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Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

These lessons, by one of our most consistent FaithWriters' Challenge Champions, should not be missed. So we're making a permanent home for them here.

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Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 23, 2014 2:12 pm

The fourth judging criterion for the Writing Challenge is did the entry start well? I’ve compiled the best stuff here from several previous posts on this topic.

1. Pick a great title. Although titles aren’t specifically judged, your title is the judges’ first impression.

a. Use interesting words.

b. Don’t give away your ending with your title, especially if it’s supposed to be a surprise.

c. Don’t use clichés or familiar phrases, and don’t use a phrase that is already a title for a book, song, or movie.

d. Under no circumstances should your title be the same as the topic—actually, avoid putting any form of the topic word in your title.

2. The beginning of your entry should hook the reader.

a. If your story has a setting other than here and now, let the reader know within the first paragraph.

Which of these two passages do you think does this best?

It was November of 1861, and 89-year-old Wilma Clemson was feeling very cold. It was going to be a long winter in Vermont.

OR

Wilma Clemson struggled to light the kerosene lamp, her knobbed fingers trembling, aching with cold. Her threadbare quilt would not be sufficient this winter.

The passages have nearly the same number of words, but the second one is better. You might argue that the first one gives more information: The month and year, the specific location, Wilma’s age. However, that sort of specific information is rarely vital to the storyline. If it is, it can be incorporated in some more interesting way.

The second passage, however, shows the reader that Wilma is old (her fingers are ‘knobbed’), that the story is set some time in the past (the kerosene lamp), and somewhere where the winters are quite cold. In addition, the reader is given a hint about Wilma’s circumstances: she’s probably not a wealthy woman (the ‘threadbare’ quilt).

b. Consider using short first sentences—7 or 8 words or less.

c. Make the reader think “huh”? If your first sentence is puzzling or intriguing, the reader is likely to keep going.

d. Introduce the conflict in the first sentence or two.

e. Make sure your first sentences use interesting, non-rice cake words.

e. My personal opinion (backed up by publishers)—don’t begin with dialog. For the reader, it’s like walking in on the middle of a conversation.

f. Introduce a character—preferably by name. Show your readers something about that character.

g. IF your story is set in some exotic setting, clue your readers in. You don’t have to give the city, state, and postal code—but if the MC is in Madagascar, or Saturn, or Lapland, it’d be great if you’d show us a bit of scenery.

Here’s the caveat: writing is an art, not a science, and all of these rules can be broken by good writers. Some people like to be cagier about their setting, or to use pronouns all the way through, for literary effect. That’s fine. As with most of what I’ve included in these lessons—once you’ve mastered the rules, feel free to break them!

A few tips about starting out a nonfiction piece, with some things to avoid:

1. Starting with a dictionary definition. People don’t read dictionaries for a reason…they’re boring. Starting with a dictionary definition is clichéd, and usually unnecessary. If you’re going to be using a word or phrase that’s unfamiliar to your readers, tell them what it means by using it in context or otherwise explaining it in your own words.

2. Starting with a quotation or with Scripture. You can read my reasoning here.

viewtopic.php?f=67&t=37754

3. Starting with abstraction. Readers may need to be eased into your more academic or abstract points. Give them a point of interest first, so that they’ll be able to connect your lesson with their own life. Similarly, starting with a question (“Have you ever wondered…” “What would you do if…” ) is overdone.

So—how should you begin a piece of nonfiction? Well, a lot of the same things that work in fiction will work for your nonfiction pieces, too.

1. Use interesting words.

2. Start with a short sentence that packs a punch.

3. Introduce some conflict.

4. Start with an anecdote—either something that happened to you, or to someone you know--or even a made-up scenario--to illustrate your main idea. Readers like to read about people.

5. Nonfiction doesn’t have to be dry and humorless—put a chuckle in the beginning.

6. Use strong imagery.

7. Provide an object lesson—an example of something that you’ve observed in the real world.

8. There’s no reason that a nonfiction entry can’t include some dialogue. This gives your piece a human component.

9. Give your opening sentences a conversational tone, even a recognizable voice. Nonfiction writing does not have to be cold and distant. Make your writing sound like you.

Obviously, there are some types of non-fiction writing where you have to reign it in—formal, academic writing, or the writing that’s necessary for your job—for these, you’ll want to adhere to the appropriate style and voice. But if you’re writing to appeal to a large, general readership, you can afford to relax a bit.

It’s harder to give hints for beginning poetry, because there are so many different types of poetry. What works for free verse may not work for a rhymed and metered poem, and what works for a narrative poem may not work for a lyrical one.

So this will cover things that when I was judging the Challenge would have caused me to rate this criterion highly.

1. Grab the reader with a great image.

2. Give it an unusual structure. Poems are easily recognized by the way they’re arranged on paper, and if I see a typical, 4-line structure, I’m less likely to be intrigued than if I see an arrangement that promises something new and different.

3. Don’t use rice cake words when there are salsa words available.

4. Lots and LOTS of inspirational poetry themes have been waaaaaaay overdone. If you’re going to write an inspirational poem, give it an interesting twist at the beginning, to make me want to keep reading.

5. If you’re rhyming, use a great rhyme or two in that first stanza--words that your reader may not have ever seen rhymed before.

HOMEWORK: Pick one of these to do...

1. Look back through your Writing Challenge entries and find one that you think has a particularly good beginning. Pick one or more of the points made in this lesson, and tell how your selection matches with those points. OR...

2. Write a sentence or two that you think would make a great beginning for a story (or nonfiction article, or poem). Pick one or more of the points made in this lesson, and tell how your selection matches with those points.

Next week: CLICHES
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby swfdoc1 » Sun Feb 23, 2014 3:53 pm

What, no homework?!

glorybee wrote: writing is an art, not a science, and all of these rules can be broken by good writers. . . . once you’ve mastered the rules, feel free to break them!


This is almost verbatim what I told legal writing students for 10 years (except I said, “writing is both an art and a science”). BUT, because we used anonymous grading and because I wouldn’t have known anything about each student’s in-coming ability anyway, I also told them, “But don’t break the rules in what you submit to me; my job is to be sure you’ve mastered the rules, not to have you show me that YOU think you are good enough to break them.”

But having taught that for 10 years, I still got burned by ignoring my own advice in another context. I submitted a novel to a contest, knowing full well the “rule,” i.e., the prejudice, against interrobangs (? combined with !). But I thought I was “good enough” to include a few—only in dialogue or thoughts, not in the narrated portions. But a judge still jumped all over me. (BTW, I couldn’t resist using one to start this post, just to be impish.)

Do you think this happens in the Challenge? I guess there could be (at least) 3 versions: 1 where the judge wants the writer to show mastery of the rules, 1 where the judge can’t tell whether the rule-breaking is deliberate or inadvertent, and 1 where the judge knows it’s deliberate but doesn’t like it. In any case, the judge might mark the writer down (or might not). To further complicate things, I think there are times when it is USUALLY obvious when the rule-breaking is deliberate, for example when the writer uses fragments. Other times, it might be very difficult to tell when it is deliberate, e.g., using a noun as a verb (tasking, gifting).

Do you think rule-breaking impacts a Challenge entry negatively? In your opinion, should it? On the other hand, does well-done rule-breaking impact an entry positively? Should it?
Steve
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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 23, 2014 5:47 pm

swfdoc1 wrote:What, no homework?!


I totally forgot--I'll go back up there and add an assignment after I've responded to this post.

swfdoc1 wrote:Do you think this happens in the Challenge? I guess there could be (at least) 3 versions: 1 where the judge wants the writer to show mastery of the rules, 1 where the judge can’t tell whether the rule-breaking is deliberate or inadvertent, and 1 where the judge knows it’s deliberate but doesn’t like it. In any case, the judge might mark the writer down (or might not). To further complicate things, I think there are times when it is USUALLY obvious when the rule-breaking is deliberate, for example when the writer uses fragments. Other times, it might be very difficult to tell when it is deliberate, e.g., using a noun as a verb (tasking, gifting).

Do you think rule-breaking impacts a Challenge entry negatively? In your opinion, should it? On the other hand, does well-done rule-breaking impact an entry positively? Should it?


These are all good questions. I have definitely encountered each of the three situations you mention, and I'm confident that all of the current judges can tell the differences among those situations.

I think that the masterful writer who breaks rules intentionally will be well-received by the judges, and that's as it should be. It falls under the "craftsmanship" criterion, which (as I covered a few lessons ago) is more than just grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

And now, to come up with a homework assignment. Since you're the one who asked for it, you're obligated now to do it.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Sun Feb 23, 2014 5:56 pm

Oh--ho--ho! Very good Steve! "Interrobangs"---I never knew that a "?!" was called an interrobang. :lol:

And Jan thanks for a great beginning for the lesson on how to write Great Beginnings.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby glorybee » Sun Feb 23, 2014 6:02 pm

Cinnamon Bear wrote:Oh--ho--ho! Very good Steve! "Interrobangs"---I never knew that a "?!" was called an interrobang. :lol:

And Jan thanks for a great beginning for the lesson on how to write Great Beginnings.

Cinnamon Bear


Ah, thanks for reminding me. I was going to talk to Steve about that.

Use of "interrobangs" is one rule that I'm not ever willing to break or to see broken. Purely personal preference, but I edit them out every. Single. Time.
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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby swfdoc1 » Sun Feb 23, 2014 8:28 pm

glorybee wrote:Since you're the one who asked for it, you're obligated now to do it.

:D Yes, ma'am!

glorybee wrote:Use of "interrobangs" is one rule that I'm not ever willing to break or to see broken. Purely personal preference, but I edit them out every. Single. Time.

I sure learned that the hard way. I personally think they are a great punctuation mark, but they are so thoroughly AND universally despised by the publishing industry that to use them will immediately get you branded as “unprofessional,” as I—to repeat—learned the hard way.

Thanks for your answers about judging. Even though I’m not entering anymore, I’m glad to hear that’s how things are.
Steve
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things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby Vonnie » Mon Feb 24, 2014 5:20 pm

Thanks Jan for all the wonderful points on beginning paragraphs. I can see why some of mine have not been that great.
Here is my homework, a piece called "A Whale of An Opportunity". This one is non-fiction. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=47015

Although I started with a question, which is one of the things you said not to do, this question was in my MC's own mind. It was a conflict in the main character's mind, should she stay or not. The audience my be curious, (intrigued), as to the outcome. My first sentence was also short.
Not sure if the title could be a hook; what is the big opportunity? Also intriguing could be the fact that the MC was much older than most college students.

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby glorybee » Mon Feb 24, 2014 8:55 pm

Vonnie wrote:Thanks Jan for all the wonderful points on beginning paragraphs. I can see why some of mine have not been that great.
Here is my homework, a piece called "A Whale of An Opportunity". This one is non-fiction. http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=47015

Although I started with a question, which is one of the things you said not to do, this question was in my MC's own mind. It was a conflict in the main character's mind, should she stay or not. The audience my be curious, (intrigued), as to the outcome. My first sentence was also short.
Not sure if the title could be a hook; what is the big opportunity? Also intriguing could be the fact that the MC was much older than most college students.


I've copied your first paragraph here, in case some other folks want to see it along with my comments.

I think it would be more effective if your thoughts were in parentheses--and I also think it's more effective to begin with action rather than thoughts. So maybe something like this:

I hauled several heavy suitcases into my freshman dorm room with even weightier questions on my mind. What am I doing here? These teenagers are all ten years younger than me! God, is this really your plan for my life My first instinct told me to turn and run--but where?

Here's your original, for comparison: What in the world am I doing here? God, why are you putting me in a college of mostly teenage kids, all at least ten years younger than me? Could this possibly be part of Your plan for my life? These were some of the questions that were going through my mind as I hauled some of my luggage into the freshman dorm. My first instinct told me to turn and run, but to where?

But all in all, I really liked this beginning, for a non-fiction piece. It started with conflict, human interest, and a big question: why is this person starting college ten years late?
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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby swfdoc1 » Mon Feb 24, 2014 10:19 pm

Well, I promised to do the homework, so here ya go.

Sometime back on your old blog, you ran a contest to write a really short piece. Maybe 100 words or 50 words, but I remember it as 25 words. Unfortunately I didn’t keep a copy of it, so I am recreating a similar version from rough memory. I went for the 25-word range, but went over. Originally, this was a stand-alone, opened-ended piece; but I think it works as an opening.

Randy’s 25-year search for whoever murdered his wife on his daughter’s wedding day would end behind the door. He turned the knob, gun drawn. Inside reclined a woman in a wedding dress.

“Hello, Daddy.”


All sentences except the first are 8 words or less.
Conflict introduced.
Not too many salsa words, but hopefully not too many rice cake words. When I saw this criterion, I changed “killed” to “murdered” and “sat” to “reclined.”
Character(s) introduced & something known.
Steve
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"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby RachelM » Tue Feb 25, 2014 1:51 am

Furnace of Memories

The flames licked high into the night. Sophie stood close to the billowing furnace. Hair fanned by the heat, she watched as the fury broke through the dormer. She touched her fingers to her open mouth as the white cross was engulfed and consumed.

Pick a great title: My titles are always painfully lame (including this one), but I thought these words were interesting.

Consider using short first sentences—7 or 8 words or less. I love this advice! It definitely has more punch leading with short sentences. My first 2 sentences have 7 words each.

Make the reader think “huh”? If your first sentence is puzzling or intriguing, the reader is likely to keep going. "Flames licking" seemed intriguing to me. I hope the reader will wonder why the church is burning.

Introduce the conflict in the first sentence or two
. Sophie is obviously disturbed by the fire, so much so that she isn't concerned about the danger to herself.

Make sure your first sentences use interesting, non-rice cake words.
licked, billowing, furnace, fanned, fury, engulfed. Salsa and rice cake words! This analogy is going to stay with me forever!

My personal opinion (backed up by publishers)—don’t begin with dialog. For the reader, it’s like walking in on the middle of a conversation.
Good to know. I've often started pieces with dialogue or thoughts, and I can totally see what you mean.

Introduce a character—preferably by name. Show your readers something about that character.
Sophie seems kind of fearless to me, but haunted by past memories.
My FaithWriters profile: RachelM FW member profile

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 25, 2014 12:01 pm

swfdoc1 wrote:
Randy’s 25-year search for whoever murdered his wife on his daughter’s wedding day would end behind the door. He turned the knob, gun drawn. Inside reclined a woman in a wedding dress.

“Hello, Daddy.”


All sentences except the first are 8 words or less.
Conflict introduced.
Not too many salsa words, but hopefully not too many rice cake words. When I saw this criterion, I changed “killed” to “murdered” and “sat” to “reclined.”
Character(s) introduced & something known.


Steve, I love this! I'd totally read this book. Or story. Or whatever.

Sometimes I miss that blog; I wish more than three people would have read it.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 25, 2014 12:04 pm

RachelM wrote:Furnace of Memories

The flames licked high into the night. Sophie stood close to the billowing furnace. Hair fanned by the heat, she watched as the fury broke through the dormer. She touched her fingers to her open mouth as the white cross was engulfed and consumed.

Pick a great title: My titles are always painfully lame (including this one), but I thought these words were interesting.



Rachel, I just had to comment on this--I think this is a fine title. I always have trouble with titles, too--but this is one that draws me in immediately.

The rest of your "homework" was fine--you're very thorough and I always enjoy reading what you have to say.
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby JayDavidKing » Tue Feb 25, 2014 2:01 pm

Assignment:

Day of the Long Star

It had been whispered in hushed conversations, almost like a prophecy of legendary proportions, that old Hilka would not slip into his final sleep until the stars had revealed their secrets to him. The meaning of those words remained a mystery, even to Hilka, until that day finally arrived.


This seems to have broken more rules than it should have, but I like it as a hook to get the reader wondering about the prophecy concerning Hilka.
It had only two sentences, both fairly long.
It didn't identify the time in ancient history where this event is set.
It gave no clue whatsoever about what the unusual title meant.

Given all the things this beginning DIDN'T do, should I re-write? I thought it was a good hook.
The story that goes with it is in the challenge entry http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=38066

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby glorybee » Tue Feb 25, 2014 2:12 pm

JayDavidKing wrote:Assignment:

Day of the Long Star

It had been whispered in hushed conversations, almost like a prophecy of legendary proportions, that old Hilka would not slip into his final sleep until the stars had revealed their secrets to him. The meaning of those words remained a mystery, even to Hilka, until that day finally arrived.


This seems to have broken more rules than it should have, but I like it as a hook to get the reader wondering about the prophecy concerning Hilka.
It had only two sentences, both fairly long.
It didn't identify the time in ancient history where this event is set.
It gave no clue whatsoever about what the unusual title meant.

Given all the things this beginning DIDN'T do, should I re-write? I thought it was a good hook.
The story that goes with it is in the challenge entry http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=38066


Your instincts were right; this is a good beginning. It uses great "salsa" words like 'hushed' and 'legendary' and 'mystery', and it makes the reader want to keep going. Well done!
Jan Ackerson

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Re: Be a Better Writer--GREAT BEGINNINGS

Postby Cinnamon Bear » Tue Feb 25, 2014 8:34 pm

Looking over my previous entries, readers' comments, and Deb's ratings feedback, it seems that great beginnings have historically not been my strong point.

Even those entries that placed are flawed. For example, beginning with dialog and/or a question, or beginning with a quote from Scripture.

I think one of my stronger beginnings is in "Karelian Fever":

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article-level2-previous.php?id=14774

"One morning in May 1938, members of the Karelian Symphony Orchestra reported for rehearsal, to find that fully half of their fellow musicians had been arrested.

Hannu Kokkonen, first violinist, looked about the empty chairs. He recalled the events that had brought him here—to the Karelian Autonomous Republic of the Soviet Union."

Strengths:
1) The time and place are made clear.
2) The conflict---many arrests---is introduced in the first sentence.
3) Two incongruous images are juxtapositioned: We don't usually think of classical musicians as people who are likely to be arrested.
4) The main character is introduced in the second sentence.


Weaknesses:
1) The first sentence is quite long.
2) The time and place are spelled out too directly.
3) No salsa words.


Cinnamon Bear

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