Monday, October 12, 2009

Judging contests and beginning a novel

From 8/3/09:

I judged a writing contest again. I believe I've mentioned before that actually like doing this, as it really helps me articulate the dos and don'ts of novel writing, and reflect on how to apply technique in my own writing. And, as always, a particular issue usually pops up more than once, and when it does, it tells me it's a problem that a lot of writers have.

One contest entry bored me to tears. The other left me bewildered--where was I? Who were these people? And why should I care? And there was one that was just right--I wanted to read more.

The writing was competent (well, there were two that were not, but I'm not going there right now). The common problem with the ones that didn't work was that they didn't begin in the right place in the story's timeline.

There is a lot of advice about how to begin a story, and the fact is, the how isn't as important as the when. Newbie writers are told that you want a hook in the first paragraph to get the reader interested in your story, you need to begin with action, you need to avoid description, yadda yadda.

Toss that advice out the window. Toss it out right now! If you know when to begin your story, then the rest will follow.

So, when? Begin on the day your protagonist is given a choice that will change his or her life.

I want to emphasis "day" and "choice." You need two elements in a beginning: the foundational setting, the home, the "ordinary life" of the protagonist, and the choice the protagonist makes that will propel him or her out of that ordinary life. Together, that makes change, and change is the essence of plot and character development.

The day (not moment, not month; anywhere from half an hour to 12 hours) on which the protagonist's life changes is enough time to show the foundation of a character's life, what is usual for that character. You need that foundation. It tells you where that character has been, so that you can chart the future. It is not possible for a character to have a future unless he or she has a past.

For example, in my latest novella, "Miss Templar and the Holy Grail," the story opens with Miss Arabella Templar going into Almack's with her mother and her cousin Jeanne. This is a typical day in her life. It's clear that she's done it before.

And then a stranger comes up to her just before she steps into the assembly hall, and pushes a dirty tin cup into her hand and tells her she's the Grail Guardian, and that she must keep the cup safe. Now she has to make a choice: Does she take the cup, or doesn't she?

As a result, it begins, thus:
There is nothing more odious than having the Holy Grail thrust into one’s hands when one is about to enter Almack’s. But what could I do? I had already my foot on the first step of the building’s entrance. Mama and cousin Jeanne were before me, already within doors. A crowd gathered behind me, eager to partake of the evening’s entertainment.

A touch on my shoulder made me turn, ready to greet a friend, perhaps Clarice, for she is one of my bosom bows, and had told me she would attend this week.

Instead, a masked man very boldly took my hand and closed it over the bowl of what looked like a dirty tin cup. He then pulled me too close to him. “You are the Guardian of the Grail. Keep it safe,” he said into my ear, and disappeared into the group of people moving toward Almack’s.

A masked man. Really. Why could he not have just appeared in normal evening wear, neckcloth neatly tied, presented himself to me in the proper manner, asked me for a dance or two, and then offered a pleasant remembrance of flowers the next day? Oh, no, he could not do that. No, he must appear masked, dare touch me on my shoulder without any sort of introduction at all, and then converse in a manner that must make any observer assume he was either drunk or an idiot.
When I think about it, that first paragraph pretty much encapsulates the conflict of the story: her past/normal life (going to Almack's and having a nice time), in conflict with her choice (taking the Grail from the mysterious man). That first line is even a hook, but not because I was deliberately looking for one, but because I wanted a first paragraph that set up/foreshadowed the conflict of the story.

In other words, if you have the elements of choice vs. normal life up front in your story, you will naturally have a solid beginning. I don't think you can help having one. And if you can make that first sentence Twitter-sized, you probably have a hook.

I think that's it for's late.  Good night!