Sunday, July 28, 2013

Sunday challenge: Better Beginning


I haven’t dug out any of my writing craft books in months. But today, I spent the first hour or so of my Sunday morning sitting on the patio with Sol Stein’s book Stein on Writing.

I dug it out because I’m struggling a bit with the opening of one of my novel manuscripts. This one is my middle grade fantasy – which was great fun to write – but has an opening that is a bit of a dud.

I’ve stared at it. I’ve rewritten it. I’ve chopped it out and hit “delete” more than once. Finally, I gave up on it for a while and focused on the rest of the story, which was the right move at the time. Now, however, I have a full manuscript draft – that still doesn’t resonate in the first page. Problem, right?

Chapter 2 of Stein’s book is called Come Right In: First Sentences, First Paragraphs. He begins:

“Elia Kazan, brilliant director of stage and screen as well as a late-blooming novelist, told me that audiences give a file seven minutes. If the viewer is not intrigued by character or incident within that time, the film and its viewer are at odds. The viewer came for an experience. The film is disappointing him.”

So between my love of film, my own late blooming writing life, and the general good advice of this opening itself, I think I’d better listen to Mr. Stein. (I guess I’m hooked by the chapter on how to hook readers. Hmmm.)

Stein goes on to say the ideal goals of the opening of a novel are:

1.      To excite the reader’s curiosity, preferably about a character or a relationship.

2.      To introduce a setting.

3.      To lend resonance to the story.

I also have the voice of a writer-friend whispering in my ear about this same opening. She is the first “test reader” to give me feedback on the story and her first piece of advice was to work on the opening. She suggested it needs to start more in the middle of the action, more “in” the story – which (brilliantly) fits with Stein’s advice.

Not exactly the hook I need, but
you get the idea.
My challenge today: Make my middle grade novel opening reach for those goals.

Who do I want to excite the reader to get to know? Stephen, the prince who prefers poetry to swords? Hector, the tricky cousin who has designs for the throne? Both of them are in the opening already with at least an attempt at giving clues to their lop-sided relationship. Who is missing? The heroine. Perhaps she comes into the story way too late. The question is: How can I move her into page one?

Setting? Castle. But where does the rest of the STORY take place really? Outside of the castle. In the forest, in a secluded tower prison. Various other places within the kingdom. Should I move my opening to one of these other places in the story? Even if the castle is the seat of the king and therefore represents the hero and heroine’s ultimate goal? Something to think about…

Finally – resonance. The story, ultimately, is about being true to who you are. Holding fast to your dreams and defending them when necessary. Having the courage to stand up and speak up – and take action in the face of the unknown. Is that what needs to resonate? Or is it, perhaps, the problem: Hector plotting to take over the throne? This might be the hardest of the Stein’s three goals to accomplish.

I’m off to fill up my coffee mug and try to wipe the opening “slate” clean. To try again. Wish me luck.

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