Thursday, May 24, 2012

Openings

A conversation arose on a message board today about the opening of a book. Someone was fretting about his opening, and rightfully so. It is a crucial part. I assume everyone knows it has to grab the reader, yadda, yadda, yadda...

What I find problematic in the pieces that I critique is that most people don't really know how to put together a good beginning. It's popular now to start with a chase scene, a murder, a battle, or something along those lines, and that's not what I mean when I say the beginning has to grab the reader. There are countless ways to do that. In The Hobbit, Tolkien starts by telling the reader what a hobbit is. That's not action, but it is interesting, because he's describing something otherworldly. In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy opens by describing the true feelings of an adulterer. No action, but the reader is mesmerized because it's a view into a man's soul. In Sense and Sensibility, Austen starts by making an observation on mankind which happens to frame the plot.

Trust me, it doesn't have to be fast paced, it doesn't have to be violent. It simply has to be interesting. That said, it is far easier to come up with an opening that grips the reader if you do include one of those things. Murder mysteries have an inherent advantage of having a default starting point, the crime to be solved. The rest of us have to figure something else out.

Most of the beginnings I crit that start with the fast pace or violence feel forced. The author hasn't built up any natural tension, so the reader must be told of how nervous the character being chased is, or perhaps the reader is given the medical report, you know, "her heart beat furiously in her chest, so furiously, she thought it it would burst through the ribcage and dance on the pavement". Shit. Don't get impatient. Tell the reader something cool, something funny, something profound. If you have to resort to the chase or the violence, make it evolve naturally.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

This chapter's drinking my blood

No need to feel blue. But I'm getting impatient again. This chapter is the spawn of hell.

When Tom Clancy writes his books, he ends up with about 100 chapters at an average of 1000 words. His novels are written for people with attention deficit disorder. And a LOT of people suffer from that. The chapter I've been working on for the last month is currently sitting around 6500 words. That's a lot for someone to digest, particularly sci-fi fans who tend to be minimalists. I wish I could just say that it's fine the way it is, but I can't. I know I need to trim it, and that means trimming more sections I like. I suppose the good news is that I like the sections.

I joined a new forum a couple nights ago, a sci-fi forum. The guys on there are brutal. Very critical of even the classics like The Foundation Trilogy. I want to scream at them, "Do you know how hard it is to do this shit, fuckwad!" But they have every right to be critical of the books they buy. They paid the money. But there are such vicious arguments that go on there about the genre, what's good and what isn't, that it actually eases my mind somewhat about whatever reviews I'll get some day. If these guys have SUCH differing opinions over classics, some like them, some hate them, then I know getting one star reviews is unavoidable. I mean, these guys are on polar opposites of the spectrum. Hopefully, there will be some sci-fi readers out there who like long chapters.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The page 99 test

Someone posted a link to a site that tests your 99th page. The theory is that the 99th page of your book should be good enough to make the reader turn the page. Many people have commented on this. My favorite blogging authors like Kirstin (Pub Rants in the side bar) have mentioned that they'd turn away most of the PUBLISHED books when they were presented with the 99th page. I put it to a test and found that just about every 99th page I looked at of the novels I loved was dull. You know the ones that weren't dull? The classics. The biggest sellers I loved. Books like Treasure Island. There's a lesson to be learned there. Make every chapter count.

I looked at the 99th page of my WIP and it was...okay. It was polished enough to pass for writing, but not particularly engaging. It tells me I'll have to revisit that section. I'm not sure anyone who doesn't write can fully appreciate the self-control it takes to go back to a section you've revised a dozen times and decide that it's just not good enough. Think about it this way, if you were baking a cake, troweling a floor with grout, singing a jingle, pricing a project, deciding on whether a part of a business works, would you go over it a dozen times, and then decide to do it again? Now, that's just one page out of, oh, about 400. Then do the same for each chapter, and for each primary section of the book. It is a tedious, grueling task, and I have no doubt that most people don't make it in the writing world because they are too impatient and want to see what the results are of what they've done before they can honestly say they have pushed forth their best effort.

Bottom line is, do not assume your reader will accept a slow or dull part in the book, simply because you need it for a transition. I know I have a ton of work to do in my revisions.I pray I can make them half as good as the masters did when they wrote the classics.