Writing Good Intros: Don’t!

starwarscrawlThe most exposition any film ever needs- but this film was so well crafted that even if this crawl had been left out, you could’ve easily followed the plot.

Think of your favorite movie.  Play out the opening scene in your head.  You can see it now: there’s the protagonist, crossing the room to sit down on a chair in the center of the set.  She/He faces you, then spends the next forty minutes explaining who s/he is, what her/his world is like, who the other major characters are, what their lives have been like, and where they all currently stand.  Once that’s done,  s/he jumps up again.  “Great, now you’re up to speed.  Let the story begin!”

Wait a minute.  What the hell movie ever starts like this?  Screenwriters never do this- so why do novelists instinctively gravitate toward info-dumps in Chapter One?

Introductions are brutal pains in the ass.  Regardless of genre, fiction writers have to forge a balance between “Basil Exposition” (Austin Powers) and “Well, I guess the plot is none of our business” (Mystery Science Theater 3000).  It’s even worse for those who write in settings other than present-day Earth.  We fear throwing out too much technobabble too fast.  “Why don’t you reconst your flavo-fibes?!” (again, MST3K)

Many of us overcompensate.  Unlike a screenwriter, a book-writer has all the time and paper in the world- or so we imagine.  We must take time to explain the universe a little before throwing story at them.

It doesn’t work.  Every time I’ve tried this approach, it failed to impress the poor beta readers I foisted it upon.  Those names, locations, and past events mean nothing when presented as information disconnected from any actual story.  My beta readers had no context by which to start caring about it, so they didn’t.  It came off as a pile of self-indulgent crap I was making them slog through.  Many readers would flip several pages into my manuscript, to the point where characters appeared and were doing stuff, and would tell me, “Start here.”

In other words: having trouble writing an intro?  No problem!  Don’t write an intro.

darkandstormyNo.  Not unless you’re Madeline L’Engle.

A reader’s time is precious.  He’s got zillions of books to choose from, and here he’s selected yours.  Reward him with something that immediately reads like a story, not a lecture he’ll be quizzed on later.

Where should you start?  The conventional advice is “as close to the end as possible.”  I say that you should also introduce your main character(s) as quickly as possible, especially in a sci-fi/fantasy setting.  The audience needs someone who’ll help them navigate and understand this strange new world.  Going back to Star Wars: why didn’t the movie start with the Rebels stealing the plans?  That could’ve been a great action sequence, but it also would’ve pushed back the introduction to Luke Skywalker.  If we don’t meet him until an hour into the thing, can we really call him our hero?  This approach probably would’ve made Leia our main character- and once the switch to Tattooine occurred, we would’ve thought, Hey, where’d my space movie go?  Who the hell is this whiny jerk?

Once you have a good starting point, skip the exposition and launch right in, as if this were Chapter Five rather than Chapter One.  Let each sentence construct the universe in real-time.  If you have a lot of world-building to do, ease us in; don’t throw out too many unfamiliar terms at once.  Teach us about the characters through their words and actions, but don’t succumb to the temptation of having characters speak exposition to each other (“You know, Bob, now that I’m a level twelve conjurer, my home town of Tridiot is really proud of me!  Have you noticed how brown my eyes are?  I just adore cake.”).

A little mystery is good, valuable even.  If you don’t explain anything, that’s frustrating, but little questions-  Why’s he so angry?  Why’s this computer so important?  -are like burs that attach your story to your reader’s mind, motivating him to keep reading for answers.

Is this advice universal?  Nope.  Are there beloved classics that start with acres of backstory?  Absolutely, but most of them come from the pre-Internet days.  When deciding how to approach your intro, consider who your reader is.  Is he pulling your heavy leather-bound tome off his library shelf and curling up by the fire for a few hours of reading before bed?  Is he buying your ebook and skimming it in the fleeting moments life affords him?  Write however you like, but keep in mind what might compel your reader to stick with you or turn away.

Do you agree with my approach, disagree, or have further advice that could save writers’ hair from being violently ripped out at the roots?  Please feel free to share in the comments!

The Terror of Being Read

scaryread(Photo credit: David Niblack, Imagebase.net. Half-assed creepy filtering by me!)

My stomach knots up. My chest constricts. I’m stuck in a permanent cringe of humiliation, and can’t bear to be in the same room. I  seek distraction from a book or video game, but the horrid, I-could-just-die anxiety doesn’t go away until it’s over.

Am I on deck to give a big speech? Standing trial? No. My spouse is reading part of my manuscript for critique.

It’s ridiculous. The whole point of writing stories is for other people to read the shit you wrote. I’m 100% on board with this concept, until five minutes before someone performs the reading part. Then you have to pry the sample from my white knuckles.

There’s something intimate about fiction. Plot progression and characters take over your brain. In solitude, you refine and question and re-refine every detail until you can’t stand it anymore. You hope you have a winner on your hands, but part of you always fears that maybe, you’re just a no-talent fraud who’s wasted disgusting amounts of time. I’m not the delicate flower who needs everyone to kiss my butt and tell me how great the story is. I want constructive criticism. It’s just that the process of obtaining it feels like someone’s dragged out my lingerie drawer to go rifling through in public.

Granted, I’m a shy and introverted person.  I’ve also grappled with a weird assortment of anxiety issues my entire life. Is this another manifestation of those issues? Is it something that will ever go away?

What about The Daily WTF? you might ask. You’re published there once a month.

It’s not the same. First off, it’s not my story, one I’ve been developing for years. I’m relating a story submitted by a fan. The narrative structure and embellishment I add doesn’t change that. Second, my editor tweaks submissions to his liking before publishing, so I’m used to looking at the final product and seeing some words that aren’t mine. Finally, I know to be wary of audience reaction.  There are thousands who read the site and love it, and thank goodness for them, but you’d never know they existed if you went by the site’s comment section.  Happily, the fans who are active on the Google+ feed are a pleasure to interact with.

One thing’s for certain: sharing my fiction isn’t something I’ve done a lot of yet. It lies outside of my comfort zone, but that’s where all self-improvement comes from.  I hope repeated practice will make it less excruciating someday.

Do you feel this sort of anxiety when sharing your work?  Have any coping mechanisms?  Please comment and let me know!

Dear Inner Editor: Shut Up And Let Me Write!

Ellis_Editing(Now witness the full spectrum of Ellis’ Editing Pens of DOOM!)

I don’t know where my 24×7, hyper-critical inner editor came from, but I have some theories. I’m super self-critical with everything I do, for one.  For another, I like spelling and grammar.  Although I chose an academic path rife with proofs, derivatives, and computer programs, I always scored higher on verbal aptitude tests than math or science ones. Also, I grew up in a house where one parent wasn’t a native English speaker. To this day, I help my mom with unfamiliar words and phrases, and do line editing for her articles. Finally, I work in a field where clear and accurate written communication means the difference between happy users, and spending all night on the phone fixing a broken server because someone screwed up the preferences in their INI file.

My inner red pen has long ago lost its cap, and hovers constantly over my brain. There’s little occasion for me not to think carefully about every word, command, or instruction I type-

-except for that magical time when I need to stop analyzing, and start slamming out a first draft.

I never realized until recently how badly editing-in-place has crippled my progress with fiction writing. For years, I’ve been the type who needed hours to generate and massage a few new paragraphs. I thought that was just “how I work.” No- that’s not how first drafts should work for anybody. Think of a sculptor starting with a block of marble.  Does he sit down and immediately chisel out Venus de Milo?  Nope- he hacks out a rough outline, then narrows in more and more, refining and polishing one section at a time. So it is with writing.

I’m more aware of my bad habits, and better about ignoring the desire to fine-tune the first words I put down on paper. I start with stream-of-consciousness drafting, writing whatever comes to me. If that stream dries up and I find myself getting stuck, I throw down whatever ugly words I can, brace them in brackets and/or highlight them, and keep going.  When I return to edit, I’ll know this spot needs extra attention.

pick_word_later Screw you, that’s a word.

Pausing to deliberate every word destroys your productivity.  When you’re not making progress on a story, you’re more likely to get frustrated and give up on it.

Don’t get me wrong: you should be picky about the right words coming out of the right heads and mouths, but your first draft isn’t the time to figure this out.  You may think you know your characters and plot, but they can change on you over the course of drafting. When you go back and read from the beginning, you’ll probably find yourself saying, “WTF? He wouldn’t do/say that!”

Now, what if you had heavily polished every scene before moving on to the next?  Out of a desire not to squander the time invested, you risk clinging to dialogue that doesn’t fit your characters, and scenes that should be dragged out back and shot.  (I have never done this- ahem.)

Your first draft is your own private journal full of notes to self about how you ultimately want the story to go.  There’s no reason it can’t be silly or funny. Use whatever words are in your head that fit the general sentiment you want to refine later- even if that word is “shit,” and even if your character/narrator would never say “shit.”  Come to think of it, “shit” shows up a lot in my drafts.

scheisseThere’s really no other word that sums it all up so perfectly.

Only when your notes are done, and you know where the story ultimately leads, can you go back and ensure every scene, line, and character serves that purpose.

Do you have any tips for loosening up and silencing the inner editor who demands immediate perfection? Drop a comment and let’s discuss!

The Manuscript That Didn’t Kill Me

EllisMorningCover_rev043-CROPPED(Artwork by über-talented Chris Howard)

…but it was a near thing!

I’ve been talking nebulously about this novel I’ve been working on for years, but guess what?  I finally have a completed first draft.  It’s a thing!  You can read it straight through (sort of)!  It’s really rough in some places, but won’t be for long!

Time to introduce it to the world.  The book is called Blood’s Force, and will be the first of a series of books I’m calling Sword and Starship, because I’m all about bludgeoning you in the face with the concept.

It started as an innocent doodle I threw down at work in 2005 or so, about a knight and her squire who traversed the galaxy in a junker of a spaceship, looking for quests.  A few years later, I dusted it off to see if I could make a proper story out of it- and it exploded. The characters and plot have changed drastically. Four or five times, I had 75-90% of a first draft done, only to come up with a better idea and have to scrap everything.  I spent idiotic amounts of time editing before I was finished, only to lose several polished scenes.  At many points, I considered giving up. Something didn’t let me.

In the end, only the core conceit remains unchanged: a knight traveling by spaceship, seeking quests.  Here’s a more mature blurb:

Dame Jessamine is a knight errant with a spaceship for a steed, one of the few educated in the scientific and technological “magic” of the ancient past.  Her latest quest pits her against a strange phenomenon that threatens to cripple a prominent trade guild.  In a galaxy where superstition is law, she must protect two innocents and uncover the truth that will prevent the destruction of an entire planet.

My intention is to self-publish, but not until it’s as shiny as I can make it.  I’m super-excited to be working with Chris Howard and RJ Blain on cover art and developmental editing, respectively.  Above is a crop from the rough cover Chris has put together, which thrills me to no end.  This is actually happening.

For the next few months, I have two big tasks:

(1) Edit the hell out of the manuscript to my own best ability. RJ, I’m the type of person who hires a maid, then runs around frantically cleaning the night before s/he comes over.

(2) Put together a short story to introduce the universe and principal characters.  It’ll be a standalone prelude to events in Blood’s Force.  I’ll make it available for free in hopes that it attracts people to the series.

My timeline looks like this, but is subject to change:

February 2014 – Self-edit Blood’s Force, outline and draft the intro short story.

March/April 2014 – Slated to work with Chris on cover art (he’s gotten an early start, though).

June 2014 – Leave my full-time job. (Super-secret quit date, don’t tell anyone!)  I’ll be able to devote a lot more time to editing and writing.  If I finish my editing before September, I’ll start drafting the next Sword and Starship book.

[?] 2014 – Finish and distribute the short story.  I want to do it ahead of the book, but not so ahead that people lose interest during the intervening wait.

September 2014 – Developmental editing with RJ.

January 2015 – Done with editing?  No idea if this is a good estimate, but it’s what I’ll aim for.

[Sometime early 2015] – Compile and soft-release Blood’s Force for free to mailing list subscribers, and/or anyone interested in leaving an honest review on Amazon.

[Sometime early 2015++] – Hard release.  I’ll immediately start outlining/drafting the next Sword and Starship book, if I haven’t already.

I’ll post occasional updates here, and lessons learned, as this my first self-publishing experience. If you have advice or encouragement, by all means shout out in the comments.  However, I won’t be turning this blog into a wall-to-wall book countdown.  If you’d like more granular updates, and would like to be part of the soft release of Blood’s Force, sign up for my mailing list!