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

Post-NaNoWriMo Publishing Checklist

So, it’s been a week since the end of NaNoWriMo and participants have gotten a chance to step away from their writing and clear their minds. Many of them are now considering publication. But how will they achieve this goal? You can’t just go from NaNoWriMo to published without a few additional steps. That’s why I want to dedicate a post to a post-NaNoWriMo publishing checklist.

  1. Rewrite

Odds are your NaNoWriMo draft is very rough (that’s the kindest term I use for my own first drafts). After all, NaNoWriMo is all about volume, not quality. That’s why, before you even try publishing your NaNoWriMo book, you first need to revise and rewrite your manuscript. Hopefully you’ve had some time to recover since the event ended, so you can come back to your manuscript with a fresh eye and see what is and is not working. If you can’t read it objectively or you want a second pair of eyes to look it over, seek out a beta reader.

Your initial batch of beta readers can be friends and family. However, the closer you get to a polished manuscript, you’ll want more impartial beta readers (i.e. people who don’t already have some sort of acquaintanceship/relationship with you). That’s where paid beta readers come in. It can be pricey but it’s worth it to have a publishable manuscript. For those on more of a budget, there are plenty of beta readers available on Fiverr and similar websites.

If you deal with a minority or other underrepresented group which you are not a part of, you may want to hire a sensitivity reader as well to make sure that your manuscript is plausible and factually sound. You should also find specialized beta readers for other topics you’re not an expert in, such as surgeries if you’re writing a medical drama, the legal system if you’re writing a crime thriller, etc.

For more help with post-NaNoWriMo revisions, be sure to check out this podcast.

2. Edit/Proofread

This point sounds similar to rewriting but it is slightly different. Rewriting is getting your manuscript to the point that you feel you have a story people would read. Editing and proofreading ensure that the writing behind the story is polished. Rewriting involves closing plot holes and checking consistency; editing and proofreading strengthen the writing and eliminate spelling and grammatical errors.

As with rewriting, you’ll want to recruit friends and family to help with editing and proofreading at first but, as you get closer to your final copy, you will need to recruit outside help. Editors and proofreaders do not come any cheaper than beta readers but, as with beta readers, you can find plenty of affordable options on Fiverr.

3. Writing a Blurb

Whether you’re self-publishing or going down a more traditional route, you will want to write a short blurb describing your manuscript. Writing a blurb will help prepare you for pitching your book to publishers (you might even be able to use your blurb within the pitch), and you need a blurb for the back of your book if you’re self-publishing. As with the other items on this checklist, you can always hire someone from places like Fiverr to help you write this blurb and/or your pitch (beware of scammers). Keep in mind that no one knows your book better than you do, so it’s best to write your own blurb and/or pitch and then recruit someone to help you edit and proofread it before use.

4. Cover Design

For those who want to pursue tradition publication, you won’t need this step as the publisher will help handle this. However, if you are publishing your manuscript yourself, you will want to give this step special attention. We say don’t judge a book by its cover but let’s face it, everyone does. If a cover is unappealing or does not accurately represent the content, people won’t read your book. You could find someone you know who’s a good artist to create something for you. However, it’s always best to have a professional artist/graphic designer help you.

Again, it’s not going to be cheap but it’s crucial to a successful self-published book. You can hire someone from Fiverr, even going to Fiverr Pro if you don’t trust that the Fiverr sellers are professional (visit this page for more information on Fiverr Pro). For the best results, you’ll want to visit websites and online communities for writers and check out the cover designers that they recommend. People in these communities have already gone through the struggle of publishing; let them share their wisdom with you.

None of this is easy and it will take a lot of time to accomplish. It’s worth the time, effort, and money to create a professional, polished product. If you do the work ahead of time, it will save a lot of wasted time and effort from publishing before your manuscript is truly ready.

Have any tips for novice writers looking to be published? Any thoughts on self-publication or continuing after NaNoWriMo? Drop a line in the comments below or e-mail me at and your wisdom might be featured in a future post.

Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Sensitivity Readers: Useful Fact-Checking or Restrictive Censorship?

Today I got the latest edition of Writer’s Digest. As I was perusing and generally avoiding working on my critical response due next week, I came across an interesting article about a publishing trend which involves hiring “sensitivity readers.” Needless to say, I was intrigued to learn more.

What are sensitivity readers? Mandy Howard, who wrote the article published in Writer’s Digest, was kind enough to provide a definition from Writing in the Margins, an online database of sensitivity readers: sensitivity reading is editing for “issues of representation and for instances of bias on the page” (Writer’s Digest, January 2018, p. 8).

With this definition in mind, I’m going to turn to an aspect of the article which, admittedly, bewildered me. Namely, a passionate debate about the role/appropriateness of these specialized beta readers has be sparked with #diversity, #thoughtpolice, and #ownvoices.

The debate really shouldn’t surprise me. After all, everyone has a different opinion on everything. (I dare you to ask the question “Is The Nightmare Before Christmas a Halloween movie or a Christmas movie?” in my household. You will get three distinct, passionate, and articulately-argued answers.) Still, my personal view of the matter made the debate seem unnecessary to me.

Here are the three sides of the argument:

  1. #diversity: These are the readers and writers who support people at all stages of the manuscript’s development hiring sensitivity readers. Their argument is that it is just another kind of fact-checking. After all, if you are writing from a perspective which is not your own, you are most likely to get something wrong. Don’t want egg on your face because you misidentify a Muslim woman’s garment, right? And what if you inaccurately described how a deaf student interacts with his professor? Nobody’s perfect. If we’re going to include diversity in our works, we have to make sure that we do it right.
  2. #thoughtpolice: These critics of the concept believe that sensitivity readers suppress creativity and expression. Howard points out that ptheir argument often falls back on the claim that classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin would not have been written the way they were under such insistence on political correctness because they portray these groups so negatively. One Washington Post letter to the editor which Howard references even compares sensitivity readers to censors.
  3. #ownvoices: This hashtag arises from more critics of this concept, but they don’t criticize it for nearly the same reason as #thoughtpolice. Their problem doesn’t seem to be with using sensitivity readers. Rather, they argue that people from these diverse groups need to write themselves. Shouldn’t we have books about African Americans written by African Americans? Books with transgender characters by transgender authors? How about books about Jews by Jews, or books about autistic characters by autistic writers? We need more diversity in our writers as well as our characters.

You have probably already guessed my position on the matter. I side most with #diversity and #ownvoices.

I think that sensitivity readers, like other beta readers and editors, serve as tools for revision and refinement. More importantly, they’re a research source. Just like you would search the Web, scour the archives, and interview experts (including those with first-hand experience), you can gain invaluable information about a different perspective from your sensitivity readers. Nothing enriches writing more than genuine human experience.

In regards to #ownvoices, I agree. We need more writers from diverse backgrounds. I’d much rather read about a perspective when written by someone with that perspective. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we shouldn’t write from different perspectives. We need to have both in order to represent realistically-diverse worlds in our stories. Sensitivity readers will ensure that we accurately portray perspectives which aren’t our own, and utilizing this resource is a step in the right direction.

For more articles from Writer’s Digest, be sure to visit You can also visit Mandy Howard’s website for more of her work and find your own sensitivity reader on Writing in the Margins.

What do you think about sensitivity readers? Are they fact-checkers or censors? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, but please remain civil. We welcome all view points so long as they are expressed respectfully.

To Outline or Not to Outline

I recently finished reading a book called Book Blueprint by Jacqui Pretty (the review will, hopefully, be appearing on in the next few weeks, barring any unforeseen circumstances). It’s about planning and writing a book as an entrepreneur to promote your business. It got me thinking about something which is useful in fiction, nonfiction, and academic writing, and I think it’s something which NaNoWriMo participates can benefit from: creating an outline.

At one point or another, you were probably made to create an outline for an essay in primary school (I was in high school). It might have helped you write a better essay, or it might have been a big waste of time for you. Not everyone thinks in a way which makes outlining useful. Still, you might want to consider returning to the method as a professional writer, no matter how novice or advanced your career may be.

An outline can organize your thoughts when they are otherwise jumbled. Many problems of inspiration can be alleviated by creating a sketch of what you want to write ahead of time. It won’t completely solve the issue of writer’s block and lack of inspiration, but having your original ideas to refer to can help.

In fiction, pre-planning could ease the burden of the “sagging middle.” If you outline your story or novel ahead of time, you can get a rough idea of how to transition from one scene to another. When you get stuck (aren’t sure of how to proceed, forgot a character’s name, etc.), you can return to your outline for an extra boost of inspiration, if nothing else.

The Freytag Pyramid is a well-known, perhaps infamous, way to plan fiction.

With nonfiction and academic writing, an outline is almost a necessity. You have to know what you’re going to write about, how to transition from one argument/event/whatever to another, and the point you’re making with this piece. Planning all this out beforehand will save you a lot of head-banging and pen-clicking later.

Of course, outlines aren’t for everyone. Fiction writers in particular have a hard time with planning their work. Some writers find that outlines stimulate their imaginations and keep their thoughts straight. Others, however, find planning rigid and constrictive, thus stunting their inspiration and blocking the creative flow. Outlines are incredibly useful in nonfiction and academic writing, but in fiction writing there’s a 50/50 chance that outlining will also slow down the process.

As with all writing advice, you have to personalize your approach to planning and outlines. One time it may work for you and the next it’ll derail your project. If you’re writing an essay or memoir, you’ll most likely want to use an outline. Writing a novel? Probably but no guarantee, although pre-planning will make NaNoWriMo go much more smoothly. A short story? Maybe not. You have to take it all in stride. Eventually you’ll learn what works best for you when.

Until then, an outline might be worth a try. Worst-case scenario: you have the bare-bones for a story that you can follow very loosely, like guidelines.

What’s been your experience with planning your pieces? Do you use an outline or do you prefer to jump right in? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011

Show or Tell: How Should Writers Approach Description?

Good day, readers and writers. Sorry it’s been so long since my last post; a lot has been going on at my house. I’ve had work, school, cleaning, making connections, and a little bit of writing here and there. I’m still going to be a bit scarce since I’m getting ready for my trip next week, but today I can at least provide you some wisdom on a writing cliché: show, don’t tell.

Last week I hosted my Master’s program discussion on Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. One of the many aspects of Wilder’s writing we covered was his tendency to “tell” rather than to “show.” Of course, I had to mention the age-old advice for writer to “show, not tell.” As usual, my classmates and I had a lively discussion on regarding the subject but, overall, we agreed that Wilder’s style did not harm his work and that this writing cliché is just that, a cliché which does not always apply.

Image retrieved from Amazon

The logic behind this worn-out advice is rather sound: if you are more descriptive in your writing, you’re likely to paint a clear image for your reader and keep his/her attention. In a perfect world, more description would be better. However, we don’t live in a perfect world and, often, more description leads to too much description.

If we aren’t careful, we can overwhelm our readers with the amount of descriptive language we used and, perhaps, even bore them. I’ll skim through even the most beautiful depiction of a stately mansion if it runs on for more than a few sentences. Sometimes we need immense amounts of description, such as when we’re being introduced to a new landscape in a foreign world while reading speculative fiction. Other times, such as when the writer brings the reader fleetingly into a common house that isn’t important to the story as a whole, less is more.

Telling also has its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, telling doesn’t aid the reader’s imagination as well as showing does. Too much telling can also be as boring as too much boring. After all, we want to be able to imagine the setting and characters for ourselves, and just saying “the desert landscape” or “the brown-eyed girl” doesn’t often cut it.

Image retrieved from LDS Beta Reader

Nevertheless, telling can also create a mood which showing cannot. When we “tell” rather than “show,” we can induce the feeling of oral tales such as fairy tales and fables. That’s one of the effects that telling has on Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, which enhances the book’s other fable-like elements such as the moral and simplistic characters. Telling is also a good way to skim over unimportant details in a story that are still needed for the story to not seem contrived or illogical. For example, you can tell the reader that a character drove from point A to point B without showing any unnecessary details, such as a traffic jam or debris on the side of the road.

“Show, don’t tell” isn’t even a matter of balancing the two concepts. Some stories require a lot of showing and little telling, others need a lot of telling and little showing, and still others should fall somewhere in between. There is no cookie-cutter solution. Rather, you have to take description on a case-by-case basis, changing your approach depending on what feels right for the story you are trying to write.

What’s your take on “show, don’t tell”? Is it solid advice, entirely wrong, or flawed? Do you show more than tell, vice versa, or somewhere in between? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.


Designed by Stephanie Hoogstad circa 2011