As you may know, I’m participating in a writer’s workshop at ArmadilloCon this weekend. I really enjoy these, and this one sounds like a Really Big Deal — it goes all day, starting with panel discussions and so on, with the actual workshop in the afternoon. I have extensive written feedback to hand back to the four participants in my section, which I hope they all find helpful.
You have probably noticed that at any convention, 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 probably won’t let you whip off a great book, or even an adequate book, the first time you open up your laptop and start hitting the keys (though yes I can think of exceptions).
It seems to me that there are four major constituents of a story: setting, character, plot, and style (which includes sentence-level craft). (People frequently seem to forget style, but I think it is the foundation on which everything else is built.) What I have noticed in previous workshops, though to a lesser extent in the entries this time, is a focus on plot to the virtual exclusion of everything else.
After thinking about this, I went down to my personal library and pulled three books off the shelves. Let’s look at how talented authors establish setting and character in the very first pages, as well as setting up the plot.
I am pretty sure that one piece of (common) advice workshop attendees have frequently 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 check this out, from The Breach by Patrick Lee:
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. Have I mentioned this is one of the best SF thrillers EVER? It totally is, even though it was marketed as a mainstream contemporary thriller and not as SF at all.
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 the reader 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 some secondary) characters, it’s even more important to think about style and developing a feel for language.
The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen offers another beautiful beginning:
The day Paxton Osgood took the box of heavy-stock, foil-lined envelopes to the post office, the ones she’d had a professional calligrapher address, it began to rain so hard the air turned as white as bleached cotton. By nightfall, rivers had crested at flood stage and, for the first time since 1936, the mail couldn’t be delivered. When things began to dry out, when basements were pumped free of water and branches were cleared from yards and streets, the invitations were finally delivered, but to all the wrong houses. Neighbors laughed over fences, handling the misdelivered pieces of mail to their rightful owners with comments about the crazy weather and their careless postman. The next day, an unusual number of people showed up at the doctor’s office with infected paper cuts, because the envelopes had sealed, cementlike, from the moisture. Later, the single-card invitations themselves seemed to hide and pop back up at random. Mrs. Jameson’s invitation disappeared for two days, then reappeared in a bird’s nest outside. Harper Rowley’s invitation was found in the church bell tower, Mr. Kingsley’s in his elderly mother’s garden shed.
If anyone had been paying attention to the signs, they would have realized that air turns white when things are about to change, that paper cuts mean there’s more to what’s written on the page than meets the eye, and that birds are always out to protect you from things you don’t see.
But no one was paying attention. Least of all Willa Jackson.
What a charming book this one turned out to be! It’s the first one of Allen’s I’ve ever read, and really delightful, all about friendship and family loyalty and what it means to be adult and the bonds we feel to the past. Especially friendship, an emphasis I always appreciate. I’ve been a big fan of Allen’s ever since I read this story.
It’s also a story that falls into a somewhat unusual category: magical realism. This is a world where the saying that digging up one secret releases others isn’t just a saying, and where you’re not quite sure that the old tale in town about bottles filled with fog couldn’t be literally true. I really enjoy magical realism, which I first encountered in A Winter’s Tale by Helprin. I loved that book, but Allen’s book is more approachable and has such appeal and charm, not to mention very sweet romances.
Also, not to belabor the point from the previous point, but see how this story starts? So gently and softly, even though the second paragraph sets up tension and also assure you that this book really is fantasy, which isn’t obvious, btw, and I was kind of thinking it was contemporary when I picked it up off the TBR pile, but it’s not, quite; and I thought it might be a mystery, but it’s not that either – quite. One curious little detail is that the protagonists never do find out the truth about the thing that happened in the past and that’s driving the story now – isn’t that interesting? (The reader does find out, but not the protagonists.) But the way the secret stays hidden ties into the theme of friendship and loyalty very nicely.
Here’s a third example of an excellent beginning: Gunmetal Magic by Ilona Andrews.
For snappy dialogue and fun situations and a couple of GREAT practical jokes – I’m so tempted to give away the thing with the purple carpet, but I won’t – anyway, this is a great story. The story also offers a couple of very nice little tidbits about hyena behavior that are actually based on reality. Though that bit about how hyena siblings fight and kill each other, I don’t think that’s accurate, btw. Hans Kruuk never mentioned anything like that, and van Lawick provided anecdotal data which would tend to imply the reverse – strong friendly bonds between siblings. But the thing about hyena cubs digging dens too small for adults to fit into in order to get away from potentially deadly adult males is absolutely true.
Plus besides the stuff about hyenas, we get an Olde English Bulldogge! Nobody even knows that breed exists except me! And Ilona Andrews, apparently! I LOVE the way these authors know their dogs! So unusual!
Anyway, if you’re thinking about picking up a paranormal, this is a great choice. If you’ve never tried paranormals, this series is a good place to start, but I’ll just add that the first book is okay, the second better, and the series really hits its stride after that, so be patient and pick up the first three before you make up your mind. And the other series, the Edge series by the same authors – also quite good.
Plus! GUNMETAL MAGIC itself is long enough you don’t feel cheated, but – and though this is mentioned on the back cover, it was a nice surprise for me – as a bonus there’s also a hundred-page Kate Daniels novella at the back.
My head hit the sidewalk. Candy jerked me up by my hair and slammed my face into the asphalt.
So you see, sometimes you really do start in the middle of the action. I didn’t want to leave everybody with the idea that you never do this. There’s this tiny little prologue, disguised as a couple of paragraphs of a newspaper article and clearly meant to orient new readers, but I think the authors are expecting most readers to be familiar with their world and characters, and I suspect they are right. So they jump right in with a series of action scenes before we start to develop the important personal dilemmas and relationship stuff that form the heart of the story.
On the other hand . . . ever hear how you aren’t supposed to start a novel with your protagonist waking up from a dream? Because actually, the above snippet IS a dream, and then Andrea wakes up. And it’s a great scene, because she’s tucked in the closet and holding a butcher’s knife. Sleepwalking to get a butcher’s knife probably does not count as the sort of dream that bores people! Which of course is why it works to start this book.
So. What an author should strive to do is use the very first page to establish style and tone, setting and character, and then maybe get the plot started. But if the rest falls into place, I do think the reader will give you a few pages to get to the action. Whereas if you jump into the action without nailing the rest, a whole lot of readers will close your book and go on to the next on their TBR pile, because action and plot are nothing without character and context.
I will add, this has been the Working on Beginning a Novel summer for me. I usually try to finish a project over the summer. Not this year! I have instead started four (4) different novels, each of which are between 50 and 100 pages long now. This year, I may need to actually participate in NaNoWriMo in order to finish one by the end of the year…