Punctuating Dialogue

If there had been one grammar rule I wish I would have learned earlier on in my writing career, it would have been to learn how to punctuate dialogue. Where it’s possible to pick up many grammar rules without thinking about it, dialogue punctuation tends to be one of those unnoticed things that can then become very annoying to fix after the fact (especially if you’re a naturally dialogue-heavy writer as I’ve always been).

So, when writing dialogue, keep in mind:

1. Each speaker gets a new line.

This rule is simply to make it easier for the reader to see who is saying what. Every time you change a speaker, you will want to move to a new paragraph, e.g.

“Hi,” Sally said.
“What’s up?” Jane asked.
Sally shrugged. “Not much.”

“Hi,” Sally said. “What’s up?” Jane asked. Sally shrugged. “Not much.”

Source: writersdock.com

Source: writersdock.com

2. Both tags and beats can be used to mark who is speaking, but they are punctuated differently.

Simply put, a tag is something connected to dialogue that is specifically how the line is said (e.g. said, asked, yelled, whispered…) and a beat (sometimes called an “action tag”) is an action that is taking place while/closely to when the line is spoken).

If you are using a tag, the tag will be treated as part of the same sentence as the dialogue and thus connected with a comma and followed by a lowercase letter (if the first word of the tag does not include a proper noun such as a name). e.g.:

“Hi,” she said.
“Howdy,” he shouted.

“Hi.” She said.
“Howdy.” He shouted.

If you are using a beat, however, the beat will be treated as a separate sentence and thus be separated from the dialogue with a period. The first word of the beat will be capitalized, no matter what word, much like any other sentence. e.g.:

“Hi.” She waved.
“Howdy.” He walked into the entryway.

“Hi,” she waved.
“Howdy,” he walked into the entryway.

Note 1: Special punctuation, such as a question mark or an exclamation point, follows the same general rule with tags/beats, acting like a comma with a tag or a period with a beat when it comes to capitalization. e.g.

“Who is she?” he asked. (tag)
“She who?” She looked around. (beat)

“Who is she?” He asked. (tag)
“She who?” she looked around. (beat)

Note 2: The first word inside quotation marks is always capitalized, whether it is preceded by a tag or a beat. See second example in point three.

3. A tag or beat can be used at any point in a line of dialogue.

It is possible to put a tag or beat ahead of dialogue, at the end, or even in the middle. e.g.

“Hi, Jane. When did you get here?” she said.
She said, “Hi, Jane. When did you get here?”
“Hi, Jane,” she said. “When did you get here?”

As long as it’s the same speaker, the dialogue remains on the same line no matter where the tag/beat falls. This, once again, comes down to readability. If dialogue begins to be separated from tags/beats, it can become confusing. For example, if you have:

“Hi, Jane,” she said.
“When did you get here?”

It will likely look like a new speaker (perhaps Jane replying) is saying “When did you get here?” rather than “she” continuing her line.

Note: If a line of dialogue goes on for several sentences, it is generally best to move a tag to either the start of the line or after the first or second sentence so the reader doesn’t have to get to the end of the line and then go back to attribute the line to the proper speaker.

4. If you only have two speakers going back and forth, you can drop some tags altogether.

Sometimes, if you only have two speakers in a scene, it is possible to have lines of dialogue with no tags or beats at all. For example:

“Hey,” Sally said.
“Hey.” Jane waved as she walked into the room.
“Are you staying for dinner?”
“I don’t know yet.”
“Oh.” Sally frowned. “Let me know when you do?”

As there are only Sally and Jane in the scene, even though there is no tag/beat on lines three and four, the reader can assume that Sally asks another question and then Jane answers once again. Again, though, readability trumps all. You want to be careful that you don’t go for too long a stretch with no tags–as a reader might get lost as to who was speaking what line and have to backtrack to the beginning of the conversation to figure it out–and you likely don’t want to drop may tags if you have more than two people in a conversation–as you don’t want the reader to have to struggle to figure out if it is Sally, Jane, Tom, or Steve who answered the previous line.

When dropping tags, you also want to be careful that you don’t end up with talking heads–that is, so many lines with no tags (or only quick “said” tags) that the characters are no longer grounded to the scene. Dialogue should be able to carry a lot of emotion, but don’t forget to put in tone of voice or body language when needed–or show how a character is moving around in general–or it can quickly become like reading a script without actors to deliver the lines.

All in all, when writing dialogue, making it simple for the reader to keep track of who is saying what is the most important thing. There is nothing quite like having to jump away from a line of dialogue to find out who speaking (or having to go back to re-attribute a line to a different speaker) to take a reader out of a flow of conversation. After all, in writing prose, the author needs to provide both the lines and actors–if you prefer just dialogue, consider if your story might be better off as a play.

Chapter Length

This blog post comes by request: “I currently have a chapter that is only about seven sentences. Is that too short? How many words do there need to be to make a chapter a chapter?

The simple answer to those question would be: “No, that’s not too short” and “One, if that” but let’s dig into that a little further.

When it comes to chapter breaks, there aren’t any true rules. They can be as long or short as you want. In fact, you don’t even have to have chapters if you don’t wish to. It all comes down to what is right for your manuscript.

FullSizeRender (1)

In my own writing, I don’t bother with chapter breaks in my first draft. Since I tend to write out of order, it doesn’t make much sense to try to put them in on the first go around. Even if I am writing in order, I know enough will likely change come edits that entire chapters might go after the fact (In my latest novel, Raining Embers, what would have originally been the first three chapters were condensed to one, for example). Because of those overhauls, I personally just put in scene breaks when originally writing. Once I have a somewhat solid draft, I then go in and find scene breaks that work well as chapter breaks each about ten pages from the last.

Personally, I stick to relatively even chapters. Chapters, after all, are there to give readers periodic breaks. How you chose to do place your breaks, however, can affect your manuscripts quite a bit.

  • Steady, even chapters. My personal choice, mostly because even chapters of medium length (generally around 2,000 – 4,000 words or so) tend to draw the least amount of attention to themselves. Readers expect to find chapters, and quickly fall into a rhythm, so tend to read the story without too much thought given to the chapters. If you don’t want much attention drawn to chapter breaks, try this method.
  • Quick chapters. Quick chapters (generally under 2,000 words or so. Sometimes much shorter) are great for keeping pacing up. Thrillers and horror novels often keep their chapters on the shorter side of things to keep readers feeling like they’re flying through the action. Sometimes chapters will drop down to only a couple of pages (or even less) to achieve that goal. When mixed with medium-length or long chapters, they can also be used draw attention to something strange or especially shocking. If you want a sudden impact, a very short chapter in the middle of long and/or steady ones can be very effective. Note: Because it is shocking, however, use with caution. You will be drawing the reader’s attention to the chapter break along with the narrative which can backfire if not done well.
  • Long chapters. Long chapters (over 4,000 words or so. Sometimes much longer) tend to have the opposite effect of short ones. The reader gets a grand, sweeping sensation that often suits grandiose scenes or narratives. When mixed with shorter chapters, long chapters can also give a feel of a “continuous take” camera shot in a movie, where there’s not meant to be any sort of break in the action/visual for thematic reasons. Less shocking than a quick chapter in the middle of longer chapters, it is easier to slip in without drawing large amounts of reader attention, but changing to a long chapter tends to work best when there is tension building or some other sort of scene that should really draw the reader in.

As with all choices when it comes to writing, it really is a matter of what you are attempting to accomplish in your manuscript. It is also possible to try a few ways out and then change them if they don’t seem to be working after the fact. Just always consider what you mean to do when making these sorts of choices for your manuscript to have the best effect.

New Release: Raining Embers

The day is finally here. Raining Embers is now available in ebook! (Paperback coming soon*).

PalmRaining Emberser Tash always follows the path of least resistance. He has an unusual disability involving his hearing. But in theocratic Latysia, being different isn’t a good thing, so he conceals his problem.

Brier Chastain’s malady is even more debilitating, and she often must take to her bed for long periods. Her days are spent in meaningless pursuits as she awaits an arranged marriage.

When Palmer and Brier are kidnapped on the same night, they meet and discover that their so-called disabilities are actually budding powers. They are the incarnations of Order and Chaos. With their country on the brink of war, the two must step into their predestined roles and learn to take control of their own destinies.

Buy now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and Kobo 

*Interested in Paperback? Sign up for the Jessica Dall Newsletter to be the first to know/receive the chance to purchase an advanced, signed copy.

Raining Embers

Chapter One

In the near darkness, the frightful sound of shouting people and clashing swords echoed around the wooden book chest. The battle raged on outside even as the city burned. The little girl curled up more tightly, too afraid to leave the relative safety of her hiding place. Voices rose and fell, some familiar, some with accents she’d never heard. A man cried out, but the cacophony swallowed the noise before it could finish.

Smoke began to filter into the cracks of the chest, turning the air thick, hazy. The girl swallowed, blinking too quickly as her eyes burned. Her father had been gone by the time she had made it through the havoc to the library. But he had to come back. He was always in the library. Day or night, she could always find him there. Even in all of this chaos, he would have to be somewhere.

The smoke grew thicker, the heat of it making the girl’s lungs burn with each breath. Her head swimming, she couldn’t wait anymore. She pushed the chest open with the soles of her feet, and a fresh wave of smoke rushed in at her. Mostly by feel, she climbed out, trying to find something familiar, some landmark to show her which way to go in the fiery nightmare. Spotting a patch of lighter smoke, she crawled forward, the normally cool marble of the library floor scorching.

Something creaked. A beam fell, blazing, in front of her. The air shimmered with heat. She had to stop, her mind too sluggish to find another route. The smoke attacked her, working its way inside her lungs. Her heart tried to race but couldn’t manage. After a few more inches forward, her body failed, refusing to move. Her eyes fluttered shut, firelight dancing on her eyelids.

Darkness descended. The haze turned to black, nothingness racing in on her.

And it felt… right.

Palmer’s eyes flew open as he jerked back to reality, the burning library replaced by the dark classroom under the temple. Shaking his head, he focused on the fire in the center of the ring of acolytes’ chairs. Certainly, learning this type of divination could have waited until winter. With summer at its height, they might as well have been in an oven with the entire class of acolytes packed inside the windowless room, along with a fire pit. Between the heat and the smoke, even he was going to start thinking he was having “visions,” as the Seers wanted them to believe. Fire, battle, and little girls indeed. Perhaps their classes were truly a study in mass hallucination.

“Um… a bird?” One of the other acolytes’ voices clicked somewhere in Palmer’s head, his bizarrely focused hearing jumping from the crackle of the fire to the boy’s words.

“What kind of bird?” the Master coached, standing behind Danilo Danati as they both stared into the accursed fire.

“A black one?”

Palmer rolled his eyes and looked back at the fire. A log broke, and the voices disappeared, giving way to the new sound. In any other class, Palmer might attempt to force his mind to focus, to accept that the words were what he should hear over any other sound in the room. After being forced into an oven to learn more about false prophesying, however, he was inclined to filter out whatever imagined bird Danilo and Master Franco were discussing as background noise. Since he had to live with the odd affliction of being able to hear only one sound at a time, at least he could use it to his benefit now and again.

“I think it’s the city burning,” Gianni’s voice broke in from his spot in the circle next to Palmer. “Like in Sage Chmela-Parrino’s vision.”

“That’s supposed to be an earthquake.” Luca looked up from whatever he’d been carving into the side of his stool. “‘The ground shall open, and buildings shall fall’?”

A buzz arose as more and more acolytes debated. Palmer let his mind filter it all out as he wiped at the sweat attempting to trickle down the back of his neck.

“That is enough,” Master Franco cut through the din. “As it seems we are not going to regain focus for today, we will have to pick up again next week. I expect an essay on what was learned today, in my hand before the fire is lit.”

Unhappy groans resonated around the room, but no one debated, packing up their books. Palmer couldn’t escape that sweltering room quickly enough, shoving everything into his own sack before moving out into the maze of passageways beneath the temple and toward his little cell.

Palmer couldn’t decide if the underground complex was a blessing or a curse during the summer. Generally cooler than upstairs—when the Seers didn’t light blazing fires in some weak attempt at fortune telling—the dampness in the air always soaked into the cells below the temple floor, the rooms flooding if the rains came too long or too often. He had long before put everything in his room on stilts, trying to save what meager possessions he had from rotting.

Pulling his cell’s door open, he stepped into the small space, barely looking around as he dropped his bag on the cot and pulled out his spare set of robes. They were slightly soiled but at least not soaked through with sweat.

Someone knocked, and Egidio’s voice sounded through the door. “Palm?”

“It’s open,” Palmer answered, pulling the damp brown robes off over his head before spreading them over the small desk. They wouldn’t likely dry fully in the musty cell, but at least they wouldn’t likely mold, either.

The door swung out with a creak, and Egidio stepped through only enough to let it close again, leaving Palmer enough room to maneuver in the small space. “I’m going to fail.”

Palmer sighed. This conversation again. It was that time in the semester. He pulled the new robe over his head. “You’re not going to fail.”

“Another couple bad marks, and I will.” Egidio skirted Palmer, sitting next to the bag on the cot. “My father is going to kill me.”

Releasing a breath, Palmer took a seat on the low stool in front of the desk, readying himself for the familiar exchange. After six years, Palmer could nearly do both parts. The subject always changed, of course, but it seemed Egidio Dioli had yet to find any part of being an acolyte that suited his skill set. Palmer had to imagine that if Signore Dioli, semiprosperous merchant, hadn’t managed to scrape together full room and board, his son would have long been ejected from study at the Church.

“What class now?”

“Master Agnelli’s.” Egidio rested his mousy face in his hands. “I have no talent in charts.”

“Give it here.” Palmer motioned toward Egidio and picked up his own stub of a pencil.

Egidio fished around in his bag and pulled out a slightly crumpled paper. He held it out for Palmer to take. “Did you already turn yours in?”

Palmer nodded, not feeling the need to bring up the fact that he had finished while still in class.

“It isn’t fair.” Egidio slumped forward. “You don’t even try, and you have at least betas in everything.”

“Lucky for me, or I’d be out on the street.” Palmer shot Egidio a look before scanning the chart, looking for errors.

“Oh… sorry, Palm.” Egidio stumbled over his words. “You know I didn’t mean—”

Palmer waved the apology away, rubbing out a few wrong marks with his thumb before replacing them. Even if Egidio had the tendency to end up with his foot in his mouth, he never truly had a bad thing to say about Palmer’s circumstances. Maybe that had allowed them to become friends in the first place—Egidio, the talentless son of a family who could barely afford to keep his place; and Palmer, the parentless Ward of the Church who had managed to stay on when most of his peers had aged out, through some combination of dumb luck and an innate talent at astrology. Compared to the grand—or at least wealthy—families most of their classmates came from, Palmer and Egidio were only slightly better than the beggars who wandered around the slums by the river, well outside the walled complex that was the Augarian.

After a few more corrections, Palmer handed the paper back. “Trace that over. It should be more than enough to pass now.”

Egidio mumbled some thanks, shoving the paper back into his bag as though the powers that be would know he’d cheated just because Egidio was touching the chart. He tied the bag shut then looked back at Palmer. “Did you hear about Sage Chmela-Parrino’s vision?”

Somehow, Palmer refrained from groaning. “Parts of it. Something about the world ending?”

“He said he saw the Augarian destroyed, the ground opening up, a god wreaking vengeance on us all.”

Palmer barely managed not to roll his eyes. “Gio, some Seer or another predicts the end of the world once a decade. I don’t think we need to worry about this one any more than any of the others.”

“If you say so.” Egidio rested his arms on his knees. “But I know if the sun suddenly goes dark, I’m going to be a little worried.”

“Goes dark?” Palmer frowned.

“Supposedly, that’s how it starts. The sun goes dark. Then it’s only a matter of time before the gods destroy us all.”

Palmer pressed his lips together as he recalled one of the mistakes he hadn’t corrected on Egidio’s chart, for the sake of believability. A potential solar eclipse, not that far away.

The Seers were going to have a field day.

They’re Really More Like Guidelines

Happy Day 1 of NaNoWriMo! October just flew by this year. Hopefully everyone had a great Halloween/NaNo’s Eve and are now furiously typing away.

For today’s blog post, there’s really just a quick reminder that seems to be far too often forgotten when people start to argue about “writing rules.” Where there is a ton of really good advice out there about how to make writing better/stronger, but it really is just that: advice.

When people begin to argue whether alternatives to “said” should be avoided or if adverbs are best to be avoided, the go to response tends to be “well, find a book with no adverbs” or similar. That is, of course, taking the arguments to an extreme. Any standard advice you might read is a general guideline that tends to make for stronger writing. It is not an absolute that “you can’t write a good book without taking this as cardinal law.” You don’t need to hold witch hunts for telling, adverbs, or anything else people will generally tell you to avoid. You can even do the exact opposite of the advice if that is what works for you. The important thing, when it comes to creative writing, is you’re allowed to be creative. If you can make something work, then it works. Certain things are just easier to make work than others.

And that is where the advice comes in. Adverbs can be great. Much of the time, they become a crutch for weaker word use. Other tags rather than “said” can work well, as well, but often times they can be distracting.

So, while you’re writing, do what’s best for your story. You are the author and need to decide if an adverb is what is needed or not. Just keep advice in the back of your mind so you don’t fall back on things that are damaging rather than helpful.

Happy NaNo and happy writing!

Through His/Her Eyes

As October draws to a close, NaNoWriMo grows ever closer. And with thousands of writers joining the fray, I’m starting to get more and more questions about POV (Point of View). Last week I covered POV Bloat (having so many POV characters it’s difficult for the reader to connect with any of them), today I’ll be talking about how it’s possible to flesh out characters who aren’t POV characters.

Over the past week, perhaps the most common refrain I’ve heard from people who are considering–but aren’t sure about–using first person is: “I feel like first person would make for a stronger narrative, but I’m worried about being able to get in the other characters’ motivations.”

What always worries me about comments like that is the feeling that authors are relying on being inside a character’s head to tell information rather than working on showing events that let the reader learn about the characters organically.

Remember, it is not necessary to be in a character’s head for the reader to learn a lot about them. It’s not even necessary for a POV character to tell readers about him/herself. After all, “I don’t like going to zoos because…” is much less interesting for the reader than a character being dragged to the zoo and then going into fits because of a bad experience that then comes out. So, if you’re trying to build up a character without being in their head, try to:

1. Look for places you can show personalities rather than tell the reader about them. It is possible to bring across quite a bit about a character by showing how they interact with the world rather than relying on an internal monologue. There is an entire trope named “Pet the Dog” where a villain is shown to not be entirely evil by him/her having a scene where he/she is kind to an animal. Perhaps you don’t want to go with that specific example–as it is a bit of a cliché at this point–but character-specific scenes that give insight are always helpful, no matter who the character is.

2. Use dialogue. Sure, you don’t want your character to suddenly drop in and start spouting off his/her life story for no reason, but it is often possible to get characters to naturally talk about themselves here and there at least enough to show deeper motivations without needing to be inside that character’s head (just try not to overdo it or you could end up with the reader wondering why that character is always spouting off long chunks of backstory for no apparent reason).  Note: It is also possible to have other characters discuss the character you need more information about to get a similar effect.

and last but not least:

3. Trust your writing. If you have developed well-rounded, realistic characters, it won’t be necessary to explain that they have more thoughts and motivations than might come across just in the narrative. When characters feel deep, it isn’t necessary to tell the reader they have depth. (If you’re finding you’re having problems making a character feel real in small acts, consider doing more character building before continuing what you’re writing. That will likely come more in handy than just having a character think about who they are).

To everyone participating: happy NaNo planning!

POV Bloat

There are plenty of reasons to pick a specific Point of View (POV) when writing a story. How close (or distant) you want the reader to be to the characters, how many plot lines there are going to be… there are quite a few things to consider when deciding if a story should be written in first, third, or–rarely used–second person.

It is not exactly a closely guarded secret that I strongly prefer third person–not least of all because I often have stories that are best suited with multiple POV characters. While it is possible to have multiple first person narrators, third makes switching off between people much simpler.

Of course, that isn’t always a good thing. A couple of years ago I touched on the issue of head jumping, which comes from poorly controlled POV in third limited (where a single scene slips between a number of characters’ POVs), but even with head jumping taken care of, some stories can still suffer from POV bloat–or simply more POV characters than the story can easily handle.

Now, there are some stories that need a large case with a lot of POV characters–especially epics with several plot lines happening in several different places. As with any other writing advice, “try to stay away from several POV characters” is not meant to be cardinal law. Once you start creeping above four or five POV characters in one novel, though, it is generally a good idea to step back and make sure that all of the POV switches are necessary.

Why? Because POV Bloat starts to have many of the same problems as head jumping–the narrative can become disjointed, and it can become more difficult for the readers to connect to each character. After all, as more POV characters there are, the more heads the reader has to acclimate to. Fewer heads allow for more depth, which in turn allows for the reader to become more deeply connected to the characters telling the story.

So, what should you do when you think you might be suffering from POV Bloat?

1. Make sure all your POV Characters are necessary.

As stated before, sometimes 5, 10, 15 POV characters are necessary for the story you are trying to tell. Often times, though, they aren’t. It is not necessary to get every side of a story to have a story make sense. Pick out the most important characters you have for each plot line and then determine if you can tell the story using just those people. Limiting yourself can sometimes actually make the story stronger since it means you will have to show things that imply how other characters are feeling/have your POV characters interpret other characters’ actions rather than jumping around to tell the reader everything that’s going on/relying on internal monologue.

2. Try to keep transitions smooth.

Short scenes are sometimes work well. When switching POV characters, too many short scenes can feel like head jumping the author is trying to get away with. This is especially true if there is one overall “scene” happening (one event happening in your story) and the reader is being jerked back and forth to both sides every few paragraphs (Character A is doing this. Character B is doing this. Now Character A is…) The jumpiness might work in visual media (where the camera is covering everything that is happening) but since third limited relies on placing the reader in a character’s head, it actually damages the flow of action to continuously pull them out and force them back in on either side.

As always, do what is right for your story, but also remember sometimes less really is more.



News Alert: the release of Raining Embers is now less than a month away–which means pre-marketing is in full swing. If you host a book review or writing blog, consider signing up for the Raining Embers Virtual Book Tour here: http://www.sagesblogtours.com/raining-embers.html 

What’s He Look Like, Again?

Today’s topic comes from the NaNoWriMo forums, namely, “How do you work in description in novels without making the story come to a stand still?”

When it comes to getting information across in a story, it can often be a struggle. You don’t want to give the reader nothing to go on–so they are confused/have no idea what anything looks like–but you also don’t want to hit pause in the middle of action to go “hey, by the way, this is what this room looks like.”

Excuse me while I take the next two pages to describe this generic hotel room. (Source: William Warby/Flickr)

WriMo Se.Ka.Ya. describes the struggle well, posting:

[My worst writing habit is] I don’t even do description, The reason I started leaving description out was that I started with too much of it. It’s like describing a picture in class – I had a character, room or whatever, and the story stopped while I explained what was there and how it looked and what material it was etc. – and then the story continued. So I started consciously leaving those parts out, which made me end up at the other side where I can’t even get the colors of [my characters’] uniforms right, because I [didn’t] think to mention something I have no plan for.

As with most things in writing, writing description is a balancing act, and it is very simple to swing too far to one extreme or another. The good news, though, is that there tends to be an easy fix when it comes to getting in some description without pausing action to give a laundry list of everything in a room/a character is wearing/etc. And that is:

Work in description while your character is interacting with the items being described.

There are very few people who walk into a new room and consciously begin to list off everything they are seeing. Therefore, it is both more interesting and more natural to start with one or two descriptors and then move on from there. For example:

Boring/Laundry List Description: John walked into the old, dusty room. It didn’t look like anyone had been in there for years. A red carpet sat on top of wood floors with a set of old chairs on top of the carpet toward the wall to John’s left. A canopy bed with matching red curtains was off to is right and looked just as dusty as everything else. On the far wall, a large window mostly covered with curtains let in a ray of light that let John see the deep green wall paper that was peeling off the wood walls. 

Description mixed with action: John walked into the old room, coughing as dust few up out of the thick red carpet under his feet. He batted it away as he tried to force his eyes to adjust to the dark room. It didn’t look as though anyone had been there for years. With any luck, he wouldn’t have to be in there much longer himself. Glancing around, John moved for the canopy bed to his right. If he had had to hide a treasure map, that was where he’d have put it. Pushing the equally dusty curtains out of the way, he scanned the frame for anything out of the ordinary…

As shown in the second “description” it is possible to get in much of the same information as the first laundry list all while keeping the action of the scene moving (John looking for a treasure map). As he continues his search around the room, he can move to the chairs, pull open the curtains, interact with the space as the reader gets a more and more complete picture of what is there with him. Just like with backstory, it works best to make chunks of information “bite size” and work them in as the reader goes along so things are never pulled away from the action too long to tell the reader chunks of information.

So, if you are struggling working in description, remember:

  1. Not everything needs to be described at once (start with the big things you would notice when you first enter a room first; the rest of the information can likely wait)
  2. It is possible to work description in while the action is still happening “on screen”

From there, with a little practice, you should be in pretty good shape.

Catching Openings

With November slowly creeping up–and thus the start of National Novel Writing Month almost upon us–I am getting more and more questions about how to start novels. I have previously touched on what is my standard advice is for rough drafts (namely, find the inciting incident and start somewhere near there. Worry about the exact opening in edits) but for those who still are looking for pointers, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Do: Try to start close to the inciting incident or, to put it another way, “on the day everything changes.” While several scenes of your character going about their life might be helpful for you as a writer, following a character wandering around with no sign of a plot starting isn’t very exciting for the reader.

Don’t: Start a scene and then fall into an info dump. Just as bad as starting too early is coming in close to the inciting incident and then spending pages 2 through 5 telling the reader everything that’s happened in your character’s life leading up to that point (or even just what’s happened the past few days that aren’t “the day everything changes”). Try to draw readers in with something happening in the present before stopping the plot to tell them a bunch of information about characters they don’t yet have any reason to care about.

Do: Start with action. Do your best to find something happening that will interest your reader immediately. This might be dropping into a conversation, your character taking a test that will make or break their schooling, or the beginning of a car crash. If it’s some sort of action that the reader can immediately connect to, you’re in good shape.

Don’t: Begin with your character waking up (or perhaps being chased). Connected to above, while it’s tempting as a natural start point, your character waking up is not a great start to a story–mostly because (unless your character is waking up to someone attacking them or something similar) there isn’t much to draw the reader in. Everyone wakes up in the morning (at least everyone in your reading audience likely does). A character waking up and getting ready for the day is generally mundane. On the opposite side, the first instinct many writers have when they hear “start with action” is to start with the main character being chased by something. Those openings can work if done well, but they can also easily feel overdone as they are so commonly used.

Do: Remember everything can be changed in editing. If you start too early or too late, if you start writing and then realize that that opening scene is rather, well, boring, you can always change it after the fact. For my novel, Raining Embers, coming out in November, I changed the opening twice myself and another time with my editor. Starting in general is more important than starting perfectly. After all, you can’t edit a blank page.


Read an excerpt from Raining Embers–coming November 3, 2015–here

Raining Embers

Release Day: Off Book

After months and months of edits (and at least three different title changes) the long awaited day is finally here. Off Book is now for sale!

About Off Book:

Twenty-year-old Eloise has learned all she can from the School, where characters live until joining their novels. No one knows genre and plot structure better than her, but despite her knowledge, she’s yet to be assigned to her own story. All her friends are off starting their lives with their authors—and if Eloise doesn’t get assigned soon, she’ll fade away, forgotten by all.

When she is suddenly offered a job at the Recording Office, she takes the chance to write her own future. Suddenly living among the post-storied, Eloise meets Barnaby Fitzwilliam, a former romance novel hero who hasn’t lost any of his in-story charm. But just as their relationship begins to get serious, everything Eloise has been taught gets turned upside down when she’s sucked into a novel she was never meant to be part of.

Now, caught where the only rules are made by the authors and truly anything is possible, Eloise must find her way back home—or else her life might end before she ever gets the chance to live it.

Set in a world dictated by Authors, OFF BOOK explores the story beneath the stories we all know and love, taking readers and characters alike on an adventure just waiting to be written.

Get your copy today!