Wednesday, July 1, 2015

That moment when you realize you should've started in Chapter 15

Yeah, yeah, my bookshelf's a mess...
They say that in order to be a writer, you've got to be a reader. That's true for a number of reasons, one of which is that only through reading can you see what works in storytelling. Of course, what works for one person may not work for another, but at least you should be writing something that works for you. Because if you wouldn't read it yourself, why would anyone else? Sounds like such a simple concept, but I think a lot of writers, when starting out, lose sight of that. I know I did.

I must confess, I don't keep track of what I've written here before, so it's possible this post is something of a repeat (I also have the worst memory, which doesn't help). But it's a topic that's been on my mind again recently, and it's one that holds true across time, so I don't mind talking about it again.

Here's the thing: contemporary genre readers are impatient. I can't speak for literary fiction because most of my time is spent consuming fluff, so maybe the rules are different there, but I'm pretty sure even those who enjoy slower pacing want to know right away what the book's all about. Which often means starting at someplace not the beginning.

What is a beginning anyway? The answer is complicated. Often, what you see on Page One is not the actual beginning of the story. Take Harry Potter for instance. The first thing we see is Baby Harry, orphaned by a dark wizard, being dropped off at his aunt's. But you could argue that the story itself began long before that, with Voldemort's initial rise to power and the battle that ensued. Instead of spending pages and pages explaining the lead-up though, J.K. Rowling drops us right into Harry's tale, then skips over the part about him growing up and goes straight into magic invading his humdrum life. Because that's what we, the readers, want to see.
I don't actually write with a pen, but it was prettier than a laptop

I was recently beta-reading a book that had some lovely background chapters at the beginning, talking about the protagonist's boring life. But though the words were very well written, the whole time I was wondering, "So what?" Some backstory upfront is necessary, but much can be sprinkled along as they become relevant.

I made the mistake of starting too early back when I was writing Synthetic Illusions, which may also explain why it took me so many tries to get it right. I knew what I wanted to happen and developed an outline based on that. Then, I wrote the first 30,000 words. But it was a struggle, a pain, and I kept procrastinating. Eventually, I realized that the reason I couldn't move forward with writing was because I would have hated to read the book I was creating. So I reworked the plot, outlined it in order, and tried again. Another 30,000 words later, each of which was beaten out of my unwilling fingers by sheer stubbornness, I stopped again. This time, I liked the plot, but still hated reading it. It took me a while to realize it was because things were just going too slowly for my impatient brain. Everything was building and building and building, but the actual exciting stuff wasn't to start until later. Much, much later. As in, Chapter 15 of what I'd plotted.

Well, damn. Had to start over again. But this time, I actually liked what I was writing. I was excited about what was happening, and I got to the fun parts (well, fun for me – not so much for the characters) right away. As for the stuff that happened in the first 15 chapters? Some was told through flashbacks when they became relevant. Some was mentioned offhand because while the facts were needed, the details were not. And some would have been transition stuff anyway and so it just got scrapped. Basically, I took the highlights reel of the backstory and sprinkled it into the main story.

I love how Synthetic Illusions turned out, but it wasn't easy admitting that I had to scrap a whole novel's worth of words to get there. Sometimes, it's tempting to just press on and press on, refusing to believe there's something fundamentally wrong with your book. But the only way to improve is to admit when things aren't working, even though that means a lot of extra work.

Well, it got written.
I wish I could say that I learned my lesson from Synthetic Illusions and knew better than to start with too much background again, but alas, it's not true. It happened again when I was drafting Windborn (currently under contract with Glass House Press), though at least this time, I realized I should have started in Chapter 3. Bit better than Chapter 15. And only had to scrap 10,000 words. Small victories!

One of the hardest things about being a writer is disconnecting yourself from your book baby and reading it as you would read anything else. But if you can, your gut reaction is always right. If you feel like it's starting too slowly, then it's starting too slowly. If you hate the protagonist, then there's something wrong with the protagonist (this happened to me as well). Because in order for readers to believe in your book, you have to believe in it too.

Even if it means starting over, again and again, in order to get there.

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