Saturday, January 2, 2010

Marching Orders: Write the Beginning of a Novel

About a month ago, my thesis adviser gave me "marching orders" for my novel-in-progress: "I want you to write the first fifty pages," she said.  "I'd hate to have you graduate without getting that down."
What she means by "getting that down" is one of the most fundamental aspects of writing the long fiction piece: the ability to write a solid beginning.  And we know from publishing practices that the very first lines of a book manuscript can determine if that first chapter gets read by an agent, and the first three chapters can play a very, very critical role in determining whether a publisher picks up your book.  Learning to write the beginning, then, is not only a necessary skill for becoming a full-fledged writer, but also a strong economic move - and you know a writer needs every economic advantage he or she can find.
In this post, I'll talk about how to go about writing the beginning to your novel while also discussing why I'm having so much trouble writing the beginning to my own.

1. Find Your Character's Voice
The first step in writing any beginning is to determine the voice of the work.  Many writers and writing coaches present this as a kind of tactical decision - they recommend that you decide which point of view can tell your story best, and then you use that point of view to "show what you need to show."  I actually disagree with this approach - for me, the voice of the piece must be a natural extension of the work, and you won't always know that voice until you start writing.
For my own novel, I'm somewhat lucky - I have a very strong character who I've been writing about for years.  His name is Jonathan Mitchell, he's soldier (and I'm a veteran, so I can relate to his mentality), and he's fighting a bunch of aliens from the future (a very original plot, I know...).  For me, when I sit down, his voice just comes right out.  I'm very comfortable writing him.  And, unfortunately, his voice is not a storytelling voice - if he was a living, breathing person, he would never tell anyone the story that I need to turn into a novel.  He's more of the taciturn type, the "I've been there and back and there's no reason you have to share the pain, too" kind of person.
So when I refer to the voice of the work, I'm not necessarily referring to the voice of your protagonist.  In fact, it's quite possible that your main character will not even provide the primary point-of-view of the work - just think of Dr. Watson telling the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or the narrator who relates the stories of Poe's C. Auguste Dupin.  If your story is written in third-person, you may purposely pull back from the main character at times, telling the audience what the main character is thinking (or a fact he doesn't know yet, or a perspective he's never thought of).  For me, I write the Jonathan Mitchell character from a very limited third person - we only ever see what he sees.  At the same time, though, the narrative voice is not his own voice:
He motioned with the gun and told her take a seat.  She reminded him, somewhat, of a girl he'd known in high school - short, petite, that red hair.  He had trouble thinking of her as an enemy, someone he might have to shoot or possibly even kill.  But she was Martian.  She wore their uniform, had that eternal stoned look to her eyes.  Still, when he took the seat across from her, he forgot, for a moment, the dangers.  He set the pistol on the table.  He closed his eyes.  He was tired.  He really wanted to sleep.  Only then did he jerk awake - she was already reaching for the gun.
Now, if Jonathan was going to tell us what happened, it would be a very different story:
I told her to sit down.  I shouldn't have set the gun down, but I was really tired.  If I'd been smarter I would have stayed on my feet - I should have known better than to take a seat.
Note that Jonathan's person voice is very focused on his own sense of "should have" and "shouldn't have."  He misses - or simply doesn't care about - many of the details that a reader would need in order to fully see this story.  The look of the Martians, for example - the fact that they look so human that "she reminds him of a girl he knew in high school."  He'd never let on a detail that personal, but understanding him requires that the reader sees this about him.
Now I'm not saying that the first-person perspective here is necessarily the wrong approach to this story - it would simply be different.  The tone of Jonathan's first-person narrative is somewhat reminiscent of a hard-boiled detective novel - "I should have known better than..." is the kind of line we here just before bad things go down, and the relative lack of information could be used to build some inherent tension.  But it really depends on the writer.  As a person, you'll find that you naturally gravitate to certain voices, that they resonate with you in interesting ways.  Hopefully you can do with more than one character voice - this gives you more room to experiment when it comes to Step 2 below.

2. Experiment
Honestly, this shouldn't be listed as Step 2 - it should be combined with finding the right voice above.  In order to find the right voice, you may well need to experiment a lot.  When I write stories, I often start anywhere between three and ten drafts before I find the right combination of voice and opening scene.  And sometimes these drafts are pretty long - one of my short stories (20 pages or so) was written from scratch after I cut a 33-page opening.  Those 33 pages were going great until one morning I woke up and realized "no, that's not right."
I'm relating this to you as a separate step because I really want you to give a lot of attention to experimentation.  Too often, I see classmates in workshop submit the same stories written in the same ways.  They write a story that feels "comfortable," and then they lock in that opening as if it was gospel.  I feel that this is the wrong approach.  I strongly believe in writing quickly and trying to churn out drafts as quickly as possible - it really helps you keep the creative and emotional energy flowing at full-tilt (either that or it's a sign of mania - I think the verdict's still out on that one...)  However, when you write, don't chain yourself to the comfortable.  If you wake up one morning and something doesn't feel right, feel free to rewrite.  In fact, given the choice between editing and rewriting, I believe rewriting is often a stronger way to go.  Just as master painters will sketch multiple "studies" of a subject before laying brush to canvas, so too should you write studies.  Try out rough drafts, experiment with different voices, feel free to rewrite.  What I've found is that through rewriting, I often discover a voice that I couldn't have envisioned before, a much stronger voice than you'd find in my original openings.  And when this happens, you as a writer will take a stronger interest in your own work.  The story will begin to write itself.
This said, it is possible to take experimentation too far, especially with the opening of a piece.  It's very likely I'm guilty of this.  Currently, I'm on opening draft 30-plus with this Jonathan story - that's not 30-plus pages, but rather over thirty different first pages.  Some even go up to five pages.  By the time this story really gets rolling, I may have a few hundred pages of slush taking up space on my hard drive.  (Can you imagine if I was writing this stuff out by hand?  Or on a typewriter?  I wouldn't have enough space in my apartment to store the excess pages.  I'd need a burn barrel next to the shredder just to stay sane.)
At a certain point, a story does just need to be written.  So if you do find yourself in the kind of position I'm describing, I recommend you don't follow my example.  Instead, continue to experiment with the voice of your work as you move on past Chapter One.  If your gun-toting muscle-bound marine suddenly decides to a cigar-smoking Kara Thrace in Chapter Three (see Battlestar Galactica), then just go with it - you can always rewrite Chapters One and Two later.

3. Bum to Seat - Keep Writing

 My thesis advisor's marching orders for me require fifty pages.  Now fifty pages is a good chunk of story, especially when you consider that a complete novel may be eighty to two hundred pages.  This kind of writing requires diligence - you won't write this much in just one day (trust me, I've tried.  I think I've maxed out at up to 35 pages in a single day - that's eight to eleven hours of writing in one day.  By the end of a day like that, I start to lose touch with reality.  It gets really hard to think about things like eating or going to class when you've immersed yourself in a story like that).
The goal here is to be reasonable - push yourself, write for long enough periods to let your inspiration get warmed up, but don't overdo it.  (Or if you do overdo it, treat yourself to lunch at Chipotle or something to get out of the apartment and experience this amazing thing called real people).  The main thing with writing a novel is that it requires sustained effort spread out over the course of days that stretch into months and possibly years.  We're talking about a real investment of time and energy - we're talking about the kind of labor usually reserved for a Ph.D. thesis or the architectural plans for a skyscraper.  And with that reassuring thought...

Step 4: Enjoy Yourself
I'm serious - cherish the moments you write.  If possible, steal away from things you "should" be doing to write - it adds a sense of adventure to the undertaking (especially when your landlord is pounding on the door for rent money that you won't have until you publish the bestseller that's just waiting to be written...and no, that's never happened to me, though I did once lose a job because of National Novel Writing Month - I was writing long into the night on opening day when I "should" have been studying for employment training.)
Something here I want to emphasize is that the best stories are often written without the author really knowing where they come from.  You sit at the computer or with your legal pad, and you scribble away, and sometimes a character will just jump out at you.  You keep writing to find out what this character will do next.  Pretty soon, this character's life becomes far more interesting than your own.  Or maybe this character's life is your own, and you can feel all the pain and heartache of regret just pouring out of your soul and onto the page.  These are the moments when the real writing occurs - enjoy them.  Let them happen.  Follow them wherever they take you.  Because honestly, these moments don't last forever, and they might not come every day.  So...

Step 5: Accept Disappointment, Learn from It, and Keep Writing
When I say that writing a novel may take years, this is especially true for the first one.  Something to bear in mind with this process is that novels are not necessarily written in a linear fashion.  I read somewhere that Margaret Mitchell, when she was writing Gone with the Wind, would keep each chapter in a little folder, and she'd just pull out a different chapter each day to work it and rework it.
The novel I'm currently working on is actually one I've written before - at least the main idea.  I wrote it while deployed to Afghanistan - we had no movie theaters or restaurants and only limited internet, so it was a great time for some serious writing.  So in about ten months I wrote a science fiction novel that was 190,000 words.  And I felt great - for me, it was the most amazing thing I'd ever written.  I felt for sure that I'd finally "done it" - written something that would get me noticed.
It didn't take long though before I realized that the "novel" I'd written was actually really bad.  I mean, it's so badly written that I get a vague sense of nausea every time I open it to take a look.  And I still keep a printed copy handy - it's sitting in a three-ring binder on the floor by my desk.  I tried to line-edit it soon after finishing the last chapter, and that's when I saw the real flaws - the protagonist (Jonathan) made no real decisions, much of the plot was forced, and the lines themselves were so convoluted that I had to make the pages bleed red with all the run-on sentences I needed to cut.
That was December 2005, when I finished the last chapter.  Now it's January 2010, and I'm rewriting the same story - those 190,000 words turned out to be a first draft.  Or a very long study in characterization.
As you can imagine, I was disappointed by that manuscript.  I wasn't what I had hoped for.  It wasn't even close.  Worse still, publishers rarely accept any novel over 100,000 words from a first-time writer - unless I wanted to self-publish, that manuscript wasn't making it to the bookstore shelves, let alone the bestseller lists.
But this isn't to say the story wasn't important.  In many ways, writing that long, convoluted, deus ex machina text provided a critical turning point in my writing.  It taught me a certain discipline which serves me very well now that I'm an MFA student - when I need or want a story, I can sit down and write it.  If need be, I can churn out words, pumping out those long studies in characterization.  Some of them even become full-fledged stories.  It is much, much easier to experiment when you write enough to try more than one approach to a given story.
Just as important, though, is the fact that the long work really showed me the major flaws in my writing.  In writing, the greatest disappointments often teach you the most important lessons - it's when one of your own stories really fails that you see what it takes to make the story work.  And I believe that writing a novel - any novel - is one of the best ways to learn your own writing style.  After writing a novel manuscript, you can't help but compare it to the books your read from other authors.  It makes you appreciate what the best authors do - you see the entire process of writing in a new, more refined light.

Conclusion: Go Write Your Novel
I don't believe I've made the novel sound simple, but I do hope that I've shown the benefits and sacrifices inherent in writing the longer work.
Hopefully, many of you who read this are working on or are planning on writing a novel.  Even if you aren't, though, many of the techniques described here work well for any kind of writing career.  To succeed - to write stories and poems that will be published and then loved by readers - takes a great deal of dedication.  You should enjoy it so you can love it - otherwise, you may find yourself staring at a blank screen and hating your life for years at a time.
Success in writing rarely comes overnight.  And many times, people measure success in the wrong ways.  I know that I've mentioned publishing several times in this article, but I don't want you to think that publication is the be-all and end-all of writing.  The writing you do should first be for yourself - it should represent the stories that you personally need to tell.  Only then will your stories and poems resonate with the kind of genuine truth necessary for your own satisfaction and, later, publication.
Bear in mind that every great writer starts somewhere.  Wherever you are in your writing - whether scribbling your first story into a journal this week or punching away at the keys every day in hopes of publication - you are a writer.  Whether you write for a living or simply write for your life, you are taking part in one of the most important pursuits I know - printing lives and perspectives to a more permanent record, to a literature that can be shared with readers across time and distance.  Whether your stories are read by thousands or even just by the grandchildren yet to be born, they will represent your legacy in a way possible through few other means.

Happy Writing,
Ryan

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