Jamie Richter

Author of slipstream, technology-themed horror, and dark speculative fiction.

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13893847 Tips for Writing a Killer First Chapter…

Ok, there aren’t 13893847 tips here.

Actually, there won’t be any tips at all. Turn away now if you have stumbled across this blog post in the hope that I would be able to give you the golden formula for hooking your reader and getting that awesome manuscript of yours published. I don’t have that information… but I do have a lot of frustration when it comes to writing that first chapter.

Google the phrase ‘how to write a killer first chapter’, or some variation of that phrase, and you are bound to find hundreds of threads, blog entries and posts about the subject. Everyone seems to have the good word on what elements constitute an awesome first chapter for a novel. It’s difficult for an inexperienced writer to know exactly what an editor/agent/publisher wants – we’re constantly bombarded with horror stories involving the notion that if you don’t hook the reader with your first sentence then your entire manuscript will be filed in the garbage bin – never to be seen again. The sad fact is, we’re often told this by editors/agents/publishers… or at least from people who are meant to represent these beacons of the industry. And to be honest, it doesn’t do a great deal to build a newbie’s confidence.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of great info out there. You should do everything you can to try and capture your reader’s attention from that first paragraph and then hold it for the remainder of your novel. That’s a given. But let’s face it, there are no hard and fast rules in life… even the publishing industry. I doubt anyone out there in Slushpile Land is really going to bin your work just because you didn’t open with “Call me Ishmael”.

If I did have any tips for writing a killer first chapter (and I said that I wasn’t going to give any), it would involve picking up five or ten published novels and see how they did it, read as many of these tips as you can but don’t treat them as gospel, and finally – listen to your beta readers. If you can hook your beta reader from the get-go, chances are you’ll go a long way to making sure the right people will treat your novel with the respect it deserves.

Whatever you do – just keep writing!

The Best Self-Editing Tips… Ever?

Self-editing can be unforgiving, especially for those of us who are new to the process. Over the last few months I have read a lot of books and websites that deal with the subject, however Allen Guthrie, an editor for Point Blank Press, laid out ‘the rules’ about as succinctly as any individual has:

‘Hunting Down the Pleonasms’ by Allen Guthrie

I can’t stress strongly enough that writing is subjective. We all strive for different goals. Consequently, we all need our own set of rules—and some of us don’t need rules at all! Personally, I like rules. If nothing else, it’s fun breaking them.

  1. Avoid pleonasms. A pleonasm is a word or phrase which can be removed from a sentence without changing its meaning. For example, in “Hunting Down The Pleonasm”, ‘down’ is pleonastic. Cut it and the meaning of the sentence does not alter. Many words are used pleonastically: ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘actually’ are three frequently-seen culprits (I actually just know that he’s the killer can be trimmed to I know he’s the killer), and phrases like ‘more or less’ and ‘in any shape or form’ are redundant.
  2. Use oblique dialogue. Try to generate conflict at all times in your writing. Attempt the following experiment at home or work: spend the day refusing to answer your family and colleagues’ questions directly. Did you generate conflict? I bet you did. Apply that principle to your writing and your characters will respond likewise.
  3. Use strong verbs in preference to adverbs. I won’t say avoid adverbs, period, because about once every fifty pages they’re okay! What’s not okay is to use an adverb as an excuse for failing to find the correct verb. To ‘walk slowly’ is much less effective than to ‘plod’ or ‘trudge’. To ‘connect strongly’ is much less effective than to ‘forge a connection’.
  4. Cut adjectives where possible. See rule 3 (for ‘verb’ read ‘noun’).
  5. Pairs of adjectives are exponentially worse than single adjectives. The ‘big, old’ man walked slowly towards the ‘tall, beautiful’ girl. When I read a sentence like that, I’m hoping he dies before he arrives at his destination. Mind you, that’s probably a cue for a ‘noisy, white’ ambulance to arrive. Wailingly, perhaps!
  6. Keep speeches short. Any speech of more than three sentences should be broken up. Force your character to do something. Make him take note of his surroundings. Ground the reader. Create a sense of place.
  7. If you find you’ve said the same thing more than once, choose the best and cut the rest. Frequently, I see the same idea presented several ways. It’s as if the writer is saying, “The first couple of images might not work, but the third one should do it. If not, maybe all three together will swing it.” The writer is repeating himself. Like this. This is a subtle form of pleonasm.
  8. Show, don’t tell. Much vaunted advice, yet rarely heeded. An example: expressing emotion indirectly. Is your preferred reader intelligent? Yes? Then treat them accordingly. Tears were streaming down Lila’s face. She was very sad. Can the second sentence be inferred from the first? In context, let’s hope so. So cut it. If you want to engage your readers, don’t explain everything to them. Show them what’s happening and allow their intelligence to do the rest. And there’s a bonus to this approach. Because movies, of necessity, show rather than tell, this approach to your writing will help when it’s time to begin work on the screenplay adaptation of your novel!
  9. Describe the environment in ways that are pertinent to the story. And try to make such descriptions active. Instead of describing a book lying on a table, have your psycho-killer protagonist pick it up, glance at it and move it to the arm of the sofa. He needs something to do to break up those long speeches, right?
  10. Don’t be cute. In the above example, your protagonist should not be named Si Coe.
  11. Avoid sounding ‘writerly’. Better to dirty up your prose. When you sound like a writer, your voice has crept in and authorial intrusion is always unwelcome. In the best writing, the author is invisible.
  12. Fix your Point Of View (POV). Make it clear whose head you’re in as early as possible. And stay there for the duration of the scene. Unless you’re already a highly successful published novelist, in which case you can do what you like. The reality is that although most readers aren’t necessarily clued up on the finer points of POV, they know what’s confusing and what isn’t.
  13. Don’t confuse the reader. If you write something you think might be unclear, it is. Big time. Change it or cut it.
  14. Use ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Sid Fleischman calls ‘said’, “the invisible word.”
  15. Whilst it’s good to assume your reader is intelligent, never assume they’re psychic.
  16. Start scenes late and leave them early.
  17. When writing a novel, start with your characters in action. Fill in any necessary backstory as you go along.
  18. Give your characters clear goals. Always. Every scene. And provide obstacles to those goals. Always. Every scene. If the POV character in a scene does not have a goal, provide one or cut the scene. If there is no obstacle, add one or cut the scene.
  19. Don’t allow characters who are sexually attracted to one another the opportunity to get into bed unless at least one of them has a jealous partner.
  20. Torture your protagonist. It’s not enough for him to be stuck up a tree. You must throw rocks at him while he figures out how to get down.
  21. Use all five senses in your descriptions. Smell and touch are too often neglected.
  22. Vary your sentence lengths. I tend to write short, and it’s amazing what a difference combing a couple of sentences can make.
  23. Don’t allow your fictional characters to speak in sentences. Unless you want them to sound fictional.
  24. Cut out filtering devices, wherever possible. ‘He felt’, ‘he thought’, ‘he observed’ are all filters. They distance the reader from the character.
  25. Avoid unnecessary repetition of tense. For example: I’d gone to the hospital. They’d kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I’d seen a doctor. Usually, the first sentence is sufficient to establish tense. I’d gone to the hospital. They kept me waiting for hours. Eventually, I saw a doctor.
  26. When you finish your book, pinpoint the weakest scene and cut it. If necessary, replace it with a sentence or paragraph.
  27. Don’t plant information. How is Donald, your son? I’m quite sure Donald’s father doesn’t need reminding who Donald is. Their relationship is mentioned purely to provide the reader with information.
  28. If an opinion expressed through dialogue makes your POV character look like a jerk, allow him to think it rather than say it. He’ll express the same opinion, but seem like a lot less of a jerk.
  29. Characters who smile and grin a lot come across as deranged fools. Sighing and shrugging are also actions to avoid. Eliminating smiles, sighs and shrugs is almost always an improvement. Smiling sadly is a capital offence.
  30. Pronouns are big trouble for such little words. The most useful piece of information I ever encountered on the little blighters was this: pronouns refer to the nearest matching noun backwards. For example: John took the knife out of its sheath and stabbed Paul with it. Well, that’s good news for Paul. If you travel backwards from ‘it’, you’ll see that John has stabbed Paul with the sheath! Observing this rule leads to much clearer writing.
  31. Spot the moment of maximum tension and hold it for as long as possible. Or as John D. MacDonald put it: “Freeze the action and shoot him later.”
  32. If something works, forget about the rule that says it shouldn’t.

Copyright Allen Guthrie.

‘Peace Be Upon You’ – Skive Magazine – Real Dreams Issue (June 2012)

I haven’t written a great deal lately, however when an email popped-up in my inbox from the editor of Skive Magazine requesting stories for the upcoming June issue, the theme seemed intriguing. The ‘Real Dreams Issue’ is pretty much self-explanatory – real dreams experienced by the authors. Under normal circumstances I might have let this one pass if it weren’t for the fact that I recently had a peculiar dream about a month prior which had stuck with me ever since. I’ve always found writing a great mechanism for getting ideas out of my head, so what better opportunity than to contribute my story ‘Peace Be Upon You’ to the June issue of Skive Magazine?

Skive Magazine Real Dreams Issue

There’s something like 58 authors and 160 dreams featured in the magazine, so it’s well worth a read.

A Unique Christmas Gift or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Formatting

My family have never been the type to make a big deal of birthdays or holidays like Christmas. Sure, when I was growing up we did the whole decorated tree thing and gave gifts, but once I was old enough to realise that Santa was just a fictional Capitalist manifestation, probably around the age of 25, we pretty much toned the festivities down. Okay it wasn’t 25… it was 24. Jokes aside, some people might find that a little weird but that’s just the way we are, and quite frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. We love each other and all that associated hokey crap, but how many pairs of jocks and socks do you really need to give each other in order to show that you care?

With that bit of family backstory out of the way, I did want to do something special for Christmas. Things have been going reasonably well for me the last few years, especially financially, so I had this crazy notion that I wanted to get my parents a present – something unique for Christmas 2011.  Most people just trundle off to the local supermarket or shopping centre and pick-up some generic crap like a bottle of Old Spice for their father and a box of chocolates for their mother, but I wanted to do something a little more personal than that. I wracked my brain for a few days and finally came up with the perfect gift. My folks know that I ‘write’. They’ve never been entirely sure what I write, or whether I’m actually any good (my other family members have read some of my film reviews online and have raved to my folks about them), so I decided to take the plunge a couple of weeks before Christmas and get the ball rolling on having my novelette ‘An As Yet Untitled Tale From A Titty Bar’ professionally printed as a gift for my parents.

Yes, you read right, I decided to take on this mammoth task two weeks before Christmas!

I typically write short flash fiction in the speculative fiction/sci-fi/horror genre, so my ‘titty bar’ story, as most people call it, is not exactly the most accurate representation of my work. It is however a very personal story and gives a rather in-depth look at my thought processes and feelings – something which I have always tried to keep from my family. I trade on the fact my family are too technically inept to be able to read my work online or via electronic reader, so it was a bit nerve wracking to pick this story as the one I ‘came out’ to my parents with. Came out as a writer that is. No homo.

Two weeks to get this wacky Christmas present not only formatted and printed, but DELIVERED!!! Where the hell was I going to start?

I obviously needed to find a local (as in Australian) printer who specialised in, or at least offered, affordable short print runs. I was realistically only looking at maybe two or three copies to start with, one for my parents and maybe one or two for friends. Normally I would have tried consulting something like the Handbook for Queensland Writers which is put out by the helpful Queensland Writers’ Centre, which I’m pretty sure it has a list of printers who can do such requests, however given the short amount of time I had, I decided to turn to the internet. I started out by searching for local printers that did short runs. Price wasn’t a big concern for me, as long as it was reasonable. This was a Christmas gift after all, not a 1000 copy run of my own self-published work. I ended up finding a small printer in New South Wales called FC Productions that claimed to specialise in low volume printing with a quick turn around. According to their site they stated that they could have my books printed and in the mail in three days. It sounded like what I needed, so I shot them a quick email asking for a basic quote on what it would cost to print five copies. The quote came in at under $10 a copy. The novelette was only going to be about 40 pages and $10 a copy seemed perfectly acceptable under the circumstances, especially given the quick turn around.

Over the next few days I conversed with Francis via email and phone (he was very patient and helpful) and we nutted-out the required format for the text and covers. Between work deadlines and holiday deadlines I was burning the candle at both ends to get everything done and still have enough time up our sleeves to make sure the book was printed and in the mail before Christmas. I’m glad to say we got there in the end. The text formatting was the hardest part to get right as I had to strike a balance between readability and something that looked pleasant to the eye. I went with a fairly standard size 11 Times New Roman  font with no funky paragraphing or spacing. A clean, classic look. As an aside: I thought I knew a reasonable amount about formatting and printing, but that quickly went out the window when you start talking to a professional – styles of binding, glazed covers etc. These guys certainly know their stuff. I felt a bit lost at first but fortunately Francis  helped point me in the right direction. You wouldn’t believe how long it took me to get Microsoft Word to cooperate with sections and page numbering… urg.

The books were in the mail on the Friday before Christmas and they arrived a few days later on the Tuesday!

The team at FC Productions did a great job!

My only regret is that I wished I had used a higher resolution image for the front cover, but that was my fault for trying to do all of this at the last minute – but overall it was definitely worth it.

A look at the finished product:

So I guess you are wondering how my parents reacted to the gift? They seemed genuinely excited about it, which is rare. My mother even read about half of it after Christmas lunch, which in itself was a bit daunting. I think I only heard her laugh out loud once – at a fart joke of all things. Okay, thanks mum. I’m not sure if that is a good thing or a bad thing. I assume they have read the whole thing by now. I don’t think I’ll ask them what they thought of the story unless they actively bring it up in conversation. Quite frankly I’m not sure they know what to make of the version of their son within those pages… but hopefully they can now at least see that I can string a few words together if necessary.

Hopefully the next thing they read might be that novel of mine gathering dust in my desk drawer. Who knows?

 

Things you might want to take into consideration when doing something like this:

  • Know what you want and set a budget.
  • Ensure you deal with a reputable printing company – ask around and research.
  • Ensure you have open channels of communication with the printer, you will need to ask questions!
  • Get any quotes or correspondence in writing.
  • Ensure there have ample time to have your work formatted and printed.
  • Spend a lot of time on a quality cover – front and back!
  • Be clear on the recommended formatting suggested by the printer.
  • Printers are there to print, they won’t fix your typos, create your cover, or correct major formatting mistakes for you.
  • More pages equals higher printing costs – eliminate unnecessary blank pages and bloated formatting.
  • When a printer makes a suggestion, listen to them, they know what they are doing.
  • Ask if you can see a sample of the finished product before ordering.
  • You might have to compromise a little to get your book printed and in your hands.
  • The finished product won’t always look exactly like something you would expect to find in a book store.

Anyway, I hope my little stream-of-consciousness post can help others who are thinking about a unique gift for their loved ones, or are simply looking to get their own small volume work printed.

‘When The Alphabet Vomits On A Birth Certificate’ – AntipodeanSF #163

It’s a brand new year and funnily enough a brand new story published… our man Ion over at AntipodeanSF is always on the ball.  That’s right folks, my latest short story ‘When The Alphabet Vomits On A Birth Certificate’ appears in the current issue of AntipodeanSF (#163). In short it’s basically a thinly-veiled jab at my hatred for the modern trend of creatively naming children. You know what I’m talking about – making-up stupid names, or even worse, taking perfectly good names and spelling them in some monstrous manner in which no normal person could possibly pronounce with any confidence. I could go on a thousand word rant just on this subject alone, but I’ll spare you all from it. While I’m not sure what the coming year will hold for me in terms of writing and being published, it certainly is a great way to start 2012!

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