Also on the website are details about my appearance next week at the public library in Chelsea, Michigan. For this, click on News, and then on Appearances. Hope to see some of you in Michigan!
On February 17, 2011, Grace wrote, How long can one write without introducing the main problem of a story? In my newest project I have my main character in a new place with a lot of wacky characters I love to write about. They’ve had some small problems that keep the plot going thus far but I’m getting on 20k words now and I still haven’t introduced the main conflict that will guide the story and hopefully the rest of the planned series. Is this too long? Do you think the reader will get bored? I hesitate to rush the plot too much because then the characters would have to leave their current location and I really love where they are right now and all the characters there.
Many of you commented most helpfully on Grace’s question, and you can go back and read what everyone said. Some mentioned foreshadowing, and I have a future post coming up on that subject, so you can keep an eye out for it. I’m including Erin Edwards’s comment in the post, because it’s so helpful. Here it is:
@ Grace – Lots of really good published books seem to put off the main problem and they do a really good job of immersing the reader in the story world – but they aren’t necessarily ones who would easily get an agent or publisher in the current climate. Getting to the main problem quickly is kind of a trend right now, especially when agents and editors only read the first 10 pages! But really you shouldn’t worry too much about getting published as you write; a lot can happen in revising.
Things you can keep in mind:
– Keep writing. It may be that after you finish you can reorder your scenes and alter this scene you love into a middle scene.
– Go back over what you’ve written and see if you can drop hints about the main problem that’s to come. Build the anticipation.
– Or maybe, your main problem that you have in mind isn’t going to work and that’s why you’re avoiding it. As you keep exploring you may come up with a better main problem.
Writing is rule-free territory, so there’s no rule about how quickly the main story problem needs to start. Some books have no main story problem, or the main problem is soft-edged. Going back to Little Women, which we discussed two weeks ago, what’s the thrust of the story? Beth’s death? No. Jo’s love life? No. A family enduring poverty? I don’t think so. The girls don’t engage in a get-rich scheme to reclaim the family fortune or pack a bag and set off into the Civil War to find their father . We’re propelled through the story by our interest in the characters and the series of incidents Louisa May Alcott presents. The theme, I suppose, is growing up.
Time and Again by Jack Finney (middle school and up, I’d guess), a time-travel novel I love, doesn’t get moving for fifty pages, and the first fifty, in my opinion, are dull. I used to be a more forgiving reader than I am now, so I hung in. Then the story, once it got going, was impossible to put down. I read the book many years ago, so I don’t remember if those first fifty pages were essential, and I still recommend the book heartily. It’s charming and light-hearted and full of details about old New York City.
In a writing class I took over and over when I was getting started, our teacher would read a few students’ chapters out loud every week and then ask for comments. Often, when she read a first chapter, people said that we’d heard just “back story,” information that the writer needs to know but the reader doesn’t. The advice would be to keep writing and find the story’s real beginning later.
Grace, it sounds like you do have a strong story line in mind. What you’ve been writing may be back story, which you may need to cut later. Or maybe you’re writing a different book in the first 20,000 words. Maybe you want to split the two apart.
If you need to cut, remember the writing advice from William Faulkner to “kill all your darlings.” I think what he meant is that we protect our most gorgeous phrases, our most fascinating scenes. We write around them; we twist our plots so our beautiful lines can stay. After a while, they just get in the way and they have to go.
But they don’t have to vanish. I save my “darlings” for each of my books in a document I call “Extra.” I’ve eliminated more than a thousand pages in the course of writing my books, possibly over two thousand. Of course, most of those weren’t darlings, but some were. In my case, the darlings are usually scenes of exquisite character development, and it hurts to give them up, but I do, because writers have to be ruthless.
This is a prompt in the middle of the post: Become aware of your darlings. Go through a story you’re working on and underline the parts you would rather chop off your arm than cut. Save your old version, then delete those bits and see what happens to your story. Does it become cleaner? Is it better? Is it worse? If worse, put the parts back.
I’m a plot-driven writer. My stories don’t depend on the charm of the characters, although I hope some are charming. My books focus most of all on action. Alas, you might not be able to tell that from Beloved Elodie, which I’ve started yet again. The book begins on a boat. In the next-to-next-to-last version the action then moved to an inn, where I introduced the suspects but I held off on the mystery. Ho hum! said the reader. Why do I care about these people? Nothing is at stake.
To make matters worse, I had my characters journey together for pages and pages before they reached the place where the mystery was going to begin. Meanwhile, they revealed motives for committing the crime whenever we got to it. My critique buddy asked me, in the kindest possible way, what the heck I thought I was doing.
So I realized I could move all my suspects to the place where the mystery would start. Elodie could meet them when she arrived. Still, I kept the scene in the boat and then took her to the inn, where the problem was introduced in a theoretical way, and I didn’t get to the scene of the action until page 59. Double-ho-double-hum!
In this latest revision I’ve kept the scene on the boat, which is essential, and I begin the crisis there, on page 10. In revision I may trim even more, but the first nine pages are pretty exciting.
On the other hand, in A Tale of Two Castles, which you will soon be able to read (Yay!), the mystery takes even longer to get going, but it’s okay, because Elodie has a pressing problem at the beginning, and the reader cares about that. So it’s fine.
As usual, the key is reader interest. If the reader falls in love with your wacky characters, Grace, and is as happy to read about them spreading jam on toast as escaping from a burning building, all is well, and you can delay conflict as long as you like. However, it’s very hard to keep a reader engaged when there’s nothing to worry about. Also, conflict will bring out sides of these marvelous people that the reader wouldn’t see in a pleasant scene around the breakfast table. For example, Melba is having lunch with her friends in the school cafeteria. She’s the one who goes back for more ice or helps mop up spilled apple juice. But when a fire starts, she may behave unexpectedly, and the reader will see her in a new light.
Grace and anyone else with this question, you may want to show your story to a fellow writer or a good reader. Ask him if he longed for something to worry about. Have him tell you the spot where he began to feel frustrated and also to point out the places where the story picked up again, if it did.
Here’s another prompt: After school, Melba is going to discover that her house has vanished. She has no idea, however, that this is going to happen, and neither does the reader. Write a scene with Melba and her two best friends before she goes home. Let the reader get to know Melba a little. Try to keep up his interest without foreshadowing. Introduce minor problems, but hold off on the house disappearance. Feel when you think the reader is detaching, and stop before boredom sets in. Feel free to write more of the rest of the story after the disappearance.
Have fun, and save what you write!