Beginning A Novel: A different take on the subject

Just came across this post by Justine Larbalestier, whom you may recognize as the author of LIAR and the MAGIC OR MADNESS* trilogy.

So, in recent posts, I was really talking about the craft involved in beginning a novel, right? In her post, Larbalestier is talking about the impact of, I dunno, personality? Personal quirks? At least, individual variability in the way a particular author approaches a brand new book.

Larbalestier says:

“For the first week or so on a new book it is a major effort for me to look away from whatever online or offline spectacle is calling to me in order to start typing. I’ll have the open scrivener project with the initial idea jotted down. Girl who always lies. And I’ll think, well, do I know enough about lying? Maybe I should look up what recent research there’s been? So I do that. Then I accidentally look at twitter. Or someone’s blog where a flamewar has started. Then my twenty minute break reminder will buzz. So I have to get up and stretch and someone will text me and I’ll realise we haven’t chatted in ages and call them. And as I walk around the flat chatting I’ll realise that I haven’t emptied the dishwasher and once it’s emptied I have to load it with the dirties. And then I’ll be hungry and have to make second breakfast and in doing so I’ll notice that some of the parsley in the garden is going to flower and I’ll pick those bits and kill some bugs and check for weeds and make sure the passionfruit isn’t growing over to our next door neighbour’s deck. And then I’ll realise we need pine nuts for the dinner we’re going to make so I have to up to the shops.

And like that. At which point the sun will be setting and it’s time to down tools and I’ll have written precisely no words of the new novel I swore I’d start that day.”

And this is all very interesting to me, because — and this is the point I want to make, right here — this is SO DIFFERENT from the way I feel when I’m starting a new novel.

I love beginning a new novel! It flows! It sings! It writes itself! The protagonist walks onto the stage and does things and says things! The world builds itself around the protagonist! All of this deserves that clutter of exclamation points because it is just as easy as I am making it sound!

Most of the time, I barely revise the first pages. Lots of the time, I barely revise the first chapters. That part nearly always works just fine, it only gets polished a bit and then a bit more, but it seldom changes much. (I can think of one exception at the moment, where I went back and added a whole ‘nother chapter on the front of a finished book. But even there the first first chapter didn’t change much, it just got turned into the second chapter.)

Where I bog down, ten times out of ten, is the middle. Especially the early-middle part of the middle. Then it usually (not quite always) gets easy and fun again toward the end.

I thought I’d mention this just because, well, I know you are all aware that everyone is different. But sometimes it is a good idea to really make that point clear. Just to be sure that no one thinks they must be doing it wrong if [Insert Author] says they write this particular way but that’s not how you write. There is absolutely nothing whatsoever that every successful writer does or feels. Except put a lot of words in a row at some point, of course.

Larbalestier also says:

“Turns out that what works best for me is to always have more than one novel on the go. Right at this moment I . . . have ten other novels that I’ve started, ranging from the 1930s New York City novel, which is more than 100,000 words long, to a rough idea for a novel of 126 words.”

There we can agree. I have currently five — wait, six — novel beginnings of forty to seventy pages each sitting around. And just like Larbalestier, I sometimes have a really hard time choosing one to work on.

Anyway, just found that post interesting! So there you go.

* By the way, this is the only YA fantasy series I’ve ever read where magic seems to be intrinsically, unavoidably, a bad thing. Bad for you if you practice it. Bad for it if you have it but don’t use it. It really is a choice between magic and madness — either you use magic and die young or don’t use it and go mad, I think those were the choices. Not 100% sure, it’s been a while since I read the series, but definitely two bad choices, no good choice. Magic was definitely bad bad bad. Anybody else know of a magic system where the magic is intrinsically a bad thing? In YA?

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4 thoughts on “Beginning A Novel: A different take on the subject”

  1. Kipling got it. Nine & sixty ways of constructing tribal lays and every single one is right.
    As the poor poet gets hammered by various parties complaining he is doing it wrong.

    Whatever works, works.

    Pleased to hear of so many books in the works. :-)

  2. Not YA, but the first book that comes to mind is James Blish’s The Devil’s Day (originally Black Easter and The Day After Judgment): one character is a “white magician”, but his order is revealed to have been essentially fooling itself. (And the consequences for messing with magic in that book pretty much couldn’t be worse.)

    Also not YA, but the computer game series Dragon Age features some seriously no-win magic:

    1) It’s an aptitude you’re born with.
    2) It basically makes you a lightning rod for temptation both by demons and the easy shortcut of blood magic (input: human blood; output: awesome power, including mind control to take people’s minds off the fact that you’re doing blood magic).
    3) There’s a technique to suppress it, but it turns the subject into an emotionless robot (who, if temporarily released, will often beg for death rather than be returned to it).

    In theory, it’s possible (at least for a trained adult) to practice responsible magic. In practice, if you’re not the player character this is treated as comparable in lifelong difficulty to joining a celibate order or maintaining a strict diet: possible for some, but not something you’d want to depend on a large population to manage entirely without fail. And the consequences for slipping mostly involve large-scale fatalities: In the first game, you’re faced with a preteen who wanted to save his dying father. The consequences inevitably kill a fair number of people, and if the PC messes up or fails to intervene will destroy an entire town. That’s from one frightened kid.

    (Though one flaw in the series is that there’s no good mechanic or plot driver to make a mage PC feel any of that temptation, or even, really, the social and legal consequences of being a mage.)

    Different cultures deal with the problem differently. The central one in the game requires them all on detection to move to a tower, where they can be tested (on coming of age, they have to resist a demonic temptation, accept the aforementioned lobotomization, or die) and watched by a religious order of fanatic warriors with antimagic powers. (Bestowed by dangerous, addictive drugs.) If they leave, they can be tracked (using a blood sample) and killed. If a tower goes out of control, the guardians will seal the place and kill them all.

    (The PC runs into all sorts of parents trying to hide their children, groups of apostate mages hiding in the woods, etc. Frequently, the consequences are pretty bad. On the other hand, the game makes no bones about how bad it is to take away kids’ futures and throw them into life imprisonment and servitude, for something outside their control.)

    What’s really interesting is the way much of the fandom divides into mage partisans, who see the part where they’re an oppressed minority– which they are– and not the part where they’re walking WMDs on a hair trigger; and Templar partisans who think the only problem is letting too many mages live. (The local Proud Warrior Race treats mages much more brutally.) Both seem to me to miss the painstakingly crafted no-win situation. Which is made even more untenable by events in the second game.

  3. A) That’s really interesting.

    And yes, the way the players divide is particularly interesting. Somebody commented . . . um . . . no, really don’t remember who . . . that there’s a powerful tendency in contemporary culture to substitute an idea of what ought to be true for any attempt to come up with possible ways to cope with things that actually are true. Ignoring the bit about magic users being constantly and irrevocably just this close to turning into mass murderers strikes me as an example. I must admit I would tend to come down on the “Kill them all” side of the fence. No wonder parents hide their children. What a world!

    B) I sure can’t see the appeal of playing in such a game. Just as the MAGIC AND MADNESS trilogy lost a LOT of its appeal for me when I realized how irredeemably screwed you are if you happen to be born with magic. I can’t imagine choosing that world to, for example, write fan fiction in. Who would want to imagine being in that world? Ick.

    Similar but different: LeGuin’s Western Shores trilogy (GIFTS, POWERS, and VOICES) — is set in a world where magic isn’t irredeemably evil, but it was just amazing how the people (not the protagonist) were irredeemably evil. Just about everybody the protagonist runs into is SO EVIL. If they look nice, there are usually warning signs, which the protagonist misses, and then they turn out to be EVIL. Even with the few Nice People at the end, the unrelenting evilness of nearly everybody seemed like a kinda strange message to be delivering to the intended YA audience.

  4. Your question about the appeal of playing the game may be part of why it doesn’t hit the player character with the brunt of the problem. (It informs the world and has effects on him/her, but the worst personal consequences can mostly be avoided one way or another.) But while I personally can only take that sort of thing in small doses, there’s clearly a powerful market for worlds in which life is pretty nasty, brutish, and short and many of the choices are between black and charcoal gray, as witness the multimedia success of Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. (Which was clearly one of Dragon Age’s inspirations.)

    And there can be something compelling about a story in which you have to make the best of a bunch of bad choices to work out the greatest good for the greatest number. (Or failing that, the least bad.) At least assuming that’s what you’re trying to do– which in my case it tends to be. But while the PC is ultimately constrained to deal with the main plot problem in the game, what sort of person he/she and how the character is motivated can vary widely. (And of course even what constitutes the greatest good may look very different to a human noble, a ghetto-born elf, or a forcibly cloistered mage.)

    I’d personally prefer a brighter world, but I like that style of single-player online RPG (character choices which affect the story, complex dialog, large scope), and at any given time it’s pretty much Hobson’s Choice given the size of the market. (I much prefer the same company’s Mass Effect sf series, which while still set in a fairly dark universe, allows for a more straightforwardly heroic approach to it.) From what I can tell, the few alternatives (e.g., The Witcher, a highly-regarded fantasy RPG by a Polish developer) tend to run even darker.

    Though I can tell you (from secondhand but reliable sources) that one thing the Dragon Age universe has produced is *tons* of fanfic. It probably helps that one of the publisher’s signature story elements is a wide variety of romance options for the PC. :-)

    I haven’t read the Le Guin, and from your description I don’t think it’s going to go to the top of my list. That does seem like a strange choice, though I suppose it fits in with the Nobody Gets It feelings that a lot of adolescents go through.

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