Category Archives: On creativity

How to Hook the Reader in the Opening Sentence

As a writer, and a reader, I love opening lines. I’m always curious as to how myself and other authors choose to start their books — chapter one, first paragraph, opening sentence. There can only be one opening line, and for that I’m fascinated by them.

In this chapter, I’ll go over what makes a good opening line, and show you some examples of my favourite opening lines, and why they work for me.

Why opening lines are so important

Have you ever read the opening line of a book and been completely captivated? Just from that one line, you’re hooked, you’re engaged, it draws you in and can’t wait to read on?

Or, have you ever read the opening line and immediately knew the book wasn’t for you?

In either case, opening lines are really important. They can either draw a reader in or turn them off completely.

The reason why having a captivating opening line is so important is because people are really quick to pass judgment, and I don’t blame them. Their time is valuable.

Let’s face it, there are a million things competing for people’s attention and their time is limited. They may have only a few hours per day to dive into something of interest, and if it is one of our books, then we need to hook our audience immediately and keep them engaged.

Our book has to be more captivating than TV or movies, more engaging then video games, deliver more gratification than social media and YouTube, be better than going outside and doing something, more interesting than hanging out with a friend, better than relaxing, and better than any other book they could be reading.

Attention is the asset we’re all vying for.

To do this, we need to understand broadly what captures people’s attention. While I’m not an expert, I thought about what elements go into making great opening lines.

1. Dramatic or shocking

A dramatic or shocking opener is something a reader may not typically expect. It’s a juxtaposition if you will. It’s like getting hit in the face with a cold bucket of water. It wakes you up and engages you.

Here are some examples of dramatic or shocking openers that  I like.

“Not every 13-year-old girl is accused of murder, brought to trial, and found guilty.”

— 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke.

“The telephone was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.”

— War in Heaven by Charles Williams.

2. Philosophical

Philosophical opening lines make you think about something in a new way and challenge your current beliefs. They can be profound and not fully understood, and for that it creates a sense of mystery and wonder.

Here are some examples of philosophical openers.

“Nothing ever begins.”

— Weaveworld by Clive Barker.

“Right here and now, as an old friend used to say, we are in the fluid present, where clear-sightedness never guarantees perfect vision.”

— The Black House, by Stephen King and Peter Straub.

3. Poetic

As with most writing, poetic or pleasing sounding prose can often engage a reader. You want your words to flow effortlessly so that people can ease into the story. This could mean using descriptive language, a metaphor, alliteration, or playing with sounds of the words.

Here’s an example of a poetic sounding opener.

“The trawler plunged into the angry swells of the dark, furious sea like an awkward animal trying desperately to break out of an impenetrable swamp.”

— The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum.

4. Unanswered questions

This one is similar to the philosophical element — unanswered questions push people’s curiosity button and makes them investigate further to satisfy that curiosity.

Here are few examples of openers that leave more to the imagination and invite people to question why something happened.

“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”

— To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

“Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.”

— Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons.

5. Simple

Often the most powerful openers are the simplest. They say something provocative in as few as words as possible, and for that it creates an impact and captures my attention.

“First the colors.”

— The Book Thief by Markus Zusak.

“A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories.”

— Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

What you don’t want to do

We looked at some examples of opening lines and what makes them work. Here are some things that tend to turn me off. This, of course, is subjective so take my comments with a grain of salt.

1. Expository

I tend not to like exposition in opening lines. This is where the author goes into detail about who the character is and maybe even describes what they look like.

“Dorothy lived in the midst of the great Kansas prairies, with Uncle Henry, who was a farmer, and Aunt Em, who was the farmer’s wife.”

— The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum.

2. Wordy

Again, I’ll preface this by stating that this is just my opinion, but wordy openers tend not to work for me. Here’s a very famous example from Charles Dicken’s ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, which is perhaps one of the most well-known opening lines in history.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”

In the interest of time, and making my point, I’ll stop it there. I cut it at about the halfway mark. It goes on like this. Now, yes this is considered a classic, but I don’t think this would hold up today. Modern writing has evolved to a point where it’s much less dense and wordy. For me, this is overly wordy and gives my brain too many things to think about too soon.

3. Confusing

The last thing that I don’t like about opening lines is when they are confusing. I get that mysterious, obscure openers could create a sense of intrigue for readers, but for me, I’m usually not invested enough to continue on if the opening line is confusing.

Here are some examples of confusing opening lines.

“How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails.”

— A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge

“Ba-room, ba-room, ba-room, baripity, baripity, baripity, baripity–Good.”

— Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson.

Opening lines don’t just appear on page one

Opening lines aren’t just used for the beginnings of books, they’re important for every chapter. Each chapter is an opportunity for a reader to lose interest, put your book down, and find something else to occupy their attention.

For this reason, I try to have compelling opening lines for all my chapters. I even try to make the last line of chapters captivating and engaging, making people want to turn the page and devour the next chapter.

Don’t overthink it

When it comes to writing the opening line of you book, it’s best not to overthink it and try to come up with the perfect sentence. This can be a huge roadblock for a lot of writers. I’ve said this a million times before and I will say it again, the real work of great writing is in  editing. To quote the late great writer Michael Crichton, “Books aren’t written – they’re rewritten.”

A tip for writing great opening lines

One thing I like to do is start with an opening paragraph. Write the whole thing and then come back to it. You can actually do this at any point in the writing process, it doesn’t have to be in the beginning.

Sometimes what I find is the best opening line is the last sentence in my opening paragraph. I just cut and paste it. As it’s in the wrong order in which I wrote it, it often lacks context, but in more instances than not, it works. It almost has this inherently mysterious quality about it.

Anyway, that’s all I have to say about this topic. I love opening lines and pay particular attention to them whenever I read other author’s work, and especially in my own writing.

What are some of your favorite opening lines? Let me know in the comments.

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Why I Write

Why do I write?

This is a question I’ve been asking myself for years. I slave over these stories, coming up with interesting characters and plots, spending countless hours in a room, alone, typing feverishly away at a keyboard, giving up so many of life’s pleasures such as freedom, relationships, sunshine… I invariably get to a point where I ask myself, why do I do this? What’s the point?

So in this post, I’m going to go through the reasons why I write and more broadly, why is art important.

What is art?

I come from a philosophy background so I will attack this problem using the tools I’ve been taught.

As with any philosophical inquiry, we must first define our terms. We need to know what it is precisely that we’re speaking of. In this case — art.

Art is a very broad term. I actually took an entire course at UBC called the philosophy of art, and after a full semester, countless discussions, essays and readings, I’m no closer to defining what is art and what is not art.

As it turns out, anything can be art.

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Art has intentionality behind it, art is what people label art, art depends on where it is displayed.

In 1917, artist Marcel Duchamp famously submitted a piece to the exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists, called Fountain, which was nothing more than a urinal with the words R. Mutt printed on the side of it. This submission challenged the art world’s preconceptions of what constitutes as art.

My definition of art is the creative expression intended to evoke an emotional response, aesthetic experience, entertain, or spread ideas. Or another simpler definition that works is, you’ll know it when you see it.

There’s also good art and bad art. To me, good art is that which requires talent skill, technique, mastery, and creativity. Bad art exhibits less skill, talent, technique, mastery, and creativity.

Art can take many forms from film, music, podcasting, cuisine, theatre, painting, dancing, comedy, sculpting, architecture, typography, graphic design… all of which aim to entertain and make people happy and spread ideas about how a society should think and feel about a subject.

Stories are art, and often aim to make you feel some kind of way, pass on lessons or distribute thought-provoking ideas or information.

Why is art important?

In philosophy, when we want to test ideas, we create what’s called thought experiments, or hypothetical scenarios if you will to challenge ideas and see if they withstand scrutiny.

I’ll be arguing that art is in fact important and meaningful for society, and to test my hypothesis, I will assume I am speaking with someone who fundamentally disagrees with me. My goal is therefore to convince this person that my view is correct, and the view in which they hold, the opposite of mine, is in fact incorrect.

First, I will request you set aside any ideas you have about the world and imagine if you will a world completely devoid of art. There’s no literature, no paintings, no music, no movies, no dance, no fashion, no sculptures, no cuisines, etc.

Imagine further that in this world, there is no creativity of any kind that does not produce some meaningful utility to society. It is outlawed, non-existent, nor do people practice art in secret.

Of course there must be buildings, but the architecture is completely utilitarian and only serves a practical purpose for which it is built. Colour is only permitted if used to convey a deeper meaning like a stop sign or to indicate a hazard.

Now, ask yourself, is this a world you’d want to live? Would you suppose this is a society where people are happy and free to express themselves and communicate with each other how they wish; a place with progressive ideas, forward progress, and innovation?

I would suspect for most of you, the answer is no.

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If that’s true, then we can conclude that art, on some level, is indeed important. There’s value in sharing ideas, creative expression, entertaining through different mediums, and displaying objects for no other practical reason other than the purpose of beauty, creating an aesthetic experience, or to elicit an emotional response.

Okay, so we’re all likely to agree that a world with no art is not ideal, but on the other end of the spectrum, can there be a world with too much art?

Perhaps a world overflowing with art may similarly not be ideal? I’m not sure, but I’m open to that possibility. I would have to assume so since too much of anything is usually bad.

If you’re interested in this subject, there’s a ton of information online by some really smart people who have some interesting ideas about what is art and why it’s important. I encourage you to check them out.

People love stories

Stories are a powerful tool with a longstanding history in human civilization.  They entertain us, pass on lessons and ideas, shape our values, and help ground our understanding of the world.

Facts and figures are hard to remember, but if they are incorporated into a story, where we can form an emotional connection, they seem to be easier for us to remember. It’s almost as if our brains have evolved to remember stories, find patterns, learn lessons, and so on.

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According to researchers, stories stimulate both the logical and creative parts of the brain, which means viewers comprehend the information factually, visually and emotionally.

Why I write

The joy of writing for me is in the storytelling. As mentioned previously, storytelling is a powerful medium and is the perhaps the ultimate form of creative expression since it is so deeply rooted in language. The writer alone gets to decide who’s in their story, what they say, how they interact with their environment, the world in which it’s set, how everything plays out… all of it, you’re in charge. There’s something powerful about that. It has been said that writers get to play god — we create worlds and decide what happens.

Ideas are also powerful and stories are a mechanism for sharing ideas. Ideas are an interesting thing — they spread like viruses, infecting minds, changing perceptions and altering behaviour. They are literally responsible for every human invention from cell phones to sneakers to the internet — everything was once just an idea. Stories are filled with ideas and provide a platform to show the reader how these ideas can take form and shape the world.

Most children have wild imaginations and over time, that creativity often gets squeezed out of them and replaced by more practical knowledge. Adults rarely pretend and play, instead they are content with watching movies or television, listening to music, or reading for entertainment. I like those things too, but I find much more joy in dictating the action — crafting a story in a way that suits me and sharing my ideas.

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The other joy for me is that writing is very challenging. It takes many, many years of practice to be able to craft coherent stories, find the right words to describe what’s in your head, create interesting characters to act out your scenes, etc. But you also need to be disciplined, and work hard. Discipline and creativity are different skill sets, which are not mutually inclusive — meaning you could have one without the other. For instance, you could be the best writer in the world — the best crafter of sentences and have the richest vocabulary, but unless you have good ideas and are discipline, then you have nothing.

A question I sometimes ask myself (and others) to determine my true passion is: suppose I had $100,000,000, what would I do with your life? For me, I would still learn, I will still be creative, and I would continue to explore. Money wouldn’t change that.

To me art is more than just a skill set, it’s a passion, a way of life; it’s who I am and how I define myself. I don’t do it for money or fame, I do it because it’s in my DNA to tell stories. It’s also difficult to master so I’m constantly improving.

I’m fascinated by the idea that I haven’t written my best work yet and one day I will write the perfect story. Of course, art is subjective so that is unlikely to happen, but for me at least, I would hope to write something that even I couldn’t possible top, and if and when that day comes, I’ll walk away.

Strike While the Iron is Hot

Another thing I sometimes think about, which admittedly is a bit pretentious, is that the story I have in my head will never get told unless I tell it. I know it’s a lofty notion that perhaps isn’t all that important in the grand scheme of things. I mean, does the world really need The Art of the Hustle or some of my other books? Probably not.
But still, I feel almost duty bound as a creator to bring these things into existence, and if I don’t write it at the moment I feel the muse, then it’ll never get written because with time, you’ll age, have different sensibilities, different interests, passions and ideas. You’ll want to write other books.
I had this idea to write a superhero book that I was so enthused about. I’d obsess about it and for months the ideas were pouring out of me. But sadly I never got around to writing it. Now that passion has died and I may never write it. I’m on to other projects.
If I wrote The Art of the Hustle today, it’d be a different book. So I want to capture the inspiration before I become uninspired.

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The 7 Elements of Great Storytelling

What are the elements that make a story great? Recently, I sat down and decided to write the core elements that I feel make a story great, and I came up with seven.

1.      Writing

Writing a great story naturally involves great writing. This is why I put this as the very first element. If you’re thinking about having a career in writing, your writing must be good – a base level of proficiency should consist of:

  • Fluidity
  • Clarity
  • Purpose
  • Proper spelling and grammar
  • Expansive vocabulary
  • Appropriate word choice
  • Logical coherence

The good news is that almost anyone can reach this level with practice, which is actually encouraging. Unlike other disciplines such as singing or playing in the NBA, writing well has less to do with natural talent or physical attributes, it’s just a matter of putting in the effort. Stephen King wrote in his book ‘On Writing’, “the first million words are practice,” and I believe this to be more or less true. If you put in the work and show up every day, your writing will eventually improve.

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2.      Originality

Your idea or story has to be somewhat original and interesting. I say ‘somewhat original’ because it’s very difficult to come up with a completely original and interesting idea. Most great storytellers borrow ideas from others. It’s okay to be inspired by others and borrow ideas – I borrow ideas all the time, but I make reference of them to give credit where it’s due. In my Prodigy book, I use themes from Plato’s Republic, but I make sure to reference them to let the reader know that I’m not trying to steal Plato’s ideas and pass them off as my own. Instead, I’m paying homage to something that inspired me.

To improve originality, it’s important to be well-rounded in terms of your interests and your scope of knowledge. So try to be very broad with your understanding of things, especially areas where you have relatively no knowledge, whether it’s science, religion, cultures, economics, history, geography… It’s also helpful to be:

  • World travelled
  • Read books
  • Hang out with different types of people
  • Listen to podcasts
  • Watch documentaries
  • Challenge your opinions and assumptions – be critical and objective about your thoughts
  • Be observant about the world
  • Develop a new hobby such as archery, yoga, ballet, rock climbing…

Over time, you will uncover things, learn new truths, and develop original thinking in areas where you would otherwise not have gone down if you just stayed in this narrow lane of topics that interest you.

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3.      Characters

Your characters have to be well-defined and relatable. Part of having well-defined characters means they should each have their own distinct voice and unique set of characteristics that separate them from other characters in your story. Here are some things to consider:

  • Your characters shouldn’t all sound alike
  • Each character should have their own point of view
  • Your reader should be able to tell who’s talking without you telling them
  • Your characters should generally behave in a consistent manner

One method I use, and a lot of other writers use, is character profiles. These are simply one or two page summaries of each of your main characters. Start by selecting an image of what your character looks like (you can draw it if you like or find an image online). Next, write down the answers to the following questions:

  • What are their beliefs or values?
  • What is their background?
  • What motivates them?
  • What are their goals?
  • What are their interests or hobbies?
  • What are their opinions?

You can then have a few quotables, something like, “I’m working part-time and going to school to become a doctor,” “My girlfriend is a painter,” “I really don’t like how lazy I am, I want to change.” This will help cement the idea of their true nature in your head.

When you take the time to write character profiles, you can put your characters in any situation and have very good understanding of what they would do and how they would behave in that situation.

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4.      Pace

The pacing of your story has to be such that the reader does not get bored easily. Make them want to keep reading. I often use the metaphor of a monkey swinging from vine to vine – when it swings from one vine, and that vine has reached its maximum extension, there should be another vine within reach, ready to be grabbed and allow the monkey to carry its momentum forward.

So if you have a really lengthy and verbose opening that describes the house the person grew up in, the colour of the carpet, their lovely neighbours… and you go on and on and on about minutia, then it’s going to be boring for many readers – it’d be like starting a race with your feet in mud. Why have your readers slog through mud at all. They should be able to take off with your story and maintain that momentum (or have the momentum increase) until the very last page.

If you want your book to hit with a lot of people, you need to hook them in immediately and maintain a steady pace. This may not come easy to you in the first draft, but it can be done in the editing process. For instance, maybe in the revision you decide that the first three chapters can be combined into one chapter, or better yet, one paragraph. This gets the story started as deep into the story as possible.

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5.      Story Arc

The story arc must be suspenseful. By nature, human beings are really attracted to suspense. In most stories, the hero always wins, and yet despite knowing this, we still love watching movies and reading books. That’s because it’s not necessarily the payoff at the end that we live for, even though that is satisfying. What we truly crave is the uncertainly of the drama.

In his book called, ‘The Three Uses of the Knife: On the Nature and Purpose of Drama’, David Mamet talks about this hypothetically perfect ball game in which he does a very good job of describing the kind of natural tension that we love.

He says, “The perfect ball game – what do we wish for in the perfect ball game? Do we wish for our team to take the field in thrash the opposition from the first moment to the final gun? No, we wish for a closely fought match that contains many satisfying reversals, but which can be seen retroactively to always tend toward a satisfying and inevitable conclusion. We wish, in effect, for a three act structure.

“In act one, our team takes the field and indeed prevails over its opponents, and we, its participants feel pride. But before the pride can mature into arrogance, this new thing occurs – our team makes an error. The other side is inspired and pushes forward with previously unsuspected strength and imagination. Our team weakens and retreats.

“In act two of this perfect game, our team is shaken and confused. They forget the rudiments of cohesion and strategy and address that made them strong. They fall deeper and deeper into a slew of despond. All contrary efforts seem naught and just when we think that the tide may have turned back the other way, a penalty or adverse decision is rendered, nullifying their gains. What could be worse?

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“But wait. Just when all else seems irredeemably lost, help comes, which is act three. A player, previously believe to be second rate, emerges with a block, a throw, a run, and offers a glimmer of that possibility of victory. Yes, only a glimmer. But it is sufficient to rouse the team to something approaching its best efforts and the team indeed rallies. Our team brings the score back even and makes the play that would put them ahead, only to have it called back yet again by fate, or by its lieutenant, a wrong-headed, ignorant or malicious official.

“But see, the lessons of the second act were not lost on our team. People might say that it’s too late or the clock is too far run down, our heroes are too tired… yet they rouse themselves for one last effort, one last try, and do they prevail? Do they triumph with scant seconds left on the clock? Oh, they do. They all but prevail. As the final seconds of the play, the outcome rests on the lone warrior – that hero, that champion, that person upon whom in the final moment all our hopes devolve. That final play, run, pass, penalty kick. But wait. That hero that would have been chosen for the task, that champion is injured. No one is left on the bench…”

There is the perfect game as described by David Mamet. It’s very interesting and obviously points to these kinds of ebbs and flows, this tide, this yin this yang, this push pull tension where they’re up, they’re down, they’re up again, they’re down again. And just when it appears there is no hope, somehow by all odds stacked against them, they come back and become triumphant in the most unsuspecting way in the final seconds of the game. So if you can, your story could follow a similar arc as well.

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6.      Conclusion

Your story must have a satisfying ending, which is indeed difficult. When I write, a lot of times I don’t know how the story will end. I may have an idea, but I usually discover it when I get there. I mostly just wing it and hope for the best.

It’s difficult to have a satisfying, original, and unpredictable ending that pays off for the reader. If you build up the story adequately, the ending must deliver so that the previous efforts are not lost.

You want your reader to finish the book with a smile, unable to contain their joy – they can’t wait to tell their friends, read the sequel, learn everything they can about you… A good ending can also save, or make up for a lackluster climax.

An average story with an amazing ending can bolster the story in ways that no other part of the book can.

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7.      Timing

If you incorporate the first six elements of storytelling into your book, you may come close to creating a masterpiece. However, I think one bonus element could be included in the list that may elevate a great book to a nearly perfect book – and that is well-timed comedy or drama in appropriate places. By this I mean, if you’re writing a really dramatic scene with lots of tension, a great way to keep the reader engaged is to inject some comedic relief (or if your book is funny, inject some drama in certain places). Marvel does this really well in a lot of their movies — Guardians of the Galaxy is perhaps the best example. And if done well, it could really take your book to the next level.

So there they are, the 7 elements of great storytelling. If you have any other insights or feel I missed some, please let me know in the comments below.

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How to Transition Smoothly Between Chapters

How to Transition Smoothly Between Chapters I get a lot of questions regarding writing advice. While I’m no expert, I certainly have some opinions that I’m more than happy to share. Recently, I was asked:

“Are there any ‘good’ ways to have smooth transitions between chapters so that the story flows in an understandable way for the reader?”

First we need to understand that there are two different types of transitions that can occur when a chapter ends:

A.) transitioning from one scene to a completely different scene

B.) transitioning from one scene to a continuation of the same scene, but just in the next chapter

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In scenario (a) if there are large gaps of time between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, then I usually say something like, “The last 6 months had been rough for Joe. He kept his head down and worked hard…” This is my “establishing shot” so-to-speak. It provides context for the reader and lets them know that the scene has now jumped. The next paragraph after that, I will have Joe doing something and engaging in a new scene.

My book The Art of the Hustle does this quite a bit since I cover 10 years in the book. In one scene, there was so much of a gap (like 4 years), that it was weird to just transition from one chapter to the next so I made a new part. So the book starts out with Part 1 – Chapter 1,2,3,4…. then about halfway, I introduce Part 2 and mention that it has been 4 years later. man walkingIn some cases, it may be more fluid to not have a chapter break, but instead just have a text break. So an example would look like this:

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

***

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat.

With this technique, you don’t have to be all that smooth since the separator lets the reader know that you’ve transitioned into a different scene. If the gap in time is not that large, say the character is at work in one chapter, and then at home in the next chapter, I may just say “Joe was exhausted. He sat on the couch as he usually did after his shift and watched sports highlights…” hot air balloon at nightScenario (b) — a continuation of the same scene, but just in the next chapter — is much easier. I actually prefer this ‘cliff-hanger’ technique as much as possible to encourage people to continue reading. TV shows often end this way as well. So if a chapter ends like, “Joe turned around and was shocked by who was standing before him.” I’ll end the chapter there so the reader wants to keep reading to find out who was standing behind Joe.

Then, in the next chapter I would begin by saying something like, “Joe couldn’t believe his eyes as he was now staring at a man he long presumed dead…” So basically you just pick up where you left off. In fact, I often write the scene straight through and then later pick some moment which I feel would make a good cliff-hanger and then end my chapter there.

Some writers have an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot and they stitch it together like a zipper. So in my above example, you would say something like, “Joe turned around and was shocked by who was standing before him.” End chapter. Then the next chapter would be the ‘B’ plot — a completely different scene altogether.

Then once that chapter ends, you pick up where you left off with the ‘A’ plot. I tend not to do this, but it can add more excitement as the reader now has to read an entire chapter just to get back to where they left off in the story.

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How to Describe Things in Writing

One question I get a lot is, “I’m not very good at describing things when I write, do you have any advice?”

Play to your strengths

If you’ve read any of my books, you’ll notice I never really tell the reader what my characters look like beyond “she was beautiful” or “he was scrawny”, I let the reader decide those details on their own. Rarely do I describe rooms or tiny details of things. I think the brain is wonderful at extrapolating those details without the aid of the author. So the mental image I talk about is more for the author’s sake than for the reader’s.

hustle_coverFunny story… after reading my book, The Art of the Hustle, someone made a comment stating, “Great story, and I love that the main character is black!” I’m like, “He is? Okay, sure.” So to this guy, his mind filled in the missing details with what was relevant to him and what he pictured in his mind, and I think that’s great.

Another trick some author’s do is put in a placeholder word that is easy to find using the search function and will not appear anywhere else in the text. So for example, use the letters TK any time you have to describe something and are getting bogged down. The idea is that you can go back to those spots and fill in the details later, and not fall into a trap and disrupt the flow of your writing. For instance, “Joe walked into the TK room and noticed a TK couch on his right…”

Turn weakness into strength

So my first suggestion would be to play to your strengths and avoid your weaknesses. But if you don’t like that idea, the alternative (there may be more than one) would be to work on your weaknesses much like you would working out at the gym. Eventually, you will get stronger in this area. So for example, what you could do is start your day with a writing exercise to describe some object in your house – something that you know well. It doesn’t need to be in front of you, but have a clear picture of it in your mind. Describe the shape, texture, material, weight, shine… anything you think the reader would like to know about it.

five senses

Usually with good writing, you want to include the 5 common senses such as Sound, Smell, Sight, Touch, and Taste. If you keep those in mind when you describe a scene, you will get the reader more into the story.

I’ve been using this approach a lot and I think it’s good. Of course, you don’t want to overdo it and describe the five senses every time your character interacts with something new, but let’s say your character walks into an old kitchen – it should smell a certain way right? And maybe the fridge has a low frequency hum, and maybe there’s s grease stain on the floor that’s sticky, and so on.

So you can see how you start to build a mental picture.

I hope that helps.

Additional Resources

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How to Overcome Writer’s Block

If there’s one question I constantly get asked, it’s from authors who struggle with writer’s block asking me how I deal with it. The short answer is that I’ve never had writer’s block, nor am I an expert on the subject.

I understand how frustrating it can be, but in not having it, I can sort of reverse engineer why I don’t get it, and make generalizations about why others may get it.

So speaking in general terms, I think writer’s block is a symptom of one of the following categories:

  1. Planning
  2. Motivation
  3. Focus
  4. Momentum

Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to write when you have other obligations such as work, school, or family. It can be tough to find motivation and maintain momentum, especially with so many other distractions competing for your attention and limited resources, but it can be done.

In this post, I’ll discuss some common resistance author’s (and others) tend to face and what you can do to overcome writer’s block.


1. NOT PROPERLY PLANNING

In my videos How to Plan and Outline a Novel and Ideas are Currency, I speak extensively about my planning process. For me, I think of writing a novel in several stages. I spend months and months planning and outlining before I even begin writing. When I actually sit down to write, I’m not spending a lot of time thinking about how the story will unfold — most of those details would have already been worked out.

So when you hit a writer’s block, it’s because you may be attempting to do two things instead of one. Your brain may be better served focused on one task at a time.

Plan, then write.

2. MOTIVATION

Look, this one may be a little uncomfortable to hear, but if this applies to you, then this advice could ultimately help you.

I believe like anything in life, if you want something badly enough, then you’ll find away to do it and not be dissuaded by obstacles or excuses. If you don’t have the thing or aren’t where you want to be, it’s most likely because you don’t really want it bad enough and you’re not prepared to work for it. This doesn’t apply to everything in life, but as a general rule I believe it holds true.

If you really want to write, I’m talking really want it. It’s all you think about, it’s all you talk to your friends about, you’re teeming with ideas, you can’t wait to stop doing whatever thing that is getting in the way of your writing, then you will write.

If you don’t write, it may because you don’t really want it bad enough. Or dare I say, you may not be cut out for it. Again, sorry if this resonates with you and you weren’t ready to face this reality, but I think the sooner you come to terms with this truth, the sooner you can dedicate your life to your true calling or passion.

I’ve met a lot of pretenders in my life and writing isn’t that easy to fake. If you don’t practice, you will be discovered for what you really are. You can dress the part, talk the part, put “writer” in your Twitter and Instagram bios, but if you don’t love it and practice regularly, people can tell. You may be able to fool some people, but real writers will not be fooled.

I can’t really tell you any secrets to motivation other than if you want something badly enough, you’ll find the time to do it. Otherwise, you may need to be honest with yourself and re-evaluate whether writing, or whatever it is you need motivation for, is really something worth pursuing.

Eric Thomas has a great quote, he says, “When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.” Steven Pressfield also addresses this in his book, The War of Art, where he discusses the concept of resistance. If you like something, but not enough to find time to do it, you may need to just move on.

eric thomas quote

If you really want to be a writer, but struggle with motivation, here are a few ways that can help you get motivated:

    • Set a writing goal. I aim for 1000 words per day, but if you cannot write every day, try a realistic goal such as 3000 words per week. Based on this schedule, you will complete your first draft in about six months. Mark it on your calendar, set notification reminders, and stick with it.
    • Get into a routine. Human beings tend to be quite adaptable to almost anything if they can create a habit. Getting in shape for instance works on the same principle. It may be tough at first, but then it becomes easier when you make it a part of your lifestyle. So schedule times to write and stick with it. So let’s say you set aside time to write Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday night, and aim for 1000 words per day. Chances are you’ll write more than that and finish your first draft ahead of schedule.
    • Reading bad fiction is a really strong motivator for me. I’ll sit down on the couch or my favourite reading chair and dive into some book that I happen to own. Usually what happens around chapter two or three is I get up and say, “I can do better than this!” and go to my computer and immediately start writing.

3. FOCUS

Sometimes being overcome with too many or too few ideas and not knowing what to write or where to start can be a cause of writer’s block.

Let’s focus on having too many ideas. It’s like trying to drink through a firehouse, there’s just too much coming at you. My advice would be to write everything down and become more organized. Sort your ideas from good, bad, what is right for one story versus what is right for another.

Having too few ideas, which I’ve talked about this in my other post How to Come up with Good Ideas for your Stories, tends to be the result of not exposing yourself to the world enough. In general you need to have experiences in order to write. You need to rich reservoir of experiences you can pull from.

When you spend the time in the planning stage to sort and organize your ideas, then they begin to make sense. You can start building your outline and focus future ideas. Perhaps you lack a second act or a really satisfying ending. Or maybe you really need a certain character that will be integral to your plot, but nothing comes to mind. Whatever the case may be, you can focus on what you need and train your mind to think about those areas in your story.

    • There are many software programs that can facilitate the writing process and eliminate distractions. Try Write Room (Mac) or Dark Room (Windows) – they make the entire screen blank with only a cursor and your words visible. Some writers find this helpful so they’re not tempted by the browser icon. While I’m discussing writing software, try Scrivener, it can be really useful for compiling notes and organizing large documents.
    • Another method I’ve heard of is having a “writing computer” that is not connected to the Internet. This will allow you to focus on the task at hand and not wander by checking email or social media sites. It is also useful for not losing your work since there will be no threat of viruses. One word of caution; however, most people’s so-called ‘writing computers’ will be old, and old hard drives can stop working without warning. Make sure you’re consistently backing up your files. You may want to get an external hard drive and leave it plugged in.
    • It’s not always easy to sit and write when it’s sunny out, or when people in your house want to hang out, so what you can try is writing late at night or early in the morning when everyone else is asleep. If you’ve never tried writing from midnight until 2:00 am, you should. You may be surprised at the result. Sometimes my best ideas come to me when my mind is fatigued. I also find this adds motivation because you’re reinforcing your work ethic. Of course you could be sleeping – that’s what most people are doing – but not you, you’re working toward achieving a goal.
    • Try cleaning your house, room, office, desk… whatever needs cleaning. I don’t know what it is, but when something is cluttered, my mind becomes cluttered and I can’t focus as well. I like to take care of all the distractions before I start writing, so they’re not nagging me.

Momentum-small

4. MOMENTUM

Like many things in life such as building a new relationship, forming a new habit, or learning a new skill, momentum can go a long way.

Here are a few things that can help with momentum:

    • One really effective method to achieve something is having a buddy working toward the same goal. Together you will push each other and keep each other accountable. A writing buddy can also be a great way to brainstorm, or bounce ideas off and see which ones stick. This has been a tremendous help for me.
    • Creative writing classes are another way to get honest feedback. Look up courses at your local college or university and see if they offer a class that fits your schedule. You will partake in group discussions, writing exercises that sharpen your skills, and perhaps most importantly, you will have other writers critique your work. At first, this can be demoralizing to have a group of people rip your story to shreds, but you’re all there to learn and become better. It also puts you in touch with other writers who can edit your work.
    • Even when you’re not writing, it doesn’t mean you can’t be working on your story. One great quote I like is from Burton Rascoe, he says, “What no wife of a writer can ever understand is that a writer is working when he’s staring out the window.” Try to think about your story on your commute to and from work, while you’re working, when you’re at the grocery store… and then capture any ideas you may have. Then compile those notes into a master ‘note’ file so when you sit down to write, you will have momentum throughout the week. In other words, you’re not forcing yourself to come up with ideas at the time when you need ideas – it may not be the most efficient way to work. I come up with ideas all day, even when I’m sleeping, and when I sit down to write, I’m excited to explore where the ideas lead me.
    • If you find your momentum has waned a bit, you may need to re-evaluate the plot and see if you’re still passionate about it. There’s no shame in abandoning something that doesn’t work and starting fresh, just make sure abandoning doesn’t become a habit when the going gets tough. Some days are more of a grind than others, but hang in there and keep jabbing away at it. If the plot is no longer entertaining you after you’ve given it due consideration, then maybe it’s best to leave it alone. You can always come back to it.
    • My final piece of advice is this – You’ve heard the phrase, ‘you have to crawl before you can walk’, well the same applies to writing a novel. Try writing a blog post or a short story first. The simple satisfaction you receive upon completing a short story will often inspire you to work up to a larger project.

Additional Resources

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Finally, a Prodigy Sequel!

Prodigy - Edward MullenAfter months of planning — plotting out the characters and story arcs — I finally sat down last Monday and began writing the sequel to my futuristic techno-thriller, Prodigy. I’ve been working on it nearly every day and currently have roughly 14,000 words. I wanted to make a post answering some questions that may come up about the book.

Why a sequel?

While I like to leave the endings of my books open to allow for sequels, I never planned on writing one for Prodigy. However, due to the popularity of the book, I have reconsidered my position. The book I planned to write this year will have to wait until next year… no big deal.

The great thing about Alex is that she is young, so there’s so much about the world she has yet to discover. Diving back into this world has been a lot of fun. Once I started, I was super motivated to find out what happens next. I even designed the cover art, which is something I usually save until the end. Needless to say, I am brimming with creative juice on this project.

When’s it coming out?

Since I write full-time, I should be able to finish the book in the next four to six weeks, depending on my schedule. The actual writing of the book doesn’t take too long (if I work on it 70+ hours per week), the most time-consuming part is always the editing. That can take many months. So if I finish on schedule, and the edits go smoothly, the book could be out before the end of the year or early next year. We’ll see how things go and I will continue to post updates on my social media channels.

1069921_10100669193867131_531800510_nWhat’s it about?

I don’t want to give any of the plot away at this time, but I can assure you if you’re a fan of the first book, you’ll like this one. It takes place one year after the last book ends and addresses some of the craziness Alex would expect to face as she transitions back to her life. I’ve added a new cast of characters and brought in some of the old ones as well. So far I’ve tied in many elements that made the first book special so technically you could probably read the sequel without having read the first book.

The main challenge for me was to come up with a story that is equally as epic as the first novel. After what went down with her in the first book, I couldn’t just have some regular Tom Sawyer fence-painting adventure, it needed to be able to compete with the first book.

Writing is like a puzzle to me in that I don’t necessarily see the big picture from the beginning. Even yesterday I was struggling to fit certain pieces together, but I did not get discouraged. I slowly picked away at it and arranged more pieces. Once those pieces fell into place, I had another chuck I could add to the whole. That’s what it’s all about for me, showing up each day and arranging my ideas and words in a way that assembles something greater than the sum of all its parts. I guess what I’m saying is that at this point I have an idea what it’s going to be about, but I’m discovering so much along the way, stuff that would be difficult to sit down at the beginning and plan for. Once I start writing, the story almost takes on a life of its own and could turn out drastically different than what I originally intended.

What about other Prodigy projects?

I am currently working on a Prodigy audio book, as well as a Prodigy graphic novel. The audio book takes a lot of time to do well. It’s currently on hold while I have some people record their voices. Once I get those recordings, I just need to piece it together.

The situation regarding the graphic novel is this: I hired a really talented artist, inker, and colourist to help me bring my vision to life. Eventually, I’d like to direct a big-budget feature, but I have to pay my dues first and gain more of a following. But for now, a graphic novel seems to make sense. Anyways, I’m paying to produce this book out of pocket and it’s not cheap. To tell the full story may end up costing around $100,000. From a business perspective, it would not make much sense spending that kind of money without first testing the demand for the book. So what a lot of people do, and what I am also doing, is creating a first issue in a 22-page comic-book. If people like it and sales permit, I will produce a second one and so one.

A few more things…

As always, thank you for your support. If you haven’t already liked me or subscribed to my various channels, I would appreciate you doing that. It’s a simple thing to do, but cumulatively it can change a person’s life. The more followers and support one receives, the more doors begin to open for them.

Also on that note, 5-star reviews are extremely important – heck I’ll take 4-star reviews! The reviews let others know about the books and encourages more people to check them out. Often times when we like something, we don’t leave a review, but if we hate something or have had a bad experience, we lash out. It feels good, almost like we’re righting a wrong that has been done to us. What can end up happening is those negative reviews give other readers a false perspective of the quality of the book.

Art is subjective – something may be loved by someone and hated by another. So if you like comedy flicks but hate horror, then it doesn’t seem fair to give the horror flick a scathing 1-star review… It may be the greatest horror flick ever made, but it wasn’t made for you, it was made for an audience who likes that sort of thing. Please keep that in mind for reviewing in general, especially my books. Thanks.

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Edward Mullen

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