks, and Kobo. Follow him on twitter (@djgelner) or facebook (here). E-mail him directly at djgelbooks@gmail.com.

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