April 12, 2016

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Craft Talk: False Starts

Beginnings keep coming up when I’m discussing writing. It doesn’t matter whether the person I’m talking to writes poetry or prose. We all seem to create some kind of way-in to the story or poem, just like a ramp onto the highway, so we can build up speed and get on the route to wherever the piece is taking us.
Look out, writers, for the slow merge.
The problem is, the on-ramp that worked for us, as authors, now feels clumsy or tacked on. It’s hard to see that in your own writing. I had a poem I was struggling with. I knew it was a good piece, but every time I sent it out, it got a rejection. After a year (a *year!*), I realized first stanza was an on-ramp. The lines made sense to me as I was finding a way into the poem. They were an accurate record of my line of thought, but the poem itself was better without them.

Here is my dear friend, historical fantasy author Jennifer Della’Zanna, talking about false starts and on-ramps. Jen is an MFA candidate at Seton Hill University’s popular fiction program.

Writer Jennifer Della'Zanna.
False Starts

Thank you for having me over here at Author Amok, Laura! I’m a big fan, as you know.

One of my favorite posts of yours talked about beginnings of poems, and how sometimes we use those beginnings to get into what you really wanted to write about—kind of like an on-ramp to the actual poem. I thought it was funny, because the same thing happens when writing a novel, although sometimes that on-ramp can last for a chapter or two, adding up to 20 or 30 pages. That’s a long on-ramp!

I wanted to share with you my own experience with this problem. My first novel is my thesis for my Master of Fine Arts degree in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University, and it had to gain my two mentors’ approval in order for me to graduate.

I was in love with my opening chapter for the longest time. It started in medias res, as we all know these things should. Lots happened—birth of a baby, attempted kidnapping, magic that the main character didn’t know she had. As I wrote, and as more people provided feedback, many readers were confused about the events. My novel is a historical fantasy set in ancient Egypt, so the setting was foreign to most readers. I decided I needed a little bit of a build-up, so I wrote one. I started the story a little before the action—really only a few hours in the time of my story! I took the time to describe the setting and the “normal life” of my character. The only problem was, my mentors now thought it moved too slowly.

So I thought it was time to defend my choices. My story follows the “hero’s journey.”
Jen's "Battle Plan" for her book hero's journey.

In this type of story, it’s important to set up the world of the common day, make the reader identify with the hero and be drawn into the world and the story before fantastic events start to happen. I thought this supported my new chapter; however, I decided it did need more tension. I set up conflicts between the main character and her mother, the main character and other priestesses, and the priestesses and the main character’s mother. There were lots of conflicting feelings going on, and I rubbed my hands in anticipation of success.
Writing a novel can be like doing construction work.
Alas, both mentors still thought the opening was too slow. I was at a loss as to what to do next. Then, a friend confided that he’d submitted his work to a contest and didn’t win. The contest was to send the first 250 words, and the winners would get to send their first three chapters to an agent. His first 250 words didn’t make the cut, and I felt bad because I had critiqued his novel through several rewrites, and I thought it was strong. I suggested that he send me just the first 250 words again, without anything else.

How revealing! His first 250 words were not compelling. I couldn’t believe they were the same words I’d read many, many times.

So, I tried the same thing with my own work, and I got the same result! Standing on their own, my first 250 words don’t work quite as well as I thought they would. Result? It’s time to perform some major surgery on my first chapter. My on-ramp is too long, and it needs to be chopped off. Now, I just have to figure out where to cut it!

From this experience, I think we can agree that any kind of writing—poems, novels, newspaper articles, and research papers—can all benefit from a look or three at where we begin, and, most importantly, what that says about where we end.

Thanks again for letting me stop by your blog, Laura. I had a great time, and I look forward to hearing what your readers have to say about their own experiences with beginnings in their own work.

Thanks for guest blogging, Jen! Congratulations on your upcoming graduation and good luck with the book.

Writers: I think Jen gives great advice here. Take the beginning of your piece – the first stanza, chapter, or 250 words – and put it on a page by itself. Ask someone to read it, or put it away for awhile before you look at it. Is this a piece of good, intriguing writing on its own? If not, it’s probably time to lose your on-ramp.

Jennifer Della’Zanna was very happy making a living as a freelance writer for several years before a story invaded her head and wouldn’t leave her alone. She found National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in 2006 and thought she’d get the story out of her system. She did, but then another story occurred to her, and another, and another. A couple years ago, she sat her family down and broke the news that she wanted to go back to school to study fiction. She now writes historical fantasy set in ancient worlds, with a strong emphasis on mythology. Although her family remembers fondly the days when she used to cook and do laundry, they have been extremely supportive anyway, and she will graduate from Seton Hill in January with a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Writing Popular Fiction. Chaos Rules, a historical fantasy set in ancient Egypt is Jennifer’s first book. She and her family live in Columbia, Maryland.
Seton Hill University is located in Pennsylvania.


John Dixon said...

Great post, Jen.

For most of us, rough drafts are just that -- rough -- and we have to let them roll out how they will, trusting they'll trigger the "real" story as quickly as possible. When we go back and rewrite, though, I think we're best off following Vonnegut's advice: Start as close tot he ending as possible. I also like Steve Berry's, "Shorter is always better." No place is this trimming away of the extraneous more crucial than the opening pages, or hook, of the story.

All this to say I agree with you! And that circles back to my opening line... great post.

Anita said...

Jen: It's a treat to see you in a different setting...great post. Can't wait to read your finished product!

Prisakiss said...

Great advice from both Jen and John! I have to admit I'm guilty of long-winded opening chapters. Knowing how much info is needed and what can be left out to entice the reader to read more is a beautiful skill-- one I'm still perfecting.

Thanks for sharing your insight and experience, Jen. And best of luck wtih your writing!

JenniferDZ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JenniferDZ said...

John, Anita and Priscilla, you have all been an inspiration to me in so many different ways. I'm glad to know this post has been approved by such wonderful writers! :-)

Heidi Ruby Miller said...

I have thrown out dozens of beginnings, including ones that weren't half bad--guess that's the way of writing.

Thanks for sharing, Jennifer!

:) Heidi

Author Amok said...

Thanks for the feedback, everyone. It's good to know that we're all -- poets and prosists -- in this together. The tough part is recognizing which aspects of our writing are rough, place-holders we needed during the process but that don't add anything for the reader.

JenniferDZ said...

Thanks for stopping by, Heidi! And thanks again for having me, Laura. I had a great time being a blogger for a day.


Liz Steinglass said...

Yes. Definitely. I had a writing teacher long ago tell me that pretty much every first line should go.