Novelling never seems to go as planned. When I started this novel, I told myself I would spend as much time on the later chapters as on the opening ones. Everyone spends forever writing their first chapter, of course because it is the first thing people read. I’ve also discovered that writing the first chapter is one of the hardest things to write. Why? Because what the reader wants is exactly the opposite of what the author wants. The writer wants to introduce you to their world: who these characters are, where they live, what they’re in search of. The reader hasn’t decided yet whether she cares about any of those things. The reader wants to know what happened: what’s the story? What’s the conflict? Where is this going? Complicating things further, the reader really does need some of that background information. Well into the novel, they know what the characters look like, where they live, what kind of world the story inhabits. So the author has this challenge: they must get the reader involved in the story right away while sneaking in little details that give the reader something to picture. When my reading group first looked over my story, I realized they didn’t know diving in whether the world was going to be suburban or fantasy, if it takes place today or fifty years ago. Thus every detail in chapter one matters, because the readers is starting from nothing. Not only do you have to sneak them in, you have to give just the right details in just the right order.
The other challenge of first chapters is that they often a depict the world before the adventure began. Even Indiana Jones, as exciting as his life is, begins his story teaching at his university. Or take The Goonies: that action-packed story begins at home. Why even show the part before the kids discover the treasure map? Why not begin the story in the middle of the action, when they sneak into the cafe? The answer is that we want to know who these kids are, how they are like us, so we feel like this adventure could happen to us too. The problem comes in that many (most?) writers get lost in this set-up, taking too long in the introductions.
Naturally, I’ve been tweaking Chapter 1 all along, but today I finished my first total rewrite. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like rewriting chapters. I already did the work, I’d rather revise than start from scratch. But I finally found the hook I needed. The main problem I had was that I wanted to start the story with the lead character waking up from a dream, which limits the options for the scene. In trying to imagine how to make the scene more exciting, I kept imagining her awakening somewhere strange, like in the back of truck. But I couldn’t make that work. I know that mortal peril is the best hook to interest the readers, but how could I put my character in mortal peril when she’s just awoken in the safety of her room?
I also asked myself what exactly I needed to convey in this scene, for the reasons above. The main thing I wanted to get across was that the protagonist is depressed, but her boyfriend is even more so. I thought I had shown this, but it didn’t seem to me like the readers were getting it, not to the extent that I needed. And the answer to the question: “How can I show that this guy is really unwell?” also gave me the answer to the question “How can I endanger the characters and hook the reader right away?”
Then I went through the old chapter one and I highlighted all the stuff that I thought I wanted to keep in the first chapter. Despite having whittled the chapter down to what I thought were the “essentials,” it was surprising when I did this how little I highlighted. I may keep some of the other content for later chapters. I stuffed most of the keeper-stuff into the beginning, and then rewrote the chapter without so much as a glance at what I had before.
My apartment is a disaster. There are dishes scattered about, paper strewn, twice-worn clothes in a heap. My ass has been reshaped into the form of the cushion, and it hurts. My shoulders are killing me. I’m sick of listening to music.
“No! Take it back!” you say. For I am never sick of listening to music, as you, dear reader, probably know by now.
But I have been sitting in this same spot, listening to music and staring at this novel for the last twelve hours. I had determined that a four-day weekend was plenty of time to finish the ten scenes that I haven’t been able to find the time to write for the last ten months.
OK, to be fair, I did write some of them. But writing scenes inspires a need to write more scenes, so no matter how much I wrote the conclusion of the novel seemed at least ten scenes away.
Believe it or not, in those twelve hours I got very little writing done. Hardly a page.
Instead, something even better happened. It was like a gift from my fairy godmother!
I had been miffed at myself of late. I had had plenty of good ideas for character, dialog, description (etc.) and not taken the time to get those ideas down. Then when I wanted to go write them later, of course the words didn’t take shape quite as easily.
I thought because I had been keeping up with entering the changes in my edited drafts, that I had most of the hand-written scenes entered.
I was wrong. I was so wrong.
Turns out those good ideas had been put to paper. I decided to go through every journal I have used since I started the novel and finally type in every last scrap of anything that I had hand-written but not entered into the draft yet. We are talking eight journals and assorted random pieces of paper. They were sentence fragments on legal pads, plotpoints in margins, conflict and dialog written sideways on notes from work meetings, whole scenes in journals I was sure would have nothing but diary entries cataloging various breakups…like the typical artist, my journals are as scatterbrained as my mind.
All together, in those twelve hours I typed seventeen pages, or roughly 8,000 words. I didn’t put them in their place in the story, just typed them straight through, separating them with useful headers.
You’d think it would be better for me to have written those enigmatic ten scenes, since this stuff would get entered at some point regardless. You would think also that it would be better if there were several whole scenes rather than a ton of fragments.
Au contraire! I say in a terrible French accent.
Because the hardest part of writing is starting. It is much, much (much) easier to finish off a scene than put one word on a blank piece of paper. Now most of the scenes I need to write have already been started. I just have to fill in the gaps. Even the two monumental mind-fuck *scenes that are going to be the hardest to rewrite had some significant edits hidden away that I had forgotten about.
Furthermore, this is tremendous validation that I actually did something in 2009 besides bite my nails, Blip, and fret over the aphids eating my tomatoes.
And plenty of what was written didn’t suck! That’s key of course. I’m excited just to get this fresh content in because I am sick of looking at the same tired sentences I’ve been editing for ages. And those ten scenes smell a lot more like four scenes at the moment.
Moving forward: First step, naturally, is to stick all those scenes in the appropriate place in the draft. That may take the rest of the weekend. Then I will reprint the draft and continue editing it. This time I’m going to leave big spaces where I think there should be more content. Not sure whether I will start from page one or pick up where I left off.
Now to get off my ass and be unproductive!
*They entail describing pretty much the entire history of humanity in a touching, infuriating, frenzied dream. Exactly like that scene from Adaptation, actually.
As some of you may recall, I started writing a novel in November 2006. It’s a jerky process. And by “jerky” I mean both Steve Martin-esque and filled with more stops and starts than a pimply teen learning to drive a stick shift. I can hardly believe it has been two years and my best hope is that it will be no more than another year before I am willing to show it to a stranger. Not before then, surely. Coming November I’d like to participate in National Novel Writing Month again, which is the event that prompted me to start the thing in the first place. So I have set the goal to get the plot written out before November, hopefully with a week or so to plot out the project I’ll begin for NaNoWriMo becuase it will be no fun writing daily without a plot. Even less fun editing it later. Trust me, I know.
By writing out the plot, I mean writing every scene that takes place in the book. Right now I have a chapter by chapter outline, scenes of which are written in caps like this: IF JANET IS GOING TO SHAG ROCKY, MAYBE ADD A SCENE HERE WHERE SHE SINGS TO BE TOUCHED? For many months I struggled to wholly finish the chapter outline because there was one character I just hadn’t gotten right from the start. He kept whispering, I’m not who you think I am. And I knew he was right. It made it damn near impossible to write his scenes because his dialogue and movements were all uncertain. Its one thing to write a scene with the expectation that the writing may be crap and will have to be redone. Its even more annoying to be unclear about what characters are thinking/doing because a wrong fork may mean you have to redo every scene following.
About a month ago it all came to me, in the form of a power outage of all things. The power outage introduced a new and significant character as well as a subplot that threatens to dwarf the major plot.Maybe not. The major story arc was finished almost two years ago and I am seldom working on it so it is tough to say. And now that i have this new subplot I’m thinking I may not need all the others. But they are so intrinsically tied into my story that I’m not sure where I would snip them. I’m just going to run with it. If whole sections need to be cut out, now is not the time to decide that. I have to stay focused on the goal of getting the whole thing written out first. Like I can’t worry about if the protagonist is likeable enough (not a major deal, though I hear books with femaie protagonists don’t sell if the lead isn’t likeable) because there are more opportunities to flesh out her motivation as more gets added.
I find I spend more time than I would like adjusting the outline to reflect changes in chapter length, story, etc. The outline is essential because it is really easy to forget where you are in the story (what secrets the protagonist knows, if someone is dead and whether someone else knows it, for examples). If Shakespeare wrote with a feather and a candle I have no room to bitch. But next novel, I’m using some kind of outline program.
Now that my plot is written out, I went ahead and counted how many scenes I need to write for my goal. I came up with eighteen. This is a misleading number because more often than vice-versa, what seemed like one scene will take multiple scenes to develop when pen gets to paper. I don’t think this is overwriting, it is a sign of maturity as a writer in my mind. Sure sign of an amateur is an underdeveloped plot—you know, the guy and gal are making out and they just met last scene? Still, 18 scenes could definitely be written in a month!
Hopefully, post November I will have the seeds of another novel to puzzle over. That should be put aside for December, when I plan to pick this one up and look at it afresh. At that time, I have a number of read-throughs to do, each of which will involve reading the whole thing from start to finish. These include:
*making sure the dialog is consistent for each character’s personality
*plotting everything on a calendar to find inconsistencies.
*Make depressed character more sad.
*One plot point that afflicts the character needs to be brought up and developed more throughout.
*I noticed on the show Weeds that every character in every scene wants something and this adds more drama to every scene. I want to do a read through where I think about that.
*Make dream sequences more surreal and tighter, better written. There’s only one I’m happy with now.
*The five senses: what season is it? What’s the weather? How does the room smell? Some scenes are strong on this but I still have whole scenes that suffer from talking-head syndrome.
*The verb tenses are all screwed up, but I think I can deal with passing this problem along to my volunteer editors.
OK, now the good news! Since I did that count a few weeks ago, I am down to thirteen scenes that need to be written. Out of 20 chapters, I have the story written out for nine. This means I’ve written five of the eighteen projected in under a month. And through that chapter, things flow pretty smoothly, meaning I didn’t just plug the scene in with no context, I wrote the necessary stuff to make it fit in with the story line, even if that means rewriting parts of Chapter one. I even entirely rewrote one of the later chapters. There was nothing wrong with it, I just decided I could do it better. One sentence entered my mind and then another and another and before I knew it, dawn was upon me and the chapter was reborn. It felt great. It felt like writing should feel: exhilarating, liberating, total immersion. Today was another great day. I watched an episode of telly, ran some errands and then threw myself into it for 12 hours, stopping only to intake and elimate fuel. Every two hours I would look up and be surprised that so much time had passed. Then I would keep on truckin’.