How A Great Idea becomes A Great Story: “Angel” Chapter 1

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your humble host

How do you make a neat idea into a great story?

You take the idea, get it out of your head and onto paper/into the computer,

and then you refine it until it sings with the clarity of a tuning fork,

going exactly where you want to go and nowhere else.

You play your audience like a piano and then just grab them and shake them. They are willing accomplices so put them on a roller coaster ride and have some fun.

Okay, enough hype. Yes, that’s what your goal is.

How do you DO it?

I already told you: get the idea out of your head and then you refine it until it sings.

Yeah, but how???

Write it. Let it sit. Reread it. Read it out loud. Be impatient with your pace and trim it. Let a trusted critique partner (or a dozen) read it. Listen to their notes. Discard the notes from anyone who’s a doofus and hone in on the ones who get it, and refine it some more. (For the very basic basics, look at THIS post about not using dialogue tags, adverbs, and a few other things; THIS post for writing better dialogue; and THIS post for eliminating crutch words.)

Here is the opening chapter of my unreleased manuscript An Angel On Her Shoulder, followed by its original opening chapter. Same chapter, after refinements. Open two windows and read them side by side and see what stayed, what got cut, and where we used more action-ey verbs to replace duller more boring ones. It’s a several step process but it works, and with practice it’ll work for you.

It’s 45+ lessons in about 45 days.

To view it best, bring up the two versions in different windows and view them side by side to see what was changed.

Then give me your thoughts in the comment section.

This is the opening chapter of a mind blowing story you are gonna freaking love.

Angel w Tagline
The original cover concept, done by a friend. (It’s not what we’ll be going with.)

It has memorable characters and things every reader can identify and connect with.

You will laugh and you will cry and you will feel your pulse raise and grip your chair with two hands as you read on to see what happens

because as my reader, I own you.

Not all of that is in this chapter, but it’s all in the story, and you are gonna want to read every bit of it.

Because you will never be a great writer until you set that as you goal. Don’t shoot for good. Shoot for a best seller. Decide to be great. Say it out loud. Own it, that goal. Hell, if you can’t write the goal, you probably can’t do it (I don’t think). So I’m saying it: This is a great story.

When you’ve finished reading this chapter, let me have your thoughts, good and bad, in the comments section below. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings. I know how good it is and that it isn’t for everyone. Your opinions are equally valid, and I thank you in advance for your candor. (By the way, we changed the names from the original version, so don’t get thrown: Michele, Dan, and Savvy are now Mallory, Doug, and Sophie. You can follow that, right?)

This month I’m gonna do this chapter by chapter for most if not all of the book, because I love you guys and want you to learn as I did.

Let’s get started.


An Angel On Her Shoulder, Chapter 1

“Call 911! CALL 911!

The man’s shouts ripped through the tasting room of scenic Hillside Winery. At the counter, Mallory lowered her brochures for 2017 vintages and glanced over her shoulder, unable to see who had shouted. The other customers, two dozen or so elderly tourists and a handful of locals, were looking around, too. Confusion on most of their faces, nobody moved or called 911.

The man’s voice rose, straining with fear and urgency as his words boomed down the hallway and spilled over them. “Somebody call 911! There’s been an accident in the parking lot!”

A robust fellow, gray at the temples but broad in the shoulder and belly, pushed away from the tasting counter and headed in the direction of shouts.

“Martin.” The woman next to him reached out for his arm. “Don’t. You’re not on duty.”

He didn’t break stride. “A cop is never off duty.”

Rejoining the others at the marble slab, his wife muttering to herself but for the benefit of anyone within earshot. “Retired ones are.”

Mallory set down her Virginia Wine Country pamphlets and smiled at the woman.

The officer’s wife sighed, having found a willing audience. “He just can’t relax. He’ll—”

“Jenny!” From the window, Martin wheeled around, his eyes wide. “Tell the bartender to call an ambulance. Now!” He lumbered toward the front doors at a pace slowed only by his age and size. “Tell them there’s an accident with severe injuries and we may need a medevac unit.”

In a wave, curious winery patrons moved from the counter to the windows, gathering close to view the parking lot as Martin rushed outside.

Mallory moved with the mob, checking around the tasting room as she did. No sign of her husband and daughter. She clutched the brochures to her chest, a tiny knot of fear gripping her belly.

Behind the bar, the server picked up a telephone. “Where’s Mr. Hill?” His finger hovered over the buttons as he directed his gaze at the closest employee, speaking with hushed urgency. “Avery—anybody know where Mr. Hill is?”

Carrying an unopened case of wine, Avery did his best to shrug.

“Okay . . . grab any other volunteer firefighters from the warehouse crew and get out to the front parking lot. See what’s going on.”

“Allright, Mike.” Setting down the white Hillside box, Avery scurried into the back room. “Jose! Ron!”

An uneasy feeling gripped Mallory. Her eyes darted around the room as she held her breath and searched for her family. She’d said goodbye to her husband and three-year-old daughter a moment ago, but how long had it really been? A few minutes? More?

Her stomach tightened as the wave of uneasiness swept through her. She recounted her conversation with Doug. He had gone to get their little girl something to eat from the car—their rental van—for lunch.

“We’ll have a little birthday picnic in the parking lot. Does that sound fun?” He flashed his amazing smile at their daughter. “It’s nice out. Maybe we’ll open the van doors, sit outside on the cooler, and watch a DVD.”

Mallory grinned as her daughter’s blonde ponytail brushed the collar of a new yellow dress. Hand in hand, her man and her baby strolled past the racks of t-shirts and souvenirs, then Mallory returned her attention to the tasting list.

A few moments later, a loud crash. The vibrations came right through the floor, but she and the other customers ignored it. In a bustling winery warehouse filled with forklifts and trucks and massive juice pumps, loud noises weren’t unusual.

But panicked shouting was.

Her heart in her throat, Mallory tried to press through the curious onlookers gathering at the windows. A quiet morning at a picturesque Virginia winery was turning into chaos. Straining on her tiptoes to see past the others, she caught a glimpse of the scene.

Enough to make the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.

A pickup truck with the Hillcrest logo on the door had somehow wrecked into several cars in the lot. Her car. The van she and Doug had rented for their vacation trip. The entire side was demolished, the windows shattered. Broken glass covered the pavement all around the vehicle.

Pulse racing, she grabbed the shoulder of the man in front of her, craning her neck to get a better glimpse. She couldn’t see her husband or daughter anywhere, but too many gawkers blocked her view through the small window. Outside, volunteers and arriving customers gathered in the lot, further obscuring her line of sight.

An audible groan escaped as she clutched her aching gut. Where were Doug and Sophie?

Outside, Avery reached the gathered onlookers and immediately turned white. He stepped back, almost losing his balance for a moment, then shouted at the windows. “Tell Mike we need an ambulance! Tell them to hurry!”

Inside, each customer moved forward to look past the others, jamming the space in front of the windows and blocking the hallway that lead to the front door. People trying to run outside to help ran into people trying to see. Everyone tried to get through the door at the same time, so no one did.

Mallory was pinned to the wall. The fear inside her was mounting to an uncontrollable level.

“How many people were hit?” She heard somebody asked.

“I can’t tell. A few.” Another voice replied.

A man near Mallory put his hand to his mouth, gasping. “My God, there’s a girl pinned under the van!”

His words ignited the surging panic inside Mallory. She heaved against the rotund man next to her. “Let me out!”

Wedging her arms and lowering her head, she forced her way out of the crushing mob and into the tasting room. Not stopping to catch her breath, she ran at the packed entryway, clawing her way through the crowd of curious onlookers.

An elderly woman came in the front door, wringing her hands, her mouth agape. “Oh, my God, I’ve never seen such a thing.” She shook her head. “That car hit her and she flew right up in the air!”

“That girl is going to die.” The man behind her muttered.

Surely they can’t be talking about my daughter.

“It just plowed right into them! It didn’t even slow down!”

The exit hallway was completely blocked. Mallory’s heart pounded. She looked around, frantic.

“I don’t know how anyone could survive that.”

Mallory tried to see out the hallway window. She strained, on tiptoe, looking over shoulders and between bobbing heads. She swallowed hard, trying to push down the panic welling inside her.

“Okay, I’ll go feed Sophie her lunch. You come out when you’re finished.” He turned to their daughter. “We’ll have a little birthday picnic in the parking lot. Does that sound fun?”

Mallory craned her neck to catch a glimpse of anything. Inside, too many people blocked her view. Outside, too many helpers crowded around the victims. There were tire marks showing the path the truck took, straight into her rental van and the car next to it.

Fear rose up in her throat. She tried to fight her way through the crowd to the door.

Where is my baby? Where’s Doug?

She clawed her way to the next window. It gave fewer answers. The volunteers had gathered around the victims. They had rolled someone over, but there were too many people in the way to see who it was. The others worked to get the girl out from under the van.

Her van.

Putting a hand on the wall to keep from falling, the elderly woman shook her head. “My God, the blood…”

A volunteer by the vehicle moved. Mallory caught a glimpse of the blood splattered clothing—a bright yellow dress—and a stream of blood running from it to the parking lot gutter.

She gasped in horror.

Panic and adrenaline took over. Mallory had to get down the hallway. She had to get outside. She shoved and punched at the onlookers, but everyone else seemed to be moving in slow motion. “Let me out! You’ve got to let me out!”

Shouts from the crowd obscured her cries.

“We need some towels for them! Get some towels!”

“Where’s that ambulance!?”

Tears streaming down her face, Mallory squeezed between the wall and the last customer in the hallway as she grasped for the door. “Please! I’ve got to get outside!”

She fell forward, latching onto the large iron door handle. She squeezed her eyes shut and took a deep breath, desperately whispering a prayer. “Please, God. Don’t let this be happening to my family.”

Please.


ORIGINAL An Angel On Her Shoulder , Chapter 1

“Call 911! CALL 911!” a man’s voice shouted.

“There’s been an accident in the parking lot! A car hit some people! There are injuries!”

The winery patrons moved in a wave to the windows and door. Michele moved with the curious crowd.

She had just said goodbye to her husband and two year old daughter. They had gone to get the little girl something to eat from the car – their rental van – for lunch.

“We’ll have a little picnic in the parking lot, on the side of our van,” he had said. “It’s nice out. Maybe we’ll open the van doors, sit outside on the cooler, and watch a DVD.”

Then a moment later, a horribly loud crash.

And then the shouting.

As Michele went to the packed window, she only caught a glimpse of the scene. A quiet morning at a picturesque winery was suddenly turning into chaos.

A worker’s truck had somehow wrecked into the cars parked in the lot.

Her car. Their rental van. The side was demolished, the windows shattered.

She couldn’t see her husband or daughter anywhere. There were too many people blocking the small window. Outside, volunteers gathered to help the victims, blocking them from view.

She grew tense. Where were they?

“We need an ambulance!” the man demanded. “Tell them to hurry!”

Half a dozen volunteer firemen happened to be in the winery’s tasting room. A moment ago they were customers. Now they were outside attending to injuries.

More customers bunched up around the two small windows. Each strained to look past the other, leering see what was happening outside. They jammed the hallway to the front door. People trying to help ran into people trying to see. Everyone tried to get through the door at the same time, so no one did.

Michele could not get through. She couldn’t see her daughter and husband anywhere. She started to worry.

“How many people were hit?” she heard somebody asked.

“I can’t tell. A few,” another voice replied.

“There’s a girl pinned under the van!” a man called out.

The words grabbed Michele. She began to furiously push her way to the door, desperate to find her family and make sure they were safe. Curious onlookers blocked her way.

“Oh my god, I’ve never seen such a thing,” a woman declared. “That car hit her and she flew right up in the air!”

“That girl is going to die,” a hushed voice said in disbelief. “That truck just hit her and knocked her right up into the air.”

Surely they can’t be talking about my daughter, Michele worried.

“It just plowed right into them! It didn’t even slow down!”

The exit hallway was completely blocked. Michele’s heart was pounding. She looked around, frantic.

“I don’t know how anyone could survive that.”

Michele tried to peer out the hallway window. She strained, on tiptoe, looking over shoulders and between bobbing heads. No one knew who had been hit by the car. She couldn’t see her family anywhere.

Panic began to flood over her.

“Okay, I’ll go feed Savvy her lunch. You come out when you’re finished. We’ll have a little picnic on the side of our van…”

 She craned her neck to catch a glimpse of anything. Inside, too many people blocked her view. Outside, too many helpers crowded around the victims. There were tire marks showing the path the truck took, straight into her rental van.

Fear rose up in her throat. She tried to fight her way through the crowd to the door.

Where is my baby? Where’s Dan?

 She was frantic.

 She clawed her way to the next window. It gave fewer answers. The volunteers had gathered around the victims. They had rolled someone over, but there were too many people in the way to see who it was. The others worked to get the girl out from under the van.

Her van.

Then a volunteer moved. Michele saw some of the blood splattered clothing. She saw the dress of the victim pinned under the van.

She gasped in horror. It was the same color as her daughter’s dress.

“My god, the blood…” a woman shrieked.

“We need some towels for them! Get some towels!”

Panic and adrenaline took over. Michele had to get down the hallway. She had to get outside. She violently wedged and pushed the onlookers. Everyone else seemed to be moving in slow motion… the slower they moved, the harder she pushed.

Tears in her eyes, she grasped for the door. As she reached it, she desperately whispered a prayer.

“Please God; don’t let this be happening to my family.”

Please spare my baby and my husband.

 Please…


ANALYSIS: Here’s what we changed – and WHY.

Okay, if you look at the two versions of chapter 1 side-by-side, you will see the original is more informational. It’s a story but it almost takes a “this is what happened” approach, like a newspaper. Blah. Don’t be newspapery. Version 1 does not quite have the dramatic and emotional punch that the final version does. We went through and added emotion into the final version, looking for ways to put the reader into the situation and have them be anxious and frustrated along with the character. That comes with word choice and creating relatable mini-scenes – places in the scene where we make the reader relate to what is happening with the character.

  • Who hasn’t lost track of a kid for a second at the grocery store, and it goes just a bit too long and you get that little twang of panic, but you don’t say anything because you don’t want to make a scene?
  • Who hasn’t been blocked from view when they need to see something?

You get the idea. It’s frustrating, so we need to feel that frustration in the character.

What you don’t see here is a middle version where I made the chapter a lot more detailed – but it got busy and slow and lost the urgency I wanted. (Hopefully the final version fixes that!) This was the opening chapter so it got we done several times, and it will start to lose any impact if I put every version up here.

But in these two versions you’ll see I’ve changed the verbs to be much more action oriented and more over-the-top than originally. You have to give a little more than a standard reaction. Your readers are expecting more than reality. They’re expecting a little drama. Give it to them.

  • she doesn’t push to the door, she squeezes herself between the wall and a customer.
  • she doesn’t reach for or grasp the door handle, she claws for it.
  • she doesn’t start to panic, she gasps and her eyes dart around the room

See? You can do that.

OK, so use more intense action words. But how do we know when to do it? Do we do it everywhere?

No.

What is the point of this scene? There are two goals, one larger than the other. Let’s take the smaller goal first.

Goal 1: To establish an innocent, normal family and have you like them/identify with them a little bit. How do I do that? A few niceties:

  • The dad holding hands with his daughter. That’s nice.
  • The dad suggesting a picnic with his little girl. Ladies love that. Really. A man who fawns over his daughter gets a big thumbs up from female readers, and since women buy 80% of books…
  • Some nice interaction between the parents. That’s about it. We quickly see these are nice folks.

Goal 2: The other goal – the main one – is to take the mother and step-by-step increase her inner tension up to the level of panic. So we’re not going to use those crazy intense words on everybody else. Just her.

  • We’re going to start out with not-so-intense verbs with her, and then
  • go to medium intense ones, and
  • by the time we’re done we’re going to have tears streaming down her face and have her clawing at the door and punching people.

And if we do it right, it won’t seem out of whack.

We’re not gonna do it with the cop or the cop’s wife. They’re not important enough and we don’t spend a lot of time with them anyway. And we’re not gonna do it with Mallory’s husband. He is basically a nice guy but nonchalant right now.  And the daughter almost doesn’t exist at all.

Except she’s THE reason the mom is going crazy is panicking. NOT knowing, that’s what does it. You don’t know if that sweet little girl is dying in the street – and neither does the mom.

And you want to find out, so you turn the page.

Figure out what your main point of having the scene is – and you should know – and then that’s what you emphasize. And you go out of your way to scale everything else back so only the important things are being emphasized.

Okay.

This version will get a few tweaks after it comes back from beta readers, but otherwise it’s the one I plan to launch the book with.

A few more thoughts.

Overwriting it: too much is too much. BORING!

In some of the upcoming chapters you will see tons of stuff that got taken out. This is intentional. I’m going to put it out there for you to see what I wrote and what I took out so that you can understand that side of the process, too, if you happen to be verbose. Like me.

Underwriting it: not enough = feels rushed and UN-ENGAGING

If you happen to write on the leaner side, you’ll notice where we fatten things up to add emotion would make a character more three-dimensional. We need to identify with these characters. Let us.

And sometimes you will see a chapter that… pretty much spills out and doesn’t change.

Those are nice.

Rare, but nice. We did other stuff, too, but I don’t wanna overwhelm you with too much on Day 1. We’re just starting and you may need to ramp up. Or possibly sleep off a hangover. Either way, there’s time.

Don’t be afraid of the process! Write it, let it sit, get some input, make it as tight as you can, and then move forward.

Now:

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your humble host

Good, bad and ugly, let me have your comments. I will get chapter two and three up as soon as I can, probably tomorrow, and they will ALL come down shortly after February 15, so don’t dawdle.

Because as writers, you are readers, too. Smart readers. So your thoughts and inputs are going to be important in shaping my final product.

Your love or lack thereof for this story will not impede our friendship at all, so be honest, and PLEASE share and reblog these as we go. Your friends need to know this stuff, too.

Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the amazingly great sci fi action thriller “The Navigators.” Click HERE to get your copy of The Navigators – $2.99 or FREE on Kindle Unlimited!

Available in paperback and audio book, too!

59 thoughts on “How A Great Idea becomes A Great Story: “Angel” Chapter 1

  1. The first version you presented here, the re-worked version, had me glued to each word as though I were part of the scene. I could hear the retired cop, I could see Mallory and I could sense the pending doom. In the second version, the original, I read it to be polite. There wasn’t really anything about it that hooked me as in the the first. Now, that being said, I believe it was because I knew there were two versions and the second did not seem to build sufficiently. I will say that had to flipped the way you presented them, I would still have loved Mallory’s story best. NOW I have to know what happened. (Blast you, Dan..)

    Liked by 1 person

    • And that illustrates the point, that when you get an idea you get it down on paper and you flesh it out, but it’s only when we really take the time and attack the action verbs and add the emotion and let it rest and then come back and look and see if it’s really delivering the tension, that it starts to make a great story.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      So I will see you tomorrow for the next chapter!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s an exciting start to your new book. I’ll just make a few suggestions of my impressions as I read through both drafts. The tension was good throughout the chapter and I think you created an adequate amount of action. When I read “marble slab” I immediately thought of a body at a mortuary or on an autopsy table. This could just be me being a nurse but it stuck in my mind as I read on. One other thought when Mallory is glancing around trying to find her family. Wouldn’t she panic right away when she didn’t see them immediately and rush to the nearest door to try and find them instead of smiling at the cop’s wife and moving to various windows? If she wasn’t privy to some of the action like people shouting and making comments and just came upon the scene from somewhere else, looked for her family, panicked and ran I think it would be more real. As soon as she heard accident in the parking lot and recalled that’s where her husband and daughter went I think she would start running to see what happened.
    Just my opinions!

    Like

    • Marble slab was just me trying to avoid saying “tasting counter” again. There are only so many ways to say that and only so many times I am willing to say tasting counter!

      When I first showed this story to my critique group, many had the same comment, that the wife takes too long to panic and get outside to the parking lot. I’m not sure what to do about that, because it’s already down to 1500 words, but maybe if I explained that she doesn’t want to overreact that will do it.

      Thanks for the input!

      See you tomorrow for chapter 2!

      Like

        • What’s funny is, when I wrote the phrase I was trying to think of what my in-laws countertops were made of. They are granite. And when I wrote marble slab, I had an image of an autopsy and a medical examiner. So… As always, great minds think a like!

          Like

  3. I agree with Annette, you might want to consider “granite” instead of marble. That phrase pulled me away for a minute and I had to think about what it was. It only took a second to click but still.
    Thanks for such an in-depth look at your process. Will reblog this series. Too good not to pass on to other readers.
    Oh, and I loved this bit of advice, “Your readers are expecting more than reality.” A very good reminder what our readers expect from a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. So not the point of this but this is why in first-aid training they tell you to “assign” tasks to people. Designate a person to call 911, because if you don’t, everyone will think someone else did it, when no one actually DOES.

    Love the story thus far.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dan, the two-window comparison of ms. versions clearly shows the effectiveness, and the mechanics, of your editorial method. Thanks for sharing your insights. Thinking out loud here, regarding the question about pacing the rise in drama and action from dawning realization to outright panic: might the opening line, “Call 911! CALL 911!” work against your attempts to build tension slowly from there? In my world, panic sets in then and there. I know you want to start with a powerful hook, but I wonder if it’s a case of too much too soon? With this in mind, I still found the story compelling and foreboding, so maybe it’s much ado…. Thanks again. Can’t wait to see how it turns out!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, it’s a hook and it might even be considered a cheap stunt by some, so we had to be SURE we delivered the tension and suspense right after that or it’d fall really flat and turn people off.

      The next chapters aren’t intense like that right away (they are, just not right away), but when the family finally arrives at the winery, everybody knows what’s about to happen and they STILL have to read on. That’s fun to do!

      Liked by 1 person

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