May 22, 2011

Don’t Let the Beginning End You

(That was a pun. Do I lose clever points for telling you all that?)

All right, here is my promised post on beginnings. I’m going to open with full disclosure: Beginnings are hard.

You have a lot of things to accomplish with the beginning of a manuscript. The biggest thing is getting an editor or reader to want to keep reading! Because, like with milk, if the first taste is bad, you’re just going to dump it down the sink. No need to drink the whole thing, right?

Clearly, you need more than a good beginning, but that’s for another post entirely. A strong beginning is essential.

One of the key questions is: When does the story start? (I’m struggling with this right now, it’s maddening when it doesn’t feel clear!)

My general thought on this is, what is the point of change? Is it the heroine getting ready for work in the morning, then driving to work, then getting ready for her day before the hero bursts into her office? Or is it the hero bursting into her office and offering her a job.

Typically, my strategy is to start in the middle of the action.

The first line in my debut, His Virgin Acquisition is, “I think the numbers speak for themselves. Marriage is definitely the most profitable course of action.”

Because that’s what the book is about, essentially. Marco and Elaine, and their marriage of convenience.

When I’m first starting a book, I have a tendency to write myself in. To give too much information up front, to start a little bit too early. it’s good to go back and try to look for that stuff later. I’ve heard it said that seeing if your book can actually start in chapter two is a good practice. I’ve never had to do that, but I have had to cut out a decent amount of repetitive information. The goal is to keep up the pace, give the reader enough to keep them interested, don’t bog them down.

After you figure out where you’re starting, you have to get The Balance right. You have information to give because you’re setting the book up, but you also have to reveal character so the reader makes a connection straight away.

I find the easiest way to do this is through dialogue. The more information you can give that comes straight from the characters’ mouths, the better, because you avoid that infodump thing, and have the double whammy of giving the reader the information they need, and showing the reader who the characters are as well.

I’m doing to give you an example of exposition vs. dialogue.

“I’m here to offer you a contract.”

Lily was shocked, because she’d gone in for a job interview with Forrestation Inc, and she hadn’t been hired. She couldn’t really fathom what might have caused the change, unless it had to do with Jeff Campbell. Her newest client was Gage’s biggest competition, and she wondered if that was what had spawned his new offer.

So that was a lot of exposition. And it got the information across, but it missed some good opportunities to have character interaction, to show things about the Gage and Lily. This is what actually made it into the book:

“I’m here to offer you a contract.”

That effecitvely shocked her into silence. Which was a rare thing. “You rejected my offer to represent your company, Mr. Forrester.”

“And now I’m extending you an offer.”

She pursed her lips. “Does this have anything to do with the fact that Jeff Campbell is your biggest competitor?”

“I don’t consider him a competitor.”

Same information, conveyed through dialogue. I think it’s more interesting to see the characters interact, then to read about the musing. I also think you learn more about who they are. I’ll admit, I’ve been dinged by reviewers for having too much exposition toward the end of my books. So I’ve been thinking a lot more about dialogue than I normally do. My thought is this: If they can say it, have them say it. Nothing is more interesting than what your characters have to say.

I have never had my editor ask me for less dialogue. 😉

Another tip is revealing your characters by showing who they are, rather than telling. Another handy example!

Gage sat down on the edge of desk, effectively throwing half of her office supplies out of alignment. She hated having things out of place.

This tells the reader that Lily likes order. So the information is there. But that’s all it does. It tells you.

Again, here’s what made it into the book:

He sat down on the edge of her desk and effectively threw half of her office supplies out of alignment. Annoyance coursed through her, along with the desire to reach out and straighten her stapler…’

That helps show the reader a bit more about Lily and, ideally, helps them feel what she feels, which will make them identify with her a bit more. And you need your reader to identify with your characters!

I referenced infodump earlier, and now we’ll talk a bit more about that. Infodump is when you…well, when you dump info on your reader in a great big heap.

Marco didn’t do love. Because he’d seen what love could do to people. When he was ten his father threw him, his mother and his brother out of their home. Ultimately, his mother abandoned him and his brother so she could shack up with a rich man. Marco spent the rest of his childhood looking after his brother. As soon as his brother had turned eighteen he’d started sleeping his way through the phonebook in an attempt to cut loose and have the fun he’d been denied during his childhood. Having sex, but never forming a real bond with any of the women because…

You get the idea. At this point the reader’s head is lolling forward and they’re fighting boredrom. Also, their rolling their eyes so hard they might do permanent damage.

This kind of information can be sprinkled throughout the book, and revealed at just the right times to get the maximum emotional payoff.

Another thing to ditch, in my opinion, lots and lots of florid description of the location. We don’t need the rundown of the whole set. It’s not important to the story, and it doesn’t create that immediacy that makes a reader NEED to read on.

Here’s a Big Important One. If you’re writing category particularly, you have got to get the hero and heroine on the page, together, as quickly as possible. This sort of goes with starting at the point of change, in the action, but I feel the need to underline it several times in bold ink. The book is ABOUT the romance between the hero and heroine. In category, you have 50K words to develop this romance. That’s not a lot. Start building that as soon as possible.

Now for your Maisey List:

1. Dialogue is a great way to impart information, and reveal character.

2. Show don’t tell. Help your readers feel what the character is feeling.

3. Don’t waist time on pretty prose. Create immediacy.

4. Use Backstory like salt. A little bit to add flavor.

5. Get that hero and heroine on the page together.

So there are some of my long-winded thoughts on beginnings. If you have any questions, feel free to ask!


Comments

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  1. Beginnings are the trickiest part for me. That’s the trickiest part: trying to fit in everything, but not too much of anything at once. It’s a fine line.

  2. Julia, it’s true. I think the key to balance lies within the pacing thing. Not so brief you miss getting to know the characters, not lingering on details that are unimportant, or on giving too much information too soon. It’s a line I struggle to walk every time.

  3. I think it helps to remember that readers are a LOT more patient about learning the backstory than we might expect, and a lot LESS patient about seeing the hero and heroine together.
    Also, no one likes to look at your landscape pictures. Why would they want to read about them? Scene-setting should be quick, quick, quick. 🙂

  4. Excellent post! I think I’ve gotten the whole start off in the middle of the action idea right with my WIP – it’s the getting more things as dialogue and interaction vs. exposition that I’m still needing to work on.

    Your examples are awesome – and really help me see how to take a look at my own work.

    Thanks!

  5. Hey Ruthie, glad you enjoyed the post, and I love the way you worded that. There’s a lot of ground between Infodump and The Big Secret. Just saving some backstory, sprinkling it in, works better because in order for the reader to care, they need to know the characters a bit!

    Sabrina, glad I could help! And glad you liked my examples, I had fun writing them. And they’re helpful for me because I looked at them later and thought, I know I’ve been guilty of that to some degree. Just things to watch, even for myself!

  6. Great advice, m’dear. Love the backstory like salt. That’s an excellent way of putting it! 🙂

  7. Thanks for that great post, and for putting all of your writers posts on the ‘New Voices’ facebook page. It’s invaluable to have resources like this at our disposal.

  8. Mel, you’re very welcome! I’m always happy to help!

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