Over the past few months my writing life has focused on bringing “A Biased Judgement” to the bookshelves (October 24th!); researching the sequel (currently titled “Sherlock Holmes and the Other Woman”); keeping my blog and other social media up to date; producing the occasional short story… and writing the first draft of another novel, “The Forgotten Knight”. To be honest, there are times when I can really identify with Eliza Doolittle’s wail, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words…” But words hold me captive and I don’t resent my captivity too much, and not very often.
With so much going on, I thought it was a good time to go back to the basics. Over the next few weeks, I want to look at the DNA of fiction. In this instance, DNA stands for Dynamic Novel Attributes. Today, appropriately enough, I’m looking at beginnings.
I hadn’t planned to write “The Forgotten Knight”. I didn’t have a plot or any idea what the story was about, but one day I found myself turning out a first chapter.
Such a daft notion, starting a novel when I already have another in progress (which is going very well), and I’m busy, besides, with so much else. So I set my Knight story aside and went on with other things.
Then something odd happened.
I found myself writing a second chapter. And lo, it was good. I’m not just saying that. The story is really very good. Don’t believe me? Here’s the opening:
She just couldn’t stay dead.
Easy for people to say Oh, it’s all right for you, what with being immortal and all. They didn’t know what it was like. Not the dying, exactly. True, it wasn’t pleasant and it was frequently painful, but it was usually quick and she’d sort of gotten used to it. You can get used to anything if you do it enough.
It got you, didn’t it? It got me. I’m more than 20,000 words in and it continues to surprise me. The very fact that I’ve written it at all is astonishing.
I have a way of working, you see, and “The Forgotten Knight” thumbed its nose at my presumed wisdom. Usually I decide what the story is going to be about. I may not know every detail, but I have a big picture. I know who my main characters are and what’s at stake for them. But this new story flies in the face of all my rules. I suppose that’s what makes writing it so much fun. Every writing session is an adventure because I don’t know where the story is taking me.
Writing the beginning of a story is often a major pain of the right regal sort. It’s particularly hard for the novice. A lot of them approach a new tale by describing their character waking up and starting their day. Maybe they feel this is a good way of showing their hero living a normal life so the reader can identify with him, and then the martians land or John is diagnosed with some weird illness… Most often, though, I suspect it’s because the writer himself still hasn’t figured out where the story lies and how to start it.
But here’s the secret: It’s OK not to know. That’s what first drafts are for. Don’t worry if you write many thousands of words of rubbish about your hero brushing his teeth, deciding what to wear, reading the newspaper. When the story is ready to begin it will do so and then it starts to get really exciting.
It’s OK to get it wrong. It’s OK to write yourself into a corner even if it’s on the 300th page. It’s OK to change the name of the hero midway through the story, or have God arrive, smoking a cigar, to help your heroine out of a terrible pickle.
It’s a first draft. Just write it.
Now put it away. That’s right, you heard me. Like a good chili it needs time for all the flavours to come together.
Don’t worry, you won’t be idle.
While your story is fermenting…
While your story is fermenting in the drawer (you have some ‘quick-wipes’ handy, don’t you?) start a notebook. I like to have one specific journal dedicated exclusively to that novel. It makes it easier to find my notes if I don’t have to wade through a stack of story ideas, overheard bits of conversation, or shopping lists. Ahem…
If you’re inspired by the visual, insert pictures that excite you. (No, not those sort of pictures. What are you like?!) But drawings or photos of people who remind you of your characters or the setting of your story; abstract art that evokes a particular mood; an image that might work as your cover.
If the spirit moves you in such a way, you could include a few poems that you think your hero or heroine may enjoy; lists of musical pieces that you enjoy listening to while you work.
Yes, it does sound waffly and new-Agey, but there’s a purpose which I’ll get to shortly.
Once you’re ready to start on some real work about your novel, do an outline of the plot. It doesn’t have to be too elaborate but it will give you some ideas of how the story should develop. I like to colour-code my characters, particularly when I have a lot of them in my novel. Then I can see if I’m too top-heavy with one or am under-utilizing another. To be honest, I use a spreadsheet to track the plot and the characters, but post-it notes work as does the standard notebook entry.
List questions. Identify weaknesses in the plot: Marianne goes up the stairs even though she suspects the killer is up there. Is she nuts? Why would she do that? Maybe she doesn’t know and thinks there’s a sick child making that strange creaking noise… Or a cat… Or maybe she’s just really stupid? Or maybe… Ooh, maybe you’ve misled the reader and it’s the innocent victim who’s upstairs and it’s Marianne who’s the killer…
You get the drift. This is your chance to explore options. To decide what works, what doesn’t, and how you can make it better.
Keep at the notebook for at least a couple of weeks – a couple of months would be better – and then you’ll be ready to take another shot at that first chapter.
By now, you should be able to answer two questions (well, more than two, but these ones in particular):
- What is at stake?
- What’s the voice?
Every novel has to have a character (or characters) who have something at stake. For Frodo it’s getting rid of the ring of doom. For Heathcliff, it’s winning Cathy. Knowing what your hero or heroine wants most and the obstacles that stand in the way is fundamental. You can’t write your novel without it. Once you’ve figured it out, write it in big letters on the front of your notebook. This is your foundation and everything else is built upon it.
Now, you’ll also need to decide what obstacles the hero faces in trying to achieve his goals but we’ll cover those in a later blog.
The second thing you must know before you start that second draft is the voice. That’s not limited to the point of view or the character of the narrator; it’s to do with the tone of the story. The tone ought to match the story you want to tell. Tone is the ‘D’ in novel-writing DNA. Here are a couple of examples to show you what I mean:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.
(Catch-22, Joseph Heller)
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop . . . somehow it was hotter then . . . bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three-o’clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum. . . . There was no hurry, for there was nowhere to go, nothing to buy and no money to buy it with, nothing to see outside the boundaries of Maycomb County. But it was a time of vague optimism for some of the people: Maycomb County had recently been told that it had nothing to fear but fear itself.
(To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee)
Now, you’ll see that neither story opens with a main character, at least, not directly. Harper Lee’s story is told in the first person, while Catch-22 has an omniscient narrator. They’re both American books, set in the 20th century but other than that they have little in common.
Look at the words in that quote from Heller’s novel: safety… dangers… process… rational mind… Here in a nutshell is the theme of the book. How can a man stay safe when he is beset by the perils of war? How does a man stay sane when the military structure in which he lives confounds him with insane anti-logic, such as catch-22.
Now read Ms Lee’s opening and contrast her words: Tired, old, sweltering, ladies… Then there’s that line of negatives: No hurry, nowhere to go, nothing to buy, no money… all compounded by the ironic negative of that last sentence: “Nothing to fear but fear itself.” Even then we know we’re dealing with a memory of a sleepy old town, one that was impoverished and had little expectations. We can also sense impending doom with that last phrase.
Or for another example, there’s my own opening for The Forgotten Knight: “She just couldn’t stay dead.” You know right away there’s something very unusual going on here. It invites questions: Who is this woman? Why can’t she stay dead? Why would she want to? The tone is slightly mischievous, it has an odd-ball sense of humour. It also tells us upfront that the heroine wants to either die and stay dead (her goal) or learn to accept her peculiar form of immortality.
You cannot start writing your novel until you get the tone right. At least, I can’t. But there’s help.
Remember that notebook and all the new-Agey stuff I told you to record? Well, that’s one of the ways into your tone.
Look at those pictures, read those poems, listen to the music. And as you read, look and listen free associate the words that come to mind. How do they relate to the character or the story you’re trying to tell? Can you construct a sentence that ties it all together.
The bad news is you may have to take a pass at this a few times before you get it right. You may write a few pages, even a few chapters before you realise it’s not working and have to start over.
But the good news is you’ll get it right eventually, and when you do, you’ll know. It’s like hitting exactly the right note on a musical instrument. It’s neither flat nor sharp, it’s perfect. It’s the Goldilocks effect: you’ll know when it’s ‘just right’.
What Your Beginning Needs to do:
You don’t need to answer every question with your opening. It’s more accurate to say the first few pages of a novel offer a promise: Here’s a mystery, a situation, a character. Want to know more? Stick around.
You’ll have heard the phrase ‘in medias res’. That means starting the story in the middle. Or, to put it another way, start the story in the middle of the action. Suppose your main character is going to save a child from a speeding car. Open with that and go on with the consequences of the action. He falls in love with the child’s mother; discovers the child’s father is homicidal and is going to come after him; he learns the child has a highly contagious disease and he’s now infected; he is given some superpower by the child – actually a visitor from a very far advanced planet – and is now a superhero… Whatever way the story progresses, it all begins with that act. But, hey, if you need to have him brush his teeth in the opening sentence, that’s fine. Only save it for your first draft and get rid of it for your second.
Sometimes, though, all the advice, wisdom, and experience goes out the window. One day you may find yourself sitting down to read and instead find you’ve written the opening to a novel you didn’t even realise you were thinking about. Until that day, though, I hope the suggestions I’ve given you here have helped. Writing openings is a huge subject and I know I’ve only skimmed the surface. If there are other aspects to writing DNA that you’d like me to cover in future blogs please let me know in the comments.
In the meantime, here’s the best advice anyone can give a writer: