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Month: April 2017

11 Tips for Creating a Strong Opening Chapter

Just how important is the opening chapter of your novel? Traditionally published authors depend on it to gain the interest of agents and editors. For both indie authors or traditionally published authors, a strong opening chapter translates into sales (through book excerpts and previews), page views on services such as Kindle Unlimited, a larger author platform, and increased income.

The following tips for creating a strong opening chapter should help you whether you are writing or revising the opening to your book.

1. Hook Your Readers

If your book is to be successful, it is essential that your opening chapter be interesting and intriguing enough that your readers feel compelled to turn the page and continue the story. Opening chapters with an overabundance of narrative description, dull characters, or unessential backstory may leave your book unfinished—forgotten on an e-reader or gathering dust on a shelf.

Let’s say our main character is a woman named Charlie. Should the chapter start with Charlie brushing her teeth, taking a shower, and avoiding calls from bill collectors, or should it start with Charlie in the middle of trying to rob her neighborhood bank?

2. Give Your Opening Line Mystery

Your story should start out strong from the very first line. It should cause the reader to ask questions. For example, “Charlie pushed open the glass door to the bank, one hand shoved into her coat pocket, her fingers wrapped around the handle of her Smith & Wesson revolver.”

opening chapter, mysteryImmediately, the reader is asking questions: “Who is this?” “Is Charlie going to rob the bank?” “Is she a cop? Maybe a spy?”

Your readers are hooked. Now, keep it going.

3. Don’t Mislead Your Readers

It can be tempting to pull off #1 by using minor characters, or unrelated themes or plot devices in your opening chapter to hook readers before starting the main story in Chapter 2. Don’t do it. This is called the bait and switch, and it will leave your readers feeling betrayed and misled.

If the story is about Charlie, the opening chapter should be about her as well.

4. Establish Your Tone and Theme Early

Don’t hold back important details that let your readers know from the first chapter what your story is about. Establishing tone and theme in your opening chapter let your readers settle in and get ready for the escapades ahead. Being overly vague and mysterious will only annoy them.

For example, don’t fail to mention that your main character is a werewolf or a police detective (or both). Showing Charlie’s fangs and fur early on lets readers know that they are in for a paranormal adventure (your cover and book description should do this as well).

5. Don’t Give It All Away

On the other hand, don’t be so obvious in your opening about what is going to happen that your readers have no reason to continue. If you already let slip that your protagonist will lose this battle, what is their reason for continuing the story?

6. Don’t Drop a Ton of Backstory on Your Readers

In your opening, begin telling your story, not your character’s or setting’s history. Show readers an interesting character with an interesting dilemma. History can come later when it is needed to push the story forward. Although it can be tempting, you wouldn’t tell a new acquaintance your entire life story before becoming friends. You get to know each other one experience at a time, occasionally sharing histories when the situation is relevant. Let readers get to know your story and your characters in the same way.

The reader doesn’t need to know that Charlie got a B on her third-grade spelling test and it scarred her for life, at least not now. Wait until these details can serve to clue readers in to specific evens and decisions in the course of your character’s story.

7. Establish Your Setting, But Don’t Overdo It

Along the same lines as #5, let your readers know where they are and give them enough detail to keep things from getting confusing, but don’t bog them down in narrative detail.

Letting them know that Charlie is standing in the middle of the Bells Largo Bank lobby in the middle of the afternoon may be enough. A little more, just to set the scene, may be fine, but don’t get so enamored with the white marble floors and crown molding that you forget (and let the readers forget) what the story is about.

8. Start Your Opening Chapter in the Middle

It can be tempting to open your first chapter by leading the reader up to the story. But why not start them right in the story?

Instead of sharing the events leading up to Charlie robbing a bank, why not open with her wearing a ski mask and holding a gun on everyone’s favorite bank teller? Which opening would you prefer? The other details can and will come later.

9. Don’t Forget the Stakes

If you want readers to turn to Chapter 2, make sure that you establish your character’s stakes early on. Your protagonist should want something, something big and important (at least to her). Bad things will happen if she doesn’t get it. Make your readers care enough about what happens to turn those pages to find out.

In our bank robbery example, Charlie needs to successfully get the money and get out. If she doesn’t, she could be arrested or, worse, gunned down by police. If you just show her robbing the bank but give readers no idea why she is doing it and what will happen if she doesn’t, they may quickly become confused, annoyed, and maybe even frustrated.

10. Conflict Is Key

Don’t make it easy on your character. An inherent conflict for our Charlie is that she’s a police detective robbing a bank. What happens if a little old lady in the back, who turns out to be Charlie’s grandmother, suddenly says, “Charlie, darling, is that you?”

More Conflict = Higher Stakes = More Interest

11. End on a Cliffhanger

You’ve got your readers hooked. Now, you need to get them to turn the page. The art of writing a cliffhanger is a subtle one, however. You not only want to leave your readers hanging on edge of the cliff with your character, but you also want to give them a tiny sneak peek of what’s on the other side. Like with the opening line, you want your readers to have not only a strong emotional response to your chapter ending but also questions that they need answers to.

For example, with Charlie, you could end the chapter with the following:

“Charlie slid into the front seat and started the engine. As she hit the gas, she looked up at the rearview mirror and saw someone in her backseat.”

This definitely leaves the reader with some vague questions: “Who is in the car with Charlie?” “Has she been caught?” “Is someone going to rob her?

Using the sneak-peek method, you might end the chapter this way instead:

“Charlie slid into the front seat and started the engine. As she hit the gas, she looked up at the rearview mirror and saw someone in her backseat. It was her partner, Detective Evan Jones.”

This sets readers down a whole different path of specific thought, ramping up their expectations and excitement. “Oh, no! What is her straight-laced partner doing in the backseat of her car? But wait, if he was going to arrest her, wouldn’t he have done it at the bank? …”

That little kernel of knowledge that you’ve given them creates new conflict, ups the stakes, and drives the reader on to the next chapter with more urgency.

What is your favorite tip or trick for creating a strong opening chapter?


“8 Ways to Write a 5-Star Chapter One,” Elizabeth Sims, Writer’s Digest

“4 Approaches for the First Chapter of Your Novel,” by Jeff Gerke, Writer’s Digest

“25 Things to Know about Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel,” by Chuck Wendig, Terrible Minds

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10 Tips to Increase Your Writing Speed

Do you want to publish more books, blog posts, or short stories? I’ve heard indie authors time and time again report that their overall sales start to pick up around book three or four. Finding ways to increase your writing speed can be a key step in becoming a productive, selling writer.

1. Use Dictation

This is the best time ever to use dictation to increase your writing speed. Writing recognition software such as Dragon NaturallySpeaking has improved immensely (I am dictating this post with Dragon now). These programs may not be perfect, but I have found that I can get many more words out in the same amount of time when I am dictating instead of typing. Sure, you might have some funny errors to correct later, but you’re going to be editing anyway. You can also dictate to more and more programs and mobile apps. You can even dictate scenes on your phone and then add them to your Word or Scrivener file later. For more details, see Monica Leonell’s Dictate Your Book: How to Write Your Book Faster, Better, and Smarter.

2. Schedule Your Writing Time

Do some experimenting and figure out when you’re most alert, most energized, and least distracted. Then, schedule your writing for that time every day. There is a reason that the #5amwritersclub is a thing. Many people find that they do their best writing first thing in the morning, coffee in hand, before the stresses and responsibilities of the day take hold in their minds. Maybe you write best at 11 o’clock at night. Find your time, and stick to it.

3. Remove Distractions

It’s a lot easier to increase your writing speed and get more done if you’re not being constantly interrupted by children, pets, or just the allure of ever-present social media. So before you start to write, use the bathroom, check your email if you must, and get a drink. Don’t take too long. Then, put up your Do Not Disturb sign, mute your phone (or better yet, shut it off), and close your door. Exit your browser, and get to work.

4. Pick Your Project

If you have more than one writing project going on, work on the one that you’re feeling most enthusiastic about right now. If you’re excited about your work, it will go faster. I used to think having multiple writing projects at once would be too distracting, but when you need a day to mull on a problem in your book, you can still work on a blog post, your short story, or even a different book.

5. Have a Plan

If you have a plan for your writing time before you start, you’ll write faster than if you have to figure out what you’re going to write about first. Separate your writing time from your research, brainstorming, and planning times. Do your outlining and research before you sit down to write. If you don’t have or want an outline, increase your writing speed by planning out the next day’s scenes after each writing session or by leaving yourself some breadcrumbs at the end of your last scene to pick up on the next day. If you have some fill-in research to do, try to do it before you sit down to write for the day.

6. Lock Up Your Inner Editor (for Now)

Don’t worry about writing perfect scenes. Worry about writing more scenes. The time for editing will come, but first focus on getting words down on paper.

writing spring7. Try Writing Sprints

Writing sprints are short periods of time when you do nothing but write. Pick a time (for example, 20 minutes), set a timer, and write. Don’t stop until the timer goes off. Don’t stop to edit, Google something, or pet your cat. You can even do this in a virtual group by inviting some others to join you via the hashtag #writingsprint on Twitter. Just don’t let tweeting distract you from your task.

8. Don’t Elaborate

If the details aren’t coming naturally, don’t waste time trying to elaborate now. Increase your writing speed by just laying down the framework for your story. You can fill in details and descriptions later during revisions.

9. Practice

Practice, practice, practice. Take these techniques and keep using them. As with anything else, you’ll get better at it, and you’ll increase your writing speed over time.

10. Keep Track

Keep a log. Seeing your progress day by day—whether it’s 100 words a day or 5000 words an hour—will inspire you to keep writing every day and increase your writing speed even more.

What are your favorite tips for increasing your writing speed?

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Head Hopping and POV Slips

I’d like to discuss a problem that I see a lot when I’m wearing my editorial hat and that I try to avoid when I’m wearing my writer hat. It’s actually two problems—head hopping and slips in point of view (POV)—but they stem from the same cause. Let’s start with head hopping.

What Is Head Hopping?

In fiction, head hopping is a POV problem.

To clarify, I’ll start with a little explanation of third-person POV. Third person uses pronouns like he and she to describe the main characters instead of I (first person) or you (second person). (I cover these in more detail in my series on point of view.)

To break it down further, third-person omniscient allows the author to hover above the story, dipping in and out of the minds of all the characters and showing all the action and thoughts as if she is an all-knowing goddess.

Jackie approached the alien craft, sweat beading on her forehead and dripping down into her eyes. From his craft, Jo Ahl watched her approach, double-checking that the doors were sealed tight. They were terrified of each other, but they did not know that their meeting was ordained. Without it, the future of the very universe was at stake.

In contrast, third-person limited shows the story through the eyes and experiences of one or more characters and does this one character at a time. This is a very popular POV today. It gives the author the flexibility of moving between characters if he wishes while maintaining the intimacy of first-person POV.

Jackie stepped up to the ship and laid a hand on the cool metal. Her heart pounded as she added the other hand and searched for a crack or a button, anything that would show her where the door was. This was the first sign of life she had found since her pod had crash-landed on this rock. Nothing. It was like a giant metal egg, except she could see the little window ten feet above her head and the landing gear that held it steady on the uneven ground.

To use third-person limited POV effectively, the author must set limits on how often she will change POVs. In my experience, the smallest POV division should be the scene. The most common divisions are either scenes or chapters (that is, sticking to one POV per scene or per chapter).

Some authors use the paragraph as this minimum division, but it’s harder to pull off and can often be confusing for the reader. At worst, it can feel like the author can’t make up her mind about which type of POV she wants to use and keeps slipping into omniscient.

Head hopping, or moving inappropriately between one character’s head and another, comes into play when the author either doesn’t know how to use different gradations of POV or does it inconsistently. The reader is happily following the adventures of Jackie when suddenly he is tossed into the head of Jo Ahl without any warning, such as a scene or chapter break.

Jackie began pounding on the metal with her polymer-covered fists. “Who’s in there? Come out, please! Maybe we can help each other,” she yelled.

Whoever was in the ship must be stranded, too. She had seen nothing for miles on this barren planet. There were no spaceports or anything. She made her way around the pod, pounding her fists like drums against the hull. It was giving Jo Ahl a headache, but she kept going.

To prevent head hopping, have a plan. Decide on your point of view before you begin to write. As you plan each scene or chapter, decide who will be your POV character.

What Are POV Slips?

Head hopping is a POV slip, but some slips are more subtle. They often involve sensory transfers, a lack of thought about a character’s presence within a particular setting, or big assumptions on the part of your POV character.

The temperature was mild, and a light breeze blew, but Jo Ahl refused to leave his ship.

In this example, no evidence is given to the reader that Jo Ahl has ever been outside. As far as we know, he’s been locked up tight since he landed. How does he know what the temperature is? Fix this by adding a little information.

The console still worked and told Jo Ahl that the temperature was mild and there was a light breeze blowing. He still refused to leave his ship.

Alternatively, just cut the offending phrase or make it clear that the character is making assumptions.

The few leaves on the spindly trees in the distance fluttered fitfully, and the ship had remained an even temperature since he had powered it down. Still, despite this evidence of a possibly friendly atmosphere, Jo Ahl refused to leave his ship.

The Bottom Line

The basic rule in limited POV—first person or third person—is this:

If the POV character cannot see it, taste it, touch it, smell it, feel it, or think it, throw it out.

head hopping, pov, point of view, third person, third-person limitedRemember that unless he is a mind reader, your character cannot know what other characters are thinking, feeling, or sensing. So, when you are writing from his POV, stay out of other characters’ minds and bodies.

What tools or reminders do you use to maintain consistency in POV?


The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley

“How to Choose the Right POV (What I Learned Writing Storming),” K. M. Weiland, Helping Writers Become Authors

“Deep POV—What’s So Deep About It,” Beth Hill, The Editor’s Blog


Writing Success: Four Essentials

Do you dream of one day quitting your day job and becoming a full-time indie or traditionally published author? Has your day job become a grind as you stare into the distance, dreaming of more time at your keyboard, creating new worlds, garnering diehard fans, and finally being able to pursue your dream? Do you wonder what the criteria are for writing success? Then, this post is for you!

First, know that you are not alone. There are so many of us out there just waiting for it to happen. However, making that dream a reality is more complex than one might think. We go through our days promising ourselves that we will write when we have time. First, we have to get the kids all set. We have to do all that basic stuff, like brushing our teeth, taking a shower, walking the dog, changing the litter box, eating, working, … Before we know it, we’re binge-watching My Little Pony on Netflix at two in the morning and blinking our eyes at the screen when we realize, “Oh no! I forgot to write today … again!” And the next day, we start it all over again.

Before long, we start to wonder if having a writing career is really possible. We shake our heads at people publishing two to three books a year. The ones who are publishing more simply blow our minds.

“How do they do it?” we ask ourselves over and over again.

“She must not have kids.”

“He must have started out with a really easy day job or inherited lots of money.”

“I’ll bet her dog doesn’t wake her up at 2 o’clock every morning.”

But the truth is, we all have challenges, and all those successful writers have them as well. In the last year, I made a commitment to joining the ranks of my clients and becoming a real indie author myself. To me, this meant no more excuses. Writers write, and I couldn’t expect to become a writer if I didn’t actually find the time to write regularly and productively. Over that period of time, I’ve listened to probably hundreds of podcasts and read a jillion blog posts and articles on writing and author entrepreneurship, trying to find the keys to success. And while I may not have the golden key to instant fame and fortune, I have learned a few essential things that authors need for writing success.

#1: Commitment

The first thing you need for writing success is a commitment to your passion. This doesn’t mean that you need to go around and tell everyone, “Hey, I’m a writer,” each and every day. That’s just talk.

I mean the kind of commitment that means each and every day (with few exceptions), you apply “the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair and write.” This is paraphrased from a letter I received as a teenager. I had written to my favorite author, Stephen R. Donaldson, author of the epic fantasy series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, and asked for writing advice. His advice was spot-on. I just wish it hadn’t taken me 30 years to figure that out.

If applying the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair every single day turns you off, ask yourself, is this really what you want? Open your eyes to the reality of being a writer. When you’re starting out, this can mean hours in front of your computer or your notebook, alone with the blank page, every day. If you dictate your books, it can mean a lot of time walking and transcribing or initially adjusting your software. It means dealing with feedback that physically hurts and rejection from people you don’t know. We all have to go through this. I don’t see a way of getting around it.

Maybe, if you’re lucky and committed, one day, you’ll get to add speaking, traveling, and book signings to that repertoire, and then, you’ll have to squeeze in your writing on an even tighter schedule. The same fans that buoy you up will be the ones keeping you from sticking to your writing schedule.

writing success, writing schedule, writing time, writing commitment
Schedule your writing. Don’t wait for time. Make time. (Image courtesy of Pixabay.)

Know yourself, and make your writing a priority. I’m not asking you to shove your kids out the door and divorce your husband, but put writing where it belongs according to how important it is to you.

Is it more important than your Netflix habit? Or maybe (eyes shifting guiltily) your video game habit? I’m not saying you have to give these things up. Just do your writing first. Maybe, in the end, you’ll end up watching a little less TV, but you won’t have another night like the one I described above. You will go to bed at the end of every day knowing that you’re on the right road. Which will you feel less guilty about? Missing an episode of Supernatural or missing another day of writing?

Let your family and friends know how important writing is to you. Share your successes and failures. Odds are, your loved ones know that writing takes commitment. Hopefully, they’ll throw their support your way and help you out when they can.

#2: Discipline

Commitment and discipline are intertwined. Commitment is what gets you started. Discipline is what keeps you going and gets you to the writing success you’re looking for.

The simplest bit of advice I can give you is to write every day and schedule your writing time. Find a good time for it (a.k.a. don’t sabotage yourself by scheduling it at a time you know is unworkable). If you can only find 15 minutes a day, schedule it. It’s 15 minutes more than nothing. Stick to your schedule until it doesn’t work anymore (see #3 Flexibility). Don’t let anything short of an emergency keep you from getting that time in. Pick a project, set a goal, and get going.

Since August, my personal writing goal has been 500 words or one hour of editing every day. Until recently, it was on my calendar for five in the morning. I recently switched it to after work except on my days off, but it’s still on the schedule.

Sometimes, I write much more than those 500 words. Other times, it’s a slog just getting the minimum onto the page, but I’ve missed only three days since I really committed in October. What does that mean? It means that I have finished two first drafts, published one short story and had another accepted for publication, written and published numerous blog posts, and started the rewrite of one of those book drafts. I’ve been more productive in the last six months than I was in the last six years.

Scheduling my writing means that when I finish my writing for the day, I can go about doing all of those other things without feeling guilty. I know that every day I’m making progress. If I meet only my minimum of 500 words a day, I’m still writing about 15,000 words every month. That means I can finish a draft in less than six months. That is a huge improvement over the 10 years it took for the first of those first drafts.

You may find that you can write much more per day than I can, or maybe writing 100 words a day is all you can manage. That’s still about 3000 words a month. If you’re writing nothing now, isn’t that a huge improvement? You can’t get closer to your goal if you are standing still.

Writing first thing every morning can be a great way to get started. Get onto Twitter, join the #5amwritersclub, and write when your house is quiet and your kids are asleep. If you have a baby or toddler that doesn’t respect sane waking hours, start writing as soon as she goes down for a nap, or if you can’t get away from that, ask your spouse to give you 15 minutes when he gets home so you can get in some writing and he can reconnect with the little one. If you work outside the home, commit half of your lunch break to writing. You’ll be surprised what you can accomplish in a month.

Don’t let writing become one of those things that slips away every time life throws you a curve ball.

#3: Flexibility

I know it’s not always that easy, which is why every writer needs some flexibility. If squeezing in even 15 minutes is hard, schedule several writing times, and use the one or all of the ones that work that day. Dictate your story to your phone while you’re making dinner, folding laundry, or going for a walk. Ask a friend or relative to take the kids for a walk while you write. Take a personal day from work, and dedicate that day to writing.

writing success, flexibility, writing flexibility
The key to writing success is often flexibility. When things change, instead of giving up, find ways of writing that work for your life right now.

If your schedule changes or if something comes up, take that into account and make changes to your writing schedule on your calendar just like you would with work or prior commitments. Don’t let writing become one of those things that slips away every time life throws you a curve ball. That’s how we get into that spiral of feeling that becoming a successful writer is impossible.

Basically, create success for yourself by creating multiple opportunities to write, multiple opportunities for writing success.

#4: Community

An often essential piece of the puzzle in writing success is community. Find a community of writers, whether in person or online, that is there to support you every day through your writing journey. Having more than one is even better as long as you don’t stretch yourself too thin. These writers will be there to inspire you, collaborate with you, hold you up when things are down, and cheer you on when things are going well.

writing success, writing community
Writers of a feather flock together (Image courtesy of Pixabay.)

You can find your community through in-person writing groups and critique groups, Facebook groups dedicated to writing, and even groups held together by Twitter hashtags. The monthly writing challenge, which has its home on Twitter, keeps me inspired and accountable every day. Even when I don’t write as much as I want to or I miss writing entirely, this great group of people whom I’ve never met makes it all worthwhile. If you’d don’t do the whole social media thing, find a writing group near you or start your own.

Having just a few writers to talk to on a regular basis helps alleviate the loneliness of writing, gives you an outlet for your questions, allows you to help other writers by providing answers, and can provide a built-in set of critique partners. Like anything else, writing groups are not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing, but if you’re willing to put in the time to find the right one, I think you’ll find it’s worth it. I know writers like Brandon Sanderson who are still good friends with the people in their early writing groups, the ones they had when writing success was just a dream.

In addition, immerse yourself in the world of writing. Listen to podcasts, read blog posts, and watch YouTube videos by writers and writing teachers. Find the ones that appeal to you, and find inspiration.

I’m still at the beginning of my author–entrepreneur journey, and I’m sure there are many more elements that contribute to writing success.

I’d love to hear your tips on how we can shape our lives as writers to catch that dream of becoming successful authors and achieving writing success.


The Successful Author Mindset by Joanna Penn

The Creative Penn podcast

Writing Excuses podcast

Monthly Twitter Writing Challenge

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