QUESTIONS ABOUT WRITING
Copyright © Suzanne McLeod 2009
There's just the one so far - more coming soon.
Q. How do you find the beginning of your novels? How do you know where to start them?
Answer originally posted at Fangs, Fur & Fey as part of the Topic of the Month for May 2009 - Check out other authors' answers to this question here.
Starting a novel is hard, there’s so much that needs to be fitted in to that beginning hundred or so words and first chapter.
–Introducing the main character/characters
–Introducing the world
–Introducing and setting up the main plot problem
–Hooking the reader
Yep, it’s enough to make you tear your hair out and decide that squeezing blood out of a stone – or doing the hated housework in a headscarf to cover that bald patch – is a much easier option. LOL!
I write an urban fantasy series, my main character is Genny Taylor, a sidhe fae who works for Spellcrackers.com – making magic safe. When I first thought up Genny and started to write about her I always knew that she would have some sort of mystery or murder to solve. And that’s where I do my pre-writing planning – just for the record, I’m an outliner, not a panster writer – which means before I start a book I have a pretty good idea of the story and where it’s all going to end up. For my first bit of outlining, I start by working out who is dead, who killed them and why. Then since Genny isn’t a detective and doesn’t work for the police, I work out how I’m going to get her involved and how I’m going to motivate her to stay involved.
In The Sweet Scent of Blood, [book 1] a celebrity vampire is accused of murdering his human girlfriend. I now have my victim – and a possible murderer – but in Genny’s world the police are already on the case, they don’t want or need her help, and so there’s no reason for Genny to get involved … yet.
How do I get her involved? Well, the easiest way is for someone to ask her; but it needs to be someone who has no faith in the police and the outcome of their investigations, and who has a personal stake [bad pun, I know, but I couldn’t resist *g*] in being proved innocent. The obvious person to ask for Genny’s help is the celebrity vampire himself, but as he’s in jail – and since Genny doesn’t consort with vampires – it’s his human father that seeks Genny out instead. And when the father comes to Genny for help, not only does he need to have a rock-solid reason for asking *her* in particular, and not some experienced PI, but he also has to have some means of making her say yes. These are all points I’ve worked out in my pre-planning/outlining stage and once I have them, they give me the bones of my first chapter.
–The murder victim: the vampire’s girlfriend
–The way I’m going to get Genny involved: the father asks for her help because she knows about magic
–The reason Genny will say yes and stay involved: she has to repay an old debt and the father knows enough to call in the debt
Then I start fleshing out my bones. Where will the scene take place? Genny’s office, a dark alley, a bar or café. Will there be any other characters in the scene? Friends, colleagues, walk-ons. And what exact information do I need to include; like clues and pointers for either the world or plot [possibly some magic, a slice of history, a red herring, or some foreshadowing]. After that I work on the first sentence/paragraph/s [my hook]: maybe it should be some dialogue; or a description of the setting/world/a person; or an internal thought; or some sort of action? And once I’ve got my hook down, then I keep writing and let the rest fall into place. [Obviously with a lot more angst, tearing of hair, and further detailed plotting than that simple statement implies : -)]
Here’s the beginning of The Sweet Scent of Blood …
‘The vampire looked a beautiful, dangerous cliché. Jet-black hair tied back in a French plait emphasised the pale angles of his face. Shadowed grey eyes stared out with moody promise. Black silk clung to hard abdominals while soft leather stretched down long, lean legs. An ankle-length coat pooled across the stone steps on which he sat so it seemed he existed in his own well of seductive darkness. Behind him, the ferris-wheel silhouette of the London Eye, backlit by exploding fireworks, added a less than subtle suggestion to the scene.
The picture was splashed across the front page of every national newspaper: a celebrity story made more sensational than the norm thanks to the mix of murder and vampires. Other than providing a few moments of idle interest, the news had nothing to do with me.
Or so I thought.’
So I’ve laid out my bones by . . .
–Introducing the main character/characters: the vampire accused of murder and Genny through her internal thoughts.
–Introducing the world: Contemporary London [by mentioning the London Eye which is an iconic structure also known as the Millennium Wheel since it was erected to mark the year 2000]. Vampires who are a known and accepted part of normal society since they’re reported on in the newspapers and are celebrities. And also indicating that Genny doesn’t normally have anything to do with them [her idle interest] or even wants to [less than subtle suggestion].
–Introducing and setting up the main plot problem: solving the murder
–Hooking the reader: hopefully : -)
In The Cold Kiss of Death [book 2] I started my plotting in exactly the same way and again ended up with my skeleton plot points.
–The murder victim: a friend of Genny’s
–The way I’m going to get Genny involved: she’s accused of the murder
–The reason Genny will stay involved: she has to find the murderer before they kill again, as well as to prove her own innocence
But when it came to working out my first chapter, I realised I had a problem; I couldn’t start with the friend’s murder. Why not? Because this was book 2 and not all readers will have read book 1, and since I’m writing a series where each book can stand-alone to a degree, I needed to write with that in mind. So I had to find a way to introduce Genny, her friend and her world anew, and at the same time catch up previous readers with what had happened to Genny since the end of book 1. If I started with the actual murder I’d have to either flashback or info dump about Genny’s past to explain why she was being accused.
So instead I decided to begin with a smaller ‘problem’: A ghost is haunting Genny, but due to communication problems – Genny can see ghosts, but she can’t talk to them – Genny’s having trouble finding exactly what it is the ghost wants.
The beginning of The Cold Kiss of Death ...
‘The child stood barefoot and ignored in the cold, sheeting rain; her long dark hair was tossed by the fractious wind and her ragged clothes hung off her undernourished body. She was no more than eight or nine years old. She waited, staring at me from dark angry eyes. My heart beat faster at the sight of her, fingers of fear scraping down my spine and setting my teeth on edge. All around her people hurried across the wide expanse of cobbles towards the warm lights of Covent Garden, heading for the shelter of the glass-covered market with its shops, cafés, street entertainers and busy market stalls. The late October storm raging through London meant the witches were doing a roaring trade with their Body-Brolly spells, Dri-Feet Patches and Wind-Remedy Hair-Pins: twenty-first century commerce at its most expedient. And none of the late-afternoon punters stopped to help the child. No one even noticed her, other than me.
But then the girl was a ghost.
Not many humans have the ability to see ghosts.
I’m sidhe fae. Seeing ghosts isn’t a problem for me.’
Again I’ve covered the bases by . . .
–Introducing the main character/characters: the child-ghost and Genny.
–Introducing the world: Contemporary London [the actual mention of London, and Covent Garden market along with witches ‘doing a roaring trade’ and ‘twenty-first century commerce’ indicates that magic is normal and open in Genny’s world as well as establishing the time-line]
–Introducing and setting up the main plot problem: The ghost wants something [and whether the ghost has anything to do with the murder victim is something you’ll have to read the book to find out *g*]
–Hook the reader: again hopefully : -)
Patrice Michelle made an excellent and concise comment about the above answer, so I have stolen it :-)
Starting where your character's conflict (introducing the character and giving her a reason to get involved) and the plot conflict collide (introducing the world and the main plot problem),which hopefully ends up 'hooking the reader'! :)