Stephanie’s Master’s Degree Adventures: Concrete Openings

For a couple weeks, my Master’s program was engaged in writing forums, where we post works-in-progress and give each other feedback. I got a lot of helpful feedback on a section of my fantasy novel (or novella, I’m still working on it so I’m not sure how long it will be yet), and I will share some of this advice with you at a later point. Today, I want to talk about a concept which the advisor leading the forum brought to our attention: concrete openings.

According to our advisor, “concrete openings” are when you open your work so that “the reader ‘sees’ a scene very quickly, and very clearly. So the reader ‘knows where they are.'” One of the examples he provided was from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: “1801 – I have just returned from a visit to my landlord – the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.”

Image retrieved from Amazon

As you can see, the opening of Wuthering Heights gives a the reader a feel for when this narrative begins (1801), where it takes place (somewhere scarcely populated but still with at least one house), and the atmosphere of the place (made clear by “solitary” and “troubled with”).

Of course, not all concrete openings are so direct in grounding the reader. Another example which our advisor provided is this little gem from Murphy by Samuel Beckett: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

While this quote does not directly give a time or place, it does give more round-about clues to the scene. The sun indicates a place that is sunny, and the fact that the sun has “no alternative” but to shine “on the nothing new” implies a more modern time closer to the publication (as one of my classmates pointed out) because that is when we start to see that nothing is truly new. This opening line does not give firm details about the setting but it still grounds readers in the atmosphere of the story, and thus can be considered a concrete opening.

Our advisor proposed an exercise to my forum in which we try and make the opening line to the work we submitted more “concrete.” Admittedly, I was not–and still am not–sure that making my opening line any more “concrete” than it already is would be in my novel’s best favor.

This exercise will probably be best when I finish the entire rough draft, but here’s my opening sentence: “It was mid-afternoon when they took us to meet the Queen.” As you can see, this opening sets the time in regards to time of day and establishes that this world involves some sort of monarchy. I also think that the brevity establishes a tense, no-nonsense, serious tone for the novel, but that aspect is rather subjective.

Concrete openings dip your readers into your story world immediately. Whether you’re writing fantasy/science fiction, romance, pedestrian fiction, or any other genre out there, immersing your readers in your story world quickly is very important for catching and keeping said readers’ attention. For some fiction, such as fantasy/science fiction and historical fiction, this immersion is imperative. Readers must understand and engage with the setting and atmosphere of the story from page one, or else they won’t want to bother with the rest of the book, or worse–they’ll be too confused to continue.

Now it’s your turn. Look at the opening line for your current work-in-progress. How does it compare to the concrete openings I provided above (and any others you can think of)? Does it help your readers to “see” the scene quickly? Or does it seem to stall? How can you make this opening line more “concrete?” Alternately, is there another line you’ve already written that would make for a better, more concrete opening?

When you’re done, feel free to share your thoughts on openings and your experience trying to make your opening line more concrete. Are concrete openings the best option for all stories, or are there times when non-concrete openings work better? Can you think of any works that do not begin with concrete openings? Drop a line in the comments below!


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Book Reviews: Era of the Beautiful Women by Valeria Johnson

Update 12/15/2017: Learn more about healthy living through the Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts for Valeria Johnson’s blog, Passionate Clouds.

Happy Friday, everyone! Sorry for my scarcity this week; it’s been another busy one for me and I’ve had migraine attacks and headaches off and on for days. I’m back—at least for today—and here to bring you a combination of a special announcement and a review. This time the announcement and review are for a self-help book crossed with an inspirational story. Today’s book is Era of the Beautiful Women by Valeria Johnson.

As the title might indicate, this book is for my female readers more than the males. In Era of the Beautiful Women, Johnson takes the reader on a journey to discover the true key to health, beauty, and, by extension, happiness. This key does not have to do with any of the artificial make-up, fad diets, or mounds upon mounds of products which the commercial and fashion worlds try to force on us. Instead, this key can be found in the natural and organic worlds.

Image retrieved from Amazon

Johnson utilizes the story of Samantha, a rising writer who has fallen into some bad habits, to illustrate tips for restoring your waistline, energy level, hair, and more. We start with Samantha’s moment of clarity, the moment when she realizes she isn’t happy with living off junk food and a sedentary lifestyle, while hanging out with her beautiful, healthy, and happily-married older sister. We follow Samantha through her attempts to become happier, from adapting a healthier diet to fulfilling her dream of living abroad. All the while, Samantha encounters “beautiful” women and health professionals who share their secrets with her, which Samantha gladly absorbs and applies to her daily life. These tips begin to add up until, finally, Samantha has become the sort of person who is not only healthy and beautiful but also someone she is proud of and happy to be.

I have always had a love/hate relationship with the issues of health and beauty. Standards for both issues are very unrealistic and, often, harmful when taken too far. Between body-shaming and the complete societal rejection of any minute imperfection, I am always wary of anything which promises the secret to beauty. However, Johnson doesn’t necessarily promise that. Instead, her book provides women with tips which will make them look better and feel better. Beauty, after all, is not just about how you look to others but about how you feel about yourself.

Johnson emphasizes this fact in Samantha’s story and I really appreciate how she does it. Namely, Johnson uses Samantha’s hair color to demonstrate that what “looks good” isn’t always the best thing for you. Everyone thinks Samantha looks gorgeous when she dyes her hair blonde. Over the years, though, her constant coloring, bleaching, and other assorted hair treatments causes her hair to become fragile, dry, and unhealthy in general. Although she eventually lands on being blonde again, Samantha cuts back on the artificial treatments of her hair, choosing to use natural treatments like honey to bring life back to her hair. She feels better when she stops trying to conform to societal standards of beauty (i.e. constantly dying her hair just to have some new look). That is what I appreciate most about Johnson’s book; it’s not about conforming to this or that societal standard but doing what makes you feel healthy, happy, and, yes, beautiful.

Johnson weaves her tips and tools for a healthier and more beautiful life throughout Samantha’s narrative and gradually shows how the changes are making Samantha feel better and more confident. This method requires the reader to pay closer attention to the story in order to get the information, but I don’t think that at all detracts from the experience. In fact, I think that it helps the information stick in the readers’ heads. Which would you remember better, someone telling you that you should eat more fruit to have more energy or a story about a woman seeing positive changes in her life because her new diet increases her energy level?

I think that female writers and editors in particular will appreciate Samantha’s story. She’s a rising writer and has worked some editing jobs. While she works on her projects, she snacks on junk food and does not move for hours. Who here hasn’t experienced that pitfall of the writing life? Era of the Beautiful Women offers alternatives to this vicious cycle which any writer can incorporate into their everyday lives, so long as they try.

Still, this book is not without its flaws. I noticed multiple proofreading and editing errors, including misplaced punctuation, awkward sentences, the occasional typo, and one instance of a character’s name being misspelled. As this book is meant to help readers improve their lives, I don’t think these errors take away from the main messages. The errors are easy enough for Johnson to fix, so I don’t think they’re a huge detraction from the quality of the book.

I also wish that the book were longer. At only 47 pages, I feel that Johnson did not include all the advice she has for readers and that we could have seen so much more of Samantha’s inspirational tale. The short length makes for a quick read but, as the advice is so valuable and Samantha’s tale so motivating, I feel that expanding the book would only make it better.

Overall, I recommend this book for any woman—especially female writers—looking to improve her energy level, outlook on life, and, yes, her appearance. Johnson’s simple, yet relatable and heart-touching, introduction pulls you in and you’ll want to continue right through the end to see if Samantha finally gets the joy and romance which she deserves—and, of course, get the tips and tools to find your own happiness and beauty. Johnson is even kind enough to include a link at the end of the book to blog which can help readers follow up on the organic, active life.

The best part is that the Kindle edition of Era of the Beautiful Women is currently free! This promotion started today (December 15th) and will continue through December 19th. Follow this Amazon link to snag it while you can.

Do you know of any books I should read? Want your work reviewed on this blog? E-mail me at or message me on Fiverr and we’ll see if we can arrange something.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Book Reviews: Implicit: Soul Invictus by Mark Tiro

Trigger Warning: The subject of today’s review, Implicit: Soul Invictus by Mark Tiro, contains detailed scenes of violence and sex. If you are triggered by such depictions or wish to otherwise avoid such subjects, proceed with caution.

As I promised a couple days ago, today I am reviewing Implicit: Soul Invictus by Mark Tiro. I found that I enjoyed this book very much, but I must warn readers that this book is not the ordinary fantasy/science fiction novel. It is very cerebral and requires a fair level of concentration to follow, so it’s not exactly a light read. Of course, I wouldn’t expect a fantasy book about reincarnation to be easy—if it were, I would probably be a bit disappointed.

Some souls travel together out love, others out of animosity, but always by the choice of the universe to convey crucial spiritual lessons. At least, that’s what Implicit: Soul Invictus would have you think.

Maya is a well-accomplished and respected law school teacher; before becoming a teacher, she was just as successful as in criminal law. That all comes crushing down when, one day, a student of high influence blackmails her: raise his grade or he’ll ruin her career. Being the honorable and stubborn woman that she is, Maya refuses, and her student proves good to his word. Her desperate attempt at revenge against him puts her in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that’s when her spirit’s journey truly begins.

Image retrieved from Amazon

In Implicit: Soul Invictus, the first book in The Spirit Invictus series, Mark Tiro takes readers on an adventure through Maya’s lives—past, present, and future—as her soul is taught the importance of love and forgiveness. Tiro guides readers through Ancient Rome, World War II Japan, into a future of political turmoil and a level of connection to the “network” that we can only dream of right now, and that’s just the beginning. But will Maya’s soul adapt the lessons the universe is teaching her? Or will she fail once more as she given a second chance?

I found genuine contentment and entertainment, as well as intellectual stimulation, while reading Tiro’s work. Tiro writes with such a passion that I repeatedly formed a connection with Maya’s soul, no matter what physical form it took, be it a Roman orator, an emotionally-struggling cyber-nerd thrown into a rebellion, or a stubborn ex-law professor hell-bent on justice. I could tell from the patterns in Maya’s lives what sort of things would happen in each life; this coupled with my emotional attachment to her soul and its well-being, no matter how egotistical or naïve she got, made for a very tense read for me. I dreaded any ill-fortune to befall her but I couldn’t put the book down, either. I had to know how each life turns out and, in the end, how her soul utilizes the lessons it has learned.

I was most intrigued by how, despite the very different circumstances each life presents, Tiro maintains Maya’s personality throughout each form she takes. The stubbornness, the arrogance, the slight naivety, and, of course, her kindness and capacity for love always show, and yet each incarnation has its own unique voice. I’m not sure how Tiro pulls it off, but he does.

Unfortunately, with all this passion comes proofreading errors. They aren’t anything extraordinary, only misplaced or missing commas, misspelled names, etc. Such mistakes are common in small-press and indie books but I was still a bit disappointed that I came across them as the writing is, overall, excellent. A little further proofreading/editing should fix these mistakes with no problem.

The book is divided into sections based on the life which Maya is living—or re-living—as well as a few chapters on what can be called the “in-between” stages, when Maya has died but has not yet been reborn or fully moved on to the afterlife. The transitions only jarred me once or twice, usually moving relatively smoothly from one life/death to the next with only a couple exceptions. Still, I can see how other readers might have a harder time with it. Thankfully, the division of the sections is done in a way in which Tiro makes it clear that the story has turned to another life, mainly by providing the name which Maya’s soul has during that time.

Tiro is also kind enough to provide a forward to the novel and a letter from the author at the end to aid the readers’ understanding of his work. For some, these notes won’t be necessary, especially if you read the summary on Amazon (or even the summary I provided above). Nevertheless, I found Tiro’s notes to be helpful in keeping me grounded in the story and also answered some historical questions I had by the time I finished reading the novel.

Overall, I recommend this book to fantasy lovers with a spiritual side and a basic understanding of reincarnation. Tiro packs each section/life, mini-stories into themselves, with emotion, action, and intrigue. The general themes of forgiveness, love, and learning from our mistakes are ones we can all adapt into our own lives, and I’m sure that the idea of the soul transcending lifetimes and a non-linear nature to existence will appeal to many of my readers. Don’t take this book on lightly. It’s long and requires your full attention to understand, but I doubt that will hinder any of you.

The Kindle copy of Implicit: Soul Invictus is currently for sale on Amazon for $2.99. You can also get an exclusive glimpse at All These Things: Maya Invictus, the second book in The Spirit Invictus series, at the end of the Kindle e-book. To learn more about the author, you can visit his website or check him out on Facebook.

Do you know of a book I should read? Want your work reviewed on this blog? E-mail me at or message me on Fiverr for more information.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Friday Fun-Day Writing Prompt: Your Past Lives

Happy Friday, everyone. The weekend is finally here, but there’s no rest for the weary. I have to do some reading and feedback for my Master’s program as well as finish a book review. Still, I’ve come up with a writing prompt to go along with Implicit: Soul Invictus: writing about your past lives.

I believe in reincarnation but I know that not all of my readers do. However, you can imagine what your past lives might have been like without thinking that they ever really happened. In fact, this exercise isn’t even about “real” past lives; instead, it’s a method of character development using your own quirks.

Many theories of reincarnation argue that past lives can explain some of our stranger behaviors and traits in this life, everything from memories that aren’t ours and knowing things that we should not know to likes and fears that seem, to put it mildly, weird. It’s this aspect of reincarnation that I would like you to focus on with this writing prompt.

Image retrieved from Zodiac

Using your quirks as a springboard, imagine what one of your past lives might have been like. Who were you? Which economic class did you belong to? Where did you live? What was your job? How did you die? Write a character bio for this past version of yourself and be as detailed as possible.

Here’s an (incredibly rough) example of how this process might go:

One of my most bizarre traits is that I have an extreme aversion to anyone standing behind me with a knife. Not like a butter knife or a plastic knife but something that is actually sharp. Now that I think about it, forks also fall under that aversion. It doesn’t matter if I trust the person more than I trust myself; I could trust them with my life and I still will feel uncomfortable if they stand behind me with a sharp knife or fork. I even get a tingling in the lower left part of my back when someone stands behind me with a knife or fork.

If those theories of reincarnation are correct, what happened in my past lives that made me develop this aversion? It’s so specific that it can’t just be random, so what could have happened?

I could write that someone stabbed me in a past life in that particular area of my back. Maybe I was a lady or lord in Medieval Europe betrayed by a servant or knight. Maybe I was the victim of a serial killer or I was involved in some sort of crime spree and betrayed by my partner. Hell, maybe I was Julius Caesar.

I would choose one of these routes to take and develop a “past life” character bio based on it. I could elaborate by pursuing my fascination with Russia or alchemy, or I could incorporate my obsession with Tarot cards. The possibilities are endless.

I’m sure you get the idea. After writing the character bio, try and use the character and this “past life” as the basis for a story. Maybe a parallel between your current life and your past lives? You could even just write some historic fiction with this “past life” character at the center. The only limits are your imagination.

How did this exercise turn out for you? Do you know of any writing prompts that could help your fellow writers with character development? Leave your thoughts in the comments below and/or e-mail your prompts to and I’ll make sure to use them in a future Friday Fun-Day post.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Special Announcement: Temporarily Discounted Book

Happy Thursday, everyone! I have a special announcement today regarding a book I am reading to review on this blog. It’s called Implicit: Soul Invictus by Mark Tiro and it is temporarily discounted until the end of today.

Implicit: Soul Invictus follows Maya as she hunts down the secret to the meaning of life and revenge. However, it doesn’t just tell her story as she goes from place to place or even throughout the years–this book takes the readers on a journey through the many lives that Maya’s soul has lived. Fans of reincarnation will love this book and won’t want to pass on the discounted price for the e-book, $0.99 on Amazon for today only.

Image retrieved from Amazon

Now, I don’t want to give away much about the book or my opinions on it ahead of the review, which will be coming out in a few days. Nevertheless, I can say that I am genuinely enjoying this novel. It’s gripping, exciting, and worth each of its 402 pages. I have a hard time putting it down to attend to my other responsibilities.

Normally, I would have waited until I was finished with the review before saying anything about this book, but I couldn’t pass up letting my readers know about the discounted price. I strongly suggest that fantasy/science fiction readers, as well as readers with a more spiritual side, consider taking advantage of this opportunity before time runs out.

To take advantage of this discounted book, follow this link to Amazon.

Keep an eye on this site the next few days in order to catch my review of Implicit: Soul Invictus.

Do you know of any good books that are currently discounted? Want to let other readers know about smell-press books that they cannot afford to miss? Drop a line in the comments below or e-mail me at and I will make sure to feature the book in a future post.

Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011