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Weekend Writer: The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings by Paula Munier – Chapter 5: The Beginnings Rulebook I – The Risk-Proof Beginning

Hey all, Sam here.

Luna still isn’t home, but we have friends going to our house every day to check, and to keep our other cat Diablo company…and they think they’ve heard her scratching at the door, but the cat runs off before they can confirm…which honestly sounds like her. If it’s her, then it seems like she’s trying to come home, and hopefully we can get her back inside soon.

We’re all set up at the convention center and Fan Expo Cleveland is just getting started. I know David and I are hoping that it’s a productive weekend. I’m also just hoping that we’ll get word that Luna has been caught and returned home. I’m sad I can’t be there right now for her.

Anyway, it’s probably time to focus on the Weekend Writer post. This is a weekly series where I either break down a chapter from a book on the craft of writing, discuss a topic around writing and creativity that’s on my mind, or share writing prompts with you and then use them as the basis for some sort of creative writing. Today is the Fifth Chapter for the current book on writing, and that means after this, there’s only three more chapters to go…so we’ll finish this book next month.

For The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell by Paula Munier, you can find Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, and Chapter Four deep dives already posted. And you can find the March prompt post and the February writing share post up already as well. Next week will be the March writing share post, so I’m looking forward to that.

Let’s get started.

Give your story its best start!

The best beginnings possess a magical quality that grabs readers from the first word and never lets them go. But beginnings aren’t just the door into a fictional world. They are the gateway to the realm of publishing–one that could shut as quickly as it opens.

In The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings, author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to craft flawless beginnings that impress agents, engage editors, and captivate readers. You’ll learn how to develop the big idea of your story and introduce it on page one, structure opening scenes that encompass their own story arc, kickstart your writing with effective brainstorming techniques, and introduce a compelling cast of characters that drive the plot. You’ll also examine the best-selling novels from different genres to learn the secrets that experienced writers use to dive straight into a story.

With thorough examinations of voice, point of view, setting, dialogue and conflict, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings is a must-have tool for luring your readers in with your opening pages–and convincing them to stick around for the ride.

“Writing a book? Hard. Writing the beginning of a book? Rocket science! Strap on your spacesuit, because thanks to Munier’s nuanced, actionable breakdown of every possible aspect of a gripping opening, authors everywhere can now take their books to the stars.” —K.M. Weiland

Chapter 5 – The Beginnings Rulebook I: The Risk-Proof Beginning

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.” – William Faulkner

pg 103

Munier begins by saying that publishing has always been risky, but now it is riskier than ever, and getting published can be really tough. There aren’t many spots on a publisher’s list, and most spots go to their contracted and established writers, so to nab one of the few remaining spots you have to be incredible.

Once again, Munier takes the time here to tell us that she reads thousands and thousands of openings in a year, and most are not good enough. Here she says that most take risks in the beginning that don’t pay off and actually eliminate them, even if their story idea might be good. They take risks about the necessary elements of fiction, and often times these choices are made from ignorance or arrogance or a lack of understanding of the marketplace. So fewer risks are better, and if you do take a risk you need to make sure that it is worth it, and that it will pay off.

Basically you need to do a risk assessment for your story.

We begin with Voice, because that is an important instrument for a storyteller, and a unique voice can make your career. Strong voices are a selling point, whether the voice is funny, brooding, satirical, lyrical, elegant, etc.

But, Munier cautions that while any strength can be a weakness if relied on too much or too often, a strong original voice can be both strength and weakness. Some writers can fall in love with the sound of their own voice and focus on it, leaving other elements of fiction in the shadows.

Voice is the sound of the story, but it isn’t the story.

Go through the beginning of your story and make sure that you: 1) Show, Don’t Tell, 2) Employ All Elements of Fiction (action, conflict, setting, dialogue, description, theme, etc) and 3) Eliminate Chunks of Navel-Gazing, Editorializing, or Proselytizing (no pointless inner monologue)

We are then treated to a few examples of story/book openings with a good voice. Pages 105-106 if you have this book and want to check it out.

Next is Point of View, which Munier says is a tricky bastard, and that if all these elements are considered equal then POV issues have kept more writers from selling their work than anything else.

Munier says that so many people get POV wrong, more than any other element of storytelling, and then they resist fixing it even when they do know they’re doing it wrong. This could be because they don’t know how to fix it or because they are simply being stubborn about it.

POV is one of the most difficult aspects of writing and can be the easiest to screw up. Apparently, according to Munier, agents and editors look at your POV in your beginning, and if you mess it up then they assume that you haven’t honed your craft. Munier says that any time that she has taken on a story with POV issues, she wasn’t able to sell the project, even when everything else was good, and it has made her waste time, which is like wasting money, because if she’s not selling a project then she’s not getting paid.

We are then given a couple POV Rules. #1) Your best bets are first-person point of view or third-person-limited poing of view. On pages 108-109 we are given examples of writing from each of these POVs.

POV Rule #2) Choose your point of view character(s) carefully. Generally a POV character is your protagonist, unless like in the Sherlock Holmes stories where Sherlock is more appealing from Watson’s POV. Besides POV is problematic enough when trying to write from an adult human’s perspective (assuming that you are an adult human). It is even more difficult to write from the POV of an animal or an alien or a teenager, and get it right.

POV Rule #3) If you choose first person, then you must use that POV alone throughout the story. This is especially true if it is your first story…although Munier also notes that there are some well-known and established authors who can and have broken these rules. Munier also says that editors and agents mistrust stories that are told in multiple first-person POVs.

Now, what I would say to that is that I’ve seen numerous books out there that can get away with multiple first person POV because it’s a limited number of POVs, like 2 or 3 different people. And in my opinion if those POVs are distinct enough then you can still pull it off. I like getting in the heads of characters, so oftentimes I tend to enjoy first person POV.

POV Rule #4) If you choose third-person limited point of view, do not use more than six POVs per story. (Again, there are some obvious rule-breakers with this rule…folks like George R.R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson. They know what they’re doing.) Whenever the POV shifts, the reader has to shift their focus, sometimes from a beloved character to one they might not like as much.

POV Rule #5) When writing in third-person limited point of view, don’t jump from head to head. The general rule is one POV per scene.

I know most of the time when I’m reading, if the viewpoint character changes, then there is either a chapter break or the book begins a new chapter. With Sanderson and Martin, these POV shifts also include a heading with the viewpoint character’s name.

POV Rule #6) Avoid using third-person-omniscient point of view. Munier says that this POV is the author playing God and speaking directly to the reader, and she says that American editors view this particular POV as hopelessly outdated. Although apparently a number of books in the UK and abroad not only use this POV, but they also jump form one character’s head to another in the same scene and get away with it.

So, I guess that means that we should pay attention to the marketplace we intend to release our work, because different regions might have differing views on what is and is not acceptable.

Pages 112-117 give us a big breakdown of A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin…which breaks a number of the rules, and Munier goes on to discuss how and why the rule breaks work

After Voice and Point of View, we have Character. Readers want protagonists they can love and antagonists they can love to hate, according to Munier. Readers also want a supporting community of characters that help bring the story to life. Pages 117-121 give us a plethora of examples of different character introductions from a number of stories.

“Live through your characters. Let you characters live through you. Then you will love what you write, and others will, too.” – Amanda Emerson

page 121

Your protagonist is the most important character in your story. Here Munier goes through a few issues she sees with protagonists in story beginnings.

  • The protagonist comes across as unlikeable.
  • The protagonist is incompetent
  • The protagonist is passive
  • The protagonist thinks too much
  • The protagonist is asleep
  • The protagonist is alone doing nothing
  • The protagonist does not drive the action

What we see from this is that the protagonist should be doing things instead of just having things happen to them, you shouldn’t begin with the protagonist asleep and dreaming, and they need to have some sort of likeability and skills so they can actually do stuff.

Pages 123-126 are quotes from authors about heroes, heroines, and heroism. Then Munier gives a similar treatment to antagonists.

  • The antagonist comes across as one-dimensional
  • The antagonist is stupid
  • The antagonist drops out of the story too soon
  • The antagonist does not receive their just desserts (Munier used his; I changed the pronoun to be gender neutral…antagonists can be of any gender identity)

So while we see that the protagonist needs to be doing things in the beginning, Munier cautions about the antagonist not having things to do later in the story. And the antagonist needs to be competent enough to be a challenge for the protagonist, although inevitably will end up losing, but Munier says that they need to earn their loss.

Pagess 131-133 are a collection of quotes from authors about villains and villainy.

Finally in the character segment, Munier gives us a rundown of a variety of functions the supporting characters can fulfill: Mirror, Moral Support, Ally, Colleague, Bad Influence, Mentor, Guru, Corruptor, Wingman, Lover, and Comic Relief, with brief descriptions of each role. It is also made clear that one character can be a mix of a couple of these roles as well. Here it is also stated that your story shouldn’t be overcrowded with characters, and a good general rule is to introduce no more than three to six characters in the story opening.

The last part of characters is naming, and the advice given is to find names that are easy to read and pronounce and spell, to not use a bunch of names that are similar, and to choose a name that keeps with the background and temperament of the character.

Okay, so we had Voice, Point of View, Character, and now Setting.

Munier says that setting is a critical but often underrated and underutilized element of a good story, and that it is all too common for writers to fail to embrace setting or ignore it altogether…which she says is a big mistake. Ignore setting at your own peril. Pages 139-141 include a number of examples of stories that utilize and embrace setting.

Here Munier says that specificity really matters when it comes to story. She says that many writers set a story in a place people have seen a million times before and therefore miss the opportunity to use setting to reveal character, propel the plot, and explore themes in the process. Munier tells us that when she reads something and sees someone not emphasizing setting she circles any nondescript nouns, and some of the biggest offenders are: rooms, houses, and streets, and then she gives examples of other words you could use instead…just pull out your thesaurus for options.

Then comes a fun thought exercise…change the setting of your story. How does that change the story?

Oh, and if you write science fiction, fantasy, or historical fiction, when it comes to setting you also have to transport them to another world, another place, another time…and specificity can help with that. If you have a castle, don’t just say castle, say “Castle Black,” if you have a city, name the city, etc. Giving detail helps make the world, the setting, more real and grounded the story feels.

There you have it, now that you know these rules of Voice, POV, Character, and Setting, you too can avoid mistakes that can sabotage your publishing chances. These elements are the meat that rest on the bones of the plot and the muscle of the drama, and when you master these elements you make your writing sophisticated and polished, and it will make a difference with editors and agents.

As for action, conflict, dialogue, and theme…that’s the next chapter.

Well, that is all from me for today. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I’ll be back soon with more geeky content.


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