Sunday, July 25, 2010

Starting at the Beginning

Current Reading: Nothing for the moment. I'm on vacation and thinking a trip to the bookstore might be just the thing...

Inspirational quote: "He who chooses the beginning of the road chooses the place it leads to. It is the means that determines the end." -- Harry Emerson Fosdick

I having some trouble beginning. Not starting. Starting, I can do. But beginning and beginning well is a trick I have yet to master. As I said in a previous post, I think reading actively is important for a writer. I think it's foolish to ignore what's already been done.

And beginnings are important. Numerous agents, editors and readers talk about the importance of the first chapter, the first scene, the first paragraph and the first sentence. That's where we've got to hook the reader, to grab them and compel them into the story such that they don't want to leave until it's over. But how do you pull it off? What works?

Well, as with plots, I decided to turn to a selection of books I've read recently and really take a hard look at their beginnings. My thoughts are in italics... because, in my own head, my thoughts are in gray italics. Weird, huh?

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher:
I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. Why is the mailman early? He didn't sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed. Question of why he's early answered and replaced by new question: What's so funny about his office door?

Mainspring, by Jay Lake:
The Angel gleamed in the light of Hethor's reading candle bright as any brasswork automaton. Exotic situation: angels and reading candles and automatons. Why is there an angel in the room? The young man clutched his threadbare coverlet in the irrational hope that the quilted cotton scraps could shield him from whatever power had invaded his attic room. Trembling, he closed his eyes. Reaction shows that this is unusual, terrifying, and we read on to find out why it's happening and how he deals.

Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett:
It was midnight in Ankh-Morpork's Royal Art Museum*. Pedestrian place (museum) juxtaposed with an exotic city. The footnote here leads to a humorous aside about the city, its nature and government. It occurred to new employee Rudolph Scattering about once every minute that on the whole it might have been a good idea to tell the Curator about his nyctophobia, his fear of strange noises and, he now knew, his fear of absolutely every thing he could see (and, come to that, not see) hear, smell and feel crawling up his back during the endless hours on guard during the night. It was no use telling himself that everything in here was dead. That didn't help at all. It meant that he stood out. Introduction to an unusual character in a situation sure to cause him trouble. What's going to happen to push him over the edge?

Outrageous Fortune, by Tim Scott:
“Fuckers,” I whispered to myself as I looked at the small, pristine business card held lightly between my fingers. Reader wants to know what's on the card, and who deserves the expletive. On it were the words:“Don't you hate it when this happens?” Reader wants to know what happened.

Recovery Man, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch:
Jupiter filled the dome as Rhonda Shindo pressed the chip on her wrist to slow the express sidewalk. Exotic place with Jupiter, chips and sliding sidewalks. Reader wants to know where she is and why she's slowing the sidewalk. She glanced upward, always startled when the planet loomed so large. That night, Jupiter was sand-colored with streaks of brown. Sometimes it seemed redder and sometimes it had more orange. More of the exotic setting. Doesn't raise any more questions, but does put off the answer to the question the reader already has. Anticipation, delayed gratification.

Coyote, by Allen Steele:
This is the story of the new world. What new world? It begins not there, however, but on Earth, in the closing years of the twentieth century. Where? Is this based in reality? Have I already lived through the event to which he's leading up?

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman:
Shadow had done three years in prison. What for? He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife. This is about the character, and raises questions about why his love for his wife occupied so much of his time.

So what can I get from all this? (Yeah, I know... seven books is a statistically useless sample from which to draw generalizations, but if one wishes to draw conclusions, one must do so on the basis of the available sample... 'cause anything else is just makin' stuff up).
  • Questions. It's all about questions. From the first sentence, each opening raised questions in my mind that I wanted to push into the next sentence to answer. The sentences that follow might answer that question, but often there's a bait and switch as though the author were saying, "You think about that for a moment. I'm going to tell you about this first." There's the promise of delayed gratification, of anticipation that propels me forward.
  • Often, the first sentence is short and punchy.
  • The openings above seem to fall into three different types:

    • Unusual event, or usual event that doesn't play out the way it usually does.
    • Exotic setting, or familiar elements in an exotic arrangement. Probably not a good idea to extend this more than a short paragraph before introducing a character or event.
    • An unusual character, or a character with unusual attributes.

A couple of interesting and similar conclusions can be found here and here.

At one point, I had what I thought was a beautiful beginning sentence for the Magnus Somnium: "It ended in fire." I liked it because starting a book talking about an ending really raises some questions, and because it book-ended (pun unintentional) nicely with the final line of the story: "The sun rose, and the new day began in fire." Unfortunately, the book now starts in another place that works much better, so I've lost context for the line.

Oh well, back to the writing board...

Outrageous Fortune, by Tim Scott

Unquestionably the best book I have read so far this year that starts with an expletive.

Which puts it in a class of one. No matter.

This is a bit of a mind-bender that puts it almost in a class with Philip K. Dick's work. As a reader, I was never quite sure what was going on, or why or just how "real" everything I read really was. It's about a dream architect who one day discovers his house has been stolen, and that the thieves have left behind a business card with an invitation to call them. After that, things get weird as he's chased through city boroughs organized by musical genres by a limpet encyclopedia saleswoman (who latches on to her mark and won't let go), and four motorbike riders named after the Apocalyptic horsemen. In the process, he discovers a plot to assassinate god using a virus that could give everyone the same dream, that will keep them from believing.

The thing that didn't work for me here is that 9/10ths of the book concerns these events, but the resolution (I'll try not to spoil anything here, but forgive me if I mess up) concerns something only slightly related, and put me in mind of Dallas for reasons I won't go into. Once I finished the book, although I could see the rationale behind the ending and all that led up to it, I felt a little bit cheated. It was not as though aliens arrived in the final few chapters, but as though they had been there all along and I hadn't noticed. It reminded me also of I Am the Messenger, in that the events of the book happened for a reason which made sense but was not satisfying.

Ulysses Rating: 2 - I had a tough go.

Book Report: Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett

It's a big book. Bigger than most of the Discworld books that are starting to overflow my shelves. It's also a bit of a departure. Although it takes place within Ankh-Morpork and Unseen University, and although it features the only faculty in the multiverse capable of destroying reality while trying to get in a game of billiards before tea, it's not about them. On the surface, it's about a mystery in the form of a being named Nutt who doesn't seem too certain about who or what he is. Beneath that, it's a meditation on Nature vs Nurture vs Free Will.

Are we what we are born to be? Are we what we are made to be? Are we what we decide to be? It all comes out in the mix of a football (soccer) prodigy whose dad died heroically while playing the game, a chef who's sensible and dependable and rather like a crab in an unpleasant way, and a beautiful girl for whom being beautiful just might be enough to get her through life.

The book is complicated and deep and rich and, although still funny and absurd in places, reminds me more of Pratchett's Nation than of any of his other Discworld work. And I guess that's where it fell down. It feels too big, I guess. Sprawling and less tightly plotted than his earlier work. This isn't a bad thing, but it's not quite what I read Pratchett's work for and so not only did I take longer to read this than I normally do, I found myself not quite as satisfied by it as I'd hoped to be.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Under Deconstruction

Current Reading: Outrageous Fortune, by Tim Scott

Inspirational Quote: "Four things, actually... well, four things and a lizard." -- David Tennant as Doctor Who (I can think of no better title for a blog than "Four Things and a Lizard).

First, a PSA:

Reader and all-around good egg S.L. Card points out a workshop notice for ReConStruction which may interest those in, around and capable of getting to Raleigh N.C.

And now, to what's been on my mind for a while...

I try not to give generic writing advice for two reasons:

1) If I'm so smart, where's my book? (It's coming... it's coming).

2) What I think makes perfect sense for me is not guaranteed to be sensible for someone else.

But if there's one piece of advice I accidentally gave that I really believe in, it's this: if you want to be a good writer, read actively. Don't just consume the printed word, but digest it. Make a note of the bits that affect you. If you're in love with a character, try to figure out what the writer did that made you fall in love. If there's a phrase or image that haunts you, try to understand what there is about it that makes it memorable. Once I've finished books, I go over different scenes and passages again, the ones that stayed with me after the cover closed.

Sometimes I even read with a notebook.

The Magnus Somnium is being stubborn. It drags in places and zooms in others. High points seem just don't seem to be as high as they ought. I think it's a plot problem, but in order to understand the fault, I first have to really understand plot and structure. This is handy as a guide. So is just about everything Jim Butcher says here. And I'm sure by now, if you write fiction, you've compiled a million of your own references.

But what does it all mean? I have trouble with moving from the theoretical to the practical, and I admit it freely. I love theory, getting lost in ideas which are perfect and flawless and inspiring. I also love the practical applications because that's where theory crashes into the real world loses all the bits that don't work. It's just the transition that mystifies me.

So I decided to take a look at a couple of books I enjoyed recently and examine their plot, see what happens when. I present the following because I hope it will be as instructive for you as it was for me. I apologize, as there will be spoilers (it's unavoidable... I can't talk about plot without telling something of the story).

Mainspring, by Jay Lake (324 pages)

Page 1: The Angel appears to Hethor and gives him a mission. (0%)

Hethor seeks advice about the mission.

Page 28: Hethor is expelled from his apprenticeship. (8%)

Hethor journeys to Boston.

Page 54: Interview with the Governor ends in prison. (16%)

Escape and time on the Basset.

Page 177: Crossing the wall, almost crushed by gears, loses his guide. (54%)

After confronting an antagonist, he spends time with the Correct People.

Page 289: The Airship crashes at the South Pole. (89%)

Journey under the pole with tests.

Page 316: Final confrontation with the antagonist. (97%)


Storm Front, by Jim Butcher (322 pages)

Page 4: Harry gets calls that result in 2 jobs. (1%)

Surveying the scene of the crime.

Page 30: Harry commits to investigating black magic despite the trouble it could cause. (9%)

Harry investigates the Lake House.

Page 76: Morgan delivers a warning. (23%)

Interviewing the suspects.

Page 168: The black wizard sends a demon after Harry. (52%)

Harry loses some hair and discovers his cases are connected. The antagonist's identity is revealed.

Page 262: Attack in the office. (81%)

Harry prepares.

Page 293: Confrontation at the Lake House. (90%)


Now that I've seen how things are put together in the real world, I can start to draw a few conclusions:

  1. Both books use a ticking clock. If Hethor fails to wind the mainspring before a given date, the world ends. After he loses his hair, Harry has to find and defeat the black wizard before the coming storm arrives, or he'll die. Time is as much the enemy as the antagonist.

  2. Each book has a handful of significant incidents that mark turning points in the protagonist's progress. They're usually disasters, although they might not be recognized as such. They're separated by stages that lead up to the next turning point.

  3. (Turning Point) Books I like start off with an unusual event in the protagonist's life that gives them some purpose and forces them to act. This inciting incident might not be the result of the protagonist's action, but everything afterward will be. If it's not right on the first page, it's very close to it.

  4. (Stage) After that, the protagonist reacts according to their usual nature. In the first case, Hethor seeks knowledge and advice from his superiors. In the second case, Harry checks out the crime scene.

  5. (TP) Around 10% into the story, we have the first big disaster. Harry promises he'll solve the crime, but then is forced into a car and told that doing so would be a mistake. Hethor's thrown out of Master Bodean's house. Both these disasters isolate the protagonist. Hethor's lost his home. Harry alienates the cops.

  6. (Stg) The protagonist seeks the most simple and obvious solution to the problem. Hethor goes to the authorities. Harry pokes around the Lake House.

  7. (TP) Around 25% into the story, another big setback. Hethor gets his interview with the governor, and ends up in prison. Harry finds out the White Council is watching him VERY closely. The problem can't be solved the easy way, and trying to do so makes things worse. Either the problem is bigger and more complicated than they thought, or trying to solve it has created another, worse, problem.

  8. (Stg) The protagonist limps on, trying to solve the problem with a slightly different approach. Harry interviews suspects. Hethor becomes an apprentice sailor.

  9. (TP) Near the half-way point, something huge happens that changes the game. There's no retreat now, no surrender. Hethor crosses the equatorial wall to the mysterious southern hemisphere. Harry is attacked by a demon in his apartment.

  10. (Stg) The previous event has changed the world again. This time, the protagonist looks likely to fail and the consequences of failure become unbearable. During this section, the protagonist may gain allies, but they'll be lost or unavailable by the time we get to the next incident. Instead of being a follower, Hethor becomes a leader among the Correct People. Initially reluctant to use powerful magic, Harry cuts loose and discovers the black wizard's identity.

  11. (TP) 80% into the story, a final disaster strips the protagonist of all support and all hope. Hethor crashes his airship at the pole, without the Key Perilous or time to find it. Harry and his police liason are attacked in his office, costing him the last of his talismans and nearly exhausting his magic.

  12. (Stg) There's nothing left to do now, no choice, but to storm the enemy fortress/proceed to the goal. Hethor seeks the mainspring. Harry goes back to the Lake House.

  13. (TP) The climax happens anytime after the 90% mark. The clock runs out and the protagonist confronts the antagonist and either wins or loses. Hethor fights to wind the mainspring. Harry tries to stop the spell that will end his life.

  14. (Stg) Once the climax is over, so's the book. There are a few pages of cool-down, an aftermath or "where are they now," but it doesn't take up much space. It shows the reader how the protagonist's life has changed as a result of events.
Of course, not all books are structured like this. Literary fiction plays with structure all the time (although Racing in the Rain breaks down pretty similarly to the above), but commercial fiction seems to be built in the same way.

I know many of you who write will look at this and go, "that's way too restrictive. I can't write to a formula, or a skeleton like that." Fine. I'm okay with that. But are you sure you aren't already writing a plot similar to that above? It's a species of the 3-act structure, and an evolution of the Heroic Journey, which has been running through stories since long before Joseph Campbell slapped a label on it. As readers, we have certain expectations for stories. We look for certain milestones. A structure like the one above helps us meet those expectations, and give readers a satisfying experience. I think we ignore such things at our peril.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Book Report: Mainspring, by Jay Lake

I'm apparently reading backwards, as I've already read the sequel to this: Escapement. I had some issues with that book, which remain because I thought it left too much up in the air. However some of the blanks have been filled in, and naturally, I wish I'd read Mainspring first.

It's the story of Hethor, a clockmaker's apprentice in a world where everything is clockwork. The mainspring of the world is winding down and the gears that connect Earth to Heaven are starting to stutter and lose time. An angel appears and orders Hethor to find the Key Perilous and use it to rewind the mainspring. The quest takes the reader through an incredibly well-imagined world from the Northern Earth where Queen Victoria reigns over the American Colonies and airships defend the empire from the encroaching Chinese, to the Southern Earth where monsters are common and sorcerers live in ancient cities.

The writing was excellent, the plotting well constructed. My two complaints are that I guessed the nature of the Key Perilous too easily, spoiling the impact of the final revelation, and that so much is left unexplained (eg: the "white bird" conspiracy which is the focus of the next book, why the Wall is peopled by monsters and robots while Northern Earth is relatively normal). These are minor complaints, as Lake's Earth is such a fascinating place.

Mainspring, by Jay Lake

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.