Archive for August 13th, 2010

Aug 13 2010

Blood-Red Pencil’s Tips on How to Write a Strong Opening: Act First, Explain Later

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

This advice about how to write a strong introduction strikes me as mostly effective.

1.  Don’t begin with a long description of the setting or background information.  Do begin with dialogue and action. Agreed.  However, explain enough so that we know what’s going on.  I put down a book on page 2 yesterday because it spent all that time beautifully describing the weather and a man jumping out of a helicopter without explaining anything about why the guy came out of the helicopter.  At first, it wasn’t even clear whether the person fell out accidentally or jumped.

2.  Don’t start with a character other than your protagonist. You may wish to consider starting with the antagonist, but generally I agree with this.  If your side-characters are the most effective hook to your story, you’re writing the wrong story!

3.  Don’t start with a description of past events.  DO jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now, and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible. In some cases, the inciting event of the book may have happened before the book starts.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem.  For example, a novel might start with a superhero or homicide detective investigating a crime that has already happened.  As long as you keep the focus on what is happening now (the investigation, for example), covering an event that already happened shouldn’t bog down your plot.  

4.  Don’t start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s. Agreed!  I’d reject pretty much anything that starts with a side-character that shows up once and then disappears.  (Switching between main characters is okay, but a one-and-done narrator is NOT.  Don’t waste our time on a character that isn’t central to the plot).

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Aug 13 2010

Pet Peeve: Queries that Name Superpowers with Obscure Prefixes

When you write a proposal/query (or anything else written purely for editors) for your superhero story, you’ll probably write a bit about the main characters’ superpowers.  (1-2 sentences, please).  I highly recommend against looking up a Latin or Greek prefix to name a superpower.  If you had to look up the prefix, chances are the editor doesn’t know it, either.


PLEASE REWRITE: “John is a somnikinetic.”
BETTER:  “John can manipulate dreams” or “John can control dreams.”


Descriptions with simple English terms are usually more effective than Greek/Latin names because:

  • English words are easier to understand and remember.
  • Most editors haven’t memorized lists of Greek or Latin prefixes/suffixes.
  • Editors should not have to open a dictionary or do a Google search to understand what you’ve written. You’ve got two minutes. Wasting them does not help you.
  • Names based on prefixes can be easily confused with similar prefixes.  For example, a reader might confuse somni- (dreams) with somn- (sleep) or son- (sound). Also, false cognates like “meteoro” (weather, not meteors).
  • It may not be clear how you expect us to translate the word. For example, I’ve seen “kinesis” used as a suffix for “control,” “influence,” “manipulation,” “generation,” as well as its standard meaning, “movement” (for example, telekinesis means “remote movement”).  Will we know which definition you’re going for?
  • In many cases, it is pretentious. (If you had to look it up and/or expect the editor to look up the prefix, it probably is).


Depending on the story and character, using prefixes and other jargon in-story may be helpful (e.g. maybe for a more scientific/realistic feel). But that probably isn’t necessary in the query/submission letter or synopsis.  For one thing, the query/submission letter are an introduction aimed at editors that have absolutely no context for your story.  In contrast, by the time your story uses terms like “terrakinetic” or “ocular death-rays,” we’ve probably already seen the character’s powers in action.


What do you think?  Do you share this peeve?

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