Where to Begin, Where To Begin

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…or Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, Right (Finally)


The novel I’m working on now is a YA high-fantasy that I’m writing for my daughters, who are 11 and 14, and both avid readers. My first novel had some harsh language and scenes that were inappropriate for them, so I told them they couldn’t read it. Period. To make up for that, I promised them I would write a new novel specifically for them. I mention all of this because one of the things any writer needs to be aware of when they start writing is who the intended audience is meant to be.

Another thing worth mentioning is that in preparation for writing this book, I sat down and read the first few books in several successful YA series to get a feel for the level of writing and language, as well as any other helpful factors/patterns/etc I could find. I read Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief, Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl, and Brandon Mull’s Fablehaven (Fablehaven being my favorite of the three).

Then I took the characters and concepts from a short story I had started about a year ago but abandoned when it got to be over 12,000-words long and was still no where near done. I quit on the short story because I realized I was trying to jam a novel’s worth of ideas into 30 pages. I’m not going to include examples from the opening to the short story because short stories are supposed to begin differently from novels and I want to talk today about finding the right starting point for a novel.

So what I’m going to do here is give you the opening paragraphs from several of my attempts at beginning this novel and then explain why I set them aside, what value they provided me, and how I knew when I finally had the right beginning. For the record, there were anywhere between several days and several weeks between these various attempts (I wrote a lot more than the snippets I’m showing you here, as well as having to keep up with other projects), so don’t think I banged one draft out, read it, rejected it, and moved on to the next. It doesn’t work that way…

 

First version

Said to be descended from a single, common ancestor and then scattered throughout the world by an ancient god who feared their potential, the one hundred and thirteen bloodlines of magic-wielding witcherfolk have, over the millennia, experienced a variety of fates.

In the northern desert regions they are feared, killed as quickly as they are found. This does not prevent their magic power from being passed along family lines when the power-bearer dies; it merely makes it harder to trace. Witcherfolk and plainfolk alike know that witcher power will seek the youngest sexually mature member of the bloodline like water flowing to its lowest point. Slightly less known is the fact that if there is no son or daughter or grandchild, the power will jump to a niece or uncle or distant cousin — whoever the most closely-related family member from the original bloodline may be, no matter how far away they may be.

Between death and the more sensible alternative – fleeing the region — there are few witchermen or women remaining in the scorched north.

On the western plains and in the southern badlands, regional warlords use the witcherfolk as weapons, allowing them to stay in one place only long enough to accumulate sufficient magic power to be useful, but not so much so that they can’t be controlled. Then they force them to relocate, reducing the magic to its least potent. Witcher magic builds in power the longer the bearer remains in the same area, and bloodlines that find a way to stay in the same place for several generations become immensely powerful. But if  they are moved a distance of more than thirteen leagues from their place of power for longer than three days, they lose all but the barest traces of it and must begin accumulating it anew.

Living on the plains and in the badlands is harsh for witcherfolk, but no more so than for anyone else who lives there.

###          

Okay, this draft goes on like this for about three pages, but the fundamental flaws are obvious pretty quickly: there’s no character and there’s no conflict (except in the most sweeping, societal sort of way). This draft is me in full ‘pantser’ mode, being a discovery writer; it’s essentially me figuring out some of the history and politics of my world and dabbling with some of the underlying concepts behind my magic system. It’s all useful information to me as the writer, but it’s no way to start a novel.

 

Second version

At the age of twenty-eight, Victor Heartston had suddenly and unexpectedly been struck by the conclusion that he was never going to do anything more important in all his life than oversee his father’s lands, tenant farmers, and general business interests. He was never going to amount to more than a footnote – if that – in the family history. He was, in fact, nothing but a glorified groundskeeper.

And that had been appallingly inadequate.

But as the oldest of five witcher children, he was also never going to inherit his father’s powers. Not without something terrible happening to all four of his siblings, and he loved them – well, most of them, anyway – too even contemplate such a thing, much less pursue it. No, when Father died, the power would go to Miranda. And in the unfortunate event that something happened to her, it would go to Elkins instead. And then Michael, and then Josephine. It was just that simple. He was firstborn and last in line.  

Much to his surprise, though, when he expressed these concerns to his father, his normally conservative parent had bestowed on him all the gold and silver he could carry, along with his blessings to leave the family’s place of power in the Olinwold River Valley and explore the world. The ‘civilized’ world, anyway.

“Please,” Father had implored. “Promise me you’ll stay out of the northern deserts. I know you, you’ll want to spent a night in the sands, just to say you’ve been there. But those fanatics are all the same, they’ll kill you if they think you’ve got even a hint of the Blood.”

So Victor packed up his wife, Angela, and his nine-year old daughter, Mary Katherine, and set out on a book-collecting expedition. Books were a rare and precious treasure, and he thought that if he could amass enough volumes to create a Heartston family library, then his legacy might amount to something more than that of a glorified groundskeeper.

### 

Here, having realized I needed a character to focus on, I almost immediately went into that character’s backstory and more details about the magic system. Once again it was useful information to me, but it completely lacks any forward movement. You can’t start a novel by going backward, which is exactly what’s happening here (and continued to happen for about five pages, until I caught on). So…

 

Third version

Victor Hearston reined in his horse at the top of the hill and looked down on the Dog Flesh Inn with satisfaction. He had been away from his wife, daughter, and youngest sister for nearly a month now, but what a month it had been – successful beyond his wildest dreams. He had managed to find and acquire four books, one of them a collection of folklore and legends from the northern deserts. Those religious fanatics didn’t write anything down, yet someone had managed to assemble a volume of their stories. And now it was his. Father would be impressed. He had to be.

Victor has now accumulated fifty-seven volumes including these most recent acquisitions and it had only taken him three years. He was going to build a library for Father that was second only to King Nye’s personal collection, and in the process prove that even though he only had a fraction of Father’s witcher power, he could still create a legacy that would endure.

Victor leaned back in his saddle and patted the saddle bags behind him, feeling the shape of the books beneath the protective covering. Feeling it with satisfaction. Yes, it was time to go home.

He flicked his horse’s reins, kicked with both heels, and leaned forward as his horse galloped down the hill. He could already smell the hearty beef stew cooking in the inn’s kitchen; the odor of it rose up with the smoke in the chimney and blew right at him. Saints preserve him, he was hungry. Hungry for food, and hungry to see his family again.

### 

This was better… but still not right. I had a character and I was in his point of view, using the POV to dole out limited amounts of background info. This draft hits the balance between background information and forward movement of the character and his story, and if this were a traditional fantasy novel for adults, it could have served as a satisfactory opening. In fact, I wrote an entire chapter of this, full of conflict (Victor gets back to the inn and finds his wife sitting on another man’s lap) that included some work I was genuinely proud of.

The problem, however, was that as I considered where to go with chapter two, I realized I had written 15 pages exclusively from the point of view of Victor, who is the novel’s secondary character. I had always planned to write some scenes from his point of view, but the novel’s main character is his daughter, Mary Katherine (remember who I said I was writing this tale for). A novel might open with a short prologue from a secondary character’s point of view, but a YA novel  that starts with 15 pages from an adult’s point of view doesn’t work. Unless there is some special or unavoidable reason for doing otherwise, a novel should begin in the main character’s point of view. This is doubly true of YA novels; kids want to read about other kids, not the grown ups who are often perceived as causing the trouble in the first place.

I needed an opening from the daughter’s point of view — one that struck that balance between grounding the reader in the new world and focusing on the character and the forward movement of the story, as well as offering something to pull the reader deeper into the story.

 

Finally

Mary Katherine Heartston snapped the reins of her horse and galloped to the front of the small caravan, her wyrmskin cape flowing over her slender shoulders and billowing in the air behind her. She rode past a large wagon full of supplies; past the smaller wagon full of her father’s stupid books; past the group of horse-soldiers clustered together, all the way to the head of the line. She didn’t want to be riding next to her father – truth to be told, she didn’t want to be anywhere near him – but as they reached the top of the mountain pass, the urge to see home had overtaken everything else.

As she reined up next to her father, she tried to sit straighter in her saddle. She was as tall and slim as a cat-tail growing at the edge of a pond, with hair the same deep brown color. Only her ice-grey eyes stood out from her otherwise ordinary appearance. She hated that she looked so much younger than her fourteen years, hated it with a passion. So many other girls her age were so much more… developed. She just looked like a five foot tall child. The only thing she despised more than looking like a child was being treated like one.

“Look, Merry Kat,” said Victor, gesturing across the valley even as he used his wretched nickname for her. “Isn’t it stunning? It’s even more beautiful than I remembered.”

She turned toward him – he was sitting astride his massive black stallion, still gazing at the valley with the wide-eyed wonder of a child spying a twelve-tailed foxbird for the first time – when her movement caught his attention, drawing his eyes to her. He winced when she made eye contact. All the joy of seeing home drained from his face in an instant.

She hadn’t realized she was still that mad at him. That it showed so clearly.

### 

This is still an early draft of this version, so I can’t guarantee it won’t change some, but in this one I finally had an entry point into the story that struck all of the necessary points: the correct POV character, forward movement in the story, enough information to ground the reader in my world, and a teaser of some conflict between Mary Katherine and her father to pull the reader deeper into the tale. I might still tweak the proportions a bit, but I was finally, finally, into the story and moving. Now I could (and did) proceed.


So there you have it: the evolution of the opening to a novel. I always learn as much (or more) from what others have done wrong as anything they do right, so I hope sharing my aborted attempts at the opening to this novel (and the reasons why I abandoned them) have made the extra reading worthwhile. I know this post was longer than average, but, really, I made a lot of mistakes that you can learn from…

The important thing is to keep pounding away at that keyboard until you get it right.

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16 comments to Where to Begin, Where To Begin

  • Edmund, what a great way to show the evolution of a novel’s beginning. I’ve started and stopped novels exactly like this before, and it made me feel so … normal, maybe? (I’ve never felt normal, so that’s a strange feeling.) But I loved following the progressin. It’s a lot like what we used to see the long-lamented writer’s group, the story grown and changing and suddenly taking off. And, BTW, I loved the final version. I used to be soooo angry at my own dad. It was familiar and comfortable, though, of course, so very different from my own life and world. Lovely! I cannot wait to read the rest of it. Will you do the next few pages next week? I can hope!

  • Mikaela

    This was a great post, Edmund. I rarely change my opening scenes in the first draft. There are exceptions. Like the time I stared at Sherezade’s outline and realised that I am starting in the wrong place. ( Originally Sherezade started a third into the draft. Oi)

    Sherezade is still a mess. The pacing is slightly off. sigh. Next year. I want to write something new when I am done with this revision.
    Hm… If I winged Sherezade’s opening, maybe I can wing the end of the Magi CIS novel I have brewing…

  • Faith – Thanks. The fact that the character’s anger in the final version felt familiar makes me feel even better about that draft. I didn’t have any plans to post any more of that chapter here, but I’ll see if I can find a useful way to do so. Anything for you…

    Mikaela – If you’ve put together a well thought out outline, you’ve already done 90% of the work necessary to figure out your starting point, so it doesn’t surprise me that you don’t change your opening much. In my experience people who work from outlines don’t start to drift away from that outline until they are a bit further into their book.

  • I love how you are all posting the progression of your scenes here. It’s fascinating and so helpful! Edmund, your last version just reeks of a typical teen’s emotions. Spot-on, in my opinion. Just idle curiosity, but, are you going to let your children read any of this in first draft to get their opinions or wait until it’s published? I’ve got to wonder if kids would fall in love with something in first draft and get disappointed if it needs to be cut later on.

  • Most interesting blog post I’ve come across in awhile. I’ve never really looked at scenes like this, but depending on the situation, it seems like it could be a fantastic perspective to work in. Escpecially since I’m not big on using outlines(yet;)).

    I think it was James D. MacDonald who put up something similar on AbsoluteWrite. It seems like a lot of newer/aspiring writers don’t think so much about their goals when drafting, but just go wherever the story takes them. But this sort of tactic can make it much easier to kill your darlings.

  • When I finished the first chapter I asked both girls to read it. They did, and both gave me excellent feedback that I incorporated. I’ve already talked to them about recruiting a few of their friends to provide feedback as well. Rick Riordan did the same thing with his Lightning Thief books and testing the book out with his primary target audience seems to have worked out well for him.

  • Killing your darlings is vital, Atsiko (but you knew that already). Including the short story that set the whole thing in motion, I probably threw away more than 20,000 words. But if they’re not the right words, then you don’t want them, no matter how shiny they may be.

  • Thanks, Edmund. It happens to all of us, I see. I uncovered the actual beginning I’m using for the “short” story I’m working on (with short in quotes because I’ve surpassed 15,000 words at present and still not wrapped it. Almost, though.) about 2,000 words deep. I cut more than half of those first 2,000 (mostly info-dumpage I cut-and-pasted into a support file), and now I’m hoping I have a viciously barbed reader-hook of a beginning. Not that I want to hurt my readers. I just wanna get those tenters in real good and deep.

    I enjoyed reading the progression of your YA WIP’s first chapter. The “Finally” version is splendid. Very hookish. Definitely makes the reader want more, I’d say. Thanks again!

  • This is really excellent, Ed. Clear, precise, perfectly reasoned and explained. Very useful. Thanks.

  • Young_Writer

    Right now, my short story opening is horrendous. I’m not good at “Making Characters in Small Spaces”. (That was AJ’s article, right?) I’m cramming in thoughts and details and over-all I’m telling everything. Can’t wait to rewriting hat.

  • Edmund, I loved this post and I love that last version of the opening. The evolution of the voice in particular is really stunning — from something that sounded nothing like a YA to something that is just dead-on perfect in terms of tone and feel. Great stuff.

  • Mikaela

    Edmund, I wouldn’t call my outlines well thought out. I just know what happens and jots it down. Sometimes I get one novel, sometimes three. Hmm…. Maybe I should take it as a sign that I haven’t gotten the outline for the sequel to Angel among demons.. Nah. I simply need to do more research…

  • JM – Sounds like your ‘short’ story might have the same problem my original ‘short’ did; it’s a novel in disguise. A 15k- to 17k-word story is actually a novella and those are particularly hard to sell. I wish you luck.

    AJ – Your ‘Mistakes I Made’ series is kind of the inspriation for this, so thanks.

    YW – “Making Characters in Small Spaces” was Stuart’s essay (I only knw this because it’s going to be in the MW How-To book and I’ve read/edited it recently). Don’t worry about your opening being ‘horrendous’ though; that’s what first drafts are for. (I’ll bet it’s better than you think…)

    David – Thanks. Understanding the ‘book/genre voice’ was one of the biggest reasons I read those other YA books. I knew those first few drafts were far from the mark. Glad to hear that you think I found it in that last version.

  • Young_Writer

    Thank you, I think I needed that. Stuart,I’m sorry! My memory isn’t the best on the weekends. 🙂

  • Funny, when I read your first opening, it read a lot like my outline documents go. I’m often so excited and full of idea juice that it leaks out of my brain into the computer so I don’t actually start “chapter 1” until after I’ve released a bit of pressure. I start with listing a few of the main characters and a little about them then launch into a sort of “stream of consciousness” ramble / info dump about the world, the characters, the story and every exciting scene I want to include. So that ends up a bit like your first start. Very helpful stuff to keep around when writing the “real” version.
    The draft I just completed has a companion document which has at least three different run-downs of the story at varying levels of detail. None of those are even close to that actual story now, but it stopped me from just exploding in the first chapter. 🙂
    Good to see published writers go through the same process.

  • Edmund, I’ve struggled to keep this blasted short story under 12,000 words, but a few of the characters ganged up on me one day, pointed their wicked blades at my eyes, and demanded I go EPIC or else they’d be quite wroth! Yep, one of them used the word “wroth.” What else was I to do after that?

    So, it’s endured three beta readers and two rounds of slashing revision, but I’m writing the climactic peak and still it hovers around 15,000. I know it’s a hard sell, but after setting it aside and ruminating and starting on it again, setting it aside again, and then finally picking it back up (again), I said (aloud… on a crowded bus… to no one in particular), “By gum, I’ve put too much time into this! I’m going to finish that pesky rapscallion of a story and damned be the consequences! Damned be, I say!”

    (I think the word “wroth” somehow affected me.)

    Perhaps it’ll find a home someday, perhaps not. At least it will be finished. The “Writers of the Future” contest has a 17k word limit, I do believe, so they’ll be seeing it before the next deadline on Jan. 1st. Anyone know other publishers open to submissions in the dreaded 15k-17k range?