Every notice how certain genres have certain…shall we say expectations?
Do you buy a haunted a house book, get halfway through it and go ‘My god, the house is haunted, I did NOT see that coming.’?
Of course not.
If it’s a haunted house book, the house had better be either haunted or someone’s gas lighting someone.
It’s what readers expect. If it turns out to be all in the character’s mind, people are going to disappointed.
Romance is the same way. If it’s romance, it has a happy ending. Period. If there’s no happy ending, it’s not romance. It’ll never be romance.
Thrillers suffer from this too. If a woman is being followed by a strange man, he needs to up to something… menacing eventually. If it turns out it was colossal misunderstanding, your readers will feel disappointed. (Though it could work in a romance.)
It’s great for writers to try new and different things; to defy the rules and break conventions. However, going against ingrained expectations can often do more harm than good.
No one wants to buy book A and end up with book B.
Even if book B is a great book.
So before you hit ‘publish’ on your book, think about where your book belongs. A book that sells horribly and gets bad reviews in category ‘A’ might just sell like crazy in this other category over here.
I’m sure you’ve heard this ‘rule’ of storytelling…never start with a character waking up.
Because it’s BORING.
Yet, The Hunger Games started quite successfully with the main character waking up. So did the psychological thriller novel ‘While you were sleeping.’
So are there interesting ways for a character to wake up? The answer is a surprising ‘yes.’
Why Waking Up Gets A Bad Rap
The reason all the gurus say never to start a story with someone waking up is because far too often, a writer does it like this. The character wakes up in her own bed surrounded by her things in her own room. She throws off the covers heads to the bathroom where she stares and in a mirror admires her reflection, and ponders…well you get the idea.
I’m bored just writing this.
Here are some ways to make it better:
When you’re asleep, you have no idea what’s happening in the world around you. So waking up anywhere you didn’t fall asleep is naturally scary. This can be because of drug or alcohol related problems, or getting kidnapped.
Tara wakes up in a bedroom she doesn’t recognize and realizes there is a man laying next her. Even worse, the man in the bed is dead in a pool of his own blood.
The difference between this one and the previous one is that in this one, the character purposely wakes up somewhere they aren’t supposed to be…and now they realize the full magnitude of that decision.
‘Sleep Tight’ (Spanish Movie)
Cesar wakes up lying next to a woman. (Clara) and heads out into the hallway. It seems normal (and boring) enough until the little neighbor child asks if Clara knew he was sleeping with her in the same bed. (FIY, Clara has no idea he was in her apartment.)
That strange grogginess that refuses to leave us when we are jerked out of sleep is the perfect way to introduce us to a dire situation. (such as a fire.)
Seby is forced awake by his housemate, Isaac and is informed that there are strangers in the house. Live strangers. As a ghost, Seby doesn’t like being woken up and he likes living people even less.
This character wakes to have all the comfort and security of home around them, only to realize something is very wrong.
Katniss wakes up and realizes today’s not like yesterday or any of the other days. Dread settles inside her as she realizes today is the day of the Reaping.
Rules are there for a reason; the main one is…don’t be boring. However, if you can figure out a way to make waking up interesting, then go ahead and put that in your story.
The other day , a new writer came to me and said that they really want write a novel, so they planned to start with short stories to get their feet wet.
Uh…no. NO. A thousand times NO!
I always like to compare short stories and novels to psychiatry and brain surgery. While both fix the brain, they don’t fix it in the same way and they NOT interchangeable.
Novels Are Like Psychiatry.
If you’ve ever been in therapy, then you know it takes forever. Novel writing can seem to take forever too. A psychiatrist is highly trained, but mistakes are often forgiven. After all, a psychiatrist usually has time to fix the mistake, and so does a novelist. Over time, the entire world, and inner workings of the characters become clear. This could take place through chapters taking place in several hours or several years. Subplots get introduced, the same way a therapist might tell you the reason you act ‘this’ way is because you have ‘low self-esteem’.
Short Stories Are Like Brain Surgery.
It takes a shorter amount of time to perform the operation (aka, write your story) but it doesn’t take any less training. Each word holds a great deal of weight in a short story, the same way each flash of the surgeon’s knife matters. There’s no time to fully develop characters or worlds, yet somehow, each must be in place. Subplots and covering vast expanses of time are out, similar to the way a brain surgeon doesn’t worry about you ‘feel’, just if they ‘broke’ something. Mistakes aren’t so easily forgiven. If you make a mistake in a short story, the reader notices, the same way a patient’s family would notice if the brain surgeon made a mistake.
Don’t try to learn brain surgery when what you need to learn is psychiatry. (the reverse is also true.) Novels are not natural progressions of short stories. Authors like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Ambrose Bierce never wrote a single novel, but they were great at telling short stories.
You can be a great writer by writing either. You just need to understand the nuances of your chosen discipline and then go for it.
Have you heard of ‘grounding’? It’s a technique used by people who have panic attacks. It involves taking note of the senses to get a feel for where you are and what’s around you. They suggest noticing the following things.
The first time I heard of this, I thought what a perfect writing exercise it makes.
So, I tried it out, and you know what?
It really does help you build your world.
So they next time you’re stuck with your world building, try out this exercise.
Make a list of these things that are noticeable in your characters worlds. 5,4,3,2,1. Just like that.
Now figure out how to weave these observations into your scene. Don’t worry, you’re not going to use all of them in every scene. That’s overwhelming. But now that you know how your world is supposed to look, sound, smell, feel and taste, you can decide with details to leave in and which ones to leave out.
You can also do this exercise when you’re out and about. Anytime you’re anywhere, make notes about your surroundings in your notebook following this system and see how much faster, easier it becomes to build better worlds.
So, how’s that book coming?
Let me guess. It’s not done.
How long have you been working on it?
A few months? A year? Over a year?
My first book took me over 3 years, and you know what? It was horrible. (and it wasn’t even that long, only 35k.)
Sure, I had all kinds of excuses why it took me so long; I work full time, I still want to have fun, I want to see my family, genius can’t be rushed, and so on.
I even bought into the myth that great works take years.
But you want to know the truth? My book took three years for the same reason it was awful; I had no clue what I was doing. Sure, I’d read books on writing, taken online classes, even taken a certain class that was supposed to be ‘the best.’
But nothing helped.
Then I discovered something that changed my life.
It was an article in a magazine called “Psychology Today” (Yes, I do read that, and no, I’m not any kind of therapist. I just feel that knowing all the ways the human mind can go wrong helps with stories, at least the kind I write.)
It said that the human brain makes new cells at regular intervals, the same way it makes new skin cells. These new brain cells have no function when they are born, and wait for us to tell them what to do. This is why our resolve weakens. The old brain cells that had the resolve died off and these new brain cells showed up. If we tell these new brain cells what to do (such as doing a task even when we don’t feel like doing it,) then our motivation stays. If not, then we feel unfocused and lost. (At least until the next new batch of brain cells show up.)
It turns out this is the reason why a book that takes too long to write doesn’t flow well. When a book takes you years to write, you’re literally a different person each time you try to finish this story. So why should it make any sense at all?
This taught me the importance of writing every day, even when I don’t feel like it.
Writing your first draft as quickly as possible ensures that your story stays coherent and needs less editing on future passes.
The problem was the first book of 35k took me 3 years, and it wasn’t even that good.
I knew I’d never accomplish all my writing dreams if I let my brain move at this pace. I needed a better way.
Systems are predictable ways that something works every time. Now of course, there is no ‘system’ for writing a bestseller. That’s a combination of skill, hard work, marketing and dash of luck.
But there are systems for creating compelling characters, plotting out your story, world building and all those other fiddly but fun parts that give an author so much joy when they work and so much pain when they don’t.
Using systems means they always work, which gives you more time to enjoy the creative part of writing and unleash the story inside your head. (as opposed to the one on the page which probably doesn’t match.)
There’s a meme going around Facebook, perhaps you’ve seen it. It laments the fact that people will spend $5 for a cup of coffee that takes 5 minutes to make but balk at spending $5 for a book, which takes forever to write.
But there’s a reason this is true and it’s not because people don’t value books. (Ok, some people don’t value books, but you’re not writing for them.)
The reason can be summed up in one word…
When you go to the same coffee house and hand over $5 for a cup of fancy coffee, you know what that coffee’s going to taste like. Yes, a few people might be trying it for the very first time, but the majority of people who buy $5 coffees are buying a drink they’ve had before. Therefore, they know what to expect.
However books, particularly by new authors, are a gamble. The reader could get a great book for their $5, or they could get garbage.
As someone who strives to read more indie books than traditionally published, I’m just going to say it… There’s some chaff out there. And it ruins it for all the wheat.
There are two ways you, as an author, can change this, and neither one is negotiable.
1. Write a great book.
2. Write a lot more great books.
I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t agree with number one. However, many emerging authors bristle at number at number two. After all, the first one took so long to write.
Yes, it did. The first one always takes forever. However writing more great books is how you take the gamble away for a reader.
I’ve mentioned before I’m a heavy reader, and can read up to 3 books a week. (Just like your ideal reader.) Choosing the right book is the hardest part. After all, if I’m giving up a few hours of my life to this book, I’m expecting a good time. As a writing coach, I try to read everything, even things outside the genre. But as a reader, I like authors I already know, like Amy Cross. (She’s my new favorite)
Well, she’s a good writer. I wouldn’t say she’s the best writer ever, but she tells a great story. And she has over 100 books out. Yes, 100. When I finish an Amy Cross book, I know there’s a multitude of other Amy Cross books to choose from. And even though some are better than others, I know I’m going to enjoy them all, because she’s a good author.
Having so many books takes the gamble out of buying books for your reader. The truth is I barely read the descriptions on her books and I couldn’t care less about what the reviews say. It’s an Amy Cross book and that’s good enough for me.
It doesn’t matter that Amazon shows me 60 other books competing for my attention. I only have eyes for the one.
That’s the power of having loyal readers and a wide body of work to choose from.
Have you read To Kill A Mockingbird ?
It’s a gritty portrayal of law vs. justice told from the innocent point of view of a child. (I strongly recommend reading it.)
Did you read Go Set a Watchman? It wasn’t that good. In fact, compared to Mockingbird, it was a horrible story.
The discrepancy is because it was Harper Lee’s FIRST story, the one the world never saw.
Therese von Hohoff Torrey was Lee’s editor and saw talent on every page, but she didn’t think the Watchman story would sell. (Turns out, she was right.) Back then, publishers were willing to work with talented writers to create a book that would sell.
Therese worked a long time with Harper Lee to create the masterpiece Mockingbird. (As opposed to Watchman which is only copy-edited.)
Today, publishers no longer do that. Modern publishers expect a story like “Harry Potter” right out of the gate. If they don’t see it, then into the slush pile you go.
Editors like Therese von Hohoff Torrey are gone; replaced by copy editors, proofreaders and in some cases, developmental editors. They are much cheaper for publishing houses to employ.
But it means a modern Harper Lee, a diamond in the rough, will never be able to succeed in this changing world of publishing.
Or does it?
Enter the Writing Coach.
Writing Coaches perform the job of the old style editor, taking a diamond in the rough and working with them until that diamond shines and shows off its true brilliance. It’s a way to go from rough idea to a rough draft that will actually work.
Regardless of what phase you’re at in your story, coaching can help you, IF you’re willing to make the commitment.
Did you know that the great composer Mozart once said he never wrote an original composition in his life? He said what he did was combine songs he’d heard in his childhood into something new, different, and somewhat the same.
The result? He was adored in his own time. Today, he’s held up as a wonderful example of classical music for future generations.
People love things that new, different, yet the same.
Do you know else did this?
I’m a big Potter fan, but nothing in Harry Potter was new.
The creatures all had roots in Greek, Roman, Slavic and some other mythologies.
The school for ‘specially gifted’ children was done previously by Rick Riordan of Percy Jackson, and Stan Lee’s X-Men. It was done countless times before either of those examples as well.
The school being in the middle of a lake and surrounded by strange forests is from The fairy tale about the twelve Dancing princesses.
Magic wands have been around forever.
So has the chosen one vs the dark lord plot.
The plot even follows an arc so unoriginal it’s a stereotype; the orphan living with relatives who hate him, the prophesized destiny, the chance to make good, needing to discover his powers, etc.
Even the name Harry Potter was the name of a boy wizard in the 1980’s movie Troll. (Though I think that one might be a genuine coincidence.)
Nope. Nothing new here.
Yet, it WAS new.
How she combined it was new. The characters were new. The mixing of myths was new. How she tied it all together and kept it going story after story was new.
Rowling was clearly a heavy reader and combined every book she ever read into her work.
This is why when my clients ask me if their idea is original, I have to tell them the truth.
It’s not. And you don’t want it to be.
It’s that mixture of newness combined with the familiar that makes works resonate with fans. It worked for Mozart. It worked for Rowling. And it can work for you.
So how DO you write a drowning scene? Go to Write That Scene and find out.
How’d you do with NaNoWriMo?
Did you win?
If not, don’t feel bad. I’ve never liked that game; and here’s why….
It’s a lousy way to write book.
Can you write a book in month? It’s possible. I’ve done it. (Unless you count the two months I spent outlining.)
Will it be it be a good book? Probably not. But the first book never is.
But the quality of the book isn’t the reason I hate it. The first draft of anything is always going to stink, big time. That’s just part of the process we call writing.
But let’s look at NaNoWriMo.
You give up all your free time for a month and write an almost finished first draft. Well, that’s great, except for the fact that you gave up ALL your free time.
Professional writers, even professional writers who have day jobs, don’t do that. It’s a guaranteed way to be burned out and hate your own book.
I feel the same way about word counts. Sure, it sounds great to say you’re going to write 1,000 words a day, but life gets in the way. The kids or the pet gets sick. Work keeps you late. There are a million reasons you aren’t going to hit that arbitrary word count.
And when you don’t, you feel like a failure, not like the real writer you want to be.
Fortunately, there’s a better way to make sure you write your book other than Narimo or trying to meet a word count based on numbers you picked out of thin air.
Well, there are a few.
But the main one is just WRITE every day. Don’t worry about word count scenes, or any of that. Just write.
It doesn’t matter if it’s one sentence. That could be the sentence that ties your whole story together. Or it could be the sentence that gets deleted in editing. It doesn’t matter.
All that matters is that you write.
Every. Single. Day.
By doing this, you’re training your brain to not only expect writing, but to want to write. Soon, you won’t be able to stop yourself from getting down all those stories you have in your head.
So, you’re probably thinking, ‘If this is the answer, why haven’t I heard about it more?’
It’s not gimmicky. It’s not cute. And it’s not that marketable.
It’s just a simple solution to an age-old problem, which gets results. It works because it trains you work.
Every. Single. Day.
So enough with the gimmicks. You have stories to write.