Where to Begin?

I had a great conversation with the members of my critique group last Friday about where my new novel should begin. One member, a multi-published fantasy author, said I was beginning the story too soon, basically giving backstory. A fantasy/sci-fi novel, she said, needs to have a "Call to Action" by the end of the first chapter. We brainstormed and came up with a couple compelling and exciting twists that would bring action in the opening.

But once home, I began to question whether action DOES belong in my opening chapter. So I decided to do a little survey, to see where the “call to action” occurs in a number of current YA novels. Here’s what I found:

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Shrinking Violet, by Danielle Joseph is a contemporary YA novel. By the end of chapter 1, the reader knows that Teresa is painfully shy, that she fantasizes about being the DJ “Sweet T,” and that a DJ spot just opened at her stepdad’s radio station—but she’s too scared to volunteer.

Call to Action? I’d say no. The groundwork has been laid, but Teresa is not FORCED to act. And she doesn’t—yet.

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M.E. Breen’s Darkwood is a YA fantasy. By the end of chapter 1, the main character (Annie) has overheard her aunt and uncle planning to sell her to the Drop, where she fully expects to die.

Call to Action? Yep. Stay and get sent to certain death versus flee into the dangerous darkness and face unknown dangers.  Annie has to make a choice.

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Need, by Carrie Jones is another YA fantasy, but this is one of those “real world” fantasies that starts in the here-and-now. For the first few chapters, the readers gets hints of other, but no clear portrayal of the paranormal or fantastical.

Call to Action? Not so much. By the end of chapter one, the reader knows about Zara’s troubled past and that she’s crushed by her father’s recent death. We also know that her mother is worried about her and has sent her to Maine to stay with her grandmother. We get one hint of the supernatural: a weird-looking guy who might or might not be stalking her.

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In R.A. Nelson’s contemporary YA Breathe My Name, the first chapter sets the stage for the story ahead: Frances lives with nightmares, sleeplessness, and stress because deep down she fears the return of her real mother.

Call to Action? Nope, this takes place a few chapters down the road, when the lawyer arrives with a letter from her biological mother.

So…what have I learned from all this?

  1. That a book’s opening—as we all know—is VERY important. It has to hook the reader and set the stage for the rest of the story.
  2. BUT—that doesn’t mean that the first chapter HAS to include the actual “call to action.” Especially when plot and character are closely intertwined, it makes sense to introduce the main character and her underlying problem in the opening chapter.
  3. In straight fantasy, it seems more common to introduce the call to action in chapter 1; in contemporary fiction, not as much.
  4. Some books cross genres—like Need and Twilight. These books seem more likely to break the “rule” about introducing the call to action in chapter 1.

The First Draft! (or, climbing the mountain)

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Yes, I’m still mulling over the weird process of how we write first drafts. Everyone seems to do this differently: some people wake up in the night hearing their characters’ voices. Others have a general concept of plot and characters and just start writing, planning to go back later and iron out any wrinkles in structure. I like to outline first—outline in such detail that one editor said I was really creating a storyboard for an entire novel. My chapter outline can run 20 single spaced pages. It includes scene sketches, snatches of dialog, notes on character emotions and motivations…it’s almost like taking notes on the story’s play-by-play as I imagine it in my mind.

And yet, even with all that advance planning, I find that the story frequently doesn’t pan out exactly as I plan.

I figured out why.

Let me explain: my sweetheart just returned from climbing Long’s Peak last weekend. For those of you who don’t know, Long’s Peak is one of the toughest non-technical climbs in the Rocky Mountains. It’s also an exceptionally long hike, where you have to circle a number of ridges, pick your way through an immense boulder field, and then traverse a skinny bit of trail aptly called the Narrows.

If you take a wrong turn along the way, you’ll find yourself at an impassable cliff, sheer rock face, or some other insurmountable obstacle. Luckily, today’s hikers have cairns marking the way for them—but even so, only about 3 out of every 10 people who attempt the climb actually reach the summit. It’s a really tough hike.

Imagine what it was like for the first people who tried to climb Long’s Peak. With no cairns or trail markers, they must have had to backtrack and try new directions again…and again…and again…and again.
I think that’s what writing is like. At least, for me :). Maybe I’ll get more of a bird’s-eye view of my stories with experience—but for now, writing involves a bit of trial and error!

Happy writing!

:) Cheryl

[“W of Long’s Peak” courtesy of eggheadsherpa at Flickr Commons]

Twitter? Me?

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Well, I’m finally convinced. If the Shrinking Violets say that Twitter can be a good thing, well, I figured I’d better give it a try. (See their post “If At First You Don’t Succeed, Tweet, Tweet Again”.)

I’ve been signed up on Twitter for a while, to follow a few others; now, I’m actually going to–don’t keel over here–POST. Sorry. I mean I’m going to TWEET. I’ve actually posted one already!

Starting this weekend, I’ll be posting a series on how to bypass your creative blocks, inner editor, outer distractions, etc., and actually Write The Story (WTS). If you’re interested, you can follow me at: @CherylRWrites.

Come find me so I don’t get lonely in cyber-twitter-land!

P.S.

Thanks to the Shrinking Violets (@shrinkngviolets) for pointing me to this great guide for Twitter newbies: RT@mitaliperkins: Getting Started on Twitter: A Quick Guide for Kid/YA Writers: Newbie to Twitter http://bit.ly/f5pke

Finding the Right Trail

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It’s been a while since I was writing the first draft of a book—about eight months—and, as I wrote yesterday, the experience can be a bit unsettling. I’m big on outlining, so when I sit down to write a chapter, I kind of expect that the words will just roll out. After all, the plot made perfect sense when I put it together a few months ago.

Yeah. Have I ever mentioned that I’m occasionally optimistic to the point of being delusional?

Every time I write the first draft of a novel, it’s much harder to bring the pages to life than I expect. And every time, I’m surprised by this.

It took me a while yesterday to put my finger on what was wrong. I’d written a perfectly fine scene in which the main character’s father surprises her with a new bicycle. She hugs him, it’s touching, happy-happy joy-joy. My head said I should just keep on writing.

Luckily, I’m (slowly) learning to listen to my gut when it comes to writing, so instead of plowing onward (and wasting a lot of time) I kept poking at the story (well, and procrastinating, which is kind of like wasting time, except different. Sort of.) And eventually I made a breakthrough. I backed up the story, rewrote the previous scene to put Cass (the mc) in a much less pleasant situation, which naturally leads to tension when her father shows up, which naturally lets me explore her fears about their situation on this island….

To put it another way, the best way to tell the story is not always obvious. Sometimes you stumble onto the wrong path, and even though you’re pouring out the words, the writing loses its life and urgency. The trick is to trust the process—trust those hours when you don’t seem to be accomplishing anything—because if you just keep hacking at the problem, eventually you’ll have a breakthrough.

And meantime, you might even resort to desperate measures, like doing the laundry. Your family will be so astonished, they’ll probably take you out to dinner….

:) Cheryl