How to Write Story Beginnings

adult book book store bookcase

I’m trying to write a good solid beginning for my new book. I don’t know yet if I’ll be able to maintain the narrative momentum necessary to complete another book length marathon because what I do best is the short form: short stories, flash fiction, prose poems. I’m a sprinter rather than a long distance runner. However, I do have an idea for the setting of the story, the main character and the situation. But that’s all.

Here are the first few paragraphs of my work in progress. My fingers are crossed that I will make it to the end of the story.

“From the window all she could see was a thick expanse of white. She imagined that beyond the bleached park, bereft of native flora, but sprouting feral Norfolk Island pines, lay the immense Pacific Ocean, its agitated waves unravelling along the distant sand of the beach. A few metres beyond that she pictured the white tower and lantern of the Harbour Light, as pictured on the hotel’s website, silently but steadily showing the way.

It was early winter. The tourists had left, the rates were cheaper, and there wasn’t much to look forward to in this sleepy seaside town. Its residents – mostly retirees – were tucked up at home or on holidays in warmer climates. The thick fog that hung low for days on end and the bitter wind from the sea would disappear in its own time to uncover a totally different scene: seagulls skimming the shore, pelicans at the pier, an outdoor craft market, the intermittent feisty spurt of water from the blowhole, formed from basalt lava 260 million years ago, named “kiarama” by Aboriginals, place where the sea makes a noise.

On the jaunty semi-rural valley to the south were dark red cows, producers of butter fat and protein milk. This was a land of dairy-farming plenty, the place where the mountains touched the sea, leaving only the weather frustratingly beyond restraint.

Kirsten Craig, a writer of crime fiction under a more testosterone-fuelled name, kept standing by the window, as if by sheer force of will she could penetrate the confusing mist. She yearned for clarity, an uncomplicated, black or white, answer. She’d find what she needed: peaceful hotel, good food, long walks by the sea, lack of stress, early nights. She would resurrect her conscientious and work-focused persona and put out of her mind the foolishness that had led to her being in this small town, at this slowly darkening time of the year, when she should have been at home.”

According to ‘How to Write a Good Hook & Start Your Novel with a Bang!’ by BookBub:

  1. Startle readers with the first line. …
  2. Begin at a life-changing moment. …
  3. Create intrigue about the characters. …
  4. Use a setting as the inciting incident. …
  5. Up the stakes within the first few pages. …
  6. Introduce something ominous right away. …
  7. Set the mood. …
  8. Make your characters sympathetic — and relatable — immediately.
  9. Draw in the reader with a strong voice
  10. Start at a moment of confusion
  11. Don’t get bogged down with exposition
  12. End the first chapter with a killer cliffhanger

Author Jerome Stern writes in ‘Making Shapely Fiction’:

‘In the first draft of a story, no rules apply. You write and write, ideas come, characters change, situations grow, dialogues take off, speeches become scenes, and surprises occur. … After this first draft exists, then you can bring to bear some of your critical faculties and see what you can see about your creation.’

‘The Art of Fiction’ author David Lodge asks:

‘When does a novel begin? The question is almost as difficult to answer as the question, when does the human embryo become a person? Certainly the creation of a novel rarely begins with the penning or typing of its first words. Most writers do some preliminary work, if it is only in their heads. Many prepare the ground carefully over weeks or months, making diagrams of the plot, compiling c.v.s for their characters, filling a notebook with ideas, settings, situations, jokes, to be drawn on in the process of composition. Every writer has his or her own way of working.

Hope you find this post useful. Let me know in the comments if there’s something you’d like to add about your own experience of writing a story beginning.

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How to Turn Towards Your Inner Critic

man wearing brown suit jacket mocking on white telephone

It is essential to separate the creator and the editor, or inner critic when you practice writing, so that the creator has plenty of room to breathe, experiment, and tell it like it really is.  If the inner critic is being too much of a problem and you can’t distinguish it from your authentic writing voice, sit down whenever you find it necessary to have some distance from it and put down on paper what the critic is saying, put a spotlight on the words—“You have nothing original to say, what made you think you could write anything anyone would want to read, your writing is crap, you’re a loser, I’m humiliated, you write a load of rubbish, your work is pathetic, and your grammar stinks …”  On and on it goes!

Say to yourself, It’s OK to feel this.  It’s OK to be open to this.

You can learn to cultivate compassion for yourself  during this internal process by practicing Mindfulness Meditation.  Sit up straight, close your eyes, bring your awareness to your inner experience.  Now,  redirect your attention to the physical sensations of the breath in the abdomen … expanding as the breath comes in … and falling back as the breath goes out.  Use each breath to anchor yourself in the present.   Continue, concentrating on the breath for several minutes.  Now, expand your field of awareness to include the words of the inner critic.  Turn your attention to where in your body you feel the unpleasant thoughts, so you can attend, moment by moment, to the physical reactions to your thoughts.

 “Stay with the bodily sensations, accepting them, letting them be, exploring them without judgment as best you can.”—Mindfulness, Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

Every time you realise that you’re judging yourself, that realisation in itself is an indicator that you’re becoming more aware.

The thing is, the more clearly you know yourself, the more you can accept the critic in you and use it.  If the voice says, “You have nothing interesting to say,” hear the words as white noise, like the churning of a washing machine.  It will change to another cycle and eventually end, just like your thoughts that come and go like aeroplanes in the sky.  But, in the meantime, you return to your notebook and practice your writing.  You put the fear and the resistance down on the page.

Every Type of Feedback and Criticism Writers Will Face (and How to Deal With Them)

Check out this post from the Novelty Revisions blog on ‘Every Type of Feedback and Criticism Writers Will Face (and how to deal with them).

Novelty Revisions

Most writers cringe at the idea of criticism. Yet they desperately crave feedback.

Some feel they need to hear they are doing something right. Others want to know everything they are doing wrong, so they can go off and figure out how to do better.

It’s a tough part of the process to navigate. But if you know the different types of feedback you are likely to receive once you start putting yourself out there, you’ll be much more equipped to deal with it. So here’s your not-so-quick guide to handling feedback and criticism in publishing.

Helpful, gentle, constructive feedback

This is the kind of criticism everyone hopes for but doesn’t get from everyone (or anyone). It generally involves a healthy balance of helpful feedback that is presented in a kind and teachable manner, both in its positive and negative aspects.

In one of my writing internships in college, we…

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You Are Not the Stories You Tell

woman reading book

Sometimes when people read my stories they assume those stories are me.  They are not me, even if I write in the first person.  They were my thoughts and feelings at the time I wrote them.  But every minute we are all changing.  There is a great freedom in this.  At any time we can let go of our old selves and start again.  This is the writing process.  Instead of blocking us, it gives us permission to move on.  Just like in a progressive ballroom dance:  you give your undivided attention to your partner—keep eye contact for the time you are dancing together—but then you move on to the next person in the circle.

The ability to express yourself on the page—to write how you feel about an old lover, a favourite pair of dance shoes, or the memory of a dance on a chilly winter’s night in the Southern Highlands—that moment you can support how you feel inside with what you say on the page.  You experience a great freedom because you are not suppressing those feelings.  You have accepted them, aligned yourself with them.

I have a poem titled ‘This is what it feels like’—it’s a short poem.  I always think of it with gratitude  because I was able to write in a powerful way how it was to be desperate and frightened.  The act of self expression made me feel less of a victim.  But when people read it they often say nothing.  I remind myself, I am not the poem, I am not the stories I write.  People react from where they are in their own lives.  That’s the way things are.  The strength is in the act of writing, of putting pen to paper.   Write your stories and poems, show them to the world, then move on.  The stories are not you.  They are moments in time that pass through you.

What Are the Microflix Writers Awards?

red-headed author Libby Sommer signing one of her books

I am delighted to say that my micro-fiction ‘In the Mall’ has been selected as an entry in the Microflix Writers Awards. Halleluja. I’ll find out in August if my story is chosen by filmmakers for adaptation to a short film for the 2019 Microflix Awards. My microlit on the theme of SOUND is available to view on the Microflix SOUND extracts page on the website of Australian short story publisher, Spineless Wonders.

Spineless Wonders 2019 Microflix Writers Awards

The Microflix Awards offered each year aim to reward and value the roles of both the author and the filmmaker in the adaptation process. For this reason we offer both the Microflix Film Awards and the Microflix Author Awards.

The Microflix Writers Awards consists of a $500 cash prize for Best Writing as well as range of prizes such as discounts on writers’ centre memberships and other resources for writers as well as book packages for Highly Recommended and Recommended Writers.

Our panel of jurists will select winners of the Microflix Writers Awards from the pool of finalist films screened at the Microflix Festival.

 

The theme for 2019 is SOUND.

This year, Microflix invites authors to submit microlit texts on the theme of SOUND for adaptation by filmmakers. The texts submitted will be reviewed by microlit specialist and Spineless Wonders’ editor Associate Professor Cassandra Atherton. Submissions will be accepted until 30 April and those selected by Cassandra will be included in the 2019 SOUND Texts section on this website.

Exploring the theme of SOUND

We are looking for prose pieces suitable for film adaptation which riff on the theme of sound. You may wish to reflect on the soundtracks of your life – be that songs and music or sounds from the built environment or the natural world. Your submission may reflect on the absence of sound or it may take us into a world without music. Your approach may be playful, witty, political, philosophical or all of the above.

 

My fingers are crossed.

 

Should You Plot Or Not?

man with hand on temple looking at laptop

Plot means the story line.  When people talk about plotting, they mostly mean how to set up the situation, where to put the turning points, and what the characters will be doing in the end.  What happens.

Some fiction writers write organically, not knowing where the story they are writing is going.  These writers say it would be boring to know what’s going to happen next and they lose their enthusiasm to tell the story because they know the outcome already.  They prefer throwing themselves over the edge and into the void.  This method can be very anxiety-producing.  It means you need a lot of faith in your process.

Other writers plan the story before they begin.  In detective fiction the story definitely needs to be worked out beforehand so information can be drip-fed to the reader.

In the past, when creating my short stories, I have worked organically and not known where my stories were headed as I wrote them.  The shorter the piece of fiction, the less need for plot.  You can write an interesting story in which not very much happens.  A woman fights with her neighbour, a man quits his job, or an unhappy family goes out for a pizza.  Simple structures work better than something too complicated when the story is short.

“A plot can, like a journey, begin with a single step.   A woman making up her mind to recover her father’s oil paintings may be enough to start.  The journey begins there, as it did for Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishmentwhen he decided to commit his crime,”  Jerome Stern Making Shapely Fiction

The plot grows and develops out of what helps and what hinders the characters’ progress toward their goals.

The Writers’ Workshop   http://www.writersworkshop.co.uk/plot2.html  ask:

  • But how do you know if your draft plot has the right amount of weight to carry an entire novel?
  • What kind of structures work?
  • Is there a quick way to design your own plot template?
  • And how do you handle a book with multiple points of view?

“A good plot has a clear motivation.  It has a clear structure.  It has an outcome.  It has subplots.  A good plot looks something like the plot structure template below,” The Writers’ Workshop.

 

Motivation Lizzie Bennett wants to marry for love
Plot structure She meets Darcy & Wickham. She dislikes Darcy, and starts to fall for Wickham. Wickham turns out to be a bad guy; Darcy turns out to be a good guy. She now loves Darcy.
Outcome She marries Darcy
Subplot 1 Jane Bennett (Lizzie’s nice sister) loves Bingley. Bingley vanishes. He reappears. They get hitched.
Subplot 2 Lydia Bennett (Lizzie’s idiot sister) elopes with Wickham. She’s recovered.
Subplot 3 An idiot, Mr Collins, proposes marriage to Lizzie. She says no. Her friend, Charlotte, says yes.

Of course, there are a lot of things that the above plot template doesn’t tell you.  It doesn’t say where the novel is set, it doesn’t tell you anything about plot mechanics – it doesn’t say why Lizzie dislikes Mr Darcy, or how Lydia is recovered from her elopement.  It doesn’t have anything to say about character.

The Writers’ Workshop strongly advises us to build a template much like the one above before starting to write:  If you’ve already started your MS then, for heaven’s sake, get to that template right away.

So all we need is  a beginning, a middle and an end.  Aristotle defined it like this:  A beginning is what requires nothing to precede it, an end is what requires nothing to follow it, and a middle needs something both before and after it.

Easy peasy.  Not.

What about you?  Do you plot or write organically?  I’d love to hear what works for you and what sends you straight to the Writers’ Block Corner.

What Is A Prose Poem?

 

Launchmereading

The Poetry Foundation describes a prose poem as a prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols,metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry.

I’m thrilled to tell you that my latest prose poem, TASTE is published in this month’s Quadrant magazine.

green and white cover of Quadrant magazine May 2019

 

TASTE

I rather like poems about minor calamities, bursts of tiny delights, the sun warming the tender skin of the elderly. Also, the way palm fronds conduct themselves during a southerly, dishevelled, exposing the softness of their billowing arms. Pastries in display cases do something for me too. Even cupcakes iced in gelato colours, adorned with miniature decorations … Can you see my preference for the words ‘miniature’ and ‘tiny’, an inclination towards the distilled in a world favouring often the big and the overwhelming? People with the patience to follow a complex recipe – well, that’s not me, but I like to taste what they cook.  Babies in prams kicking chubby legs make me hover – how difficult not to take a bite. If you write something about a paper straw, I will be fascinated. You could try a ladybird, a pocket-size umbrella. The generalised angst of the human condition, however, may be hard for me to get a handle on.  Watch that man with the disabled daughter moisten his finger after her cupcake is eaten and relish the last crumbs. Consider the rainbow-coloured wristband tied to a letterbox on the way to the park or the miniature plastic bucket and spade we found half-hidden on the beach at Bronte and packed with us for years on every visit to the sea.

First published in Quadrant.

Copyright © Libby Sommer

A big thank you to Literary Editor, Professor Barry Spurr (Australia’s first Professor of Poetry) for accepting my poem. I am honored to be included alongside talented poets Geoff Page, Sean Wayman, Jane Blanchard, Nicholas Hasluck, James Curran, Mark O’Connor and Peach Klimkiewicz.