Sunday, January 16, 2011

Once Upon a Time

I used to love beginnings. In fact, I naively thought I had a knack for creating the right beginning for a story, but actually what I had a knack for (if I had a knack at all) was having an opening hook and a cliffhanger ending to the chapter.

You see, that I can do. I can make something absurd...or perhaps even suspenseful, and then end the chapter with an ironic sentence or a funny bit of dialogue. If that's all it took, I could give practically give lessons on it--but it's not. You have to be able to build on the opening you created and carry out the promise your ironic little cliffhanger gave. And most of all, you have to make sure any secondary characters you've unwittingly introduced to your mess don't hijack your entire tale and make your readers wonder about THEM instead of your hero and heroine.

Which is incidentally what I've done for the hundredth time with this stupid story.

I started off with my new plan with high hopes, had my "beginning" with its ironic cliffhangers, and was immediately frustrated because my secondary characters were being a bit too...much. But I couldn't live without them, could I? The story needed them, right? I shared the situation with Bo'sun, who pointed out what I knew but wouldn't admit: the secondary characters were hijacking the story again.

So if I couldn't have that chapter, then frankly, perhaps I needed to cut the other chapter too. I'd tried to build on that particular chapter about a thousand times to no avail. Perhaps I should call a spade a spade already and just bury it. So I removed it as well, and where am I again? Back to the beginning.

I don't mean to be ironic. I'm literally back to the beginning of the damned thing. I'm now understanding Sin's complaints that she has to rewrite her beginnings a billion times before she can proceed. I thought she was exaggerating, allowing perfectionism to bog her down. And maybe we are allowing perfectionism to bog us--first drafts are supposed to be sloppy and awful. Still, having your secondary characters take over your manuscript in chapter 2 is a sign. A sign maybe you should start over before you get to chapter 30 and realize you have to start over.

I suppose the first thing a writer needs to figure out where to start is to decide whose story this is. Well, I've got that. I know I want it to be my hero and heroine--and not the secondary characters, even if I think they're funnier.  So the beginning needs to begin with them, period. Easy to do.

The beginning also needs to shake up the status quo--though we may not know what the status quo is right away. It must be an incident that propels the characters on a road of no return. The beginning needs to hint (or reveal) the wants/desires of the main characters, and hopefully, present opposing goals so they're in conflict. Or if they're working together, make sure it's reluctantly.

Frankly the beginning is much more important than I ever gave it credit for. I thought the only real importance the beginning ever had was to lure the reader to keep reading. It was the shiny fake bait, not the catch. But the beginning is the foundation of the building; and your characters are the cornerstone. If you don't lay a solid foundation and proper cornerstone, you're going to end up with a cracked place to live in.Without a solid foundation, your walls will shake and your roof will fall off. Who wants that?

Not all beginnings are as difficult as I'm clearly making this one. The beginning is almost always the exciting part of book writing where your fingers are typing too slowly for your muse and all these scenes are pouring forth onto the page. But as much as the beginning of a project is exciting, it's always like panning for gold to figure out what the true beginning of any story really is. Where your story really lies.

What do you like best about beginnings? What do you find most frustrating? Do you find yourself creating a bunch of dead end beginnings to a draft before finding your true foundation? Do you have secondary characters that cause problems for you?


2nd Chance said...

With my current project, I do tend to let second characters introduce the key that unlock the first chapter,'s at least one of the leads who reacts, responds, starts things moving.

Emily saw the zeppelin to introduce the second Kraken's Caribbean story...but in tellng Jezebel about it, it started the story...because how Jez reacted and responded set the tone. And it's all in Jez's POV.

So, I figure if I start of using the secondaries and not letting them use me...I can hopefully rein in the tendancy to let them take off with things. Emily is more removed from the third book, and it's going to be a new secondary character that starts things spinning for Janey...

I like beginnings! ;-)

Quantum said...

Helli, seems to me that you might be trying to hammer a square peg into a round hole here.

If the secondary characters are hijacking the story at the beginning, maybe the plot needs adjusting. It sounds perfect for a mystery.

In a Miss Marple mystery (Agatha Christie), the openings are always dominated by secondary characters (sometimes referred to as red hearings!). Then the police (often inspector Slack) appear and misread all the clues. Finally Miss Marple (the heroine) makes her entrance, usually in an unassuming way, irritating the police with a penetrating and astute observation that makes them look like amateurs.

Gradually Miss Marple starts to dominate the plot, gradually growing (like an oak tree in a flower garden) until the final chapter where with a towering presence, she reveals everything.

The culprit then gets his comeuppance and Jane explains how she solved the mystery, using analogies with characters found in her English village.

Yeh, OK! I watched 'Murder in the Vicarage' last night. *grin*

I think perhaps your characters are in search of a plot ... didn't Pirandello once have a similar problem with a play, where characters were searching for an author?

There's definitely a precedent! :lol:

2nd Chance said...

I never really noticed that about AC books, Q! I might have to pull some of the ones I remember most fondly out and read them again.

Donna said...

Hellion, the beginning of the book is the part that is redone the most -- and it's often done AFTER you type The End. :) Sometimes you don't know what you need at the beginning until after you finish writing the book. You have an idea, but you don't have all the info until you've written everything.

One of my historicals, LORD MIDNIGHT, had three different beginnings before I got the one that worked the way it was supposed to. (And one of those openings placed in a contest years ago!) It wasn't until I was sending out queries that I realized I needed to change the beginning.

I know we all work differently, so all I can say is I would keep going and see where the story takes you, and THEN make the beginning do everything it is supposed to. But that may not work for you. :)

Bosun said...

I think at this point, we should just move this blog to next Monday. LOL!

2nd Chance said...

Says, the woman who lives on the east coast! But I think you're probably right. Sigh! I had no idea how much I organized my life around this blog until I had to go an ENTIRE morning without it!

Bosun said...

Well this east-coaster went the entire day!

2nd Chance said...

Whoa! The wayback machine in motion! ;-) Now I need to reshuffle the brain back into mode before the morning dawns!

Hellion said...

2nd, I like beginnings too, I do. There is something just so hopeful about a beginning. You know, like a family road trip, that inside you know is a bad idea, but when the family is fresh and the idea of getting to Wally World seems brilliant, you start out the first hundred miles with a big grin on your face.

Honestly though I haven't gotten a hundred miles. i feel like I've gotten down my driveway and the tire has blown out.

Actually I'm having a COMMITMENT problem and it's manifesting itself in the beginning. That's all. I just need to commit. Just leap.

Hellion said...

Q, your solution is extremely sound--if these side characters are hijacking the show, give them the show--except these are famous side characters. If I gave them the show, well, it would be more balls than I currently have. There's not a sequel to the Bible, you know.

And I don't doubt my characters are in search of a plot. I'm always in search of a plot. *LOL*

Hellion said...

Donna, my good woman, I know you're right. It's advice I've given myself many, many times. Write as if. It'll be rewritten. It'll all be rewritten. My rational brain keeps saying this, and my illogical brain just keeps seizing up as if I need to find the perfect pair of shoes for the prom before I've found the dress--and it won't even contemplate even going to stores for the dress until I have the shoes.

I just need to sit and commit. That's all.

Of right now, now I'm working on a quilt. So as you might surmise, commitment is an issue for me right now.

Quantum said...

I don't believe it!

The Bo'sun really is Dr Who the time traveler!?

And this ship is really a Tardis??!!

And Helli is really in the Garden of Eden???!!!

Did she really just offer me an apple to bite????!!!!

I gotta write all this down. The editor of 'Phys Rev Letters' just aint gonna believe it! :?

Donna said...

Hellie, I understand commitment issues. My heroines tend to have that trait a lot. :)

Getting started is always hard. I avoid it in so many things (exercising, cooking, writing, doing chores), and then when I jump in I always wondered WHY I thought it was going to be so horrible when it's not. That's the down side to having a thriving imagination I guess. LOL

Marnee said...

Hellie - I can't tell you how good it is to hear that you're doing this too. Not that I wish you to share what I'm going through (or me to share what you're going through). It's just nice to know I'm not alone.

I've rewritten my first five chapters seven times. Literally. I've cut and pasted, tried to use old dialogue, etc. My problem isn't secondary characters. My problem is that I can't figure out exactly who is the main catalyst in the story. And that's important for what happens in the long run.

I'm trying to figure it out (again). I *think* I've got it this time.

But, we'll see. Maybe not.

I don't think it's wrong to do this though. I think we're all just fine to worry about the beginning. You're right. It catches them, it fires the story off like a bullet. Or not.

Donna said...

I think some stories have an easier beginning. The one I'm working on now can only have one start to it -- a particular situation has to occur that sets everything else in motion. So that one is a no brainer. I will go back and tweak some of the info, but it starts where it's supposed to.

Other stories. Sigh. They have so many potential openings, and it's difficult to choose the *right* one. Just like you described, Marn. It's almost like an archaeological expedition, digging with a spoon to uncover the treasure.

I applaud your stamina. I think I would have moved on to something else. LOL

Bosun said...

I'm not sure how I feel about beginnings. For the first book I tried to write, it took forever to figure out what the beginning would be. What ended up as the beginning was a scene I found over 100 pages into the first try. But I figure that was my first attempt of any kind. That unfinished MS helped me learn to find the beginnings in future work.

This is the point we pull out that annoying concept of the inciting incident. For the current MS, I'm confident I'm on the right track. For the next book, I have the opening scene complete in my head. For anything beyond that, I prefer not to think about it. :)

Hal said...

I'm with Donna - I rewrite the beginning a bunch of times, but not until after I've finished the first draft. I usually have to wait until then to figure out where the story really starts, or what the catalyst really is.

But my first drafts are usually like that. I usually start by just rambling about the characters, and eventually the story starts taking shape. Which sounds weird coming from a hard-core plotter, but it takes a while for me to get to what I plotted. So the beginning is a frazzled mess, even if the rest is something resembling my plot *g*.

I'm not making any sense today. Ugh.

Melissa said...

I'm also one who feels like I'm on an archaelogical expedtion to find the right beginning - - the exact point where the story starts in the most interesting place for the reader. I think Donna said it best with noting "it’s often done AFTER you type The End."

But I don't have a lot of patience for that. Instead, my process is: Begin with an exciting scene. Only problem, it starts out slow and builds to a cliffhanger. Oh, and it's kind of confusing. Save it. Revise the beginning, muddle it up with too much information, then change everything down the line to fit the "new" beginning. Repeat countless times. Last, realize the original "exciting scene" was actually the right beginning. So, plop the "new" beginning somewhere in the middle and revise everthing before and after.

It turns out that I did need to write the beginning after THE END. I don't really like this process. LOL

2nd Chance said...

I'd say the beginning isn't the real problem, like you said it's starting and sticking with it. The thing is...right now the beginning is an anchor that you're refusing to haul into the ship so you can set sail.

Of course, there is right way to haul and a wrong way to haul. And how to stow the chain and the how to secure the anchor and all of that so that ship sails smoothly.

But you have to start by hauling it in. So that it can turn into something that balances the ship and offers stability so that everything else works smoothly.

There is no getting away from it. You have to haul that sucker up and get it as close as you can to how it should all go...because you're missing the wind, the currents, the season...the sights!

Janga said...

CAPTCHA hates me--seriously!

One of my favorite quotes about the writing process is from an old Paris Review interview with Ernest Hemingway. He refers to endings, but I think the point holds true for beginnings as well.

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

I love starting a new writing project. The possibilities seem limitless, and the ideas are fresh and plentiful. But since I don’t write scenes sequentially, the early part of the process doesn’t always include the opening scene. With TLWH, the opening was one of the first scenes I wrote, and it was relatively painless. The third try felt right. With the middle (incomplete) book, I have two scenes, one of which will follow the other, but I don’t know which will end up as the opening. I have written about 37K words on the third book, and I still don’t have an opening scene. The scenes I struggle with most are the stitch-together scenes where I have to connect all the scenes I’ve written out of order.

Melissa said...

…right now the beginning is an anchor that you’re refusing to haul into the ship so you can set sail.

Oh! I like this. (Well, not LIKE when it happens, but so true.)

Donna said...

Chance, that description was sublime.

And I'm ready to go on a cruise now. :)

It's true, though, that you have to be willing to just go, without a GPS or a map, and see where it takes you.

2nd Chance said...

Well, if you're a plotter, I imagine that is the GPS or map stuff! Though the winds don't always cooperate, or the currents, but for those of us who pants...we likes it that way! ;-)

What a great CAPTCHA code! ARR7

Donna said...

I'm off to enjoy the sunshine for a little while. It's only 16 degrees (eek!) but we're getting snow again tomorrow. Sigh. So I'm gonna go out and about today while I still can. See ya later!

Hellion said...

Q, I'm so glad we could impress you with our time traveling abilities. :) I need to watch more Dr. Who. I do enjoy that show.

Hellion said...

I avoid it in so many things (exercising, cooking, writing, doing chores), and then when I jump in I always wondered WHY I thought it was going to be so horrible when it’s not.

It's statements like this, Donna, that make me think we're long lost twins. *LOL*

Hellion said...

Marn, no worries, I feel exactly the same way with a lot of your blogs. I think we're currently sharing similar writing journeys for our manuscripts this time. *LOL* That's what I enjoy about so many of our blogs--the sense that we're all suffering or enjoying the same experiences. We're not alone.

Hellion said...

Other stories. Sigh. They have so many potential openings, and it’s difficult to choose the *right* one. Just like you described, Marn. It’s almost like an archaeological expedition, digging with a spoon to uncover the treasure.

That's exactly the problem. *LOL* Like I know exactly what the start of the adventure is going to be, the point of no return, the challenge they can't turn away from--but I'm trying to have the BEST, most COLORFUL beginning that explains why they are in this situation.

Basically I'm trying to give them the best fight ever...and nothing ever seems good enough.

Hellion said...

Bo'sun, this would be my third manuscript, so it's not exactly that this is my first time, you know? Though I admit there's been enough years between each manuscript that I could be a born again virgin. Each time I sit down to write, it feels like the first time, like I don't know exactly what I'm doing and I'm very much obsessed with what the other person is thinking about my efforts than about pleasing myself whatsoever.

Which is probably something to consider. You should make every attempt to please yourself first.

Hellion said...

Hal, you're making perfect sense. You're saying: "Just keep writing and you can rewrite it at the end when you know what your story is about"--It is advice we all know, and I do know it! I do know it! I just am having trouble making myself do it. *LOL*

2nd Chance said...

Sometimes there is a real disconnect between what we know and whether that actually propells us forward, that's for sure!

Hellion said...

Instead, my process is: Begin with an exciting scene. Only problem, it starts out slow and builds to a cliffhanger. Oh, and it’s kind of confusing. Save it. Revise the beginning, muddle it up with too much information, then change everything down the line to fit the “new” beginning. Repeat countless times. Last, realize the original “exciting scene” was actually the right beginning. So, plop the “new” beginning somewhere in the middle and revise everthing before and after.

I laughed at this. This is SOOOOO my process right now.

Hellion said...

I agree with the others, 2nd, that is a beautiful analogy, but my first instinct response was: "I don't know how to sail! I don't get it!" My brain is being difficult today. Maybe I need to feed it.

But yes, maybe it's just simple: Draw up the anchor already and SAIL! *LOL*

Hellion said...

Janga, CAPTCHA catches me when I write a long thoughtful blog and I realize everyone has made about 20 comments while I've been writing. It's annoying. *LOL* You have to refresh the code before you post it...

The Hemmingway quote cracks me up. He's so...brief. *LOL* "Getting the words right." What a... *LOL*

Writing the between scenes that stitch together two other scenes are very difficult to pull off. You have to make it look seamless and that's not always easy to do.

Donna said...

Writing the between scenes that stitch together two other scenes are very difficult to pull off. You have to make it look seamless and that’s not always easy to do.

This is very true. You don't want it to be a Frankenstory. I'm doing this with my WIP--which is why I'm storyboarding it on Excel. Since I'm a pantser, I've already written the first draft, but this lets me see where I've got something missing, or if one character has too many scenes together in their POV and we need to hear from somebody else. LOL

Lots of stitching together, but it's fun to see the final product coming together. :) It makes editing/revising a little less onerous.

Bosun said...

Sorry, spent the day away from the house. Oddly enough, I got almost nothing done. How does that happen?!

You do know, Hellie. You know and you have mad talent and as soon as you realize what we all already know (that you're bloody brilliant with great stories to tell), you'll get in the groove and the book will come together.

And that's a great idea, to please yourself instead of worrying about everyone else. The only problem with that is that most of us are our worst critics. LOL!

2nd Chance said...

What is amazing... I wrote my blog for Friday last night...and it's about who do you write for!