Burrowing Into the Blur

Before I start, the countdown is on to the release of A Ceiling Made of Eggshells, on May 12th, six days away!

On December 5, 2019, Kit Kat Kitty wrote: How do you write past the beginning? The farthest I’ve ever gotten in a novel was 15707 words. (Yes, I failed NaNoWriMo. After a little I hated my story so much, I had a hard time looking at it.) Once I’m done with the beginning, I tend to get stuck. Every time I think about it, I can only imagine the climax/falling action/ending. Everything between the Inciting Incident and climax is a blurry haze of no ideas and wanting to slam my head against a wall.

A few of you weighed in.

Writing Ballerina: There’s no rule that says a book has to be written chronologically. Write whatever part excites you. Then you can go back later. Writing the climax and ending might actually make it easier for you to know where you’re going. It also might help for you to plan that part you get stuck very in depth so you always have a place to go. And if you’re having a really slow day, you can throw in some silly things like sea monsters nibbling apples, or a random cat into your scene to get things moving. I did this a couple times during Nano.

Kit Kat Kitty: This is really helpful! (I love cats, and when I was younger they were in my stories all the time.) But I think my big problem is I’m not really sure what’s supposed to go in the “rising action” place. (I don’t know what else to call it, I’m going based off of what my English class has taught me.) I think if I could figure out how to write something interesting that moves the plot forward without being so crazy and over the top it doesn’t make sense.

Writing Ballerina says: Plot is driven by tension more than action, so focus on events that will build the tension of the story. I really recommend the book Story Trumps Structure by Steven James. He has lots of great tips on how to build tension, write plot twists, and a bunch of other stuff. You can probably get the book on your library, or even google excerpts.

Melissa Mead: I learned by writing short stories first. They give me experience with writing stories all the way through.

future_famous_author: You could skip the beginning, or you could just keep exciting things happening the whole time to keep you–and the reader–excited. My current WIP is about a princess, and she is eventually going to get captured, but I have to wait until I have about twice as many words as I have now to get to that part. So, while I wait, I try to keep the tension high. And, when there is a boring conversation, I try to throw in important information, or maybe even foreshadowing, so that it isn’t boring. Just because you haven’t reached the climax does not mean that there can’t be problems. My MC’s biggest problem will end up being that she gets kidnapped, but for now, there’s an awkward love triangle going on, and so she has to deal with that.

These are terrific!

Before sheltering in place and after, I hope, I work out with a trainer named Tony, which makes me a very strong old lady. When I tell Tony something like, “I’m worried I’ll drop this fifty-three pound kettlebell on my toe,” he always answers in all caps, “DON’T DROP THE KETTLEBELL ON YOUR TOE.” So, with Tony in mind, I say to Kit Kat Kitty, “DON’T SLAM YOUR HEAD AGAINST A WALL.” !!!

Writing Ballerina’s first comment–about writing out of order and writing scenes that excite us–is along the lines of what I said in the most recent post. Likewise, my ideas about being stuck, so Kit Kat Kitty and others may be helped by rereading that.

Before we progress beyond our beginning, let’s talk about beginnings themselves and take a look at one of the most famous first lines ever, by Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice: It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. What does this beginning do, in addition to making us smile?

Well, even though it’s lighthearted and ironic, it lets the reader know that the book is going to tackle something big–love and matrimony. There will be the two sweethearts and all the circumstances that separate them, which will have to involve other characters, probably friends and family, and a milieu in which they move.

Here is a sampling of first lines I found in a Google search. I’ve read all but the book by Anne Tyler (but I’ve read others by her), and they’re all, except, I think, for The Red Badge of Courage, best for high school and up.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person. —Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. —F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. —Gunter Grass, The Tin Drum

The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. —Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. —George Orwell, 1984

(An aside about copyright: Most of these books aren’t in the public domain, but quoting such a small bit is okay, covered by something called the Fair Use doctrine.)

I want to be clear here: I don’t mean we should agonize over our first sentence. A big deal is often made about the need to have a knockout first sentence or first page for queries or agents. I hope that’s not true, and I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about how to think about our beginnings so that they set us up to move into the rest of our story.

Each of these first sentences suggests big things to come, maybe thorny problems or complex worlds or complicated characters, or all of the above. We can look at the beginning we have, that we’re feeling hopeless about, and ask what we’ve suggested in it. We know the end, but what else did we put in the beginning that we can use, that hasn’t occurred to us before? We can write notes, ask questions, make lists. Who are the characters? What can we do with them in the course of our story? How can we use the world we’ve hinted at? What do we have that will make our ending richer when we get there?

I’m with future_famous_author on developing exciting scenes to get us from dot to dot along our storyline. We can ask, What will be very hard for our MC? Is there a hint of this in our beginning? (If not, we can add.) Who will put her in this tough situation? How can we bring it about? Will she learn something, or fail to learn?

I like the rule of three, which I’ve talked about here. It’s used repeatedly in fairy tales. The evil stepmother in “Snow White” tries three times to do in Snow White and seems to succeed only on the third attempt. Cinderella goes to three balls. The wolf blows down two houses before he comes to the third, the brick house. We can consider how we can bring three tries at something into our story.

Each try can be fleshed out. At each of Prince Charming’s balls, events happen; characters behave characteristically; feelings may be hurt; unforgettable things may be said. What’s wrapped up in each ball can fuel the rest of our story. The evil queen may spend days figuring out her next ploy, while Snow White compulsively replays the last one in her mind, and the dwarfs whisper among themselves about how best to protect her.

Since I find plotting so hard, I like to have something external I can follow, one reason I use fairy tales, which provide steps to get me where I need eventually to go. I elaborate on the steps and turn each one into dozens of pages or more. Right now, I’m writing a version of the Trojan War. I start with the moment when Apollo gives Cassandra the gift of prophecy but curses the gift so that no one believes her. The story runs through the incidents that lead to war, the war itself, and ends soon after the Trojan horse deception. Those steps are laid out in Greek mythology, so my job is to drape my own, new story over them. This is another strategy for finding our way from our dynamite beginning to our great ending.

Here are three prompts:

• Take one of the famous beginnings above, preferably from a book you haven’t read, and use it as a starter for your own story. You can copy it right into your first draft and then insert something else or cut it when you revise. Or–you’d need to check on this–you can keep it and acknowledge the source in a note or an Afterword. Think about the problems the beginning hints at. Write notes and lists about how you can use them. Imagine an ending and write your story.

• Look at headlines in a newspaper, in print or online. Do not read the articles that follow, at least not yet. Pick one and make it the beginning of your story. Think about the issues it raises and the characters you’ll need. Imagine an ending. Jot down three or more events that will get you to the end. Write the story.

• Imagine the three little pigs are three human sisters orphaned in a kingdom after their parents, the duke and duchess of Mewks, have died. These young women are rich and they don’t get along, so they each set up a separate establishment. But they’re all threatened (you decide how) by the evil Baron Spythe. Write a story about the choices they make and how they all come together in the end to defeat the mustache-twirling Spythe. (You don’t have to give him a mustache!)

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. You’re not alone Kit Kat Kitty! I’ve discovered that I have a pattern of writing about three chapters, giving up for a while, then coming back and writing about ten more chapters, then giving up again, so on and so on. One thing I do is that I have a folder on my computer called “Spoiler Alert” where I keep random scenes I come up with for later in the story.

  2. I love the three little piggies idea.

    Question for everyone: If you were reading a book with two POVs, a girl and a guy of comparible age, would you expect them to become a couple? The genre is fantasy.

    • Unless they were related, already interested in other people, younger than about ten, or vast distances apart, yes. On the other hand, I like to be surprised. Do what you feel like is best for your story.

    • I would expect them to, but I would also be happy if they weren’t, because I get tired of having every story I read be a romance. I think the comment thread about romance vs. friendship a couple posts back made some good points about this.

    • If it’s a MG book? Maybe. In that case, though, unless it’s really upper MG (bordering on YA, like the later Percy Jackson and Harry Potter books), I wouldn’t expect there to be a lot of romance, even if they do end up together. More like subtle crushes or really strong friendships that develop into something more, not “you’re the love of my life and I will spend the rest of my life with you” type of romance found in some YA books.

      If it’s YA? Yes, almost certainly. Not so much because I personally need to have romance in all of my books (honestly I’d love to see more strong, platonic friendships in YA), but because 99% of YA books have some kind of romantic relationship between the main characters, and it’s pretty much a genre convention at this point. I can think of one book that subverts this–THIS SAVAGE SONG by Victoria Schwab, which is also a Fantasy featuring dual male/female POVS who go on an adventure together but end up as close friends, not lovers–but that’s an exception among the norm.

      That being said though, you don’t have to purposefully follow OR deliberately subvert genre conventions by any means. Romance is great when it’s well written, but platonic male/female friendships are also something I’d love to see more of.

      • Gail Carson Levine says:

        I’ve added your question to the list–it seems to go to how we create and handle readers’ expectations.

      • This one is supposed to be adult. There are definitely romance subplots, but they each have one with someone else, not each other. They’ve mentioned that they might be related, but I haven’t decided if they are half-siblings, or if they aren’t, or if I just leave it a mystery and no one ever knows for sure.

    • Me and my friend are actually going to do this and each write a P.O.V! They definitely won’t be interested in each other. They are around the age of 14 and 15 I think(haven’t started writing it quite yet. Quarantine got in the way of getting together).

      If I were reading the book, I think I would still have them just be close friends. If you’re talking adult characters then I would probably expect a closer bond.

    • I like when it there is a romance added in. But I wouldn’t really like it if they were like 12 or younger. That’s just a kid and they don’t need to be worried about romance at that age

  3. NerdyNiña says:

    I just want to say thank you to you all. This is such a great community. I always feel so inspired after reading the post and everyone’s comments. One of my WIPs was giving me trouble, so I put it on the back burner. The last post inspired me to pick it up again. I had asked for help last fall, and Katie W suggested something that I just now realized would help a lot. There’s still a lot to be cleared up, but I’m getting there. So thank you all.

  4. Not directly writing-related, but I notice a lot of people here seem to be writing medieval-type settings, so I thought I’d share some of the neat stuff I’ve been learning in case anyone’s writing a Royal Feast.

    My mom + dad gave me a book on French + Italian medieval cooking for Christmas. (The book says that a lot of it applies to England, too.) I already knew some things (Ex, no corn, potatoes, tomatoes, or chocolate, because those are New World foods), but I’m learning some new things too. Ex:

    Green beans are New World foods too!
    OTOH, they not only had almond milk; they used it a lot. And they used ground almonds to thicken things.
    Sauces were a big deal.
    I’d always pictured Royal Feasts as involving giant hunks of roast beef, and the local “Medieval/Rennfair” advertises “enormous turkey legs and mile-high cakes!” but turkeys are a new-world bird, and beef was considered “coarse” food, for people who did heavy labor. People with “refined digestions” ate mostly poultry and fish. Eels were a favorite.
    People also ate whale meat.
    Sweet and sour dishes made with sweet fruit, meat, and sour liquids like vinegar or verjuice (the juice of unripe grapes) were popular.
    The only oranges available were sour ones.
    Dessert, as a separate sweet course, didn’t really exist. Sweet + savory got mixed together much more than they do now.
    People chewed candied whole spices both before and after the meal to help digestion.

    I need to rethink my feasts! 🙂

  5. Gail, to answer your question from the video this morning, I wouldn’t mind if you switched to a less eerily topical book. It looked like somebody requested Fairest. That would be good too.

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I didn’t get many responses, but except for yours (and my worry) everyone wanted me to keep going. They said that TWO PRINCESSES is helping them and their children process. I’m thinking of mixing things up. Please give me your opinion of this: I’ll alternate a chapter from TWO PRINCESSES with a chapter from WRITING MAGIC, so there aren’t two story lines going at the same time. People (however many there are) can then pick what they tune in to.

      • I’m ok with either. I just picked 2 Princesses because my boxed set with that, Ella, and Fairest is over my desk at work, so those are the 3 I can’t just go read whenever I want to.

        Alternating is an interesting idea. Could be fun!

  6. I’m a rambling pantster, so my first drafts are always too long. But when I edit them, I keep hearing that they feel like an excerpt or certain things don’t make sense, while some parts of the story aren’t really necessary. Any advice on how to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary details/scenes?

    • Ask yourself if the scene contributes to the story in any way. Do you get to know the character? If so, could the readers go without that particular scene? Does it add to the plot? If it still feels that way after you go through the draft, let it sit for awhile. A couple months, maybe. Enough that when you go back, you’re no longer extremely attached to everything and anything. Fill in the gaps in your second draft. Remember, the first draft is never perfect.

    • I’m very similar to you (except that I’m a hardcore plotter) in terms of struggling with conciseness, and here are some lessons I’ve learned after spending A LOT of time working on improving in regards to that issue.

      1. Write things down. This helps with both organization (having a list of scenes that you can reference, rather than trying to recall a complete synopsis of your book from memory is SO helpful) and with accountability. Having to justify to yourself, in writing, why exactly you need a particular scene makes it much harder to “cheat” when you don’t want to kill your darlings.

      2. For EVERY scene, write down what is the purpose of the scene and why it needs to be in the book. I’ve heard a lot of writing advice say that every scene should either reveal/develop character (for simplicity, I like to think of worldbuilding as this category since good worldbuilding means that your world is as developed as any of your characters) or move the plot forward, and while I think that most of your scenes will probably fall into those two categories, I also think that limiting it to those two categories only is a bit too narrow. Instead, I like to think of it this way: every scene must serve a specific, unique, and meaningful purpose. Specific means that instead of “this scene reveals character”, you write something like (to use an example from my own work) “this scene where Kat sneaks out of school shows that Kat has a rebellious streak despite and she’s clever and able to think on her feet”. Specific means that it’s the ONLY scene that reveals that particular character trait; once you write down the purposes of each scene, you’ll be surprised at how many redundancies there are. For more important character traits it’s okay to have a few scenes that show/develop the same traits, but they should do it in different ways. Meaningful means that the scene should have a significant impact on the reader’s investment in the character or the story. It generally doesn’t really matter if your character hates peppermint. It DOES matter if her aversion to peppermint is what keeps her from eating a poisoned candy cane from the villain (meaningful to the plot) or her hatred of peppermint stems from hating Christmas in general because her parents are always too busy to be together as a family during the holidays and she’s grown disillusioned from her loneliness (meaningful to character development).

      Ideally, each scene should both reveal character AND advance the plot, since the best stories are when the plot and characters are inextricably entwined.

      2.5 If you can, consolidate scenes. If you can accomplish two things (show two different character traits, show character AND advance the plot, etc.) with one scene, do it. Sometimes this means literally mashing two scenes together or implanting elements from one into the other. Sometimes this means writing a completely new scene that accomplishes the same goals with fewer words.

      3. Recognize patterns in your writing. What do you tend to overwrite (or underwrite)? As a note, I’ve noticed that the things I tend to overwrite tend to be the things I’m *best* at writing, which in my case is humor and voice. I love writing humor, I’m pretty decent at it (at least compared to other things, like action or worldbuilding), which means I sometimes tend to go overboard. Recognizing that, and coming to terms with the fact that I can kill some of my darlings and there would still be plenty left, helped change my mindset.

      4. Listen to your critique partners, which it seems like you’re already doing, so good job! Often they can see things we can’t, and will say things that we aren’t willing to admit to ourselves.

      5. When in doubt, cut. Save a draft of your original, and then go through your manuscript to cut everything, from words to lines to scenes that you even have an INKLING of a feeling of “this might not be necessary”. Promise yourself that if you change your mind, you can add it back in the next draft. Do not add stuff back in until you’re COMPLETELY done with this draft. Trust me, if it really needs to be in the story, you’ll remember it throughout the whole process and you’ll never be at peace until you add it back in at the end. But 9 times out of 10, you’ll barely even notice it’s gone, in which case it wasn’t really necessary. This mindset helped me cut a 180k manuscript down to 79k while keeping almost all of the general story arc, and I honestly don’t even remember what the first draft looked like anymore.

      6. This one might be hard to hear, but recognize that your favorite scenes and what your readers want to read might be different. I had a scene where my main character sorts through a lot of feelings (think edgy musical soliloquy song) that was great character development, and meant a lot to me personally because it was inspired by my own experiences. But since that scene came pretty early on in the book, I had to honestly ask myself, “if I’m promising readers a fun fantasy adventure romp about an unchosen one who decides to be the Evil Overlord instead, are they going to want to get to the fun, Evil Overlord part as quickly as possible or watch my main character mope around in a park for 3,000 words?” The answer was clear, and I shortened the scene significantly to hit on the main character development points without getting too wrapped up in indulging my own feelings.

      I don’t know if you’re trying to hit a specific word count goal like I was or if you just want to tighten your story in general, but I think a good mindset to keep is: a) opportunity cost – if you have a fixed word count limit, every word you spend on one place is a word you can’t spend somewhere else. Always ask yourself if it’s worth it. And b) cut first, ask questions later – you can always add it back if you change your mind, but if you’re too afraid to start cutting, you’ll never get anything done.

      Whew, this was long, but writing concisely is something I’ve worked really hard to improve on throughout the past year. I have some other, more specific tips, but I hope these general tips help!

  7. Kit Kat Kitty says:

    Thank you so much for answering my question! (Sorry for being so late…) It’s really helpful, and I’ll definitely come back to it every time I need help with plots. For now, I’m just trying to convince myself to start writing the story I’ve been thinking about for the past few months. Has that ever happened to any of you? You know enough to write a story, but still refuse to start for whatever reason?
    I know this is totally random, but I just wanted to check in with everyone.

    • If you don’t want to write it, don’t write it! I am a firm believer in only writing when inspired to write. Instead, look at the reasons you’re trying to get yourself to write. Is it because you’re afraid of losing details you might not remember? What I do is I have a folder on Google Docs labeled “Book Ideas.” Here I will write whatever I want about whatever story I want to write about. I will usually write a synopsis of the book itself (from one paragraph to four pages) and then if I have something I absolutely love, I will put it under the heading “SCENE IDEA” below the synopsis. That way I know that it isn’t completely crucial to the plot but I love it all the same and it’s definitely going in. It helps me to not feel guilty about not writing.

  8. Writeforfun says:

    Hey, thanks Melissa Meade for sharing that interesting information about medieval food and Raina for some really helpful advice, as I struggle SO hard with being concise and you made some great points!

    Also Gail, I just realized a Ceiling Made of Eggshells is out now! Yay, I need to get me a copy!

    Quick question – can anyone offer any advice on writing a prejudiced, superior snob while still making him entertaining to read? One of my main characters starts this way (his parents are villains), though he does end up reforming. I think I like the way I ended up writing his transition to good – I had him start making individual “exceptions” to his notions of superiority while slowly beginning to understand things in a new light. However, at the beginning he is a big, stupid bore, and all of his dialogue sounds forced because I just can’t think that way! I suppose it’s alright for him to be a little bit of a bore, but I would prefer it if he were a tiny bit interesting at least, if not likable. I tried to think of entertaining villains who are fun to read but also have horrible views of the world, but I’m drawing a blank. I just can’t figure this out!

    • You’re welcome!

      Maybe the things he says are so ludicrously wrong they’re funny? Maybe he thinks everyone’s in awe of him, while they’re actually laughing at him?

      “Food at last!” Joe held up a loaf of bread. “There’s butter, even!”
      Nigel read the package, and sneered. “‘Peasant bread?'” I wouldn’t DREAM of eating “peasant bread!”
      “Suit yourself.” Joe slathered butter over a slice while Nigel watched with barely suppressed longing.
      “Oh,” said Joe, “and this is peasant butter. You wouldn’t like it either.”

    • Winter’s Turning, book 7 of the Wings of Fire series, (middle school and up) is an excellent example of having an arrogant character reform (although he’s not a villain, just annoying). You need to read book 6, Moon Rising, to understand what’s going on, but you can get away with not reading the first five books until later. (At least, I could.)

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I wonder if you might have your villain use similes, like, So-and-so is like a ladder. He lets anyone climb all over him. So-and-so is as stupid as a book that doesn’t know what any of its words mean. You might have fun with that.

  9. A Quiet Reader says:

    I’ve had a similar problem–I put the beginning and the exciting scenes from one of my stories onto paper for the first time, only to find that I had no idea what to put for the “in-between” scenes that get us from point A to B. I can summarize what each scene is supposed to have/do for the overall plot, but individual dialogue and character actions escape me. I did get a lot of character details hammered out while trying to decide what they would say/do though!

    I also jumped around to a few of my other stories to get the creative juices flowing. Which brings me to my question: Does anyone have advice for writing disabled characters? While writing down the character motives/backstory for one of my stories, I realized that one of them might be considered offensive. “Millie” was injured in an accident years ago, and is mute at the beginning of the story. She hates the patronizing way people in her hometown treat her because she can’t talk, so she goes on a quest to magically restore her voice. I think it’s reasonable for her to want that, but I’m worried that readers will think I’m saying Millie needs to be “fixed.” What do you all think, am I worried about nothing or do I need to do some rewriting?

    • I’m glad you’re asking about this! My disability’s different (I have Cerebral Palsy), but I’ll try to give you some helpful input:

      Don’t set out to write “a disabled character.” Write about Millie, and all the things that make her, her- especially the ones that don’t have to do with her voice.

      It sounds like what she wants isn’t necessarily a voice, but to be respected. so her quest doesn’t have to be to “get a voice,” necessarily, just to do something to win people’s respect.
      (BTW, I noticed that you said “restore her voice.” Was she able to talk before? How she lost her voice could have an impact on her as a character.)

      Please don’t make getting a voice/being made “normal” a reward for virtue. That’s a cliche that lots of people find painful.

      Please do make her just as much of an individual as your other characters.

      I hope that’s helpful. Of you come up with specific questions that I might be able to answer, feel free to ask.

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