Thursday, January 10, 2019

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning...

            Sound of Music reference for the WIN!!!!  
            Okay, maybe not
            So I’ve been thinking about what would make a good first topic for the start of the year.  Which made me think of a topic that comes up a lot at the Coffeehouse or at different con discussions.  And that topic is “how should I start my book?”
            Now, right up front, here’s the catch.
            I can’t tell you.
            I mean, it’s not like it’s a secret and I want to make you beg or pay for it.  I can’t tell you because I don’t know.  Nobody knows how your book need to begin except you.  It’s because every writer is different and every story is different.  We each have our own styles and preferences, and each story has its own needs and narratives.
            Heck, even if we’re telling the same story it’s going to be different.  If I told you to write a modern take on Frankenstein (the monster, not the scientist) you’d be telling a different story than me and we’d both be telling a different story than her and a much different story than him.  I mean... seriously, what the heck is that guy doing?  That’s a seriously weird take on Frankenstein.
            But the point is, even though we’d all be telling more or less the same story, we’d also be telling very different stories.  I might decide to start with the lightning storm, the night the monster awakens, but your version might start with Victor in medical school and she might decide to begin with the event that inspires Victor to create the monster.  All of these are completely valid ways to begin a narrative about Frankenstein.
            And this is why nobody else can tell me how to begin my story.  There are so many elements to consider, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to know but me.  You and I could talk for an hour about your story, and I might get a vague sense of where it should start.  But that vague estimate is still based off a very limited amount of information, and it only applies to that one specific story.
            So... yeah.  I can’t tell you where to start.  Sorry.
            BUT...
            (you didn’t think I’d leave you hanging like that, did you?)
            I can offer you a few general ideas of what you should and shouldn’t use as starting points.  Not things specific to a story, but things specific to storytelling.  As a wise man once said, the code’s more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.
            I’ve talked about a lot of these things before, so be prepared for links.
            So, when I consider how to start my story...

            DO start with action.  I’ve talked about this one before, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  “Starting with action” often gets misunderstood as “my manuscript needs to begin with a ninja stopping a hostage situation on a high-speed train with his explosive throwing stars.”  This is, of course, a really weird way to begin a romantic fantasy novel, but people try to do it anyway.
            All starting with action means is that I need something to happen.  Being fired from my job (or written up, or promoted) is action.  Getting beaten up (or asked out) by the quarterback in high school is something happening.  Buying groceries is something happening.
            And, yes, so is having a ninja stop a hostage situation with explosive throwing stars.

            DON’T start with someone writing their novel or screenplay.  Seriously, don’t.  Yes, technically, it’s someone doing something, but it’s a minimal, inactive something that involves one character sitting alone at a desk.  Plus, it’s an opening every editor, agent, and producer has seen at least a thousand times.  Seriously.  One thousand times, minimum.  I don’t want to begin with something everyone’s already bored of seeing.

            DO start with something relevant.  Relevant to this story.  Relevant by at least a third of the way into the story.  An opening scene that makes no sense until the end of my book is an opening scene that makes no sense (and we’re going to forget).  Which means we don’t need it.
            My opening pages should hook the reader right into my story.  They should pay off soon, and that payoff should draw them in even further.  The goal is always to draw them in, not to push them away or hold them at arm’s length.  If I’m trying to distance the reader in the first chapter... that’s not going to work out well.
            
            DON’T start by killing everyone.  Nine times out of ten, if every character from chapter one is dead by the end of chapter two, it means chapter three is where my story really starts.  No matter how cool chapter one and two were.
            A lot of folks stumble into this trap.  They “start with action” (see above) by having a bunch of nameless, unimportant people get killed by some threat, and then they introduce their actual characters and get on with the story.  Which tells right me there that those opening bits are just more wasted pages.

            DO be aware that the story started long before page one.  There were events in my protagonist’s (and antagonist’s) life that made them the person they are now.  They already have relationships and jobs and histories. We all instinctively understand and acknowledge this (Clive Barker wrote a beautiful introduction about this idea in his book Weaveworld).
            Right from the start, I need to keep in mind that my characters are in this world.  They’ve been there for a while.  It doesn’t surprise them or catch them off guard.  Neither does the existence of their siblings, lovers, employers, or their own body parts.  If my opening is my protagonist expositing about her apartment, her girlfriend, her own body, or the dual nature of this amazing futuristic world she lives in, my readers are going to be rolling their eyes.

            And that's a few things to keep in mind when deciding how to start my story.  Again, these are just guidelines, but... y’know, guidelines exist for a reason.  I should think long and hard before ignoring them and declaring that my story’s the exception they don’t apply to. 
            Because odds are... it’s not.
            Oh, in other news for SoCal folks, this Sunday is both the Writers Coffeehouse (at Dark Delicacies in Burbank) and the dystopian book club We're All Gonna Die (at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles).  Please stop by and hang out.  Although for the book club, you may want to pick up the book first...
            Next time, I’d like to talk about something really powerful.
            Until then, go write.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

What Are You Looking For?

            Welcome to 2019!  A dystopian world unlike any you could’ve imagined...
            I wanted to start the year by just tossing out a couple introductory thoughts for you about writing.  Or why we’re writing, really.  Maybe something to consider while those resolutions are still firming up.
            Really, it all kinda boils down to one question.
            Why are you doing this?
            It’s a question I think a lot of folks don’t ask themselves, and it’s kind of important.  What I actually hope to get out of an activity should really effect how I approach said activity.  Is writing just a hobby for me?  Is it a form of artistic expression?  Do I just want to make a little money on the side with it or am I hoping to make a career out of this?  Do I just want all the little side perks that come with being a famous writer? Maybe some combination of some or all of these things?
            Almost all of these are valid ways to approach writing.  But if I don’t know—or I’m not honest with myself—about where I want to end up, I can waste a lot of time on the wrong path.  And when I don’t get where I wanted to go... well, there’s only one person I can blame.
            Now, I’m willing to bet some folks reading this are already grumbling.  Internally if nothing else.  Experience has taught me that a lot of people don’t like talking about writing in a concrete way like this.  If I had to guess why, I think it’s because keeping things vague and soft is comfortable.  It’s easy. If I don’t declare what my goals are, it’s pretty much impossible for you to tell me I’m not getting closer to them.  I can just keep doing whatever I want in this big hazy cloud of possibilities and declare success.
            So let’s not talk about writing.
            Let’s fall back on one of my favorite parallels—cooking.  We can talk about cooking without anyone getting mad, right?  It’s a safe, simple topic.
            Why do you cook?
            I mean, we all cook to some degree or another.  Maybe it’s just using the microwave or the toaster, but I think everybody reading this can at least feed yourself without resorting to ordering a pizza, right?   Some of us might even be able to make pizza from scratch.  Or maybe go all the way to ravioli in vodka sauce with homemade garlic bread.
            (I might be a bit hungry while I type all this—just warning you now)
            So yeah, some people might be happy just having those bare basic skills and maybe some folks want to do a bit more.  Maybe you’re just really into pasta or baking or soups and you have a lot of fun experimenting with them.
            Or maybe I want to go all the way with this.  I want to be a chef.  Like, a trained and accredited chef.  Do they accredit chefs?  You get the idea.  I want to wear that white jacket and the apron and work in a restaurant.  Hell, maybe I want to own a restaurant! 
            It’s possible to approach cooking a lot of different ways, depending on where I want to go with it.  And there’s nothing that says I can’t change direction at some point.  I can just play around with pies and cakes for my own amusement and maybe one day decide I want to open a bakery.  But I need to acknowledge that’ll mean a big shift in how I approach things.  Baking cookies for me and my friends is not the same as baking them for the Wednesday lunch rush.
            Another thing about cooking—we can all agree there are some rules to it.  There are tons of recipes that’ll have flexibility, sure, but in the end, it needs to be edible.  Some ingredients need to be cooked certain ways.  Yeah, breaking these rules is possible, but it’s really important that I know how to break them.  Like, I can do things with raw eggs, but it’s risky.  If I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, I might make someone sick.  Like full-on poison them.  Fatally.
            And that’s not going to get me a lot of repeat dinner guests.
            Or repeat customers, if I’ve decided to go pro with this.
            That’s a nice lead in for my last point about cooking.  The business side of it.  Yeah, maybe you don’t want to go that way, but it’s worth at least thinking about for a minute.  I think the vast majority of us wouldn’t mind making money at our cooking, right?
            (everybody remembers this is an extended metaphor, right?)
            The minute I decide to start thinking about cooking in a business sense, I need to start thinking about it... well, like a business.  If I want to open a restaurant or a bakery, I need to consider what my customers want, sales numbers, investment returns, and more.  It’s painful to say, but at this point I need to ignore the art side of things for a bit and start looking at hard numbers.
            Like, okay, cooking’s always going to have a personal edge to it.  I really like things on the spicy side.  My partner’s a vegetarian.  Maybe you hate anything that doesn't include bacon.
            But once we’re talking about cooking as a business, it’s not all about us anymore.  It’s about them—my potential customers.  What do they like?  What are they going to spend money on?  What are they going to take a chance on?  Yeah, my maggot brulee might be the most amazing (and carbon-friendly) dessert you’ll ever have, but I shouldn’t be too shocked if nobody wants to try it.  Customers probably won’t want to eat it (not enough to support a restaurant, anyway) and investors probably won’t want to back my little writhing cafe.
            And again—this doesn’t mean the maggot brulee is bad.  This isn’t about good or bad, it’s about making smart business decisions.  Cooking professionally means not doing as many adventurous things, and being very smart about the risks I take and the rules I break.  It means finding that perfect sweet spot where I can make my customers (and investors) feel very safe and comfortable while also getting them excited about trying something new.
            It’s tough.  That’s why so many restaurants fail.  Depending on which numbers you look at, it’s generous to say only one out of five restaurants lasts three years.
            Which, honestly, is still better numbers than most writers.
            That’s what we’ve been talking about, remember?
            Y’see, Timmy, there’s no “correct” endgame with writing.  You wanting to do it just for the art isn’t any worse or better, decision-wise, than me doing it for a living.  They can do it for fun, she can do it as therapy, and he can do it as an ongoing social-psychological exploration as what it means to be a brilliant mind trapped at the mall food court serving orange chicken to capitalist sheeple every day (it’s too deep for you to understand, just deal with it).  Whatever I want to do with writing... that’s the right choice for me.  And whatever you want to do is the right choice for you.
            Just make sure you’re on the right path to get to that goal.  Or at least headed generally toward it.  Path A could be a smooth, unchallenging run, but it doesn’t lead to D.  And path C lets me take the moral high ground, but it’s not going to get me to E.
            I freely admit, this blog is overall about getting on a career path with writing.  Or maybe getting over some of the rough parts of that path a little easier.  And you may find some tools here you can use on other paths.  Rope’s very helpful with mountain climbing, but you use it a lot in sailing, too.  Some writing advice is like that.  It can get you closer to publication, but it can also make your Dungeons & Dragons blog really pop.
            So... that’s what we’re going to do this year.
            And maybe a tiny bit of self promotion for a couple projects coming out.
            Next time, well... we should probably talk about getting started.
            Until then, go write.