Thanks for joining me for this second edition of Still Writing! The other day someone asked me how long I'd been seriously writing before I got published. Answer: eight years. I mention this not to worry you, but to encourage you to keep going, no matter what. My seventh novel, Bright of the Sky, has just arrived at bookstores. Getting published is like a marathon. Sometimes you win because you kept going when others quit.
You have an idea for a story, let's say. But you don't know where the story starts in earnest. Perhaps you feel some solid background is in order to build context. Or you want to establish empathy with your character right away, so you'll show your protagonist in the first crisis of your story. Good instincts, but both approaches are wrong.
This is not just a question of where to begin the story, but it is the critical issue of what your story is about. What portion of your character's life is the heart of your tale? What time in your character's life is most memorable, and will most shape her character? Looked at in this context, it's a little easier to discover when to start your narrative. A long chunk of background information makes for hard slogging before the reader is engaged or truly curious. An emotional scene at the beginning of your story asks us to care before we know the protagonist.
One approach that I like is to begin with what might be called "a shot across the bow" of your character's life. The day when the life she used to lead is no longer possible. The status quo is upset. Her desires are hooked (or soon will be) by an event that challenges What Is. The event may be a negative one, implying the struggles to come. Readers will look forward to the conflict, and rest easier as you begin to weave in the background. On the other hand, the incident might be a challenging positive one as well--as in Bright of the Sky, when a science station finds evidence of a universe next door. This event is sometimes called the inciting incident. It implies or shows the dilemma that the protagonist will engage. We read on to find out what she will do and how she will be affected. You might have a subsequent scene in which your character accepts the challenge presented. Then your climactic scene dramatizes the resolution of the dilemma suggested in that first "shot across the bow," irretrievably reordering the world of your character. Is this a formula? No. In practice, these scenes have infinite variety. You're just using one of the universal principals of fiction.
My best piece of advice in writing is "don't go it alone." The stereotype is that writers struggle in a lonely garret, poor and misunderstood. OK, writing is a solitary endeavor. But it doesn't have to be a lonely one. Once you meet other writers you'll find a group of amazing, intelligent, compassionate and intense people who will form an irreplaceable circle of friends. One place to start building your circle is at a writers' conference. Google one near you. In Western Washington, that might be PNWA. It's how I got my start--not only with the nuts and bolts of writing, but with becoming part of a writing community. In Eastern Washington, the Write on the River conference is headed into its second year. If you're in the vicinity, join us for a day of workshops given by award-winning authors on fiction, nonfiction and the writing life. Saturday, May 12 in Wenatchee.
I'm the president of the conference, and one of its founding members. How do I find the time? Believe me, I thought long and hard before getting involved. I do it not only to give back, but to stay connected myself. For me, it's a window out of the garret.
Five years in the making, my novel Bright of the Sky is now available, launching a four-book series. I am with a new publisher, Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books, and they've given me the most beautiful book I've ever had. Their attention to design, artwork and production details has been amazing. Heartfelt thanks to my fantastic editor, Lou Anders. His blog is worth checking out, too.
Hope I am allowed a small brag. Right out of the gate, Bright received a starred review from Publishers Weekly, where it was deemed "riveting." The book has received tremendous endorsements from Booklist, Library Journal, SciFi Weekly and others. It's a science fiction story with a fantasy feel--an epic sort of story with fun world-building and a hero to cheer. I'll be traveling a bit to read from the book and sign copies, so perhaps I'll see you in Seattle, Bellingham or other cities around the Pacific Northwest or points east. My appearances schedule is on my web site. I hope to see old friends and new!
If a plot issue has you really stuck, the tendency is to rush to a resolution that isn't original enough. Remember that all authors hate to plot. It's not just you! What to do? Here are stage one and stage two strategies, depending on how thorny the issue is:
#1. Leave the computer. Sitting in a chair with your notebook, list possible solutions in quick one-line summaries, no matter how silly. Do this without evaluating, and as quickly as you can. I've used this simple technique for years, and I don't know why it works. One or more of your trial solutions may lead you down a path you least expected.
You're still stuck? OK, time for #2: Take a walk, let yourself consider the issue, but also let yourself be distracted by the street, by the outdoors. Occasionally gently bring your thoughts back to your issue. Voila! On the last block you'll be rushing back to the computer to get it all down. Scientists know this phenomenon, of ideas coming to you when you stop chasing them. They call this the "three Bs:" bath, bus, bed. You're taking a bath or riding the bus, and your subconscious hands you the answer that eluded you. (Or you "sleep on it.")
That's it for fiction and the writing life this month. If you have topics you'd like me to cover, or if you would like more detail on the issues I'm raising, just drop me an email. I'd like to hear from you. Meanwhile, I'm busy with the launch of my new book and current writing projects. Amid all the bookstores, conventions, blogging and promotion, I try to remember that although writers may promote, study and teach, the main thing is, they write. Guess I'd better get to it!