The first five pages of your book are so important. As aspiring authors, we are well aware of their significance. And we place so much time and emphasis on getting them right. While we probably have a fair idea of what to do and not do in our first five pages, here is a quick recap of things to keep in mind when looking at the start of your novel.
Important questions to ask yourself:
Does the first line engage your reader?
Is your main character properly introduced?
Has the POV and narration style been made clear to the reader?
Does your reader get a good feel for the world – i.e. have you set the status quo?
Have you established your main character’s deepest desire?
Is there an inciting incident?
The most important thing to avoid at the beginning of your novel:
The information dump.
Your reader is only starting to get to know your main character and within these pages, so you don’t want to overwhelm them with backstory or world building information so early on. Remember, you’ve got a minimum of 80,000 words to work with, you can take your time introducing the important background information.
Dragon Soul Press sat down to interview Author Kris Ashton after his appearance in the Lethal Impact anthology.
What inspired you to start writing?
If it was any one thing, probably Stephen King’s short fiction in Night Shift and Skeleton Crew. But an interest in reading and writing has been an innate part of me as far back as I can remember. I always enjoyed writing fiction and penned my first full-length short story in my early teens.
Is there lots to do before you dive in and start writing the story?
Most of the time an idea hits me almost fully-formed. If I’m convinced it has potential, I roll it around in my head for a few days to work out the characters, detail and finesse the plot, examine everything for problems. Once the way seems clear, I put my head down and go.
What is the most difficult part about writing for you?
I imagine almost every author has periods where motivation and self-belief are in short supply. Some days you’re an F-18 Hornet streaking across the sky, other days you’re a dung beetle trying to push your manuscript uphill. Those dung beetle days are especially hard while writing a novel. Discouragement comes easily when you still have 40,000 words to go. Keying in changes on each draft of a novel is the least enjoyable part of the process for me.
On a typical day, how much time do you spend writing?
I’m a journalist as well as an author, so few are the days where I’m not hammering away at a keyboard. If I’m at work on a new piece of fiction, I try for a thousand words a day bare minimum. That can take an hour if I’m really blazing or three if my mental state is boggy.
Share something your readers wouldn’t know about you.
I almost died from bacterial meningitis when I was two years old. A night doctor misdiagnosed it as gastroenteritis and I ended up being rushed to hospital the next day. I survived, obviously, but suffered nerve damage that left me with next to no hearing in my left ear.
Where do you get your inspiration?
Reading fiction definitely helps. It stimulates the creative centre of my mind and I’ve had more than a few story ideas arise from a nifty line or image in another writer’s novel. Sometimes inspiration comes from true-life stories I hear from friends and family. Other times I’ll simply be alone with my thoughts when two independent concepts crash into one another, exploding into a new story idea.
Who is your favorite author and why?
Stephen King in his early years. Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Cujo, Pet Sematary, Different Seasonsand his short fiction collections wowed me as a reader and shaped me as a nascent writer. In those days he had the perfect balance between ‘soothing’ narrative voice, thematic weight, and plots packed with verve and energy. His post-1980s stuff didn’t resonate the same way and his 21st century output has been hit-and-miss, in my opinion.
What are you reading now?
I’m making my way through Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875). Like most authors from that period his books require a large investment of time and concentration, but he was a gifted writer with a fine sense of humour.
How do you come up with your book titles?
Some authors agonise over story and book titles, but I’m not one of them. For me it’s simple word association. I distill the story down to its basic elements in my mind and then see what phrases pop up in response. ‘Blood and Light’ in Lethal Impact is a good example. It’s a long story with a lot going on, but ‘Blood’ and ‘Light’ (which act as verbs as well as nouns) came to me almost right away. They sum up the story’s plot and themes on multiple levels.
Where can readers learn more about you?
On my website at krisashtonwrite.wordpress.com I keep a blog and publish the ‘stories behind my stories’, which are the literary version of making-of documentaries for Hollywood movies. I’m also @KrisAshtonWrite on Twitter because authors are supposed to have a social media presence these days (I don’t have a high regard for social media’s overall effect on society).
Narrative tension. You can’t create a page-turner without it. If there is no tension, the story won’t be very intriguing. How many of us have always dreamed of reading a book about a man who just sits on a bench the entire story? My point exactly. We want to read something that will pull us in. Give us the story of a man on a bench waiting for his blind date when some aliens suddenly land on Earth. That definitely makes things more interesting. Adding tension to your story can be tricky when you’re first starting out as a writer because it’s all about finding balance. You don’t want to overload your story and make it so convoluted with tension that you confuse your readers, but at the same time you don’t want it so thinned out that your story reads more like a to-do list with different characters than an actual plotted out idea.
So, how do you find that balance? Simple. I’ve come up with some tips for first time writers looking to build tension in their stories. It’s important to keep in mind that tension is something your story should have, no matter if it’s 2,000 words or 200,000 words.
Keep Raising the Stakes:
Okay, so you’ve got an initial conflict that sets your story in motion, but then you need to layer on top of it the smaller complications that arise from that end goal. Let’s dissect a classic plot for a moment. Lord of the Rings. We have the overarching goal that sets the story in motion, Frodo has the ring of power and he has to get it out of the Shire. But he’s only supposed to get it as far as Rivendell, however, the council votes to take it to Mordor and throw it into the fire and Frodo volunteers. Boom! The stakes just got raised for Frodo. Then the mines of Moria happen and Gandalf is lost. Stakes are raised again for the whole fellowship. Then the group splits up when the Uruk-hai attack. Stakes raised even further. Merry and Pippin are taken hostage causing Legolas, Aragorn, and Gimli to go rescue them. More raised stakes – and that’s all just the first book!
But you can see where I’m going with this. One main conflict can have a ripple effect of other conflicts that arise, and your characters have to react to them. Each new minor conflict is you leveling up the tension for your characters, and making your readers want to keep reading because they don’t know how the character(s) will react. Your plot doesn’t even need to have a dragon and five armies to make it tense, every day contemporary stories can be just as intense. It all boils down to your main character wanting something, going after it, and setting in motion a bunch of minor hiccups that arise along the way, making it a constant choice between A or B. Love triangles are a very popular example of this. And a character’s desire doesn’t always have to be this grandiose desire to bring justice and equality to the world and tear down the corrupt system in order for your plot to have a purpose and drive conflict forward. Let us not forget that Shaun of the Dead’s events all started because someone wanted a Cornetto.
Balance Tension with Moments of Calm:
I know I said you need to keep raising the stakes, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t give your character(s) a bit of break every once in a while. In fact, it’s encouraged. You need to give your readers a chance to digest what’s happening in between obstacles. If you have too many problems arising for your characters all at once, it becomes too much. Plus, these moments of “rest” are where you can build the stories in other ways like characterization or revealing bits of backstory. For example, if you have two bank robbers trying to make it down from Montana to the Mexican border, you can slow it down a bit by maybe giving them a flat tire on a remote stretch of highway somewhere like New Mexico or Arizona. You’d still have the tension of a flat tire when they’re so close to achieving their goal, but there is still a chance to have some calm moments. While the two bank robbers are waiting for Triple A to arrive, they can have an in-depth conversation. One can reveal that he’s trying to pay off a loan shark, while the other can admit he’s never changed a flat tire before. Either way, that slow moment on the highway can be a chance to work on backstory and characterization.
Don’t think that a story’s action needs to be all rise all the time in order to create tension. You can get the same effect from a few falls. Tension works best when you have a rise and a fall. Another great idea for tension is these false senses of security. When your character thinks they’ve accomplished their task and they’re home free, that is a fine time to reveal that there’s still a little ways to go. Again, drawing back to Lord of the Rings, Frodo gets the ring to Rivendell. Everything seems chill. Those scenes are very calm for Frodo who thinks he’s soon going home. But then the council happens. The “oh my goodness” moment when Frodo offers to carry the ring to Mordor wouldn’t be so powerful if you didn’t have those calming moments before. While Frodo is in his false sense of security you’re able to digest all that he just went through to get to Rivendell. You feel for him. Which brings me to my next point…
Make Your Reader Emotional:
You can create the most intense plot with the perfect rise and fall pacing, but it won’t mean anything if your reader isn’t emotionally invested in what your character is experiencing. I will admit that a good portion of making your reader like your character, is to create a likeable character (I wrote a blog post on that if you want to read it). But another way to get your readers to like your character is using the plot. Even if your main plot of your book is something big like dismantling the ruling system, it’s a good idea to start small in terms of your character’s desire.
One example of this The Hunger Games. Across the three novels Katniss ends up creating a revolution and bringing down the corrupt government. She’s hailed as a hero. But that wasn’t her initial goal. Her initial goal was quite simple and quite relatable: She wanted to protect her sister. Even if we don’t have siblings, we all have at least one person we’d be willing to volunteer for if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation. Therefore, as readers we are more willing to emotionally invest in a character that wants to protect her loved one from death, rather than a character who right off the bat is ready to take down the government. While something small, like a character wanting to return a library book before the library closes or getting a the last bag of jelly donuts for their sick family member can be what is needed to set a bigger plot in motion, it can also serve to make a character relatable to the reader. We’ve all needed to get somewhere before it closes just like we’ve all rushed to the end of the aisle to pick up the last something because it’s for someone we care about, and it’s these small, universal actions that readers relate to that help them become emotionally invested in your character’s conflict.
Bring the Tension from Various Points:
When we think of tension between characters we tend to think of heroes and villains. And yes, the tension between your hero and your villain is important. But that doesn’t mean that we can overlook the side characters. Some of these side characters can actually help to create tension for your main characters. In fact, some side characters can be integral to subplots that create tension in the story. Never under-estimate the power of secondary conflict. For example, Batman. You have the main conflict of a superhero trying to clean up Gotham’s streets, but at the same, you also have the tension from his personal life as Bruce Wayne to factor in as well. Of course, while you want to bring in tension from all angles, you also don’t want to overcomplicate your plot either. It’s a fine balance.
In my recent social media adventures of IG and the Twitterverse, I’ve seen the recurring question:
How do I title my WIP?
Today, I’m going to walk you through how I title my works-in-progress!
While I admit I’m primarily a young adult or new adult fantasy author, I promise this technique will work across a variety of works, encompassing all target audiences and genres.
Make a list of:
Key Character Traits (~3 each)
Species or Races
Major Point(s) of Conflict
Key Themes (~3 each)
Major Items or Places
Overall Mood / Atmosphere
Emotions (~3 each)
Decide on your top 3-5 from the above list.
Explore definitions, synonyms and like terms for the choice words. Utilize your favorite search engine for quotations or turns of phrase utilizing these words. Play with them, mix & match, combine them at your leisure. Have fun!
Begin to narrow your list. (This is where your possible titles will form.)
Allow me to demonstrate!
Aurelia, the purple dragon shifter
Seru, the electrifying saint beast
Thalasia*, the blue siren
Major Point(s) of Conflict
The Great War (prior to the book)
The Magical Barrier Collapse
The Guiler Invasion
Prismatic crystals (Violet & Purple)
Saint Beast’s enchanted collar
The Golden Lyre (siren charm)
The Golden Drake (dragon coin)
The white sand beach (the site of the MC’s first encounter)
The bridge (point where Thalasia and guilers cross to Prisma Isle)
The central market (place of gathering for all species on land)
Overall Mood / Atmosphere
Even my initial version–which may sound a tad over simplified–gives us more than enough to work with. I’ve highlighted my choices above. Feel free to circle the ones you like and cross out the ones you don’t particularly care for or get good vibes from. There will be plenty of options, so don’t stress.
Upon analyzing the list, I’ve narrowed it down to a few choices I thought really encompassed the story as a whole. Now, I’m going to do a spot of research using a dictionary, thesaurus, and my preferred search engine.
I’ll note down a few relevant examples of what I compiled below for ease of viewing.
A powerful and protective stone
White sand beach
Again, my list might seem overly simplistic, but I’m well versed in this process, so don’t feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed if your list is a touch longer or shorter. Work with what you have!
Now, you play with the words and their meanings until you find an option, or a few, that you think suit your WIP. This go ‘round, my title jumped out at me as I was creating the list. That may or may not happen for you right away. Don’t get discouraged. You will find your title. Just be patient and continue working.
Once you have a handful of viable options, choose the one that you think works best and gives your story the proper spotlight in which to shine.
As you can see, I chose the title Rebel Tides. I, of course, ran this and a few other options past my co-author, Krys Fenner, since we wrote this new adult fantasy novel together. I recommend you do the same with your titles, whether you have co-authors or just a few trusted writer pals. Obtaining a second or third opinion always helps. (Depending on their knowledge and familiarity of your WIP, it may also be wise to include a detailed summary of your story.)
Easy, right? Or, at least easier than you initially thought.
This tried and true method of creating a title has worked for me for many years. It’s a method I turn to time and time again. I sincerely hope it helps you select your next title for your work-in-progress.
If it does, please, feel free to reach out and tell us about it! I love to hear from my fellow authors within the Writing Community.
A few closing explanations on why I chose Rebel Tides as the title of my new adult fantasy novel.
The initial story was intended to be a young adult novel, detailing the friendship formed between two rebellious heroines: a dragon shifter, Aurelia (my character) and Thalasia (Krys’ character), a siren. The two were set to adventure to a magical academy and discover themselves together in the process, making their share of mischief as they went.
Long story short, the collaboration changed hands–and publishers–before their story could be completed.
In the revived and revamped form, their story shifted from a preteen coming-of-age journey to an action-packed struggle of survival, where the disappearance of a magical barrier cues a series of destructive incidents across the island a majority of the characters call home. Thalasia is initially blamed by my protagonist, Aurelia, who finds herself at odds with the newcomer. My secondary character, the saint beast, Seru decided to cozy up to Thalasia, even if it meant betraying his species in the process.
Krys and I were beside ourselves at these dramatic and sudden changes demanded by our cast. But, we decided to roll with it and see where it went. In the end, Rebel Tides still fit our story–if for entirely different reasons.
Our characters first encounter one another by the beach. As time progresses, it becomes evident they must rebel against the societal norms of Prisma Isle and their species to come together in order to save the island from guiler invaders. You might say, they need to create a shift or change the tides from the way things have always been toward a new way. In Thalasia’s and Seru’s case, they even seek to challenge and change fate itself.
… I appreciate you taking the time to read my first-ever blog post for Dragon Soul Press. I hope you enjoyed reading and partaking in the fun exercise provided. I’ll see you next time.
Teamworks recently approved me for a mentorship to help in editing my novel. I am so happy. An editor, Valerie Compton is available to edit my novel. I was stressed out for two weeks because I couldn’t afford to pay her.
Then I contacted Teamworks. They are an organization that helps people gain more meaningful employment that supports their passion in life and helps them cope with their struggles in disabilities. I have a learning disability. Rather than let that defeat me, I found ways to turn it into an opportunity.
To qualify for the funding, Valerie Compton and Teamworks agreed to turn the editing job into a mentorship. This means that the process will take longer, but I don’t care. I know the mentorship will be valuable and I will learn a lot in the process.
Anyone who faces my struggles can enjoy the same success as anyone else. You just need to know who to reach out to.
Sometimes knowing who that can be is a challenge in itself. I am fortunate because the resource was in plain sight. Teamworks funded my copyediting course. I graduated successfully from the course, which was a bonus when I applied for the mentorship. This fall, Valerie Compton will mentor me, editing and revising my novel to its very best. I can’t wait to work with her.
Other places offer funding, such as the Canada Council. It gives out grants to writers. Writing organizations are a great place to search for other sources of funding. The local libraries are a way to find information. Libraries are slowly opening to the public after the pandemic lockdown.
If you wish to meet with an arts grants officer to discuss a proposal for funding, don’t let the social distancing and lockdown get you down. Zoom meetings and Skype are great alternatives to meeting in person. You don’t have to leave your house. Just log onto your laptop and you’re all set.
I have to keep in mind though that as I get this funding that helps me complete what would otherwise be financially impossible, is that they often expect an outcome. For example, when I graduated from the copyediting certification course. That was a positive outcome. Teamworks will want a measure of achievement from this first half of the mentorship. I am not sure yet what that will be, but to quote Indiana Jones, “I’ll think of something.”
Don’t let a disability, no matter what type, be a barrier to you seeking success in life. Turn an obstacle into an opportunity. Arts grants are now more inclusive of people who face those struggles. It opens doors for them instead of the door being closed to them. It is not easy, but not impossible. This is proof of the positive changes taking place in society today that benefit everyone.