Steps to a Story: First Sentence

One of my favorite scenes in the movie Alex & Emma has to do with the first sentence of Alex’s novel.  He’s complaining about the difficulty of starting; he rattles off the first sentences of several works of literature as an example of the pressure he has as a writer to start the book. 

I spent some time this morning trying to find the beginning of Matthew’s story.  The first sentence of every chapter is a challenge, but the hardest one is the very first chapter.  This is where the tale begins, and for many readers the first couple of sentences decide if they are going to finish the story or not.  For my part, I need the first sentence to launch the rest of the writing.  So I worked it out, and here is the process I went through.

At the start of the story, Matthew and his army company are riding to their new posting.  (This requires another level of development that I’ll be writing about in the next post – deciding how a company of cavalry in the Diaen army travels.)  I know that he is on a horse, that he is riding surrounded by his peers, and that he is traveling north through Diaea.  The trick comes in figuring out what to say to start.  I played with some different options in my head. 

“The army was headed north to deal with a new outbreak of banditry along the border” seems like a supporting sentence, not the first one.

“Matthew was riding…” as the start to the sentence, no matter how it ends, is boring.

“The cavalry always moved quickly without the infantry” is something we already know, or could be a supporting sentence.

I finally decided on an adequate sentence, at least to start the creative juices flowing.  Once the scene is written I can go back and revise if it needs a little kick.  Here’s what I came up with:  “Matthew enjoyed riding through Diaea, especially when his company was unburdened by infantry to slow them.”

Advertisements

A Chance to Be Someone Else

Children love to play dress-up.  It is a chance to use their imaginations, to try out different personalities or professions, to pretend to be a grown-up.  Halloween is just one more chance to dress up, with the added bonus of candy.  Of course, at Halloween it’s easier to find superhero and movie character costumes, but for some kids those costumes may come out throughout the year.

Halloween is different for grown-ups.  Most of us don’t get to play dress-up anymore – we find our chance to imagine ourselves as someone else through books and movies, but this is almost all vicarious.  At Halloween, we have an excuse to try on someone else for a day.  The fun bonus of a costume is that you can put on a different personality, too.  You can act “in character” for the evening.  It’s okay to be louder, flirtier, more daring; you’re someone else!

This year I used my desired Halloween costume as a drive to reach a goal: to lose some weight.  I also had to grow out my hair.  If I did these two things, my reward was my costume.  My hair is now ridiculously long (and getting cut soon), and even though I didn’t reach my weight goal, I got close.  It is not my skimpiest costume ever – that award goes to the “amazing fish girl” that I created for a sideshow-themed party – but I think I look pretty good in it.  I’ll be in a Star Trek uniform, a la Uhura from the new movie.  I went the cheap/crafty/bootleg way and made most of it myself.  (If you want an easy way to create the costume from a t-shirt, check out this how-to video – it’s the old-school costume but easy enough to tweak.)

Now that I have a costume, I’m using the excuse of going out with friends to wear it.  It will be my first experience in the clubs on Halloween; I might come back with some interesting observations to share!

Hope everyone has a great Halloween; I’m off to start working on making myself into someone else, if only for the night.

Not Always Sunshine and Roses

One of the things that is hardest for me as an author who aspires to being published is dealing with the negative stuff.

There is a lot of potential for negative stuff.  Query letters are returned undeliverable or simply rejected, people critique the writing, and on a blog there is always the chance for unpleasant comments.  It’s very challenging to not take these personally; the bad stuff is always easier to believe than the good.

My favorite suggestion I got when it came to the negative blog comments is to respond maturely.  Of course, if the comment is totally inappropriate I can always delete it.  If it seems legitimate, though, I hope that I can always be an adult and answer the concern.  (Even if my immediate reaction is to stick out my tongue and hit “delete.”)

The query rejections are harder.  To be honest, I haven’t sent out another round of query letters.  I’m using the excuse that I don’t have a printer, but the reality is that it takes a certain amount of confidence and courage that I do not currently have.  While there is the potential to get good news with every letter, the reality that Iam always aware of is that every letter also contains the danger of a rejection.   Even knowing that it takes a lot of “no” before you hear “yes” doesn’t help – every rejection becomes a blow to my confidence as a writer.  Overcoming that is a big challenge.

My goal for next week is going to be sending out two query letters.  Two is not too bad, and often once I start it rolls along more easily.  I’m going to force myself to find the courage and fake the confidence.  Here’s hoping the response is good instead of delete-worthy.

The Most Boring Thing I Ever Wrote

In May of 2009, I graduated with my master’s degree.  As you may know, this type of degree usually requires a master’s thesis to go along with it.  I completed a thesis, including presenting and defending it, but that was not the end of it.

My thesis advisor warned me during the writing process that a thesis is the most boring thing you will ever write, and it’s true.  I am passionate about the subject of my research, and I can talk at length about it when asked.  However, the document itself is 100+ pages of research-speak, liberally sprinkled with charts full of data.  Not really a page-turner.

Now it has come back into my life.  In November (which is rapidly approaching) I will be presenting said research at a national conference.  This means that I get to once again familiarize myself with the material.  You guessed it; I now have to read the most boring thing I ever wrote.

After I finish, I might read Butterflies again.  It’s definitely not boring…  and I wrote that, too.

Steps to a Story: Meeting Matthew

I have mentioned before in posts that my fiction is very character-driven.  I need to know my characters, at least a little bit, before I write their stories.

This means that my first step for both short story and novel will be to get to know the new people.  (Remember, the novel is a sequel – I already know a lot of the people.)  Today I decided to start with Matthew Lewis, the main character for my (as yet unnamed) short story.  Instead of working through it and then blogging about it, I’m going to use this blog to “talk out” my ideas.

Brief tangent: until I’ve got a good idea of the full scope of the story, I can’t come up with a title.  Even then, titles are a challenge for me, so for now we’ll just refer to the two stories as Butterflies 2 and Matthew’s story.

So, Matthew.  When he first appears, at the start of the story, he is a low-ranking officer in the cavalry of the Diaean army.  This tells us a bit about him already: he can ride a horse, he’s good enough at what he does to get promoted, and he has leadership capabilities.

I don’t think we’ll need to know how he got in the army, or his family history, so I am not going to try to come up with that information.   If it becomes necessary as the story develops, I’ll figure it out then.  Waiting also allows me to tailor the history to suit the story – I didn’t establish Caetlyn’s background until the need arose in Burden, and she turned out to need something completely different from what I would have created in the first place.  It didn’t change her character, or how she acted, but added a needed element at the right moment.

One personality trait that I know Matthew will have later (in the novel) is a respect for women.  I think at first this will start simply as a respect for female soldiers, so there will need to be at least one woman fighting with him.  Perhaps one of his officers during training was a woman – nothing breeds respect like than having a competent person in a position of authority.

Another couple of important things he needs right up front: he is literate, and he’s career military.  I know that’s a modern term and is not quite accurate for a fantasy story, but it conveys the right attitude.  He’s always wanted to be a soldier, he is a soldier, and has no plans of ever being anything but a soldier.  The literate piece can come in subtly throughout the story; that’s one of those character traits that doesn’t have to be broadcast, it can just be mentioned in passing.

To summarize: Matthew’s a good soldier, planning to stay in the army and hoping to rise in the ranks.  He has a respect for female fighters that he got from an officer who trained him.  He’s literate, and he has the qualities of a leader.

Sounds like a good start to me.  🙂

Steps to a Story: Outline

Thank you to those who voted on my Steps to a Story intro poll.  It seems to be split – two want me to take on the challenge of a male perspective with my new short story for Serial Central, and my mom voted three times for the Butterflies sequel.  🙂 

I’ve decided that I’m going to need to write two things at once anyway, since I have to write the serial and I need to get started on another novel.  Writing two stories that take place in the same world, with the same rules, makes the most sense to me, so everyone who voted gets their way!

The first step I took tonight is one that I don’t usually do, but seemed necessary considering I will be juggling two stories at once (and I didn’t want to lose the third completely).  I outlined all three stories to the extent that they currently exist in my head.  This also required some data collection from existing documents, which I will explain in a bit.

The story that is going to be shelved had some existing outlining done in several documents, as well as one very hard to read training outline scribbled in my notebook.  These I streamlined, detailed a bit (for future Leigh), and saved.  Dragon story: shelved for the moment, in the best condition possible for later use.

The sequel had only one sheet of notes in one of my writing notebooks, labelled “Sequel Thoughts.”  These ideas have grown since, so I put them into a computer document that I can access later.  The outline is very rough, consisting only of an overarching plot idea and several sub-plots.  I know a little more than I wrote, mostly a couple of scenes that are rolling around in my head, but since this is a project I am planning to actively work on, the details seemed a little less needed.  Butterflies 2: rough plot ideas outlined.

The third story, the serial short story, is a pseudo-prequel.  I think that’s the best term for it; unlike Burden or even Bonded, the actual plot of the new story doesn’t directly impact the plot of Butterflies (other than the need for the main character to be in a position to father one of the main characters of the novel).  However, it is the back story of someone who plays a role in Butterflies, so I do have some preconceived notions of the story.  For this pseudo-prequel, I went through all of the sections of Butterflies where he appears or is discussed and made notes about what I already know about his story.  I also returned to the first draft of the novel – I streamlined my first few chapters in the second draft and some of Matthew’s story had been cut.  Going back allowed me to remember what I had originally created for this character; even though it is not in the current version of the novel, it did impact how I wrote his character, so it is relevant.  Plus, why re-create something if it already exists?  Short story: briefly outlined.

So tonight’s writing session was more a fact-finding, drafting session and not so much a creative session.  It was needed, though, and now I’m ready to start writing!

Strength of Character

My sister finally read Burden and tonight we had a lengthy conversation about it.  She is one of my fans, and one of the (growing) group of people who has read Butterflies. 

One of the things that she likes about my stories (and that I work hard on) is the quality of my female characters.  I respect a strong, self-reliant woman and there are many of them in my fiction.  Caetlyn and Rebekah (and even Mara) in Burden, most of the women of Butterflies; these ladies all share characteristics that I admire in many of my female friends and aim for in myself. 

Whitney (my sister – who is a strong female character herself) told me she can always pick out the female love interest in my stories because it is always the character who reminds her of me.  It’s not so much that the character looks or acts like me, so much as she’s the tomboy or the guard or the woman who wants a man to compliment instead of complete her.  (Hope I didn’t put too many words in Whitney’s mouth – our conversations often include a great deal of sisterly shared knowledge and incomplete sentences.  :))As she explained, it gives hope to the “everyday women” like her (or me) when someone like King Stefan ends up with someone like Caetlyn instead of a “froufrou” perfect girl. 

To me, it adds strength of character to my male protagonists, as well, when they choose the strong woman.  Would you like Stefan as much if he had proposed to a female who simpered and flounced?  Confident, powerful men can do one of two things: they can choose a weak woman who will always make them feel powerful (and eventually bored) or they can choose a woman who is also confident and independent, a woman who can give back as good as she gets.  The men who choose the second option only reinforce their strength when they go for the girl with strength of her own. 

At least they do in my stories.  🙂

Previous Older Entries