Saturday, March 12, 2011

Book Beginnings, and Finding the Story

(First of all, thank you for all the enthusiasm for Daughter of Smoke and Bone! I am thrilled as the publication process gets rolling, and I will have lots more to show and tell over the coming months!)

Hi there. What am I doing here?

I've been itching to do a post on writing. It's been a while since I've really sunk my teeth into one of my favorite subjects, but as I am right now navigating the territory of the new book, some thoughts have been percolating. Here goes.

What is the most difficult part of writing a book? The beginning? Middle? End?

I have recently had a brief email correspondence with a local teen writer, and in her last email, she confessed that her project has fizzled, and she has lost her enthusiasm. A lot of books—a LOT—die this death. They are begun with exuberance and hope, and wilt all too soon.

On the one hand, beginnings are a place of wild enthusiasm and endless potential. You are at a trailhead starting on a journey. Branches obscure the way ahead so you can't see where you're going, but the slanting light is golden, and butterflies float in it, and it is going to be great. You can feel it. Such promise in the unknown! 

The reality is often this: beyond those slanting rays and floating butterflies lies a very steep hill, and its all slippery scree and no handholds, and it’s hard. You slog uphill, fighting for footing, longing for that golden light and the mystery of the unknown path, and then … you give up.

This is the treacherous hill of book death, signposted with a skull and crossbones and hundreds of thousands of tiny grave markers. 

Anyone can start a book, right? All you need is an idea and a pen and a few hours. Wheee! 

Ha HA! Joke’s on you, people who think writing books is easy. Suck it.

Beginnings might seem like the easy part, because a lot more people have written book beginnings than endings, but for me they're the hardest part by far. Here’s the thing. They’re so important, and to do them well is anything but easy. I’m writing my fifth book now, and it has been the same for me for every book. I would estimate that the first … twenty- to thirty-thousand words take me as long as the whole rest of the book together (and my books are mostly around 100,000 words, Lips Touch being shorter, and three distinct stories anyway). And I'm okay with that.

Here is something that I think: if you get that first part right, that uphill slog of book death becomes vastly less treacherous. 

This is why, for me (so far, at least), it doesn't work for me to write a fast first draft. I recognize that it totally works for other people, and you need to go with what works for you, but I have found that I need to be very deliberate in my beginnings, and craft them very carefully as a foundation for all that is to come.

And by "beginnings," I don't mean the first chapter, I mean more or less the first third of the book, where the story is set up, the characters and their problems are introduced, the tone and emotional resonance are established, and the reader is hooked. There is a LOT being done in the first third, and it all has to blend flawlessly into the unfolding story and not call attention to itself. 

[I realize as I grope for meaningful and encouraging words that this is a VAST topic, and not one I am likely to do justice to in one sitting. But I will try to pull out something concrete and helpful . . .]

Maybe I'll tell you a little bit what it is like for me writing the beginning of a book. You may have the idea, like I once had, that writing should be a certain kind of mental procedure, and that it should come easily, and if it doesn't maybe you're not "good" at it. This is not the case. I no longer believe there is any correlation between how easy or hard a book is to write and how good or bad the final result. As much as we writers love to talk about process, process is not the point. The finished manuscript is the point, and you'll get there however your brain gets you there, maybe with gleeful ease, and maybe with a lot of struggle. To the reader it's all moot. They should have no concept whatever of process when they're reading -- before the draft is final, you need to have removed all traces of yourself and vanished, leaving only the words. You want your reader to sink into the story and forget all about authors and voices and narrative styles and process and just be in the story

But that's a matter of polishing, editing. Let's get back to beginnings. What I'm trying to say is that my books do not flow out of me effortlessly in the form in which you read them. I generally start with an idea, a character, a world, a premise, something solid I'm excited about, but that is still pretty foggy in my mind, and with great trepidation and excitement, I begin to try to find the story.

The way my brain works, in the early stages I usually shift back and forth a lot between writing about the story (brainstorming), and writing scenes. I try to think of these scenes as the creation of raw material rather than any firm version of what the book is going to be, because in those early days, I really don't know. Being too attached to anything at this stage is like . . . deciding where your unborn child is going to go to college. The best you can do (I can do; always, this is my process; do whatever works!) is create possibility and love it and love it and love it, give it a beautiful life, let it unfurl as its own unique creation, and never give up on it. 

In practice, that means I write a lot of early chapters, some of which don't get used at all, some of which might find themselves pieced into later scenes. I think of writing as crafting a reading experience, so I do a lot of thinking about the reader's experience as I write. I try to put myself in the reader's shoes, and I ask myself this particular handful of questions as I go.

1) What does the reader know? 
How much should they know at any given moment? It's entirely up to you to decide. I think first chapters are all about this question (and the next one, but first this one). You're god of this maze, and you're picking your reader up by the scruff of the neck and setting them down in an unknown land. All they know is what you show them, what you deign to tell them. So, what do you want them to know?

You're crafting this experience. Do you want them to be slightly uneasy, straining forward to see better, like driving in a fog? Do you want them to be laughing, falling in love with a character who they'll follow anywhere? What's the experience you're after? What's your plan?

Hand in hand with this is:

2) What does the reader want to know? 
What do they wonder? This is one of the most important elements of craft for you. You have to make them wonder, and you have to make them care. This is why they turn pages. This is why they don't get tired, lying in bed reading, and are useless at work the next day. It's why they decide not to go move the sprinkler, or answer the phone. Because you put burning questions in their mind and then tease them out with craft and skill, keeping the reader on the hook, always on your cunning hook, until the very last page.

In the first third of a book, you are setting this up. What I am working out right now, in the midst of the raw material I have generated for my WIP, is: what exactly are my suspense threads, and how do I want to hone them? I mean, they're there, in the raw material, but in my early stages, they're generally a little vague, a little wishy-washy. I haven't found my precise focus yet, I haven't settled on the exact questions I am planting in the reader's mind, but I need to. 

I need to know those questions, in very plain prose in my own mind, and then construct the whole book around them, as a sort of beautiful music box playing this inescapable, haunting melody. 

For example, in Lips Touch: Spicy Little Curses: Will the curse come true? Will Anamique speak? In Hatchling: What's up with Esme's eye turning blue? What does Mihai want with her? 

Clementine experiencing Lips Touch.

3) What does the reader hope for
4) What does the reader fear?
These are really flip sides of the same question. It is vital that your character want something, and it is vital that the reader want something. It is possible that it is not the same thing, but in any case, you need to know and craft both. You have to give the reader something to hope for and read toward, and conversely, consequences to fear. 

So, how do you do it? How do you put questions in readers' minds? This is a-whole-nother post, that would require some pondering. How DO you? How do I? I will try to figure it out. I will suggest this homework: take the books that grip you, that give you an amazing experience, and read them as a writer. Figure out what they do, what questions they make you ask, and how they do it. Yeah? Also, look at your own work as a reader, and be totally honest about how well it is doing this.

So, in the early stages, the first few months perhaps, I'm figuring out the above stuff, and a lot more, like who the characters are, the details of the world (since I write fantasy, there's a lot to cook up here), and what my suspense and surprises will be. I have a guide word as I am brainstorming, and it couldn't be simpler, and maybe it's dorky, but what I'm after in the act of crafting a reading experience is:


As in: 

  • What is the coolest way I might introduce this character? 
  • Where is the coolest place to drop the reader into the narrative?
  • What is the coolest setting, a place that will make readers want to crawl right into the book?

So here is how I begin a book, and how I get up the treacherous hill of book-death:

I switch back and forth between writing scenes (without nailing them in place as "Definitive Chapter 1" but always being open to a "cooler" idea that might come along), and brainstorming, asking myself the above questions and always thinking of the story as an experience for the reader, trying to get outside myself and what I think/know as the writer, to see the story objectively (to the extent that this is possible.) 

If it happens that my enthusiasm flickers out, I figure out a way to reignite it by asking myself more questions, coming up with more "cool" ideas. I want to say to those of you who have left little book corpses by the wayside, this is almost always possible. Not always-always, but almost-always. If you just keep at it, you CAN find a way to jazz up your book in your mind, to fall in love with it again. You have to work at it, you have to throw your mind open like a window, you have to push way past the territory you've so far explored and come up with NEW STUFF. Rather than looking to a whole new idea, infuse the current work with some newness. In Blackbringer, I had to delete an entire character and replace him entirely with a new one. The new one was Talon, and it made the book. Imagine Dreamdark without Talon!!! It might take a Big Change like that, but there is always (almost) something you can do to set off fireworks in your mind. 

And remember: generate material.

Often I'll end up with six or seven entirely different opening chapters along the way. Usually, I can use them in some way, shape or form elsewhere in the story. Or, I might write scenes and dialogues for no particular place in the story, just because I feel like I need to understand the characters better. For Daughter, there was a chapter I wrote one day purely for this purpose, and I forgot about it for months, and then reached a place far into the story where it clicked, and I pretty much used it exactly (It is Chapter 37.) and it was awesome that it already existed. I want to give early-draft-Laini a big wet kiss because it was just lying there, ready to use. Thank you, me :-)

So, there are some thoughts on beginnings. I hope you find something practical and useful in this. It has definitely been a learned process for me, and is ongoing.

What happened to me?

Ohhh. Right. Clementine happened to me. :-)

Have a beautiful day!


Paula@Reading Lark said...

Thanks so much for that look into your process, and the encouragement.

Clementine is a cutie! Do not despair, polka dot doggie, the white kitty at our house has survived much worse. :)

Liz said...

I'm glad what you're after is "cool" because your books are definitely cool while also being brilliant, original, refreshing, and just plain WOW.

I feel better now, knowing that all my written pieces are actually me discovering my story.

tone almhjell said...

I admire how limber you are, how willing to do new things, to write alternative chapters, to come up with not just new, but completely different ideas.

That's not how I roll. I start with an idea, but it's like a streak of light across a snowy field. I begin to scrape at the snow, trying to dig exactly where the light falls, failing and blundering a little (it's hard to be precise with mittens on), but mostly staying within the boundaries I set myself. It's just a shallow graze at first, but then I keep digging deeper, trying to even out the bottom of my hole, and all sort of thigs start to appear, stuff that's hidden in the snow, that I didn't really know about. I uncover treasures and horrors, and in the end I hit level, frozen ground and that's as far as I can go. Sure, I can widen the walls of the hole. But I can never start a truly different pattern, not without completely starting over.

Yeah, I wish I were as limber as you.

tone almhjell said...

Uh, just wanted to add that the thigs that appear in the snow were supposed to be things, not thighs. Because that would make a different kind of pattern.

Shveta said...

Excellent as always. I love your posts on craft. :)

*ponders the coolness factor of her current draft*

Msb said...

Would you believe me if I told you I had just written an e-mail to you requesting a post on this exact information? I kid you not.

Thank you!!!!! So much here to digest. Must. Come. Back. For. More.

Robin L said...

Wow, your series of questions about the readers' experience are BRILLIANT! Thank you so much for sharing them!

Katie Anderson said...

Oh Laini, this post is literally a Godsend! I just found out my first book did not sell. But, by the grace of God, I am okay. Better than expected. And so here I sit, feeling a bit like I've gone back to square one, but hoping simply to be able to finish another book. So why is it so scary?

I've done it before I've told myself. I can do it again. That's why your post is so encouraging! It affirms to me the fact that beginning a new book is hard. And confusing. And feels like your brain might explode with the promise of the big idea that you can't quite grasp yet.

So, thanks. And please continue to shed wisdom on this topic as only you can.

Faith Pray said...

Thank you for more brilliant words on writing! I am bookmark-ing this post so I can come back to it when I need a good dose of Novel Boost. Thank you for so graciously sharing your process with us.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. Although I loved the majority of the post, there are a few things I must disagree with:

"... process is not the point. The finished manuscript is the point."

But Laini, without process, how will be get there? Sometimes we must focus on the little steps to reach the big ones. The more we focus on process, the better our final result will be. And we'll have more fun getting there, because the pressure will be off us to produce a perfect result the first time.

" need to have removed all traces of yourself and vanished, leaving only the words. You want your reader to sink into the story and forget all about authors."

Although a popular and modern p.o.v., I'm not sure this is always the best approach. Sometimes, as a reader, I like to have the feeling that there is an interaction going on between me and the author--a secret, special relationship. It doesn't take me out of the story--quite the contrary. It's as if I have an friendly and omnipotent guide while I'm there.

Anyway, that's just my opinion. Thanks for doing another post on the art of writing! :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Laini,
I loved your post. Thank you for taking the time to share with us all. I'd be really interested to hear more about what a 'scene' means to you. Is there a framework in your brain that helps provide any structure when you're exploring and creating? I sometimes feel like I just have a 1000 fragments left once I'm done editing out what I don't like. I have read lots of posts about 'goals' and 'obstacles', but you're so great at explaining things in very human and creative terms that I'd be massively grateful if you could talk about this. Many thanks. x

Caroline Starr Rose said...

New projects always terrify me, and it often takes me a while to get going.

I've always thought about the hopes, wants, and fears of the protagonist but never the reader. This is fabulous!

Carolyn Dietrich said...

Thank you for encouraging writers and sharing your methods. What a blessing that is!

Amber said...

Always, always, always greatfulllll when you go here.

Thanks! Something you said here really helped me feel better about when I skip around, just going with an idea and not sure where or if I will use it.


Kate Robertson said...

Your post was so helpful. Thanks for sharing it. Clementine is such a sweetheart, I love seeing her.

April Henry said...

Coming a little late to this, but I LOVE it. As a mystery writer, I'm usually thinking "What will make things worse?" but I think I'm going to start playing around with the "cool" thing.

Melanie said...

Oh Laini, you have saved me once again! Only this time, I actually followed your advice before I read about it! Does that make sense? Does that make me psychic, or just so damn happy that I am beginning to think like you?
Anyways, I was going nowhere with a novel and lost enthusiasm, so in an effort to kickstart some brainstorming, I changed my characters from adults to highschool kids, and wow, did it make such a difference! Their motivations changed because their circumstances were different, and voila! I am now full of enthusiasm and ready to climb that mountain, kicking over gravestones as I go!

Unknown said...

I just want you to know, I *keep* coming back to this, even months later. I'm dragging myself through a beginning right now, and your words-- just knowing they're here to find-- help immensely. Thank you. I want to make cheery signs of the questions you listed and hang them up around my work space (also known as the living room). :)

Unknown said...

What happened to your puppy's tail? Poor thing... I'm guessing it's a rescue or aged doggie... or both?

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