Tag: writing advice

Monday Writing Roundup-August 13

Monday Writing Roundup-August 13

Monday Writing Roundup. Links to five writing/publishing articles from the previous week that I have found helpful.

Beta readers: When to Ignore Them

Beta readers: When to Ignore Them

Having too many beta readers swamps the new writer with advice, and that isn’t always helpful. Don’t let beta feedback trap you in an endless editing loop. Learn to evaluate writing advice and take back control of your story.

Crafting your Inciting Incident NaNoWriMo day 5

Crafting your Inciting Incident NaNoWriMo day 5

Inciting incident: the point of no return

The first part of your book has been devoted to establishing normal, building your character’s world, introducing themes, and stakes. All the pieces are in place for your inciting incident.

And now doomCrafting your inciting incident

The inciting incident is the event that forces the main character to action. It is the one event that sets him on his path. Before this moment he could continue his normal life. Once the inciting incident happens, everything changes.

  • Prim is chosen for the Hunger Games
  • Gandalf invites Bilbo on a quest
  • Hagrid gives Harry a letter

The inciting incident changes something. While many inciting incidents throw your character’s world into chaos, the change does not have to be negative. Harry’s letter was probably the best thing to happen to the boy. But it did change his life. Once Harry knew who he was, his life had been altered permanently.

An inciting incident:

  1. Forces the characters to act
  2. It is the point of no return

An effective inciting incident:

Must be the results of the setup

This is the moment you’ve been building toward. (I’m looking at you pantsers.) Otherwise, it won’t make sense, and readers will feel duped. Imagine if Prim had been chosen for a beauty contest? The opening chapters in the Hunger Games established Katniss as a skilled hunter and demonstrated her need to protect Prim. None of that would have been pertinent if Prim had been chosen for a pageant.

Can’t have an easy solution

crafting your inciting incidentHow many times have you been turned off by a book or movie where for some inexplicable reason the main character responded to a crisis with the dumbest, most complex response imaginable. Your character doesn’t need to helicopter jump to the top floor of a building when it has a perfectly good elevator.

Must be logical

This means if you want your teen to knowingly date an assassin, you need to craft your set-up so that it’s believable. Just like the Hunger Games example above, the inciting incident is the event that changes the world (normal life) you have just established for your character. It can’t be random. It must challenge the status quo.

Must be personal to the main character

Katniss volunteered because Prim was her sister. Harry wanted an escape from his miserable life. The inciting incident can’t be something that happens far away. It must happen to the character, and it must threaten him personally.

Reflects the stakes already established

As you are establishing your character’s world, you will show the reader what your character holds dear, the thing he doesn’t want to lose. Make sure your inciting incident threatens that thing. In Inside Out, Joy believes making Reily perpetually happy is her personal mission, but Sadness’s actions threaten the status quo, forcing Joy to act.

Everything in your opening chapters leads to this moment

Inciting incident is the moment everything changes for your main character. It is the result of your set up, the carefully crafted event that sends your hero on his path. Make sure yours is up to the task.

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Scene Planning Worksheet

Scene Planning Worksheet

Scene planning worksheets will give you a simple framework to brainstorm your ideas so you will be ready when you actually have time to write.

How to avoid info dumping in dialogue

How to avoid info dumping in dialogue

Trying to sneak backstory into your dialogue rarely works. Fortunately, there is a better way

Most Common First Page Mistakes

Most Common First Page Mistakes

These common mistakes will ruin your first page

The first page is the most important page in your novel. It is the first impression a reader (and therefore an agent/editor) will get. A potential reader will judge your entire book based on the content in these few paragraphs. Getting it wrong could mean no one will ever read your book. No matter how many opening pages I read, many fail because they contain the same common mistakes. Don’t let these mistakes ruin your opening page.

Mistake 1. Doesn’t start the story.

This may seem like an idiotic statement, but I’ve seen it too often to ignore it. Too many writers use their opening pages to do everything but get the plot started. Make sure your character has a goal and a plan to achieve that goal right on page 1.

How do we start the story?

Identify your story’s inciting incident. (Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place.) Now work backward. Map out the specific list of events that leads your character to that moment. In this case, we see Katniss in her daily struggle to feed her family. The entire purpose of the exposition is to show how Katniss feels responsible for Prim, and she is willing to risk her life for her sister.

How far back should I go?

Only go back as far as the reader needs to understand the inciting incident. For some stories that might only be a few minutes. In the case of the Hunger Games, Collins only went back to the morning of the Reaping. Why? Because this was the only day that was different. Going back further wouldn’t add anything to the story.

Mistake 2. No conflict

Many writers fall into this trap because most novels begin before the main character’s world falls apart. This is called establishing normal. But just because the explosions haven’t started yet doesn’t mean that everything in the character’s world is perfect. Find a conflict for the character in their normal life and use that to show characterization. Characters must have a problem on page 1.

Before I elaborate on this question, I need to distinguish between conflict (a problem a character faces in a story) and Conflict (the main obstacle in a novel.)

Does the story’s main Conflict need to appear on page 1?


There can be hints. It can be in the background or foreshadowed. All these are fine, but it is not necessary to have the story’s main Conflict appear on page 1. While some stories can begin this way, there are plenty of novels where tripping over the villain on the first page simply wouldn’t work.


Rules for conflict on page 1

writing mistakes to avoid on opening pages


Yes! There must be a conflict on page 1. Some people will say from the opening line, but I give writers till the end of the first paragraph, (assuming the first three sentences work together as a whole.)

This conflict must be:

  1. Relatable
  2. Immediate
  3. Compelling
  4. Part of the character’s journey


Your readers must be able to understand the problem without any explanation. If you’re not sure, consult Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. No matter what your setting is, people will understand conflicts from this list: hunger, shelter, safety, group identity, etc. If a reader can’t understand a conflict, she cannot empathize with the character.


The conflict must be right in front of the character. Your character can’t be sitting in a coffee shop thinking about her problem. It needs to be right there in the same room with her. She needs to be actively struggling against it. If you find your character sitting and thinking about the problem that happened last week, switch to that scene and show that event.


Writing a compelling conflict is nothing more than presenting the first two points in an interesting way. If you’ve succeeded in the first two points, the reader will naturally want to know if the character overcomes the obstacle. Even the most mundane conflicts can become interesting if the character is sympathetic. We make the character sympathetic by showing the character struggle.

Now improve the conflict by adding the consequences of failure.

All conflicts must have stakes (consequences for failure). Pay attention to the balance between the two. Stakes that are too extreme or not strong enough are not compelling. Again, make sure the stakes are clear and relatable to the audience.

Part of the character’s journey

Whatever the conflict is on the first page, it must be the first stepping stone on the character’s journey. The consequences of whatever choices the character makes on the first page need to lead into the next conflict.

This is called “Yes, but or no, and” style plotting. If you use another plotting method, you can use this as a test to make sure all your elements tie together.

How it works:

At the end of a scene (or scene/sequel unit) ask: Was the conflict solved?

Answer the question:

Yes, but…The solution caused another problem


No, and…this is how things got worse.

Using this simple device will help you make sure your conflict chain remains unbroken through the entire novel.

Mistake 3. The main character does nothing

She’s sitting in a coffee shop, her room, class, kitchen table (doesn’t matter) thinking about something/someone else. Characters who do nothing on the first page rarely engage readers. This goes back to conflict. If everyone else in your character’s life is talking about their problems and what they plan to do about them, then maybe the scene isn’t really about your main character?

Use the multiple-POV checklist to make sure your viewpoint character has agency or has the highest stakes.

  1. who has the most at stake?
  2. who has the most ability to affect change (agency) in the scene?
  3. whose experience has the most emotional impact?

The answer to these three questions may not be the same character, so choose the one which will create the most impact on the reader. If you find a secondary character eclipsing your main character, you will need to do some rewriting to raise the main character’s personal stakes in the scene.

If the main character doesn’t pass this test, then the opening scene does not start her story. Either you are starting the story in the wrong place, or another character should be your main character.

But what if the secondary character’s actions are the cause for the main character’s story?

Main characters who lack agency in the opening scenes can be difficult. In this instance, keep the focus on the emotional impact the events are having on your main character and how these events affect the main character. Create a sense of doom in him, or a rising sense of duty, or an everlasting shame that he stood by and watched, for example. Often in first drafts, writers will simply have the main character watch the scene unfold without participating, leaving the reader with a “watching TV experience” rather than a fully immersive one. While an eaves-dropping scene may be impossible to eliminate in a single POV book, having one on the first page will confuse and create distance for the reader. Keep the main character in the middle of the action.

Mistake 4. Info dump

The first page is not the place to describe your complex social, magical, or political system. Cut all info-dumping from your first page. If the scene makes sense without it, you don’t need it. If it doesn’t make sense, add back only the information the reader needs.

Make it better by having the characters use the information, rather than explaining it.

I rechecked the power crystals in my disruptor gun, not that I could hear their soft humming over the transport’s quad engines.

Mistake 5. Setting dump

Just as with the info dump, the setting dump also needs to be avoided. A short exposition is plenty to ground your readers in a setting. There’s no need to describe the entire coffee shop and all its inhabitants. Continue to build setting through the scene by having the characters interact with that setting.

Mistake 6. Backstory dump

No backstory on page one. Can you hint at it? sure. Show its effects on your character? absolutely. Can you spell it all out in two paragraphs? No.

Not only is that boring to a reader who is not yet invested in a character, it also ruins any intrigue by answering all the potential questions raised by the character’s actions.

One of the most important aspects of hooking readers is posing questions. If you give readers all the answers, there is no reason for them to continue. Don’t show your hand. Just like you wouldn’t spill your deepest, darkest life secrets to someone you just met, don’t show the reader all your character’s ugly places. Give the reader a chance to make a connection over a more relatable conflict, and then once the reader is invested she will want to know all your characters secrets.

Mistake 7. Too many characters

The first page is not the place to introduce your entire cast. It is also not the place for a character to think at length about people who are not in the room him.

If I’m late again Mr. Miller is gonna put me in detention for the rest of my life.

Here mentioning Mr. Miller is fine since the character is relevant to the MC’s current conflict, and there’s no additional information given. From the context, we learn enough about Mr. Miller (he’s the homeroom teacher) to understand his importance. This example keeps the focus on the main character and his current conflict.

Now consider:

If I’m late again, I’m screwed. Mr. Miller used to be cool, but ever since he lost his wife last year he’s been the worst teacher at Los Cabos high. The man needs some serious therapy, but instead, he just focuses his rage on making us miserable. He’s probably gonna put me in detention for the rest of my life.

The second example is less effective. Because we don’t have a connection with Mr. Miller, his personal tragedy doesn’t interest us. It also takes the focus away from our main character, which is a problem on the opening page when the reader is looking to engage.

Save Mr. Miller’s backstory for another part of the novel where it will have more impact.

The first page is the most important page in your story

The first page is the introduction to your entire novel. It is the gateway that will either hook a reader or turn them away. By avoiding these common mistakes, you can create an effective opening that will draw readers in and get them to turn the page.

Further reading

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Bad Writing Advice you should ignore

Bad Writing Advice you should ignore

While most writing bloggers have good intentions, some are unwittingly giving out incorrect or incomplete advice.

Plot: the unbreakable chain

Plot: the unbreakable chain

For a plot to work, it has to be a sequence of related events set up like dominos

Pitching Mistakes to Fix Right Now

Pitching Mistakes to Fix Right Now

Taking your pitch to the next level

Creating a sales pitch for your novel is difficult. It’s a completely different type of writing, closer to writing copy for a sales brochure or a catalog. A pitch must portray two things: this is my product and here’s why it’s awesome. For the novel writer, this doesn’t always come naturally. We are used to having huge space to paint a complete picture, but a pitch must distil that entire scene into one easy to repeat line.

Last week I watched the #pitmad feed, searching for friends, former clients, and to study trends in the current pitching world. I noticed a few problems that kept creeping up.

Pitch is too generic:

Making your pitch stand out in a sea of submissions takes more than plugging words into a formula. You must find your manuscript’s “it” factor and make that your point of sale. Otherwise, and agent/editor will never see the element that makes your story special.

I noticed many of them still used the basic formula:

_______ must do ________ or _________

It’s a great starting point for anyone trying to craft a Twitter pitch or a query hook, But it’s only a starting point.


Tainted by her ancestor’s evil magic, 17yo____must overcome her heritage and betray her family before her friends become their next victims

The results are ok, but the real problem is that this exact pitch would work for two of the manuscripts I shredded last week. The plot line: girl must choose between family or friends isn’t unique enough to stand on its own. That doesn’t mean that there is anything wrong with these manuscripts having the same plot. The reality is many books have the same plot. (And if you believe Christopher Booker, there are only seven basic possibilities.)

While their queries made them sound like nearly the same, these were two very distinct novels. One was a Wonderland scenario with grandma as the Queen of Hearts, and the other had a darker Sarah J. Mass feel to it, but from the pitch above they would have been indistinguishable.

This is where voice and specific details will carry your pitch. When these two authors pitch their novels they need to focus on the details that make their novel unique. The Wonderland novel could focus on the awkwardness of having the same person who just sent you a batch of Christmas cookies also has your bestie in a cage under the floor. The evil she has to betray is very immediate. She might have memories good memories of grandma. It’s harder to turn your back on someone who raised you. Another difference between the two was in the nature of the evil. In the first, the MC begins as a good character and the evil part of her tries to assert itself. In the second novel, the evil blood has already completely taken over the character and she must make a transformation to good. Using these specific details will make their novels sound unique.

Pitch is too specific

On the opposite side, pitches that had details, i.e. creatures, settings, etc. that were unique to that story and weren’t properly explained also didn’t work.

A good rule: if a person off the street won’t know what _____ is, don’t use it in your pitch.

I see this in queries constantly. I don’t need to know the name of the fairytale kingdom. I want to know that it’s ruled by an evil queen. I don’t need to know the name of your monster. I want to know that it regenerates by absorbing sunlight.

Don’t leave an editor/agent guessing what a Naruta is. The mystery is frustrating, not intriguing.

Commonly known creatures like vampires or werewolves don’t need explanation, so feel free to use these. There is a gray area. Most people will know who Zeus is, but they might not know Baldr. Don’t assume. If you aren’t sure if yours works or not, get a fellow writer who isn’t familiar with your story to read your pitch.

The logic doesn’t flow

I see this one when people try to plug in words into a formula.


17yo Bill learns he has alien blood when he trips in a banana field.

Wait, what?

In the author’s mind, she sees the connection because she knows Bill tripped and fell on a machete causing a serious injury, and when he went to the hospital they tested his blood for the transfusion and discovered he was part alien.

But to anyone else the connection isn’t clear. From the pitch, we know that ‘learning he had alien blood’ is the important discovery, but rather than tell us how he discovered this, tell us why it’s important.


When 17yo Bill discovers he has alien blood, it has dire implications for his work as a human supremacist.

The editor/agent will assume you will explain how Bill made this discovery. What she needs to know is why this discovery changes everything for Bill.

If the connection between the two parts of your pitch isn’t clear, your pitch won’t work. Make sure we know why the instigating incident makes a difference in your MC’s life.

Pitching your work is one of the most difficult aspects of being a writer. Many of the queries that cross my desk show one, or all of these three problems. Avoiding these common mistakes will help put you and your story ahead of the pack.

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