nanowrimo stuff

Nanowrimo stuff: when should(n’t) you start your book

If you start too late in the action where all the interesting bits have already happened off stage and your main character just as to deal with the consequences of post fecal matter meets ventilation system, you’re stuck with the problem that while your character is struggling with all the problems he has to face at the start of the book, the action has to be paused so you can catch your reader up with all the backstory as to why what is happening right now on the page is important. Backstory is hard to write in an engaging fashion. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but since the main character has already survived it or, in some case, wasn’t even born while it was happening, it’s not engaging the reader with any sense of immediacy.

Then you have the stories that start (usually in the prologue) with the main character (or worse, the main character’s mother/grandmother/great-grandmother etc) being born. The bad person shows up, does menacing things, and then disappears. The character grows up (or worse, his entire ancestral family grows up) and then fights the big bad as though the baddie hasn’t been preparing and waiting for years. Whether the kid is old before his time, preparing for his fate, or he’s completely oblivious until the letter from Hogwarts arrive, it doesn’t matter. We’ve been told this story so many times there’s a brilliant evil overlord list that should be used as a checklist by your big bad. That story can still be told, but it hast to be masterful. The Thief, by Megan Whalen Turner is a masterful boy who is the chosen one. The whole series waltzes with the old, tired fantasy cliches and leaves them breathless and blushing in their stays on the side of the dance floor.

It can be done. It’s just freaking hard to do.

Nanowrimo stuff: Beginnings and dopamine, my two favourite things.

So how do you know when to start? My friend, the late Leslie Carmichael, said to start at the startling point, the point at which the story starts with a bang, but in my opinion, that’s what scene two should be. Imagine your book opens with a character weeping over the fallen after a bloody battle. You’d be shocked at just how many fantasies start with the dead horses just poking out of the creeping mist and smoke, the scavengers picking over the best parts of the dead be in the pocket or the still wet enough to be shining eyes, and the camera of the book pans to the manly man or the warriorly woman (bikini armor optional) sobbing into their hands.

I don’t know enough about this character to know if they’re weeping because they’ve lost everyone they knew and but for a horse shoe nail, they’d be among the dead or if they’re crying in frustration because there isn’t anyone else left alive to slaughter. If this is a prologue, there isn’t even a guarantee that crying dude/tte hasn’t been dead for the past four hundred years, to which I can feel even more fucks slipping through my hands as I don’t have very many left to give out at this point.

It’s a vivid (if overdone) scene, but you have to let the reader know ahead of time if we should love or hate the character before you throw them under the bus. I mix my metaphors like cookie dough, sorry. My golden rule of beginnings is we have to care about the bacon guys. 

Who are the bacon guys? We don’t know, that’s the point. In one of the most brilliant moments of television history, season one of Stargate Atlantis (don’t judge, BSG was still a year away from being a mini-series) starts a two-parter episodes with two Atlantian redshirts having a conversation. We don’t know these guys from Adam. Obviously they are going to die — they don’t even have names — but one guy turns to the other guy and says, “Bacon is the food that makes other food worth eating”. It’s an overdone cliche now, but 2004 was early on in the internet losing its collective minds over bacon. Then Kolya opens the gate and bam, they bacon guys are dead.

Their deaths aren’t the point. The point is, as their bodies are still jerking around on the floor, my friend and I turned to each other and said, in unison, “No! Not the bacon guys!” With one line of dialogue, we absolutely loved those two guys, and when Kolya kills them, it means something. If the shot had opened up with the big bad shooting two extras on a television set, we would have shrugged and their deaths would have meant nothing.

When you’re writing a book, it’s important to remember that no one owes you anything. Not their time, not their attention, not them turning to chapter seven to see if your book is going to get any better. The most precious real estate in your entire book is those first three paragraphs. You don’t need to start with hellfire and brimstone, you don’t need a clever line of dialogue or a description of the weather, you need whose ever eyes are opening this book to care, instantly about what happens to whomever the book is opening on.

If you’re thinking okay, with you so far, how do I get the reader to care about the bacon guys, I have some really bad news. There are no hard rules after this point, only guidelines. Having your character want something is immediately engaging. Something has to happen so that the main character cannot just stay where they are. This should hopefully happen on the page, if not then well woven into the first couple of scenes. They can’t be good enough to just deal with the problem as it stands with their present skills. The problem has to be both important, to either the character itself or the world or ideally, both. The antagonist has to be good enough and strong enough to realistically beat the main character so the reader isn’t assured of anything. The more emotional high and low points you give your character, the more dopamine the brain releases.

A book is the only device we havle today where the reader cannot split his attention. They can’t read what you have to say and click through the internet or play games or watch movies or or or or or. The point is there are games out there specifically designed to give and keep their audience hooked on the intermittent reward system. You need to play the same game. If you do not release a trail of dopamine through your plot that is rewarding enough for your readers to stay hooked on your books, they’ll put your book down and find something that will reward that much. The best part about writing is that you do not have to nail this the first time out. You can write and rewrite until every scene emotionally rewards the reader one way or the other. Also, the brain rewards their person if they share that thing that they found pleasurable, and there is absolutely no marketing as effective as one person telling another perosn that this book was awesome.

Learning to write is like learning to play chess. The rules of the game may seem like, at the time you’re learning them, the most difficult part of writing. Then once you learn who moves where when, suddenly you realize there are always more complex strategies on how to play the game. It can take a lifetime to master the skills.

Nanowrimo stuff: Five easy ways to succeed at writing a nanowrimo novel plus a couple of bonus points

  1. Unless you are truly wanting to write a story for giggles, do not plan to fail at the start. There will be plenty of time to pull plot out of places you shouldn’t be shoving plot into, but the first two weeks are not that time. Leave the carnivorous sentient couchs and the broom handles that want revenge until you absolutely cannot salvage what you have on the page.
  2. Plan, but do not overplan. Before you start, you should have a character in a world with a problem. This is true for any novels. Think of the AIs that were smart enough to look at the overwhelming odds against them with all the orcs and turned and ran. You do not want your characters to look at the massive iceberg. All they need to see at the beginning is that tiny bit that floats. The more your story goes along, the more they try to fix it, the bigger the problem gets. Have a general idea of what you want to have happened by the end of the story too, then send the main characters out to solve their own problems.
  3. If a salesman’s mantra is ‘always be closing’ the author’s mantra has to be ‘always be escalating’. Each scene should change one problem at the end of it. So many unpublished books out there have a great beginning and an awesome ending and absolutely nothing changing for twenty chapters while the characters just muddle around the middle. If you’re bored with what’s happening on the page or if your characters are just standing around and talking, it’s the perfect time to make the worst possible thing happen and have them deal with the new problem as it exists now. If they’re looking for a guy who can solve the problem, kill him. If they need X to solve Y, have X not work. Have the secret entrance into the castle be fixed.
  4. Make sure your main character isn’t the best/brightest/smartest/richest person out there. If you’re good guys are only succeeding because the bad guys are just that dumb, that’s not exciting to read. Books are about the main character but the bad guy has to be a match enough to cast serious doubt in the good guys succeeding. In Greek legend, Heracles’s name literally translates to Hera’s glory. There needs to always be a real threat that your main characters can and will fail.
  5. Don’t write if you’re not feeling it. This is the opposite advise than what most nanowrimo’ers will tell you, but before you should sit down to write, you should have in your mind exactly what this scene is going to accomplish as a goal in the scene itself and how that is going to affect the plot as how it stands. It just so happens that a good length for a scene is around 1500 words, and you need to write 1660 words a day to reach your goal. Every scene in the story is a micro-short story with a beginning, middle and end. So within that scene, you need to set up what the problem is, what the main characters are going to do to fix it, and what the outcome is of their attempt, for better or for worse. If you plan to write one scene per day, your story’s pretty much set. If you do not know what you’re going to write about, don’t waste your time at the computer. Go for a walk, have a shower, play a couple games putting the “what has to happen right now?” question in the back of your mind. When you have to work through the rising and falling action with a climax within that scene, 1500 words isn’t going to seem like enough words to pull off all that that scene needs to do to change one point in your plot.

Bonus point:

Don’t follow a synopsis off a bridge. The more you write, the more your subconscious can take over. If you have no idea why you’re writing something, don’t sweat it. What you put in as a throw-away line can be the defining moment in chapter 23. I’m a skeptic at heart, but there is a magic to story telling where events that seem utterly unrelated can come together in a perfect moment of syzygy. Don’t try to control everything. If a plot point doesn’t come together of if that thing you thought was going to be the cornerstone of everything doesn’t seem to do anything or go anywhere, you can always delete it in the rewrite.

Bonus, bonus point:

You’re not going to be writing anything that just needs a dramatic “the end” before it gets sent off to New York for the fame and fortune you so richly deserve, but this is going to give you the clay in which you are going to need in order to make the second draft obvious that you knew the whole time how this story was going to end. When you rewrite it, don’t look at the words on the page as something that just needs to be polished, look at them as a stepping stone. No matter how much you preplanned, the characters on the page aren’t really going to feel real until you’ve stomped around in their boots for a while.