Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines

When I first starting writing with the hope of publication I committed the same silly sins every new writer commits. Well, they aren't actually sins, are they? I made the same mistakes. Did the same no-nos. If you are a new writer (under two years, I'd say) you have, or will, or do the same less-than-effective things, I'm sure.

A great little book for brand spanking new writers is The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) by Jack M. Bickham. It is also great for review because, face it: those of us who are not brand new to writing continue to make our favorite mistakes year after year.

One that I'm learning to recognize and avoid is covered in chapter 5 "Don't Warm Up Your Engines." Bickham sums it up by saying "Every good story starts at a moment of threat." (page 11) "Start the story with the first sentence!" he says. Then he offers three suggestions for implementing that idea.

(1) Don't stop the story to describe something. Anytime you do (even at the beginning) you have stopped. Period. How can the story start if you have stopped it?

(2) Fiction moves forward, not backward. Start the story with action that is moving forward, not with back story that is looking backward. Have you ever tried to drive a car forward while looking over your shoulder?

(3) Good fiction starts with someone's response to some kind of threat or change in the MCs world. Bickham says change is where the story starts. Then, great fiction shows us how the MC reacts, responds, implements, fights, or surrenders to change.

I know with my learning novel (the one I've been writing on and off for five years!!!) I wrote 10-15 pages of story that I needed to know in order to start the story. I've written character descriptions, chapter outlines and summaries, geographic details. I've drawn a map of the little town my characters occupy. That's all stuff I really need to know to make the story world realistic. But my readers don't want to read all of that stuff. It took me a while to learn that truth.

Readers want the story. That's all. They don't want all the stuff I have in my head and my file cabinet. They want story. Action. Change. Tension. Release.

Bickham suggests that we writers make a list of ten times in our lives when we felt most scared or worried. Then make a list of ten changes that we think might make good opening threats for stories. Then use these two lists to jump start a story, OR, to give yourself a big push out of the mud when a story is bogging down.

Here is the list I wrote from my own life experiences:

snakebite while walking with my sister to the store
second grade & problems at home
a man pointing a loaded gun in my face
our son's cancer
my husband's near death coma from low blood sugar
irate mother in my office threatening my family
my pet dog dying
trusted pastor and boss embezzling our church
snake coiled around legs of the stool my sister was sitting on
swarm of hornets attacking our sons
our son being burned in a cloud of gas fumes while burning trash
our adult son's tour in Iraq

And here is my feeble attempt (5 years ago) at good opening threats:

relocating to new town/school
parents separating
grandparent dying
best friend moving away
best friend dying
mother going back to college
parent in auto accident
friend or sibling drowns
house fire

Hey, I had forgotten about these lists. Several new stories are brewing away in my head already.

Why don't you try this exercise. Be sure to keep the list so you can review it when you get stuck in a story.

It's working for me.

Thanks, Mr. Bickham.

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