Something Happens

Born in England but living now in Scotland, I.J. Parnham has written more than 30 Westerns for the Black Horse Western series and the Avalon western series. His next novel Beyond Redemption will be available in hardback in August and his earlier Dead by Sundown and The Gallows Gang are now available as ebooks. You can meet him at his blog the Culbin Trail.

So you’ve outlined the story you intend to write, or perhaps you’ve finished the first draft, depending on how you work. This is an ideal time to ask the fundamental question: are my scenes actually scenes? Of course my scenes are scenes you may say. They have action, scenery, chatter, apostrophes, purplish prose, action, witty asides, proof I’ve done my research, big words, an inflatable gopher, and yet more action.

But the thing is, stuff happening does not make a scene.

Consider the following scene:

Clint Callahan is riding across the wild frontier in search of the man who shot his pa. He rides into the lawless frontier town of Dead Dog looking to get a shot of rotgut and a mess of beans. Clint squeaks open the batwings in the Dog Pie Saloon. Dirty varmints loiter in every corner. The piano player stops playing. Cold eyes turn to him. They narrow. Fingers itch. Clint still orders a whiskey, in a dirty glass. Then disaster strikes. Rock Hardman takes exception to Clint.

“You’re a long-legged son of a dead man,” Rock says while smiling to avoid the obvious retort.

Clint sips his whiskey. “Is that how you greet strangers in Dead Dog?”

Rock sneers. “Only strangers I don’t know.”

Anyhow, after that authentic tough guy talk, a fight erupts. Chairs break. Tables tip over. The piano player’s head goes through the piano. An old-timer knocks back the unguarded drinks. Then Rock pulls a knife on Clint, but a saloon-girl knocks him out with a convenient bottle. Clint tips his hat to the saloon-girl and rides out of town to resume his search for the man who shot his pa.

Now, this scene may be ten pages long, contain evocative and realistic descriptions of a frontier town and frontier folk, and it’s all held together with some mighty fine western action, but it isn’t a scene. Before explaining why, consider some more scenes detailing Clint’s search for the man who shot his pa:

A big bear attacks Clint. Clint hides up a bigger tree.

Bandits attack Clint. Clint shoots them.

Clint falls in the creek and nearly drowns. Clint swims away…

Unfortunately, no matter how well-written and action-packed these scenes are, they aren’t scenes because to be a scene, something must not only happen, something must change.

So in the first scene, Clint rode into town looking for the man who shot his pa and at the end he rode out of town still looking for the man who shot his pa. Nothing changed and so you could delete the scene and the story would be the same, albeit shorter. The same is true of the other scenes involving  bears, bandits, and creeks in which something happened, but nothing changed.

Faced with this story, the reader will notice the rhythm in which a problem arises and Clint solves it. Before long Clint will encounter another problem and the reader will skip the resolution to see what happens when he finds the man who shot his pa. This can be avoided not by deleting the scene and starting again, but by changing something.

So, with the saloon brawl, perhaps Clint rides into town not to search for whiskey and beans, but to search for someone who knows about the man who shot his pa. Rock takes exception to Clint because he asked the bartender a question and the scene closes with Rock following Clint. Now Clint hoped to get information, and he got some answers, but only at the cost of getting another bad guy on his tail, so his position has changed. Even better, it worsened.

You can make changes to the other scenes, too. Clint meets a bear and the bear chews his leg off. Bandits attack and he hops away while the bandits eat his horse. He falls in the creek and a fish eats his gun. So now he has no gun, no horse, a spare boot, Rock on his tail, and he still has to find the man who shot his pa… which is starting to sound like a better story than the first draft.

In a scene, something changes. When you want to rack up the tension, something worsens. When you want to give your hero a break, something improves. But you never limit yourself to, something happens.

Debunking the Myth of a Strong Opening

John Klima previously worked at Asimov’s, Analog, and Tor Books before returning to school to earn his Master’s in Library and Information Science.  He now works full time as a librarian. When he is not conquering the world of indexing, John edits and publishes the Hugo Award-winning genre zine Electric Velocipede.  The magazine has is also a four-time nominee for the World Fantasy Award.  In 2007 Klima edited an anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories based on spelling-bee winning words called Logorrhea: Good Words Make Good Stories.  In 2011, Klima edited a reprint anthology of fairytale retellings for Night Shade Books titled Happily Ever After.  He and his family live in the Midwest. You can follow him on Twitter @EV_Mag.


There are countless writing books and countless lists of writing tips that trot out the same maxim again and again: make sure your story has a killer opening.  I’m here to debunk that myth.

It’s not that your story doesn’t need a strong opening.  There are countless times when I’ve read submissions where the story doesn’t start going until the five or sixth page, and in a ten-page story, waiting that long to get going is death.  There isn’t much room, get going!  On the same token, I’ve read almost as many stories that have a great opening that just fall flat by the end.

I’m not sure which bothers me more.

Let’s break down why this myth gets trotted out time after time, why it actually matters, and in what ways it doesn’t matter.

First, the reason that this myth consistently makes its way into writing advice is that it’s meant to convey to you the importance of keeping the reader reading.  If you have a catchy opening, the reader will be sure to keep turning pages, right?  And we want readers to keep turning pages and digesting the words we wrote, right?  Of course we do.

In some ways then, a catchy opening makes perfect sense.  Give the reader something intriguing, and off we go.  And catchy doesn’t necessarily mean explosions, nudity, action sequences, and the like.  A catchy opening can be slow and deliberate.  So let’s change the word ‘catchy’ to ‘compelling’ since ‘catchy’ implies forgettable pop tunes and we don’t want our stories to be forgettable.  Think of Henry James and how deliberate and slow-paced The Turn of the Screw is (if you haven’t read The Turn of the Screw go do it; for all its brevity, it’s still arduous and slow, but worth it) and still how compelling it is:

“The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to say that it was the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child.” – Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Whew!  That’s a long opening sentence.  You finish it virtually breathless much like the literary audience listening to the tale.  I know that James isn’t for everyone, but for me, that opening sentence made me keep heading down the page to learn what the tale was that left the audience breathless.  But the opening isn’t full of action and excitement, in fact, it’s rather confusing.  But it still works to keep the reader reading.

I work primarily with short fiction, so a strong opening is particularly important to me.  When working at 10,000 words and less, there’s not a lot of space for exposition and you had better start moving into the story proper from the first sentence.  I continually see stories that take a few pages to start, and by then you’ve already lost your reader.  The writer typically has one paragraph to grab my attention and keep me reading.

So we should put all our efforts into making the opening as best as we can, right?

Well, no.  Not if you’re going to forego making the rest of the story strong, too.  The trick is that your story needs to be strong from beginning to end.  A strong opening followed by a weak end is just as much a failure of a story as a weak opening with a strong end.  Writing a poor opening means you lose readers who don’t wait for your story to get going.  Writing a poor ending means you’ve ticked off a bunch of readers who decided to stick with you to the end.

I know that’s easier said than done, but unfortunately for you, there’s no way around it.  Your story has to open strong and finish strong, whether it’s 500 words or 500,000 words.  Look at your strong ending, can you replicate that language and strength in the beginning of your piece?  Can you start your piece later and just cut your current opening?  Take your strong beginning and sustain that language and power through to the end.  If you can’t pinpoint what makes something strong, let someone else take a look at your writing and help you.

The best, and yet most difficult, advice I can give is to set the work aside and come back to it after some time.  One night might be enough.  If you can do it, write something else (this obviously works better with short fiction) and then come back to the first piece.  You’ll no longer be in that world and you’ll be reading it closer to how a reader will see it instead of your brain filling in gaps.

Heck, I’m guilty of telling people to write strong openings to stories.  Just don’t spend so much time working on the start of the story that you give the rest of it the short end of the stick.



12 for ’12: Writing a Dozen Books a Year

Matt Forbeck is an award-winning game designer and freelance writer living in Wisconsin.  In addition to being one of the nicest guys in the business–in any business–Forbeck sets a new standard for diversification.  He’s designed collectible card games, role-playing games, miniatures games, board games, and logic systems for toys and has directed voice-over work and written short fiction, comic books, novels, screenplays, and computer game scripts and stories.

Last spring, I had this crazy idea that I could write a dozen novels in a year. I spent much of my summer chatting with friends about it and hoping that one of them would do the right thing and talk me down from that ledge. Instead, as I explained it in greater detail, they lined up to either encourage me to jump or to push me off.

Maybe they just wanted to watch the show, which was guaranteed to be a fantastic stunt or a total car wreck, complete with blazing tires flying into the helpless crowd. Either way, it worked.

I’m a fast writer, and I’ve been at it full-time for a long time: twenty-three years this summer. When I’m on a writing roll, I can knock out 5,000 words in a day without too much sweat. Tackling a novel the size of a National Novel Writing Month book — about 50,000 words — then should only take me about 10 days, right? That’s short compared to most novels these days, which often clock in around 80,000 to 100,000 words, but it still qualifies as a novel by just about any major award committee, for which the cutoff is usually 40,000 words.

So, technically I could do it. The trouble was I couldn’t afford to just take off a year to write a dozen books, as much fun as that might sound. I’m the father of five kids, including a set of quadruplets, and my wife’s salary as a school social worker alone can’t cover our bills. It seemed my insane dream might be grounded on account of finances, but then Kickstarter came along.

Kickstarter is a popular crowdfunding platform on which creators can post a pitch for a project and ask for pledges. If you hit your goal, you set to work. Otherwise, everyone gets to walk away, no harm done. I’d seen a couple friends have big hits there with their roleplaying game projects, so I thought I’d give it a try with the first trilogy of books for my 12 for ’12 project: Matt Forbeck’s Brave New World, based on an RPG I wrote back in 1999.

We beat the goal and raised over $13,000, and I set to work. A couple months later, I launched a second Kickstarter for a new trilogy of fantasy noir books I wanted to write, set in a world I call Shotguns & Sorcery. That raised almost $13,000 too.

This week, I launched the third Kickstarter in the series, this one for a trilogy of thrillers called Dangerous Games, set at Gen Con, the largest tabletop gaming convention in this hemisphere. Will it fly too? I’ll let you know in about a month.

The real question, of course, is how the writing went. I managed to complete the first three novels on time, but then fell ill for a week at the end of April. (Having all these school-age kids around provides lots of disease vectors.) That bumped me wrapping up that novel into the start of May. Still, I got it done and had time to move on to my next novel — which is actually a full-sized tie-in based on the Leverage TV show that I’m still hoping to finish this month.

Meanwhile, I revised the first novel and got the ebook out to my backers in April. That means I took a novel from an outline to a published book in under four months. The others are underway as well, and I just this week released the first ebook — Brave New World: Revolution — to the general public too. So far, I’m thrilled with the results.

Note that I’m self-publishing the books. No publisher would touch a plan like this. It’s too crazy, it involves too many books from a single writer, and it would be impossible for them to release the books so fast. That’s why I had to do it myself.

Of course, I wanted to do it myself. I’ve been eyeing self-publishing for a while now, having been a game publisher myself back in the late ‘90s. I’ve seen a number of my author friends do well at it, but mostly because they were able to bring old titles back into print.

I’ve had 16 novels published before this, but 13 of them were tie-ins for things like Dungeons & Dragons and Guild Wars, which meant the rights to those books would never revert to me. The only way I could build up a critical mass of titles to publish myself would be to write them, and I didn’t want to have to wait for the years that might take to pull off.

So I decided that this would be the year instead. So far, so good.

Stalking the Wild Sentence

Peter Brandvold has written over seventy fast-action western novels under his own name and his penname, Frank Leslie.   Follow of his blog here.

Finding that first sentence of the day can be as bracing to the writer as that first up of coffee, but it’s sometimes as hard to find as the strike zone for the aging fast-ball pitcher or as elusive as wild asparagus for the natural foods forager.

Sitting down to the soft, menacing whine of his machine, the career-scribe stares at the blank screen and sees nothing but his own bewildered eyes staring back at him.  Two lone eyes in a vast sea of white.

Gradually, the eyes get wider.

And wider.

They are suddenly no longer the wordsmith’s own eyes but the eyes of the moron he suddenly fears he’s become.  “Eee-gads!” he cries, fists clamped to his temples.  “My career is over and I have only a few chapters left on this oater I’m writing!  No delivery check for me, and they’re probably going to force me to return the advance money I’ve already frittered away, as well!”

The scribbler’s heart pounds like musket fire in a Civil War reenactment battle as he wonders if they’re hiring down at Target.

Where are those slippery devils, those glistening little hand-cut and polished jewels, those sentences, hiding?

Sometimes, at this point, the writer must become the Euell Gibbons of his trade, don his metaphorical hiking boots and walking stick, and light out for parts known.  Yes, into the wild he’s explored before.  Into the woods where he’s found those toothy little word-lions roaming free in the past and managed to throw a loop around them and haul them home to the cheers of his relieved family and the yips of his happy curs.

My version of this primeval forest is usually as close as my own office bookshelves or sometimes even my bedside night table.

At either place I can usually find all the books I’m in the half-conscious habit of returning to on those frustrating mornings I find that I need my pump primed.  Sometimes, all I have to do is flip through one or two of these tomes, reading a few of the sentences in each–usually by writers who have struck major chords with something deep inside my writer’s ear before, firing the spark of creativity inside my desperate soul–and suddenly I become a cat pouncing on a mouse.

I’m Hemingway in Africa.

Paris Hilton on Rodeo Drive.

It’s weird, the books I find myself returning to.  These are the books I’ve read and reread so many times I know them almost by heart, but they’re not at all what anyone who knows I’m a fast-action, blood-‘n’-guts western writer would expect.  Most days, there’s not a single oater among them.

Today I found three books at the top of the stash I return to most often and thumb through repeatedly, searching for the sounds that are going to ring my own bell.  And one or all of these almost always rings it.

Here are the titles:

Red Smith on Baseball.

Lights on a Ground of Darkness by Ted Kooser.

One Man’s Garden by Henry Mitchell.

Yeah, that last one’s a freakin’ gardening book.  And aside from throwing a few shrubs in the dirt now and then, I don’t even garden!  The thing is, I’m not reading for content but for the sound of the writer’s words arranged with such seeming effortlessness into graceful sentences.

I’m needing to hear the writer’s voice and see the images that that voice paints in my head.  For some reason and almost all the time, hearing and seeing those sentences written by folks I consider masters of the trade helps me use my own voice and my own images to write this essay, for instance, as well as the scenes in my own western novels.

Here are two sentences by sportswriter Red Smith from his essay, “A Man Who Knew the Crowds,” that got me going yesterday:

When the iceman cometh, it doesn’t make a great deal of difference which route he takes, for the ultimate result is the same in any case.  Nevertheless, there was something especially tragic in the way death came to Tony Lazzeri, finding him and leaving him all alone in a dark and silent house–a house which must, in that last moment, have seemed frighteningly silent to a man whose ears remembered the roar of the crowd, as Tony’s did.

Thanks, Red.  And Henry and Ted.

You’ve helped me more times that you could ever know turn that moon-like desert of the white page into a flowing field green with wild asparagus!