So You Wanna Write Part 7: That Opening Scene

blue velvet curtain opening sceneThat first click of the keyboard.

That first scrawl of the pen.

That first scene.

You have an idea of what your story will be about. You know who your characters will be and you know what time period it will be set in and where it takes place. Heck, you may even have your premise written out. (We’ll talk more about these subjects in later posts.)

But for now you just want to get started. No more putting it off. You’re writing this book and it starts now

But how do you start it? Do you open with a dark, mysterious scene? Do you open up with a traumatic scene from your protagonist’s childhood? Do you maybe start with a scene that takes place in the middle of your book that you’ll come back to later?

No matter what you decide to start with, keep this in mind:

It will likely not work. Your opening will probably stink and have no connection to the rest of your book. (Now, there are definitely exceptions to this, I realize.)

 

Almost every movie I’ve watched the commentary for nearly had a completely different opening.

My book The Man in the Box had so many different openings that my wife said that she didn’t want to read another draft until the book was finished. She actually kept getting the different versions mixed up and could no longer critique it with a fresh eye.

Another example that comes immediately to mind is the opening scene to Monsters University. You’ll recall that when Mike shows up to college, he’s traveling by himself on a crowded bus. mike-wazowski

The filmmakers actually had a completely different opening scripted and animated where Mike’s parents drop him off at school. The Pixar guys said they were very happy with the opening, and that it was very funny. But one day during a board meeting someone spoke up and suggested that it would make a much bigger impact if Mike arrived at school by himself, to give the impression that it was him against the world, with no one there to support him.

The point is, as happy as you might be with your opening scene, you’ve got to ask yourself, “Does it do the most service for the rest of my book?” You’ve got to be willing to change it.

Even if you can’t come up with an idea, start writing! You’re going to back and change it anyway.

The Thrilling Three

You’re all familiar with Disney’s phenomenal five (Mermaid, Beauty, Aladdin, Lion, and Frozen). But let’s look at the other end of the genre spectrum – suspense and thrillers.

There are three movies that I think are the masters of suspense, and they conveniently fall into three of the seven narrative conflicts (man vs. man, man vs. God, man vs. nature, man vs. science, man vs. technology, man vs. self, man vs. supernatural).

Let’s take a look at my top three picks.

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Jurassic Park  (m v. s) –  You can watch almost any of Spielberg’s movies and rightly claim that it’s his best. Jurassic Park is certainly one such movie. He builds suspense in the first half of the movie by giving the allusion that something is about to go terribly wrong in the amusement park. And in the second half, when the electricity goes out, that anxiety and those nerve pay off. I still consider Jurassic Park to be amongst one of the greatest thrillers of all time. (By the way, who’s pumped about JPIV??)

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Speed  (m v. m) - For man v. man, this was a toss up between Speed and River Wild. You’d think that River Wild would have come out on top, considering how badly Dennis Hopper butchers his character (and how naturally creepy Kevin Bacon is), but it’s just a little easier to believe in a highjacked bus than a family vacation gone wrong where the bad guys could very well just walk along the river to their freedom.

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Twister (m v. n) - Am I really outdated for still liking this movie? I’ve seen plenty of disaster films from Dante’s Peak to 2012. But nothing has yet to come close to Helen Hunt’s desperation to get the Dorothy to fly and warn neighbors of the impending doom. Plus, the soundtrack is awesome to listen to when you’re driving through a wild storm in the summer.

(A fun fact: Those three movies are all related. Twister was made by the producer of Jurassic Park and the director of Speed.)

I’ve yet to come up with the ultimate movies for man v. God, man v. supernatural, man v. society, man v. technology, and man v. self (can I nominate my book The Man in the Box for this last one?).

Do you agree with my three picks? Do you have any suggestions for the other narrative conflicts (book or movie)? If so, list them below!

So You Wanna Write Part 6: Live Your Topic

59f287c6720acce890cb7ffed9aee965_research-imageSo you’ve got your idea. Now, you’ve got to nurture your idea. You’ve got to feed it, and help it grow. You can only do that so much with your own limited experiences.

So how does one go about this?

You’ve got to fill your mind with as much genre-friendly information as you can.

Technically it’s called research. But to me, that’s a dirty, word . So instead of research (or the R-word), were’ going to call it living. 

Throughout the entire course of writing your book, you’ve got to live your topic.

The year and a half it took me to write The Man in the Box, I constantly read books that were similar to its setting/genre. I read Jurassic Park, Hunger Games, John Carter of Mars, among many others.

And if you read Box, you can see inspirations of those novels.

I’m currently writing a young readers novel set in war-torn Europe. So for the past year or so I’ve been reading and watching anything I can get my hands on about the Holocaust or the German’s point of view of the war. The knowledge I’ve gained is invaluable and will make my book that much richer and accurate.

I wrote yesterday about writing what you know. I can’t go back in time and live during WWII. I can’t know what it’s like to live in a bunker awaiting your next suicidal mission. I don’t know what it’s like to be starved or tortured in a slave labor camp. I can’t imagine the feeling of stepping foot inside a gas chamber knowing I have just minutes left of life as I’m being pushed and shoved by dozens of other naked, frightened men.

But I can get an idea by reading Night by Elie Wiesel, or returning to the classic account of Anne Frank’s diary.

So you’ve got to chew and gnaw on your subject’s genre. Do the research (or living), take notes. Even if you’re writing a fantasy born completely of your own imagination, you’ve still got to study the greats that came before you. Dissect their work and figure out for yourself what made them so popular, or not popular.

You’ve got to live out your topic or subject matter. Writing isn’t just making stuff up on the spot or taking the craft in your own untrained direction. You’ve got to hone your skill, live out your subject matter, surround yourself with the setting your writing about.

You know what sets Pixar movies apart from virtually every other movie in Hollywood? The creators and artists spend years researching (living) their subjects. Research (living) is a key ingredient in their movies (did you catch that?). Without research, those movie gems would just be like another Dreamworks cartoon.

Draw on real life. Take advantage of history books. Figure out those universal themes that keep pulling in generation after generation of new audiences, and then learn to retell it in your own way.

Live your topic. Study your subject. By doing this, you bring your story to life.

 

So You Wanna Write Part 5: What to Write

Keyboard-fingersSo we started this series off with a blinking cursor.

We’ve learned that writing can be a chore, there’s a difference between writing and storytelling, we’ve figured out  why we want to write, and we’ve bragged to everyone we know that we’re gong to write a book.

Only to be brought back to that blinking, taunting cursor.

Blink, blink, blink…

What do you write? It’s like when you were in grade school and you had one sheet of paper and a Crayon. What was it you asked yourself or those around you? What should I draw? 

That was the big question of your young life.

And now as you sit before a blank Word document, you’re constantly asking yourself, What should I write. I love this comment Tylowery of the blog, “Secrets in the City” wrote in a previous post:

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You’ve heard it said to write what you know.

That’s true. But that also kind of stinks. Because what I know isn’t really all that exciting. I grew THE WONDER YEARSup in suburban America where I spent my time mountain biking and playing roller hockey just like every other boy in the country. And The Wonder Years has already been told.

And back when I was developing my first novel I worked as a bookseller at Barnes and Noble.

Nothing much exciting there.

Not to downplay my life – I love it, actually. But not much to write home about – or write a book about, for that matter.

So sticking with the theme of write what you know, I wrote about how I felt about my mundane and anti-climatical existence.

I created a character, Robbie, who’s just like me but about fifteen years older and still stuck in the same uneventful life I felt I was in.

And I gave him an out.

I provided him with a box that he could climb in and appear in a fantasy world of his making anytime he wanted. And honestly, my book became my box. I would escape to it when I needed a break from reality. (Luckily the characters didn’t start crawling out of my book and threaten to kill me and my wife like they do from Robbie’s box.)

dead-poets-society-04But here’s the thing you need to walk away with. Yes, write what you know. But make it interesting. Flip things on their head. Look at life from a different perspective. Or like Mr. Keating says in Dead Poets Society, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.”

How did I come up with the idea for The Man in the Box? 

Well, as I said before, I worked at Barnes and Noble during the time. I was the head of the children’s department. And throughout the day I had to go back to the shipping room to retrieve more books to carry out on the floor.

I read a lot of those children’s books while I stood back there waiting for customers to walk past. So I was constantly diving into fantasy worlds during my dull job. And the shipping room was constantly full of boxes. So I put the two together.

Twain wrote about what he knew about the deep south. Dickens created fantasy worlds out of the slums of London. And I can’t imagine any scene duller than Depression-era Salinas Valley California, but Steinbeck used it in many of his beloved masterpieces.

If you’re creating a fantasy world that’s set far from our world, make absolutely sure to relate it tour world. Tie your personal life, feelings, emotions, to that world so that we can relate to it.

Write what you know. Take this advice with a grain of salt, then run with it. Don’t be afraid to simbatweak what you know. Simba only knew life in Africa. But watch the scene in The Lion King when he sings “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” All the colors change, the style is dramatized; it’s a completely different, unique, and interesting world, because it’s Africa through his cub-like eyes.

Show us this old, tattered, familiar world through your eyes. How do you see life? What’s a hero to you? What makes a bad guy bad? What’s your biggest fear, and why should your readers be afraid of it, too?

If I may, think outside the box.

(Like my book The Man in the Box on Facebook for updates on the upcoming second edition, and earn a chance to win a free autographed copy.)

 

So You Wanna Write Part 4: Do This Before You Start Writing

announcementSo you’ve learned a few things so far. You’ve learned that writing is a chore, and not as much fun as storytelling (or vise versa). But since you lack the money or connections to get Hollywood to tell your stories, or you can’t draw comics, you’ve gotta write them down.

You’ve decided whether you’re a storyteller or a writer and that either way, you want to be an author.

And you’ve decided why you want to tell your story (or write).

So your writing prompt is blinking furiously at you just waiting to spit words out at your command. But there’s one more thing I recommend you do before we jump into the writing process.

When I was in the ninth grade I received the best advise I’ve ever decided to reject later. I told a friend of mine that I was going to write a book. A big, fat, long fantasy epic. A three-parter. Very Tolkien-like.

You know what he said to me?

He said, “Don’t tell anyone you’re writing a book. Because then if you don’t ever complete it, no one will know you gave up.”

I took his advice, and guess what? I gave up on that book.

So when I married several years later, I spun that advise around. I told my wife and all my friends that I was writing a book and I completed it.

Brag.

Yes, climb on a mountain top and shout it to the world.

Tell the world you’re going to write a novel.

I want to see the enthusiasm of Buddy the Elf when he storms into his dad’s office and yells, buddy-the-elf-in-love_o_gifsoup-com“I’m in love and I don’t care who knows it!”

Go to your most populated social media site and share it with everyone: “I’m going to write a book!”

Why?

I don’t promote ego-stroking, but once you announce you’re writing a book, there’s a sense of accountability that follows. Suddenly you’ve got an anxious audience awaiting a sneak peak at your latest endeavor.

Oh, and here’s a word of caution. Don’t expect everyone you know to get super pumped about your novel. They may not be readers, or they may know of your track record of quitting, or they might be jealous. Or they just don’t care or are too busy with their stuff, and that’s all fine.

Most of the support I get for my writing comes from people I only know through social media.

Don’t take offense to this or take your friends’ apathy personally. After all, I don’t comment on their Facebook page when they post something about finding the best deal on bed sheets at Walmart, because I don’t care about bedsheets, nor Walmart.

So let everyone know you’re going to write a book. Even if you don’t know exactly what it’s about, that’s fine. Just get it out there. They may ask you about it later, which could get you back on track. But they might not.

Either way, it’s a good idea to set yourself up for success. Because even if they don’t ask you about it down the line, you’ll always be taunted with the possibility that they might. So then you’ll continue to write.

Look out, world – a new author is about to emerge!

 

So You Wanna Write Part 3: Why Write?

whywrite2

People write for many different reasons. Sure it’s romantic to say we’re all in it for the art or the love of the craft, but that’s just not so for most of us, not even for me. Now, you do have people like Katherine Rebekah who has a genuine love of writing and will likely carry on with it through thick and through thin. Take a look at her comment from part 1 of this series: “Let’s be Real”:

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I applaud writers like her.

As I’ve stated, I write to tell stories. I take the craft of storytelling very seriously. So seriously that I watch audio commentaries of many movies I own to get a glimpse into the minds of the guys who created the stories that I love. (For a great experience and wealth of knowledge, I highly recommend watching the audio commentary for all the Pixar films, an activity my wife introduced me to).

So far in this series we’ve talked about how writing is not romantic, and that there is a difference between writing and storytelling. Now let’s discus why we write – or why we tell stories.

Many people commented in my last post that they are storytellers but want to be better writers.

Like GDR from Altered Egos:

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Others stated in some ways that they are writers. Sort of. Like Christopher Kokoski, Author and Speaker:

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All of them want to be authors, or better authors.

But why?

To make money? To get your name on the New York Times Best Seller list? Bragging rights? (None of these are bad reasons, by the way. Okay, maybe bragging rights is a little narcissistic, but otherwise you’ve got to get food on your table somehow, right?) But the thing is, these aren’t realistic, and deep down you know that.

Sure, it’s my goal to see my book The Man in the Box on the New York Times Best Seller list, but I know that’s not going to happen anytime soon. At least not with a lot of work and a plan set in place (which I’ll discuss in later posts – for instance, Like it on Facebook for a chance to win a free autographed copy).

Don’t fool yourself into thinking your award-worthy book is going to sell. Despite my almost-perfect star rating and raving reviews, and respectable sales, The Man in the Box hasn’t brought in a single penny to my bank account after having been out since November 2012. Which is why I’m re-releasing it later this summer (more on that later, as well).

So let’s be real. You and I aren’t writing for monetary gain (at least not off the bat). So, why are we doing it? I write this blog to inspire people, to inform, and, honestly, to build a fan base for my upcoming novels. (Is it working?)

One of the times I teared up most in the movie Saving Mr. Banks was when Walt Disney explains to P.L. Travers why they, as storytellers, tell stories. “We [storytellers] restore order with imagination. We instill hope again and again and again.”

I cried at hearing this because there is a deep truth to these words. That, at least, summed up why I wrote The Man in the Box. I spent literally the entire book devising ways to tear my protagonist’s life apart one shred at a time only so I can build it back up again in the end (it’s not as predictable as it sounds). Because I wanted to show readers that no matter how far down the wrong path you’ve gone, no matter how hopeless your life is, hope always remains. Or, as my pastor says, “There are no hopeless situations, just hope-less people.”

Many people write for different reasons. Some to excite, to thrill, to impress, to scare, to inspire, to experiment, to humor, to captivate, to fulfill, to provoke, to challenge… and these are all very good things.

But others write for the wrong reasons. Such as E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy) and many of her wannabes. Don’t write to seduce or “awaken passions and lusts.” Just don’t. There are literally thousands of cheap romance books that have already been written; the world doesn’t need another one. It’s disgusting, degrading, and just plain stupid. I mean, really, are we all still in junior high, trying to get worked up over page 63?

There’s no talent in that kind of writing. We all know how it all work – we don’t need to read about it.

If that’s the reason you write, turn off the computer, and reevaluate your motives. If you’re not comfortable with your grandma and your ten-year-old reading your work, then maybe you need to pick up a new hobby. I’m not trying to upset anyone here – I’m trying to help. If you can write something that both your grandma and your ten-year-old can both relate to, then you’ve achieved a higher call in writing than most people can only dream about.

Respect the craft. Honor the great storytellers before you by carrying the torch they’ve passed on. They’ve left us with big shoes to fill, and our audiences are craving more than just cheap flings and seductive vicars.

Now it’s your turn. Share with us all why you write.

Find this helpful? Retweet @atoy1208 

So You Wanna Write? Part 2: The Big Difference

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I stated in my last post that I love storytelling but I hate writing. Think of it this way: I love my loft – it’s cathedral ceilings with floor-to-celing windows, its open living room and dining room – and I love living in it with my wife, daughter, and dachshunds.

But ask me to build one, and that would not appeal to me in the least. The only things that can make me turn my head and run faster are shopping malls, HGTV, and snakes.

However, if I did build a house, I’m sure the rewards of a finished project would be gratifying (just don’t enter through the front door because the roof might collapse on you).

Such as it is with writing. It may seem like a chore to tap endlessly on that keyboard, but the satisfaction of a completed book or chapter (or sentence, in some cases) is very fulfilling. But without a lot of money and a film crew (which most of us don’t have), really writing is the only way to tell stories.

There is a difference between writing and telling stories.

People write notes all the time, and school papers, and cooking instructions. Now, you can be annoying and insist that there’s a story to be found in each one of those elements, but don’t. We don’t live in a Dick and Jane world anymore. A story nowadays has to include characters, depth, emotion, layers, plots, ethos, and much, much more.

This blog post is not a story.

Writing can be tedious (i.e. papers, memos, accident reports), or it can be fun (love letters, to-do lists, list of potential baby names).

And storytelling can be the same way. Some stories are difficult to tell, like post-9/11 articles, or the dangers of kids playing too close to the pool. But more often than not, storytelling is a wonderful adventure.

You’ve read many books by storytellers, but likely very few from writers.

Everyone who writes a book is an author, but very few are writers.

Take John Grisham for example. Back in his glory days, he told great stories, gripping and fast-paced. But if you get down to it, he’s not much of a writer. Not compared to the likes of Dickens or McEwan.

There’s not much symbolism in his novels (nothing wrong with that), nor flourishing sentences that could be elegantly quoted at your next dead poets meeting (nothing wrong with that, either).

Few people can blend the two, most of us are good at one or the other. I’m a storyteller, because I’d rather my readers walk away with an experience rather than a newly-worded thought.

So, decide for yourself what you are. Are you a storyteller or are you a writer?

Figuring this out will ease the road paved before you toward becoming an author.

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