Posted in writing

Finding the Story Start

It’s no secret that the start of the story is one of the hardest to master. The opening scene is your best chance to catch your reader and to hook them into reading your story the rest of the way through. As the author, you already have a love and admiration for your characters. Your reader however, does not, and you may only have a few paragraphs to capture their attention long enough to get them to care.

The key part is to figure out where your story really starts.

Stories are all driven by conflict. Frequently your conflict will force the character to make a change into a new normal.  Although it might be tempting to start with a look at what their ‘old’ normal looks like, keep in mind that this is oftentimes largely unnecessary. You can usually rely on your audience to fill in some of the details—we all wake up in the morning and generally have a morning routine that involves getting dressed, eating breakfast and preparing for the day ahead.

Instead of starting with the old normal, ask yourself what moment is when the conflict first touches your character? At what point in their otherwise ordinary day does the conflict become personal?

Most people have goals. Characters should be no different. By looking at the point where their personal goals are threatened by the story’s conflict, you get closest to the start of the story. Not only do you give your character a reason to react to the conflict, you’re also giving your readers something to care about: The character’s goal is jeopardized. How will they still achieve their goals despite this threat?

It’s not uncommon to find stories that have started too far back. We’ve all heard the advice against starting with the character waking up and looking in the mirror and so on and so forth. There is a reason for this: It happens a lot. Often enough that it’s practically a trope. Although it’s more common in YA, there’s examples of it across all genres. Your story’s start should be strong enough to skip a boring introduction to your characters. Make us care first.

As an exercise: Take a look at your current manuscript and its opening scene. Typically you only have between 5-20 pages to catch a reader’s attention, so look at the first 10 pages (roughly the first 2000 words).  Read these and ask yourself where in those first ten pages the main conflict becomes personal? Where is your character threatened? If it’s not within the first 10 pages, remove them from your manuscript (I recommend putting those extra pages into another document or folder, in case you find a use for them later). Then look at the next 10 pages. Keep doing this until you find the point where the conflict affects your character.

Posted in Stories

Short Story: Gingerbread

“The end.”

“Momma,” her daughter said. “There’s not really a house made of candy in the woods, is there?” Concern made her eyes wide.

A laugh escaped. “It wouldn’t last very long if there was, now would it?”

“No.” Her son cut in matter-of-factly. “All the animals would come and eat it.”

“Indeed they would. There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s only a story meant to pass a little bit of time between supper and bed. Which is where the both of you need to be.”

“Already?” Her son’s smile faded into a pout.

“Already,” she said and stood up. “Kisses and then into bed. I’ll tuck you both in shortly.”

They sighed but accepted a hug and a kiss. Already she could tell her son was sleepy, his steps shuffling over the floor. He might protest bedtime the most, but he rarely stayed awake more than a few minutes passed it.

She tucked him in first and wasn’t surprised when he was almost immediately asleep. “Good night my gingerbread boy,” she murmured and then crept over to his sister’s bed.

Her daughter lay awake, staring at the ceiling. “You’re sure there’s no house made of candy?” her daughter asked and she chuckled as she sat on the bed.

“I’m sure. Did the story scare you too much?”

“I’m not scared. Not much.”

She laughed and bent down, pressing a kiss to her daughter’s soft hair. “I promise. No houses made of candy and no greedy bakers looking to gobble up sweet children, either. Besides. You know I’m a baker. Do you think I could make a house out of candy?”

Her daughter smiled and relaxed a little. “Maybe,” she said and rolled over. “Your baking is always so tasty.”

“And that’s why it never lasts long around here. Good night my gingerbread girl.”

She slipped out, looking at them for a few minutes before she closed the door.

A sigh escaped as she moved to the kitchen. All too soon it would be time to get up and start the morning’s baking.

For now however, she moved to the ancient brick oven and looked in at the ball of dough she’d left rising.

“Perfect,” she said as she pulled it out. “You don’t need to be all that sweet, but just a little bit of cinnamon and some sugar.”

She worked with care, her hands folding and pulling the dough into the perfect shape. Skill and practice made it possible to form ears and a tail

Finished, she smiled as she opened her cabinet for one last tiny bottle. It was nearly empty, and to anyone else it looked like plain sugar. There would be just enough left to sprinkle over a single baked good.

Just enough for a cinnamon roll.

The last few sparkling grains tipped out onto the cinnamon roll before she eased the sheet into the ancient oven to bake.

Her boy had wanted a pet for so long and her daughter had loved seeing the butcher’s cat.

The problem was, she had to be careful what she allowed them to be exposed to. As her son had pointed out, some animals would happily gobble down candy and sweets. She knew more than a few people would.

A faint meow from the oven and she looked in seeing the cat as it began rising properly and turning golden brown. It would still be a while, but in the morning she would have a perfect cat for her sweet children.

“A cinnamon roll cat for a gingerbread boy and a gingerbread girl.”

___________

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Posted in General

Music as Inspiration

Music is a universal force. No matter where you go in the world, part of the culture includes songs, instruments and the like. Which is why it should come as no surprise that music can also provide a lot of inspiration.

Music, like literature, breaks down into genres. Folk, R&B, country, classical—genres in music as extensive as genres in literature. Each one is earmarked by content and style differences. Sometimes they can bleed together in unexpected ways—again, something literature does as well. Consider your style and genre. What sort of music fits the way you write?

In many cases, lyrics can also tell a story. Whether it’s rock’n’roll or jazz, the words often tell of a situation, event or even a full-blown story. Try it with some of your favorite songs. What stories do they tell?

One way to help use music to inspire your storytelling and worldbuilding is by creating a playlist for a given story or set of stories.

Character Playlists. Think about what your characters might listen to themselves? What are their favorite songs to sing? Which ones make them dance around when they think no one is watching? Also consider which songs reflect their internal conflicts and personal feelings about a situation. What sort of lullabies would they have heard as children?

Scene Playlists. If you’re having trouble getting a scene to work properly, think about what sort of music you’d want playing in the background during the movie version. For action scenes, it can also help you by giving you something to choreograph the scene too. Listening to those songs as you’re writing can help you set the mood and tone by matching the mood you want for the scene.

Inspiration Playlists. When all else fails, think about what you’d want as the theme song for your characters, the TV-adaptation, or even what sort of music video your characters would make for the song in question.

I’m curious. What songs are on your playlists? Let me know in the comments!

Posted in serial, Seventh

Seventh Part Eleven

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part Nine | Part Ten

The shadows claimed her only a little ways from the entrance. Her lantern did little to alleviate the darkness she walked through. The sound of her steps and breathing echoed around her, amplified by the emptiness of the stone walls around her.

Despite hearing every minute sound, Crystal heard nothing to indicate anyone else moved around in the shadows with her. If the blood fae were here, she couldn’t detect them.

She stopped, a little hesitant on the path and soft laughter came to her.

“You return again and again, even despite the odds against you.” Blake’s voice did not echo, which disturbed her more as he stepped into the dim ring of her lantern’s light, letting the amber glow color his features.

“I came to make a trade with Lucinda,” Crystal said defensively.

“I know that well,” Blake said and walked a circle around her. Crystal had to turn to keep him in her view. “Tell me. Do you know the story of the young girl who sought help from the dwarves to break the curse upon her?”

It surprised her that he would ask about a story and had to tip her chin up a little as he came to a stop in front of her. “I know it,” she said. “She was given a curse at birth and sought help from the dwarves to break it. She agreed to seven years hard labor in exchange for an item to break her curse.”

Blake inclined his head. “And yet, time moves differently for dwarves. She served her penance and gained her item, only to find it had not been seven years but seven centuries.”

“It’s an old story,” Crystal said.

“Indeed, but do you know what happened after she learned how long she had truly been serving them?”

Crystal shook her head. “Only that she sought the dwarves out a second time but could never find them.”

“Indeed. You humans like to add ‘happily ever after’ onto your stories. There isn’t always a happily forever after, sometimes it’s only ‘forever’ after.”

Her heart left bruises on her ribs as it pounded in her chest. Try as she might, every breath she took came in meager and shallow.

“I only seek the releases of my brothers,” Crystal said and Blake smirked.

“I know that as well,” he said and motioned. “This way.”

She moved carefully to keep him in the lantern’s light. It seemed as if he led her down one short corridor before Lucinda’s throne room opened up before them. She passed the final two columns, glancing up at each of her brothers, still slumbering.

Lucinda herself smirked. “One bag of snow for one brother,” she said. “Do we have an even trade?”

“We do,” Crystal said and held the bag out to Lucinda.

Lucinda took it and frowned a little as she studied the leather pouch.  “This is very small,” she said.

“You never specified a size,” Crystal said and tipped her chin up. “Nor did you offer me anything in exchange for the knowledge of how to make it work.”

Lucinda’s hands clenched. “So I didn’t,” she said. “I will only offer to wake your newly released brother.”

Crystal hesitated. Not doing so could leave her and Flint trapped in the caves, and Clay forever bound to the stone column.

“Agreed,” she said and Lucinda inhaled, clicking her fingers. Flint dropped to the floor with a groan and Crystal gasped before she darted to him.

“Flint,” she said.

“Your information, Crystal Cleary. We have an agreement.”

She’d made a mistake and stood up slowly while Flint continued stirring and sitting up on the ground.

“If you look inside, it will appear empty. It’s only by opening it and turning it over that you’ll find the snow. It cannot be given, only traded and it will only work for a year and a day,” Crystal said.

Lucinda hummed. “A clever piece of work. I do question what other fairy you had to trade.”

“I traded no other fairy.”

Flint had managed to stand up and caught her arm, his expression still dazed. “Crystal?”

“I’m okay,” she said and put a hand to his fingers, feeling how cool and clammy they were. “One final deal, Lucinda.”

“A final deal? What did you do, Crystal?” Flint squeezed her arm in worry and she smiled a little.

“She’s made an agreement with me,” Lucinda said. Her tone had grown icy. “One item for one brother. Six items in total. And now she only needs to retrieve the last item in order to release her brother. Are we agreed, Crystal Cleary?”

“We are,” Crystal said. “Name your last item.”

Lucinda inhaled. “I require a burning coal from a dwarven forge.”

Crystal’s heart sank. Blake’s warning had become clear now. There were two things fairies weren’t likely to cross. Angry spirits.

And Dwarves.

“You can’t,” Flint said.

“I have to,” Crystal replied.

Blake chuckled again. “These caves are a labyrinth,” he warned. “You’ll only become lost trying to find the dwarves. I will offer my aid to get you to the dwarves.”

She hesitated and looked at Flint. “Can you find your way by yourself?”

“I think so,” he said. “Maybe I should go with you.”

A head shake was her answer. “I know why I have to be the one to do this. Don’t risk yourself.”

“Perhaps I can aid you both,” Blake said. “I do believe the brother carries a gold ring. I will exchange that for delivering him to the entrance.”

Flint hesitated and then nodded. “Agreed,” he said and dug in his pocket to find a small bag, which he emptied to reveal the ring.

A shadow snatched it up and Crystal shivered as the shadow formed into what she thought might be a dog.

“My shadow will guide you whenever you are ready.”

Flint looked at Crystal and she inhaled. “Name your price for aiding me,” she said.

“The ribbon in your hair,” he said. “That and nothing else.”

The ribbon she only wore because Juniper constantly lost them. The ribbon she wore so she’d have an excuse to fuss and play with Juniper’s hair when it needed straightening again. It wasn’t hers to give.

“It’s not mine to give,” she said.

“I’ll accept nothing else,” Blake answered. “The ribbon or nothing.”

“Crystal,” Flint murmured in warning and she inhaled before she reached up to slide the ribbon out of her locks.

“Let the others know I’ll be away a while, and tell Juniper I’m sorry about the ribbon.”

“You can’t be serious,” Flint said.

“I am,” she said and pressed it to her lips for a moment, wishing she had another option before she held it out. “The ribbon for your aid to both find the dwarves and then to leave again.”

Blake grinned and took the ribbon. It slid from her fingers as easily as water ran through a clenched fist, leaving only the trace feel of its silk behind.

“This way then,” he said. “And mind the light of your lantern is low.”

She turned the wick down before she followed him down into the cave, leaving her brothers behind as they descended once more.

Blake turned away from the other paths she’d trodden before almost as soon as they’d properly entered the cave. There was no sound, save for the shuffle of her feet, and his steps.

“This part drops a bit,” Blake warned and Crystal hesitated a moment before she followed him down, easing down the steep turn with some trepidation. There would be no coming back from this, she sensed, and followed down, deeper and deeper into the darkness.

Ahead, the glow of her lantern only offered a few glimpses of the stony walls. It painted her surroundings amber and gold, but she doubted the truth of the colors.

The caves branched, but Blake moved ahead, forever fearless and always just a little ahead. He never slowed, but his pace was easy to match as they ventured farther away from anything familiar and ever deeper into the cool, quiet dark.

Slowly, the tunnels they followed changed. No more were the stalagmites reaching for the sky, instead they were rounded, or flattened at the top. The walls began to smooth, and Crystal became aware of a faint heat from somewhere as they moved ahead.

Blake paused, listening at last before he inhaled. “Cut the lantern, before they become aware of our presence.”

Crystal complied, not certain she wished to find out what he meant by ‘they’ or why it sounded almost as if he was afraid.

The lantern extinguished, but she could still see. The light, she realized, came from somewhat farther ahead, cherry red in its glow.

Silent in his stride, Blake moved around, away from the ruddy light. Crystal followed, and he motioned her down as they approached another opening. They both crouched and she eased around Blake to peer out.

Dwarves, she saw. Not the Dwarven miners she might have expected, but rather the smiths with singed and charred beards who pumped bellows. Though short, they carried hefty hammers, each one easily the size of its bearer.

She inhaled slowly.

“They do not barter as we do,” Blake said. “Time means nothing to them.”

“I need a coal,” Crystal said and considered it. She had nothing to offer them, couldn’t risk giving them her time.

She closed her eyes as she thought. How did she get a coal from a dwarven forge, she wondered?

Once more she opened her eyes, looking about and inhaling slowly.

There were plenty of fires, she realized, and saw one not too far from another opening. “That opening there,” Crystal said.

“It’s possible to reach it,” Blake said. “But reaching the forge would be difficult.”

“I have to try,” Crystal said and slunk back along the tunnel.

Blake took the lead again. The only sight she had of him for part of it as he moved was the faint silhouette against the rocks.

They rounded another corner, and there ahead of them, she saw it. The edges of the cave where the smiths worked. She could hear the ring and grind of their work clearly now.

She crouched, one hand feeling at the rocks under her. They were warm to the touch, perhaps baking in the heat of dwarven fires.

One singed her fingers and she jerked back from it. Her blessing, as always, came to hand.

Carrying it back herself was out of the question. She needed a way to hold it. She thought only for a moment before she pulled her coin purse off her belt. The coins she dumped into the larger bag on her. She opened the pouch to its widest before she once again felt along the floor, fingers tender.

This time when it singed her fingers, Crystal plucked it from the ground and dropped it hastily in the pouch. Blake watched in amazement as she peered in to see the coal was a glowing red stone.

“A dwarven coal,” he said.

“And so it is,” she agreed. “You agreed to lead me out again,” she noted and he smiled.

“Then come,” he said. “This way to my mother.”

His steps were steady and sure as she followed him once more into the shadowy depths, heading up instead of down.

 

 

Posted in General, serial, Seventh, writing

Seventh Part Ten

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part Nine

Crystal stared at the maps in front of her, knowing they could tell her nothing she didn’t already know. They hung on the wall behind her usual worktable, dotted and colored with painstaking detail. She’d made meticulous notes over the years. Her gift worked to let her find things she needed, but it was easier when she knew where to look.

Had it been winter, there wouldn’t have even been a question. She could have brought entire carts of it back from the northern side of the mountain in a day, maybe two. A single bag would have been easy.

With summer nearing its peak, there was no way to get even a flake, much less keep it frozen all the way back to Lucinda’s cave.

The door opened, banging into the wall behind it and she looked up. “Crystal? Crystal!”

Juniper slammed the door shut again and pulled her to her feet. The feel of icy hands on her skin startled her. “You’re freezing, are you alright?”

“Yes, yes, yes! I’m fine. Don’t worry about me. I have it.”

“Have what?” Crystal said and Juniper grinned.

“The bag of snow,” she said.

It took Crystal at least a full minute to properly understand what Juniper was saying. “How?”

“I have a friend,” Juniper said. Her excitement came through as a bright glow on her face. “Who knows another person, who once spoke with Godmother Dawn, and they recalled from speaking with Godmother Dawn about where to find a very tiny patch of ice.”

“Ice?”

“Ice,” Juniper said. Her cheeks remained flushed as if she’d just stepped in from a light winter snow, and her eyes blazed with delight.

“Is that why you’re so cold right now? You’ve been digging in ice?”

“What? Oh. Oh, I hadn’t even noticed. That’s not important, what’s important is that I have the bag.”

“A bag of unmelted snow.”

“Yes! The only condition is that I can’t simply give it to someone, I have to trade it,” Juniper said.

“I—oh. You’re not going anywhere near that cave.”

“Of course not. I’ll trade it to you. I can think of at least half a dozen things I’m willing to trade it for. A hot cup of tea sounds lovely.”

“Then one cup of tea, unsweetened, for your bag of snow?” Crystal offered it with a faint lift of her brow. She knew how Juniper liked her tea and the resulting grin was enough to lighten her own bleak mood.

“Agreed.”

“Good,” Crystal said and kissed Juniper’s cheek. “You’re absolutely frozen. It’s a good thing I just took the kettle off. It should still be hot.”

The water was still steaming as Crystal poured it over the leaves. Juniper settled to the kitchen table, her delight clear. The smell of hot tea spread through the kitchen.

“How exactly did you get it?” Crystal questioned as she set the kettle down. She scooped one of the last tarts out of the basket on the sideboard as well.

“Oh, well,” Juniper hummed a little. “It’s a bit…of a story.”

“What sort of story?”

“Nothing serious,” Juniper said. “I just had to go argue with an ice spirit, that’s all. Listen, the bag will only work for a year and a day and it can’t be given, only traded.”

“A year and a day?” Crystal brought the steaming cup over and Juniper wrapped her hands around it.

“Yes,” Juniper said and then smiled, pulling it from her belt. “As agreed. One cup of tea for one bag of snow.”

Crystal took the bag with care. It felt like simple, plain leather and she frowned as she opened it.

“Juni, it’s empty.”

“It is,” Juniper agreed. “Now turn it over.”

A little concerned that Juniper had gotten tricked by a spirit, Crystal nevertheless complied. A few soft flakes drifted out, falling to the kitchen floor where they melted, dotting the floor with miniscule puddles as they faded from crystal to water.

“Snow,” she said.

“One bag of snow,” Juniper said. “It will only work for a year and a day.”

“And after that it will return to being a leather pouch,” Crystal said.

“Yes. If anyone attempts to gift it, it will also stop working, or so I’ve been warned.”

It was probably information she should give Lucinda, she realized, but right now she was more concerned with how cold Juniper was.

“Juni, what did you trade?”

Juniper hesitated and then sighed. “I know you liked that ribbon I wore,” she said and Crystal smiled as she came around to hug her. “And a day of my warmth,” she said.

“Silly, I only like that ribbon because you enjoy wearing it,” Crystal said. “I’m more worried you’ll get too cold.”

“It’s summer,” Juniper replied. “I’ll be alright.”

“Still. I’ll ask Mica and Jasper to stay with you.”

“What about Coal and Jet?”

“I’ll have Coal come with me,” Crystal said.  “Jet can keep watch for us from the farm.”

Juniper smiled and stood, wrapping her arms around Crystal. “Just come back to me, that’s all I ask.”

“Always,” Crystal promised and squeezed her for a moment. “I won’t be long.”

They separated and Juniper smiled. “I have some sewing to do anyways,” she said. “It’s tedious, but I can sit on the back step. It should be plenty warm enough there with the sun.”

Crystal nodded. “I’ll send Mica and Jasper along soon,” she promised.

“Thank you,” Juniper said.

Crystal took the time to collect her lantern, and her longer knife before she left. The farm wasn’t far outside of town, but it still took her several long minutes to reach it. As she approached, she could already see the where her brothers were focusing their efforts, trying to catch up on the work they had missed in the days they’d been trapped by Lucinda.

She knocked all the same, though part of her told her she could have easily gone in. It had been her parent’s home, the same place she’d spent her childhood in.

It wasn’t until Coal swung the door open that she dared to step inside. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I have the next item,” she said and a thump from the other room heralded Jasper as he shuffled in. She glanced at him and then back to Coal. “I want you to go with me, and wait at the entrance.”

“Why not go all the way in with you?”

“I can’t risk you like that,” Crystal said. “But I’m not silly enough to think I can carry Flint all the way back home by myself if I don’t get him out before sunset.”

“The sunlight,” Jasper said. “That’s what wakes us.”

Crystal nodded as she looked at him. “Juniper’s at home, can you and Mica sit with her?”

“Of course, but why?”

“That’s how we got the bag of snow,” Crystal said. “There’s a patch of ice she knew where to find, so she traded one day of warmth for the bag of snow. I just want someone to stay and look after her, just in case.”

“We’ll do it,” Jasper said.

“You haven’t even told Mica,” Coal argued and Jasper chortled.

“We’ll do it,” he said. “Are you certain about this?”

“I am,” she said.

“Then let’s go,” Coal said and pulled another lantern from the hook by the door.

“I’ll go get Mica now,” Jasper promised and turned, shuffling off to wherever their oldest brother had hidden himself.

The path up the mountain was becoming familiar, but Crystal felt her heart pounding as she moved along it. If something went wrong, Juniper could be tangled up in the consequences.

Spirits weren’t likely to actively cause harm, but if their prices weren’t paid, they were twice as vindictive as any fae.

Coal stopped her at the entrance. “Are you sure it’s safe for you to go alone?”

“No,” Crystal said. “But I’m even less certain that Lucinda won’t try and tangle you up in this mess as well.”

“I just don’t want you getting hurt,” Coal said.

“I won’t,” Crystal said. “I know what I can offer and I know what she wants.”

“That doesn’t mean much,” Coal counseled. “Don’t take anymore risks than you absolutely have to.”

She smiled. “I won’t,” she said and took a second to adjust the lantern wick. “I’ll be back. Hopefully before sundown.”

Coal only nodded, but his expression indicated he wasn’t sure he liked it. Crystal inhaled once, slowly, and turned back to the cave. A soft wind made the air inside whistle and she had to steel herself for a moment before she went down, stepping into the darkness of the blood fae’s realm.