Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Where to start? And a sneak preview.

As I embark on my next writing project, there's always the question of where to start.

Books need a strong first chapter, something very few authors can get right on the first try. I need to portray the goals, the motivation, and the conflict - something that will immediately invest the reader into the pages that follow. Too often, I start with backstory, which is ALWAYS a problem. Nothing like getting my feet stuck in the mud with details that would be better filtered in along the way at more relevant junctures.

As I started off, I wanted to set the mood. Show what my hero was up against. And then I realized it was very similar to the beginning of another book, but not as immediate. So while my hero was stewing along the road ahead of him, I ran into "who cares" territory. The action comes in at the end of the chapter, but I slogged through a thousand words to get there. On the plus side, I didn't drown in backstory. On the minus side, it's still boring.

Finding the right balance is a challenge on the best of days, and every time I begin a new book, I understand that the first chapter is going to take a couple of tries before I get it right. What is the right starting point? I need an inciting incident. I have that. I need conflict. I have that. But the other thing I need to do is invest the reader in my characters. What about them is likable? What about them turns a reader off?

Over the past year, I've had the privilege to judge two writing contests. In case I didn't read enough already, it forced me to get through several books in a short time frame. As a writer, we also need to read, not just for enjoyment, but also to see what works for me as a reader and what doesn't. Sometimes an author provides a brilliant illustration of what to do right--and also what to do wrong. For instance, I read one book that got hung up in the character's occupation. For the first half of the book, we walked in her shoes, saw what she had to do, watched her do it while also juggling her home life. That would have been fine if I wanted a book on that particular occupation, but this was supposed to be fiction, and while she had a goal, she had no motivation and no conflict for the whole first half of the book. The blurb on the back told a story that was absent for that first half. Lesson: Let the reader know what this story is about right away.

Which brings me back to the proverbial square one, looking for the right place to start my new story. I'm close, but it needs some refining.

In the meantime, let me take this opportunity to let you know the next book in the Hillendale series, THE HIDDEN GRIMOIRE is done and will be on sale August 11 and is available for preorder now. Here's a look at the cover!

And here's a snippet to whet your appetite:

Someone pounded on the door and my heart jumped in response. “Who in the world…?” I rose to answer and was surprised to see my cousin standing on the doorstep. Although I hadn’t seen him in more than five years, I recognized his mother’s blonde hair and his father’s dark blue eyes. “Jason?”

Nora hovered at my shoulder.

“Good. You’re both here,” he said, barging inside.

I didn’t remember him as rude, but there wasn’t much I did know about him. “I didn’t realize you knew where I lived.”

“Jeannine told me.” He glared at Nora, and then at me.

His sister, Jeannine, and I had reconnected on amicable terms. Jason’s attitude indicated he wasn’t interested in being friendly. What could Nora and I possibly have done to warrant such animosity? Then again, his parents hadn’t spared much love for me despite taking me in after my own parents had died.

I fought to find my manners, even if he seemed to have lost his. “Nora, this is Jason Hanson. Uncle Jerome and Aunt Theresa’s son.”

Her voice was subdued. “So I gathered. How lovely to meet you, Jason.”

He leaned toward her, shaking a finger. “I know all about you. Stay away from me and my family. Both of you.”


  1. I know a writer who will spend weeks or longer on Chapter 1. She can't move forward until she has it "right." From what I've learned, the story has to start with action. Something has to be happening. One of my instructors preached against opening with the character alone with his/her thoughts, especially driving in a car.
    Me ... my first attempt at writing did him one better. My character was home folding laundry! Now that's some exciting action.
    As I've grown, I've found I need to cut less and less to find where the book should start. Early on, I was getting rid of eight chapters in search of that sweet spot.

    1. That’s a lotsa chapters to scrap!

    2. They weren't all scrapped; just stuck in where they belonged (and usually much more condensed.)