And So I’m Back From Outer Space

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Hello Everyone!!! I’m so excited to be back blogging on Magical Words this year. I’ve missed you. I’ll be posting on Thursdays opposite to the fabulous Misty. There are a few things I want to post about right away. The first thing I *was* going to post about is my first self-pubbed title and what that process has been like, since I’m in the middle of it and have learned a ton of stuff. But then I got sideswiped with this other thought and so that’s where I am today. Next time I’ll start talking about the self-pub project.

As some of you know, I’ve been writing a series called the Diamond City Magic books. It’s an urban fantasy set in an alternate Colorado. I’ve recently turned in theEdge of Dreams - 600x900x300 revisions on the third book, Whisper of Shadows, and that means I have to start book four. Now I know what I want to do in this book. I have a lot of the plot elements worked out (though all the connecting sinews and cartilage has to be laid in). I’m a linear writer. That means I have a really hard time writing out of order. Beginnings are critical for me. If I can’t get started on the right note, or reasonably close to it, I end up floundering very quickly. So basically, think of me standing in the middle of a Utah desert. I need to get to New York. I know which highways I have to take. But I don’t know how to get to the first one.

I do some outlining in various ways. I tend to think better when I’m writing stuff down. My fingers are connected to my brain in that way. I will use a pen and paper, a program called Scapple (which lets me do flow charts and bubbles and gives me a visual), I’m trying to learn Scrivener to use the cork board, and I have a big magnetic whiteboard where I can draw stuff and put up index cards and move things around. All of this to try to find the story line.

Yesterday I opened up a file titled “Ideas for Boom 4.” One of my professors in my master’s program used to say that you should start the book/story right after the bomb goes off. Or in this case, the Boom!  Now that’s a particularly tough thing when you are in book four of a series. Or two. Or three. You can’t just start with a fresh bomb. You have to find a good bomb to match the storyline. Only you set off a big bomb or twelve in the last book and left your characters (in my case) licking their wounds. It’s hard to bomb them again instantly in terms of a big plot development–bad guys attacking, avalanche, volcano, a horde of angry goats. I was having trouble wrapping my mind around getting a good start with where I’d left the characters.

So at the top of “Ideas for Boom 4,” I wrote the following question:

How do I start a book that has three before it as if it’s brand new and totally stands alone?

Now that is a tremendously important question. If I were to start this series with this book, what would I write? How would I start it? (but with the constraining parameters I have from the previous books). Thinking that way about a series book kind of tilts your perspective differently. You start thinking more about the reader experience of previous books and what a reader coming fresh to the series in this book would think. Whether s/he would be hooked. I started thinking less about what had happened at the end of the last book and more about the concept of the Boom! If the end of the last book was the bomb, where would I start this one? Or is there a bomb that happens between?

Trace of Magic - 600x900x300I had to reconsider the idea of what would make a bomb. To hook a reader, what you want is tension, mystery–the urge to find out what happens next–compelling characters so that you care what happens next and next. You can’t count on the last book to have established those things for you. You have to do it all over again in the same limited page or two you would in starting from the first book. At the same time, you’ve got a lot of backstory to convey to bring people up to speed. Backstory has a tendency to kill pacing. But it’s necessary to make the situation understandable. It’s a difficult balancing job.

After writing that question, I then brainstormed possible ideas. Didn’t come up with anything I liked. But in the course of making that list, I made some really goofball suggestions to myself. Stuff that could be tense and difficult while at the same time having funny potential. That’s when I remembered that the best writing I do is when I’m having fun. Sure, having fun for me might be to totally torture a character or write a funny scene, but yanno, you take your jollies as you can make them. Luckily, I’m easily amused.

Anyhow, I realized that maybe I was taking this all too seriously and maybe I should just have a little fun. And that’s when I came up with the opening scene. I don’t actually know that it will be the opening scene when I finish. That’s the really ironic part. I’m totally aware that I may revise this scene out altogether, or may change it later in favor of something better. So why do I make such a tripping-point out of a scene that might not last? Won’t a ‘good-enough for now’ work? Or even a place holder that says ‘X happens here’?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you? But my brain isn’t so logical (or sane. Take your pick). My brain wants something that could hold up. That hits the right note for the novel. I need that to go on. If I don’t, the next stuff will be wishy-washy crap. This scene helps me establish in my squishy gray matter just who these characters are in this moment. They’ve grown and changed and this establishes for me their starting point in this book.

So yesterday I started the book. Today I will see how far I can race with what I’ve done and I’m going to make sure that, as Neil Gaiman put it, I enjoy the ride. Because let’s face it. One of the reasons I love this job is because it’s fun. If I turn it into work, then I’m just torturing myself.

Let me ask you–what do you need to start a book? And a book that’s not first in a series? I love hearing alternate ways of doing things. I’m always looking for new methods to try when I’m banging my head against the wall.

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8 comments to And So I’m Back From Outer Space

  • Hepseba ALHH

    I completely agree with the need to start with something that *could* work before writing forward. Some writers talk about just making a note and moving on or jumping to a future scene if they’re feeling stuck. That sounds awesome. But my brain WILL NOT. So thank you. For me this post is a great reminder. Sometimes I have a huge balancing act that I’m trying to plan to work into the next chapter or next book, but if it’s not *fun*, then, well, it’s no fun.

    I have to start my book 2 very soon. At the moment I’m leaning toward an opening chapter that introduces a new, creepy element. It might not turn out to be a big element in the book, but at least it should give me a boost to get me started!

    Great to see you back! (and I adore your book covers)

  • Welcome back! Writing beginnings are usually the easiest for me. Almost every short story or novel I’ve ever worked on has started with a clear opening image or line. Sometimes they don’t stand up over time, but the impetus to get me going is always the opening.

    That’s probably why I have some many started but unfinished stories around–the opening comes easy and the rest is hard work.

  • Thank you, Hepeseba! Fun is key. I’m determined that if I’m not having fun in this book, then I’d better figure out how to find it or change whatever I’m writing. I like creepy at the beginning. Always enticing to me.

    SiSi–I have a few of those. Like the opening to The Cipher came really quick. And usually I can feel my way around and find something to trigger the opening, like a sentence or image. Something grabby. This time was much harder. This is what I’ve started with (for now):

    “How the hell am I going to help you if you won’t even stay in the same room with me?”

  • […] the meantime, I posted a blog on Magical Words today about starting a […]

  • Ooh, I like that opening sentence!

  • Razziecat

    I need the right beginning to get that spark, too! For me the first sentence is kind of the first scene in capsule form. It sets the tone for what comes next. I tend to write in such a way that, when it’s working, everything follows naturally from whatever came first, and it becomes very hard to work anything new into it. If I need to rewrite, sometimes I have to begin the whole scene over because what’s already there has no room for anything new. But as long as the spark from the first sentence is still there, I can do it.

  • YAY! So glad you are back!!!

  • Sisi–

    Thanks. Don’t know if it will end up being there in the end, but at least it got me going.

    Razziecat–

    That’s a lot like me. It’s like starting a song on the wrong note. Everything after is wrong, even when it’s sort of right.

    Thanks Faith! Me too.