How to Ruin Your Novel’s Opening with a Few Wrong Words

Choosing the right set of words–the diction of your novel–is crucial, especially in the opening pages of your novel. Novels are a context for making choices, and within that context, some words make sense and some don’t.

A novel sets up a certain setting, time period, tone, mood and sensibilities and you must not violate this. If you are writing a gothic romance, the language must reflect this. For thrillers, the fast paced action demands a certain vocabulary. Violating these restrictions means a bump in the reader’s experience that may make them put down the book.

Let’s look at some examples. This is from my book, SAUCY AND BUBBA: A HANSEL AND GRETEL TALE.
S&B COVER3-CS.inddJust from the title you know that this is a contemporary retelling of Hansel and Gretel and this sets up expectations for the language that will be used. This is a first look at Krissy, the stepmother.

Krissy was singing to herself. Gingerbread days were filled with music, too. Once a month, Krissy made a gingerbread house and took it into town to sell to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then donated it to a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and pored over them.

Let’s substitute a couple words and see if it bothers you as a reader:

Krissy was caterwauling to herself. Gingerbread days were crammed with music, too. Once a month, Krissy slapped together a gingerbread house and took it into town to peddle to the bakery for $200. The bakery displayed it in their picture window for a month, and then dumped it off at a day care. Each month, Krissy checked out a stack of architecture books and flipped through them.

I’ve been extreme here in word choice, of course. The key is to listen to your story. Where are the places where a single word might interrupt the narrative? Work hard to control your word choices and the overall diction of your story. And I’ll stay with you for the whole book.

Idea to Book: Outline + Character

How do you take an idea to a book? I am just starting the process again and every time, it overwhelms me. I know the process works, but it seems so daunting at this first stage. So, I only look forward to the next task, knowing that taking the first step will lead me onward.

For this story, I’ll approach it on several levels at once:

Outlining. This is the fourth book in an easy-reader series, so I know the general pattern that the book will follow over its ten chapters. Chapter one will introduce the story problem and chapter ten will wrap it up. That leaves eight chapters and each has a specific function in this short format. Chapter 2 introduces the subplot, chapter 4 intensifies it and chapter 6 resolves it. That leaves chapters 1, 3, 5, 7-10 for the wrap-up. Chapters 9 and 10 are the climax scene, split into two, with a cliff hanger at the end of chapter 9. In other words, I can slot actions into the functions of each chapter and make it work. Knowing each chapter’s function makes it easier–but not automatic. I’ll still need to shift things around and make allowances for this individual story.

Character Problem. Making my characters hurt is the second challenge. Squeezing them, making them uncomfortable, making them cry, dishing out grief and mayhem–it’s all part of the author’s job. I tend to be a peace-maker and find this to be quite difficult. But if I can manage to bring my character’s emotions to a breaking point by chapter 8, I’ll be able to move the reader. I’ll be searching for the pressure points for the character as the outline progresses. Hopefully, the emotional resolution in chapter 9-10 will be a twist, something unexpected by the reader.

Back and Forth Between Outline and Characters. The nice thing about focusing on just this much at first is that it is interactive. I’ll go back and forth between plot, character and the structure demanded by this series until the story starts to gel. Will it be easy and automatic? Oh, no. I’ll be pulling out my hair (metaphorically) for a couple days. But by the end of the week (I hope) there will be progress.

How do you start your story? Do you free-write, create a character background, or outline? Which parts interact as you create the basis for a new story?

Photo Credit:

What Character Are You? Click to Enlarge. Photo Credit:

Begin in the Muggle World: Opening Scenes

Where should your novel begin? The Harry Potter series doesn’t start with the death of Harry’s parents, because Harry wasn’t old enough to remember that. It doesn’t start with the first day in Hogwarts School because it wouldn’t bring us into Harry’s world with a strong enough sense of character and a strong sympathy for Harry.

Instead, JK Rowling begins the whole series in the Muggle world, with a misfit Harry trying to survive while living under the stairway.

Build Sympathy. One crucial goal of openings is to create sympathy for a character that will carry through many challenges and events. An orphaned child who is forced to live with disagreeable parents will most certainly get sympathy. Poor thing, to be treated so shabbily; it’s not fair. We love our underdogs, don’t we?
Start with the Normal World. For Harry and for the reader, the normal world is the Muggle world where there is no magic. It’s the right place to start, but the wrong place to linger. Readers should understand exactly what the normal situation is before something comes along to shake up the world of the story.

Start with a Day that is Different. Harry’s under-the-stairs world is normal, but it doesn’t stay normal. Immediately something is different. It’s a delicate balance to make sure the contrast is set up between normal and the exciting world introduced in the story. You want enough of the normal to set up the contrast, but too much gets boring. Normal is boring. Think hard about where you might start the story and what are the first small inklings (or big huge inklings, if you choose) of change. Start there or a bit later.

13 Blast it Out of the Park Posts of 2013

It’s a time to look backward. What are the 13 most popular posts on Fiction Notes in 2013? Here’s the countdown!

Posts Written in 2013

13. 63 Character Emotions to Explore When your character gets stuck at sad, even sadder and truly sad, explore these options for more variety.

12. 5 Quotes to Plot Your Novel By. We always like to know what other authors think about writing and how they work. These quotes are a tiny insight into the writing process.

11. 5 More Ways to Add Humor. Ever popular, but hard to get right, I always need help being funny.

10. Nonfiction Picture Books: 7 Choices. What types of nonfiction picture books are popular now, especially with the Common Core State Standards.

9. Why Authors Should Believe in Their Websites. This was a response to a posting on Jane Friedman‘s website that challenged why authors need a website at all.

8. Help Me Write a Book. A list of suggested resources that will help you write a book.

7. 7 Reasons Your Manuscript Might Be Rejected. A discussion of the rejection cycle and how to defeat it.

c.2013 Dwight Pattison. All rights reserved. My favorite picture that my husband took this year. Pelicans along the Arkansas River

c. Dwight Pattison. My favorite picture that my husband took this year. Pelicans along the Arkansas River

Classic Posts

6. 9 Traits of Sympathetic Characters. How to make that protagonists a nice-guy or nice-girl.

5. 29 Plot Templates. Lost on where to start plotting? Consider one of these options.

4. 30 Days to a Stronger Novel. This series continues to be popular. It’s 30 days of tips for making your novel into the story of your dreams.

3. 30 Days to a Stronger Picture Book. Likewise, 30 days of tips for writing a picture book is hugely popular.

2. Picture Book Standards: 32 Pages. The most frequent question people ask about picture books is how long should they be. Here’s the standard answer, with explanations for why 32 pages is the standard.

1. 12 Ways to Start a Novel. 100 classic opening lines are categorized into twelve ways of opening a novel.

This list reflects the range of topics that consume me and that I want to write about. But it’s not just about me. Please leave a comment with one topic you’d like to see discussed this year.

Writing Out of Sequence

An odd thing is happening on my current WIP: I am writing the story out of order.

Here’s the process for this story–which will change, of course, for the next story.

  • Jot down rough ideas for the story. This project is book 3 in a series, so I knew the characters and setting. I just needed to sketch out the main conflict and how it fit into this world.
  • Check continuity issues. Of course, this mean that I had to check continuity issues. What was the name of the homeroom teacher and how is she described. In other words, I had to dip back into the previous stories and re-immerse myself in the milieu.
  • Expand the ideas. Next, I expanded the ideas to a paragraph or more for each of the ten chapters.
  • Check the narrative arc and strengthen. At this level, it’s easy to see flaws in plotting: not enough tension, not enough suspense, not enough at stake, etc. I worked with story line, actually struggling for about two weeks, trying to get all the elements to work together. The result was about ten pages, or one page per chapter. These consist of snippets of setting, dialogue, or character emotions. I know roughly what story beats will be involved, though each chapter needs expansion.
  • Creative Commons; no changes.

    Some sequences are easy to write out of order; some sequences must be written in order or the author gets confused.

  • Expand. With that foundation, I am now writing out of order. The narrative arc is strong, so I’m confident that the planned scenes will actually fit into the story about where I have them now. I am confident of the content that belongs in each chapter. I’m not worrying about fine-tuning each scene, I just want something down and I can turn to any chapter/scene that I want at this point.
  • Integrate. I have about six of the ten chapters written and already much has been revised. I reread the whole thing each day and find weak places to edit and continuity issued to address. This time, I mean continuity within this novel, not necessarily within the series. But I am also going back to Books 1 and 2 to change things for series continuity.
  • Repeat steps as needed. I am working all over the landscape of this short novel and it’s interesting to see it unfold and how connections are creeping into the draft, making it stronger.

Will I use this process again? I don’t know. Maybe for Book 4 of this series, but maybe not for another genre or other series. Usually, each project needs its own trajectory and working method. All I know is that this is moving me forward. For now.

Novelists: You are Gifted & Talented

Gifted and Talented

If you have finished a draft of a novel (however messy!), you are Gifted and Talented.

The fact that you are Gifted and Talented has an important implication for revising your story. Learners. First, I’ve talked with Gifted and Talented Teachers about how their students learn. When they learn something new, there’s a stage where they are very uncomfortable. Usually, GTs learn quickly and easily; they catch on. But sometimes the material is more difficult than usual, or more complex, or more puzzling. For some reason, they don’t catch on. They are unsure of what to do next.

At that point, GTs get uncomfortable and since they are rarely uncomfortable with learning, they often bail out. Anger, frustration, fear, impatience–do you experience some of these emotions when you face a revision that just doesn’t seem to be working?

The very fact that writing well is a process of revision is frustrating to a GT. They are used to getting things right the first time around. Maybe the first obstacle is embracing writing as a process.

Once you accept the process, though, you must also accept that facing difficulties in the revision process is normal! But if you’re a GT (and you are!), then it’s doubly frustrating because you so rarely face things that are hard. When I do the Novel Revision retreat, I warn the writers that they may hit a brick wall sometime during the weekend. The process of thinking about revision may start to overwhelm them.

Forewarned is forearmed. I try to head off the problem of frustration by warning that it is inevitable. When revising your story, you will face difficulties. This is normal! Let me say that again: Difficulties are normal. To be expected. Inevitable. A normal part of the process.

You have two choices: face them squarely and deal with them; avoid them and quit. And of course–you can’t quit!

As a GT, you are uniquely qualified to solve difficulties in revising because you do catch on quickly. You know how to locate and use resources that will help. You absorb information from a wide variety of sources. Given a day or so, you could probably tell me 30 ways that others have solved similar problems.

If you have a complete draft of a novel done, you are Gifted and Talented. That’s good news. It might mean you have a lower threshold for frustration, but in the end, it means you’ll make it through the writing process in great shape.

Perseverance or just plain Stubbornness’ve heard the stories: Dr. Seuss? first book, To Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937) was rejected twenty-eight times. Neil Simon, in Rewrites: A Memoir tells of over twenty drafts needed for his first play.

Most of us would have to agree with Vladimir Nabokov, “I have written–often several times–every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasures.”

Or Dorothy Parker, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.”

Or John Kenneth Galbraith who jokes, “There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I’m greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed.”

Or Truman Capote, “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”

We understand that revising means doing it again until it’s right. But psychologically, that means the best trait a writer can have is stubbornness. On days when there is no hope sheer perseverance takes over.


On those days, I highly recommend Art and Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It?s my favorite books on the psychology of making art and goes into much more detail on many more subjects than I can here in five days. There have been days–like when I got that rejection of a novel after two revisions and fourteen months of dealing with an editor–that all I can do is sit at my desk and cry and re-read this book.

And start again.

Perseverance comes in two forms: revising until the story is right and making your art your way over a lifetime. It took Dr. Seuss twenty years after his first book to write The Cat in the Hat. ( 2007 annotated version). It often takes the work of years to hit your stride and produce your best work. We are in this for the long haul and this current book is just one of the waystations. Think career. Get stubborn. Persevere!

How do you deal with those deadly rejections?

Rudolph’s Top 5 Writing Tips

Happy Holidays

Just got an e-newsletter from the North Pole and Santa passed along these writing tips from the Frosty the Snowman, posted for the young-at-heart who are writing novels this year.

Back by popular demand is my series on writing tips from popular Christmas figures. First published in 2007, they are updated here for your Christmas cheer.

Santa Claus’s Top 5 Writing Tips
12 Days of Christmas Writing Tips (live on 12/3)
The Gingerbread Man’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/4)
Frosty the Snowman’s Top 6 Writing Tips (live on 12/5)
Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer’s Top 5 Writing Tips (live on 12/6)

Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’s top 5 Writing Tips

Merry Christmas from Rudolph, Fiction Notes and Darcy Pattison

Image by Richard Clifford

  1. Unique characters. Give characters a tag, a physical or emotional something that makes them stand out from the crowd. That red nose, in the context of a reindeer herd, is absolutely astoundnig.

    Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
    had a very shiny nose.
    And if you ever saw him,
    you would even say it glows.

  2. Conflict. The conflict here is the usual playground teasing and bullying of someone who is different. It’s a classic theme because we can all identify with it on some level. Don’t’ be afraid of classic themes; just use them in unique ways.

    Also, pile on the conflict. The other reindeer do three things to Rudolph, each an escalation: laugh, call him names, exclude him from games.

    All of the other reindeer
    used to laugh and call him names.
    They never let poor Rudolph
    join in any reindeer games.

    Poor Rudolph. He must have felt All Alone: “I’m All Alone” from Monty Python’s Spamalot

    If you can’t see this video, click here.

  3. Turning point. After the set up and the conflict, comes the turning point. The crisis here is that Santa must deliver the toys to the children around the world, but the weather isn’t cooperating.

    Then one foggy Christmas Eve

  4. The unusual characteristic becomes a blessing. Again, this is a cliched way of handling a conflict and crisis, but it still works. The very thing that sets the character apart, that makes him/her different and weak, is also the very thing that makes the hero able to save the day. Of course, this means we are matching up conflict and resolution, too. Santa also functions as a sort of mentor here, one who is able to recognize the unique qualities of Rudolph for what they are.

    Santa came to say:
    “Rudolph with your nose so bright,
    won’t you guide my sleigh tonight?”

  5. Rejoice. It’s not just the climax here, but also the concept of a celebration of successfully completing a quest. Give characters a moment to celebrate. This often comes after a big battle, or a big effort to overcome something.

    Then all the reindeer loved him
    as they shouted out with glee,
    Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
    you’ll go down in history!

    Darcy’s Best Writing Advice: Fiction Notes Books

    And, of course, you must end with the famous cowboy Gene Autry, singing Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1953. His original recording hit the top of the charts in 1950.
    If you can’t see this video, click here.

    Think the story is still a little slight for todays’ market? Here’s why.

2014 Cover Revealed: The Girl, the Gypsy & the Gargoyle

Here’s the cover of my new book that will be out in March 2014! Wahoo! Only 90 days or so till you can read it.
And for your pleasure, here’s the recipe for Cranberry Tea Punch that we always have during the holidays.

Cranberry Tea Punch

1 cup sugar
2 cups Pineapple
4 cups Cranberry Juice Cocktail
4 cups brewed tea (I use Luzianne Decaf)
Cinnamon stix, cloves.
I also like to float slices of lemon and orange.

Warm it up and have it close while you read a book.

I Don’t Like Your Story

What do you do when your friends or your editors don’t like your story?

This has indeed happened to me several times, the most recent on a current WIP. One of my reliable first readers has been hesitant to say much about this story and I realized that it’s because she doesn’t like it. The story is a tragedy and while I soften the blow at the end, it does end tragically. READER said that the ending was a “sharp left turn.” But for me, it’s a straight arrow right to the heart of the story.

What to do? Revise to please my reader, or keep it “my way”?

I would be a fool to ignore feedback! Of course, I need to know how others view my stories and where the communication breaks down. I will always revise to make sure I am communicating clearly. What is in my head needs to be clearly reproduced in the reader’s head through the medium of words. That’s communication through writing.

But that’s not the case here. Instead, there’s a gap in vision, or an honest difference in how another person view story and how a story should unfold. READER wanted a happy ending.

There are actually four ways a story can end:

  1. Happy/Happy. The protagonist gets what s/he wants and that makes him/her happy.
  2. Happy/Sad. The protagonist gets what s/he wants and that makes him/her sad.
  3. Sad/Happy. The protagonist fails to get what s/he wants, but in the end, that makes him/her happy.
  4. Sad/Sad. The protagonist fails to get what s/he wants and that makes him/her sad.

My story is the third kind. The protagonist does not get what she wants, but in the end, her goals are accomplished in a different way and she is content and peaceful about it all. I actually think this is a more realistic ending, more true to life. How many times do you get what you want, exactly how you want it? Not often! Yet much of literature is the Happy/Happy kind of ending. That’s great: I do those endings most of the time, too. But this ending satisfies my ideas for this story.

You can't get a Happy Face from readers all the time.

You can’t get a Happy Face from readers all the time. But I always need a Happy Face from myself.

I won’t change it. It makes me sad that READER doesn’t like the story because I chose to end it in an unusual way. I want READER to always like my story. But even when she doesn’t, we remain friends. Instead, I need to realize that my friends, family and even critique partners or editors are not always the best audience for a particular story. And that’s OK.

Get Your Tone Right

“Young man, don’t speak to me in that tone of voice!”

When you see that bit of dialogue, you know that a boy is talking sarcastically or disrespectfully. We understand that it’s not just the words said, but it’s how the words are used that conveys an attitude.

Humor, irony, satire, pleasantness, excitement, righteous indignation–the audience’s anticipated reaction is what determines the tone with which you write a particular piece. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown has a soothing tone; Captain Underpants by Dave Pilkey has an irreverent, comical tone; Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse has a spare, restrained tone that matches the mood of the Dust Bowl.

I’ve been dealing with tone because I’ll have a nonfiction piece, “Don’t Lick That Statue,” in the June 2014 issue of Highlights Magazine for Children. When you turn in this type of manuscript, they require a letter from your sources that states the article is “appropriate in tone and content” for a young reader. Content is easy: just check and recheck your facts, ma’am. Tone is not so easy. What does it mean, anyway?

Definition of Tone of Voice

Darcy at the Alamo

How would you describe the tone of this photo taken at dawn near the Alamo?

Tone is the atmosphere that holds a story together; it permeates the narrative, setting, characters and dialogue. It can also shape a reader’s response. In a mystery with a dark, gothic tone, the reader is meant to be on the edge of fear.
Tone gives the author subtle ways to communicate emotional content that can’t be told by only looking at what words mean. We also need to look at connotations and how words work within the context of the story.

One of the first ways to get a handle on controlling the tone of voice is to look at the adjectives and adverbs within your story. Specific details can fill the reader’s head with clues about how to interpret the story, but without a physical voice. The tone can be cued by adjectives or adverbs: quietly, he said; angrily, he said; sadly, he said. More experienced writers can convey the same tone with connotations of words and not have to rely on these adverbs.

In other words, the missing words–quietly, angrily, sadly–are communicated by every tool in the writer’s arsenal. That’s a frustrating statement for beginning writers: it’s too abstract. Let’s make it a bit more concrete.

Creating Tone of Voice

Before you begin writing, you should have a tone of voice in mind, so you will be consistent. The tone of voice should shape the story at all stages.

The opening, especially, should begin with the right tone, so the reader knows what sort of story will follow. Descriptions, dialogue, or even first-person statements are all welcome. The opening scene should give the reader a feel for the book that will be consistent throughout. A dark, gothic mystery should never morph into an action/adventure or a fairy tale. Within the dark, gothic mystery, there is room for variation, but there are also boundaries for when it moves outside the right tone. Set your story’s tone early and stick with it.

Recognition and Consistency

Once you have something written that captures the character, the voice of the story and the tone of the story, then you must do two things. First, recognize when that voice and tone is present and working; second, learn to be consistent with the voice and tone.

Put the work aside for as long as you can stand it, then read it with an eye toward where the voice, tone and character are working or not working. Read it out loud, and pay attention to places where there’s a “bump” for some odd, almost indefinable moment. That’s probably a tone or voice problem. Changing mood is fine; changing tone is not. On a very simple level this means that you can’t start a story with a dreamy stream-of-consciousness and end with an action-packed thriller.
Consistency is important even when a story has multiple points of view. For novels that switch back and forth between male and female characters, the tone must still be maintained.

Crafting your Story’s Tone

While much of the discussion about tone of voice revolves around abstract issues, there are some concrete things that can be considered.

Choice of details. Choose the sensory details that bring a story to life. Does it matter that Dracula wears black? Of course! Be sure to include as many senses as possible, pulling in visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and tactile details.

Plot and organization. Often, picture book stories have simple refrains—which present a reassuring tone by suggesting that there is order in the world. The organization of the text always returns to a phrase that is important; the child knows you’ll get to that point again in the story and feels the ordering of events in the story, which reinforces the tone.

Language and vocabulary. The language and vocabulary used must also support the tone of a story. Choosing the right word is paramount, but also consider how the words work in context. Connotations are words speaking to other words in a story. You may want to alliteration, assonance, or other literary techniques to make certain words resonate. But the technique should be subtle enough to work without calling attention to itself.

Dialogue. Dialogue can carry tone of voice, too. Avoid stilted and extended sections of talking heads. Instead, work for a snappy exchange—or whatever is appropriate for your tone. Sometimes, it helps to be intentional and say to yourself, “My story’s tone is XXX and that means my dialogue should be XXX.” Then evaluate to see where you need to adjust.

Write Your Story Your Way!

If all the above feels too abstract, if you want more detailed how-to instructions, if you have trouble recognizing voice much less tone of voice, you aren’t alone. Yet, editors and teachers of writing can’t be more specific. “It depends. . . ,” they say. It always depends on the story, the characters, the setting, the author’s intent, and so many other minor and major decisions about a story.

The tone is the end result, but it is also the beginning. The author must solve the problem of tone of voice in different ways for each story they tell. You have an arsenal of weapons: setting, characterization, language, rhythm, vocabulary, plot, organization. In the end, there are no right or wrong answers; there are only stories that work or don’t work.

Can you suggest stories that portray a certain tone? How would you describe the tone of IVAN, THE GREAT AND MIGHTY? Of HUNGER GAMES?