Friday 28 June 2013

How to Write a Great First Chapter

Contrary to popular belief, I don't think a good opening chapter necessarily needs to have two superheroes making out in front of a nuclear explosion for it to work. I mean, don't get me wrong, it helps, but it's not the be-all-end-all of kicking off your novel with a bang.

There are three critical elements that I believe need to be established within the opening of a novel (usually the first chapter) in order for it to succeed and hook the reader in:

- Character
- Conflict
- Tone

There are sub-elements to each of these that you're probably more familiar with hearing; phrases like "you need a hook" (conflict) or "you need to establish the setting" (tone), however I don't believe these pieces of advice drill down to the core of how to start off your story. What is a "hook"? And why do we need to understand the setting? I believe pretty much everything in a good opening chapter can be distilled down to these three elements I've listed. Keep in mind that this is advice for general storytelling -- explicitly niche and artistic titles may well flaunt these rules for various stylistic reasons, but they don't tend to care all that much about the rules of writing in the first place.

So! First off: Character.
Characters are the most important part of any story. I've talked before about us humans being creatures of emotion. Literature is a means through which to evoke emotion, and character is the vehicle through which this is accomplished.
We need someone to empathise with, dislike, fear, or otherwise form some kind of emotional response to. If there are no characters present within your first chapter (and remember, characters can be animals, robots, or aliens as well as humans) then people will have a hard time getting emotionally involved with the story. It's often tempting to write a chapter full of exposition and backstory to lay the groundwork for what's to come; a lengthy description of the setting, the society or the events leading up to the start of the novel, but if you don't have one or more characters in there somewhere it's going to get boring for your readers pretty fast. History and lore can only ever be interesting, but characters are what make it engaging.

Second on the menu we have conflict.
Conflict is usually encapsulated by something like that nuclear explosion I opened the post with. It's the spark that ignites the plot. The inciting incident. The call to action. If it's big and dramatic, then it's usually a sure hook. Despite my insistence on the importance of character in the previous paragraph, you can often get away with characters being pretty bare-bones in this segment if you have an emotionally charged conflict. Something like a death, a birth, a heated argument, a life-changing decision etc. come packaged with so much innate emotional engagement that they're all good candidates to get your reader involved with, even if they don't know much about the characters yet.
Keep in mind, however, that conflict can never be passive. Having something explode in your first chapter doesn't mean anything if it's just a meaningless explosion in the background. It has to be a force to be reckoned with, a problem for your characters to overcome; something that your characters actively strive against.

Finally there's tone.
This encompasses things like the setting, your writing style, the way characters talk, and so on. It's how your book feels, and it's important to establish this early on so that your readers know what they're getting themselves in for. Books can be comedies, romances, adventures, sci-fi, fantasy; they can be lighthearted, gritty, poetic, erotic -- it all comes down to tone.
The opening of a book will generally be what sells your audience on whether they want to read on or not, and it's important not to mislead them about the tone of your book at this early stage (if you look back at my reaction to The Final Empire you'll see a great example of a novel fudging up its tone in a big way). If your book's going to be dark, make sure we know we're in for a rough ride. If it's meant to be funny, make us laugh.
Do not, whatever you do, make us laugh out loud for the entire opening chapter before plunging us into a gruesomely hard-hitting vision of Nazi Germany by page thirty.

These three are generally my go-to criteria for a good opening, but let's look at a handful of my favourite books just to illustrate exactly what I mean:

The Hunger Games, a big favourite of mine for discussion on this blog, opens by introducing us to the life of Katniss Everdeen. We learn about her as a person, how she lives, and most importantly her relationship with her sister Prim. Character? Check.
We learn about the hard place Katniss has grown up in, along with the idea of the brutal Hunger Games and how they hang over the existence of the poor and impoverished citizens of Panem. Tone? Check.
When this chapter culminates in Prim being selected to participate in the Games, the spark that ignites the story flares brilliantly to life. Conflict? Check.

Secondly we have another of my favourite books that I've neglected to talk about as much as I should have on the blog; Jean M. Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear.
In the opening chapter we meet Ayla, a happy young girl playfully swimming in the river under the eyes of her loving parents. Character? Check.
When a sudden earthquake tears the ground open, killing her parents in the blink of an eye, Ayla is left alone and helpless in the wilderness, isolated and at the mercy of nature. Conflict? Check.
And if all this wasn't already enough to let you know how dark the coming story is likely to be, we see Ayla struggling to survive as she deals with the grief of having lost her parents, with the very real threat of death looming ever closer as she presses bleakly on with little hope of rescue. Tone? Check.

Number three on the list, my all time favourite, Maia.
The book opens with us meeting the titular character, learning about her innocent and carefree nature as she passes the time away from her cloying family, swims in the lake, and generally shies away from responsibility. Character? Check.
The chapter culminates with young Maia's stepfather spying on her as she bathes naked, pleasuring himself in the bushes as he lusts after his stepdaughter. Conflict? Check.
Encompassed within these two characters is the idea of innocence coming into conflict with a dangerous and darkly erotic world; a sense of wonderment and adventure coupled with gritty reality. Tone? Check.

"But hey, Claudia," I hear you ask, "haven't you written stories too?"
I have indeed! While I wouldn't equate them to anything near the level of the examples above, I do try to follow my own rules when writing an opening chapter. Since I've recently published His Darkest Desire as a full novel, let's take a peek at that:

We're introduced to Nina, a young girl fresh out of college, ripe with ambition, but vulnerable and lacking in experience. Character? Check.
She's given a job by internationally renowned author Elliot Wolf as his typist, and the tense arrangement quickly progresses into something far more sordid than Nina expects, leading to a sexual encounter that leaves her confused and emotional about what Mr. Wolf wants from her (and what she wants from him). Conflict? Check.
The entire chapter is overtly sexual from the get-go, revolving around a slowly building tension and lust between the two characters that eventually culminates with an erotic climax. Tone? Check.

These three elements aren't necessarily a checklist you should should try to tick off like I've done above, but they're naturally occurring elements in the openings of most good stories. If you notice one or more is missing from your opening chapter, then it's probably a good idea to go back to the drawing board and reconsider exactly how the beginning of your novel is going to play out.

Conflict lets us know what's happening. Character makes us care about it. Tone lets us know what to expect reading on.

Character. Conflict. Tone.

Nail those three down and you have the bricks and mortar of a strong opening ready to build upon!

Tuesday 25 June 2013

His Darkest Desire: The Complete Collection Published!

It's finally done! His Darkest Desire: The Complete Collection contains all nine chapters of the original serial compiled as a full novel and revised from start to finish. You can grab it now for less than half the price of buying each segment individually at both Amazon and Smashwords!

Aspiring journalist Nina can't believe her luck when world-renowned author Elliot Wolf offers her a job as his typist out of the blue. Unable to pass up the opportunity she begins to work for the enigmatic Mr. Wolf, but soon realises that beneath the job offer lies a far darker desire.
Elliot Wolf likes to play games, and Nina is his latest toy. Is his interest in her superficial, or is there something genuine lingering beneath the surface?
Cruelty and kindness are two sides of Elliot's personality, but which one is the real him?
Wrestling with her desire to be dominated and her reluctance to leave herself at the mercy of a man she knows so little about, Nina soon finds herself slipping into a dark sexual world beyond anything she has ever experienced.

His Darkest Desire: The Complete Collection contains all nine chapters of the original serial novel by Claudia King, revised and re-edited.
Chapter one is also available for free download at most retailers.

Chapters 1-9 in their standalone formats have also been re-uploaded over the past couple of weeks with all of the revisions I made for The Complete Collection, so if you've already purchased any of them and feel like reading a slightly tighter, more typo-free version, then you should be able to download the updated versions from Amazon and Smashwords! Other retailers might take a little longer to get the updates, but they should appear soon.

Also, not to toot my own horn too much, but I'm darn proud of that cover I made for the compilation. I considered paying for a professional one, but after having looked through a sizeable collection of premade templates I realised that I could probably whip up something of similar quality on my own, and I didn't feel like waiting (and shelling out) for a custom-tailored one. Also it gave me a chance to play with some of the awesome new dividers and borders I recently downloaded to use with covers, and I think the swirly twirly one I picked for the title looks absolutely fantastic.

So yeah. I'm proud of that!

I guess this means His Darkest Desire is officially done. I can close the lid on my first novel and focus my creative efforts on moving forward with other projects now. Reading through it again for my edits I found plenty of things I liked, plenty I disliked, and a whole bunch of things I improved on as the series progressed. Overall, though, I think I could've certainly done a lot worse with my first novel. I don't like how shallow and one-dimensional the antagonist was, and some of the developments around the middle of the series felt a little awkward to me, but I was really happy with the emotional resolution between the hero and heroine in the final chapter.

It's a fun little erotic romp, and there are some neat ideas and moments in there that I'm pretty proud of.

Anyway! Enough self-congratulation! There's a second erotic romance novel that still needs to be wrapped up, and it's been waiting far too long for chapter seven to arrive. Time to press on with finishing up Wild Instincts!

Friday 21 June 2013

Guest Blogging!

No big post today, at least on this side of the blog-o-sphere.

This week I wrote an article for Sasha Jackson's writing blog all about sex in literature, which you can read by clicking this lovely link! Go and check it out! She's got all sorts of cool articles and guest bloggers coming in to give their take on all things literary.

In other news, the process of preparing my first serial for publication as a novel is still underway and entering the final stages. Fingers crossed I'll have it ready to go by the end of the weekend, but no promises just yet. Once that's done it'll be high time I got back to proper writing, so Wild Instincts part seven will be first on the agenda!

Monday 17 June 2013

Appropriate Sex Scenes: Watchmen

  When it comes to sex scenes in mainstream fiction I often find myself disappointed in how shallow and gratuitous they are. That isn't to say there's anything wrong with shallow and gratuitous sex (or else half my back catalogue would be in the firing line!), but there's a time and a place for it. If you're watching porn, it's totally fine for there to be a lack of depth and reasoning behind the sex happening on screen. But if you're watching, say, an action-packed superhero movie, there'd better be a darn good reason for those two characters getting down and dirty with each other.

  So that brings me to today's topic of discussion: sex scenes in the 2009 film Watchmen.
  Now, Watchmen isn't exactly what I'd call a great film. It's an incredibly interesting film, and as a big fan of all-things-storytelling I was thoroughly engrossed by the way this graphic novel adaptation threw the conventional rules out the window, but it has its share of problems. It's not something I'd necessarily recommend to general audiences, but if you're interested in an unconventional take on the superhero genre then it's definitely worth a watch. One of the film's great strengths, however, is that it provides one of the best contemporary examples I've seen of sex being used effectively and appropriately to facilitate the story being told.

  Close to the beginning of the movie we're treated to a bedroom scene featuring two of the main characters; Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre. Dr. Manhattan is perhaps the most complex character in the movie, and his entire arc over the course of the film revolves around how his superhuman powers have left him detached and disconnected from humanity. While he was once a normal man, his ability to manipulate energy has given him a collection of essentially god-like powers, including the ability to have his body in two (or more) places at once doing several different things at the same time.
  During his bedroom scene we first see him teasing his lover with small sparks of electricity from his fingertips, something that surprises her, but that she ultimately enjoys. As the scene goes on, however, it is revealed that Dr. Manhattan is simultaneously continuing his work in the lab while at the same time spending time with Silk Spectre, using two different "bodies" of his to be in both places at the same time.
  This is understandably uncomfortable for Miss Spectre when she realises that she doesn't have her man's undivided attention, leading to a frustrated confrontation between the two of them.

  What I love so much about this sex scene is that it uses all of the emotional baggage we as humans have regarding sex to paint a wonderful picture of Dr. Manhattan in our minds that really drills down to the core of his character. We're all familiar with the idea of a partner being distracted or more interested in focusing on their work/hobbies rather than spending time with us, but the idea of them actually physically being in another place during the most intimate act a couple can share together is an incredibly unsettling one.
  Of course, to Dr. Manhattan this simply isn't an issue. His mind works on such a high level that he's easily able to give his full attention to both his lover and his work at the same time, and limiting himself to just the one task is a waste in his eyes. But Silk Spectre (and we the audience) doesn't see it that way, because the connotation Dr. Manhattan's absence holds to the idea of the "distracted partner" is too strong to ignore.
  The way he is acting -- while completely justified and normal in his mind -- comes across as inhuman and hurtful to a regular person.

  This idea is reinforced several times throughout the movie to demonstrate how Dr. Manhattan operates on a distinctly different level to the average human being, and how his superpowers have left him comparatively unable to function amongst normal society. As a story that revolves around turning many of the classic comic book superhero tropes on their heads, this scene is an excellent introduction to one of the core ideas present in the movie.
  And it does it by using sex appropriately.
  It would have been difficult to evoke the same kind of emotional response during this scene if Dr. Manhattan had been distracted during some other, more mundane couples activity, but the fact that it occurs during the emotionally charged act of sex dredges up all of the innate emotional responses we have towards intimacy, and utilises them perfectly to inform our perception of his character.

  Alongside this example of a well-executed sex scene, however, Watchmen also contains a contrasting example of the exact opposite; gratuitous and unnecessary sex that seems to exist as little more than an excuse for the female lead to get her clothes off again.

  Later on in the movie Silk Spectre finds herself romantically involved with another male member of the cast, Nite Owl (yes, she's a bit of a floozy), culminating in a drawn-out and overtly erotic encounter between the two of them, featuring lots of boobs and latex boots.

  Now, to the movie's credit, this scene does serve a purpose in regards to the characterisation of Nite Owl, albeit a simple one. Earlier on in the film we see him in a despondent, unsatisfied, impotent state, living a mundane life with his glory days of super-heroism behind him. The impotence is quite literal, as his first romantic encounter with Silk Spectre ends in a rather awkward moment of him being unable to rise to the occasion.
  So Miss Spectre and Mr. Owl don their superhero costumes again, kick some butt, save some people from a burning house, and in celebration they decide to screw on the dashboard of the Owl-Mobile.

  It's an obvious metaphor, but the sex here does serve to illustrate in a very visceral manner how Nite Owl has been thoroughly reinvigorated by taking up his superhero mantle once more.
  The problem is that it lasts for several minutes.
  All this scene needed to be was twenty seconds of our hero ripping off his clothes and diving into bed with his lady friend. All that matters here on a character level is that we understand he's gotten over his impotence, so why do we need agonising minutes of nude bodies awkwardly humping in the dark, culminating in a laugh-out-loud moment of climax where one of them accidentally hits the flamethrower button on the Owl-Mobile dashboard?
  The Dr. Manhattan sex scene is filled with almost continuous dialogue and interesting visual quirks that inform us about the scene and the characters involved, while the Nite Owl scene is devoid of dialogue and character advancement.

  For me, Watchmen is an excellent example of how sex can be used both effectively and inappropriately in a movie, but despite the issues with the second sex scene it still does a much better job of incorporating bedroom antics into a story than the vast majority of big Hollywood pictures out there. At the very least there was always a reason for the sex happening, even if it didn't have to drag on for as long as it did.
  There's nothing wrong with a bit of titillation in a story, but if you're not specifically trying to create an erotic narrative then you should be very sparing with how you include it, and make sure that it works in service to the rest of your material rather than serving as a distraction to it.

Monday 10 June 2013

Editing, Editing, Editing

  Guess what I've been doing this week!
  No, go on, guess.
  It begins with E.

  So! I've gotten around half of His Darkest Desire edited to what's hopefully a much better standard than its original incarnation. It's actually been a very interesting experience going through the chapters one by one and observing how my editing improved over the span of those last couple of months at the end of 2012. I haven't been doing any big rewrites or cutting and adding any new scenes, but there have been a whole heap of paragraph tweaks, grammar corrections, and sentence re-jiggerings. I've also been working to iron out some of the passive voice and nail down the tone of the first few chapters a little better. There were several moments, in parts one and two particularly, where the hero came across as less domineering than I'd intended, or somewhat detached and unattractive due to my choice of wording and description.

  It's always a curious thing to go back to your old work and read through it again, and I have to confess that, like a lot of writers, I often dread doing so. I tell myself that my writing was so awful back then I'll be horribly embarrassed to return to it. I imagine the process of editing being so gruelling that I'll give up and be unable to continue, and I put it off for as long as possible.
  But, as always, it's nowhere near as bad as you expect. I actually appreciate my old work a lot more when I return to it months or years down the line and look at it with a fresh perspective. There are almost always a host of technical problems or niggling issues that I've since improved upon, but the basic story being told and the scenes themselves are usually still something I'm happy with.
  As a simple, sexy fantasy about being drawn into the world of BDSM by a domineering millionaire, I think that first serial novel of mine is pretty darn decent overall.

  All of this editing is of course designed to get the story ready for publication as a standalone novel, which should hopefully happen some time within the next couple of weeks. Each chapter is getting re-uploaded to Amazon and Smashwords as soon as I'm done with it, so if you've purchased them already you should be able to access the polished up versions for free. Chapters 1-5 are currently done, and I hope to have 6-9 finished by this time next week. Then it'll just be a case of gluing them all together, formatting the whole thing, getting a cover done, and His Darkest Desire: The Complete Collection (working title) should be ready to go!

  Wild Instincts is of course on hold while I focus on getting this project out of the way, but I'll be continuing with it as soon as possible!

Wednesday 5 June 2013

Review: The Hunger Games

  Back in January I felt the need to vent a little after finishing the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. While that blog post wasn't exactly a critical in-depth review of the book in question, it was most certainly a very impassioned response to how the series ended.
  I may be a little late to the party, but I think it's high time I laid out my thoughts on what attracted me to the bestselling trilogy by Suzanne Collins in the first place. As usual, this review will be as spoiler-free as possible, focusing on the general strengths and weaknesses of the book rather than going into plot specifics.

  So what is The Hunger Games? It's a group of impoverished children and teenagers murdering one another in a grim dystopian future during a televised annual event designed for the entertainment of the upper classes. It's jam-packed with action, emotion, nail-biting tension, and a healthy dollop of a teen love triangle to boot.
  I've heard a lot of people comment on the social commentary aspect of The Hunger Games, and while this is something that certainly does play a part in the novel, it isn't what makes the story work. The connotations to the exploitative nature of reality TV, the disconnect between the audience and the people on screen, and the idea of media desensitisation are all very straightforward and obvious themes in the novel, but they aren't what makes it engaging. They are not the high concept.
  I feel this is something worth mentioning because I've heard it brought up a lot when people discuss The Hunger Games. This book is not an allegorical work. It's no Animal Farm or Watership Down (another novel I really have to review some time), and readers looking for a deep social commentary are going to be left wanting. I have no doubt in my mind that when Suzanne Collins first came up with the idea for this story she wasn't thinking of it in terms of allegory, but in terms of "fun concept for an exciting story". And the latter is exactly what The Hunger Games is.

  So, let's talk about the novel itself. First and foremost is the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. One of the major strengths of the story is Katniss as a character. She isn't a particularly groundbreaking protagonist in and of herself, but she is an incredibly effective and engaging one. The trait that stood out to me the most about Katniss was that she wasn't a typical goody two-shoes heroine. Quite the opposite, in fact; while she does possess many admirable traits that we associate with a likeable hero, it is her flaws that make her who she is. The author accomplishes this primarily through the contrast between Katniss and her co-tribute in the Games, Peeta Mellark.
  Peeta is a goody two-shoes. As a character I honestly didn't care for Peeta all that much, simply because of how straightforward and archetypical he was. However, the good-natured heroism we see in Peeta serves as a wonderful contrast to Katniss, highlighting all of her flaws and failings as a human being. While the later books in the series take this to something of an extreme, The Hunger Games does a brilliant job of portraying its main character as a deeply imperfect young woman, with judgemental and selfish impulses that ground her in reality and lend a distinctly human touch that allows us to empathise with her.
  It might not sound as though I'm portraying Katniss is the most glowing light in this segment, but these flaws are an integral part of any interesting protagonist, particularly one whose head we spend an entire novel in. Katniss is a fantastic action heroine, and the contrast between the selfish and the selfless we see in her over the course of the novel is key to her character.

  The plot of the novel is a relatively simple yet endlessly compelling one; survival in the wilderness in the midst of a ruthless game of life and death. The dynamic of the Games -- the alliances that form, the victims and victors, the individual methods each tribute employs to survive, and the ever-looming knowledge that only one of them will get out alive -- is ripe territory for a hundred different scenes filled with tension, excitement, and page-turning compulsion to find out what happens next.
  Very similar to the Harry Potter concept of "high school with wizards", The Hunger Games, while winning no prizes for exceptional originality, is such a solid formula that a talented storyteller like Suzanne Collins is able to wring endless engagement out of it.

  It's hard to find much to critique the book on, primarily because it accomplishes the goals it sets for itself so effectively. It's not a deep story, but it isn't trying to be. It doesn't have the most complex and nuanced characters, but it doesn't need them. The majority of the issues I could point out here are nitpicky and pedantic when looking at the story as a whole, and they certainly aren't compounding weaknesses that had an impact on my enjoyment of the novel. If there was one criticism I had to make, however, it would be a relatively common one voiced by other readers.
  There is a section in the latter part of the book during which Katniss and Peeta spend an extended period of time together in close confines, and their relationship is explored and re-explored by the author to a slightly tedious degree. Coming in the middle of a story with such fantastic pacing for the most part, this segment sticks out as an overly lengthy stumbling block that has a tendency to reiterate information we already know and serve as little more than filler. The change of pace is nice, but it only needs to last for a short while to be effective. This part of the book drags, and it's a blemish on an otherwise shining gem.
  That being said, this is a minor fault, and one that many great books often suffer from at some point. It is by no means bad or unenjoyable, but I can't help feeling like the editing shears should have come in to trim this section down a little.

  The Hunger Games certainly falls within the ballpark of my favourite kind of story; a simple, highly focused, and thoroughly entertaining one, with near-perfect pacing and incredibly solid execution across the board. It's not a book that's going to change your life or enrich you as a human being, but goodness, it's one heck of an entertaining read!

  The Hunger Games gets an incredibly enthusiastic Page-Turner-Out-Of-Ten from me!