Beginning your novel

Okay, this is going to be a long post. Hope it’s also interesting!

HOUSE OF SHADOW, as many of you probably know, is my sixth book, by which of course I don’t mean the sixth I’ve written, but the sixth to hit the shelves. Of my published books, it was the . . . um . . . third I wrote. (It went to Orbit in a package deal with the first Griffin Mage book; the other two Griffin Mage books were written afterward even though they were published first).

Of all the books I’ve ever written, HOUSE OF SHADOWS was the tenth. (At this point, I’ve written . . . let me see . . . sixteen books. Wow. I didn’t realize until this minute I’d written so many! More about that in a minute.

I’m going to be helping with a writer’s workshop at a convention this fall, and the entries I’ll be critiquing just arrived in the mail yesterday, and that’s made me think more than usual about the process of learning to write.

At any convention panel, if you ask a roomful of attendees who all is writing a book or thinking of writing a book, most of the hands go up. Today, when it’s so easy to throw a book up on the internet to sink or swim, I think it’s more important than ever to think about learning to write. About the craft of writing. About quality. About what makes a story sing. Which, in my more optimistic moments, I think I have managed to do, now and then.

Like so many other things worth doing, writing is a craft you learn. All the raw native talent in the world won’t let you whip off a great book, or even a publishable book, the first time you open up your laptop and start hitting the keys. Unless you’re Heinlein, and even he didn’t do it with a novel (or a laptop, obviously).

What I got in the mail for the workshop were novel fragments: the first twenty pages of each novel. As it happens, these beginnings of novels are not very good. They do seem to me to show promise, but currently they do not appear to me to be publishable (in the old sense of acceptable to publishers) (and by that I mean that I would not expect them to succeed if they were self-published, either).

What flaws are evident in these beginnings of novels? As it happens, they share exactly the same flaws (which is also interesting, isn’t it?).

It seems to me that there are four major constituents of a story: setting, character, plot, and style (which includes craft). People frequently seem to forget style, but I think it is the foundation on which everything else is built.

What the novel fragments sent to me have, or appear to have, is plot. What they lack is everything else – though it seems to me they could be improved.
After thinking about this, I went down to my own personal library, where I pulled ten books off shelves. These were not my ten personal favorites or what I think are the ten best written or any kind of top-ten list. I chose them because each of them strikes me as similar in setting to one or another of the workshop entries while also illustrating something that seems to me to be lacking in those entries.

Then I typed up the first couple of page of each of these books. In case you’re interested, I chose two books by Steve Parry, one of Tanya Huff’s Valor series, one by Patrick Lee, one by Ilona Andrews, one by Judith Riley, two by Barbara Hambly, two by Gillian Bradshaw, and one by Susanna Clarke. (I may not use all these in the workshop.) (Also, I now see that this is eleven books. Whatever.)

What I want to focus on during the workshop is how experienced authors establish setting and character in their very first pages. I am pretty sure that one piece of (common) advice my workshop attendees have taken to heart is Start by setting something on fire. In other words, start in media res. Start in the middle of the action. Do not, for God’s sake, start with your character waking up, or driving somewhere, or staring into a mirror.

And that may be good advice, generally. But you know how Patrick Lee starts THE BREACH, one of the best SF thrillers I’ve ever read? Like this:


On the first anniversary of his release from prison, Travis Chase woke at four in the morning to bright sunlight framing his window blinds. He put his backpack in his Explorer, left Fairbanks on State Route 2, and an hour later was on the hard-packed gravel of the Dalton Highway, running north toward the Arctic Circle and the Brooks Range beyond. From the crests of the highest hills, he could see the road and the pipeline snaking ahead for miles, over lesser ridges and through valleys blazing with pink fireweed.

The trip was not a celebration. Far from it. It was a deliberation on everything that mattered: where he stood, and where he would go from here.

The console showed an outside temperature of fifty-nine degrees. Travis lowered the windows and let the moist air rush through the vehicle. The height of summer here smelled like springtime back in Minneapolis, the scent of damp grass just freed from snow cover.


Look! Travis woke up and now he is driving somewhere. We are emphatically not in the middle of the action. How much internal dilemma and scenery description does it take before we get a glimmer that something exciting may possibly be on the way? Twelve paragraphs – about four pages. And the first hint of trouble?

He woke with a quickened pulse, aware that something had startled him, but unable to tell what, exactly.

But a storm has come up, and he thinks that’s what woke him up – it might have, too, for all we can tell. There are quite a few more pages before stuff really starts happening.

Then things build and build and build and OMG you have no idea. Starting so quietly only makes it more effective when Lee starts to turn up the pressure. Did I say this is one of the best SF thrillers EVER? It totally is.

But look how Lee does something a beginning writer often seems to have trouble with: he builds his world up around the protagonist, layering in sensory details to draw the reader right into the story. This is totally crucial. And if you’re writing a kind of more out-there SF or a secondary world fantasy? The farther you are from the contemporary world, the more important it is to build the setting.

And look at how Lee’s doing characterization right from the start It’s not a coincidence that Travis is heading to this really deserted, isolated, demanding country, or that he’s planning a route that’s going to avoid any chance of meeting anybody. We know something about the main character just from this choice. Plus, right away we get told this big thing about the main character: he’s been in prison and now he’s trying to figure out where to go with his life. Lee tells us this, but he’s showing us the protagonist’s sense of being stuck and his sense of alienation from normal life through the protagonist’s actions. That’s followed up with paragraphs like this:

What future did he see among [his family]? Even to the few who could understand and forgive what he’d done, he would always be the brother who’d spent half of his twenties and all of his thirties in prison. Twenty years from now, in the eyes of the next generation, he’d be that guy. That uncle. You could only get so free.

Right from the beginning, Lee is showing the reader this guy named Travis who did something – what? – something bad enough to be in prison for fifteen years. We have no clue what, but we know we’ll find out. We’re really interested, we’re drawn in. It doesn’t take an explosion to grab us, we’re already there. We can wait a few pages for the action to start.

But besides that, besides showing us this one character, Lee’s also showing that he understands the way people are, that he gets what it’s like to be that guy, the guy who’s an ex-con. We’re all nodding: Yeah, that’s true, that stuff about you can only get so free, it would really be like that, that’s just how a guy in Travis’s shoes would feel. This story is going to feel real because the author knows how to put real people into a book.

And the writing itself is deft. Lee is showing craftsmanship. It’s not just grammatically correct – though it is – it’s just good. If you read the first few pages carefully, you’ll find a fragment sentence – but you’d never notice it if you weren’t looking, because it fits the rhythm of the writing. And there is a rhythm to it. That’s important. Lee’s prose sounds good to the ear.

Look at the first two paragraphs above. You know how many words are in each sentence in that first paragraph? 24, 37, and 27. Now look at the second paragraph: 5, 3, and 18. Five and three! Look how much impact those short, punchy sentences have after all those long flowing sentences before. You don’t have to stop and analyze the writing to feel the punch, nobody’s going to stop and analyze this! You just feel it.

Style is so important. A feel for the language is so important. And we don’t have to worry about that with Lee. We know that in the first page, we can feel it. We can trust this writer. He’s going to tell us a story and we’re going to relax and let him take on his roller coaster ride.

Now, there are things that can go wrong with a book that starts well, obviously. Plot holes (I had a pretty serious suspension-of-disbelief problem with this very book), characters that are annoying for one reason or another (The woman needs to be rescued again? Really?). Maybe the plot is a bit too predictable. (Now, that’s not a problem with Lee!)

But that sort of thing is definitely not what an aspiring writer should be thinking of when thinking about how to write a novel that works. And definitely not when trying to hook an agent in those first couple of all-important pages. That writer should be thinking about building setting and character. And while it’s important to have a plot that flows from the beginning straight through the end, with good character arcs for the important (and maybe secondary) characters, it’s even more important to think about style and developing a feel for language.

For that last, the hardest and most crucial foundation on which absolutely everything else is going to rest . . . well, you learn to write by reading. And then by writing. I recommend Francine Prose’s book READING LIKE A WRITER, who makes a case for the importance of craft that ought to persuade anybody.

Now, at last, in case you’re interested and in order to illustrate the learning process, here’s the list of novels I’ve personally completed, in chronological order by date written, with comments.

The Ghost Trilogy was a secondary-world adult fantasy that actually, now that I think of it, might actually be YA. (So right from the beginning I was writing right on that border. Huh.) Anyway, while it’s not actually terrible, I have very little inclination to put this trilogy out as it stands. When I went back and looked at it not so long ago, I liked quite a few things about it. But it reads like . . . well, like . . . a first novel.

This trilogy represents roughly 1500 pp (about 500,000 words) of practice and that’s what I want to emphasize: this was great practice, but nothing I’d really want to see on the shelf. Plus it would not have been a good idea to get all ambitious about selling it because it’s long (every book is over 150,000 words and that’s far too long for most first novels) and because the books aren’t self-contained. If I’d really been committed to selling it to a publisher, I would probably have been really disappointed. But I never sent it out, so that was fine.

I learned a huge amount from writing this trilogy. I want to make that crystal clear. I learned how to punctuate dialogue – I remember going to my shelves and taking books off at random to see how punctuation was handled. I learned how to signal the reader about who’s saying what in dialogue. I learned how you can substitute movement for a dialogue tag. I figured out what tags besides “said” work for me. I learned it’s okay to use adverbs if you want to, including vague adverbs like “very,” if you do it right. (I do use fewer now than I used to, but I’m still not shy about using adverbs.)

I learned bigger things. I learned how to compress time: “Three weeks later, she rode at last out of the frozen pass.” I learned how to handle a “crowded room” scene, where more than two people are interacting. I learned that if I’m patient and let the story unroll in my head, suddenly the dots will connect and the plot will emerge. I learned to finish a novel.

There were some things I didn’t learn from writing this trilogy. I didn’t learn correct, standard grammar: I knew that already. (Thanks, Mom!) I didn’t learn that tension needs to ratchet upward: I knew that already, too. (Doesn’t everyone?) I didn’t learn how to describe a scene: description has always been the easy part for me. I didn’t learn how to beat a plot out of thin air when I have a deadline: that came later and was not much fun.

I think that probably every aspiring writer has things he or she is just good at and things he or she needs to learn by actually, deliberately figuring them out. I think you learn to write by reading and then by writing.

Okay! After the fantasy trilogy came an adult SF duology, though again I now see that one important character is more a YA type of character. Anyway, for this one I was playing around with the interaction between instinct and culture and that worked as an SF story, not as a fantasy story. (This is the only thing I’ve ever written that actually draws on my background in animal behavior and evolutionary theory.)

I now think the ideas in it are great and the plot is serviceable and some of the scenes are good, but overall I really don’t think much of it. When I re-read bits of it a few years ago, I was not happy with it. This duology – which I wrote as a single book, but would have had to break in half – it’s 218,000 words, for heaven’s sake – is in my opinion not as good as the fantasy trilogy. I would never put it out without huge, serious revision.

After that I started an adult fantasy novel that really was solidly adult and not YA. It started in this world and moved into a secondary world (it’s a portal fantasy). The pov character is a psychiatrist. I loved the part I wrote, about a novel’s worth of pages. It was ambitious and interesting and I thought it was worth finishing, but it not finished and it was clearly going to be oversized, so I put it aside and wrote –

THE CITY IN THE LAKE. The whole idea was to write something short and self-contained and good enough to sell and in fact really good. CITY succeeded on all counts and is sometimes still my favorite of all my books, depending on my mood. This was the first book with which I seriously tried to hook an agent, at which of course it also succeeded.

I’d read a useful piece of advice in there someplace, which was: The minute you send out your first book, start working on your second. So that was when I wrote –

LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS, the first Griffin Mage book. The idea was to write a second book that would appeal to the same readership as CITY. (I don’t know how well that succeeded.)

But I still loved the adult fantasy novel I had started back before CITY and I went back and finished it in a huge rush, 250 pp or so in 19 days, the fastest I’ve ever written anything. It was a very intense experience. The revision, which for months I referred to as The Never-ending Revision from Hell, was intense in a different way. The effort yielded the TENAI duology, which, however much I loved it, did not find a place with a publisher. (“The writing is beautiful, but we feel it is too innovative and we’re not sure it will sell . . .”) (Yes, that is an accurate summary of a couple different responses.) This is a duology I will eventually bring out independently, if I have to. I do not, however, want it to be the first book I bring out myself. I love it too much to make it the subject of that kind of fumbling experiment.

Then I wrote HOUSE OF SHADOWS. My YA editor at Knopf didn’t think it was YA – she’d rejected CHANGING WINDS, too – but my agent placed both with Orbit, so that was all right.

Determined to write a story that would unquestionably fall on the YA side of the line, I read a dozen or so YA fantasies and then sat down and wrote THE FLOATING ISLANDS. My Knopf editor loved it, so all was well!

Meanwhile, my editor at Orbit wanted a sequel to CHANGING WINDS, so I wrote fifty pages of two different books and sent them to her and said Pick one. She loved them both, and that’s why the Griffin Mage Trilogy is a trilogy and not a duology. Of course one turned into LAND OF THE BURNING SANDS and the other into LAW OF THE BROKEN EARTH.

And that covers all the books currently on the shelves, right? That makes thirteen novels total. What about the other three? I don’t want to say much about them until I have something solid to announce, but I will say that I do expect all three to be published eventually, including my current WIP, which I just finished in the sense of OMG the revision make it stop.

And that’s the complete list to date. Sixteen. Wow.

So that should add perspective when I say: don’t fall in love with the first book you ever write. If it’s great, that’s splendid! But that’s the exception, not the rule. A million words of practice, that’s the rule. Don’t eat your heart out if your first book doesn’t garner much interest. Maybe you shouldn’t press forward with it. If that first novel was actually just a learning exercise, that’s all right. Focus on setting, character, plot, and most of all the craft of writing. Then write another book. If you have any kind of feel for the language, chances are good it will be so much better. My advice is: wait for that one before you push for publication.

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3 thoughts on “Beginning your novel”

  1. This is an interesting post — two posts, really. Since I’m not working on a novel myself, I’m more interested in the retrospective. I hadn’t set them out this way before.

    It hadn’t occurred to me, either, that you started off close to the YA line. Although that’s partly because by the third book, the Ghost Trilogy is not YA at all. At least, not by my standards.

    A couple other comments nobody else will get: speaking of big things, you also learned characterization from the Ghost trilogy. I still like the high concept of the SF duology, and the ideas plus some nice bits stick out in memory — but I suspect I wouldn’t think too much of it either if I re-read it. Honestly, even if you go back to the ideas, putting them into something entirely new might be a better route than trying a revision as severe as that one would require.

    How many books in there did you start (enough to be actually _started_) but abandon? I can think of one beginning I read (you know, the portal sf book on the savanna), and there was at least one more I didn’t. Or was what became TENAI?

    I’m not sure if CHANGING WINDS was always “not so much like CITY after all” or if they just seem that way now. But I do recall feeling they were more similar the first time I read them.


  2. No, everybody doesn’t know that tension needs to ratchet upwards. Or maybe everybody doesn’t know how to write it. I recently read a charmer, I loved the characters,(they had FAMILIES! which were important!) cultures, and there was action everywhere. But no plot tension. I’ll reread it just to revisit the people, but the writer needs to work on the ratchet.

    You’ve read Le Guin’s LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT, haven’t you? There’s an essay in there where she takes on similar ‘rules’ of starting books. I must point out that your example from Lee may start with a character driving somewhere, but he’s clearly got a purpose. Lee makes us understand that by getting him out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4:00 a.m. as well as prefacing that bit with the ‘release from prison’.

    I suspect the ‘rule’ about not starting that way really means: don’t start with aimless (boring) driving without a thread of intention/purpose to draw us on. That’s the trouble with rules, they’re truncated so the important bits get lost.

    Long term I look forward to a chance to read TENAI, and I’m glad your editor liked both possible sequels to LotCW, because I actually like them both a bit better than the first.

  3. Yes, the rules aren’t really RULES — like everything else, you need to know what the ‘rules’ are and — very important — why they’re considered rules. THEN you can break ’em!

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