Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Funny sex scenes

This is another of my favorite sex scenes. You might not have heard of this author, but you should. She's Southern, gay, and a riot. I heard her read years ago and became a fan instantly. By showing you a variety of excerpts, I hope to make it clear that a sex scene is like any other. There are many purposes, styles, and possible outcomes.

Excerpt : The Revolution of Little Girls by Blanche McCrary Boyd, 1991

Narrator and Don: Narrator’s POV, internal and physical conflict

Language: formal, clinical

Setting: Southern atmosphere, humorous, looking back to youthful innocence

Character: shows sexual maturation/gay awareness, alcohol dependency throughout scene. Main character comes a step towards understanding herself, shows her detachment from male/female sex. Reliance on others’ experience creates humor.

Don put down his chicken leg. “I don’t know what Darlene said to you, but we don’t have to do anything. We really don’t.”

“Could we drink some beer?” I said.

So, while the chicken and fried potatoes congealed in their grease and the salad wilted in its pool of dressing, Don and I drank a pitcher of beer, and I began to relax . . . .

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.

In the bathroom I confronted the most serious obstacle to the loss of my virginity: Under my skirt I was wearing a panty girdle. I hadn’t really meant to wear the girdle, but when I was dressing I kept hearing my mother’s voice saying, any woman looks better in a girdle, so I’d put it on experimentally, and it felt so secure, so bracing, that I’d left it on. Now I didn’t know what to do about it. I considered taking it off, but it was too bulky for the pocket of my trenchcoat.

What I did have was a Norform vaginal suppository that Darlene had given me to insert, “just before intercourse.”

(In the parking lot after her double shot of bourbon) His fingers moved tentatively up my legs. “My god, what’s this?” he said, encountering the girdle.

I wanted to explain but I was too dizzy.

His hand wandered around the flesh of my thigh, then moved inward and upward. The dissolved Norform was all over the crotch of the girdle. “My god, you’re wet,” he said.

I tried to hold still.

“Okay,” he mumbled, sliding two fingers awkwardly up the leg of the panty girdle. When he touched me something flashed in my head, and my hips pushed hard against his hand.

“Oh, my god, oh my god,” he said, pulling his hand free.

“I’ll take it off,” I said. “No problem. Here, I can take it off.”

Don was still crouched over his hand. His fingers glistened in the darkness. A lump appeared behind his knuckle and swelled while I watched.

“It’s . . . it’s growing,” I said.

“It’s sprained,” he said . . . . failure at sex, no pleasure

Don’s hand was not sprained. He had broken a blood vessel behind his knuckle. Overnight the blood spread under his skin, turning it puffy and greenish. By the end of the week his hand had turned black, with a dark red palm . . . .

Don followed me to several classes. “We’ll try it again. We’ve got to try it again.” He looked vulnerable, stunned by love, extending his black hand.

I never wanted to see Don again in my whole life, so I felt relieved when my mother telephoned and said, “Why don’t you fly home this weekend . . . .

Thursday, March 24, 2011

More on Sex Scenes

I have several sex scenes that I've collected and analyzed, so I'm going to share another. It seems that my favorite kind of sex is funny sex. Adding humor and a light moment can be another good reason to create a sex scene! (I forgot to mention on the last excerpt that the italics are mine, used to point out particular word choice.)

Excerpt from Twisted City by Jason Starr, 2004

David: main character, middle class businessman - alone in his bed, humorous, his POV, conflict within self

Angie : character he describes as perfect wife material, just met her

Rebecca: his girlfriend whom he wants to dump

Charlotte: a whore whom he just met

No need for atmospheric detail.

Language: words are surprisingly clinical, but the scene comes across as casual and graphic.

Character development and plot movement: shows lack of control and decision, his being drawn to the worst partner for him, ability to let it all go, a step toward seeing him as twisted, a major characteristic moving the plot

(After he has been imagining having sex with Angie)

Unconsciously, I had started to masturbate. I continued, pulling down my underwear for easier access, imagining that I was lying on my back and Angie was next to me, taking off her panties. Then she climbed on top of me and I slid into her. She started bouncing up and down as my hands squeezed her heavy breasts. My hand action quickened as I saw Angie’s face, and then Angie turned into Rebecca. I was getting closer and I wanted to get rid of Rebecca and see Angie again, but then Rebecca became Charlotte. I tried to think about Angie again, but Charlotte was sticking. I could see Charlotte clearly, her tiny breasts in my face. It was too late to stop, and I concentrated on Angie, seeing her again for an instant, and then there was a rapid flux. I was thinking about Angie, Charlotte, Angie, Charlotte, Rebecca, Charlotte—shit—Angie, Charlotte, Angie, Angie, Angie, Angie, then—right as I started to ejaculate—Charlotte.

Miserably, I rubbed the semen onto my leg until it had mostly absorbed. A few minutes later, I was asleep.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

New Anthology!

I just wanted take a mid-week break from writing tips to announce the new anthology that I'm proud to be a part of. We're looking for reviews, and this is a way to get a free copy for your e-reading device. You must be among the first 25. Here's the announcement:

Top Suspense is a sizzling collaboration of twelve master storytellers at the peak of their powers in thirteen unforgettable tales...Max Allan Collins, Bill Crider, Stephen Gallagher, Lee Goldberg, Joel Goldman, Libby Fischer Hellmann, Naomi Hirahara, Vicki Hendricks, Paul Levine, Harry Shannon, and Dave Zeltserman.

This unforgettable anthology – packed full of cold-blooded killers, erotic tension, shady private eyes, craven drug dealers, vicious betrayals, crafty thieves, and shocking twists – is coming out on APRIL 1 and is only a taste of the thrills you will find in the breathtakingly original ebooks by these authors at www.topsuspensegroup.com.

You can get a FREE ADVANCE READING COPY...in your e-format of choice.

Here’s all you have to do:

1. Send me an email at vickih@vickihendricks.com with the subject FREE TOP SUSPENSE BOOK and give me your name and the address of your website or blog (Don’t have one? That’s okay. Read on).

2. Agree to post a review, positive or negative (but with no spoilers!) on your blog, website, Goodreads page, Facebook page, or the Amazon listing for TOP SUSPENSE in the next 60 days. (You don't have to buy the book on Amazon to review it there, you only need to have an account).

3. Email me a copy of the review or a link to the post.

I'm waiting to hear from you!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Sex Scenes

Here are some notes on sex scenes, showing them to be similar to any type of scene, except for the subject matter.Characters develop through conflicts related to the main conflict, moving the plot forward, touching on the main theme.

Structure is similar to a complete plot, with set up, complication and conflict, internal or external or both, and a climax that brings about resolution and a learning experience.

Language distinguishes the characters’ personalities, places the event in time or place, sometimes adds humor. Language is specifically chosen for specific genres, from romantic and euphemistic for romance novels to clinical/realistic and slang for mainstream and noir. Sometimes the graphic words are implied rather than stated.

Sexual Detail provides originality and factual details about characters

Atmospheric detail makes the scene original continues to build on the world being established and places the event geographically and chronologically with the rest of the story.

Character Development and Plot Movement are the basis of each sex scene, just as they are in any scene. The writer has a purpose to accomplish along with the titillation.

My favorite example of a sex scene with comments as to how it works:

Note: Italics in excerpts are mine, to indicate notable word choices.

Billy Bat and Earlene: body builder and very large woman in tub, not main characters, internal conflicts for both

Setting: Country atmosphere, dialect, humor, passion

Language: a mixture of clinical and country

Both Points of view

Internal conflicts

Both characters have changed/grown by the end, and given up something.

“Still. Be still. Keep you eyes closed. See the pasture. See the clear, looking-glass water. Beside it now. You see a white horse, a proud, young white horse, and just an easy breeze is lifting his mane and letting fall again and lifting it again. Can you see that? See it all?” Wooing her. Her internal conflict is shown earlier.

“God, that’s potry,” she said.

“But can you see it?” he said.

“Yes I can,” she said, and she truly could.

“I’m buffing you up now. It’s only a matter of time.” (“Skin Mechanic”)

He did not say what was only a matter of time, and she did not ask. The rough cloths over her skin were unlike anything she had ever felt. But it was not the washcloths she was feeling now. Billy Bat had long since dropped them. What she felt on her skin that was coming alive with the surfacing of tingling blood was ridges of calluses in Billy Bat’s hands. She felt his hands come over her shoulders and slide beneath the gathered top of her one-piece, palm her breasts, and lift them free. She allowed her sight to sift through her lashes and saw her breasts floating there in front of her, long and round and utterly white and, she thought, beautiful. Billy Bat’s naked hands were rolling and squeezing them, using long strokes to mile the blood down toward her nipples. And her nipples amazed her. She had never seen them this way before, rigid darkly engorged with blood, and more than the sight of them as a feeling—again, one she had never before known—as though a mildly charged electric wire had been connected to both nipples and ran directly to the place between her legs . . . .

Billy Bat’s head lifted, his nostrils flared and caught scent of all that his life as a bodybuilder had denied him: pastry, pork chops, fried chicken, thick flaky biscuits awash in butter. Something in him knew that he could not possibly smell what he smelled, but another, deeper part of him knew the steaming air was filled with what he longed to smell most. And hefted the slabs of her and gazed upon what was in his hand with love and longing . . . .

She reached down and took his head in both hands and raised it from the place it was buried to the ears where no man had ever been. When he looked up over the wide expanse of her, her magnificent breasts floating on either side of her now, his eyes were glazed and unseeing, but his expression was beatific as though he had just been told by Jesus himself that he was going to heaven after all . . . .

After some time of violently lapping water, bright shards of it flying over the tiled bathroom, Billy Bat quieted and held her and said, “We fit like two spoons, you sweet girl.”

She only smiled and concentrated on the moment she had dreamed of since she was a young girl but had finally come to believe would never happen.

And then later, as she felt the tension building in him just as it was building in her, she said, “We married now.” Earlene POV/ joy and acceptance

He did not answer. But he knew it was true, and he knew that she knew it was true. He had always been married to body-building, but when he entered her, he got a divorce. And when he stiffened howling like a dog with Earline’s secret face buried in his shoulder and smiling, the thought occurred to him in that single moment as serious and mysterious as death that he had just given Earline a few ounces of his worldbeating back. And right behind that came the thought that she could have all of his worldbeating back, because she did, in fact, truly have all of him. Billy Bat POV/ has given some part of his passion to her

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Fresh from the masters!

This weekend I attended Sleuthfest in Ft. Lauderdale and saved some great tidbits. I enjoyed many fun and inspiring panels, including one on forensic entomology by J. H. Byrd. Among the information for crime writers, I learned always to wash the car after delivering a body to the Everglades. (The presence of a particular species of mole cricket that only hops around at night will convict you every time.) Also, beware, the blood in crab lice is enough to connect you sexually with a murder victim. Fascinating stuff!
I asked for any comments on Silence of the Lambs and was told that the beetle in the film was misidentified. Also, when prodded, Dr. Byrd admitted to having a chess set with pieces in the shapes of bugs--not too far from the entomologists characterized in the film. Fun, fun!

More toward the subject for this blog, I attended a panel on writing technique with James W. Hall, S.J. Rosan, and Dennis Lehane. James W. Hall, my former professor at F.I.U. made the comparison of a novelist who outlines, with a friend who plans his vacation trips down to the moment--not only a completely mapped out route and hotel reservations, but the location of gas stations, and what time to reach them. The wife wants to stop at the restroom after lunch, but no, the Texaco isn't scheduled until 3:30!

This pleases all of us non-outliners. Hall himself admits to starting with a plan and almost immediately discarding it when a better idea presents itself. Might as well plan to head North, for example, and enjoy the adventure. All three writers agreed that if you are enjoying the story, there's a much better chance that your reader will than if you're not.

Hall also gave an example from his novel Island of Bones, where a character, Dougie, who has no pain threshold, blurts out this information to a woman he meets in a bar. The woman asks, "If I stick a fork in your arm, does that mean you won't do anything?" Given the affirmative answer, she adds, "I've been looking for you all my life." This is the birth of a new character, someone unbidden who comes into a novel and demands to stay. This is what Dennis Lehane refers to as listening when his characters talk to him, what he finally had to do last year when Patrick wouldn't let him alone, resulting in Moonlight Mile. This is what I think of as letting the characters write themselves. It's so much easier than forcing them to behave.

S.J. Rosan brought up the necessity of moral ambiguity to create depth of character. She used, as an example, her creation some years ago of a Chinese woman as the girlfriend of her protagonist. With the difference in cultures, nothing is right or wrong; even what one considers normal to eat for breakfast comes into question. To me, this is a technique that will keep you from running out of interesting situations and conflict even between dramatic scenes.

Lehane brought into the conversation a simple and memorable metaphor explaining the difference between plot and story: the plot is the car and the story is the journey. In other words, the plot is the vehicle that allows you to create the story, story being based the theme, the understanding of life that will evolved. Theme comes about because of the main character's psychological need (Look back at my "Fast Start" blog about "need." Dennis and I were classmates). "For a story to be worth telling," Lehane stated, "a piece of the character's soul must be changed."

By the way, thanks, Joanna Slan, for telling me that my blog is appreciated!

Sunday, February 27, 2011


Taste is something that most people think is completely personal and unchangeable, but that is not true, if you are willing to learn. Taste, as I’m using the term, is what allows you to make the right choices to produce the kind of writing for the category that you want to join. There are many categories of taste, but for writing purposes people are mainly interested in two obvious ones: taste for writing that gets published, taste for writing that doesn't. Most people who have taste in the latter category are wedded their own writing or their friends', and are happy with it, or not unhappy enough to change. Changing is always uncomfortable because it requires some ego to be destroyed. It is much easier to live with righteous outrage at the "bad" writing that gets published and sold in quantity.

Of course, “bad” writing often sells, not because it’s bad, but because of popular ideas, psychological trends, and human stories that are emotionally enthralling. Readers who are not schooled in writing do not care about a lack of style, depth, universality—or even symbolism! Face it, the majority of readers are not academics or writers and buy what they enjoy, rather than what might be lasting. For this reason, there is a subcategory of "publishable taste," which is the taste to be able to create popular escapist literature, whether escaping into romance, crime, or knowledge, a category that many people would like to acquire the taste to produce. James W. Hall happens to have a book coming out this summer that will explain in depth how to develop this taste, in other words how to write a bestseller. If that is your goal, your first tip on developing taste is to get the book. I can’t wait to get mine.

I also have another book recommendation, this one for developing taste in words, images, and sentences, the basic level that also must be addressed. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, will help you to acquire taste on the literary level that will have positive affects on any kind of writing you choose.

Obviously, you should also be reading the kind of literature that you intend to write. If this does not come naturally, then maybe you’re on the wrong track. Or it’s possible that your chosen literature is out of your writing range. I, for example, having started my life as an English major, continued with a Master's Degree in English, and on to teaching English. With this background, my first taste was developed toward the classics. I got nowhere with that taste in my own writing since I didn’t have the profound thoughts necessary to be able to create classic literature. Of course, I was missing the skills to write fiction of any kind at that point, too, only looking from the outside in, rather than seeing the writing from the author's viewpoint. I went on to learn technique while getting my MFA in Creative Writing at Florida International University, and during that time I also developed the knowledge of and taste for noir literature, mainly from studying the writing of James M. Cain. This is where I managed to hone my taste successfully to get published. The mix of sex and crime was something that clicked for me. My first novel, Miami Purity, has been called a noir classic, so what more can I ask?

Now, however, I am trying to expand into the popular world of animal literature. I have immersed myself in animal writing over the past five years, reading fiction, non-fiction, academic animal rights treatises, and even a little animal fantasy. Books such as Seabiscuit, The Life of Pi, and Water For Elephants have become my bibles. I analyze and learn, but I also enjoy my new category. I am enthralled by stories involving animals, so if I am not able to develop the taste required to write a “popular” book, what have I lost?

So this is my general tip. Let your taste develop through your reading. Consciously work on it. And don’t be afraid to give up old feelings and move on. Aging requires it!

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Learn from Others' Mistakes!

I decided to do a short post this week, mainly directed to participants in writing groups or teaching, but also workable for the self-taught writer when reading published fiction.

In an interview from The Middlebury Initiative, writer Julia Alvarez, a former student of Middlebury, brought up the fact that she continues to learn from her students. "You learn to solve problems because you didn't create them," she said. "You may think you're reading and evaluating this story for someone else, but in trying to figure out what this story needs to take off, you're learning how to do that in a way you can't in your own story because you're inside it." This method is something I have been grateful for throughout my twenty years of teaching creative writing. Not only am I collecting a paycheck and being rewarded with student enthusiasm and creativity, but since the learning process never ends, my own trial and error has been partially conducted vicariously.

Once the printer has been employed, the words and ideas have already taken on value for the writer, both for the time expended and the fondness that develops with rereading. I don't need to tell you that making changes is painful. Much more fun to observe a misstep and avoid it!

Not to mention, people in general enjoy digging in and finding errors in others' work more-so than in their own. In addition to the needs of ego, I think most opposition to rewriting is due to the work involved. The more we can find wrong, the more work we have to do, and no matter how severe we try to be on ourselves, when it comes to making a fine judgment, the voice that wants to save time and effort sometimes prevails. Or it might work the opposite way for some: the more work I do the better it gets. Not always the case! However, when you're finding problems for others, you have no pull either way, are free of bias, except what your own taste leads you to prefer.

Taste. That's a necessity that can be taught. Maybe I'll have something to say on taste next week. I hope so.

Meanwhile, keeps your eyes and ears open. Writing fiction is a twenty-four hour job.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Plotting Checklist

I fear that my blog is too serious, judging by the number of followers (7) in my third week. Perhaps blogging is not the vehicle for studying a textbook-type lesson. Nevertheless, hard-headed as I am, I am continuing this week to give information that I I've digested and embodied in my writing over the past twenty years.


Courtesy of Frank Strunk, Antioch Writers’ Workshop, 1992

1. Ghost/back story:

What is it that is haunting your character as the story begins?

2. Inciting Incident:

What event sets the plan into motion?

3. Character’s Need:

In what way does your character need to grow emotionally (although probably unknown to him or her).

4. The Goal:

What is it that your character wants?

5. The Plan:

What does your character decide to do in order to get what he/she wants?

6. The Stakes:

What will be the consequence if the plan does not work?

7. The Oppositions:

Who are the people who are working against your characters?

8. The Nightmares:

What are the encounters between your character and the oppositions?

9. The Final Nightmare/Blackest Moment:

What happens to make things look hopeless?

10. The Revelation:

What does your character learn about himself/herself, others, or life?

11. The Choice:

What does your character do because of what he/she has learned?

12. (My addition - from Aristotle) The Reversal:

Have your characters reversed their positions (from beginning to end) in the hierarchy of power in the story?

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

What Do You Do When You're Stuck?

I have this question to answer from a far-away friend, (the "ink-slinging sea gypsy") Cap'n Fatty Goodlander.

I think he's only asking something to be nice. He's already got several five-star non-fiction books to his credit, but maybe that flows more easily than fiction for him, which is what he's asking about.

Now, I'm afraid this answer is going to be mostly empathetic. I get stuck all the time, especially around midway. The exuberant blast of creativity that comes with getting to know your characters, making free and far-ranging choices, striking out fearlessly into deep water, all these usually get me at least a third of the way in, before second guessing and writer's block tries to set in. I often notice a "middle slump" in, otherwise, wonderful novels, so I don't think we're alone. I'm sure it's caused by the necessity to leave open ocean and plot a course for some particular destination, which requires tedious tacking to keep underway. (Hope my attempt at a nautical metaphor isn't too pitiful!--I've forgotten a lot from my brief sailing experience.)

Of course, people who outline don't have this problem, but it you're asking this question, you're like me and outlining doesn't work for you. I don't know, maybe I'm lazy, but I can't seem to do much unless I see one word after another, one sentence after another on the screen. I need instant reward, even if it's more like punishment.

Okay, that's the empathy part. My general remedy is to wake up early and think about what to write next before I turn on the light. I make myself do that morning after morning when I'm in the midst of a novel, and soon it becomes habit, so that I review and question myself and think of new ideas every morning. In slightly more practical terms, depending on where you're stuck, say it's only about a quarter of the way through, the character has a need and a goal, as mentioned in my "Fast Start" post, so it might be time for him or her to make a plan, or take the next step in the plan. If you're thinking in literary terms, you always want your characters to make a choices which keep the cause and effect working.

However, you can also take an occasional detour. I've heard crime writers recommend throwing in a gun. I think what that means is to add something unexpected and important, but not coincidence or anything out of character, of course. I tossed in a gun around the middle of my novel Miami Purity, but it was used for masturbation rather than shooting, which fit the circumstances. The scene runs the risk of being labeled "gratuitous sex," but I say it further develops character. It's more realistic than one might think, although I can't divulge my source.

Another possibility is to do some research. When I was writing "Stormy, Mon Amour," (in my collection Florida Gothic Stories) about a woman who fell in love with a dolphin and gave birth to a mermaid, I got stuck and realized that I didn't know enough about dolphins to continue developing the relationship. Luckily for me, (about six months later) I was able to attend a reading by Rick O'Barry, a dolphin rescuer, who visited Books and Books in Coral Gables, FL, and I learned exactly what I needed to know to finish the story. If you keep your eyes open, often Fate helps you out, but not immediately.

I guess, in general, I'm thinking that what I recommend is to get away from the computer. If you're on your sailboat, Cap'n, in the middle of crystal blue sea and sky, that might not be so easy, but heck! I can't even imagine how you can concentrate on something as tedious as writing when you're sailing to exotic ports and living your dreams.

You've probably already tried all these "solutions," so if you have any suggestions, I would appreciate them. You, Cap'n, or anybody--

A Personal Note

I just wanted to take a moment to remember my college roommate from Ohio State, Denise Fuciu, DVM, my good friend for almost exactly 40 years, and one of the most clever and interesting people I have ever known. I am in frozen Canton, Ohio, tonight in order to attend her funeral tomorrow. I will miss her dearly. She was the keeper of the memories, "The Book of Quotes," and my enthusiastic consultant on everything animal in my novels. Her humor has been a constant in my life, all the way until the end, regardless of her diagnosis.

Friday, January 28, 2011

First Lines

Importance of the First Line in Fiction

Basically, to me the object of a first line, or first page, is to get the story started as soon as possible and in the most interesting way. I’ve heard of a writing professor in the past who wouldn’t let his students write another sentence until they got the first sentence right—what right can’t be easily defined, and how he could justify the tuition spent for those students who never got it right for the semester I have no idea, but the importance of the first sentence can’t be denied.

Of course, the first sentence gives the indication of everything else to come. You can think of it as a reflection or a blueprint of the rest of the story, just as the first page is. There are some characteristics of the first page that cannot be incorporated into the first sentence, of course, but some are automatically included, such as verb tense, point of view, and that slippery indefinable phenomenon, voice. To me, voice in the first line can sell a novel. I believe my first novel was sold on the line “Hank was drunk and he slugged me—it wasn’t the first time—and I picked up the radio and caught him across the forehead with it.” I sent the manuscript out several times before adding this line, but after I added this line, Sonny Mehta at Knopf snapped it up. Personally, I can hear the tone in first clause that sounds like the voice in James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice, which I was modeling the novel on. “They threw me off the hay truck about noon.” “Hank was drunk and he slugged me.” I didn’t consciously mimic Cain, but I was so immersed in him at the time, I think that’s what happened.

You can’t see the plan for the whole short story or novel in the first line, and you’ll need to rewrite it many times, but sometimes a first line comes as a gift. It’s a wonderful thing to be inspired by your own first line. I believe my story “ReBecca” happened this way, when this line came into my head: “As her Siamese twin joined at the skull, I know Becca wants to fuck Remus as soon as she says she’s going to die our hair.” Once this line came into my head—from seeing two-toned hair on conjoined twins on a talk show—I had the sound of the narrator, the conflict, and an unusual and interesting physical detail to work with throughout the story.

As for writing the first sentence, you need to be inspired by your own interests, encounters, or whatever else it does for you, but once you have an idea, I think it’s possible to hone it by keeping a few of these concepts in mind that get worked out further on the first page and beyond.

Using T. Coraghessan Boyle’s sentence from “Descent of Man”:

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.”

Story of a man whose girlfriend, Jane Good (Goodall?) falls in love with a chimpanzee.

Verb tense—past

Point of View—1st person

Protagonist’s sex—assume male at this point

General age—old enough to be “living with” a woman, sexual situation

Type of character—sympathetic, truthful because plain-spoken

Goal/need—to remedy the situation physically and psychologically


Conflict—relationship problem

Tone—indignant, incredulous, plain, down to earth “stink”

Question—why stink suddenly?

Expectation—something unusual about story: scientific, fantastic?

You might not be conscious of all this, but it has to predict the rest of the story—it’s like poetry, so much in so few words.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Fast Start

Since I have nothing profound to say about life on a regular basis, and everyone tells me I must blog, I've decided to create a writing site. With my teaching and writing credentials, I'm sure that I can be of help to new writers in honing their skills. For the first installment, here is my "nutshell" version of how to start the first page of a short story (or a novel), which I call a "Fast Start." Whether you want to write a crime story or a story in any genre, there is no difference in the basic techniques. "Fast Start" means not only do I hope that you will get started writing quickly with these brief guidelines, but that the story will hook the reader immediately. Your first page is the most important page of any story or novel because agents, editors, and people browsing in bookstores (while they still exist) will often only read the first page. So take a few minutes and peruse these notes. Some of this might be familiar to you, but even so, having something explained in a different way can be inspiring. Feel free to ask questions, discuss, or even disagree! In fact, please ask questions, so that I know what to post next week!


In THE ART OF THE NOVEL, 1934, Henry James said that there are no rules for fiction, that the only requirement is that it be interesting. This is true. However, rather than spending years in determining what is, in fact, interesting, a writer can benefit by understanding and practicing a few basics that have been derived through the study of traditional fiction.


The first page is the contract between writer and reader. This is where you create your own rules—whether you realize it or not. If you do not, you are likely to break your rules and cause the reader discomfort because of the inconsistency. On page one—even in sentence one to some extent—the writer creates a pattern he or she must follow to the end of the story or novel. The "DNA” in fiction, as named by James W. Hall, includes the basics necessary to get the story started and indicates the style, tone, and usually the relative proportions of summary, scene, dialogue, and description.


I. Characters—at least two of them:

The story isn't started until there is a conflict to be carried out. A conflict is generally between two people because this is the most interesting. An internal conflict may be present at the same time within the protagonist, but a character entertaining conflicting thoughts alone in a room or on a train is usually not very interesting.

A.. Protagonist with a Need and Goal (usually the narrator):

The reader will be pulling for this character to fulfill his/her deepest psychological desire through the attainment of a concrete goal. He or she need not be all sugar and spice—even murderers can be protagonists—but must be portrayed with specific detail and sensitivity to create interest and sympathy. The character is not usually aware of his or her need, but the writer and the reader should become aware within the first page for best results. The concrete goal may come within the first few pages. The protagonist will grow and change throughout the story, so that the character is different in some way or knows more at the end of the story or novel than at the beginning.

The reader should immediately know the sex, approximate age, and usually, the name of the protagonist. Don't hold back important information that would allow the reader to become emotionally involved.

B. Antagonist—A Character of Opposing Force:

This character and/or allies must give the protagonist a tough "fight." If the opposition is lacking in power, the outcome is too obvious, and the reader loses interest.

II. Atmosphere:

The background enables the reader to visualize the characters concretely. Voices arising out of white space are unsettling to the reader, so usually a sentence or more of atmosphere to set characters on the scene precedes dialogue and action.

A.. Place:

Place may include geographic, exterior, and/or interior setting. How much is needed depends on the story. No "filler" allowed; there is no extra room in a short story, especially on the first page.

B. Time:

Time can refer to year, season, time of day, exact hour and minutes, whatever is needed. Time must be "kept" throughout the story.

III. Verb Tense:

The controlling verb tense must be chosen immediately. Most stories are written in past tense as is logical; however, present tense has become popular and affords a degree of closeness and immediacy that works well under certain conditions. More attention is usually required in order to stay consistent in present tense, because past tense comes to mind more naturally when writing a story.

IV. Point of View:

A consistent point of view should be established in the first few paragraphs and maintained throughout the story. The general types of point of view are first person, third-person-attached or central consciousness, and omniscient. Second person can be used on rare occasions, but often gets tiresome in long works. Briefly, first person is limited to the conscious perceptions and feelings of the "I" narrator, usually the protagonist. Third-person-attached is generally limited to the conscious and unconscious perceptions and feelings of the "he" or "she" protagonist, but may include some omniscience, if it is established early. (You can create your own rules, as long as you stick to them.) A totally omniscient POV from the author, a godlike narrator, or many narrators is generally uncontrolled and unfocused in the hands of a beginner. In a short story, one point of view is highly advised, because there is only one character who develops and changes, and if other characters have points of view, the reader cannot tell who is important. In a novel, there can be several characters who take turns being the point of view character in third person, usually separated in chapters. This is sometimes referred to as omniscient, but it is more accurately called shifting third person. Point of view is usually the most difficult concept for a beginner to master.

V. Dialogue and Scene:

These elements are not always found on the first page, but are highly recommended. Dialogue and scene should contain conflict which builds or reflects the plot in some way, so if good dialogue is included in the first page, the story takes off instantly. Be sure to indent each time you have a new speaker. If a character says something and then performs an action consecutively, the words and actions usually go into one paragraph. Use he said, she said, or I said in most cases if there is any question as to who is speaking. These are called dialogue tags, and they are mostly unnoticed by the reader. Do not draw attention to your tags by varying them. Whispered and shouted are good choices because unlike responded or answered, they show real differences in the manner of speech.

VI. Tone and Style—Elements of Voice

The combination of language, syntax, rhythm, etc. involved in the creation of voice, cannot be defined in this space. Expect to spend years of your life pursuing this knowledge, unless you are one of the lucky people for whom an individual voice comes naturally. In the meantime, suit your language to your character, from the first sentence on. Don't write like an English teacher unless your character is one.