Why are beginnings so damn hard?

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Everyone who knows me, and some who don’t, are more than fully aware that I’m working on editing the Dark Queen of Darkness. I just finished up the first round of developmental edits, which are back with the editor (Jette Harris). However, I’m not even remotely close to done yet. My process thus far has been to run through her suggestions, pick off low-hanging fruit and then go once through for each of the larger issues to ensure consistency. This usually starts with starting at the beginning. Every time I start at the beginning, I inevitably fidget with the first few paragraphs. It’s killing me.

I wrote the first paragraph to the dark queen almost 3 years ago and it was fucking great. So, naturally, I’ve hated it ever since. The current incarnation is:

There was no mistaking the dark tower. It was the tallest, blackest, and most evil looking tower in the whole of the dark kingdom. Hexe, the dark queen, had built it specifically to say dark queen and sorceress right down to the foundations. She’d even gone so far as to have the words property of the dark queen etched on every stone. The tower was an imposing and unlovely sight, much like Hexe herself, tall, narrow, and nothing but sharp, plain angles.

I think it’s repetitive, not very grabby, and absolutely perfect at the same time. This is not a good place to be when you’re supposed to be editing. At this point, all I have from Jette (the editor) on this is that it’s fine, but maybe not got quite enough hook. As with all of the advice and feedback offered by Jette, thus far, I feel in my gut that she’s quite right. The problem here is that I’m so incredibly close to the work, especially this paragraph, that I’m unable to tackle it with a properly dispassionate approach.

My favorite book openings are those offered by Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams, and JK Rowling. They tend to be chatty and easy. They give the narrator a minute to bring the reader up to speed before launching into the main thrust of the work. And as I write this, I wonder if examining pieces by those authors might not be instructive – A wise writer once suggested I open a few of the books I like and highlight passages that work. Maybe that’s the answer here. Don’t just look at the words on the page, look at why another author’s intro works.

I don’t know what else to say about this, except that for every book I’ve written, the same problem exists. I hate the intro and also love it just the way it is.

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The anatomy of a re-write #2

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I wasn’t going to post another one of these, but as all my writing time, precious little as there is at the moment, I’m lacking in other observations or problems to rant about. So, last night (last couple of nights really), I’ve spent most of my free time watching Doc Martin and flipping through stuff on the interwebs. Not the best use of my time, I know. One of the things I came across is a series on Kristen Lamb’s blog (https://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/), called Anatomy of a best selling story. There are six parts to this, and I’m not going to bother trying to summarize, you can read it. Instead, I’d rather talk about the few things I took from those blogs.

Kristen Lamb started out by saying you should be able to give a synopsis of your book in 1-3 sentences. There’s no way in hell I could do that. After reading that series, I think I know why. My WIP isn’t about anything! – Ok, that’s not true, it’s just muddy, making a synopsis difficult. I’ve been much more focused on the plot of the series, leaving the plot of this book limp.

She pointed out a few things that got me thinking, and consequently helped me identify some weak points. Stripping away all of the pizza analogies, and sponge-bob pictures, I came away with the following:

Each scene, chapter, and the entire book needs to follow this basic pattern.
1.) MC has a goal
2.) MC is prevented from reaching goal by ‘antagonist’
3.) MC prevails over antagonist and reaches goal

On point 3, this is where the rule-breaking starts. You can always write a chapter where an MC fails to reach a goal. In the end of the book however, your MC must reach some goal, defeat some antagonist. An important thing to keep in mind, and this is the ‘bar’ for me, is that the MC’s success doesn’t have to mean saving the world from destruction. This can be a problem in fantasy. There’s this series I love by Bernard Cornwell called the Saxon Tales. At the end of each book the MC defeats the Danes, but at the beginning of the next book, there’s a new pile of, slightly more dangerous, Danes waiting to make their attack. It’s historical fiction, so it grounded on that score. The point is that the MC is not saving the world each time. The only important thing is that we are rooting for the MC, because he’s likable, and the story is written so that we care about the stakes. So, when the Danes are kicked out of Alfred’s Wessex, after a long and bloody fight, we’re satisfied with it.

Point #2 is, I think, what I learned the most on. It’s a simple thing, and it’s the root of conflict. The key here is that the antagonist, and this is exceptionally important, can be ANYTHING, Including the MC him(her)self. Kristen Lamb has some guidelines on this as well, but I’m not convinced. Done well, anything works – just keep in mind that certain situations are damn hard to pull off. The Antagonist for a chapter, scene, hell book for that matter, doesn’t have to be a person, it only needs to be something that prevents the MC from achieving his or her goal, and each of those layers in your book needs to have an antagonist.

Point #1 has the least wiggle room. If your MC doesn’t have a goal, you don’t have a story. Again, depending on the circumstances, the goal can be anything. It just has to be something the MC feels s/he must do or is somehow obliged to do. Turns out lack of a clear goal is a major problem in my WIP. It’s not that there’s not conflict, it’s that the antagonist of the book is not what I had originally imagined. For the broader series, however, the main antagonist is clear in my mind. I’ve written the book such that the MC is dragged along into a course of events (aren’t all heroes?) and so his goal isn’t always so clear. Without a clear goal, it’s hard to pinpoint what’s preventing him from reaching that goal (thus no antagonist). This lack of a clear antagonist makes some of my chapters, while interesting, lack purpose and punch, which leads into issues with the overall plot.

All that said. I’ve found a problem and some of the causes of the problem. Now what?

First off, the realization that I’m missing some important structure had me asking who is the antagonist of the book? Well, it’s not who I thought it was. Furthermore, it’s not even a person. It’s a bit more obscure than that. While my main ‘bad guy’ certainly helps kick off the action, he’s not defeated in book 1. Not only that, he’s not standing in the way of any particular goal for the MC, at least not as far as this book is concerned.

With that in mind. I’ve decided that revising the last few chapters might be a waste of time until I go back through and revise the entire book to highlight the real ‘antagonist’ of the book. Many of the early chapters should become stronger and give the MC an opportunity to come out stronger as well.

To bring this around, how does this get me to describing my story in one sentence? I still can’t quite get id down to 1, but I can distill it. Provided I re-work my story well, it’ll read something like like:

The road of shadows, abandoned and quiet for over five hundred years, haunted by the ghosts of long dead soldiers, has awoken. In an effort to seize control of the kingdom, Lord Feorun has begun to muster the evil of the road. Neoth the Rogue, exiled son of a duke, has been drawn into the fight, the untapped power within him is the only thing standing between Lord Feorun’s army of ghosts and the fall of the kingdom.

Meh. Needs work, but Rome wasn’t built in a day either, and I’m still editing anyhow.


photo credit: Don’t be afraid! via photopin (license)

Is writing a book like building a house?

When I was working on my house, I added about 1100sq. ft., about five years ago. The first parts of the project were fairly easy in terms of planning. First a contractor came in and set the foundation, then I put in the floor joists and sub-floor of the first story, rolling straight into wall framing and sheeting. After that, I took the roof off the existing structure, and put in the floor joists and sub-floor for the second story. Once that was all in place, once again, I was framing and sheeting the walls, which was followed quickly by installation of roof trusses and roof sheathing, which led immediately to shingles. Having all that done, the real work began and the strategy started to become more about preference. Living in Alaska, I opted to focus on insulation, windows followed by interior framing, and then wiring. Normally, this would have occurred in a slightly different order, but if I wanted to continue working that was how it needed to be. Now, once I got that sorted, it was really a matter of preference.

It seems to me that this is where I’m at with my story. I’ve got a few chapters near the end to move from outline to draft, the first major revision, and polish, to the subplot, and of course I still need to go through again and really get that main character nailed down. He needs to be strong and charismatic, and he’s not there yet. I feel like where I’m at in my story is analogous to the point at which I walked into my newly dry house, and looked some 28 feet up the empty stairwell into the trusses of a hollow shell of a yet-to-be dwelling. It hit me like a physical pain back then. I have so much work to do, was my thought. I’d just spent every free moment of my summer getting it to that point and it wasn’t even half-way. I was right, the struggle went on for another 18 months. I tried to tackle things in a certain order to make life easier when I got to the next part. I’d like to approach my story in the same way. My intuition is telling me to just get the whole damn thing written, and worry about the details later, but another part of me says, don’t waste your time on the end because you don’t know all of the details that got him there yet. I suppose in the example of building a house, revision really isn’t on the table. With a book it’s just the nature of things. So, with all of that rubber-ducking and reminiscing out of the way. I’m going to commit myself to drafting out the last few chapters, leave the sub-plot revision until the end, and see if the end of the story doesn’t help me get a better sense of my main character. Is this a good strategy? No idea, never done this before. Anyhow, no I’m off for a run before the night gets away from me.