Tag Archives: Beginnings

“If at first you don’t succeed…”

There’s a couple ways to end that saying. My favorite is “fry, fry a hen.” But, when it comes to writing, frying chicken isn’t nearly as useful as trying again, and that’s what editing is all about.

In my last post I went on and on about how I was going to go through my story and look at the dialogue to make sure my characters use authentic voices. Well, I didn’t get very far into my story, on account of being lazy and actually having time to spend with my husband this week. I got about a quarter of the way through my story though, and I think I can confidently say, all my people may sound the same, but they sure don’t sound stiff and fake (and believe me, after the book I just read [I feel obligated to state that I’m ahead in my book reviewing, so the book I’m referencing is not Steph Davis’ book, the review of which you’ll see on Friday], I’m quite keyed in to stiff dialogue).

What I did accomplish this week was yet another revision of my first chapter. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if the first chapter isn’t golden, no one will keep reading. Here’s what I started with:

“First, that scientific achievements and breakthroughs were the only thing worth pursuing. Every person, upon graduating high school, was expected to step into the professional world and begin working on something great. The rate of stepping depended on how smart the student was, but society dictated that anyone older than 27 who wasn’t doing something to make the world a better place wasn’t worth the time and effort. Such a person could only expect to do the manual labor the great minds thought were beneath them.”

Obviously, that wasn’t my whole beginning chapter, but the chapter was only one page long, so that was probably a third of it. And it sucked. So I made myself try to show instead of tell, and here’s what I ended with:

““You’ve got to be thinking now about what you’ll do with your life,” his father would tell him. “After high school, you’ve only got a few years before you reach 27, the age of expectation. But each year between 18 and 27 that you spend on anything other than your chosen focus is a waste. It will only hurt your chances of really making a big contribution.”

In third grade, Mason still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and his parents were getting anxious.

“If you don’t start now, you’ll end up doing manual labor with the rest of the lower class people who aren’t smart enough to do anything else,” his father said. “We aren’t raising you to do that kind of worthless work.”

A week later, when they found out Mason was playing with the janitor’s son at school, Mason realized it wasn’t just the work his parents thought was worthless, but the people as well.

“But he’s my friend, why can’t I play with him at school?”

“Some people are better than others, son. It’s important to know where you fit in the social hierarchy. Upward movement comes in small steps for most people. Some people never move up. And if you are friends with those people, you’ll only move down.”

“But, dad—”

“No, Mason. My word is final, you’re not to associate with that boy anymore. If I find out you’ve so much as made eye contact with him, I’ll give you a hiding you won’t forget.”

Mason grew up, struggled with school and graduated with average marks, to his parents’ chagrin. Ad year upon year passed after graduation, Mason’s relationship with his parents grew more and more strained. His parents, successful scientists in their own rights, were ashamed of him, anxious for him to prove himself or disappear—with neither option being necessarily preferable.

Yet as his 25 birthday came and went, Mason saw his future stretching before him in a bleak stroke. With little chance at a significant scientific job, Mason’s only hope was to find some menial task and hope the project leader would allow him to work the job as a career, letting Mason save face and avoid a lifelong career as a janitor or garbage man. Mason never fully bought in to the idea that janitors and garbage men were somehow lesser people, but he wasn’t chomping at the bit to join their ranks, either.”

It might seem obvious that showing is better than telling, and we all know that it is, but still we fall into the trap of getting words down on paper and dealing with the rest later. And some portions end up needing a lot more dealing with than others. I’m sure this won’t be the last time I rewrite my first chapter. I’m still not 100 percent sold on it. But I’ll keep trying until I get it right.

Also, I expect that soon I’ll have to hunt for someone to do some critiquing for me, and that will, hopefully, open the door to whole new levels of editing that I haven’t even noticed yet.

A new beginning (editing is going to take a while…)

The most important part of a story is the beginning. If the first sentence or paragraph doesn’t grad a reader’s attention, they will put it down and move on to the next book. For me, beginning is always one of the hardest parts. Whether it’s writing an essay, journalism article or a story, I can always feel the pressure to start well. Throughout college it served me pretty well to just write something and get the words flowing. If I wrote a good beginning, great. If not, usually by the time I finished whatever I was writing, the beginning was easier to write because I had the whole picture now.

With this story, it’s been more difficult. I’ve decided to work my way slowly through my story so that I can dedicate significant time an energy to problem areas. I probably should leave the beginning for the end, but I focused on it this week, and I feel like I’ve already made some improvements.

I’ve been challenging myself to think about the way other stories begin, both books I’m reading and even from my own writings. I’ve started a little journal, where I write how it begins, and then what kind of story that technique is good for. For example, some stories have one major event and the author weaves narrative strands around it, such as A Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Steadman. Though I’ve just started the book, I know how the writing is going to go. The story begins with the couple finding the baby (not a spoiler, you find out that much just from reading the back cover), and the rest of the book is telling the story. It’s jumped back in time and is telling the events leading up to finding the baby. And once we reach that point, it’ll shift gears and tell about life after the baby. Plenty of stories have this kind of plot set up, and the technique of giving the action scene, or a hint of it, then giving the background before dealing with the aftermath makes the story flow easily. But my book is not like that. Mason (I’ve finally named my character, hooray!) doesn’t encounter any one particularly pivotal moment that I can use as a teaser introduction.

Other beginning techniques include writing a prologue to set up a world or town, giving the history that explains what you need to know about where the character is. This, I think, is the one I use most often. I’m a fan of prologues. But, while I could do that for this story, the challenge with the prologue is that you need some kind of action to engage readers. You still need that pivotal event that sets the character up. And the history of my story is more broad than that. What I’ve decided to go with for the time being is a description of a scene that encompasses a major theme of the story; in this case, a description and encounter between Mason and his father that shows readers life in Vale is all about science, and a person’s value is inherently linked with how well they fit the expectations of society. As an example, I’ll show below the initial beginning I wrote for this story, and the new beginning I’ve been working on this week.

Dying didn’t seem nearly as dramatic as everyone made it out to be.

He had just turned 25, and the pressure he faced was unbelievable. He wasn’t just a late bloomer, his family had given up on him—no one believed he would prove to be an asset to society.

It was unbelievable either way—that other towns could exist, that Vale could be the only town. The town’s leaders were very strict, no one was allowed to explore beyond the town limits, curiosity and questions were no tolerated. Everyone clung to a religion of science. It was science that made them great, science was all that mattered. And science was his downfall.

Mason had never had an affinity for numbers, formulas, and the other complexities that went into the science, technology and engineering fields. He was much better at drawing—landscapes, people, animals, anything. But that wasn’t the kind of thing Vale valued. His drawings wouldn’t save or improve lives, they said, so by their very nature, they were worthless. Mason didn’t agree, but, dissent wasn’t valued either, so he did his best to swallow their context.

Life in Vale was all about society’s good…

Even I look at that and think I probably wouldn’t keep reading. The whole entire first chapter didn’t have any action or dialogue. Too much scene setting, explaining how the society functioned. It’s something I need to show, and maybe not all right off the bat. Here’s a bit of the new one in progress:

All his life, Mason knew science would be his downfall.

Every person in his hometown of Vale clung to a religion of science—it was science that made them great, science was all that mattered. Each child was raised from birth to believe scholastic achievement and worth were inherently connected.

But from a young age, Mason—and everyone else—knew he would never measure up to anything scientifically great. He was smart enough, but he couldn’t compete or compare with the waves of peers surrounding him that, in another place, would be hailed as geniuses and prodigies. Compared to them, Mason was worthless. And how he compared was all that mattered.

When he was about 13, he sketched his house and his sister Mel playing in the yard. He spent all day working on it, trying to get it just right.

“What have you been doing all day?” his father demanded when he returned from his day at work.

Mason proudly held up his drawing. “It’s our house, and Mel out front,” he said.

But instead of pride, excitement, or even interest, his father scoffed. “You’re well past the age of foolish past times, Mason. It’s time you put your mind to something worthwhile or you’ll never amount to anything.”

I’m not going to say it’s golden, but I think it’s far more likely to entice someone to commit to reading a few more chapters, so it’s a start. As always, the key to remember is show, not tell. After this bit that I’ve just shown, I fall back into the telling, telling how life in Vale works. I’ve still got a way to go on this, but, for the sake of anyone reading these blog posts, I’ll move on from the beginning this coming week so that you don’t have to read another post saying all this same stuff again.

Onward into the rest of the story!