Wednesday, December 28, 2016

How to Charge the First Page of Your Story

Hook Your Reader Now


Image attribution ​eflon
The first page of your book is that first impression that doesn't get a second chance. Whether your reader is a bookstore browser or an agent, the first page is the introduction to the story.
Key elements of that introduction tell the reader about the story.

  • Tone - dark, humorous, romantic, historical, etc. The reader is drawn to your writing voice.
  • Character - Who is in your story? What are they like? 
  • Setting - Ground the reader in time and place. Characters, and stories, don't float in space. 
  • Immediacy - Don't dither. Get your reader into the story. Save long descriptions and narrative telling for later, if at all. Plunge them in. The adage for scenes--late in, early out--is primary on the first page. 
This is nothing new. Homer knew how to get attention right away. 


Homer Knew

​RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage, Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls Of heroes into Hades’ dark, And left their bodies to rot as feasts For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done. Begin with the clash between Agamemnon-- The Greek warlord--and godlike Achilles. Which of the immortals set these two At each other’s throats? Apollo Zeus’ son and Leto’s, offended By the warlord. Agamemnon had dishonored Chryses, Apollo’s priest, so the god Struck the Greek camp with plague, And the soldiers were dying of it.
That's just the first 15 lines of the Illiad. The reader knows the theme: RAGE. Achilles is the character. Bodies rotting. Gods. War. Emotion.
Modern readers may want a different style, but the elements are the same.


If you think immediacy  your first page will draw the reader to keep reading. Get your character in action. Give them something to say. Without being heavy handed or long-winded, show (yes, don't tell) your reader where they are and when. Give your character an obstacle that shows the reader how they react.
Save physical details, long setting description, and thoughtful passages for later. Your goal in the first page is to get the reader into the story as quickly as possible.
Give your reader a taste of your story.
Here's the first passage in The Roman Heir. Do you think it meets first page criteria? Leave a comment.
“You see,” Boethius said, leaning toward Argolicus in a confidential manner, “Rome is a closed community. When someone like you whose family lineage is not from one of the great families of Rome and as a newcomer attempts to take on a centuries-old Roman position, you set yourself up for strife. You are wise to retire, go back to your provincial Bruttia and live as local nobility.”
Argolicus watched from the palatial villa on top of the Caelian Hill gentle snowflakes fall on the city and the forum below. He stood on a balcony where Boethius had led him just minutes before. Behind them loomed a grand study filled with manuscripts and books. Boethius carefully peeled an apple, the skin curling off onto the floor at his feet.  Argolicus knew everything Boethius was saying and they echoed his reasons for leaving. He also knew Boethius, so he waited for him to get to the point.
“The same talents that make you a good judge,” Boethius continued, “hamper your political power. You read people, you consider all possibilities, you listen carefully to all sides, you weigh outcomes. In politics you must make a decision, move quickly, ignore repercussions, and strike.” 

Check Out Your Favorite Authors

Select five of your favorite reads and examine the first page. Identify the elements that brought you into the story...and kept you there.
Here are a couple of mine. The text is copyrighted so go to the Amazon page and Look Inside.
Adrian McKinty - A Cold, Cold Ground
Amory Towles - A Gentleman in Moscow

You may find yourself editing the first page more than once. The best touchstone for your first page is that it brings your reader into the story.

Zara Altair

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

History and the Supporting Character

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

True Romance, Clarence and Alabama, learn story from films

Read to Write

Reading is the inspiration for many writers to begin their own, writing career. For me it was reading and meeting an author when I was five. That's what I want to do, was my childhood thought. Creating stories seemed like such a magical way to live a life.
As an adult, the hard truth hit that having a story idea and creating a story is a path fraught with pitfalls. When I  read my first short stories now, I am embarrassed at how they lacked story. Yep, those old tropes like a beginning, middle, and end, not to mention character revelation, action, description, and a story line that engages the reader.
Yes, there were scenes that even today can bring me to tears, but the story just did not hang together.

What's a writer to do? Learn story.

The best and most lasting way to learn story is to go into other stories.  For fiction writers, there are three excellent ways to experience story.
  1. Read books
  2. Listen to books
  3. Watch films
However many posts (like this one, alas), software and online tools you gather they won't help you as much as diving into other stories.

Focus On Good Writers In and Out of Your Genre

Reading books from the perspective of a writer is much different than as a reader. Once you begin the journey of writing you begin to notice things that an average reader does not.
  • The beginning - the first sentence, the hook, and the setup
  • Character arcs - not just the protagonist, but every character
  • Description - all five senses and what you need to fill in as the reader
  • The all-important Middle - how does the author keep your attention? What are the tension elements?
  • The antagonist - how is the antagonist developed
  • Point of view and why the author chose 1st person or 3rd
  • Tone - is it even throughout? Does it match the genre?
  • The ending
Yes, every element.
As you keep reading, you begin to start comparing your writing--in a good way. Would you use that plot device? Would your character have that flaw?
As you continue reading with a critical eye, you begin to see how writers, even major writers, have flaws. This is where it drags. I don't believe that character would naturally perform that action or say those words.
The more you read, the better you understand story. 

Audiobooks and the Moments in Time

I used to have a book in different rooms--the bedroom, the kitchen, the living room. Now that I listen to audiobooks, I usually have one reading book in the bedroom and listen to audio books on my mobile device.
Applications like audible allow you to listen to books with some very dynamic readers. As you listen to the story, you can bookmark a passage with annotations like fight scene, forest description, interior monolog, deep point of view, etc. These bookmarks help later when you are constructing a certain passage in your story.
Because audio books are on a mobile device you can listen while cooking, gardening, walking the dog, driving and many other activities of daily life that would keep you from sitting down with a book.
I've increased my fiction "reading" since I started using audio books several years ago.

The Basics of Story: Movies

Screenwriters struggle with story basics like how to keep the middle from sagging the same way novelists do. Because films are a collaborative project scripts are the skeleton for the story that allows for interpretation from directors, actors, set designers, lighting engineers, etc. But, story basics are key to a good film.
Unlike a novel which may take hours or days to read from beginning to end, a movie is two hours or less of time. And you can spend this time with friends and family as a diversion from your solitary writing time.
Those two hours are filled with sparks for ideas: plot twists, supporting character arcs, subplots, character reveals, and the crucial elements of story getting from the beginning to the end.
The same is true for film as well as books, watch in your genre and outside of your genre to see how story is constructed.

Books, Audio Books, Film

As writers, we can always improve our craft. Learning from other writers builds an accumulation of skill points that cannot be matched. Balance your writing time by learning from others.

If you are a first time writer, developmental editing can help you strengthen your story structure. Check out my content editing service on Reedsy.
Zara Altair

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Research Before You Write The Story


Before The Outline

The first round of research is background material for your story. You may be looking for settings, hidden alleys, a great beach. While an online search, will give you generic information, there's nothing like going to the place of your story.
You will discover details that no amount of online searching will offer.
  • what your character(s) know and don't know
  • route shortcuts that may offer surprises for your action
  • interior details of buildings, rooms, grand halls, and back kitchens
As you meet people and tell them why you are visiting, you'll be surprised at how people help you with your background research. 
  • They'll refer you to others You should talk to my neighbor. He was here in the 50s, has a passion for hand weapons, grows herbs, knows all the bars. They will offer details you would never have considered on your own
  • They'll do research for you, offering magazine articles or websites that address specifics of your story
  • You'll taste authentic food that is different from the food in your home

Find The Surprises

By Nealmarques - Iphone Camera, CC BY-SA 3.0,

When I went to Ravenna to meet with history scholars at the Ravenna branch of Universit√° di Bologna I thought I was on a history search. Between appointments and visiting suggested historical sites, I played the tourist from time to time and wandered. As I was coming home one evening I passed a botanical garden, right in the middle of the city. It was closed.
I returned the next day because I knew that Nikolaos, Argolicus' lifelong tutor, had a passion and deep knowledge of plants. Aside from keeping Argolicus on a rigorous schedule of Greek language practice and basic fighting skills, his knowledge of plants was part of his character.
When I returned to the gardens Erboristeria dell'Orto Botanico I took photographs of the plants as a store of knowledge of plants native to Italy.
At the time, I had no idea how these would come to play in the stories, but I knew I could use them as a reference.  When I started writing The Peach Widow   I knew that Nikolaos and his knowledge would play a key role. On my original trip to the botanical garden, I was concentrating on edible plants but in this story it was his knowledge of poisonous plants that provides a plot twist.
Nikolaos' expertise comes to play in The Vellum Scribe, another Argolicus mystery and a current work in progress, but for a different reason. Argolicus' uncle Wiliarit creates books. He arrives for a visit to enlist Nikolaos expertise in finding plants to use in his illustrated encyclopedia. 

“Enough,” he said, rescuing his pride. “Let’s eat.” 
He heard a squeal and then laughter from his mother on the other side of the villa. He dropped his sword and ran. Nikolaos ran behind him still carrying his practice sword.
In the entry, his mother was lost in the hug of a huge man draped in brown robes. Behind him, a carter was unloading several wooden boxes, placing each one carefully on the ground.  
“Uncle,” Argolicus cried in Their Language. His face broke out in a spontaneous smile.
The big man turned. “Argolicus. The Father and the Son together!”
“Worship and glorify,” Argolicus responded. “Uncle Wiliarit, where have you been this time?” He embraced his uncle who reciprocated in a hearty hug, squeezing him into the large chest. 
Wiliarit continued in the language of The People, “I’ve been in Constantinople working on a commission. But now I’m here to finish and I’m hoping Nikolaos will help.”
Nikolaos heard his name and came closer, still clutching the practice sword. Beside keeping Argolicus in practice with arms, he was an excellent grammarian and had taught Argolicus Greek since childhood. But, his language skills stopped at the tongue of King Theoderic and his people.
“Nikolaos?” Argolicus replied.
“Yes, he knows much about plants and herbs. I’m hoping he can point out some live specimens for illustrations. What I have now as a source are drawings in another manuscript. I want this one to be as excellent as possible. It is quite a large commission.”

Gather Details

The aim of first research is to discover background and details that will enrich the story for your readers. You are in discovery mode. Find details to store away. For beginning writers, gather as much as possible but know that 80% of your research will not show up in your story. The reverse of this that when you want a detail, you will have material to enliven your characters and enrich scenes. 

Know When Enough is Enough

Original research at the beginning gives you a grand overview. As you write, you will discover that with all the research you've done, in the middle of a scene you need one more pertinent detail. 
A good rule of thumb for knowing when to stop research activities and plan the story is when you can talk to a friend about your background information comfortably without notes. Then it's time to stop and move on to story.

Zara Altair

Friday, October 21, 2016

Don't Just Sit There! Start Your Novel Outline

Your Novel Outline Can Make You Invincible

For a writer, nothing feels better than writing The End when your novel is finished. Beginning novelists can flounder around trying to make the first novel work. An outline can keep your story on track and make all the difference when it comes to writing your entire novel and reaching the end.

Novel outlines are as different as novel writers and there are many good sources to use. The difference for you is creating the outline and writing your story to The End.

Working through your outline will
  • make sure your idea works - from start to finish
  • guide you when you are stuck
  • keep to your storyline without wandering or putting in "extra" scenes that don't move the story forward

The more detailed your outline, for example, each scene within the chapter, the easier you will find the writing.

Your novel outline is flexible. You can add or delete scenes or move them around in the storyline. Scenes can change as you write them. The outline makes sure that every component keeps your story on track to the end.

 Novel Outline Choices

A novel outline can be anything that helps you create an overview of the entire novel. It can be as simple as writing the chapter sequences in a notebook or as detailed as using a spreadsheet. Some people enjoy the reassurance of boxes in a spreadsheet and some the flexibility of a mind map.  There's a style for everyone.

The Old Standby

The traditional storyboad outline is constructed with 3 x 5 index cards on a wall or bulletin board. Cards are lined up in the three act structure. 
You can carry the cards with you anywhere to make a note. This writer also added notes torn from a notebook. The beauty of this storyboard is that you can rearrange the cards any way you wish. Especially in the planning stage as you work through the complete story, it is easy to rearrange scenes.

Since 1974 when Post-it notes were invented, some writers use these sticky notes rather than index cards. The ease of use is the same.

Computer Software

Computer software has added new space-saving ways to create an outline. You can create a MS Word document with a table as a story outline. 
Download File

Or a spreadsheet. You can create your own or search for the many available templates online.
Download File

Download the Word or Excel templates and get started.

Many novelists rely on Scrivener as their go-to software for writing. Within the software is a bulletin board where you can "pin" cards just like the index cards on a bulletin board. As you create your outline you can move scenes and chapters the same way you can with a real life bulletin board. 
A mind map is useful for complex novels with many characters, opposing political factions and alignments, or completely different worlds. The map can not only list all the characters, but group them and illustrate interrelationships. I use FreeMind a very flexible and detailed open source tool. You can add links to research urls.  

If free flow appeals to you, mind maps are a great way to construct your story overview. There are many options, just search for mind maps and take your pick.
There are a number of outlines available for a modest price such as Randy Ingermanson's Snowflake Method. And many that are genre specific. A web search for your genre novel outline will give you many choices.

If your story is based on sequenced events in one day or takes place over a long period of time a timeline will help you make sure your events are in correct sequence. Aeon Timeline not only makes it easy to visualize the entire sequence but integrates with Scrivener.

In The Cloud

Cloud storage frees up space on your computer's hard disk. Google Drive offers Docs and Sheets for word processing and spreadsheets. I use Docs when I am writing short stories. I keep it simple by creating a character list and chapter outline in the main document. I can quickly go to the outline using a header which shows up on the left. 
Sterling and Stone is beta testing a writing app called StoryShop. You can get on the list now when it goes live.

Outline, Then Write

The number of ways you can create your novel outline are manifold. Choose the method that fits your personality, your writing style, and your genre. The important step is to create the outline.
Work through your story. Use whatever structure and beat sequence you want. Fill in all the components of your novel. You'll find that writing will go faster when you know exactly how a scene fits into a story.
The novel outline is a power tool for getting to the end of your novel.

Zara Altair

Have questions about outlining your novel? Get in touch.

Monday, October 17, 2016

How To Prepare For Your Ghostwriter - Actation Now!

What Your Ghostwriter Needs From You No matter what your genre—fiction, non-fiction, or memoir—you will share three vital components of your book The Point The theme or purpose of the book and why people should read it Tone friendly, scholarly, light hearted, literary, just the facts, etc. Conclusion What your readers will [ ] The post How To Prepare For Your Ghostwriter appeared first on Actation Now!.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Scene Checklists

Scenes are the building blocks of your story. Each scene moves the story forward. As you build your story alternate between action and reaction. 

When you go through the first edits of your story make certain that all scene components are in each scene. You’ll take your reader by the hand to lead them through the story. 

Two Types of Scenes

Alternating between Proactive and Reactive scenes is a cycle that builds story in increments. 

The Proactive Scene

The Proactive Scene challenges your protagonist.
  • He has a goal
  • She tries to achieve the goal but obstacles challenge him as the scene moves forward
  • At the end of the scene he has a setback

By the end of the scene, the protagonist has not only failed to reach his goal but has a setback that leaves him worse off than at the beginning. 

Checklist for the Proactive Scene

  • Who is the primary point of view character (stay with her throughout the scene).
  • What is her goal?
  • Keep the goal simple for this one small part of the story
  • Create the objective of the goal so the reader can visualize the success
  • Make the goal worthwhile otherwise cut the scene
  • Make the goal achievable in the protagonist’s view
  • Make it difficult to achieve
  • Create the conflict that keeps your hero from reaching the goal
  • Even with obstacles, don’t let the protagonist give up
  • Make the obstacle unexpected, but keep it logical within the story

Put your hero or heroine in the worst possible situations as they seek what seems like an obtainable goal at the beginning of the scene.

The Reactive Scene

Now that your protagonist is thwarted, it’s time to give him some space. This scene is where your heroine makes a decision about what to do next. 

  • Begin with the protagonist’s reaction to what just happened
  • Now, get your hero to figure out what his options are. If the setback was significant he may have no apparent options and he needs to look at his dilemma and choose an option.
  • In the final portion of the scene, the protagonist mast make a decision.
  • That decision is the goal for the next scene

Checklist for the Reactive Scene

These are the basic elements to include in the Reactive scene when your protagonist makes a decision.

  • Clarify the protagonist’s vision of the problem. She needs to know what the problem is before she can make a decision.
  • Keep the reader with the protagonist by visualizing what the character will do next
  • The decision for the next action should be in line with your character’s personality and values
  • Show how the protagonist sees success from his decision
  • Make the decision difficult enough that the reader has doubts about whether your character can do what she decides

Reactive scenes provide a way for your character to make really bad decisions which will create even greater conflict later on. She may be blind to the motivations of another character. He may find that getting into the boardroom isn’t a slam dunk. Reactive scenes are your opportunity to build conflict and tension because the following action scene may be based on a very wrong decision that seemed right at the time for the character.

Why This Structure Helps

For beginning writers, all this alternating of scenes may seem forced. I know, I was a beginning writer, and thought the same way. But my stories went nowhere and lacked tension. Readers want and expect your characters to have problems and overcome obstacles. Unless you are very compulsive, you don’t need to write these lists down. Just know which type of scene you are writing, create the obstacles either to action or decision making, and write the scene. Your story will benefit and your readers will love your story.

Scene Editing When Your Story Is Finished

Once you have written each scene with all the writer passion you hold, go back to edit your story with a cold, clear eye. 

Scene Checklist For Editing

  • Is your scene written from one point of view?
  • Is it an action scene or a reactive scene?
  • Does the reader know where the characters are? Setting grounds the reader.
  • Does the scene include at least three of the five senses--touch, sight, hearing, taste, smell? These details help bring the reader directly into the scene.
  • Do you crank up the conflict--either action or decision--to the highest point? Make it tough, really tough, for your character.

Practice story editing with an objective eye. Be as unbiased as possible about the elements in each scene. Use your critical mind to objectify the story. I think of it as switching from the story creator, the one who loves the story, to a person who is looking at a thing. Use whatever mind tricks you can to be as objective as possible. 

Do this work on your story and scene structure before you send it to an editor. 

Some writers completely switch into editing mode and stop writing during the process. I like to balance editing and writing so I do some of each during the editing process. Find what method works for you, but don’t skip story editing. 

Keep writing! 

Zara Altair

How Author's Can Share Free Books

Free Books for Author Promotion

Hook potential readers with a free book giveaway. Book Funnel stores PDF, .epub, and .mobi files so they can read your book in their format of choice.  Scrivener users can compile a manuscript to each of these formats. Once you have created the files, simply upload each file plus the book cover to Book Funnel.
Here's a quick tutorial on how to set up your book for distribution. 

Increase Your Exposure, Gain Readers

Your free book is an invitation to readers to get to know you. Make sure your put some of your personality in the free offer. It doesn't matter if it a book or a one-sheet. For most new readers your free offer is the first chance they get to meet you. First impressions count. Make your book look professional. Create a personable introduction to you and your writing.
Zara Altair

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Start Late, End Early

Scenes are the building blocks of your story. The purpose of each scene is to move the reader along in the story. You can help your reader experience immediacy by plunging them headlong into your story.

Begin At the Latest Possible Moment

Begin your scene with action. Plunge your reader into the moment. The action can be dialogue, and be half-way through a conversation. You don't need to start with Hello. Get to the essence of the conversation.
Once your reader is into the action, you can write a brief paragraph describing the place where the action happens to ground the reader in the setting. Keep this paragraph brief and then continue on with the action.
Readers are smart. They will catch up with you. The key is to get your reader involved as quickly as you can. 

End Early

One of the best ways to get your reader to turn the page and keep reading is to end your scene early. Don't answer questions. Leave the reader hanging. If your protagonist is in a fight and just won or lost, stop. Get them to turn the page to discover what happens next. 

Use Scenes as Building Blocks

Whatever story structure you use, whether it is Aristotle's three acts or a more modern beat sheet, scenes are the power drivers of your story. Your reader is here now. Keep them turning the pages with immediacy and tension. Start with instant action, not long description. End by leaving a question unanswered. Your readers may not know what drives them forward, but you will.

Zara Altair

If you are looking for guidance or want a coach for your story get in

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Key Concepts for Creative Web Writing - Actation Now!

How search engines can help you write better copy The goal of good copy is to get site visitors to take action. Along the way, you may entertain and educate, but those are not ends in themselves. The goal is to lead customers to take action. Concepts are the key to creatively writing content. As [ ] The post Key Concepts for Creative Web Writing appeared first on Actation Now!.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Frequently Asked Questions: Clarity for Your Business - Actation Now!

Frequently Asked Questions Define Your Business A well constructed Frequent Questions page is a powerful way to introduce your business. Your website is the way to begin conversations with customers and a Frequent Questions page opens up your business for engagement. A Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page Saves your customers time Manages customer expectations [ ] The post Frequently Asked Questions: Clarity for Your Business appeared first on Actation Now!.

Sunday, August 21, 2016