Do you ever wander, looking for something to inspire you?
A few weeks ago, that’s what I was doing.
If anyone had asked me how I felt then, a perfect word for it would’ve been ‘listless’.
Lists can be good (in the blogging world, a “list post” is often quite popular), but being listless is rarely good.
For a hardcore lexophile, this is where a quirky love of words and their history can be such fun.
In Middle English,
If you go even further back in time to the Old English, the words ‘list’ and ‘lust’ share the same root! Who knew?
Funnily enough, in the midst of my listlessness, I started creating lists … and getting a little liste in the process.
Perhaps something in these lists will delight you as well.
It’s Never Too Late!
How could I not start off with a list like this one?
What’s great about this list is that it just keeps growing.
15 Authors Whose Biggest Successes Came After Age 50
- Charles Bukowski (Age 51, Post Office)
- Raymond Chandler (Age 51, The Big Sleep)
- Richard Adams (Age 52, Watership Down)
- C.S. Lewis (Age 52, Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe)
- Mary Ann Evans/George Eliot (Age 55, Middlemarch)
- Robertson Davies (Age 55, Fifth Business)
- Penelope Fitzgerald (Age 61, The Bookshop)
- Laura Ingalls Wilder (Age 65, Little House in the Big Woods)
- Frank McCourt (Age 65, Angela’s Ashes)
- Mary Wesley (Age 71, Jumping the Queue)
- Harriet Doerr (Age 73, Stones for Ibarra)
- Norman Maclean (Age 74, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories)
- Freddie Mae Baxter (Age 75, The Seventh Child)
- Helen Hoover Santmyer (Age 84, And Ladies of the Club)
- Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux (Age 98, Any Given Day)
In the Beginning …
Looking for a way to start?
The blank page can be so menacing.
If you’re struggling, why not turn to your favorite author?
Take a look at how they started, maybe even ‘borrow’ their beginning to ‘unblank’ your page and get you moving forward.
You and I both know that by the time a story is finished, there is a strong likelihood your beginning will be changed anyway.
6 Ways to Start A Story
- In mid-action, or what some might all in medias res – starting in the middle of the action engages the reader immediately; rather than waiting for something to happen, it’s already happening
- With a mystery – if the narrator is puzzled, then the reader can be puzzled with them
- At a distance and then slowly move in – think of it like a movie in which the shot begins far away and slowly closes in the subject
- Flashback – the narrator is looking back on something that will somehow be related to the events of the story
- Dialogue – this could be a way to jump in mid-action, but it should be kept to a minimum to avoid confusion; remember the reader doesn’t know enough to care yet
- Setup – Refer to something that happens later in the story
10 of the Best Opening Lines in Fiction
In no particular order …
- “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” ~ Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
- “You better not never tell nobody but God.” ~ Alice Walker, The Color Purple
- “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” ~ Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
- “It was a pleasure to burn.” ~ Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
- “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” ~ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
- “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” ~ Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
- “I am a sick man … I am a spiteful man.” ~ Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground
- “Mother died today.” ~ Albert Camus, The Stranger
- “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” ~ Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis
- “They shoot the white girl first.” ~ Toni Morrison, Paradise
… In the End
Maybe you’re not sure how to put an end to things, or maybe you’re still staring at that blank screen.
Knowing the end can help with your beginning and your middle. (See Pixar’s rule #7 below.)
For another twist, you could ‘borrow’ your favorite author’s ending and make it your beginning.
5 Ways to End Your Story
- Circular – Begins and ends at the same point
- Unexpected – It’s a complete surprise
- Uncertain – The resolution isn’t really clear
- Emotional – Dramatic.
- Ironic – The opposite of what is expected.
10 of the Best Closing Lines in Fiction
Again, in no particular order …
- “He loved Big Brother.” ~ George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four
- “Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.” ~ Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse
- “He was soon borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.” ~ Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
- “Are there any questions?” ~ Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
- “But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” ~ A. A. Milne, The House at Pooh Corner
- “He heard the ring of steel against steel as a far door clanged shut.” ~ Richard Wright, Native Son
- “The old man was dreaming about the lions.” ~ Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
- “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.” ~ William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair
- “Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.” ~ Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind
- “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better place that I go to than I have ever known.” ~ Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
- Be merciless on yourself. If a sentence does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
- Pick a subject you care so deeply about that you’d speak on a soapbox about it.
- Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
- Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
- Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
- Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
- Start as close to the end as possible.
- Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
- Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
- Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
PD James published her first novel at the age of 42, and at the age of 93 she offered the following advice.
- You must be born to write — “Nobody could make me into a musician. Somebody might be able to teach me how to play the piano reasonably well after a lot of effort, but they can’t make a musician out of me and you cannot make a writer, I do feel that very profoundly.”
- Write about what you know — There are all sorts of small things that you should store up and use, nothing is lost to a writer.
- Find your own routine — “All writers are different.”
- Be aware that the business is changing.
- Read, write and don’t daydream! “We learn to write by writing, not by just facing an empty page and dreaming of the wonderful success we are going to have.”
- Enjoy your own company — “It is undoubtedly a lonely career, but I suspect that people who find it terribly lonely are not writers.”
- Choose a good setting — “Something always sparks off a novel, of course. With me, it’s always the setting.”
- Never go anywhere without a notebook.
- Never talk about a book before it is finished.
- Know when to stop. — “There will be a time to stop writing but that will probably be when I come to a stop, too.”
- Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
- Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
- Put it aside. Read it pretending you’ve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
- Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
- Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
- Laugh at your own jokes.
- The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.
On Twitter, former Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats compiled nuggets of narrative wisdom she received while working there over the years.
As you read through them, you’ll see why this list went viral.
- You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
- You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.
- Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
- Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
- Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
- What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
- Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
- Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
- When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
- Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
- Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
- Discount the first thing that comes to mind. And the second, third, fourth, fifth – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
- Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
- Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
- If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
- What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
- No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
- You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
- Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
- Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How would you rearrange them into what you DO like?
- You have to identify with your situation/characters. What would make YOU act that way?
- What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.
This list surprised me, for a few reasons.
First, it’s still dominated by white English males.
Second, I’m somewhat shocked that Dan Brown beat out some of our more timeless classics (and I’m thankful that 50 Shades didn’t).
Third, seven of the ten are sequels, or are part of a series/trilogy, or they were first published in serial format. Do with that what you will—it certainly got my wheels turning! (I’ll share more about that in a future post.)
10 Best-Selling Fictional Novels of All Time
- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (200 million sold – first published in serial format)
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (150 million sold – a trilogy and sequel to The Hobbit)
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince (140 million sold)
- J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (107 million sold – first of a series)
- Agatha Christie, And Then There Were None (100 million sold)
- Cao Xueqin, Dream of the Red Chamber (Chinese) (100 million sold)
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit (100 million sold – beginning of the legacy)
- H. Rider Haggard, She: A History of Adventure (100 million sold – first published in serial format)
- C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (85 million sold – first in a series of seven books)
- Dan Brown, The DaVinci Code (80 million sold – sequel to Angels and Demons)
I hope something in these lists gave you some ‘liste’.
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