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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Progress Report

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I feel like I should do this more often, but I’m not sure I’d say too much that was useful. As it is, I don’t know that I’ve had anything to say in a while. All that said, it’s been a couple of weeks since I declared Draft #1 of Wine Bottles & Broomsticks fully drafted. What has been amazing to me in the past few weeks has been the response from beta readers to the book. Not only have all of them actually finished the book, they’ve all done so quickly and provided phenomenal feedback. I spent a half an hour on the phone with my sister this evening discussing character motivation and her general reaction to the book.

Where do I stand right now? First off, I want to say that writing this story was exceptionally fast. The bulk of it was actually written during free time on two trips out of state for training. So, basically 40% of the book was written over the course of less than 2 weeks. With that in mind, I’m aiming (probably optimistically) at having a fully expanded, edited draft ready by the end of the month. This is possible largely because virtually all of the readers thus far have provided feedback that hits the same spots – ‘expand this’ ‘what about that’ and so on. So, now I’ve got a plan to expand the manuscript from just shy of 60K to near 80K. In the mean-time, the channillo.com will continue on with the early draft and probably sometime on Sunday, I’ll turn up the crank to release a chapter a week for a while, then maybe up to a chapter a day. Then, I’ll let it sit out there for a few weeks.

My goal is to have this thing ready for a copy editor roll over it sometime early in February. Then, I guess I’ll see if I can drum up any interest from a publisher. If not, well, I’ve got cover art and the book will have been edited, so self-publishing it is.

Fantasy research – creepy in fantasy (Coraline)

One of the lovely things about writing is that often your research involves reading other stories. Not to lift work, of course, but to understand tricks of the trade, analyze what worked, or didn’t, and try to figure out why. One of the key things War of Shadow needs, in certain parts, is an element of creepy. I want the setting to feel slightly uncomfortable as the characters move through the landscape. So, in an effort to understand how other writers do it, and discover tricks to how it might be adapted for my ow purposes, I started by picking up Coraline by Neil Gaiman. There are other books in the queue, but that was the first. It’s a book I should have picked up a long time ago. I did see the movie just after it came out, and thought it was very good and pretty darn creepy.

First off, my opinion of the book – Inside the first couple chapters, I felt as though it was more of a sketch, and left me wanting. However, the story really picks up the second time Coraline goes into the world in the other flat. All throughout, the imagery is very good, and the writing excellent. As I went through, I’m not sure I felt particularly unsettled, or creeped-out. The last few chapters were just suspenseful enough, not overdone, and I was compelled to go on to the next page.

From the perspective of a writer, if I take only one thing away from the book, is the suspense at the end. That said, I did read it for the creepy, and I have to say that I don’t know what I was expecting to feel while reading the book. Perhaps that I’d lose a bit of sleep thinking about a disembodied hand because I’m waiting for it to scrabble out from under the bed? Maybe find my self thinking twice about opening a locked door in case I might find button-eyed mockeries of a loved one? No, I didn’t feel any of that. But was that the point? Probably not.

In verbally ruminating upon the story, my wife reminded me that Coraline was meant to be for younger readers. From that perspective, had I read this when I was a child, it probably would have kept me from sleeping. However, as an adult not so much. The reason, I think, I didn’t find it as creepy as I may have been expecting is because Coraline does not, except for one place, seem to be in any imminent danger of certain death from the Beldam. It sort of feels like this is a possible outcome, at some distant point in the future, not an immediate threat. I sort of wonder if that distinction doesn’t tend to temper the ‘creepy’ for me. I also wonder if this was not by design, to make the story a little less horrifying for young readers.

After having read this book, did I learn anything about writing creepy?

I think so. First off, you need to rely on the principle of “things aren’t what they seem.” I can see this being difficult for the writer to pull off in a fantasy novel because the reader already isn’t familiar with the world. I think it’s one of the reasons I’m having some trouble with it. There are so many things being introduced, this concept can be a bit of a challenge to really highlight. How does the reader know that we’re dealing with something that’s not quite right? In urban fantasy, where the world is generally the same as the one we’re sitting in, you can rely on that familiarity to set the bar for ‘normal.’ In this case, unexpected things are going to seem unusual to the reader, and the character only needs to react in a manner generally consistent with things not being as they should be. I think the same trick can be used when you have an unusual world. The reader will have to rely on cues from the characters. Elements of the world that are mundane to the characters should read that way. When things are supposed to be creepy, they should be contrasted with things that the character takes as normal, as well as what the reader would consider normal.

Another thing that I was reminded of while reading this book is the choice of words used for imagery. In one particular example from Coraline, Neil Gaiman uses the look of a spider to describe the color of the other mother’s skin. What he did there was use something generally regarded as uncomfortable (I mean who likes spiders, really?) in the description when other descriptions would suffice. Of course, this is just how it’s done, although it’s also easy to lose sight of when you’re trying to manage some 100K words of text. Think about any particular story that has a bit of creepy to it. Inevitably there are sentences about slithering snakes and the jerky motions of spiders and the like. However, I also think that this can be overdone.

For now, I’m not quite ready to begin going back and polishing in this particular flavor, I’d like to finish a few other books for research, and I’d rather focus my attention on finishing up the first drafts of the last 2 – 3 chapters of War of Shadows (I really need to start working out a name that I plan to use, or this is going to stick.) and also finish fixing up the bits that need help.