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Just where do I begin? -- by Peggy Cadwallader

Just where do I begin?

Around chapter six of my adventure in writing my first novel, it became clear I had not started my story in the right place and time. My MC has developed quite a bit, thanks to lessons I have learned along the way, and I can see I have made a miss-step or two...   or three...  okay, way north of a dozen....  in introducing the reader to my little world. While I have resisted rewriting the first chapters in favor of plugging away at the first draft, I could add at least three chapters to the beginning that would make the book flow better.

When I first started on this journey, my process began with an outiline. I thought the plot and character arcs and theme were pretty well established, and I was ready to flesh it out with a first draft. But I had not thought my story all the way through. I discovered this during a conversation wtih my hubby, who is far from a gentle critic.  I was telling him about a plot problem, and he asked some basic questions I hadn't even considered. Along with a not unfamiliar nod to my hubby's intellect and my own lack of discernment, the discussion helped me take a step back from the story and begin to think more as a reader would. How can I help them attach to the story and characters right in the first chapter? When I make some progress on that, it'll be another lesson to share.

Meantime, back to the books to see what an expert says about fixing the problem at hand. Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat," Chapter 7, presents basic problems with a script (book) and how to work through them.  My particular issue is shared on page 155, in what Snyder calls "Take a Step Back."

To paraphrase and summarize, when your writing just isn't coming alive, seems flat - or plain isn't working, sometimes you've got to take a step of so back in time and action to find the inciting incident for conflict, growth or change, that will make your story "pop."  Make that the beginning point. Some indicators you may have to move your beginning point back are: needing too much backstory in the narrative; little of no change in your MC or other characters - lack of conflict or growth; and if by the end of the book, you still haven't told the whole (or real) story.

Better to attend to this problem now, methinks, rather than waiting until the end of the first draft. By going back in now I gain a better grasp of incidental characters that pepper the text, and the beginning chapter will introduce not only the MCs, but the problems that will unfold throughout the book.

No more having to be creative in disguising the backstory so it slips in without boring the reader.  Hmmmm.  That last sentence indicates I am still such a baby in writing fiction. On the bright side, now that I see how I was missing the point (again!) of some of the lessons I've been studying, I am so glad I am writing a "real book" in order to learn how to write!  The adage "Writing is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration" is so true.

Writing is something I HAVE to do, like eating and sleeping and breathing. There are days I think this little book is only an exercise for learning how to write. Then there are days when it excites me because there is a story unfolding. The longer I work on it, poke and prod and carve and pinch it like a lump of clay, the more it begins to be interesting. And on a really good day, I start to imagine sequels and prequels that must be written after I get this one done. I am falling in love with the characters and their world!

Yes, I have likely gone around the bend, fallen off the truck, got a screw loose. So what else is new? Doesn't someone have to be a bit crazy to want to live a life making up stories?

Posted by Peggy Cadwallader 19 Feb 2015 at 03:32
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Responses to this blog

Marisaw 20 Feb 2015 at 00:52  
As I critique stories, I find most people make the opposite mistake — starting too early. As you say, you need to engage the reader on your very first page, or you're wasting your time. Most people make the mistake of starting with what is really just backstory.

It sounds like you learned that lesson a bit too well!
Peggyc 20 Feb 2015 at 14:17  
Thank you, Marisaw, you are so right. As a newbie, I have overcorrected. This is what it means to me re: learn by doing and paying dues... Got to keep writing and keep trying— learning this craft is a lot like a waltz, one step forward, two steps back. Keeping the faith until I understand "story" deeper.
Marisaw 20 Feb 2015 at 22:52  
One step forward, two steps back - I like it! At least your lesson isn't too painful - you've got a few extra chapters to write. I'm still recovering from my mistake: taking someone's advice on the direction of my novel halfway through. She was a successful published author so I valued her opinion.

When I sent the finished product to someone for a critique, they said they loved the first half but the second half fell flat. Guess where I started following her advice? I should've listened to what my characters were telling me, instead of listening to "experts". The only way to fix it is to throw out that whole second half. That means rewriting at least 30,000 words.

It's hard to describe how that feels, when you think you've actually finished your novel and then find you have to rewrite half of it - I've been unable to face it for TWO YEARS.
Glitterbee 21 Feb 2015 at 01:34  
As a reader, I need to be intrigued right at the beginning in order to keep me reading. Maybe it's my personality, but I get bored easily. As a Newbie writer, I started the very first line of my first submission with immediate suspense. I appreciate your advise because you are farther along the road as a writer than I am and I have much to learn. Your husband, like mine is my biggest and most honest critic. My husband read my first draft and told me "it doesn't make sense, you're all over the place." I started to argue but realized that I had asked for his honesty. As much as criticism hurts, it is always useful for improving your craft.
Petesdiner 21 Feb 2015 at 14:51  
Slightly off-topic, I fear.
It's hard to describe how that feels, when you think you've actually finished your novel and then find you have to rewrite half of it - I've been unable to face it for TWO YEARS.
So, yeah, I'm coming in from the dark here, and I don't know you nor the details nor your level of experience as a writerómuch less the way you normally work. Furthermore, I don't even write novels. For what it's worth, though, typically, with any kind of creative writing, editing and rewriting (even novels, up to several times) is more or less the standard fare. Now, this is not always the case, naturally, and as mentioned, it depends on the way you work.

On the subject of advice and whom to trust and whom to ignore, really, while experience might help (or so I hear), your gut's pretty much all you've got.
How he picked the stars like eggs in a hen house.

Onalimb 21 Feb 2015 at 16:07  
Thanks for sharing this.

It's a good reminder that the grab-bag of 'beginners always do this wrong' solutions isn't appropriate for every occasion. Before someone recommends a solution, it's always wise to have a look to see what the problem actually is.
Edwardra3 22 Feb 2015 at 03:53  
I came to this realization today. Before I started writing my manuscript, I read a blog post from a published author that said always start your story with action. So I did. I started with my main character running for her life. Then I went back and wrote 3000 words of backstory explaining why she was running for her life. Of the seven crits I've received here and elsewhere, five brought up the amount of backstory. Finally, somebody pointed out that the backstory could be engaging in it's own rate if I started the story there instead.
Peggyc 22 Feb 2015 at 18:44  
Hi Edwardra3, sound like we've got the same issue in our learning curve! That's why we have to keep at it, keep writing, and eventually I believe we'll "get it" and see that bigger picture earlier on... We're paying our dues.
Colibri 24 Feb 2015 at 02:42  
Interesting subject, Peggy. So true.

I completed the third rewrite of my first chapter. I deleted over 2,500 words, taking some elements from the second and third chapter and switching scenes around. I have changed it because of critiques? advice. As writers themselves (who learned the rules) my critiques are presumably good judges. So, I struggled with this first chapter to have a better product or maybe it isn?t.

We hear in our ?writers? world? that most people make the mistake of starting too early and with backstory. But backstory is part of our story: introducing our characters, putting the reader in the mood, creating situations along the way, which advance the story. What?s wrong with that? The writer should know best where to start his story and what he wants to accomplish. If a reader does not like it, then this story is not for him/her. And most of the time, that's the case—it's not really their kind of book, period. And not because the story starts at the wrong place.

Of course, we need to engage the reader, not only on our first page or first chapter, but all the way through. (We can accomplish that with a backstory). We cannot only aim for a hook; otherwise we are fooling our readers, and they can stop reading at any time if we don?t maintain the same quality of work that hooked them. We have to be true to ourselves.

Everything is so relative and every one has his/her own taste in writing as in anything else. It comes to what Petesdiner is saying: On the subject of advice and whom to trust and whom to ignore, really, while experience might help (or so I hear), your gut's pretty much all you've got.

Josephsil 24 Feb 2015 at 19:43  
Stick with it. You are your own worst critic, and that is true of every writer. Sounds like your hearing the music, and if you hear the music you are a writer.
White23dem 27 Apr 2015 at 14:29  
Always start with excitement. Catch the attention of the reader.

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