Tag Archives: story

Beginnings for Beginners

I am a literary hobo. I panhandle my way through the library, I paw through the dumpsters of remaindered books at Barnes and Noble, I shop the discarded treasures at the local Goodwill.

And, of course, because I can often pick them up for cheap or free I read self-published stories.

There’s a lot of good out there in the self-publishing world. It’s true that there’s more bad stuff than good stuff, but on the whole I haven’t had difficulty finding compelling books that were competently edited and reasonably well-written.


When reading self-published books I’m aware that what I’m seeing many times is the work of someone new to the writing scene. Someone who is still polishing their craft, who hasn’t had access to the professional feedback the “real” writers get. (This is another blog post all on it’s own, but make sure you’re getting someone who knows what they’re talking about and isn’t afraid of hurting your feelings to read your stuff and give feedback before you hit “publish”. Listen to what they say. It will make a world of difference.)

And in reading these stories there’s one thing that I’ve noticed many new writers have a hard time getting right. The beginning.

See, beginnings are important and difficult things. Actually stories are important and difficult things, but I’ve only got a few hundred words here so lets focus our attention shall we?

Beginnings have to do a lot of work. They have to introduce the main characters, they have to set up the story world, they have to set the tone of the story.

And most people get that stuff right. Even the beginning writers I’ve seen faltering at this, usually understand the basics of setting up the story. But the problem is that beginnings have to do more than just set things up. They have to set the hook.


A good opening scene makes the reader ask a question. It doesn’t really matter that the question is. It could be, “Why does a fifteen-year-old girl have a unicorn in her room?” or “Why is a cyborg fighting through a horde of aliens with a paper heart stapled to his chest?”

That advice you’ve heard about opening your story in the middle of the action? It’s fine to do that —though I would argue not completely necessary— but the action can’t just be there to look pretty; it has to plant a question in the reader’s mind.

Note however that the opening scene shouldn’t do the asking directly. You drop a line like, “So, have you noticed that John disappears every month around the time of the full moon? Wonder what that’s about.” and you’ve just lost about half of your readers.

Instead, the opening scene insinuates the question into the reader’s mind. It makes him believe that he came up with the question all on his own. And that makes him care about the answer. That’s why this moment is so important. Because that question is what is going to pull your reader further into the story looking for answers.

Of course the question and answer cycle doesn’t end at the opening scene. The beginning is just…well the beginning. Making your readers keep turning the pages looking for answers is what drives good fiction forward. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: in the end, all good stories are mysteries.

So take a look at your opening scene. Be sure it’s going to make the reader ask the question you want him to ask.

Because the reader will ask a question. Your job is to make sure that question isn’t, “Why am I reading this?”

Coming Soon: Sons of the Damned

Life in a small town sucks no matter who you are. But for Vinny, grossly overweight and chronically underemployed loser, it sucks harder than a souped up Hoover.

But as bad as Vinny thinks he has it things are about to get a whole lot worse. Because the one friend he has in the world, the excesively paranoid and possibly crazy Regis Emanuel Lightbringer Camden (or Frog to his friends), has just started acting even stranger than usual.

And when Frog disappears in a set of bizzare circumstances Vinny finds himself thrust into a labyrinth of sinister characters and unearthly forces, caught up in a struggle he can’t begin to understand. If he’s going to survive Vinny will have to overcome the fear and self-doubt that have followed him all of his life. And if he’s going to save his friend, he just might have to save the world in the process.

So this is it. I’ve been working on the upcoming serial “Frog Got Bit” (now officially titled Sons of the Damned) for the past few weeks and I think I’ve got a handle on the shape, tone, and theme of the story. Which means that next week I’m going to take the plunge. The first chapter will be posted on Tuesday, May 8. Mark your calendars.

I’m excited about this one, guys. I’m really thrilled with how Frog and Vinny have manifested themselves as characters and I hope you’ll enjoy their journey as much as I am.

Stay tuned…

A Little Less Talk, and a Lot More Action

You know the greatest thing about being a writer? I mean other than the unbelievable fame and fortune. The greatest thing about being a writer is the fact that you get to look back at the stories of your past and say, “You know, I wish I could go back and fix that.” And then you can actually go back and fix it.

So over the last couple of days, I’ve been going back over my very first book, Ella Eris and the Pirates of Redemption, trying to see how much of it is salvageable. I started by making an outline of the story as it is currently written, a step recommended by Chuck Wendig in his recent post about editing, and…well, let’s just say breaking down  the story into its component pieces reveals more about my past writer self than I really wanted to know.

Because you know what I’ve realized? The characters in my story won’t shut up. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with dialogue, I’m all for that, but it really hit me when I was outlining upwards of three scenes in a row of “Ella goes and talks to Character X” that maybe it would be good if I had something actually happen in my book.

Not that there isn’t any action, but the outline made me realize that it wasn’t evenly spaced, and that there were large chunks of the text that served no purpose in the actual story. But back in the day I didn’t understand the proper ebb and flow of action in the story. I was so focused on getting the words right, but I failed to make the story right.

It’s an important distinction to make. If you’re a beginning writer, then chances are you’re in love with words, with the sounds they make in your head and the way they fit together. And you’ve probably picked up some bestseller or another, leafed through the first few pages and said to yourself, “I can write better than this.” And you may not believe this but, you’re probably right.

But fancy writing does not make for a bestselling book. Not that there’s anything wrong with fancy writing, but if there is anything that reading Michael Connelly has taught me it is that knowing how to tell a story well, is far more important than knowing how to construct a sentence that will make the angels weep with envy.

In my case the structure of my story is all wonky, and the pacing is terrible. Whole chapters turned out to be completely unimportant, and whole new chapters need to be written (hopefully with the characters doing more than just talking).

It took me five years to figure this out. I’m writing this blog post so maybe it won’t take five years for you to figure out what’s wrong with your story.

You’re good with words? Great. But don’t forget that words are just icing. You have to have a cake to spread them on.

This is my appeal to you: learn at least a little about structure, about the way scenes of action follow scenes of contemplation and vice versa. Learn about building tension. Learn about story.

Because that’s the stuff that really matters.

The Top Secret Guide to Storytelling

Once upon a time I used to have way more free time. Back before I grew up, got a job, and got into this writing thing, I had to look around and try to find things to keep me occupied.

I’m kinda hating the former me, just thinking about it.

Anyway, one of the things I used to do to flush my valuable time down the toilet was to watch the directors commentaries on DVDs. I don’t know what it was that compelled me to do this. On the whole listening to directors commentaries is about as interesting as watching paint dry. But one of them taught me something that has stuck with me to this very day.

It was the commentary for Top Secret that unveiled this incredible revelation. If you’ve never heard of Top Secret it’s a comedy made by the same guy who made Airplane If you’ve never heard of Airplane then you’re dead to me.

The guys on the commentary were talking about what made Airplaine such a success and what it was about Top Secret that had resulted in its relative failure. Now keep in mind that Airplane and Top Secret are both off-the-wall joke-a-minute comedies. Their worlds are completely nonsensical constructs that allow for the most bizzare situations imaginable to pass unremarked upon by the rest of the characters in the world.

So what was the difference between Airplane and Top Secret? Where the jokes funnier in Airplane? Did it have a better production value?

According to the directors it was none of these things. The thing that made Airplane a better film than Top Secret was story.

“Story?” you ask. “That’s the crucial element? In an unbelievably off the wall movie like Airplane? Surely you’re joking!”

I’m not joking. And don’t call me Shirley.

See, Top Secret had some semblance of setting and there were tons of jokes, but there was nothing memorable about the characters, and no real sense of what they were trying to accomplish.

Conversely in Airplane, we know exactly who the characters are and what they’re trying to accomplish. The former pilot with a fear a flying has to fly a plane with hundreds of sick passengers and his stewardess ex-girlfriend on board and land it safely.

It’s not an original story by any means. In fact it was based scene for scene off of another movie, and even stole some of its dialogue. It doesn’t even come close to taking the story seriously. But the story is there.

And even back then, when being a writer was the farthest thing from my mind, I latched on to that concept.

Story matters.

Special effects, fancy writing style, bizzare characters, none of those things come close to being as important as story. It doesn’t even have to be an original story. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you’re never going to write a completely original story.

Characters are not stories. Worlds are not stories. Concepts are not stories.

Nothing wrong with those things, but they can’t be central in your mind. Got a great idea for a surreal world, filled with fantastic creatures, where logic works differently, and everyone eats cupcakes? Good. Now push all that to the back of your mind, and figure out the story.

In the end, it’s the only thing that matters.


I realize I’ve been somewhat vague about this idea of the “story.” If you’re interested in specifics I recommend you check out Kristen Lamb’s Blog. When she isn’t preaching the gospel of social media she has great posts detailing how to craft a story that works.

The Soul of the Story [Guest Post by Don Whittington]

[Today I’ve got something super special for you guys. I’m all psyched up about it. I’m doing my little jumping up and down dance that always drives my dog crazy. That’s how excited I am.

Why am I so excited? Because today it is my pleasure to present to you a guest post by one of my favourite bloggers ever. Don Whittington writes The Automat, a breathtaking blog about art and life. If you haven’t heard of The Automat, you’re not alone. In my opinion, Don’s work is criminally under-appreciated. Seriously. Someone should go to jail. If you like art even a tiny little bit you should go and check out his blog. But first, read this.]

Albert asked if I would do a guest spot here, and I admit that I am somewhat reluctant to write about writing. Part of what I believe to be wrong with the current state of fiction is that so many people are writing about writing they never get around to writing a decent story. But equally, I know from having been a beginner myself once upon a time, there are certain questions that never get answered, and if someone would just answer them for you, you could get better.

I am going to answer them for you. Sort of.

Myth number one: Writing must be good to sell well.

Are you kidding me? We have all read best-selling books filled with ham-handed sentence constructions, grammatical errors, misspellings, and glaring errors of fact. It should be apparent to anyone not born this morning that good writing is not the issue. The fact is, your use of language can be perfect and the world will yawn. Your plot construction can be a masterpiece of scene and sequel and everyone will ignore you at once and with spectacular harmony. This happens when you suffer from SPW: Shitty, Pretty Writing. You are reading SPW when everything seems extraordinarily well written, but you are still bored out of your mind. Most people, once aware of it, can get beyond this stage and conquer SPW, but sadly, some never do.

Language is important; language is integral to how your story functions even as your car’s parts contribute to its handling on the road. But people don’t buy fuel injectors, they buy Porsches. Here are things no editor cares about: “I wrote 3,000 words today!” “I have fifteen Chapters!” “I wrote a great log line!” “I framed my outline and hung it on the wall!” Here is what they do care about: “My protagonist is in so much trouble.” “That choice has destroyed her marriage.” “I killed my child!” “Timmy fell down the well.”

Story, story, story, story, story…(repeat 3,000 times and say, “I wrote 3,000 words today!”)

You’ve written 110,000 words but do you have a story? A real story and not some mood flecked throwaway crap destined for the mountain of forgotten New Yorker pseudo-intellectual-paeans-to-solipsistic-omphaloskepsis. Here’s how you tell.

Drum roll:

A real story can only occur when characters, about whom the reader has come to care, experience change or growth.

High hat!

I made that up years ago and it borrows heavily from everything everybody else made up before me, which is to say, I may well have stolen it. Hope so. It works.

Other things matter in that they help satisfy these conditions. Drama occurs when good people make bad choices. Pinocchio is like a little lesson in how to tell a story. He makes the wrong choice again and again and again. But a bad choice is not enough by itself. Something has to be at stake. Pinocchio can only redeem himself if he saves his father who is about to die because of Pinocchio’s poor choice.

Other details should be seen to. Does your protagonist have obstacles appropriate for his challenge?

John wanted pickles with his sandwich, but he knew that if he opened the jar, the dragon would devour his neighbor, Mrs. Jennison. “You can live without a pickle, John,” said his practical yet secretly tormented and surprisingly stunning wife Jane. “Never. I need only fashion a spiny armor from these bits of artichoke…”

In writing classes people practice exercises in which they ask the “What if?” question to arrive at story ideas. This is a great exercise, but remember to follow it up with the “So what?” question.

“What if everyone in the world suddenly had good breath?”

Remember that a story does not have to be complicated to enthrall. It simply has to be honest and effective. You get your readers to care about your character by caring yourself, as the writer. But readers have expectations. If your character suddenly steps out of character because that’s how you outlined the story, your reader will drop you in a heartbeat. People are subject to cause and effect, just as things are. During the telling of your story, you have probably rendered your outline obsolete. When characters begin to live, they sometimes do things you didn’t expect or want. Tough. That’s the briar patch we all want to be thrown into. Send your outline to sit in the corner with the people who count “was’s” and “POV” slips. Meanwhile, you follow your now grown-up, three-dimensional character who is changing the world, baby.

Don’t get too worried about how complicated your story is. That is a plot question, and those bits of business are plot points. Plot serves story, but it is not story by itself. People are stories. Plots don’t buy books, people do. (Though people also sometimes buy plots for when they’re done being people, but that’s another story.) Anyway, complications are not that important. At the end of the day, the vast majority of stories can be ground down to three types:

Kicking someone’s ass.

Winning someone’s heart.

Living with the consequences of having failed to kick someone’s ass and/or win their heart.

Simplistic? You bet, and thank God, because deep down we writers often are just not very smart.

Myth number 2.

Myth number 2 is that when you start out numbering things there have to be others.

[My thanks to Don for so graciously writing this post. And if you’re too lazy to scroll up to the top of the page to click the link to his blog, here it is again. Go. Read. You will be amazed.]

On the Imprisonment of Ideas

I knew what I was going to write this blog about. I swear I did. It was in my head clear as a bell yesterday afternoon. It was a good blog post too. Seriously, you have no idea what you’re missing.

But instead you’re reading this. Why? Because I woke up this morning and I couldn’t remember it. I sat around for a while waiting for it to come back. I read some other blogs thinking I might find some trigger for my messed up memory. But I ended up with nuthin’. Nada. Blog idea to the zeroth power.

I’m not the only one either. Some of you have commented here in the past and said, “So Albert, I’m trying to do this blog thing, and I have all these great ideas, only when I get back to my computer I can’t seem to remember any of them.” I think I had some advice for you at the time. Maybe it could help me out too. What was it again? Oh, yeah.


Ideas are everywhere. In the store, at your house, sometimes you’ll even hit one when you’re driving down the road. They make an awful splatter don’t they?

But ideas are visitors. They don’t tend to hang around forever. You need to capture them, drag them flapping and screaming out of your head and cage them up in a place where you can come back to them later.

For a long time I used a small notebook for this. It was something small that I could keep in my back pocket with a stub of a pencil and whenever I had an idea for a story or a blog post or whatever I could take a minute to jot it down.

Lately though I’ve been tinkering with a tool called Evernote. Evernote is a program that works just like a notebook, and the cool part about it is, it syncs to the internet from both my phone and my computer so I can access it wherever I’m at.

Of course it doesn’t work if I don’t use it.

Ideas are the most valuable things we have. Why? Because they’re unique and special to us. If we leave them lying around in our brains they’re liable to get lost.

So that story idea you had about the space alien who goes into business as a landscape artist? Write it down. That totally awesome title for a story you haven’t written yet? Write it down. That plan for vanquishing disease and solving world hunger? WRITE IT DOWN.

Otherwise one day you’ll end up like me, writing a blog post to remind yourself to write your blog post ideas down. And that’s just meta.