At one of the workshops at Mt. Hermon years ago Lee Roddy taught about starting a novel. He said that on the first page you are making a contract with your reader on what type of novel it is. The reader should know from the first page who the character is, what he/she wants, and what conflicts will try to stop him/her getting it. They should also know the genre: mystery, romance, sci-fi, etc. Even if the cover is torn off they should know from the first page what you are promising.
Even more than the “tangible” goal, I also try to highlight the character’s deepest felt-need in the first few pages. Often it’s not a blaring sign, “Hello! This is what I want.” Rather, it’s a subtle hint. For example when Ocieanna and I were working on Love Finds You in Lonesome Prairie Montana our character Julia (a former orphan who cares for orphans) wants a home to call her own. On the first few pages we show her tucking away a sampler she’s working on that says Home Sweet Home. We hint of Julia’s longing, and it sets the stage for this character’s emotional journey.
Another thing I learned from one of my former writing teachers (a local guy who writes ABA fiction and screenplays) is the importance of scenes. When I first started writing fiction I would write and write without a goal. When I was taught that each scene change is like a camera focus changing in a movie this helped me a ton. Now I imagine where the camera is pointing and I think about what it is focusing on and why. In movies, directors have a purpose for the shots they shoot, as I write I should have a purpose for the scenes I highlight, too.
When I start my novels these scenes soon present themselves in my mind, and I take note of them. It’s like pictures in my head that highlight conflict, or show a character’s personality, or provide another glimpse into the story journey. These scenes become the building blocks of my plot.
Finally, I have to think about Robin Gunn’s class on fictional characters (also at Mt. Hermon). Robin had us write a timeline of our own lives with our high points and low points. Robin encouraged us to take those emotional elements and use those as THEMES in our novels. Themes like abandonment, betrayal, fear, liberation, redemption, and longing come to life in our stories because it’s OUR stuff. I also ponder these as I begin my books. The theme ties into the character’s felt need, but the two aren’t the same. The lesson of the theme is something the character discovers when he/she is going after what he/she wants most.
Because of the wisdom of teachers how I approach my novels is VERY different than how I did 10 years ago. I love how people give and share to the benefit of us all!
What have you learned from a writing teacher?