Category Archives: first chapters

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I love my writers’ group.  I’ve probably said that so often, you’re sick of hearing about it.  But I’m back to work on my mystery, and I finally read the first chapter to them on Wednesday.  I’ve rewritten the stupid thing so often, I was happy with the content, but I’d lost all  feel for it.  And, as always, they let me know what worked and what didn’t.

When I start a book, I’m in plot and character mode, and I have to concentrate on description.  I never get enough in there, so I have to go back and add it.  Now, in our group, each person  has their niche of what they nail best in critiques.  Mary Lou is a whiz at word choice and hooks, adding backloading for each paragraph and the ends of chapters.  Kathy Palm–a YA author–makes me think about emotions and description.  There were a dozen people there on Wednesday, and each person gave me good feedback.  I left my chapter at a happy place–a stupid thing for an author to do for the first chapter.  You want a hook to encourage the reader to turn the page and read chapter two.  So I fixed that.

On Thursday, I rewrote the entire thing, and it’s LOTS better than it was.  Thanks to Scribes.  It might even be good enough to survive the entire manuscript.  I’m pretty happy with it.  I admit, though, I go back over and over again to tinker with my first chapter, so it might change again.

The whole process made me think, though.  Even when I read books, I tend to reread most of the first chapter again.  What do I look for in them?  Characters I care about.  That’s probably as important to me as everything else.  Sure, I need a hint of what the book’s problem is going to be, but I don’t mind slow starts.  As long as I have a character I care about and a hint of where I’m going, I’ll keep reading.

I just picked up two new authors to ME.  Almost everyone else in the world has read John Grisham, but I’m not a fan of lawyer books, so I’ve avoided him.  Except he’s been around long enough, I thought I might want to give him a try.  So I picked up Sycamore Row and read the first few pages in the book store.  Then I bought it.  Why?  I liked his writing style and his voice.  Yes, he started–bam!–with an intriguing hanging.  But that, in itself, wouldn’t hook me.  It was his choice of characters that reeled me in.

The other book I chose is a good, old, 1811 London mystery.  with all of the fog and cobbled streets that go with that era–WHERE ANGELS FEAR by C. S. Harris.  The book starts with a prologue–a beautiful, young woman walking into a trap, and you know she’s going to die.  It brought back wonderful, fond memories of Martha Grimes’s pub mysteries and her fabulous prologues.  I love them, but I kept going and read the first chapter of the book to see if I wanted to read more.  This sounds cruel, but it’s easy to kill a person in a dramatic fashion.  It’s harder to keep the rest of the book interesting.  And I liked Harris’s main character so much, I started her book first and I’m waiting to give Grisham a go.  (My daughter’s reading that book, though, and she’s loving it).

In both books, the first chapter ends wih a mesmerizing line.  C. S. Harris ends with He’d promised Melanie he wouldn’t kill her husband.  But she hadn’t said anything about not making the bastard suffer.

The other thing that intrigues me in a first chapter, I have to admit, is the setting.  It can be mundane, as long as it offers something a little unusual.  For Harris’s book, she says, “She blamed the fog.  She wasn’t normally this nervous.  This afraid.”  A great hook.  But Jenna Bennett sets her Savannah Martin series in Nashville, Tennessee and makes her small town of Sweetwater, an hour away, sound intriguing because she grew up there and knows almost everyone.  The setting becomes personal.

For my chapter, I tried to include a great main character, some interesting side characters, a Midwest setting, and a story question that would pull you in.  And some humor.  What hooks you when you pick up a book?

It’s cold in Indiana.  I hope you can hibernate as much as possible.  Happy writing!  And happy reading!

A busy April

Our daughter drove from Indianapolis to visit us yesterday.  Her birthday was March 28th, but she worked too much to celebrate it.  We wanted to do something special for her, so we made reservations at The Oyster Bar–a small, crowded, quaint bar known for its upscale, wonderful menu.  The bar is so small, it has tables on one side of the room and tables on the opposite side that are so close to each other, I had to turn my walker sideways to sidle through the center to our seats.  It’s a good thing my leg’s better now, but it was worth it.  The food was wonderful; the atmosphere was warm and friendly.

Holly’s staying with us again tonight, so I’m making Cajun shrimp fettucini for her for supper.  She’s a pasta lover.  We’re having a wonderful visit, and when she leaves tomorrow, it will be hard to get back in gear.  But I need to knuckle down and start cranking out pages.

It always feels like it takes forever to accumulate any pages when I start a new book.  I do character wheels and know the big stuff about the major players in my story before I start, but I learn their nuances as I go.  I need to listen to them, understand them.  I have a setting in mind, but I need to walk around in it, drive from one end of town to the other, before I can live there.  And I keep thinking of more details, so I have to go back and tinker with earlier scenes, fine-tuning them, before I can move on.

In the mystery I’m working on now, I want the grandma to be a bit senile.  Sometimes she lives in the present, sometimes she lives in the past.  I decided I could show that by what she calls my protagonist, Jazzi (a nickname for Jasmine).  When she hugs her and says, “Good to see you, Jazzi,” her mind is clear.  When she says, “You’ve always spoiled me, Sarah,” she’s talking to her dead sister and whatever she tells you is suspect.  That’s fun for a mystery.

I’m up to page 71 now, and the set up is beginning to fall into place.  I’ve introduced most of the characters who’ll inhabit the book.  My goal, always, is to finish the set-up by the first fourth of the book–in this case, at about 80 pages.  I’m almost there.  And then it’s time to dig for clues to solve the murder.  The vast middle lies ahead of me.

Our friends who moved to Carolina are stopping in Fort Wayne on their way to visit their son in Chicago on April 13.  By then, I’ll be pretty sick of pounding out pages, so it will be a nice change of pace to see them.  I’ve invited them and some of our mutual old friends to our house for supper that night.  It will be fun.  And that will lead right into Easter and ham and carrot cakes.  More fun.  So I’ll be ready to hit the keys again for the second half of April.  The girl who grew up across the street from us, who’s my daughter’s best friend, is coming to town on the last weekend of April, so we’ll get to see her, too.

April looks like a good month.  Hope it is for you, too.  And happy writing!

P.S.  I put up chapter 1 of Bruin’s Orphans on my webpage if you want to check it out.

http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

Starting a new book

One of the joys of writing a series is to revisit old friends–characters you’ve used in previous books–and then add in a few new ones.  And if you get really lucky, one of those new characters jumps off the page for you and demands a book of his/her own.

When I wrote the first Mill Pond romance–Cooking Up Trouble–Ian’s brother, Brody, came to help him get the inn ready.  Brody’s a bit of a curmudgeon.  He’s a little too responsible for his own good, and I fell in love with him.  Whom to pair him with?  Someone who doesn’t pay attention to schedules and likes to bend the rules.  Harmony drives him a little crazy, and Brody makes her want to whack him in the head every once in a while.  A perfect match. For the story, I made Paula, Ian’s chef, and her two kids a part of the plot line, and I grew so attached to them, I wanted to find someone for Paula.  Hence, book 3.  So far, with every book, there’s a new character who begs me for more time in the next book.

I just finished final edits for Book 4–and I know this isn’t fair since I’m writing a few books ahead of what you can read–but Miriam just walked onto the pages in that book and told me that I was lucky she graced me with her presence.  She has that kind of personality.  And I couldn’t wait to write a book with her as the protagonist.

I’m starting that book now–the fifth Mill Pond–and I’m trying my darndest to do justice to the personality that is Miriam.  I also tried to give her a story worthy of her.  She teaches high school English, so I wanted a kid to be part of the romance.

The first time I wrote Miriam’s first chapter, it contained everything in the plot point I’d written for it–all of the characters, a hook, and the inciting incident–but it was flat.  That only goes to show that just because I know what’s supposed to happen, I don’t always get the voice and tone right.  Nobody wants to just plod through a story–not the readers and not me.  So I deleted the whole thing and tried again.  This time, I concentrated on the snark that’s part of Miriam, and it worked.  The woman can quell a rampaging teenager in her third period class with a raised eyebrow.  My type of heroine.  She’s almost six feet tall, gawky and bony, with short, corkscrew curls.  So who could be her Mr. Right?  A man who’s comfortable in his own skin and brews beer.  Miriam has a thing for hops:)

I’m going to have to push myself to keep the energy up for this book.  I’m hoping to deal with a couple of serious subplots in a funny way.  I might need more chocolate.  I know I’ll need wine.  But I have goals, and that’s a good thing:)

 

Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JudiLynnwrites/

On twitter:  @judypost

 

Webpage: http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

 

Plot to Story

I blogged about how I rewrite last week and mentioned that I use plot points to keep  myself on track.  A fellow writer asked how I turn an outline into a finished draft.  I might make a muddle of this, and it might take me longer than usual to describe, but here’s what works for me.

1. My books always start with an idea, something that snags my interest and won’t let go.  For the romance I’m working on now, I wanted a protagonist who makes a habit of falling for the wrong guy, the guy who won’t be good for her.  I wanted her to work with a hot guy who doesn’t rev her hormones at all, and they become friends.  And finally, I wanted her to meet Mr. Right, but not realize it because he’s interested in someone else.

2.  Once I have an idea, I populate it with characters who’ll make it work.  Paula is a widow who lost her husband on tour in the military.  She has two kids.  And she’s a chef.  She moved to Mill Pond for a slower pace, but the resort she cooks for has grown so popular, she’s swamped, so Ian hires Tyne–Mr. Hottie, her assistant chef.  Jason delivers supplies from the area’s regions to her kitchen everyday.  And Chase owns the bar on the edge of town.

3.  Now, I can start writing.  First, there’s the hook–the event that shows the protagonist and draws the reader in.  The first chapter always makes me crazy.  It has to introduce the main character and some important minor characters.  It has to tell us the book’s big problem and the internal struggle the protagonist has to solve.  It has to ground the readers in a setting, to let them see the protagonist’s world and how it affects her.  And if there’s a romance, this is a good time to hint at it.  I rewrite first chapters over and over again.  So, in my romance:

Hook: Paula walks her kids to the school bus and waves them off.

Okay, this isn’t plunging the reader into drama, but it shows the reader what’s important to Paula–juggling a career and being there for her kids, even if it leaves her frazzled and alone after her husband’s death.  To bring the scene to life:  What does Paula look like?  How can I show her when I’m in her POV?  How old are her kids?  Use dialogue to “hear” them, to show what their personalities are like.  Why does she walk them to the bus?  What time of year is it?  What does the setting look like?  How does Paula shift from Mommy to chef every day?

Scene 2:  Paula hurries to Ian’s office (the man who owns the resort) to meet her new assistant chef.  Ian let her help choose him.

To bring the scene to life:  What kind of a boss is Ian?  What’s the resort like?  Describe Tyne.  Why did Paula choose him as her assistant?  Does she have any reservations? What’s he like?  Why did he want this job?  How is he qualified for it?  Let me “hear” the three people and see what they’re like.  Let me hear Paula’s thoughts and feel her emotions.

Okay, you get the idea.  A plot point is just that–an event that happens in the story. When I sit down to write, I have to bring that scene to life.  I usually write the first three chapters in my book before I try to work on any more plot points.  Why?  I need to hear my characters and see how they react to things before they become real to me.  I still don’t know them that well, but I have a feeling for them.  Then I work on character wheels to round out their personalities and histories, their strengths and weaknesses.  Characters need to be consistent.  That’s how we decide how they’ll react to things.  And finally, I start filling in the signposts (plot points) along the way from the beginning of the book to the end.  I always know my book’s ending, or how else can I aim for it?

So,  I know the book’s beginning:  the hook, the big problem, the internal problem, and the inciting incident.  I know the setting.  In the first fourth of the book, the protagonist reacts to the changes around her.  She tries to find her balance and make everything work. I usually introduce at least two subplots that mirror the protagonist’s struggles.  By the end of the first fourth, she comes up with an idea to meet her goal.  That’s a turning point, and that’s the plot point I aim for at the end of the first quarter of my story.  The thing to remember is that the character doesn’t just react to what’s happening to her.  She struggles to survive it, to move forward, and to reach her goal.  Plot points aren’t about what people do TO your protagonist.  They’re about what the protagonist does to reach her goal.  It won’t turn out the way she wants it to until the end of the book, but she doesn’t stop trying, (if you’re writing a happy ending).  At the end of the book, she saves herself. The hero/love interest might stand beside her, but she flexes her new muscles and fights her own battles.

 

This blog is getting long, so I’ll write more about plotting and bringing your plot to life next week.  If you have any specific questions, let me know in the comments.  And if you have something that works for you, please share.  More later…

Free Chapter

I’ve been working on romances for a while now. Long enough, I’m missing urban fantasy, so I’m doing a little experiment. I’m going to try to write a new chapter of a Babet and Prosper novel every other week or so inbetween writing my third romance. I’ve never tried to flip back and forth between books before, so this should be interesting. Not sure if it will work, but I want to find out. Anyway, the first chapter of River City Rumble (a working title–I know it’s not a keeper) is on my webpage now. It’s in the left column, if you’re interested.
http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

Rewrites as you go: wrong? Not for me!

I just finished rewrites on the first fourth of my WIP. I’ve heard all of the advice: “Don’t edit as you go.” “Let the words and ideas flow.” “Write while you’re drunk; edit while you’re sober.” Those don’t work for me. They don’t work for Les Edgerton either, and here’s why: http://danaking.blogspot.com/2013/12/twenty-questions-with-les-edgerton.html Les’s writing blog, in general, is worth checking out. It’s chockfull of good advice: http://lesedgertononwriting.blogspot.com/

Now, I have a few writer friends who HAVE to take this advice, because they border on the perfectionist side. They could spend YEARS rewriting the beginnings of their books. I’m talking about you, Kathy Palm, among others. (Kathy has a great writers’ blog, too, that I highly recommend: https://findingfaeries.wordpress.com/. And yes, she does believe in magic, but she’s also a fan of horror. One of her short stories is in the upcoming anthology Halloween Night: Trick or Treat–https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/25673465-halloween-night). If you’re like Kathy, you have to MAKE yourself let go of your writing, or you could spend a lifetime perfecting one book. (Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration, but you get the idea).

I’m not a perfectionist. I have no such patience. AND, I strongly believe in rewrites when your story feels “off.” I’ve mentioned that I start each writing day reworking the pages I wrote the day before. One, that gets me back into the story. Two, after sleeping on my words, they don’t look as brilliant. I can add, tweak, clarify. I’m not sure I’d take the time to look at those pages so closely when I work through the entire manuscript. (I did say I’m not patient. Now maybe you’ll believe me).

The thing is, when your story’s “off,” you know it. You know something’s not working. Your gut sends a memo to your brain, and even if you try to ignore it, you can’t. You’d think that me–a plotter–could avoid this problem. Yes, I know my characters. Yes, I know nearly every single plot point. Does that guarantee I’ll get it right? Hell, no. It just means the basics will work–period. I plugged through 78 pages on my new novel, and I knew everything was in place, but did it work? Not for me. Something was missing.

Guess what? It’s hard to plot for emotional impact, for depth, for internal turmoil. Those come from your characters, not your brilliant planning. And those are the REAL things that drive a story. Plotting just keeps you on track. Your characters have to bring every single one of those plot points to life–and that means, your characters have to live and breathe and worry and cuss and drink a beer and eat a slice of torte when they want to lose weight, then be angry at themselves for succumbing to empty calories. Plotting won’t bring your characters to life. Only you, the writer, can make them real. But plotting can make them move from point A to point Z with few or no pages you have to pitch. It makes sure they start their journey from New York and end up in Indiana, where they belong. (Indiana’s my home state, and it gets bashed enough, so I’m defending it).

When I read through my first 78 pages, I realized I was hitting every plot point, but I hadn’t included enough of the characters’ motivations, hang-ups, and feelings. I knew how Paula (the protagonist) would react to what was going on around her. But she wasn’t hitting the right emotional notes. And that’s important. Emotional notes are what bring the character to life, what steers them through the story. I’ll follow a character I love through a mediocre novel, but I won’t follow a character I don’t care about through a brilliant novel. Something to consider. I can go back in my next set of rewrites to fill in more depth, more details IF I get the motivations right the first time around, but if they’re off? I’m in trouble, and my gut knows it. If I force it and keep writing ahead, I’d be going in the wrong direction. My scenes would focus on the wrong things. Now that I’ve identified the problem, I can forge ahead, knowing I’m on the right path.

Here’s one more good writers’ link for you to consider: https://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/. Readers view the world you’ve created through your characters’ eyes, mostly your protagonist’s. We often react the way the protagonist reacts. If the protagonist isn’t worried, happy..something, neither are we. We read to FEEL, to live through someone else for a brief period of time. Make your characters stir us.

P.S. I put a snippet from Voodoo and Panthers on my webpage, if you’re interested:
http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/

My author facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/JudithPostsurbanfantasy

Follow me on twitter: @judypost

Writing & Worrying

I’ve started working on a third romance novel. If you read my news earlier, I signed a 3-book deal with Kensington e-books. I’m ahead of schedule on deadlines, so I can do happy dances and buy a special bottle of wine. I can celebrate. But once Monday morning looms again, I’ll be back at my keyboard, trying to pound out 7 to 10 pages to finish a new chapter. It’s what grounds me.

So why the “worrying” in my title? I’m ahead of schedule and happy with the book I’m working on. But… I’ve never been good at writing the same-old, same-old. I really enjoyed writing the first romance. It has a lot of humor, which I didn’t think I’d be good at, but it fit my two protagonists. I was “hearing” them in my mind, so the humor just came. The second romance had a smart-ass protagonist, so she came up with comebacks that I’d never think of on my own. But both romances followed the norm. Boy and girl meet. There are sparks, and eventually they get together. A proven formula. So what did I do for book 3? Fiddle with it, of course. Lord forbid I should feel comfortable and repeat what had worked for me.

One of the things that kills book series for me is when I feel like the writer found a formula and I can memorize the rhythm because it’s the same, book after book after book. By the time I’m on the third book and I feel like I’ve read it before, just with different names and settings, I’m done. Now, mind you, most of these series run a long time, so readers obviously don’t have a problem with it. But I lose interest, and it’s the same with my writing. I like to change it up. For this book, I want the protagonist to be interested in the wrong guy, but it’s made it a challenge to find a set-up that lets the reader know the right guy is in the wings, but neither of them know it. I have the first fourth of the book finished–at least, a draft to work with, and I’m still doing the juggling act of Paula saying “I want him,” but the reader knows she should kick him to the curb. And it’s been fun.

I might have to tweak my early chapters, but my daughters kissed quite a few frogs before they found their handsome princes, (and even then, one of the princes didn’t work out), so it’s a pretty normal happenstance. I just have to make it work.

By the way, I have three Mill Pond, short-short romances on my webpage, if you’re interested:
http://www.judithpostswritingmusings.com/. You can click on them at the end of the left column.

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Twitter: @judypost