Monday, October 20, 2014

First Pages

Image source: Wikipedia

Starting a new project always gets me thinking about the first few pages. After all, they have to impress or they're the only pages a prospective reader will ever see.

In general, I believe good opening hooks come in five flavors which can be mixed and matched to suit.

  1. Conflict: This is probably the easiest for a new writer to master. When two forces collide it brings out character and it arouses curiosity. Which side will win? Where will this go? This hooks for the same reason you listen at the walls when you hear your neighbors arguing. The urge to watch conflict unfold is a deeply ingrained part of the human psyche.
  2. Character: There are characters who could read the dictionary and you'd be riveted. Compelling, quirky, funny, dark, or anything else that draws us in. If we want to see your lead character in action we'll read on. (note this one dovetails nicely with conflict because as I said, conflict tends to bring character to the fore)
  3. Suspense/mystery: These can be tricky. If you're just holding a bit of crucial information back it's bound to backfire. There has to be an inherent danger present in the scene. It doesn't have to be a physical threat, but it should be a permanent threat, getting kicked out of school, or losing a job, can work as well as a deadly threat, but if the threat is passing it will not hook as effectively.
  4. Plot: If you have a great story and you can really get the ball rolling on the first page, readers will be instantly engaged. Like in a spy movie, where some important secret is stolen in the very beginning and this drives the action to follow.
  5. Voice: This is always a tricky one (see my previous blog post). Voice on its own can work as a hook, but I recommend combining it with some of the above for best effect (unless you're the second coming of Douglas Adams, then do as you please, and would you autograph a few books for me?)

Which brings me back to my own work. Here's the beginning of my latest, a near-future YA thriller. Please let me know what you think in the comments!

Chapter 1
Wake up and Smell the Gasoline

I sit at the back of a large, dingy basement made up like a church. A few dozen congregants, mostly black, listen to the Pastor rattle on about passive resistance, making our voices heard, blah blah blah. A perfectly normal scene, but everything about it – every fucking thing – is wrong.

I don’t know how I got here, I don’t know who I am, and I’m certain the middle-aged woman’s body I’m wearing like a meat puppet isn’t my own.

Three men walk in the back door as I scan around in confusion. An odd bunch, the lead with greasy black hair and ill-fitting cornflower blue suit, followed by an aging pot-bellied punk rocker in a studded red leather jacket, and an Asian man, short, but so muscular he seems ready to burst out of his perfectly-tailored grey silk suit. All three carry army style duffel bags.

The Pastor adjusts his steel-rimmed glasses. “Excuse me, this is a private gathering.”

“This won’t take long.” Rumple Suit smiles broadly. He unzips his duffel and produces a U-lock, which he snaps into place on the exit doors. The other two head for the side doors while Rumple Suit withdraws a heavy pipe wrench from his bag. “Plumbing emergency.”

“You can’t just barge in here.” The Pastor backs away from his lectern nervously.

“Sir, please bear with me, this won’t take a minute.” Rumple Suit takes three quick steps, leaps onto the improvised stage next to the Pastor, and addresses the congregation. “Now, if you’ll all just interlace your fingers behind your heads and bend forward so your face touches your knees we can finish up here with no fuss.”

A few people comply.

The Pastor says, “I demand to see some kind of identifi—“

Rumple Suit smashes the pipe wrench into the Pastor’s nose sending a mist of bright red blood spatter across his face and clothes.

The Pastor crumples like overcooked spaghetti. Blood pools around his head as he stares unblinking through broken glasses.

Rumple Suit draws a pistol and waves it at the pews. “Let’s play a game. Simon says. Heads. Down.

Friday, September 26, 2014


(Picture courtesy Pendragon1966 - Deviantart)

When I first started writing, there were a million new things to learn. I was always a good student in English class, and while I did take some post-secondary English, it was not my central area of study. So I plugged away at it, learned how to use commas correctly (most of the time), mastered the em-dash, the ellipsis, use of quotation marks in dialogue, all with the help of guides and books that told me clearly, if x then y. If your quoted dialogue ends in a period, then goes on to give attribution, the period is moved to the end of the sentence, after attribution, and the spot at the end of the quote becomes a comma.

Easy right? There are rules.

Then I heard about voice.

Agents want to hear voice. Many agents say they must have a good sense of voice from your first page, or they won't read on.

I researched voice, but I never really came up with anything helpful. "You know it when you see it." Seemed to be the consensus.

Well I think I have it now and I'm willing to share.

To me, voice is the character telling the story. It may be the author's own personal voice, but unless you're a character in the leap off the page sense, I think you need to invent that character.

Here's an example:

"Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

This planet has - or rather had - a problem, which was this: most of the people on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn't the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of the people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches." - Opening to Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams

Nothing happens. No characters are introduced. There's no conflict, no real plot development. The voice does all the work, and you'd read on, wouldn't you? Who could put it down after reading just the first page? Because this voice, this is someone cool, someone funny, someone with charisma. This voice is the person you want to stand next to at a party, because you know they're going to say interesting things and you won't be bored. If you gave this voice to an actor/actress they'd leap off the screen.

This voice is stardust.

Not that you, or I, or anyone should attempt to be Douglas Adams. We have to find our own paths, our own voices that suit our work. While we work at it though, it's important to remember the qualities of great voice. Big, bold personality, charisma, wit, and above all, confidence. There is little that draws humans to another person like confidence.

Read your favorite authors and think about why you like their voice. Write a list of attributes they have that appeal to you and examine how you can develop those in your own writing. Do not attempt to copy another writer's style. There's only one of them, just as there's only one of you and copies inevitably pale in comparison to the original.

Above all, write.

Revel in the act of creation.

Be the god of your world and bring that godlike confidence to your readers. Take them by the hand, give a confident squeeze and say, "Come with me, I've got something amazing to show you."

Monday, August 18, 2014


I was born.

Then some other things happened.

I read a lot of books. Mostly under the covers at night with flashlight in hand and one ear cocked for the creaky floorboards outside my door.

At an early stage I decided what I really wanted from life was to write.

I kept that desire secret. Maybe people would laugh. No... certainly some people would laugh. I drew maps, planned characters, plotted epic fantasies... and never started a single story.

The bios of my favourite authors spoke of madcap careers Army, professional juggler, rodeo clown... I don't remember all of them, but I was amazed at how many jobs my idols had gone through before finding writing.

What I needed to do, I decided, was to see the world in the most interesting way possible.

After High School, I registered to join the Canadian Army, with the intention of a career in the Infantry.

I wasn't offered a place in the Infantry. Too good at math. Electronics and Optics, that's where the big machine that read my test said I should go.

I took the offer.

Basic training was hard. I don't think a civilian can understand how hard it is. When you fail, they either choose to bump you back two weeks, where you enter a new platoon and try it all over again, or they discharge you... send you back home.

I failed. I could make a lot of excuses. There certainly were extenuating circumstances, but ultimately it was my failure.

They don't give third tries.

I failed again.

During my interview, I must have said something to impress the Captain. He noted that there were some irregularities in my training and gave me one... last... shot.

I screwed up again, but I made it.

In the second-to-last week of training, my punishment (for having a sweatshirt in the wrong part of my locker) was to carry a cement block weighing 20 kilos or so during the entire time. This week of training saw lots of un-burdened trainees fall out due to exhaustion, but I was more determined than ever.

I never came last on a run, in fact I made sure to be in the lead half of the platoon in everything we did, in spite of my extra load.

After basic it was all easy. After that all I had to do was be good at math and get through my electronics training.

When I joined my unit they were off in Cyprus on a Peacekeeping tour.

That's what I was there for, but I wasn't allowed to go. I had to wait in the empty barracks, doing simple tasks for months until they returned.

Several years later, when the chance to volunteer for Peacekeeping in the former Yugoslavia came along, I jumped at the chance. They didn't have openings for me in my trade, but they needed drivers. Even though I wasn't going as a technician, I was thrilled at the chance. We trained hard for two months and flew over.

I won't go into all the details. We lost two good men. Cpl. Johnny Baichard, and my friend, Capt. Jim Decoste. The stories are heart-wrenchingly awful, especially Cpl. Baichard's death, so, suffice to say I'd seen enough. I got out of the Army.

I wandered.



I forgot all about writing.

I couldn't settle down. I did construction. Went to college, but couldn't stick with anything.

In retrospect, I probably had PTSD. Maybe I still do.

I found computer animation, and the creative outlet was good for me. Even working to the crazy demands of some clients was satisfying in its way.

A lull in work became a gap, then a chasm. I needed something to fill the time, and that's when I started to write again. At some point I realized I'd done just what I'd set out to do. See the world, experience life from all different angles.

Now all I had to do was put all that experience on the page somehow.

That's the hard part.

I'm still trying.

Maybe I'll get there one day.