Does anyone else feel a twinge of guilt when they read an article detailing someone else’s carefully crafted ‘writing routine?’
I feel that I must confess: I don’t currently have a set daily time to write.
I don’t have any more written on my second novel-in-progress than I had last week.
I don’t even have the notes lined up for the article on the WW2 ‘elephant company’ that I’ve been meaning to write for…how many months has it been now? (Though I DO have another overdue fee on the book…sigh.)
What I do have is the responsibility of raising three very small humans.
And let me tell you, while I wouldn’t trade that job for a dozen published novels, it has been a wild ride of late.
It feels a bit like one of the board games our family likes to play, except the ‘bank’ would have vouchers for free time rather than fake money, and the cards would look something like the following. (Note: I tried to make them look more like cards- then the youngest tried to use me for a jungle-gym and I gave up.)
You Shall Not Pass
The children have taken every toy they own and covered the floor. Give up one hour free time to supervise clean up.
“Cat’s In the Cradle”
As you prepare to write, your child asks you to play with them. You are unable to resist. Give up one hour free time.
Roll the dice.
A 1 or 2 means that your child only vomited on himself. Give up 1 hour of free time. You may still have time to write while he naps.
A 3 or 4 means that it is projectile. Give up 3 hours of free time and get on that laundry.
A 5 or 6 means that it is a bug. Give up 24 hours of free time and hope you don’t catch it.
Your child awakes in the night, frightened. Roll the dice.
The number rolled indicates how many times they wake you up. If it is 3 or more, give up 24 hours of free time, as you will be too tired to be creative.
Give up 2 hours free time.
Roll once for each additional child. A 1 or 2 means that they picked up an additional illness from the waiting room. Give up 2 more hours for each additional doctor’s visit.
Give up two hours free time to participate.
You may give up an additional hour to provide the baked goods that the teacher requested.
Roll the dice
A 1,2 or 3 means the babysitter can make it! Gain 3 hours free time.
A 4,5 or 6 means she cancels. Too bad.
Your aroma is showing that you haven’t had much time for personal grooming. You may choose to give up 1 hour free time to shower, OR gain one extra hour free time and just ignore it.
AND, the grand finale…
Roll the dice.
A 1 or 2 means that you can’t get a sitter. Try to watch a movie after the kids are in bed. Fall asleep on the couch. No gain or loss of ‘free time.’
A 3 or 4 means you manage a date night. You are so relaxed and happy from time with your spouse that you are extra productive. Gain one hour ‘free time.’
A 5 or 6 means that you manage a night away. A month later, SURPRISE! Your family is growing. Give up all free time for the next 2 years.
What cards would you add?
As for me, I’m going to go give my kids a hug and I’m going to enjoy the blessings of these crazy years while they last…
…and maybe, just maybe they’ll sleep tonight, and I can WRITE!
A flash of movement, a lithe, furry body rolling over in the shadows of the stream bank, a glimpse of a webbed foot- I stared, unbelieving. Then, I reacted like any dignified adult would.
“LOOK, KIDS! AN OTTER! A RIVER OTTER!”
Yes, yes, I know. It was exactly the wrong reaction when spying a wild animal at close quarters. (There may have also been some jumping up and down.)
My only excuse is surprise. We’d come to watch the salmon making their mass migration upstream. The huge fish were impressive enough- I wasn’t expecting bonus wildlife.
The reasons didn’t matter. The one glimpse was all I got.
My ‘otter incident’ sums up my writing experience lately. Ideas surface, tantalizing ideas, good ideas.
I just can’t quite catch them.
Part of it has been timing. My site’s title is fast becoming a misnomer. ‘Naptime’ has nearly vanished from our house, and with it my one regular span of ‘alone time.’
Scores of ideas, sometimes even fully-developed articles and stories, swim through my mind while I’m driving the kids back and forth or fighting the never-ending battle to keep my kitchen counters visible.
By the time I sit down to write, they’ve swum right away again.
I’ve tried starting a little journal- when ideas come I can jot them down quickly. I have a respectable list of history and writing topics already.
The problem is, the ideas don’t seem quite as ‘shiny’ after they’ve sat a while.
Again, it’s like my otter encounter. Only a few hours later, I’m wondering if I actually saw him. After all, the salmon are close to the right size. They were rolling about through the waves, struggling to climb the fish ladder. Yes, the creature looked furry, but then some of the fish are looking a little rough around the edges by this point in their quest for a little fishy-style lovin’ before becoming food or fertilizer.
Maybe my amazing viewing…wasn’t. *
I find myself staring at the list in my little journal. Maybe my writing ideas aren’t either.
It’s easy to doubt. After all, my novel queries have only resulted in polite rejections- maybe I wasn’t as ready as I though I was. Family illness and friends’ struggles weigh heavily on top of my other obligations, and it’s hard to find words under that weight.
Salmon do not have webbed feet. Otters do.
Some of my ideas aren’t going to go anywhere. Giving up means none of them will.
Life is heavy just now, but this is a season. Seasons change.
Writers, keep plugging away. Something wonderful might be swimming just below the surface, waiting for you to write it into being!
What about you? Have you found any methods that help you keep creativity moving through the busy or difficult seasons?
Thanks, as always, for visiting!
*Amazing? Yeah, spotting new wildlife definitely fits into my definition of ‘amazing experience.’ I suppose it comes from the hours…and hours…and hours I spent in the car with my family driving around the old logging roads of northern Minnesota searching for moose or bear. (After a few hours, even the common white-tail deer were reasonably exciting!) We like our wildlife sightings 🙂
I looked forward to this week’s post for about six months.
Our family and several friends invaded and conquered Seaquest State Park’s ‘Yurt Village’ for an end-of-summer camping trip. (Well, ‘conquered’ in the sense that we made reservations months ago…but in my opinion, camping with small children deserves more adventurous-sounding verbs.)
Like most of western Washington’s state parks, Seaquest sports towering evergreens girded with huckleberry bushes and clumps of sword ferns. It’s pretty and peaceful. The real draw, however, is its neighbor.
Mount St. Helen’s impressed herself into American memory with a catastrophic eruption which climaxed in the collapse of the peak on May 18th, 1980.
My husband and I hadn’t visited the Mount St. Helen’s National Volcanic Monument for twelve years or so. I remembered it as a broken, blasted landscape, still eerily empty two and a half decades after the big blow out.
On this trip, I hoped to return to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, a close viewpoint to the crater, where the words of the man for whom the observatory is named are immortalized.
“Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”
Unfortunately for him, it was.
I looked forward to sharing a blog filled with pictures taken by my talented other half, and even had a ‘writing connection’ planned out- how the history of a setting affects the mood of our writing.
I think it could have been an interesting piece.
The volcano didn’t cooperate.
The crater was entirely covered in haze. The members of our party who attempted the drive to the observatory found the same.
No volcano. No pictures. No blog article.
And no new ideas.
Except… it does serve as an example of why writers need to keep flexible…
Yeah, that could work!
Maybe your writing experience has been like mine. My best laid plans, whether for blogs, for plot points, for character backgrounds, for (insert any that apply here) constantly need adaptation.
Some changes I choose to make.
Others, I’ve been forced into.
For instance, the manuscript I’m querying for right now is historical fiction, set during the Second World War. When I started writing the piece, I already had my story arc planned out. Research, I was certain, would put flesh on the skeleton.
I hadn’t finalized the locations for all of the story events, but I had some exciting ideas. I was fascinated by unfamiliar places and names- names like Tobruk and The Desert Fox and El Alamein. I dove into sources detailing the conflicts in North Africa.
Things went well, and I wrote some scenes that felt vivid and interesting and as if they’d fit the story just right…
…and then I found one, fatal piece of information. During the time period I was scouring, the Allies were not in control of the Mediterranian. Transport to and from these North African conflicts would require an 8 week voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.
This one fact completely destroyed my timeline for the rest of the story.
Oh, I tried to wiggle around it, adapt a few things, invent some convoluted backstory, but I finally had to admit it- my characters couldn’t have been there.
Delete. Delete. Delete. Back to the books.
This wasn’t the first, or the last, time the facts forced my story to change. I’d already had to drop my research on the Norwegian campaign (sorry, distant relatives!) and would subsequently axe bits with V1 rockets, the ‘Baby Blitz,’ and a little section with the history of the cherry tree. Granted, that last one didn’t really have much to do with anything except a clumsy attempt at symbolism. It was a good cut 🙂
As a matter of fact, they were all good cuts.
Every time I hit a roadblock, every time I found that my expectations didn’t fit reality, every time I had to rewrite and rethink, I had another opportunity to grow and improve. Flexibility in my rewrites enabled me to eliminate the dross.
I imagine that this applies to writing in other genres, too. After all, unless you are writing an entirely new universe with rules that don’t match any of ours, (and if you are, I’d like to shake your hand- that’s no mean feat,) it’s likely that you’ve got some background research to do, whether it’s the proper mix of gasses for a dirigible, the load-bearing capabilities of swallows, or just how far the sound of the murder weapon will carry with or without a silencer.
The writer’s willingness to keep their story flexible, to learn the facts and build their fiction around those facts shows through in a polished finished product.
When the facts aren’t there… I’m not certain if the author of the ‘Farm’ board book my children received didn’t quite understand the “facts of life,” if it was a typo, or if they were just confused as to how pronouns work, but somehow the cows were all referred to as ‘he.’ As a child of dairy country, I can’t help laughing a bit when we get to that page. (I’ve tried to explain, but the kids still don’t quite get it.)
Forcing myself to be flexible is hard work, but it doesn’t have to be devastating.
After all, we didn’t see a volcano, but our kids likely enjoyed chasing each other around the woods more than they would have enjoyed educational hikes.
My fictional characters couldn’t get to all of the places I wanted to send them, but I kept their story tighter and more believable.
I didn’t get a photoblog about Mount St. Helen’s, but I was able to share this experience instead. I also now have a reason to plan another yurt trip someday, and maybe next time we’ll see that volcano, and that bear we think we heard snuffling around!
Have any of your writing (or other) plans gone in unexpected directions lately?
I had my first one just this week. After twelve years, I ought to expect them.
Each is a little different, but it’s just a theme and variations. I’ve named them “the teacher nightmares.”
I stand in front of the classroom. I have all of my plans in my head, ready to go, and I haven’t remembered to prepare any of the materials.
Chaos slowly consumes the classroom as the children, sensing weakness, descend into anarchy. Nothing I say or do makes any difference.
I am completely ineffective.
Granted, as nightmares go, my “teacher nightmare” is a mild example. I wake feeling uneasy, and it takes a while (and a few successful lessons) to be fully comfortable again.
Some of the other dreams that drift in from time to time…they aren’t so easy to shake.
Am I right in supposing that each of us has at least one nightmare that we can’t forget? One that haunts us and lends weight to the fear of the sailors in C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when they realize that they are in danger of running aground on the isle where such dreams take on flesh and bone?
No, my annual nighttime expressions of classroom anxiety aren’t my worst dreams- not by a long way. At least they serve a useful purpose- they keep me on my mettle as far as planning and preparation!
After all, fear is a powerful motivator.
The start of ‘nightmare season’ got me thinking about novels that use dreams- specifically nightmares.
For instance, in Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte, Jane’s pre-nuptial nightmares blend in to a frightening reality, warning her that the future may not be as bright as she hopes. (If you haven’t read it yet, yes, I KNOW it’s long, and has a great deal of backstory at the beginning. I still LOVE IT!)
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte (Charlotte’s sister) uses a nightmare in the beginning of the novel to introduce the main storyline- the tragic relationship of Heathcliff and Catherine.
Other classics such as Frankenstein, Moby Dick, and Macbeth involve characters tormented by nighttime terrors.
More recently, the ever popular Harry Potter’s nightmares not only terrified, but provided valuable (though at times, unreliable) information, and Katniss Everdeen’s nightmares strengthened her bond with Peeta, her fellow Hunger Games contestant.
Of late, I’ve worked on writing some nightmares myself. My male protagonist in my WW2 novel is a platoon sergeant. While James is able to keep his fears in check and put on a brave face during waking hours, sleep brings little rest. He is haunted by dreams- flashbacks twisted to remind him of every way he has failed and could fail the men he’s responsible for. He runs the risk of being crippled by survivor’s guilt- made inneffective by his fears.
If you’re writing just now, and are working towards well-rounded characters, it’s worth taking some time to consider how fear motivates them. How will they react when their nightmares appear to be coming true? Will fear and foreboding galvanize them to action, or paralyze them?
Can you think of any other examples of nightmares/dreams in stories you’ve read or written or watched? Did they ‘work’ for the story?
In any case, I’ll close tonight by wishing us all sweet dreams. 🙂
EPILOGUE: Teaching day one went well. No supplies forgotten, minimal anarchy, no bleeding or tears. Chalking it up as a win 😉
“Put me in your hair,” says my baby, (who isn’t anymore, really.)
“What? Put you in my hair?”
“Put me in your hair, because I’m a flower!”
She proceeds to attempt to climb onto my head as I laugh and try to preserve my spine.
She’s spent the summer weaving dandelions into my hair and tucking them behind my ears. From time to time she tries to keep up with the ‘big kids,’ but generally she’s content to wander along her own path, inhabiting a hidden world of imagination.
And she still wants me to come along.
The others run off together to play games of their own invention, only interrupted sporadically by sibling squabbles. I love to see them grow and bond, and to hear the elaborate stories they create together. I enjoy regaining time to follow my own pursuits.
The time I’ve gained is bittersweet. They’re moving beyond me.
This one, the last, stands at the foot of the rocking chair as I begin the article I planned for today, and smiles sweetly. “Mommy, will you play with me?” (She uses perfect grammar, but always in that irresistible baby lisp.)
I hesitate, then sigh. There’s so little time…
Her eyes light up as if we hadn’t played together in weeks. (It’s been about fifteen minutes.) “Oh, thank you!”
The dandelions are all going to seed, and the summer is waning, and next year my baby might not want to put flowers in her hair and mine.
“So, you know that episode of Thundercats I was finishing?” my husband asked one morning.
“Urnghuh? Um…sure,” I answered, my foggy tones conveying that no, I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet. I wrestled my hair into order with a scrunci and tried to look awake.
“It had the same plot as that Harold Lloyd movie we watched yesterday.”
That got my attention. “What?”
“Grandma’s Boy, the Harold Lloyd movie? It was the same as the Thundercats episode.”
For those of you not familiar with these two entities, Harold Lloyd was a famous comedic actor, known for a shy persona juxtaposed against daredevil stunts.
His career stretched from the silent films in the 19teens all the way into the ‘talkie’ era.
IMDB sums up Grandma’s Boy:
“Always the mama’s boy, or in this case a grandma’s boy, Sonny joins a posse after a tramp accused of robbery and murder. He is unable to conquer his cowardice until Grandma tells him of his grandfather, also a coward, who overcame his fears with the help of a magic amulet. With new courage (and the charm), Sonny captures the fugitive and becomes the hero of the day.”
While I don’t imagine that the 1922 film was the first to use the idea of ‘the lucky charm that gives courage,’ it certainly wasn’t the last.
Enter a 1987 cartoon, in which a cat-lizard creature on Third Earth needs to save his more physically capable friends. He lacks courage until…you guessed it…he gains a ‘magical’ talisman. Which doesn’t end up being magical at all. Just like in Harold Lloyd’s film…
Of course the two stories are different. Different setting, characters, medium of presentation…but the bones of the story are the same.
The question, I think, is whether this is a failing in the stories.
I’d say, no. (Edited to: Not always.)
Is it any surprise that ideas get reused? After all, in the wisdom literature of the Bible’s Old Testament the author acknowledges,
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:9)
This was, oh, about 2,500 years ago…
I asked my husband the obvious question. “Which was better?”
He thought for a moment. “Thundercats.” *
Writers, I find this encouraging. If your story idea isn’t exactly original, it doesn’t mean that it is unusable. A new voice might breathe new, exciting life into an old story.
Cat-lizards don’t seem to hurt either.
My conclusion: If you use an old theme, make sure you do it well!
Has anyone else seen this same basic plot used elsewhere?
*My husband just gave me a hard time about ‘lying to my readers,’ so here is a disclaimer. All conversations are approximated. “Baby brain” ensures that I don’t actually remember things like words people say to me anymore. If I actually remember having a conversation pre-coffee, I count that as a win. 🙂
Hours of fretting over this miniscule 200 word piece produced nothing but a few scattered sentences with no connective tissue- dry bones on the valley floor. Lifeless. Useless.
Then came the moment of change. To use the word “miraculous” seems presumptuous, but it certainly feels like something came from nothing. I woke up this morning, and the words were there, all laid out and formatted perfectly in my head.
Unwilling to lose the moment, I grabbed an unused Christmas card off of the floor and the first writing utensil that I could find- a dull, red, colored pencil. (Ahem. I may not be the best housekeeper.)
Joy of joys, the words still made sense post-coffee. I’d done it!
Yes… I’d done it, but how? Where did the inspiration come from? What changed internally or externally that finally broke the block?
Is creative inspiration is just the resurfacing of bits of background knowledge that have stewed together long enough for the subconscious to make them into a new thought? Or is it something that can be tracked down manually, by following the right steps? Or is it different for each individual?
I think I traced the roots of my novel, but how the sources managed to inspire what I’ve written is still a mystery.
I had expressed my dislike for the James Bond franchise to my husband some time ago. On closer questioning, he discovered that the three films I had seen were what he would consider the worst of the bunch. The solution: watch them ALL with me. (This included the unofficial one Sean Connery did after he was retired from the role.)
Mix in the fact that I had just rediscovered my love of Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries and had just begun reading aloud The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with my children and voila! I was visited by a dream detailing the climax of my story in vivid color. While it didn’t look a thing like the three sources I believe it sprang from, I can see little bits of influence from Bond, Christie, and even Lewis. (No, it doesn’t include anyone throwing killer hats. I wish…)
Of course a climactic scene does not a story make. The who’s and why’s and wherefore’s presented themselves as I let my mind wander while washing dishes.
The inspiration was just there without me seeking it out. I didn’t have to do any real work on the story until I started research.
In the end I don’t have any great thesis to present for why ideas come how and when they do. I’m just grateful that they do, and for the chances I have to capture them before they slip away.
Now, if only I can stay on this ‘inspiration high’ and keep myself from picking my query apart again. (Of course the word ‘problem’ in the second paragraph may not be the best word choice… hmm….)
Writers, where do you find your inspiration? Is it more a process or a revelation? Do you work better within defined roles, or in open-ended situations?
Playgrounds are difficult. Supervising three children on our morning excursions leaves me longing for my afternoon coffee.
My eldest is an organizer. Last week she had half a dozen kids using the wood chips that covered the ground as ‘ice cream’ in a makeshift shop, which they ‘sold’ to other children, stashing other wood chips in a hole in the playset for a bank… it was elaborate.
My middle child has followed his big sister around for years, allowing her to run the games. That era seems to be ending. He will still go along, when he wants to, but he is also beginning to assert his independence. He spent most of that day trying to time out a run up the slide between other children sliding down.
My youngest just wants to play. She wanders and dreams and I try to steer her away from wandering too close to the swings, again.
I…I try not to hover. I keep a sharp lookout that they are all safe, but I try not to worry about the bumps and bruises, the dirty faces and the woodchips in their hair and whether the other children like them.
‘Try’ is the key word. How can I love my little crazies so much and not worry about them?
I feel some of the same anxieties for the characters in my stories.
After all, I have given them life, in a way. I’d like them to be happy in the little world I’ve made for them, able to muddle through their story and hopefully come out better for the journey.
The trouble is, like my children, these fictional people don’t live in isolation. They need to be able to play well with others, but in their case, the others aren’t their peers. They are their readers.
No one wants their kid to be ‘that kid,’ the one left on the sidelines, the one desperate to be liked but forever lonely.
No author wants their creation to be ‘that character,’ the one readers write off as cliché or predictable or unlikeable.
However, my protagonists didn’t exactly come out of their first exposure to professional readers looking like the popular kids. My feedback from the Athanatos writing contest pointed out a number of weak points.
Please, don’t write this type of character- it’s overused.
She’s too sweet.
Avoid using this name- we see it all of the time.
And so on.
The critiques were kindly given, and meant to be helpful. Still, my first instinct was “Mama Bear.”
WHAT? Oh yeah? Well YOU don’t know them! And I deliberately tried not to write her that way- GRRRRRAAAA!
When calm returned, I skimmed through my draft. Ok, some of the criticisms fit, maybe, but there were reasons why the characters acted that way…
There was the problem.
I knew my characters backwards and forwards.
My readers didn’t.
I needed to do a better job of portraying my protagonists. Their motivations needed to be more clear if they had any hope of being likeable. With a goal in mind, I got to work.
From childhood experience, I knew that if my characters seemed overeager to be liked, they would probably fail. (I mean, how can you NOT like him? Look, he speaks in poetry, saves puppies, volunteers every weekend, everyone in the BOOK likes him, you HAVE TO LIKE HIM!!!!!) Like the ‘cool kids’ on the playground, they’d need to come by it naturally.
First, things first. If you’ve written at all, you’ve surely heard the advice, ‘show, don’t tell.’ I searched out any places in the books where I said nice things about the character. If they made sense to the story, I kept them, but otherwise they were chopped. I searched out scenes where the characters showed admirable qualities, and strengthened them.
Second, no one likes a show off. I knew that my characters had flaws, and that these flaws drove them. My female protagonist is so overeager to maintain good relationships with her remaining family that she bends over backwards and sacrifices happiness to keep the peace, and inadvertently puts herself and others in danger. My male protagonist is so hyper-responsible that he almost gets himself killed because he can’t handle the guilt of someone else being hurt on his watch. Re-reading, I realized that I hadn’t shown the darker sides of these traits, and as a result they both just came off as ‘goody-two-shoes.’
I wrote and rewrote, trying to give my paper people room to breathe, to be flawed, to interact with others in organic ways. Several drafts later, I hope that I am closer to realizing that goal!
A good character needs a balance of positive qualities and flaws, of personality quirks and inane normalcy to live and breathe and become more than just flat words on a page. They need these things, this attention to background to become likeable- more than that, to become relatable for their readers.
Writers- what tricks do you use to make your characters likeable? (Or at least interesting- whether a character needs to be likeable is another topic 🙂 )
Readers- what stands out about the story characters you love?
This was supposed to be a year without a vacation. Suffice it to say, life has taken some twists and turns, some pleasant, and some challenging.
On the bright side, some of these challenges resulted in a trip to Redwood National and State Parks in northern California.
I had all sorts of pithy writing topics jotted down to blog about after our return. Unfortunately, the effort of not destroying my children after spending over twenty-four hours in a van with them has left my intelligence at low ebb.*
INSTEAD, I thought I’d share some of the lovely photos my husband took on our journey. Maybe they’ll provide someone with some writing inspiration as my brain re-charges.
First, we must get the quintessential Redwood cheesy tourist picture out of the way.
I wasn’t so much impressed at the girth of the tree, but that the tree was still alive. The damage that these beauties- the tallest living things on Earth- can take is astonishing.
I was also impressed that our rental made it through safely. Maybe grateful is a better word, as we weren’t planning to have to rent a vehicle. The person who decided to steal our back tires and rims the night before we were to go changed our mind. Sigh….
Back to beautiful nature.
The kids had a good time looking for Ewoks in the forest. They were unsuccessful-those little fuzzballs are stealthy!
Still, they enjoyed the flowers and tree tunnels and trails through the warm, damp forest.
And they laughed and cheered as they ran over plank bridges under hanging walls of millions of dripping green ferns.
As far as they were concerned, the only downside was that all of the beautiful nature kept us away from the playground at the old school house we stayed in. (Nope, I did NOT make that up.)
It had been converted into a rental, large enough for our family, with the bonus of a playground and gym. Peaceful evenings on the swing set, watching the local horses and the doe and two fawns who joined their grazing every night, closed each day.
I tried to ignore the fact that an abandoned school house sounded like a perfect setting for a horror story. Especially since the little history that the owners left us said that it was built on native sacred ground. And it had a moose head hanging just above our bed… Evil Dead, anybody? Sometimes an overactive imagination is a bad thing!
Thankfully the children didn’t have any similar worries- they kept asking when we could stay there again.
Our time in Redwood went too quickly- here’s hoping we can hold on to some of the peace of that wood as we ease our way back into the day-to-day grind.
And, here’s hoping you’re finding your own beautiful, peaceful places to enjoy this summer!
* I exaggerate. The kids did quite well, considering the distance. 🙂
My past experience teaching creative writing to elementary school students only went so far when attempting to write a novel, so I’d been brushing up my writing craft.
As you may have guessed from the title of my site, my time is not my own. It’s not easy to squeeze self-education in between meals, and snacks, and potty runs, and grocery runs, and play time, and Band-Aid applications, and stories and… more coffee, please!
My writer friends put me on to some very helpful articles, which I studied each evening while waiting for my middle child to finally give in and sleep. (What is it about bed time that shrinks a child’s bladder to something that can only stay unrelieved for five minutes?)
This article worried me, and it wasn’t alone in giving this sort of advice.
Start in the action. Start conflict right away. Hook your readers at once, or they’ll leave! No backstory!
I mentally sifted through my manuscript, and cringed. The action was there, eventually. but the first chapter…well, in the first chapter my MC has been invalided to northern England, effectively removed from the ‘action.’ This worked for the story, at least, I had thought it did.
But was there enough action?
Great. I’ve blown the beginning. I am submitting this thing to a contest I’ve paid for in a month, AND I HAVE NO BEGINNING!!!
I pummeled my brain for ideas, looking for SOMETHING that I could do to liven things up. Something that would make sense…
AH! The main conflict revolves around an undiscovered murder, committed four years previously.
I’ll write a prologue! With action!!!
I gave it a go, sat back and considered. It wasn’t too bad… though it did worry me that the characters involved wouldn’t become relevant again until much later in the story. Also, the murder was one of my bigger ‘reveals’…that was gone now.
But the articles SAID action…
I kept it.
It wasn’t until after I’d submitted that I read my first writing advice on prologues, how they’re generally frowned upon for first-time authors, and it’s safest not to attempt them.
The contest judges said essentially the same thing. Their response reminded me of myself, trying to kindly critique a students’ work. “Hmmm…I can see what you tried to do here…”
Long story short(ish), the prologue disappeared, and I tried some other beginnings, one of which involved a character waking up. Guess what else was on the list of things to avoid in your story if you’re a first time author?
In the end, I haven’t tried to add any crazy action scenes to the beginning of my current (final?) draft. They wouldn’t make sense. I tightened up the story, slimmed down the backstory as much as possible, and went with, essentially, a leaner, meaner version of the beginning I started with- which DOES have action, incidentally. It’s just that most of the conflict at the beginning is internal. I just panicked from reading too much advice and couldn’t see it.
My advice to those struggling with the beginning of your story is STAY CALM! There are many ways to add action and hook readers! Find good advice, but don’t forget the value of your gut instincts, or the feedback of other readers who are experiencing your story as the author of the article that is terrifying you hasn’t.
I’m confident that this new/old beginning is the best start for my story. Hopefully the people who will soon be clamoring to publish it (hey, dream big!) will agree…
Just for fun, I’ve included a slimmed-down version of my deleted prologue below, a deleted scene, if you will.
I’m happy with the fact that it is no longer part of the finished product, but hey, I spent enough time worrying over the thing. May as well print it somewhere…
France: May, 1940
“Are you all right, sir?”
“Yes, of course.” The captain lied, and finished wrapping the bandage around his arm, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. “Phillips, get the rest of these men back behind the new lines. There’s no use waiting around any longer.” The statement was punctuated by distant reverberations that could almost be mistaken for thunder, and brilliant flashes on the dark skyline.
“Aren’t you coming along?” Henry Phillips glanced over his shoulder. The rumbles of the tanks and artillery weren’t an immediate threat, but his foot hovered anxiously over the lorry’s accelerator.
“I’ve got to go back.”
“Captain, you don’t even know…”
“That’s the problem. I don’t know. No one’s accounted for him, he wasn’t with his company, and I can’t just leave. Not until I’m certain.”
“But the retreat’s been called, you’ll be going alone. Shouldn’t I…”
The captain clapped him on the shoulder. “Thanks, Henry, for the lift. Get yourself safe, and God willing… In any case, I’ll, or we’ll, follow quickly, never fear.”
“Yes, sir.” Phillips hesitated a moment as the captain vaulted down, then added, “And good luck.” He was rewarded with a wave, then quickly put the lorry back into gear. With a roar of the engine and a spin of tires, he was gone.
The captain set a brisk pace in the opposite direction, towards the positions they had lately abandoned. He loped along through the night, surefooted on the uneven dirt track, breathing deeply, ignoring the throbbing pain in his arm. The May air was cool and smelled of damp green countryside, laced with petrol and cordite and acrid smoke.
The dark effectively disguised the wounds on the land, but as he reached the first buildings there was light enough from the fires to distinguish the piles of rubble, broken machinery and spent shells. The French and British Allied defenses at the ‘impregnable’ Maginot Line were broken, and the brief success of their counter attack could only buy them a little more time before they were overwhelmed.
The rumble of artillery was growing louder.
He navigated the shadowy streets, unchallenged. He’d waited until the very end, until everyone that he was responsible for was out.
Almost everyone, anyway. In spite of everything, I can’t just leave him behind.
He paused, catching his breath and trying to think. Where would he be? There was that house where I saw him the other day… He changed course, searching about for familiar shapes in the flickering shadows. Down one side street, one more alley-
He called out, and the figure turned towards him. He felt a surge of relief as he recognized the other man’s face. The feeling was quickly supplanted by irritation, tinged with fear as he heard another shell impact. Too close…
“Thank God I’ve found you. What are you still doing here? You need to get back to your company at once. This is irresponsible, even for you. I ought to… ” Another shell, blast followed by the rattle of shrapnel and rock flung up from its impact. “Never mind- we need to move. C’mon…” he reached for the other’s arm, then froze.
The dim light glinted off of the barrel of the Luger, leveled at his chest.
“What…?” The captain never had opportunity to complete the thought.