Many people seem convinced that to learn to write, all you need do is read, and there on the pages lie the secrets of the masters, ripe for plucking. But can it be that easy? Can you learn to be a good bowler by watching an expert? Can we learn to cook by eating good foods? We all read, so it seems strange that so few of us achieve success of that level, if it’s that easy.
Certainly, by reading we can develop a sense of what works and what doesn’t. And we can generate benchmarks for ourselves, with which to measure the success of our own work. But any profession has trade secrets. And any profession has a body of knowledge that must be studied and mastered by practicing until it’s automatic, because
those things aren’t obvious—or intuitive.
Reading, or even closely examining any finished product tells you little about the process—unless you know that process so well, yourself, you “recognize the tool marks.” And the whys—the necessities—of a line being stated as it is, instead of another way, aren’t obvious.
Wouldn’t you love to have a marked up copy of your favorite favorite author’s first draft, to see what was changed in editing? How about a conversation with that author on what he or she was attempting to do, and what the role of every line is, in contributing to that goal?
I’m not your favorite writer, and I make no claim to be a writer of great skill, but none-the-less, I’m going to take the opening scene of Samanta And The Bear and deconstruct it for you, so you can see why I did certain things. I chose Samantha for this because it sold, which means I was doing at least some things right. Plus, it’s been republished
, and could use a bit of shameless promotion.
A suggestion and a challenge: Read the scene first, without referring to the notes, to get your reaction and see if the situation becomes at all real to you. Then go to the comments to learn why I did a given thing. See how often you nod and say, “I knew that.”
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Samantha and the Bear – opening scene:
It was the kind of cold that bit at her face like tiny rodent teeth—so intense that the moisture in her nostrils froze each time she inhaled.
As the night deepened  Samantha worked her way deeper and deeper into the blankets, but there was no place left to go. She woke to find herself huddled into a heat conserving ball, shivering.
The breeze that huffed around the building at dusk was now the angry hiss of wind overlaid with ice crystals. The cold, unbearable then, was now beyond anything she could have imagined.
Until tonight it was an annoyance to spend her time bundled up in layer after layer of clothing. Now, as she gathered her courage to leave the bedding she was afraid.
The road was impassible, but its heater could still provide warmth.
But she had no confidence in its ancient battery, and if she made the attempt and was unable to start the engine there was little chance she would survive the trip back to the house.
Bracing herself, Samantha pulled the covers from her face, opening her eyes to near darkness. The lantern had gone out so the only light came from the burners of the stove, their flames reduced to half their normal length by the chill. A glance at the windows showed new snow had drifted against the wall and was covering half the glass. Sometime during the night a storm-front must have passed through the area, bringing new snow and an arctic cold.
With an effort, she slid from the table and limped toward the stove, to warm her hands enough to change the tank on the lantern. The house had no functioning heater so she was forced to sleep in the kitchen, where the stove burned constantly. It helped only a little.
She tried to read the thermometer mounted just outside the window but there was not enough light. It didn’t matter, though. It was cold enough to kill her. Nearly fifteen below when she had crawled into the blankets, it was well beyond that, now.
Ten minutes later she was trying to hold back tears. She had changed the lantern’s cylinder, but the cold was so great that she was unable to get the lantern to light. Back at the stove once more, she huddled herself as close to the burners as she could without setting her clothing alight, listening to the wind and assessing her chances of survival. They weren’t good. Unless she found a way to warm her feet she would soon be unable to stand, and if she fell she would die. She estimated that she had less than a half hour before that occurred.
If I could curl up in a frying pan like a strip of bacon, that would be heaven.
She blinked, then, as something tickled at her cold-fogged brain. It was a stupid idea—a desperate solution to a problem that had no solution.
But, if it works…
Praying that she was not simply hurrying her death, she extinguished all but one of the burners. Then, on legs that were numb, and as responsive as stilts, she hobbled to the table for a chair, one with arms  that would support her in sleep.
It took much of her remaining strength to lift the chair to the stove-top and center it over the burner. Most of the rest was spent in wrapping aluminum foil around the periphery of the chair’s legs to keep her blankets from the flame.
The rest of the job, moving her blankets and the dragging a second chair to use as a step-stool, were tasks she could never quite recall, but in the end she was enthroned high over the kitchen floor, the burner beneath her and warming her tented bedding.
It took nearly fifteen minutes, but it finally came: first the jangling pain that heralded a resumption of feeling in her fingers and toes, then blessed, life-restoring heat. Not just warmth, but true heat, spreading through her like a balm, thawing her bones and restoring her soul.
It was an uncomfortable place to sit and a worse place to sleep, but she didn’t care, she was warm, and nothing else mattered. Slowly, her chattering jaw unclenched, and slowly the shivering of her body subsided. Slowly, she came back to life.
Just before she drifted off to sleep she imagined a snow sprite peering in through the window, its whiskers quivering in surprise to see the queen of winter holding court in a frozen Oregon kitchen. The thought pleased her very much. I may look like an idiot, Mr. Sprite, but I won for a change. This time I won!
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The why of it:
1. The first line is the single most important one in the story, because you only get one chance at a first impression. I added this scene as a prologue to the novel, because the original first chapter, while it ends with excitement and what I think is a really good hook, began with: “Don’t forget the newspaper, Miss Hanover.” That’s hardly impressive enough to make you say, “I have to read more.” I also wanted the readers to know that Samantha is a stronger person than she appears to be in the following few chapters, so I inserted a prologue and began with a sensation that combines the cold most people have felt—cold that bites the cheeks—with the hair freezing in their nostrils, something most haven’t, to make them feel what she’s feeling. There was also a tiny hope that if they’ve never been out in –12 or lower, they would say, “Your nostril hair freezes? That’s gross… but interesting.”
2. I used this term, rather then something simple, like “passed” to take advantage of the connection between “deep in the night” and depth, as in the temperature being as low as it can get.
3. Everyone’s been there, at least so far as huddling under the covers. Again, I’m trying to draw the reader in via shared experience.
4. A simple line, but I rephrased it endlessly, trying to say it in an interesting way while giving a picture of the current—and past—situation, outside.
5. This paragraph both sets up for the shock of cold and gives tiny bit of backstory. Note that I framed it as information on the current situation, so the reader doesn’t realize they’re being fed a bit of backstory on what happened before they arrived.
6. I’ve coupled her actual thought with the meaning of that thought. It’s a part of my personal writing style, to show the thought and give its meaning, as if to herself. I can’t tell if it works, it just feels right to me. Others use different techniques, and there is no right or wrong way.
7. I placed her action before I filled in the details on the room so they could be her observations as she sat up. Note that doing it that way removes the need for the author to give the information or even put in “she observed,” etc. A little thing like “opened her eyes to near darkness,” tells us that Samantha noted darkness. Saying it as, “It was pitch black in the cabin when Samantha opened her eyes,” puts the author into the role of reporter rather then being a kind of translator.
8. Again, I use her action as a way to put in more of the scene-setting detail. The trick is that she now knows of what I described, and will react to it, which pulls me further from the picture. Even though I’m telling about the storm front, she’s the one seemingly observing it, so we’re inside her head, not mine. That matters.
9. Seemingly a straightforward action, but in reality a setup for disappointment. The next line is pure backstory, but I could see no way out of slipping it in, so I kept it as short and as related to her present condition as possible.
10. Adding in cause for her state of mind, here, and placing the reader there with her, as her hope has reason to ebb further. As a minor point, it’s bad form to start a story with only one actor on stage, for any length of time. Faced with the challenge of a single person on stage I created a second one—her enemy—the weather.
11. I’ve been there, too, as a scoutmaster to a troop waking up in a cabin in which the temperature was –12°f. The obvious solution is to hold the tank over the stove to warm it, but I wanted the reader to shout that to her, and realize that she was too cold to think straight. And if they didn’t think of the solution they see that she’s in trouble and say, “Oh shit,” along with her, so it still works. You need to be aware of the state of mind of your readers, both those who know less then you do about a given subject and those who know more.
12. The problem has been stated, and now we add in a deadline and penalty, to make it acute.
13. Strangely, I was painted into in a corner till she mentioned curling up in a frying pan. Samanta thought of the way out, not me—which is why you want to know your characters, and let the action flow from the way they would behave, not the way your plot seems to indicate.
14. A friend pointed out that she would tumble out of any chair that had no arms, so I mentioned arms on the chair to reflect that. You need readers to catch what you miss, and there will be a lot of that, because you see the scene in your mind, and know what’s supposed to happen. Unfortunately, what you typed may not be what you see.
15. My wife nearly killed me when I put a kitchen chair on our stove, to see if what I was having her do was possible. Pointing out that I’d put cardboard under the legs to keep from scratching the stove didn’t help much. I didn’t sit on the chair, though. A modern stove would support me but be damaged. An old time stove would handle the load easily. In any case, Samantha was past caring, at that point. Note that I didn’t dwell on the actual job of readying the chair because it has no importance to the story. It’s the result, a place to sit, that counts. I put in the aluminum foil business, though, because without it her blankets might burn—or at least some people might think so and would question that.
16. The pain was added because people who had been that cold complained that I didn’t mention it. And of course, it’s told from her point of view so you can feel her triumph.
17. This was added later, as a foreshadowing. The man is real, a neighbor, though she’s still too fogged with hypothermia to realize that.
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These articles are not
presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt
. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.