Work continues on The Superhero Murders, if slowed by a sprained ankle this weekend. Lying on the couch for a weekend doesn't mean I can't work out the problems. The second scene didn't feel right. I finally realized that I was simplifying by means of forgetting the perspective of different characters present. Not only that, but I was forgetting just how seriously injured the main character's father is supposed to be. He shouldn't be smiling and talking like his normal self just a few hours later. Lastly, my main character's objective in the scene changed, and not just because the person she wanted it from is still unconscious. The reader doesn't know her yet. They don't understand why she would want what she was asking for yet. Too much, too soon. So with new perspective on the scene, I wrote about a thousand words tonight.
So, let's talk about openings. Why not; everyone else does, right? I bring it up because I'm writing the opening to the book (The Superhero Murders), which makes it the natural topic on my mind today.
A quick Google search yields a library of advice on the topic: hook the reader, start with action, establish a voice, show character, start with an inciting incident, set tone, launch the plot, and so forth. Above all, make sure it grabs an agent or publisher by something important and doesn't let go. It's easy to find the advice. It's harder to make all that happen in roughly a hundred and fifty words or so. (If I remember correctly, that's about how many words end up on a title page after manuscript formatting.)
Examples are easy to find, too.
Yet, the one thing I do know is that nothing has been written so far. The page remains blank. If I agonize over the first sentence, paragraph, page, scene, chapter, or whatever, I still have nothing.
The trick I learned a short while ago, and I think it will work here too, is to write scenes more like screenplays and less like fiction. I don't mean in format, but in essence. I write dialogue. Actions look more like stage directions. Then, I can go back later to add in whatever I need to establish setting, mood, character, or whatever else. (That includes rewriting.)
So, instead of conjuring up some clever line about the sky looking like a dead television channel, I state what I know and keep going.
Text message. Kim checks it. A link to some news story. She tosses her phone back on the bed and returns to punching the bag in the corner of her bedroom. Another text message.
It's all wrong, right? You bet'cha. Not much of a hook, maybe a smidge of character, but certainly no mood or plot, yet. That's okay. I can work all that in later. The important part is I didn't wring my hands over the opening. With some work, it might be one of those great opening later, but
Update on The Superhero Murders: While transferring my notes from paper to digital, I found some poorly defined arcs, but I also managed to smooth out a couple turns that had bothered me. Still, I found that I trudged through the opening scenes even just copying the notes over, so something needs fixed there.
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Description tends to be a hot topic among writers. Like so many other aspects of the craft, there are no global rules.Each writer needs to figure out their own rules based on what works and what doesn't work for them.
One group complains that the world has become all too fast, that readers don't want anything but the most critical, surgically relevant, descriptions weighing their reading experience down. Apparently, it's a very old complaint.
The other group consists of literary painters. Reading is a journey taken slowly and leisurely, like an old time Sunday drive down the fence-lined, dirt-and-gravel back roads of the literary country.
Me? Well, I've been giving it some thought and I tend to agree with both sides a little.
The personal rule I'm developing is this: don't describe; instead, establish, setting, mood and character (all with respect to the POV, of course.)
Achieving a sense of place in a scene can take nothing more than a word, like kitchen for example. Here, the reader's mind (probably) fills in a generic room with some common details like a sink, refrigerators, cabinets, and counters. And this may be all I need, but place is inevitably tied to time, so how about some morning rays streaming through the small window over the sink?
Mood is elusive. It is more than mere description, but it can be aided by description. So, if I want a dark and tense scene, I could filter those morning rays through a tattered, dirty curtain. Oh, and the light bulb is broken too. There is a big kitchen knife stuck point-first into the counter next to the cutting board and a couple beer bottles in the sink--one of them shattered into jagged pieces. Mood is usually subtle, so nothing more than these tiny cues are needed for now. Even a sprinkling of key words, if that is all the time I have, can add a smidgen of mood. I could be creative and literary--flyspeck--or just mundane and simple--dingy.
What about character? The beer bottles and knife say something about the occupants. I could reinforce those in a few ways. If I want to indicate that the occupant is a cop, he may have left a belt and gun sprawled on the center island. If the occupant is a working slob, muddy work-boot tracks could crisscross the faded linoleum and the scent of rotten garbage lingers from an overflowing trashcan in the corner. If he has a temper, the reader could discover fist holes in the drywall.
The last element I strive for in description is completeness, such that several senses are covered (I only hit two so far), and details that surprise the reader.
In all these cases, more or less could be done depending on how I want to craft the scene. If I'm aiming for a slower pace, more description might be a useful tool, as long as it serves a purpose (such as the ones I've mentioned.) What I want to avoid is empty description.
So far, nothing has happened, there's no action. Every bit of description is a balancing act. I'm trading forward movement for place, mood, and character. Some writers try to weave these things in with the action or dialogue.
Generally, I try to achieve a lot with a little. I use as little as possible while still achieving my goals. It could be nothing more than a word. Every writer has to decide how much description works for him or her.
Disagree? Did I forget something important? Comments are always welcome.
After a dozen poor starts on The Superhero Murders, I decided to go a more traditional route with an outline and a plan. But is there such a thing as too much planning?
Some writers scorn plans altogether. Just like Stephen King mentions in On Writing, they begin with a scene and some interesting characters, and then just write onward to see where it all goes. Some begin with even less than that. I've heard writer describe beginning with just a sentence. And in truth, I've done all that before myself and there's nothing wrong with it. Some of my best writing began that way, but when it came to my my work in progress, no luck. (I'll save the outline vs. seat-of-the-pants discussion for another time, thanks.)
Now, after some thought and work, I have an outline. I'm in the process of transferring it from scratched-out notes over to Scrivener now, but I find myself daunted. I begin to fret over exactly how the scenes and arcs will tie together in detail. All important, but where is the line? At what point do I just write? I mean, I have a good idea of the arcs, critical incidents and ending, plus lots of filler between all that. I have a good idea of the motivations and where they came from. So why not? Too much planning might create boredom, and cleaning up the details comes in the editing, right?
On the other hand, perhaps I should take the time. While ironing out all the details and perfecting the throughlines, I could work on short stories. Do that until I feel truly ready, and then write away.
The truth is that this book will probably fall into the million words of practice that so many authors talk about. Not only that, but I need this sucker to be out of my head. Even if a hastily written first draft sits on my hard drive gathering dust, it will be good to move on after all this time.
For that reason, I think I'm going to bite the bullet (after I finish moving the outline over to the digital world). I'm just going to use the outline as-as, refine it as I go, and press forward.
I should have a backup plan in case that fails. Maybe I'll work on that as I go too.
Writer of speculative fiction. Current work in progress is an untitled dark fantasy novella.