…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…
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.
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…
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.
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.