First Chapter Flailing

Image courtesy of Cowboy Bebop.

What I want to do is write a perfect opening when I start a new project. A great powerhouse opening that reels you in, or alternately, a poetic entrance that captures your interest. Opening scenes that get stuck in your memory.

More often than not, however, what I get instead is rambling and flailing crap. And each time, I need to remind myself that it’s okay to write a terrible opening. Or no opening at all.

In My Blue World, I think, is the only novel I’ve written where the original opening is the one you see in the end result, but that’s because I knew exactly how to open up that story as soon as I started it. I knew that Zuzannah had to enter the world of the Meeks sisters very unconventionally, literally ripping the fabric of space and time in front of their eyes. It’s been revised of course, but for the most part it remained very close to the original attempt.

Meet the Lidwells, on the other hand, started out as a series of Q&A sessions between the band and the unnamed interviewer, whom I later completely edited out, leaving their voice only as section headers and side notes. A Division of Souls had three completely different and unrelated opening attempts before I returned to the original idea of Nehalé’s awakening ritual. The other two Bridgetown books also started off slightly differently. And nearly all of my trunked stories had alternate openings.

With my two latest projects, I’ve had to remind myself, again, that the only way I can really start these novels is to just WRITE THE DAMN THINGS and not worry too much about how the first chapter sounds. I’m sure I’ll be rewriting or at least revising them in the future, once I have a stronger grasp on what they’re about and what the story needs.

Which is why I call it First Chapter Flailing. I’m still trying to discover all the important parts of the story. What kind of tone do I want to set for the rest of the novel? Who is involved in the first scene, and why? What kind of setting am I looking at? How is this going to tie in with the novel as a whole? The problem is not that I don’t know how to write it, it’s that I’m trying to stick the landing the first time out, and I almost always fail in the process. I either start it too early or too late in the story’s timeline. And then I get frustrated and want to start over. I don’t mind wasting a bit of time trying to write a good story, but I hate wasting words and scenes I won’t use. I know it sounds weird, but it happens.

So how to combat this? Well, like I said: just write the damn thing. Don’t be perfect about it. Just have a vague idea of where this particular first scene is going and what I want it to achieve, and run with it. Have a mental short list of points I want to hit right away. Don’t worry about giant infodumps. And by all means, go ahead and give those characters a somewhat mundane conversation, because that’s the perfect place to drop hints on what will come later on.

There are a lot of moving parts in a novel, especially at the beginning, where it sets everything else in motion. Of course the first draft is going to be messy as hell. It’s always going to be crap. Maybe you’ll luck out and nail it first try, but more often than not you’ll be doing a lot of revision and rewriting in a month or two once you have a much better handle on the story.

And that’s okay! It’s all part of the job of writing. You can always forgive yourself afterwards for all that First Chapter Flailing.

One more time for luck

Hopefully this go-round will not be as stressful…

SO! The other night I finally finished the latest revision go-round for Diwa & Kaffi and I think I did a pretty good job. So now what?

Now I read it again.

Yeah, writing a novel and prepping it for submission or publication (self or otherwise) does in fact include multiple rereads of the same damn words you’ve been reading over the last few months. It’s no wonder some of us start questioning if our work is worth anything or just a pile of crap.

The last round was to fix some major prose issues I’d had (and to write that ‘scene goes here’ scene, natch) and anything that stood out that needed work. This current round is going to be the Nitpicky Grammar and Word Choice Round, and I’m hoping it’ll be much smoother and quicker. Things like verb tenses, pronouns, repetitions, and so on. Spot-fixes.

Oh — and I need to see if I can find someone to check my Tagalog. I use it sparingly and there’s about 25 or so phrases or sentences out of two hundred some-odd pages, so it’s more about just making sure I used the best word choice and didn’t just hazard a guess by using Google Translate. [Which, y’know, I actually did as a placeholder until I get someone to help.]

Then I can finally submit it!

Meanwhile…

I have about five more chapters’ worth of revision to go before I can call this second go-round of Diwa & Kaffi done. I’m still on schedule, hitting about one chapter per evening while we watch British gardening shows. [They’re quite soothing after a long day at work, and perfect background noise for my writing sessions…although I do get occasionally distracted!]

I know I’ve talked about what The Next Project will be, but right now I’m not thinking too much about it. All my focus has been on revision, and the next step will be submission research. Right now if feels right for me to dedicated as much time and attention on this project.

In the past this would have bothered me…the fears of running out of ideas and falling out of practice, mainly. Over the years, though, I’ve realized that these fears will only manifest if I let them. I’ve cleared the table of nearly every story I’d put in backburner status, holding onto maybe two or three. They’ll be there when I come back to them. And if they no longer hold my interest, well…I’ll come up with something else eventually. I’m not worried.

Part of this comes with having done a reread of My Work to Date. I’ve reread all three books in the Bridgetown Trilogy as well as Meet the Lidwells over the last few months. It does kind of blow my mind that I’ve already self-published five books and I’m about to submit my sixth to a publisher, all within the space of four years. That’s a hell of a lot more productivity than I ever thought I’d have, to be honest.

So if I have a bit of a dry spell after D&K is out and away, I’m not going to worry too much. As long as I practice.

Yet More On Editing and Revision

On average, I say I go through about three to five versions of each novel I write before I call it done or ready for submission. I always write chronologically from start to finish, and only rarely do I write a scene ahead of time. I’ll take each completed version and revise the same way. The only difference here is that I’ll also read the entire thing on my e-reader at night, multiple times, during the revision process. I started doing this with my trilogy for a few reasons: one, to connect with the novel as closely as I can, and to become aware of what works, what doesn’t, what’s fine, and what needs adjustment.

However, one of the more interesting things I’ve noticed while editing and revising Diwa and Kaffi is how often I’ve been shifting scenes. It’s rare for me to take a scene from, say, Chapter Twenty-Two and move it back a month earlier in the story chronology to Chapter Seventeen. And I’ve done this at least three times already this time out! This did not happen with Meet the Lidwells and maybe only once with In My Blue World.

This is the magic of editing, same as with filmmaking; a strong scene that’s out of place in one part of the timeline might fit perfectly (with a few minor changes) somewhere else within the story. It’s the part of storytelling where the writer becomes aware of not just the plot but the pace and the flow. Sometimes it’s better to state my point once, strongly, rather than vaguely and repeatedly. I found these misplaced scenes work better as previous scene extensions, primarily because it makes that previous scene stronger and thus more memorable.

And in turn, this gives me the purpose to reread the whole thing again, once the scenes are in their new places. That particular go-round will not just look for any additional issues I may need to fix, but to make sure the flow and the mood are to my liking.

I suppose this could pull me into a never ending cycle of edit-revise-read-etc., but I think I’ve done this long enough to know when it feels finished to me. When it feels less like a project and more like a book I’m enjoying reading, then I’ve done my job correctly.

So and Slow It Goes

I’m still on schedule for revising In My Blue World, but MAN does it feel like it’s taking forever.  Some days there’s not too much to fix and I get get a good chunk done, and other days — like yesterday — I have to completely rewrite a major scene.  I’m about halfway through the novel and working off the revision notes I’d made during our UK trip a few months ago.  There are chapters where the notes will say “good — lengthen a bit — tidy up” and others where the notes go on for almost a full page explaining what I need to change.  Such is the writer’s life.

But I’m soldiering through.  I’m not sick of the book (yet) and I’m not at the ‘oh god this sucks’ level yet (which is always a good sign), but I really wish I was a little closer to finishing it up!

Still, I’m still on schedule to release it at Smashwords sometime in February.  The book cover’s already done of course.  I might follow through and do a trade for this one as well, depending on if I can get interest in it.  

In the meantime, as soon as I’m finished with this one, I’ll FINALLY be able to work on the Apartment Complex book!  I might even have a title for it by then!

Letting It Stew

charlotte carrot stew

After four attempts, one ragequit, and still no official title, I finished writing the first draft of the Apartment Complex story!  It’s a little over 79k words (about what I expected and wanted) and has been copied to a single semi-formatted doc file that I can work on.  So now what?

I’m going to let it sit for a little bit.

Wait wait wait, I hear you say.  You’ve been working on this damn thing for six months and talking about it endlessly about how much you loved writing it.  Why are you NOT working on it now??

And that’s a legitimate question, and there are two answers for it.  The short one: I’m about to start revision edits for In My Blue World, which is next on the release schedule.  This one needs my attention the most right now.

The longer answer is that giving it a bit of distance lets me look at it with fresh eyes.  Even though I feel that the AC story is my best work to date, will I feel the same a few months down the road?  Reading this particular novel with rose-tinted glasses might keep me from seeing possible issues that need fixing.  Alternately, I might end up being overcritical and pick it completely apart and ruin any joy I felt with the story.

My days away from my novel projects are also personal; I’ve just finished a six-month, almost-daily slog, so I’m due a few days off to do nothing except goof around.  Play FreeCell.  Fiddle around with my mp3 collection.  Post fly-by blog entries.  Go outside and take walks.  Work on my exercise regimen.  Vacations from writing are great!  You should always take a few now and again, especially when you’ve just finished not one but two projects that both need revision.  Your brain and body will thank you!

The novel will always be there until I come back to it.  And hey, I might even have a title for it by then!

Vacation fly-by: More revision notes

I’m still going through In My Blue World and making notes on what needs fixing. There are two MAJOR fixes to be made: one, that I need to change the POV to omniscient 3rd person, and two, that a number of sequences need to be pasted together. It’ll be a big undertaking that I won’t be able to start for another week or so, which of course is making me twitchy.

On the plus side, the story itself is solid — it’s tight and there aren’t that many holes and continuity issues I need to fix. It’s only the prose (and the first chapter or so) that needs cleaning up. And the cover is already done! I’m still aiming for an October/November release at this time. *crosses fingers*

So…what about the Apartment Complex story? Good question. I’ll still be working on that when I can and take my time, as I purposely haven’t assigned a drop date for it. [There is also the cover art issue, but that’s another post entirely.].

Okay! Back to work…

Working vacation: editing notes

Aah fudge. In My Blue World is gonna need a lot of work after all, isn’t it?

Well– maybe, maybe not. My opening chapters are always a hot mess. It’s definitely going to need a lot of TLC. From what I’ve seen up to about 3/4 through, it gets much better as it goes along.

Also: it’s stupidly HOT here in London. Thankfully our room has great AC!

On Revision: Paying Attention

erasing
Yeah, that’s gonna need to go.  [Source, Makoto Shinkai (of course), The Garden of Words.]
While on our little weekend trip up to Mendocino this weekend, I chose to bring my tablet along and read what I have so far of In My Blue World.  I haven’t done this since I started writing this version back in… *checks date* early April.  So far I’ve found a few things worth noting:

–The first entry needs work.  A LOT of work.  Interestingly the very next day’s work is just fine and pretty close to what I was aiming for.  So perhaps that means that I’m getting better at openings!  Heh.
–It remains in the eldest sister’s point of view for most of the first third until I suddenly go into multiple first-person POV.  [They have their own chapter or scene, so I can easily slap a chapter header on there to help the reader.] Which is fine, because I did that on purpose.  I’d written multiple partial scenes before starting this draft which are in other POVs.  I purposely left gaps in this section to insert them in.
–As expected, many characters aren’t quite nailed down until about a quarter of the way in.  [For instance, I had Zuze’s sister Trischa be younger and weaker in the opening, but later on she’s older and more of a badass.]  Thankfully this too is easy to fix, with a bit of revision and rewriting.  Nothing that will ultimately unravel the story for me.
–I need to nail down the rules of magic just a bit more, as they seem a bit too bendy for my tastes at the moment.  They make sense for the most part, though there are a few moments where they kind of drift into MacGuffin territory.  Again, easily fixed.
–I have exactly two characters that started out with promising fates, and I kind of forgot about following through.  That tends to happen a lot when I have far too much fun writing the other characters!  Again, easily fixed.
–The Antagonist/Evil Overlord/Bad Guy needs to be reined in just a tad bit.  This one might be tricky, as his character is very much a reactive, calm-but-insane sort of dude.  The balance here is to show him acting in what he fully believes is logical and right, but others seeing him as completely batshit dangerous.  The good thing is that I have him nailed down already, so I just need to work backwards to fix his earlier scenes.
–Secondary Antagonist needs to have her backstory straightened out.  She too is nailed down at this point, so it’s just her earlier scenes I need to revise.

Thankfully, that’s all I found (so far) that needs work.  I don’t plan on doing any of this revision just yet, as I’d like take the next few weeks to finish the novel.  All the revision, cleanup and post-production will take place in July, and maybe into August if it’s needed.  I’m thinking the drop date at this point will be mid-September.

The tricky part here is paying attention.

I call it such, because whenever I do a ‘read what I have so far’ session, I try to remember all the fiddly bits that might need work.  It’s a mix of self-critique and a line edit.  I pay attention to my reaction to certain passages.  I see a scene and remember how it’ll tie in with another scene further on.  I’ll also think about the story as a whole.  It’s kind of a giant jigsaw puzzle where I keep tabs on the image shown on every single piece.  What seems weak or out of place will get the revision.

I should probably add that I do the copy-edit and the proofread during the e-book formatting sessions.  That’s where I’ll distance myself from the story a bit more and look at it as a reader than a writer.  That’s usually when the formatting and editing errors pop up, and those are the easiest to fix.  And once I’m happy all around, that’s when I’ll upload it to the publishing site and set a drop date.

So yeah… being a self-published author who wishes to do everything himself, there’s a lot of hats to wear.  I have to be vigilant and professional while working on a hell of a lot of different moving parts.  It’s definitely not for everyone, and I would not blame you for not wanting to take the insane route I chose.  But it can be done.

A lot of it really is about paying attention.

Take Three: On Rewriting (Again)

8-Winnie-the-Pooh-quotes

RIGHT.  Let’s try this one more time.

I’m committed to getting this novel down correctly before I venture too far and end up frustrated again.  I know exactly what’s been wrong with the Apartment Complex story: not enough action.  I do have future scenes with action in them, sure, but I’m just not nailing the landing at all yet.  I’m screwing up on the pacing; it’s far too slow.  I’m focusing too much on the mood and not enough on the plot.  So instead of deleting it all and throwing the outtakes into the compost bin, I gave it a good long think-over during vacation.

Specifically, I thought about what I needed to do during the five-hour flights to Honolulu and back.  And during the return flight, I pulled out my index cards and proceeded to do some heavy-duty additional outlining.  I added at least six more scenes to the start of Act I (to be interspersed between the scenes I already have) that will help me get back to where I need to be.  I realized this was the same outlining style I used for the trilogy, where I focused primarily on the handful of scenes I’d be working on in the immediate future.  It worked then, so I see no reason why it wouldn’t work again now.

I’m usually never this stubborn about nailing the beginning, I’ll admit.  But sometimes it’s gotta be done, especially if I already believe in the story as a whole.  It might take me a few tries to get it right, but once I do, the rest of it should flow just as I want it.