Nailing that opening

The monster perches on our shoulders, demanding that the opening of our story has to grab the reader. “You’re not Stephen King,” it howls. “He can meander around a bit because everyone knows it’s going to eventually get good. You’re no one! You have to pull them in early!”

This pressure often makes new writers believe this means the story has to start with an exciting fight scene or an explosion or something.

Not true.  the-writer2

As an editor, I’ve received many stories that fail on their first page. But the ones that are accepted almost always have four elements that establish the story early on. (I say “almost always” because, as has been pointed out many times, for every writing “rule” there is a very talented and experienced writer that has broken it. If you are reading this blog, it is unlikely that you fall into that category.)

To grab the reader early on, you need:

The scene. The idea is to get an image into your reader’s head. Does this story take place in the present? The past? On a space ship, in a living room, in the desert, on the moon? You don’t have to give everything away, and saying “London, 1856” is a cheat, so instead, describe the clicking of heels on a cobblestone street, the gaslight lamps, the fog rolling in from the river… Remember to use all of the senses, describing smells and sounds, temperature and weather.

But don’t go into great detail. No one wants too much detail. A single sentence can do this. All you want to do is set a basic picture.

The character. Ideally, this should be your main character, since it’s their story you’re telling. We need someone to identify with. Once more, we don’t need a huge amount of detail, but enough so we know the basics. Unless there is a reason to hide the fact, we should know if this is a male or female, young or old, and perhaps even what their emotions are at the moment. Maybe it’s a woman walking those cobblestone streets, anxious and nervous…

An action. Something has to be happening, and it should be something that captures our interest. Too many stories start with a scene and a character and the action is waking up and making coffee. Boring! That’s not where the story begins. What is the action that starts the actual plot? Once more, we don’t need an explosion. The action can be simple. Perhaps she bumps into a man who drops a piece of paper…

A question. This is key. As I’ve said before, every story is a mystery. There should be something on every page to make people want to keep reading. There needs to be a question that can only be answered by continuing to read. That’s the hook. Maybe she reads the paper the man dropped, and it has an address and a strange message written in code. She suddenly gets excited and calls for a hansom cab…

Now go and grab any random book off the shelf and see for yourself if all four of these elements can be found on the first page. If you want your book to be on someone else’s shelf, then perhaps you should do the same.

Release the Virgins!

It was a dark and stormy night at the Balticon science fiction convention in May of 2016. Most everyone had gone to bed, but a number of writers, editors and publishers were doing what writers, editors and publishers do at conventions in the early hours: hanging out at the bar.

During the conversation, the phrase “Release the virgins” was heard.

“That would be a great theme for an anthology,” I said. “Every story would have to contain that phrase.”

“I’ll write a story for it!” said Gail Z. Martin and Hildy Silverman.

“I’ll publish it!” said Ian Randal Strock.

“I’ll edit it!” I said.

We gathered some of the top science fiction and fantasy writers, organized a kickstarter, and now, a year and a half later, it’s here!

Look at this great lineup!:

Foreword by Ian Randal Strock
Introduction by Michael A. Ventrella
“Valedictory” by Lawrence Watt-Evans
“Sidekicked” by Hildy Silverman
“Command Decision” by Steve Miller
“Are You There, Cthulhu? It’s Me, Judy” by Beth W. Patterson
“Innocence Lost” by Gail Z. Martin
“How Mose Saved the Virgins of Old New York” by Allen M. Steele
“The Fires of Rome” by Jody Lynn Nye
“Salvage” by Shariann Lewitt
“The Midwinter of Our Discontent” by Keith R.A. DeCandido
“Coming Attractions” by Daniel M. Kimmel
“Cracking the Vault” by Matt Bechtel
“The Coffee Corps” by Alex Shvartsman
“The Vestals of Midnight” by Sharon Lee
“Paradisiacal Protocols” by Gordon Linzner
“Brass Tacks” by Cecilia Tan
“Old Spirits” by Brian Trent
“The Running of the Drones” by Patrick Thomas
“Dangerous Virgins” by David Gerrold
Afterword by Thomas Nackid

It’s available in hard cover, paperback, kindle or nook versions!  As I write this, it’s already in the top 20 for “science fiction anthologies” on Amazon.

So grab a copy yourself and release the virgins!

virgins cover jpg

Big Stick

In 1897, Beverly Haddad is well aware that her sex and race will keep her from investigating the deadly and mysterious lightning strikes that have plagued New York. She seeks help from Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt, and soon the two find themselves hunted by a vast conspiracy known as Gideon’s Trumpet which has access to amazing new scientific devices never before seen. With the help of Mark Twain and others, they launch an attack, aided by Teddy’s new massive lightning gun, which he lovingly calls BIG STICK.

BIG STICK is now available from Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press! Click here to read the first few chapters, and here to order your copy!

Big Stick cover

“Full steam ahead! With Big Stick, Michael Ventrella gives us a wild and thoroughly entertaining steampunk adventure featuring an improbable cast of historical figures, plenty of action, and lots of fun! Highly recommended!” – Jonathan Maberry, New York Times bestselling author of Deep Silence and V-Wars

“Memorable characters, snappy dialogue and plenty of action and adventure. Big Stick has it all. One of the best books I’ve read in a long while!” – Gail Z. Martin, author of Vengeance: A Novel of Darkhurst

“Full of the best kind of steampunk adventure with one of the biggest personalities in American history. A great fun ride!” – Philippa Ballantine, co-author of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series

“Big Stick doesn’t have everything. It has more than everything! A dynamic PoC secret agent! Teddy Roosevelt! Steampunk inventions! Real dirty politics in a fantastic might-have-been world! Rayguns! Airships! Assassinations! Teddy Roosevelt with a raygun! And a cover by Phil Foglio! What the heck are you doing looking at this stupid blurb? Buy this book and read it!” – Ryk Spoor, author of Grand Central Arena and Princess Holy Aura

My Philcon 2018 Schedule

I’m looking forward to the Philcon science fiction convention the weekend of November 10th. It’s Philadelphia’s oldest literary convention. It’s in New Jersey.  (Look, it was cheaper, okay?)philcon_logo

I’ve been a guest at Philcon for years, and it’s always great to go back there and see so many of my friends. Guest of Honor this year is Steven Brust! (You can read my interview with him from a few years ago here). This year’s event will be on the weekend of November 16 – 18.


Here’s my schedule:

WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT: 30TH ANNIVERSARY (Sat 12:00) [Panelists: Rebecca Robare (mod), Michael A. Ventrella, Daniel Kimmel, Ray Ridenour]  Join us as we remember the film that broke all the rules and set the benchmark for future movies. What made it so groundbreaking? Does it still hold up today?

RECIPES FOR CHARACTER CREATION (Sat 1:00) [Panelists: Vikki Ciaffone (mod), Steven Brust, Alan P. Smale, Philippa Ballantine, Michael A. Ventrella] How do you design characters that your audience will find not only three-dimensional, but memorable? What will adding a dash of this or that personality trait do to your audience’s opinion of them?

READING (Sat 5:00) [Panelists: Tom Purdom (mod), Michael A. Ventrella, Leigh Grossman] We’ll each be reading from our recent works.

AUTOGRAPHS (Sat 6:00) [Panelists: Leigh Grossman (mod), Michael A. Ventrella] … and then two of us will be signing anything you want signed.

SCIENCE FICTION AND THE MEN IN BLACK (Sun 10:00) [Panelists: Michael A. Ventrella (mod), Michael D’Ambrosio, Mark Singer, Martin Berman-Gorvine, Kevin Patterson] A discussion of conspiracy theories, secret societies, and themes of cover-ups / the creation of a false consciousness by shadowy organizations in science fiction. Should we be concerned about how paranoid society seems to be getting? Or is it all just a government ploy?…

SCIENCE FICTION AS SOCIAL EDUCATION (Sun 12:00) [Panelists: Rebecca Robare (mod), Dr. Valerie J. Mikles, Simone Zelitch, Phil Giunta, Michael A. Ventrella, Anastasia Klimchynskaya] How can science fiction help us become more socially aware? What allows science fiction to address social issues in unique ways not found in other forms of literature, and how can we meaningfully use it to better our society?

2018 World Fantasy Convention

I’ll be at the annual World Fantasy Convention this next weekend (November 1  – 4) in Baltimore. I’ll be doing a reading, will participate in the mass signing session, and will otherwise be hanging around with many of my writer and editor friends. You’ll probably find me often at the table for one of my publishers, Fantastic Books.

Hope to see you there!


Three books coming soon!

What a busy year it’s been for me! Six books in a period of 12 months or so.

In November of 2017, the book about the Monkees’ music was released (co-written with Mark Arnold).

In April of 2018, the second Baker Street Irregulars anthology (co-edited with Jonathan Maberry) was released, along with an audio book version a few months later.

In July, the 5th Tales of Fortannis anthology was released.

And in the next few months, you’ll see the following:

BIG STICK, my 4th novel, a steampunk adventure featuring Teddy Roosevelt and Mark Twain. “One of the best books I’ve read in a long while!” says author Gail Z. Martin. This is being released from Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire Press.

RELEASE THE VIRGINS!, an anthology wherein every story has to contain those words. It features David Gerrold, Lawrence Watt-Evans, Jody Lynn Nye, Allen Steele, Steve Miller, Sharon Lee, Keith R.A. DeCandido, Gail Z. Martin and others! This is being released from Fantastic Books.

HOW TO ARGUE THE CONSTITUTION WITH A CONSERVATIVE. This is a non-fiction book which a sort of “Constitution for Dummies” because you can’t debate what you don’t know. It’s full of humor and sarcasm and will feature a cover and illustrations from nationally syndicated political cartoonist Darrin Bell (who also does the comic strip “Candorville”). This is being published by Gray Rabbit Publications.

And then I have to finish work on the follow-up to the Monkees book, wherein Mark and I discuss their solo careers and the reunions. That will once again be issued from Bear Manor Media.

Busy busy busy!


My Capclave 2018 Schedule

I’ll be a guest at the Capclave convention soon (September 28 – 30) held just north of Washington DC.  It’s a fun little convention dedicated to the written word, whose slogan is “Where reading is not extinct.”

The Guest of Honor is Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Sturgeon and Locus Award-winning author Nancy Kress!

Here’s my schedule!

Friday 4:00 pm: Beginnings (Ends at: 4:55 pm) Eisenhower
Panelists: Nancy KressWendy S. DelmaterWill McIntoshMichael A. Ventrella (M)
First sentence, first paragraph, first chapter. You only get one first chance to grab your reader’s attention. How do you craft the perfect opening hook?
Friday 6:00 pm: SFF of Political Resistance (Ends at: 6:55 pm) Washington Theater
Panelists: Tom DoyleCarolyn Ives GilmanLarry HodgesMichael A. Ventrella (M)
Science fiction and fantasy are often not politically neutral: they can serve as a mirror of and a screen for contemporary controversy. What are examples of the SF/F under past repressive regimes? How may current authors best engage in political expression, and what are the pitfalls in balancing art and advocacy (there are certainly examples of bad writing making for worse propaganda). How may an author’s politics affect their career, for good or ill?
Friday 7:00 pm: Biggest Mistakes Made by New Writers (Ends at: 7:55 pm) Monroe
Panelists: David BartellWendy S. DelmaterIan Randal StrockMichael A. Ventrella (M)
Our panelists just might be wiling to serve as examples of what not to do. Panelists share stories of things you shouldn’t do or at least what did not work at all for them.
Friday 8:00 pm: Anthology Builder (Ends at: 8:55 pm) Washington Theater
Panelists: Neil ClarkeAlex ShvartsmanDavid StokesMichael A. Ventrella (M)
So you want to edit and publish an anthology. How do the stories get picked?  How do you come up with a theme? What sells and what doesn’t?  How do authors produce readable fiction in the straitjacket of an original themed anthology? How do you properly curate your anthology?
Friday 9:00 pm: Dealing With Rejection (Ends at: 9:55 pm) Eisenhower
Panelists: Neil ClarkeScott EdelmanBarbara Krasnoff (M), Michael A. Ventrella
Everyone in the field has to deal with rejection at some point. Panelists will talk about how they handle rejection, and in the case of editors, panelists will offer suggestions on how NOT to handle rejection
Friday 11:00 pm: How NOT to Get Published, a/k/a Late Night Tales From the Slush Pile (Ends at: 11:55 pm) Eisenhower
Panelists: Neil ClarkeWendy S. DelmaterBjorn HasselerIan Randal StrockMichael A. Ventrella(M), Sean Wallace
Editors will discuss all the things authors shouldn’t do if they want to be published. For instance, submission guidelines exist for a reason. And no matter how brilliant your story is, threatening the editor will reduce the probability that it will be published to zero.
Saturday 7:30 pm: Mass autographing (Ends at: 8:55 pm) Eisenhower
Panelists: Nancy KressAlyssa WongDanielle Ackley-McPhailJeanne AdamsCatherine AsaroT. Eric BakutisStafford BattleJonathan BrazeeJack Campbell – John G. HemryNeil ClarkeDoc ColemanWendy S. DelmaterTom DoyleKelly DwyerDeidre DykesAndrew FoxJim FreundCharles E. GannonCraig L. GidneyCarolyn Ives GilmanJ. L. GribbleBjorn HasselerInge HeyerLarry HodgesDavid KeenerBarbara KrasnoffMark LaportaJohn Edward LawsonEdward M. LernerWill McIntoshMike McPhailBernie MojzesJames MorrowKathryn MorrowLawrence M. SchoenDarrell SchweitzerAlex ShvartsmanJack SkillingsteadAlan SmaleJoe StechMichael A. VentrellaDavid WaltonJean Marie WardLawrence Watt-EvansJoan WendlandSteven H. WilsonA.C. WiseAllen L. Wold
Saturday 10:30 pm: Eye of Argon (Ends at: 11:55 pm) Monroe
Panelists: Hildy SilvermanIan Randal StrockMichael A. Ventrella (M)
Our panelists read the worst fantasy story ever written, mistakes and all, and if they laugh or read it incorrectly, they are forced to act out the story. Just try not to fall over laughing! At some point, volunteers from the audience can participate and discover firsthand the author’s contentious relationship with spelling, capitalization and punctuation.
Sunday 10:00 am: Politics in SF vs. Fantasy: Meaningful Differences or Not? (Ends at: 10:55 am) Washington Theater
Panelists: Aaron EmmelJames MorrowMichael A. Ventrella (M)
Do writers handle politics differently in fantasy than SF? How different is politics in a faux medieval setting vs. a future polity based on 20th or 21st century political movements?
Sunday 11:00 am: Endings (Ends at: 11:55 am) Eisenhower
Panelists: Nancy KressWendy S. DelmaterMary FanMichael A. Ventrella (M)
How do you stick the landing? So many stories start out well but end abruptly or just trail off, leaving the reader to wonder, what’s the point. Why does this happen and how can writers avoid this fate? How do you determine your endings? Is a twist ending a cheat?
Sunday 12:00 pm: I Hate His/Her Politics, But I Love His/Her Books (Ends at: 12:55 pm) Monroe
Panelists: Day Al-MohamedJames MorrowCerece Rennie MurphyMichelle D. SonnierMichael A. Ventrella (M)
Should a personal evaluation of an author be separated from how you view his/her politics? Many people refused to see the movie Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s statements on homosexuality and other writers charge that political views influence award nominations and who is picked for con programming. Is this true and if so, is it a good thing or a bad thing?
Sunday 1:00 pm: Handling the Unavoidable Infodump (Ends at: 1:55 pm) Truman
Panelists: Jack Campbell – John G. HemryBrenda W. CloughIver CooperJames R. StrattonMichael A. Ventrella (M)
As you know, Bob, it’s often considered more elegant to establish backstory or setting details gradually rather than in an infodump. Sometimes, though, the demands of the rest of the novel leave little choice. What are some of the tricks to infodump in a way that at least keeps the reader interested, and doesn’t disrupt the other elements of the story? Are there ever points at which an infodump is preferable over other methods of communicating setting detail?
Sunday 2:30 pm: Reading: Michael A. Ventrella (Ends at: 2:55 pm) Lincoln
Author: Michael A. Ventrella
Sunday 3:00 pm: Write What You Don’t Know (Ends at: 3:55 pm) Eisenhower
Panelists: Jeanne AdamsDoc ColemanMichael A. Ventrella (M)
Fantasy authors rarely get irate email from dragons saying they got it wrong. How to write characters from places and times that you don’t know but members of your audience do, and why it’s important to get outside your comfort zone.

Here are some pictures from previous Capclaves!

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