Friday, May 4, 2018

Are You Starting Your Story in the Right Place? #WritingTips #AmWriting

I've been in the writing and editing business in some form or another for 27 years--yes, that's a helluva long time. On top of that, I have had interactions with literary agents, attended writers' conferences, met with publishers and editors from major houses--and we all come across the same fatal flaw in manuscripts.

What is the fatal flaw that will get your manuscript scrapped in the first glance through or will cause an editor to have a stroke or, if you make it to publication, will cause readers to turn on you? Starting your story at the wrong place.

Perhaps you have great characters but want the world to know where they come from so you fill your beginning with a lengthly prologue or introduction of some kind. Maybe you start too far ahead and then cripple the flow with explanations either in the form of flashbacks or speech-like dialogue. Or you have too many scenes that do not drive a plot--do you actually have a plot?--and are simply adding to your word count.

It's easy for a pro like me or an agent or any other publishing professional to spot, but why can't authors recognize this in their own work?

"In writing, you must learn to kill all your darlings." 
--William Faulkner 

Because sometimes authors are their own worst enemies. They are too emotionally attached to their story or characters, which prevents them from looking at their work critically.

I once met an agent at a writers conference who told me of a woman who pitched her the same manuscript for twenty years. The agent told me that she has taken some pity on the woman by telling her again and again, "you need to cut this in half, the actual story takes place several chapters in." The author refuses to listen--just keeps revising the same old manuscript and submitting it to the same agent hoping for a different response. Yes, this falls into the definition of insanity.

Sometimes as writers we start a book where we genuinely believe is the beginning, but as we write the plot reveals a twist or the story simply goes on another path, making our original beginning awkward and perhaps not the most engaging "chapter one."

Ask yourself: what is your plot?

You may roll your eyes and think that's a simple question that you obviously know, but do you really? Is every single scene in your manuscript driving that plot forward? Even you have a "character driven" book, you still need a plot so don't use that as your response either.

Guess what? Readers want a plot. They want a book that has both engaging characters and a gripping plot. If you're starting your story either too far in the past or too far in the future, you are missing your mark.

Backstory is usually the culprit. If that's your problem, write a backstory for each of your main characters for your eyes only. Now think of your plot--where is the best place to begin? How can you weave a bit of the characters' stories in through either narrative or dialogue throughout the story rather than in huge dumps in the beginning or in a "dream sequence" (two things to avoid, by the way)?

So, here's what you the author need to do right now with your manuscript:

  1. Look at page one and ask yourself if this is where the story actually begins---not the backstory, but the current plot line. 
  2. Do you have hooks in that first chapter that will compel a reader out of curiosity to see what happens next? 
  3. Do you have a prologue? Why? That's usually a big clue that you're either starting the story in the wrong place or you don't have a handle on writing backstory. 
  4. When does the action begin? If it's four chapters in, then what purpose are those first three chapters serving? If it's to tell the backstory, cut them and turn chapter four into chapter one. Get a handle on backstory--challenge yourself. No one ever said writing a novel would be easy. 
Write on!
AL Easton

Amber Lea Easton is a multi-published author of nonfiction, thrillers, and romantic suspense. A professional editor and freelance journalist for over two decades, she created Mountain Moxie Creative Services to assist authors in mastering the writing craft. As both an editor and a creativity coach, she strives to work as a partner with her authors so that they achieve success in their creative endeavors. Her memoir, Free Fall, has topped international best selling charts, and has been named by Dr. Prem as fourth on the "Ten Most Inspiring True Stories Everyone Must Read" list. With clients across North America and the Caribbean, she has a proven record of success. To discover more about Mountain Moxie Publishing Services, please go to

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