Posts Tagged ‘beginnings’

Thorny Beginnings

Well, squiders, I’m still working at reading back through the latest draft of Book One (we were out of town over the weekend, so I didn’t get much working time).

The beginning is worse than I remember. Or, well, not worse, but not as easily fixed as I was hoping.

For some context, the beginning part of the book takes place over several months. It’s actually less time than it originally took, because when I did the massive rewrite about three years ago I moved the beginning of the story and cut out a lot of stuff. But it still is difficult. My instinct is that the time frame is necessary, for the relationships and plot points to feel appropriate and not rushed, but that’s one of the things I’m evaluating as I read.

So, because each chapter takes places weeks or perhaps a month after the one before it, each of them feels more like a short story than interconnected with a larger narrative.

I’m only about halfway through–it’s either the first seven chapters that have this problem, or seven where it fixes itself–and some chapters are worse than others.

But here’s my going theories for how to fix things:

  • Leave things more or less where they are. Add in some overarching character motivations and more plot elements.
  • Move the beginning of the story and/or condense the plot elements/character arcs currently being represented by the beginning so not as much time has to pass
  • Or, counterintuitively, start a little earlier. Now, hear me out. The first chapter feels really crowded–too many things to introduce: the world, the characters, the plot, etc. It’s possible that giving each main character–it’s dual viewpoint–an earlier chapter may help smooth everything out.

There may be other options. Still mulling.

I’ve reached out to a couple of betas whose opinions I trust to see if they’ll read the beginning and make suggestions, so hopefully I’ll get some feedback from them as well in the near future, or will at least have people to bounce ideas off of. I know that really helped when I was organizing the rewrite initially.

Anyway, things are going! Fingers crossed that the solution comes to me soon!

Common Writing Mistakes: Starting in the Wrong Place

Trucking right along, squiders.

(As an aside, Pinterest now allows you to create sub-boards, so I spent a lot of yesterday organizing my most problematic board, unhelpfully called “Your Pinterest Likes” and left over from when you could like pins. I, unfortunately, would both like and pin some pins, which has resulted in a lot of duplicates across boards, but I have gotten it straightened out now. Bwhaha. I wonder how the sub-boards affect the feeds of anyone who follows your boards. Anybody know?)

Now that we’re into story mechanics issues, let’s talk about what might be the most common issue of all: starting your story in the wrong place.

This is ridiculously easy to do. You can start too early. You can start too late. You can pick the wrong character to focus on, or have them do something completely useless in relation to the rest of the plot.

And the most annoying thing is that, a lot of the time, it’s not obvious that you’re starting wrong until the rest of the book is written.

Stemming from this issue is that starting in the wrong place can make it hard to get the rest of the story to flow, which means that you might languish at the beginning of the story, trying to beat it into submission.

Has that happened to you? You just can’t seem to get going because something’s obviously wrong.

(Ask me how many times I rewrote the beginning of my fantasy trilogy before I found a workable beginning spot. I dare you.)

Starting Too Early

This may be the most common of this common mistake. Your character does things, sometimes for chapters, before the story manages to get going. Some people will argue that you have to show what’s at stake for the character to lose before you have them lose it, but this can be done without three chapters of watching someone go through the daily routine.

Starting Too Late

You can get away with starting in the middle of the action, or even working backwards from a later plot point. You can even show a lot of earlier story through conventions such as flashbacks. But you can start too late, and if that information doesn’t come out in a timely fashion, then it feels like you’ve walked into a movie five minutes too late and are missing key information for the rest of the story.

Starting with the Wrong Character

Even if you have multiple viewpoints, there is still usually a “main” character, someone whose stakes are higher, someone who has a bigger journey to go through, to get through the completion of the book. You don’t always have to start with your main character, but realize that readers tend to bond with the first character in a book unless something is obviously a one off (a prologue, or a chapter from a murder victim’s point of view, for example). There also can be the problem of you trying to focus on the wrong character in general, and changing to a different character might make the story work better.

Starting with Useless Actions

Every scene counts in a story. It has to explore characterization, or move the plot along, or introduce new information, or some combination thereof. Yet many authors make the mistake of starting with something that does none of the above, such as going through their character’s daily routine. Can you have their daily routine mean something? Of course. But you do have to be purposeful with your intent. Even an exciting scene, such as a character getting carjacked, is useless if it doesn’t provide something larger to the story.

So, how do you fix this? Look at the story you’re trying to tell. Are you trying to stuff too much in the beginning? Are you leaving out key information? How does your opening scene work with your intended plot?

Some people recommend thinking about where you want the story to end instead, or even writing the ending first. By knowing where the story needs to go, it can help you understand what’s necessary to have it start.

What do you think, squiders? Other ways beginnings are wrong? Ways to fix them?

Poll Results, Project Switching, and Musical Aftermath

Okay, so judging from the poll last week, the next nonfiction topic we’ll focus on is writing consistently–why you should do it, strategies for doing it, and how not to beat yourself up about it if life has other plans. We’ll start that on Thursday. Woo!

So, in the continuing saga of breaking writer’s block by starting another novel, I have switched back to book one of the trilogy and…it actually felt pretty good. Not like pulling teeth at all. I think giving myself some distance really helped, and now hopefully everything will go smoother.

That said, distance has helped me realize that the new chapter one that took me a month to write is really, really terrible. I mean, okay, not terrible. It’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever written. But it is lacking in relevant plot points. It introduces characters, the world, the plot just fine, but the action in the chapter itself isn’t helping anything and isn’t terribly interesting on its own. The main characters go through training for much of this book, and so I introduced the training in chapter one. I also switched chapter one viewpoints (this story is dual viewpoint between a male and a female character), so I think I eliminated the training-related tension in doing so.

That being said, it’s not like there was a lot in the last version of the story, so I need to do some brainstorming on what to do about the first chapter in general. Maybe take the training sequence out, or add something to it to make it not just a standard day, or…

But, anyway, things for another time. When I was outlining this draft I’m working on now, I did consider taking the first chapter out and starting with the second chapter (where unexpected things definitely happen during training), but it felt too in medias res-y. I know there’s something to be said about starting in the middle of something, but when you’re setting up a high fantasy trilogy it felt like the reader would be too adrift without at least a smidgen of setting and worldbuilding and plot thrown in. (If you have examples otherwise, please let me know.)

I also considered writing chapter two both ways (from the female character’s viewpoint as the starting chapter and from the male character’s point of view as the second chapter) which I may still do.

But I’m leaning towards just leaving the beginning alone to percolate and plowing ahead with the rest of the draft, and then coming back to fix the beginning later. I’ve heard that it can sometimes help to write the beginning last anyway, since you’ll know your ending and how your theme plays out and can go full circle earlier.

So, that’s that.

Also, my musical is over (closed Sunday), so I can no longer use that as an excuse to not write. I’m hoping this means I can get a little more momentum going. I was, in theory, going to be pitching this draft at the end of April, but I’m not sure I can pull out a 100K word novel in a month and a half (or that I want to), so I may have to revisit that as well.

Musical went well! I’d do another one, if they’ll take me.

How was your weekend, Squiders?

Beginning Problems: The Mirror

Another common issue found in the beginning of a lot of early drafts and first novels is the mirror. Generally, this is combined with the dream sequence, where the main character wakes up from their dream, stumbles into the bathroom for mundane showering/teeth brushing, and then stares into the mirror, where we get a full, detailed description of their eyes, their hair, whatever other visual quirks, such as freckles, that the author has decided exist.

There are a ton of problems with this. The first of which is that it’s plain weird. I don’t know about you guys, but the last thing I think in the morning after I stumble into the bathroom is how sparkling my green eyes are, and how luscious my wavy blonde hair is, and man, aren’t my long lashes just the best?

(This is true even if the mirror is not related to a dream sequence. I see the “wander down the street and look at one’s reflection in the windows” variation a lot as well, and it still is weird.)

Second of all, it breaks up the story flow. Ideally, a short starts with something happening, even if it’s as simple as fighting with a sibling or being late for school. When you stop and spend a paragraph (or more) on appearance, the story loses its forward momentum.

Third, by dwelling on the main character’s appearance, it’s like the writer is saying, “I don’t know how to properly show characterization, or I think that somehow my character’s appearance is their characterization, and it’s important that I tell you all this now or you won’t care enough to keep reading.”

No reader cares about a character because they’re pretty/plain/brunette/a special snowflake. Readers care about a character because they’ve got a relate-able personality, a problem that’s interesting, something intriguing that pulls a reader along. Frankly, a character’s appearance is the least important aspect of their characterization in most cases (exceptions exist to every rule of course–the only black kid in the neighborhood is an important distinction to note up front, for example) and there’s no reason to dwell on it up front or in such detail.

I’m not saying that appearance can’t be noted–it’s the infodump qualities of the mirror sequence that make it a problem. A line of description here, another there–spread out throughout the narrative, not disrupting flow or plot.

What do you think, Squiders? Disagree with me that the mirror is a problem? Have examples of stories where the author manages it without ruining their momentum?

Beginning Problems: The Dream Sequence

Beginnings are an interesting beast, and what I find fascinating is that so many writers start their first stories the same way, like there’s some instinctual drive to do so. Like we were all taught to do so, even though most of the time they are a terrible, terrible mistake.

Let’s take the dream sequence. Dream sequences, in and of themselves, are not bad. Done right, they can convey information, tension, foreshadowing, etc. Some people can even pull off starting a novel or short story with a dream sequence.

However, most people can’t, and the problem isn’t even necessarily the dream sequence, but how it ties in with the rest of the story.

See, the typical dream sequence beginning goes something like this: Main character has a dream, where they either remember something that has recently happened that is interesting, or they has some sort of cryptic dream that hints interesting things are to come.

Main character then wakes up, goes to the bathroom (generally takes a shower, though brushing teeth is common as well), and any conflict or tension that was built up during the dream is immediately lost. The story doesn’t try to build off of it, and so everything just collapses into boring mediocrity.

There’s a bigger issue with the remembering something that has just happened kind. Why not start with that event? Why tell about it after the fact instead of showing it in action, especially if it’s something major, something that rocks the character’s world, something that starts the main plot?

But sometimes it doesn’t do any of those things–it’s just a one-off, something to hook people in right at the beginning, that doesn’t actually have anything to do with the main plot or the goals of the main character. That’s got a whole heap of other problems tied to it.

Beginnings are hard–they have to hook the reader, set up your MC and his/her world, and be relevant to your plot and your MC’s character arc. Getting that balance just right is a skill that generally takes a lot of cultivating.

If you’re starting with a dream sequence, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What am I hoping to show about my plot/character with this sequence?
  • Could this information be better conveyed in another way?
  • Does the content of this dream sequence directly tie in to and influence the main plot of my story?
  • Am I managing to keep the tension up once my character wakes up?

What do you think, Squiders? Do you have any examples of a starting dream sequence done right? Have you run into this issue in your own writing (or even professional writing) in the past?

Working Past the Beginning

So I’m finally getting to work on my chainsaw edit, but, like all my stories, I started in the wrong place and have to write a new beginning. (I know, I know, I’m so backwards. Most people start too early, I always start too late. Go figure.)

I was really excited about getting to work, so I sat down, got out my new outline, started to type, and…was unimpressed.

Beginnings suck. For some reason, they always feel bad. Either they don’t work the way you plan, or you feel like you’re writing crap, or, especially in a first draft, your characters just aren’t jelling.

And then you get frustrated. And you either give up, or you keep trying to rewrite it until it doesn’t suck, and either way, it is a huge time suck.

Here’s a secret…your beginning doesn’t have to be perfect.

So, how do you get the motivation to move on?

You tell yourself whatever you need to. Tell yourself that you’ll come back to it, that it’ll read better when you’ve got a little distance. Tell yourself that you can have a cookie. Tell yourself that your family will still love you.

Tell yourself that you can come back and fix it after you’ve written the rest of the story and know what the beginning should be.

Me, I’m not worrying too much right now. Yes, this is a second draft and I know what my beginning needs to be, but I’m still keeping my options open. Aside from the straight opening, I also have flashback and in media res openings if the straight one doesn’t work.

Don’t let your beginning get you down. There’s so much story awaiting you, if you let yourself get there.

Nanowrimo: Week One Tips

Well, friends, November is upon us.  All that planning you did (or didn’t) do during October, all the excitement and the anticipation…and now it’s time to go.

Don’t get bogged down in the beginning.  We’ve talked about beginnings here in the past, but the simple fact is that most people never get past them.  You’re excited, November comes, you sit down to write that scene you’ve been picturing in your head and…it’s terrible.  It didn’t come out the way you wanted it to.  Your characters are flat, your plot is asinine, if you have one at all, and you know no one will ever want to read your book.

It’s really easy to get stuck right here, trying to get your first scene to work.  Ignore this urge.  No matter how bad you feel your beginning may be, keep going.  The story will eventually start to flow, but only if you push on.

If, on the other hand, your beginning is great, your story is flowing, you feel amazing — good for you!  Keep it up!

Each book is going to be different.  Some will flow from your fingertips so fast you wonder if someone was channeling it through you.  Some you will have to fight every scene.  If you get ahead here in week one, don’t sit back on your laurels.  You may run into difficulties up ahead.  If you’re behind on word count, don’t panic.  You can catch back up.

This early in the month, it’s important to remember to keep writing and to try to get some writing in every day.  Scope out your local write-ins, make some writing friends.  This is going to be a fun month.


Starting yet another novel for Nano this year has reminded me how very much I hate beginnings.  Somewhere out there, I have no doubt, is an author whose first lines are always poignant and gripping on the first try, whose characters spring fully formed from their fingertips.  I am not that author and neither are a lot of us.

Every time I start a new novel I am surprised again by how difficult it is to start.  Surely, at some point, it must become easier, but if that’s true than it hasn’t happened yet.

There’s a lot of articles out there extoling the art of writing a novel.  Many people set out to try and write a novel.  Not everyone gets there.  It’s so easy to get bogged down at the beginning and try to get it perfect before moving on.

Perhaps one of the most important things Nano taught me was to keep pushing through the crap.  I am not good at beginnings.  I know that.  I feel like my characters are awkward and stiff, no matter whether this is the first book with them or the fifth.  My dialogue is cheesy and my descriptions feel forced.  When I release novels to my betas, I always cringe because they’re going to see that horrible prose first.

But hey, here’s the thing.  Beginnings end.  Eventually you get out into smoother waters.  The characters settle into themselves, your plot starts flowing seemingly without your help, cool things start happening.  I feel bad for the people who can’t get past their beginnings.  People who, for whatever reason, get so bogged down by their own quest for perfection that they never get to see where the story goes.

So, for those of you who have recently started a novel and are bemoaning the amount of crap that seems to be springing forth – stick with it.  Yes, it’s hard.  Yes, it’s bad.  But it will get better, it will get easier, and you may go back (when the draft is done) and find that maybe it wasn’t quite as bad as you thought it was.

And if it is as terrible as you feared, well, that’s why God invented editing.

Just don’t give up on yourself.  Then you have nothing.