Open story by hinting at some mysterious element

Straight-up information about a character or a setting rarely marks a great way to start a story. Instead, the opening lines need to hint at some mysterious element.

An example of straight-up information starting a story would be Heather Adams entered the doctor’s office and signed in at the receptionist’s desk for her annual checkup. That’s not very compelling and isn’t going to encourage many readers to continue.

Instead, the author could have written: Heather Adams’ hands flew to her tear-filled face, as the doctor caressed her shoulder.

That works as a story opener because it raises curiosity. The reader wants to know why Heather is crying. Rather than tell about the humdrum, give the reader a situation that is out of the ordinary or that is fraught with conflict.

In many ways, the opening lines and pages are a tease. The reader doesn’t know what’ll happen next and must read on to find out what will occur. Such is the case with the Heather crying line; the reader wants to know just why she is in tears and how she will cope with what caused her distress.

Ideally, the opening lines and pages hint at something that makes your story unique. If the Heather crying story examines how she deals with the rare disease of glioma, that’s a topic that hasn’t appeared in print before (or at least I’m unaware of such a short story). A theme dealing with a ethical decision that Heather must make as she copes with her disease could lead to a unique tale.

To create mystery, the opening line must carefully omit specific information. For example, we don’t know why Heather is crying, we don’t know if the doctor is soothing her or perhaps has victimized her, we don’t know why others (a spouse, a significant other) aren’t comforting her.

Be careful, though, not to confuse abstraction with mystery. When the reader has no clue who’s speaking, the names of characters, or the dilemma that exists, when they feel like they are in a mist rather than in a story, then there’s a problem. For example, if you wrote Salt water and darkness filled her vision…fingertips touched her… that’s probably too abstract for most readers.

Starting a story by synopsis, stage direction, and backstory likely means that the author is not really sure where to begin. The good news is your opening line is probably in your story but just buried. If the he Heather crying line was in the straight-up line story, it would come just a few sentences later once the reader has been taken through time spent in the waiting room, the examination, the blood draw, the doctor giving the bad news. So, to find your opening line, see if you can simply strip the tale of its opening backstory until you get to the line that hints at some mysterious element.

5 Sci Fi Writing Prompts – Novums

Science fiction stories typically arise from a novum, a scientifically plausible concept that is a “reality” in the tale. The novum might be an mechanical device like robot servants, artificial intelligence, or faster-than-light spacecraft; it also can be a hypothetical idea such as “The Earth is a scientific experiment run by aliens to determine the meaning of life” or “The government outlaws books.” The author then asks “What if?” exploring how the world with this novum is different than ours.

Among the problems of many novice science fiction writers is instead of introducing a new novum they rely on used furniture – that is, they borrow novums from popular SF series. After all, how many novels have you read that use starships exploring the galaxy for the Earth-based Federation? Barely changing names to appear as if you are not appropriating – a starcraft seeking M-class worlds for the Earth-centered Alliance – still doesn’t cut it as original or fully using the potential that science fiction offers to examine our culture or humanity.

To help SF writers, here are some novums of potential near-future inventions from which stories could be built:

Human pheromone trails
What if each morning when children washed up, the soap included synthetic pheromones that left a trail of where they’d gone, so in case of kidnapping, a child could be more easily found? What other applications are there for this technology, such as espionage or monitoring parolees?

Mach-powered interstellar spacecraft
What if mach effects – described by NASA as “the transient variations in the rest masses of objects that are accelerating and undergoing internal energy changes” – could power interstellar spacecraft? How would this propulsion system work?

Nanobot toothpaste
What if nanobots were placed in toothpaste to fight plaque and prevent cavities? What other toiletries might nanobots appear in to keep us healthy?

What if flower-shaped solar “petals” could follow the sun through the day, providing energy to homes and buildings. How does the widespread use of solar energy change our energy infrastructure?

What if a new science, called zillionics, was invented to deal with finding patterns flowing from the unrelenting torrents of data arising out of always-in sensors? Philosophies, theories and practical applications will be needed to distill, index, archive and find meaningful signals in data coming from zillions of sources.

Repurpose your writing to maximize revenue

Just because a blog entry has been published doesn’t mean that it never can be used again. Instead, you want to repurpose your writing, meaning reformat and reuse it across multiple books as well as marketing and social media channels.

Doing so helps you reach a wider audience. That’s because some people prefer receiving information in very specific ways – some like videos, others prefer infographics, a few want books – and these potential buyers of your books or service may never read your blog. If played right, repurposing also maximizes your income by allowing you to produce more products or ad revenue streams. Lastly, repurposing helps alleviate the stress of constantly coming up with new content.

To repurpose your writing, begin by identifying your evergreen content. This writing is relevant to your readers for a long time; for example, if you write about skiing, “10 Tips for Beginning Skiers” will be good for years to come. Non-evergreen writing usually centers on trends or news events, such as an analysis of the ski competition at the last Olympics.

Repurposing involves reworking the writing so that it can be seen in a new medium. Information always is presented slightly differently in each medium. For example, in radio you can’t refer to or show pictures and so with words or sound effects must describe a scene; in television, you can brings up pictures for viewers to see, so spoken descriptions can be pared down and often deleted.

There are several ways to repurpose your blog entries:
 Roundups – For a new blog entry, offer a collection of links to all of the articles you’ve written about a theme/topic. This then can become an outline for a new book that you’ve already partially written!
• Ebooks – After identifying blogs with similar themes/content, outline and begin writing a new ebook. You likely will have to write new content to introduce the book and to fill in the gaps, but those in turn can be new blog entries.
• Videos – A blog entry can be the basis for a great script. The video can be posted on your website or at YouTube.
 Infographics – Distill your blog down to a few key takeaways and add some illustrations to it for a visually pleasing, quick read. Free infographic templates are available online.
• Slide shows – Using programs like PowerPoint, you can convert blogs entries to slide shows by breaking paragraphs into bullet points presented across several slides. These can be become new blog entries, used at presentations, or posted on SlideShare at LinkedIn.
• Newsletter articles – If you put out a newsletter to promote your service or books, find an old blog entry that might be of interest to your readers today.

Of course, repurposing isn’t limited to blog entries. Content you’ve written for the above mediums easily could be repurposed into a blog or any of the other ways given. A blog can be broken down into blog entries. Scripts for videos could become an ebook. Slide shows can become videos. Be creative!

When you repurpose your content, remember to always do the following:
• Update the facts – Stats and even facts quickly become outdated, and you want to be as current as possible. In our information age, you can bet that new studies and reports have come out if more than a year has passed since you wrote the blog. The more recent numbers and facts actually are likely to bolster your arguments. An outdated number or fact undercuts your piece, however.
• Check the links – You’ll also want to check any links you may have in the blog entry. Over time, website pages disappear, and you don’t want to send out material with links that were good three years ago but are now broken. If they don’t work, you’ll need to either find new, relevant links or eliminate any reference to the link.

5 Great Quotations for Aspiring Authors

“Mere literary talent is common; what is rare is endurance, the continuing desire to work hard at writing.” – Donald Hall

“By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.” – Walt Whitman

“But the ultimate lesson is just sit down and write. That’s all.” – Wole Soyinka

“Beware of advice — even this.” – Carl Sandburg

“If you wish to be a writer, write.” – Epictetus

Hint at story’s theme in opening lines

Even the most action-packed, blood-and-gore story has some message or point. A proposition that is argued or an aspect of human experience that is examined in your story is its theme. For example, the theme of the novel “Moby Dick” is revenge and obsession. Those dual passions and their costs are explored as Captain Ahab hunts and tries to destroy the great white whale that bit off his leg.

You want to hint at your theme on your opening page. This doesn’t mean you overtly state the story’s message or moral. Rather, as you know what the story’s message will be, you include underlying values that allow your theme to be revealed.

All stories convey underlying values. Like hues added as accent colors in a painting, they aren’t at the forefront of your story but subtly guide your reader.

The opening lines of your story ought to suggest these underlying values. This can be done in a variety of ways.

The simplest method is to pit the worldviews of your protagonist and antagonist against one another. As they attempt to top the other, their personalities manifest the values of their competing worldviews. For example, a hero might stop to help someone in need even though it means the antagonist gets away while the villain will show no remorse at being cruel because he believes the ends justifies the means. During your opening lines, you contrast these characters’ worldviews in the way the antagonist upsets the status quo and how the protagonist feels that this problem must be corrected.

Another way is through character development. In this case, the protagonist’s viewpoint changes to one reflecting the theme. For example, a soldier may start the story by believing force is necessary to bring peace to a country, but by story’s end he realizes that violence only begets more violence and that cooperation is the only way to bring about peace. If your story is told this way, the opening lines should show the protagonist expressing a worldview that contrasts with the theme.

A third way to suggest underlying values is symbolism. For example, suppose your protagonist is an unhappy person, never able to achieve perfection in anything despite being a high achiever; the theme of the story is that seeking perfection to achieve happiness is fool’s errand. Now add the symbol of chrysanthemums, which traditionally represent perfection. During the opening lines of the story, that character could be shown fussing with a bouquet of chrysanthemums on her dining room table, trying to make it just right but never being able to do so.

Whichever way you reveal the story’s theme, don’t use a “You see, Timmy.” This technique is named after a line in a popular TV show of the 1950s-60s, in which an adult explains to a child character the lesson learned in that episode. In short, the author directly states the theme in the narrative. While that may be fine in a children’s show, it’s insulting to adult readers, who are intelligent and sophisticated enough to infer your story’s theme. Just as you wouldn’t end your story with this Aesop-styled reveal, so you shouldn’t begin it by revealing the theme in the opening lines by stating it, such as It’s a truth well known that those who do not embrace hard work ultimately suffer or Those who aspire to govern must first learn to govern themselves and then set out to prove the premise through dramatic action.

Which is correct? Make Do vs. Make Due

If you use make due rather than make do in your writing, you might be giving yourself away as a reader of Victorian or early 20th century American novels.

Make do means to “persevere through difficult times,” as in When dad lost his job, mom said, ‘We’ll just have to make due with just my income for a bit.’”

Make due is considered a misspelling of make do. A perfect demonstration of how language evolves, make due actually was the preferred spelling until the 1940s. If you want to use this spelling in a letter or diary entry that a character in a historical novel set between 1800-1949, then you’re okay.

In the 21st century, though, make do is the way to go in your writing.

Establish story’s central problem in opening lines

Almost all stories force the main character to solve several problems. The issues of where to hide, of finding a way to send a message for help, of obtaining a weapon to defend oneself, all might appear within a single chapter of a novel or even a lone scene of a short story.

One core problem, though, sets into motion the need to address these other issues. For example, escaping a murderer might require the main character to hide, to seek help, and to defend herself. This core problem also is known as the central problem.

The central problem is the broad or central conflict that the main character must resolve before the story is over. In the above storyline, readers will be interested in the tale because they want to see if the main character escapes the would-be murderer. They won’t be satisfied with the story unless it ends with a solution to the problem. Typically, this means the main character must be victorious in the conflict.

The bulk of a plot focuses on the main character addressing a central problem. The story’s opening lines then must introduce this catalyst, as it is what gets the story going. Consider these opening lines from three different stories:

Story #1
Captain Steve Haley gazed warily at the shard in his helmsman’s palm. Not much larger than a peppershaker, the thing tapered from a wide jagged edge to a dull point, reflected the ship’s lights with the sharp gleam of obsidian. “It’s safe to hold?”

Story #2
Even before the sun rose, Evod and Nevar prepared themselves for the race. Silently, they inventoried supplies, examined their craft’s hull and unpacked Nevar’s ceremonial suit. Evod inspected each item with a drill instructor’s eye, discovering problems that really weren’t. As Nevar quietly assisted, her brother tapped here and there, scrutinized with the spectroscope, and fidgeted over adjustments. Then came the time for Nevar to don her suit. First the compuvisor went on, followed by the inertia damper ensemble with gloves and boots, each task done after a short chant as prescribed by tradition. Despite her magnificence in the resplendent suit, Nevar still felt like the adolescent girl the really was, not a daughter of the great pilot T’sohg.

Story #3
Jalen skidded chin first into the ground and wincing, spit dirt from his mouth, then gazed up. Even at that moment with the machines upon him, he found the night sky beautiful and mysterious. The heavens grew inkier the higher one looked, as if space suddenly were denser there, and a streak of brilliant white light, the Saoirse Comet moving west, shined amid the stars. The fuzzy edges of the silhouetted corn leaves wavered above him, breaking his view of the firmament, and he resisted a tear. Everything stood between him and the stars.

Though never overtly stated, each of the stories has a definite central problem that demands resolution: What is the object in the helmsman’s hand?…Will Nevar win the race?…Will Jalen reach the stars?

Resolving the central problem becomes the plot goal, and the rest of the narrative arc then might unfold this way:
• Rising action scene A – The antagonist comes closer to achieving his goal as a direct result of the main character’s failure to resolve the broad conflict.
• Rising action scene B – The situation worsens for the main character, whose attempt to resolve the central problem only leaves the antagonist even more implacable.
• Rising action scene A – The main character’s attempt to resolve the central problem at best only slows the antagonist, who now appears to be undefeatable.
• Climax – The main character finds a way to defeat the antagonist, hence resolving the central problem.

Arguably, the central problem isn’t what a story ever is really about. It’s just a device to get the story going. After all, in many character-based stories, the story actually centers on an internal conflict within the main character that unless resolved will mean she can’t resolve the central problem. For example, if the main character is opposed to using violence as an ends to a means, her only alternative is to run from the murderer. That only buys her time. To resolve the central problem, her beliefs must change so she realizes that sometimes violence is necessary. Ultimately, she must decide to use a weapon to defend herself. For the reader, the most interesting aspect of this story is how the main character “evolves” or changes. Indeed, that’s true for the writer as well, as the message or theme of the story is that sometimes violence must be used to achieve peace.

Out-of-Whack Event
Usually the central problem in the opening lines involves some incident that upsets the status quo. In doing so, the main character faces the challenge of restoring order in the world.

This incident is known as an out-of-whack event, which is “when the story concerns a character whose stable life is knocked out of whack by an external event,” as the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Inc., defines it.

Consider this example of a story opener that employs an out-of-whack event:

Peter Hanswurst sniffed indignantly. A gray circle of withered plants lay in the middle of his field, an otherwise perfect patch of green soybeans alternating with black dirt that ran into the horizon. The hot Midwestern sun beat down on him, and he wiped sweat from his forehead. Hanswurst figured the circle was no more than six feet across, a miniscule fraction of the entire field, and one he decided that was small enough to eradicate.

In this story, farmer Peter Hanswurst finds his world out-of-whack: a strange circle of dead plants sits in the middle of his otherwise perfect field. He now will spend the story trying to rid the field of the circle – and face a number of obstacles in doing so.

Starting a story with an out-of-whack event is a time-honored tradition in Western storytelling. Indeed, Aristotle touted it.

Usually the out-of-whack event happens at the story’s beginning. Sometimes it even occurs before the story begins, as the tale starts with the main character already engaged in the struggle to get his life back in order. If the excerpt above started with Peter Hanswurst plowing under the dead plants in the gray circle, the out-of-whack event would have occurred before the story began.

If using an out-of-whack event, don’t wait too long to introduce the incident. If you do, you risk having the story move too slowly and missing out on a great opportunity for a narrative hook.

8 Ways Authors Can Sell More Books on Twitter

• Tweet your book to popularity
• Put your Twitter profile text to work for you 
• How to select a great Twitter profile picture
• Six great topics for authors to tweet about
• Four ways to write a great tweet that sell books
• When to promote your book using Twitter
• Maximize shares, retweets by using images
• Tips to ensure your Twitter photos sell books  
• Promote your book by starting a Twitter chat 
• BONUS: “It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.”  

13 Tips on Setting up a Self-Publishing Business

• To self-publish or not to self-publish?
• What is an “imprint” in self-publishing?
• You’ve self-published? You’re a sole proprietor!
• Do self-published writers need a business plan?
• Elements of creating a successful book business
• Value of creating your own publishing company 
• What to name your publishing company
• Does a self-published author need to incorporate?
• When to file Fictitious Business Name Statement
• Do self-published writers need business mailbox?  
• Should you ever co-write your book?
• Co-authors can form “general partnership”
• Should you buy publisher’s insurance?
• BONUS: Five Great Quotations about Business of Writing

6 Tips for Authors on Doing Their Taxes

• Keep these docs for your writing business records
• Tax forms self-published authors must file
• Self-published authors may need EIN
• Writers can deduct home office space on taxes 
• Indie writers also can use depreciation on taxes
• Indie authors can deduct vehicle expenses 
• BONUS: “It is perfectly okay to write garbage – as long as you edit brilliantly.” – C. J. Cherryh