I feel like one of the kids in the Peanuts when the grownups are talking. All I'm hearing is "Waah wahhn waannhh, Waa-waa-wwa-wwaah."
I write stories. On rare occasions I remember to send out review copies if my publishers are failing in that department. A few of them have failed EPICALLY by the way. Not all, thank all the Gods.
So, because I have failed you, I am dusting off one of my older advice columns. This one on where to start a novel.
So, where do we start?
The logical answer would be “At the beginning,” but that’s not always the best answer. I’ve said before in conversations that for me—and I must qualify that because I KNOW it’s different for other writers—that a story seldom starts at the beginning of a person’s life unless it’s a biography. I usually tell stories from multiple perspectives, and that means I’d be filling encyclopedia length volumes just to get to the main story if I wanted to start at the beginning. No, for me the story starts where lives intersect. The moments that make up a story should have a beginning, but it’s the events that matter, in this rare case, not the people; the events that lead the people to one place, to one time and to the tale I want to tell.
So, let’s work under the assumption that you’ve got your story ready to go regarding pieces of the proverbial puzzle. You have a plot, a setting, a cast of characters (Be prepared to add a few more as needed) and you’re all set with the mood you want to work in and the story you want to tell. All you have to do now is get it started.
Sometimes, yes. I recently worked through the first seven chapters of a novel and then decided to kill it. Oh, I’ll take the parts of the corpse that I can still work with, but despite knowing the characters and how I wanted them to interact, they didn’t have the right “feel.” I think it’s a sure sign that something has gone wrong when I, the writer, can’t empathize with the characters. So, after working on three other projects for the last month, I’m killing the book and starting from scratch.
The odd thing about it is that I’m not the least bit disheartened by the change. I don’t have a deadline and I can take my time on this one. Oh, there are several deadlines looming, including two short story submissions I should technically be working on instead of this article, but on the novel I haven’t even considered contracting it yet. That makes a big difference sometimes. If I had a hard deadline, I’d have been in a full-scale panic by now and would be about as psychotic as some of the heavies in my stories. That’s one of the reasons I like having at least a few projects where I can kick back and relax a bit.
So what went wrong with the novel? A little of this and a little of that. As I have probably said before in these articles, I don’t work with an outline per se. I work with a vague notion of where I want to go. I know where the story is supposed to end, and I know a few spots along the way, but mostly it’s off the top of my head. This time around, I got lost. It’s happened before (not that long ago I was working on OUBLIETTE, which I murdered and cannibalized for CHERRY HILL) and I have no doubt it will happen again. Believe me, it’s a lot less painful than losing 40,000 words of novel because you forgot to have a back up disc.
I didn’t like the way the tale was playing out. Oh, I think there are some admirable scenes, and like as not I’ll keep them, but of the 30,000 words I’ve written, most of them just don’t feel right. They get the job done, but that’s all that they do. One of the big rules for me when it comes to writing is trust your instincts. So I’m trusting them. It’s annoying as all hell. I mean, seriously, that’s a decent amount of my time invested in the book, but in the long run, I can’t even hope to finish the story if it’s already bogged down in parts that don’t work for me.
Where did it go wrong?
At the beginning. (And here you thought I’d probably lost track of what I was supposed to be talking about again, didn’t you?) I was never comfortable with how the story started. It’s all right, but it isn’t memorable, and that’s a death blow for most books. If you can’t hook the reader/editor from page one, you might just have a serious problem on your hands. Also, despite what should have been a fast tempo and a frenzied line of activity, I was having a bitch of a time introducing characters. My fault, really, because I do love to populate a novel with enough characters to fill a Manhattan Subway tunnel at rush hour. I like dealing with the interactions between major characters and minor ones. I like seeing how they affect each other as the story progresses, and, of course, I need to know who I’m killing off if I want to enjoy the actual killing part. Hey, it’s horror. I’m allowed to kill a few people here and there.
So, where do we start?
Well, I started too early this time. I started at the beginning. It was a mistake. The points of what happened at the beginning of the tale are significant, but they also reveal too much of what is gong to happen. I gave away too much too soon and I think that cut the running legs off this particular tale before it even got the first bend in the track. I’d rather save that particular revelation for later, when everyone in the book and hopefully the readers are going “what the hell was THAT?”
So, now I have to start somewhere in the middle, just before the first murder. The damnedest thing is, I think it’ll work a lot better if the beginning isn’t told for a while. I truly believe the tale will be far stronger for the change over and I know the characters will hold my interest better if they don’t start off in a high panic mode. They’ll still get there, but this time around, I’ll know them better before I start. They’ll probably have a few surprises in store for me, which is half the fun, but I won’t forget what they’re all about before the action begins.
Oh, and I decided to change the setting just a bit. The same town, the same people, but this time, just to make them all a little more miserable, I’m going to set the story in the heart of a New England winter with oodles of snow and a few storms, too.
Something about the thought of all that blood resting on virgin snow just makes me feel all warm and happy.
Where to start? Where it best suits your story.
My last novel, CHERRY HILL, started with a lone old man walking down a road. The one before that, DEEPER, started with two men cleaning a yacht. This one? This one starts with the words: “Why are you always so angry, Bryce?” and will move forward from there.
Remember the following words: It’s not written in stone until you see it in print. If you don’t like where your story starts, you can always go back and fix it.
That’s all for this time around. I have two short stories I want to finish before I go to sleep.