On beginnings

Today’s blog is a vague attempt to transform criticism into advice: it’s the result of, thanks to an ill-timed training course, having little actual news to share with you. Please be kind.

Goethe

A novel should open with who and what: who the story is about and what’s at stake.

 

This isn’t wrong but it’s not very helpful either. What if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters? The ‘who’ becomes a lot more complicated. And as for the ‘what’, surely we can’t be expected to give the whole game away in the first scene?

I’ve been working on the same piece for the over five years now and I’m still stuck on the opening. The novel’s had a new title, new characters and new crimes. The one thing I’ve never got right is this damn beginning. It reads well enough but it doesn’t involve. I’m now coming to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is that I don’t bring in characters quickly enough. Nor do I show (by which I mean illustrate) what really matters.

Who and what.

Why have I neglected these things? I’m not really sure I have an answer: with a 1st-person perspective there’s no real excuse, although I could argue that in a 3rd-person narrative you have to get to the business of who’s talking whereas I’ve got the luxury of condensing voice before formal introductions. But that’s a cop-out, and even if it’s true it helps me not at all.

As for the what, that’s going back to that whole ‘drama’, ‘tension,’ ‘action,’ thing you’ll see interchangeably in any ‘how to write a novel’ guide. It’s the hook. It’s the body on the carpet. It’s the man coming in with a gun.

It’s also the accounts that doesn’t add up, or a particular expression on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected silence; it’s a foreshadowing of deeper waters ahead.

The ‘what’ is a question: it is a problem that must be left unresolved at least until a greater problem can take its place. Sometimes this opening question lasts the whole novel through, but most openings act as a gateway drug: a little question (a hook) to pull you on to the crux.

There’s lots of other things an opening needs to do, of course: you need to establish tone and style and something of location (both spatial and temporal). But those are, essentially, background. They don’t determine whether a reader reads on.

dat and stormyu

Yes, it’s a cliche, but this was once a pretty good way to start a novel, originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830

I have my location. The descriptions are good. I just haven’t covered the things that really matter.

So it’s back to the beginning with me. Back to try and trap the reader: to tell them whose story this is and why they should care.

Hopefully that’ll be more a case of rearrangement then of a wholesale rewrite: shifting furniture rather than throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window.

Either way the problem child is still a problem. But at least I have some vague idea of how to move forwards.

The beginning of the end

Calvin
I’m writing a short story. I am, in fact, writing the same short story for the fourth time. I’m not editing – changing one word here, switching a character there – but actually writing the story over, from scratch, for the fourth time.

There are reasons for this lunacy. The first is simply that I can. I have no pressing work, no great inspirations, no editor beating down my door for work as yet undelivered. I have lacuna-ed and I’m just taking a quiet moment to do as I damn well please, thank you very much. Sometimes it’s fun just to write.

The second reason for all the rewrites is that this story is teaching me even as I try to get it down. The original idea was of a terrorist attack and its immediate aftermath from the point of view of one of the attackers, but as I wrote it I realised that the event itself wasn’t very interesting. The escape is where it’s at.

So I rewrote it, losing the first half entirely. I got it down, knowing it wasn’t very good (get the ideas on the page then endlessly refine, that’s the writing way), and printed it off. But as I mulled it over I realised the location was wrong. I’d set it in a church, but it needed to be in a museum. And that I needed another character as an interlocutor.

So I started a third draft. And it was going fine until I started to think about how the story would end. And it occurred to me that this was the interesting bit. The aftermath of the aftermath. The characters. This was the story I wanted to write, not some faux-action cliché with dull people and dull arguments. I wanted an exhausted survivor with her hostage on public transport at night.

So this is what I’m writing. Not an all-action balls-out sausage-fest but a quiet, reflective piece on the nature of belief and causes, and let’s just throw in a little fake news there as well.

What I’m not writing is a novella. You might be reading this and thinking that I’ve been building and building and building a story and that I should just tell it all. But what I’ve done is tell myself the background (though that background has shifted somewhat from my first attempt), and this is incredibly useful: I know, in detail, how my characters got where they are now.

But my readers don’t need to see that background. Not because it isn’t very good – I have confidence in my abilities to make it good, with the help of my friendly neighbourhood writing group – but because it’s not the story I want to tell.

Maybe this tale will turn into a novella, but it won’t go back to the beginning; if anything it’ll extend from where I thought the end was. Or maybe I’ll just realise that I still haven’t found the right beginning and I’ve another start to find.

So I’m writing a short story. Maybe one day I’ll find where it ends.

Bringing the band together

main_characters

Stolen from here

Oneiromancer has an ensemble cast. It has five characters who think they’re the star; each has a point of view and rather like having the focus on them, thank you very much. This is great. This is the story I wanted to tell and it’s a lot of fun, slipping beneath skins and giving different perspectives. Like a movie I can select the viewpoint and give the information I want given.

But, inevitably, there is a problem. Put simply, I don’t know how to start the novel. My early drafts had each ‘hero’ taking their turn: building a scene as they saw it, and then moving to the next person. And, as I’ve never been a big fan of ‘five men walked into a bar’ setups (although I am a big fan of bars), each of them was in a different place, a different time, with no connection to the scene that came before.

In other words I had a series of ‘starts’, none of which built on a narrative. Early criticism was that the novel didn’t really cohere until around the fifth chapter, by which time we’d met all the main players.

So I rewrote the beginning. I removed some early POV changes/introductions and tried to ‘flow’ from one character to the other. But it seems I didn’t go far enough. More simplification is needed. More difficulties are to be overcome.

Oneiromancer is a long novel. All the characters are well bound together, and the POV changes – I think – work well over the long haul. I don’t want to change it. Besides, lots of novels have ensemble casts and continent-spanning perspectives aren’t something to be feared.

But we still have to get the beginning down. Nobody will stick around to witness the genius of my legerdemain if they give up on the novel before my characters collide. Agents base their initial decisions on less and less material: ten pages is now normal. Why should they – or you – read more than that? It’s not as if we’re starved of quality literature.

So it’s back to the start with me. Lop off the first chapter, extract any relevant info, compress and sneak it back in later. And then it’s all about the hope – and the next round of beta reading and feedback and rejection – that this time it works. That I can properly bait the audience until they’re hooked, unable to wriggle away.

Ensemble casts are, in summary, a bugger. If anyone has any answers I’m all ears.

Recursion

A prince falls in love with a commoner
They met because he was forced from his family by a civil war
The civil war started because the council couldn’t agree on the succession
The council couldn’t agree because it was formed of houses who hated each other
They hated each other because their grandparents had a blood-feud
They had a blood-feud because a daughter broke off an engagement with a rival’s son

DTRH

A farmer finds a crown in a bog
The crown was thrown there by a defeated monarch
The monarch was defeated by a usurper and fled to a monastery
The monastery was founded by the widowed sister of a noble house
The sister was accused of dominating her husband
The husband had a secret love with the head of his warband

A fleet sets out from a space-station to launch one last desperate attack
The space-station is the last holding of a once-proud empire
The empire is reduced because its homeland was destroyed when it hit a moonlet
The moonlet was induced into the planet’s orbit by a secret cabal
The cabal was formed in response to the empire’s expansion
The empire was expanding in response to outside aggression

Where do you start these stories? What sort of story will you tell? How much background do you provide? Surely not all of it – not in detail, and not all at once. How much do you, as author, need to know? None of the ‘first tier’ statements are the beginning; you could trace causation right back to the Big Bang if you were so minded.

The universe dissolves into heat-death and a grey soup of atoms is all that remains
The last stars turn supernova
The surviving life-forms flee into another universe
Entropy is inevitable
The stars coalesce and ignite; planets find their orbits; the first stirrings of life arise
A God-Machine creates the Big Bang

perfect-laughter-Down-the-Rabbit-Hole-2-855x1024

There is no right answer. You start the story at the moment of fascination for you, the author. You write the story you want to write; you give the detail you think is relevant and interesting. You add detail subtly, drip-feed backstory. But you must remember that there’s always history. You never start at the very beginning because that’s impossible; there is no beginning.

Your characters don’t walk in vacuum. The world you create – be it a world purely of your own imagination or one taken from the world outside your window – has come in the way you depict because everyone and everything has a past. Why is the villain so twisted? Who created the magic sword (and why)? Who built that castle on that hill (and are we talking about a monarch or a mason)?

The readers don’t necessarily need the answers. You have to choose what’s important, what’s interesting and what your readers need to know.

And you can rely on your audience to tell you if you’ve got it wrong.