Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Where to Start a Novel (Tips and Traps)

with guest Janalyn Voigt.

Ah, sweet relief! You’re alone in your office with every other member of your household occupied elsewhere. The fragrance of your favorite beverage fills the air. Brain foods (like chocolate) await your pleasure. Your phone is muted, and a Do Not Disturb sign warns would-be intruders away from the front door. Now is the time! You power on your trusty computer and settle in to start your novel.

But, wait... 

Now you’re not so sure about that beginning. It seems sort of…well…bland. Maybe you should blow something up, instead. Aren’t you supposed to grab the reader with action? Another starting place might work better for that. Oh, bother! You’d have to leave out part of the story and try to work it in as you go. How would that jive with avoiding backstory? 

You have too much of that, already. 

What if you went backward in the story, instead? Starting at the very beginning, like Julie Andrews in that song might solve everything. Except that readers in your genre probably won’t want to start with your heroine’s childhood.

Now what?

It occurs to you that there’s laundry to be done, dishes in need of washing, and weeds overtaking the garden.

Where to Start Your Novel

Your novel’s opening is where you’ll introduce the main character, reveal the primary theme, initiate the story problem, set the tone of your story, introduce conflict, establish the setting, and raise questions for the reader, all while engaging the emotions by connecting a sympathetic main character with a universal experience. 

Are you sweating, yet? 

Make it easy on yourself by finding the starting point that helps you accomplish all of this in a single scene. Your preferences, genre expectations, and the needs of the story should all factor into which starting place you choose.

The Main Character’s Normal Life

With some genres, readers are there for the story world as much as for the characters. This allows a slower pace at the beginning. Epic fantasy and historical fiction are two examples that come to mind. For genres of this type, starting with a slice of the main character’s normal life rather than jumping in with the inciting incident can make sense. The biggest danger with this kind of beginning is losing your readers’ interest. Counter this by providing a terrific hook as early as possible, at least by the end of the first chapter. I would go so far as to include it before the end of the first scene, if possible. Make sure you keep up the pacing. Beginning at a slower pace does not mean a ‘snail’s pace.’

The Inciting Incident

Starting with the point of no return where your protagonist’s life changes forever is much touted these days but requires precision. By jumping in at the inciting incident, you risk reader apathy. It’s hard to care about the struggles of a character you’ve only just met. Have you ever watched a movie that opened with a gratuitous car chase? Chances are, you disconnected emotionally. This happens in fiction, too. Since you haven’t given a glimpse of the main character’s normal life, you’ll have to work this information in later without overloading the pacing with backstory. Opening with the inciting incident is not for the faint of heart, but if done well, can satisfy reader expectations in genres that rely more on action than introspection, like thrillers and classic westerns.

In the Middle of the Action

Starting after the action begins, or in medias res, Latin for “in the middle of affairs,” can create immediacy. However, since much of the story has passed, this kind of opening calls for the skillful use of flashbacks, introspection, and dialog. Homer’s Odyssey opens with Odysseus turning homeward after the fall of Troy. Science fiction and fantasy readers may be more willing to accept such an unusual format. This isn’t a common place to begin a novel, but I’ve included it in case it sparks ideas for the adventurous.

At the End

Opening at or near a story’s ending can pique a reader’s curiosity. Why does the heroine throw a valuable necklace into the ocean? Will the hero’s airplane crash in the next few minutes? Why is that noose around the hero’s neck? With the reader hooked, the story returns to the beginning to unfold chronologically or progresses as a series of flashbacks. This sort of format used to be called a ‘frame story’ and was frowned upon because so many authors mishandled its use. It can feel clunky and may be difficult to write but can work well for mystery novels, in particular.

DawnSinger & WayFarer.

Tips From My Own Writing Adventures

Deciding where to begin can be the hardest part of writing a novel. I know. I had to back up into the backstory when writing Tales of Faeraven, my allegorical fantasy series. Every time I tried to begin the story, I became disoriented. Out of self defense, I outlined the backstory of my complex story world, becoming so enmeshed that I had to give up and write the thing. DawnSinger is the first book in the series. Here’s the backstory I couldn’t resist:

The High Queen is dying… At the royal summons, Shae mounts a wingabeast and soars through the air to the high hold of Faeraven, where all is not as it seems. Visions warn her of danger, and a dark soul touches hers in the night. When she encounters an attractive but disturbing musician, her wayward heart awakens.

But then there is Kai, a guardian of Faeraven and of Shae. Secrets bind him to her, and her safety lies at the center of every decision he makes. On a desperate journey fraught with peril and the unknown, they battle warlike garns, waevens, ferocious raptors, and the wraiths of their own regrets. Yet, they must endure the campaign long enough to release the DawnKing—and the salvation he offers—into a divided land. To prevail, each must learn that sometimes victory comes only through surrender.

Tip: If you’re fascinated with your backstory, maybe it deserves even more attention.

When it came to plotting Hills of Nevermore (Montana Gold, book 1), which will release in 2017, I wrote three different openings before figuring out where it needed to begin. Sometimes you have to try on a pair of shoes to find out if they fit.

Tip: If you’re stuck, try writing several beginnings.

With Deceptive Tide (Islands of Intrigue, book 3), I’m venturing into romantic suspense as part of a linked-fiction series with two other authors. I started the story with a large dog knocking down Piper, the heroine, on a dock, thereby introducing her to its owner, a young girl at the center of a mystery. I loved the beginning, but my critique partners informed me (correctly) that you can’t open suspense novel with an amusing incident. I reworked the scene, and now as Piper stands up after being bowled over by her canine admirer, she notices a pair of binoculars trained on her.

Tip: Sometimes you only need to make a few adjustments to fit within your genre.

Novel Beginning Traps

I hesitate to pass on writing advice that tells authors what they should and shouldn’t do, because invariably some writer will prove everyone wrong. I’m of the opinion that there are too many writing ‘rules’ for writers nowadays. Reading vintage writers, as I do, can be eye-opening because many of our modern rules for writers weren’t even on their radar. (Read my literary review of Jamaica Inn by Daphne Du Maurier to see what I mean.) I can give my opinion, however. The following beginnings might best be avoided.

False Beginnings

The novel starts with the protagonist in danger, but then we discover it was just a dream. Only after the main character dies at the end of the first chapter do we find out he was actually a minor character and the hero is someone else. Readers don’t like being manipulated by contrived hooks. Instead, find a hook relevant to your main story.


Some readers automatically skip prologues, and most agents and editors hate them, so unless there is a compelling reason to include one, don’t.

Too Much Description

You may have kissed the blarney stone when it comes to description, but your reader is a stranger to your story world and needs a gentle introduction. Front-loading description at the beginning of your story overwhelms not only its readers, but the pacing as well.

Death by Trivia

Does the reader really need to follow your heroine as she climbs out of bed, brushes her teeth, squints at her face in the mirror, and makes coffee? Unless something interesting and relevant to the story is going on, start at a different point. As science fiction author Elmore Leonard put it in his 10 Rules of writing: “My most important piece of advice to all you would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.” 

Death by Backstory 

The story opens in the moment but then moves backward to hash out backstory. This doesn’t work because the pacing (and the reader’s interest) goes to minus zero. 

Final Thoughts

Choosing an opening for your novel can be a painful process, but don’t let it hang you up. Deciding where to start is not as important as beginning to write at all. You may never feel entirely certain that starting the story somewhere else wouldn’t have floated the story better, but sometimes you have to wade in and take your chances.

Have you struggled to begin a novel? Please share what helped you find a starting point.

 Today Seekerville is giving away a Kindle copy of DawnSinger to one commenter in honor of Janalyn's visit. Winner announced in the Weekend Edition.

Get your copy here.
 Additionally, Janalyn is sharing her free, printable character development worksheet, available on her website with our Villagers. 

 Janalyn Voigt is a storyteller who brings her unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and whimsy to several genres. Beginning with DawnSinger and Wayfarer, the Tales of Faeraven series carries readers into a fantasy land only imagined in dreams. Sojourner, the next title in this series, is pending publication. Deceptive Tide (Islands of Intrigue: San Juans), a romantic suspense novel set in an island paradise off the coast of Washington, releases this month. Look for Hills of Nevermore (Montana Gold, book 1). a western historical romance set during Montana's gold rush, to release in 2017.

Live Write Breathe, the website where Janalyn teaches writers to live with passion, write well, and remember to breathe, was named one of the Write Life's 100 best websites for writers in 2016.

Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary Agency. Her memberships include ACFW and NCWA. When she's not writing, she loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors with her family.

Learn more about Janalyn Voigt and her books.
Visit Live Write Breathe, Janalyn's website for writers.

Coming in 2016:


  1. Welcome to Seekerville, Janalyn! This is such a much needed post and you really spelled it out, in detail.

    Many thanks! And thanks for the character worksheet as well. It comes in handy as I am plotting a proposal!

  2. You're welcome, Tina. Thanks for the chance to meet your villagers.

  3. There was a manga/comic book I read once with a "false beginning" --I didn't expect the death, but since it was a fantasy with protagonists in essential their world's military, I think it was to show that no one was safe --anyone could die. Of course, I was upset, but because the idea was novel to me, I thought it was daring and innovative of the author to do so. Apparently it's not? LOL. But I think if it was a regular novel, I'd have disliked it more. ;-)

  4. As a reader I don't mind prologues, but I have read some that seemed to have nothing to do with the rest of the book.

  5. Welcome to Seekerville, Janalyn. This post is packed with great information...it's definitely going into my Seekervile notebook. Thanks for the character worksheet, it's a great resource.

  6. What a marvelous post, Janalyn! Thank you for being here and presenting such clear, concise terms about beginning a story... Half the time I scrap my original opening and start around chapter 3, but the good side of that is I get to know my characters while writing that discarded stuff!

    Your fantasy covers ROCK.

    Love them!

  7. Mary Preston, that's a tricky business, isn't it?

    I think they can work well in a fantasy as a totally distanced event, or the occasional news report (done as a newspaper clipping) in a suspense or a historical....

    But mostly they seem to be an info dump.

  8. Welcome to Seekerville, Janalyn!

    Once I entered a contest and a judge marked a spot telling me, "This is where your story begins." I thought about that comment for a LONG time and finally a light went on. The judge was right. Now when I start writing, I know the beginning will probably be changed or deleted.

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today!

  9. JANALYN, welcome to Seekerville. Thanks for sharing your excellent tips and downfalls for writing the beginning of our stories! Your covers are amazing.

    My story openings vary, yet all are historical romance novels. I've opened the story with the inciting incident on the first page. I've also started with more of the everyday world. But wherever I start, I know I can revise and dump what isn't interesting.


  10. Janalyn - great topic today! I absolutely hate writing the beginning of my stories, if I could skip it I would. LoL It is definitely my biggest struggle! There are some great tips here, I especially like the writing the beginning three different ways. Thanks for the post!

  11. Good morning, JANALYN! Finding the ideal point to start a story is easy for me sometimes--and other times NOT :) Such a fine balance to draw the reader in quickly in the middle of the action, yet at the same time not (just as quickly) lose them because they don't know where they are or what's going on.

    You're so right that the authors and readers of some "classics" had vastly different expectations as to how to start a story than what we have today.

  12. Hi Janalyn and welcome to Seekerville. Great post and tips for getting the all important beginning just right. I like your ideas.

    I should try them as I never get my beginning right at the beginning. (I know--bad pun) I just start writing and find the beginning somewhere in there. It usually means throwing away the first chapter or two. LOL. But it gets me going and often I put the into in those chapters in the book somewhere. So no real loss.

    Have a fun day today here in Seekerville. And thanks again for joining us.

  13. I just finished Becky Wade's HER ONE AND ONLY and it starts with a prologue scene three months before the rest of the story. It kind of threw me off because I was always wondering where that scene would finally come in. It worked for that book, but it wouldn't for all novels. I've seen your books around, Janalyn, but because I don't like fantasy I haven't picked them up. Weird, right? Cause in the true sense of the word all novels are fantasy and time travel (which I don't like as a genre either) but am looking forward to read your romantic suspense and your MontanaGold series!

  14. Hi Janalyn! Thanks for all the wonderful tips. I'm especially excited about the Character Development worksheet. In the past few years, I've made several of the opening chapter mistakes. The first story I ever wrote had too much backstory dump. My most recent story (which has received its second revise and resubmit request) opened with a dream, which I thought I'd managed to do correctly and use as foreshadowing since nothing was said about it in the first set of revisions, but now I've been told to cut the first seven pages. So, it's back to the drawing board on that one.

    Waving at everyone in Seekerville!

  15. I definitely always try to start at the inciting incident, the moment of change. Although occasionally a teeny bit of the ordinary world is in there. That is tricky because you are right. Too much ordinary world and your pace is slow and there is no hook.

    Yes, Rhonda. Dreams are a tough one. I've tried them twice and both times had to scrap them.

  16. Good tips Janalyn. Where to start a story is always so painful. Staring at the blinking curser on the blank page is torture. As you said, sometimes you just have to dive in and then go back and fix the opening. I like to start with dialogue so that I'm immediately into the characters POV and dropping the reader into a scene but sometimes that doesn't work. Writing is a tough gig and not for the faint of heart. Your books look interesting. I like the cover art. Have a good week.

  17. Love all these pointers, Janalyn! It's a challenge to work all the necessary info into the opening scene. No matter what kind of opening the story calls for, the main things I try to keep in mind are (1) introducing the central character in a sympathetic way, (2) establishing setting, and (3) hinting at the main story problem.

    I also can't really start the "real" writing until I nail my opener. It's like a launchpad that sets up where the story will go from there. So, as Tina said, the opening is typically going to involve the inciting incident, when the character's ordinary world is about to get shaken up and turned upside down.

  18. Hi Janalyn:

    What a marvelous post! I think we are very simpatico. I could not agree more with your comment:

    "I’m of the opinion that there are too many writing ‘rules’ for writers nowadays."

    To me the "Prime Directive" of all fiction writing is:

    Write your story in such a way that it will keep the reader turning the pages until the last page whereupon the reader will be left with an uncontrollable urge to buy your next book.

    Rules can help but they can also take the writer's eye off the ball.

    A serious music critic once said of Yanni, the Greek composer, "Yanni is no composer. He just writers the kind of music people like."

    I also very much enjoyed your next comment:

    "...all while engaging the emotions by connecting a sympathetic main character with a universal experience."

    I believe this is the first time I read about creating a 'universal experience' in a writing post. I've always felt that the essence of great literature, especially short stories, is using a simple story to show something important about the human experience. Doing this makes the story timeless and understandable across all cultural lines.

    When I was young I had a Science Fiction reading period when I read over 1000 SF books. As I was reading your quotes about "Tales of Faeraven", without knowing anything of your works, I kept getting visions of McCaffrey's Pern and Norman's Gor.

    How carefully do you have to be in picking your 'creatures' and their names so as not to set off distracting images in the reader's mind who has read these other popular works?

    Is there a SF author you feel close to in your fantasy writing? For example: my favorite SF writer is Robert Silverberg. He tends to be more philosopher and poet than scientist.

    BTW: I just came from your website where I requested a copy of your "How to Edit". I need editing help more than anything. Rules do help in the editing process.

    Please enter me in the drawing. It may be past time for me to enjoy an 'other world' experience. : )


  19. Waving at Terri Reed. Thanks for stopping by.

  20. Actually, my last bookI cut an entire scene to get to the new / real beginning. I forgot about that. Usually, I don't have that issue.

  21. Jennifer Artist Librarian (official now!), I have never read a false beginning before. That's very intriguing.

    But I never read prologues except in suspense stories. They're generally just lazy writing. Generally everything can be woven into the first few chapters by a skillful writer.

  22. Wow! Thanks for the welcome, Villagers. This is going to be a fun day!

    The Artist Librarian, an excellent writer can make just about anything fly. However, a false beginning that adds nothing to the main story is extraneous at best (and moves on up to intrusive and manipulative from there).

    Marianne Barkman and Mary Preston, prologues can be well written and still be rejected. To some readers, a prologue feels like a delay while the real story beckons. But all literature is subjective.

    Jill Weatherholt, Rhonda Starnes, and Tina Radcliffe, I'm so glad to share the character development worksheet with you.

  23. Welcome to Seekerville, Janalyn! Reallllly enjoyed your post -- excellent points, all!! And thank you, too, for the handy character worksheet. Definitely printing that baby off!!

    YOU SAID: "Your novel’s opening is where you’ll introduce the main character, reveal the primary theme, initiate the story problem, set the tone of your story, introduce conflict, establish the setting, and raise questions for the reader, all while engaging the emotions by connecting a sympathetic main character with a universal experience. Are you sweating, yet?"

    LOL ... profusely!! But you are soooo right about the double duty (or maybe I should say quadruple duty) that a good opening does. I've gotten in the habit of starting all of my books with an internal thought by the heroine that I hope not only gives the reader a glimpse at her personality, but at the story as well. Hopefully this accomplishes at least a few of the things in your list. :|

    YOU ALSO SAID: "I’m of the opinion that there are too many writing ‘rules’ for writers nowadays."

    LOL ... I have to agree with you there, Janalyn, LOUDLY!!

    As far as prologues, I have never liked them and never intended to write them, but ended up doing so AFTER THE FACT on a number of my books for various reasons, and I'm glad I did.

    My first one was on my second novel where the hated vixen sister in the first novel was the heroine, so I wanted to pull the readers in with a prologue that picked up from the night of the last scene in the first book, showing what happened after that final scene. I did this because frankly, I needed to remind the reader that the family they loved was reason enough to read this book even if the draw of the heroine was not. And, secondly, I just missed that family SO much and missed the emotional reunion of the hero and heroine's father after the war, so that's where I started, and I really think it strengthened the book and set it up fairly well.

    You said "Some readers automatically skip prologues, and most agents and editors hate them, so unless there is a compelling reason to include one, don’t." I have never skipped a prologue, but in hindsight, I don't think it would hurt my stories if the prologues I included weren't read.

    Great post, Janalyn!


  24. Hey, Janalyn,

    Your post got me to thinking (which shows you how good your post is!), and I suddenly remembered how I settled upon the beginning of my first book, A Passion Most Pure.

    I had it professionally critiqued at ACFW, and the author who did it told me to start with the action, which happened to be on page 7. Up till that point, it was all internal monologue by the heroine. So I started the action on page 5, was told once again by crit partners to get the action upfront, so I moved it to page 2 and then finally thought, oh heck, I'm moving it to page one, with almost no internal monologue except for the opening line and a sentence or two throughout the first page. Boy, am I glad I did or I might be the only Seeker left on Unpubbed Island today! :|


  25. In the Bounty Hunter's Redemption, I started with the heroine at her dead husband's funeral. Her internal thoughts and her young son's actions showed the marriage had been terrible. I loved the scene, but was afraid my editor would ask me to cut it as I'd never read an LI that started in a cemetery. She didn't. The next scene was the inciting incident, the confrontation between the hero and heroine, the no going back. So not every story starts with the inciting incident. Though I'm not sure you'd call the first scene the heroine's everyday world. :-)


  26. Ruth Logan Herne, Jackie, Janet Dean, Crystal, Sandra Leesmith, sometimes you just have to get something on the page...

  27. Glynna and Vince, I learn so much from vintage books, precisely because the authors knew nothing about some of the modern writing rules.

    Terri, I like to start with dialogue, too. Like you, I've learned that doesn't always work out. Variety is the spice of life, anyway, right?

  28. "I had it professionally critiqued at ACFW, and the author who did it told me to start with the action, which happened to be on page 7. Up till that point, it was all internal monologue by the heroine. So I started the action on page 5, was told once again by crit partners to get the action upfront, so I moved it to page 2 and then finally thought, oh heck, I'm moving it to page one, with almost no internal monologue except for the opening line and a sentence or two throughout the first page. Boy, am I glad I did or I might be the only Seeker left on Unpubbed Island today!"

    Wow, Julie, that was a definitely a bang for your buck critique.

  29. "To me the "Prime Directive" of all fiction writing is:

    Write your story in such a way that it will keep the reader turning the pages until the last page whereupon the reader will be left with an uncontrollable urge to buy your next book."

    VINCE!!! You are spot on.

    I got a copy of Janalyn's how to edit as well.

  30. But Janet, your scene was unusual so it was definitely a hook to the inciting incident.

  31. Jackie Layton--I've had a judge or two do that to me and I am forever grateful for that red pen that said... "This is where your story begins." It really helped me to look differently at my story.

    I still struggle with the delicate balance of backstory and forward momentum.

  32. hi Janalyn
    I really enjoyed your post today. I'm going to be downloading that character sheet once I get home from work. As for where to begin - I usually have a line or scene that grips me and I start writing. It isn't always THE beginning, but at least there's something written. I think I need to have a bit written to solidify the characters in my brain so I can start the story at the "right" spot.

    Name in draw for your book, please. I tend to like fantasy. Anne McCaffrey is one of my favorite fantasy writers.

    thanks again for visiting Seekerville. Wonderful stuff!!!

  33. This is totally a workshop you have here, Janalyn. Do you ever give workshops online?

    We always like to ask authors about their writing day. Can you tell us about your typical writing day? What other writing hats do you wear??

  34. You are in, DEB H!

    Didn't know you were a fantasy reader. Waiting for Lara H to show up. This is what she writes.

  35. Janalyn, are there any writer's conferences where we might run into you??

  36. Rhonda and Tina, I should say here that I open a couple of chapters in the Tales of Faeraven books with dreams to put the reader off balance and create a surreal atmosphere. Whatever we include in a story must be relevant and further the plot. If it doesn't, out come the scissors. :o)

    Thanks to those who complimented the cover art for my books. I'll pass on the compliments to the artist, Nicola Martinez, who also happens to be Editor in Chief at Pelican Book Group, my publisher. She's a multi-faceted dynamo.

  37. Myra, I'm a linear thinker, too! I have to write the story in order, or I'm lost. When interrupted in the middle of a sentence, do you have to go back to the beginning (or am I telling on myself here)? :o)

  38. LOL, Janalyn, I'd probably go back and read at least a few paragraphs or even the entire chapter to get my head back in the scene. In fact, that's pretty much what I do at the start of each daily writing session. I'm reading the last line or two I wrote and thinking, "Now where was I going with this????"

  39. Vince, I love how you put this: "Rules can help but they can also take the writer's eye off the ball." Yes! Obsessive attention to rules leads to overthinking, and that tends to kill creativity.

    Readers most often liken my fantasy writing to that of Anne McCaffrey, and I do feel a kinship with her writing style. I also feel close to Terry Brooks. I'm not familiar with Norman's Gor. I didn't grow up reading a lot of fantasy and have a lot of catching up to do. That may be my secret to not imitating others. ;o) I'm not sure we have to be terribly concerned about that, as long as we're not outright copying or snitching signature devices. A critique partner once told me I couldn't have a character wrap food for the trail in leaves because Tolkien's elves do that with lembas bread. That took me by surprise, since I'd forgotten that from reading the Lord of the Rings. I kept it anyway, because honestly, how many ways can you wrap food without saran wrap?

  40. Tina, I am considering cutting an opening scene I adore because it may focus readers on the wrong hero. The scene is relevant to the story, which makes it harder to remove it. I have a very good editor, but I'd like to avoid being dinged by her, if possible. :o)

  41. Julie, thanks for this great idea:

    I've gotten in the habit of starting all of my books with an internal thought by the heroine that I hope not only gives the reader a glimpse at her personality, but at the story as well.

    I should have also mentioned that your opening has to establish the viewpoint character, also. You do that nicely using introspection.

  42. Julie, your genre factors into whether to start with action instead of introspection. The fatal flaw I had to overcome before becoming published was starting with too much description.

  43. Janet, starting a romance with a cemetary scene is something I would probably try. LOL! Good going on getting it past your editor. :o)

    "I'm not sure you'd call the first scene the heroine's everyday world." Well stated! With a story, we leave the boring parts out as much as possible.

  44. DebH, I love when a scene grabs me and demands to be written!

  45. Thanks for being with us today, Janalyn. Loved reading your post. Such great information. Often when I write the first draft of my opening, I throw everything into the mix. It's as if I need to understand the total story. Then, of course, I have to cut and cut and cut to get to what the reader needs to know. I've done it so many times that I no longer fret about my lengthy first opening, knowing it with get tighter and better after a number of revisions. And I do revise that opening as I continue to write the book.

    Beginnings are so hard, IMHO. Thanks for provided wonderful advice about the process!

  46. Tina asked... "This is totally a workshop you have here, Janalyn. Do you ever give workshops online?"

    Thanks for the idea! The Readership Challenge I send to new subscribers is the closest I've come to offering a workshop, but now I'm thinking about putting one together.

    Tina asked... "We always like to ask authors about their writing day. Can you tell us about your typical writing day? What other writing hats do you wear??"

    The Montana Gold series requires me to meet regular deadlines, and I'm also working on the last several Tales of Faeraven books and a few indie projects. I blog for writers at Live Write Breathe and send out an author newsletter to fans of my writing. The heavy load has put me into a time of transition where I'm learning to increase my productivity. I find the pomodoro technique and dictation helpful, and I'm learning that I need to streamline mundane chores or they will intrude into my writing time. This is very much a work in progress, with me trying new things as I go. I'm going to betray how much of a geek I am, but here's a 'typical' day.

    In the morning over coffee I divide the day's tasks into three columns in my planning journal: personal, household, and writing. After listing all necessary tasks under appropriate categories, I number them in order of priority, then create a schedule. This helps me live a more balanced life and ensures I take time for my family and myself.

    Working usually on my writing projects, I dedicate at least an hour in the morning for dictation. After lunch, I transcribe and edit the dictation. I do household chores in the late afternoon. If there's a blog post due, I try to work it in during the evening so it won't preempt my writing project time.

    I've pared my activities so that I don't do anything but write or support my own novels and teach writers. That's enough.

  47. Debby, thanks for the glimpse into your process. I suspect you're a pantser and need to work the plot out as you write the story. Perhaps your insight will help another writer.

  48. I am so impressed with your schedule. One of the Seekers, Pam Hillman, sings the value of the Pomodoro Technique as well.

    I tend to let the household...oops...slide. :)

  49. I used to let household chores slide (and once in a while still do). After realizing I couldn't sustain that model longterm, though, I decided to at least try for a more balanced life. That doesn't always happen, but I'm better off than before I had a plan.

  50. Hi Janalyn. There's great advice here. Where to start is tricky.
    I have heart different versions of the 'cut out all the boring parts'. And I know when I read I tend to skim the villain's part, unless it's really compelling.
    Because of that, I often go in and cut to the bone any villain POV.

    Excellent post.

  51. Mary Preston I don't mind prologues either but I rarely...in fact have I EVER written one? I can't think of one.

    I do remember once reading a book with an odd prologue about the heroine's childhood and through the whole rest of the book I could never figure out what the prologue had to do with the story or why it was important.

    I felt like there was a huge lesson to be learned there!

  52. Wow, you're so organized, Janalyn! Like TINA, I'm impressed! I keep a schedule of sorts (busy work in the morning, real writing in the afternoon), but I can distracted way too easily.

    I've also tried Pomodoro, but mainly have used it to get me out of my chair regularly for a short burst of activity. For me, it works better to set the timer for 35 minutes at the computer, 6 minutes of break. It's a habit I really need to get back into! WAAAAY too much sitting on my you-know-what lately!

  53. I can GET distracted way too easily! Wish these comments had an "edit" feature!

  54. Okay I just killed some time watching a video about the Pomodoro Technique. This is very similar to a 'technique' I used to get my children to clean up their rooms. If the timer goes off and you're not done. Mama lowers the boom.
    It was surprisingly effective

  55. LOLOLOL.

    Yeah, and who lowers the boom on the writer. I could give my cat that job. She'd take it with joy.

  56. Welcome, Janalyn! I laughed out loud at "Death by Trivia!" I'm the queen of that!! :)

    Thanks for this great post. I've found that I often have to re-do my beginnings. I love all your advice!

  57. Welcome, Janalyn. What a great post. I can so relate to the part about Death by backstory. I struggle with that myself. Thanks for sharing these insights with us.

  58. Did I hear my name? :-)

    I started out writing a fantasy series with romantic elements. Writing the first two books of that series took me about a year and proved to me that I had the endurance for writing ... and also that I had a lot to learn and that it might be easier to start with a standalone novel.

    Now I'm trying contemporary Christian romance. And I have probably written about FIVE completely different openings for my current WIP (since I won a first chapter critique here during Speedbo). Meanwhile, the story keeps changing as I try to figure out how to improve my plot.

    I think the moral here, for me, is that I need to figure out more about my current WIP before I try to iron out all the wrinkles in the beginning of my story. I did, incidentally, try two separate in media res beginnings. Both were decent, I suppose, and foreshadowed some of the things that would happen in the story. I was kind of excited about them, but I just wasn't sure I could make the end justify the means.

    I've been trying to write chronologically, and I think it's killing my pace. Every story I've finished was written out of order. Since then, I've given up on a lot of stories while trying to force myself to write in order. I just need to bind the perfectionist in my while I let my muse type away.

  59. Mary Connealy, I interpret 'boring' as lacking in relevance and tension. Anything other than that would be reader preference over which I have no control.

    I adopted the Pomodoro technique after preparing the house for unexpected company in about an hour. This works on the same principle for writing. Some writers use Write or Die, which you can program to penalize you with rude sounds or by erasing part of your writing backwards. It pulls my focus from writing as I freak out about the amount of time going by, so it doesn't work for me.

  60. Myra, I find that I'm more willing to take a break with the Pomodoro technique. There's something about seeing the 5 minutes (or whatever I set) that helps my brain understand that it's okay to stop working for that short a time. I'll be right back.

  61. Hi, Missy Tippens! Thanks for the welcome. I'm glad you like the post.

  62. TINA, her relief that her husband was dead enabled readers to believe a romance was even possible between her and the Bounty Hunter hero, who'd killed her husband in self-defense. I had a lot of fun with that story. Maybe there's more Mary in me than I realized. :-)


  63. For Mary Alford and anyone else who struggles with managing backstory, maybe this will help. Ignore it until you can't leave it out and go on with the story. If that time never comes, the backstory will still have informed your understanding of the story. Like an iceberg, only the tip may show.

  64. Lara, this is just a guess, but it sounds like you may be focusing on form and technique over story. When you write out of order, you break lose and allow yourself to do the opposite.

  65. How to begin? Hmmm... one way is by ending, or at least, continuing. :)

    Now, this doesn't bode well for a proposal or for contest entries, but one way I fine tune my opening scene is to continue to write the book. Most of my beginnings end up staying the same, or at least, close to the original scene, but there are a few that I tweak, moving backward or forward in time.

    But that change usually comes after I worked my way through the story until the end.

    Great tips, Janalyn! Thanks! :)

  66. JANALYN, The cemetery scene gives the sense of hope that with her husband dead, life will be better. Next scene, the hero shows up claiming her seamstress shop belongs to his sister. I love the reversal of her circumstances in those two scenes.


  67. JANALYN, Some writers revise the opening to fit or echo the ending in some way, which can give the sense that the story goes full circle. Do you try to do that?


  68. Oh, my gosh. I just did this on my last story but did not realize it until you said this, Janet. That's serendipity!

    "JANALYN, Some writers revise the opening to fit or echo the ending in some way, which can give the sense that the story goes full circle. Do you try to do that?"

  69. Mostly I write linear, Lara. But if I'm stuck and I know a scene that is coming further into the story..I just write the one I know is coming. So it's not unusual for me to write out of order as well. Every story is different.

    I usually write the beginning and then the epilogue or ending. The reason for this is I know both very well. And I hate rushed endings.

  70. Good suggestion, Pam. I do this too but forgot to mention it.

    Janet, your book has some interesting use of contrast. Nice. Yes, I go full circle, too. The story arc takes matters full circle. I try to use this technique in nonfiction also.

  71. TINA, I used to occasionally write scenes out of order but I no longer can. Maybe I lose the story arc if I skip around. Who knows? I tend to do everything in a certain order now, even my makeup. I'm in a rut.


  72. LOL, Janet. Next time I see you we'll live life out of order. Go nuts and order breakfast for dinner.

  73. JANALYN, I've heard going full circle is especially important for essays. Sounds like it works well with any type of writing.

    What do you like writing most?


  74. TINA, that works for me. Eating out of order is the one thing I can do! Though dessert first would be more than I could handle.


  75. Janet, you asked what I like writing most. The answer is whatever I'm working on at that particular moment. For me, writing is more about storytelling than genre.

    For some reason having dessert first doesn't phase me. :-)

  76. Janalyn, how interesting that you called me a Pantser. Actually I'm not...except maybe with the opening. Funny, huh? I get every detail of my story into my synopsis and spend far too long making sure it's right. So I am a dyed in the wool plotter! Really, I am!

  77. I'm all about dessert first. Two in fact.

  78. Janalyn, this is fabulous advice! I spend a lot of daydreaming about that first scene. It's so important to know where to begin your story...not too early in a character's life and not too late. Thanks for stopping by Seekerville!

  79. By the way, Janalyn, I meant to tell you that your fantasy series sounds interesting. The blurb definitely leaves me wanting to know more :-) I read the first few paragraphs at Amazon ... Adding this to my goodreads reading list now. :-)

  80. I was totally guessing, Debby. I tend toward plotting but include Pantsing elements in my own writing process.

    Hi, Barbara! It's nice to come actoss you here. Daydreaming is so important (and fun)!

    Thanks so much for adding my fantasy books to your Goodreads list, Lara.

  81. Join the club, Mary Lawson. You're in good company!

  82. Hi Janalyn:

    Concerning "Backstory Anonymous", I read an interview of a mega best selling author who gets all the backstory into the story during the first chapter. He said he wanted the reader 'fully invested' in his story as soon as possible. His view was that if you can't make backstory interesting, then you're not a writer. Just write page turning backstory. Make reading the backstory a rewarding reading experience that moves the story along.

    I think a lot of aspiring writer paranoia comes from taking writing contests. Contestants get a list of how the story will be graded. Backstory will be on this list. Judges go by the list. A great story, from a reader's POV, can be marked down for not 'checking off all the judge point requirements.' Adherence to these points can be fanatical. When you score 90% and finish 37th and the winner has 99.5%, the runner-up 99%, and the next finisher 98.5%, you can quickly appreciate the huge penalty for missing even one judging point.

    As good as contests are, they can teach a very bad lesson: write to the needs of contest requirements. Somewhere the reader is lost in all this.


  83. Perfect topic and perfect timing. Help and thank you!

    I am in the process of removing my prologue after considerable mental anguish. It contains (what I consider to be) the inciting incident, where my heroine gets fired from her city job. The rest of the story takes place on a farm vs. the Chicago setting. I have been trying to come to grips with it being a "false start" because the city setting is not where any of the remaining story happens.

    I would have to use backstory to fill the readers in on what happened to necessitate her relocation. Any opinions would be greatly appreciated! Sure could use some suggestions here.

  84. Vince, A good writer can make just about anything fly. My concern with backstory is not in following a rule by rote but in the fact that it slows pacing by making the reader step backward in time.

  85. Rebecca, your opening scene's location can be in a different place as the rest of the book, and if the heroine losing her job is pivotal to the story, you might want to show the scene. However, if the prologue can be removed without effecting the story, then it is extraneous. If you decide to keep the scene, you might be able to call it Chapter 1. If that would make a huge time gap between the first two chapters, you would need to include a brief transition. If that would be clunky, you might be better off revealing that she was fired a little at a time as something she keeps to herself.

  86. Thanks so much for your suggestion. There is only a 2-week gap between her "being fired" and her relocated to the farm. I really wanted to include it, to show the high-style lifestyle she was accustomed to, as opposed to farm life. But then again, I wasn't sure if it was misleading to begin in a different setting. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.

  87. REBECCA, not that I know anything ;-) but I agree with Janalyn: I think it's okay to put the "prologue" as chapter 1.

    If you're familiar with Swain's "Techniques of the Selling Writer," perhaps you know about scenes and sequels? (If not, consider checking out this summary at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/articles/writing-the-perfect-scene/). In scenes, you should have Goal, Conflict, and Disaster. In sequels, you have Reaction, Dilemma, and Decision. Scenes don't skip time (according to Swain), whereas sequels telescope time. It takes the hero/heroine time to decide what to do after they are faced with a disaster (like losing one's job). Showing their reaction (as in sequels) is important to help the reader feel what the hero/heroine feels.

    So, IMHO, I do think you can get away with this. Chapter 1 is the scene where she gets fired. Chapter 2 (or the next segment, however you divide it) would be her reaction which ends with the decision to go to the farm. Going to the farm is not a great option. (That's her dilemma.) But she doesn't feel she has a better option ... and so she goes.

    Hope that helps.

  88. Thank you so very much, Lara.

    Actually, she is subpoenaed to the farm pending an estate settlement. She has no choice, which is another great conflict. She can't wait to get back to the city. She doesn't want to be at the farm, and isn't wanted at the farm. :)

    This is interesting. I have read about goal, conflict, disaster and reaction, dilemma, decision. I will refresh my memory. Scenes may not skip time, but I was trying to avoid the 2-week transition of packing, etc. and moving to the farm. I may have to re-think my timeline.

    Many thanks and blessing to you,

  89. REBECCA,

    Sorry if I mislead you ... I would say that your first scene ends when your heroine is faced with the conflict of being fired and subpoenaed ... which means that you would telescope the whole moving part. Just give us the highlights of her moving process, show her emotional reaction to the forced move, and how she adjusts her plans as a result of that conflict. That is part of the sequel.

    From Swain: Sequel translates disaster into goal by “[providing] a bridge that gives your character—and your reader—a plausible reason for striking out in a particular direction that will bring the character into further conflict.” (Which leads you back into a scene: Goal, conflict, disaster.) Your disaster is the job loss / subpoena. Your heroine's goal is to get her business done at the farm as quickly as possible so she can get back to the city, I presume … But how does she accomplish this exactly?? Swain says that it's important to have concrete goals. Dixon will tell you they need to be immediate.

    And as for me, I'm fairly good at parroting back what the experts say but I do struggle to work it perfectly into my own stories :-). In any case, I don't think you'll need to change your timeline. Telescope the boring parts. Hope that clarifies.

  90. Excellent advice, Lara. Following a sequential timeline can put a story at risk of death by trivia. Hitting the highlights of the transition without dwelling on mundane details carries the reader forward. If that segment bores you as the author, spice it up. Maybe the heroine sinks into despair, and a friend stops by to encourage and challenge her. If this is a romance, Mr. Wrong could offer her security, confusing her thinking about what she wants in life.

    Another way to avoid a mundane transition is to start Chapter 2 at the farm and have her say something like this: "I never want to go through such a hectic time again. Between packing and dealing with the lawyers, I haven't slept much, and all for something I'd rather not have to do." Yes, this is backstory disguised as dialogue, but you gain more by avoiding mundane details than you lose in pacing. It's also relevant to the story, which makes it interesting to the reader at this point.

  91. Hi Lara,

    Thank you so very much. This advice helped greatly. The poor gal has more conflicts than she can handle, but isn't that the fun of it all? The boring parts will be minimized and emphasis on current and future struggles as she transitions from city to farm. I will keep my former Prologue as my new Chapter 1. I need to brush up on sequels, etc...I so appreciate your expertise.

    You're doing an amazing job. Thank you for your time and help!

    Blessings to you,

  92. Conflict is good, yes. And I'm glad to help. Not sure about my "expertise" though. That made me laugh. I'm figuring this all out as I go along ;-). And if I can help others along the way ... BONUS! :-D

  93. @Tina - Yep! Glad to finally be official! ^_^ Now to find an official job! =)

    @Janalyn - So true! Fortunately in my case, the false beginning was a huge part of the story (and it turned out one character didn't actually die), but as a reader, I can see how easily it could turn manipulative ... =)

  94. I probably have 10 different openings for ach of the novels I have tried to write. Some works only consist of the attempts at a first chapter. Others have been finished before the work on the first chapter makes me discard that attempt and have to rewrite the whole thing. One WIP has four attempts kept separate by giving the family 4 different family names. Each time I find I have left out something important, or haven't started at the right place. Start where the action originates or where something changes -- and then I am told by judges that I didn't give the character enough of an introduction and they had no idea what was happening. beginnings are my bug a boo,