This weekend, I had my guts ripped out and joyfully tossed around. This is the nature of a writers’ workshop, I suppose–but see, I’ve attended many of them (and many good ones), but never any so violent as Miscon 27’s writers’ workshop. It was glorious.
I submitted the first sixteen pages of my novel The Dream Tree. It was masticated by three professionals.* Here’s what I learned:
1. Take torture with your mouth shut.
Believe it or not, I already knew this, and followed it well. And yes, this advice should be obvious, but I’m putting it up front for the fools that think arguing is a good idea. So:
If someone has something bad to say about your piece, listen. They aren’t being mean, they’re being honest.
If they say something nice, say thank you and move on. Hearing you’re awesome isn’t really helpful.
If your critique makes you angry, take note. Anger means you’re hearing the truth (that something’s gone terribly wrong with your book), but just don’t want to believe it or do anything about it. Don’t be lazy. Chew up your fury, use it for fuel, make your writing better.
2. Begin your story at its heart.
Don’t do what I did. Don’t start your book with a pair of characters that die within the first ten pages. Begin with your central characters. I have three of them, but two out of those three don’t even show up for another fifty pages. This is bad, but not because you can’t ease an important character into the text a few chapters in. If your novel’s a long one, rearing a central character’s head fifty pages in is fine–might even be good for pacing.
But what I did was terrible and distracting. I spent my opening scenes–the first ones the reader encounters–obsessing over two soon-to-be-dead girls who are important, but not to the story.**
So here’s my solution: begin with open-heart surgery. An event, or a meeting, colored by the blood of your story. I’ve decided to re-begin my story at the moment my main characters cross paths for the first time: Kelli’s running for his life and searching for the bodies of the two girls he thinks he killed, Jiichi is waiting for her alien-ancestors to arrive, and Darius is just trying his best to flee from his past.
Not only does a beginning like this introduce the people the story’s all about, but it brings in much of the main conflict. As I said, the heart. Bloody, throbbing and core.
But sometimes great sacrifice is needed to reach such a necessary organ. So….
3. Be prepared to amputate large chunks of your manuscript.
And by amputate, I mean trash.
Funny story: I actually figured out the problem with my novel (well, one of its problems) the day before I had it workshopped. All of Miscon’s struggling writers were gathered with the pros, to listen to their introductions. Peter Wacks, one of the authors that workshopped my sample, introduced himself with a story. It was short, powerful and went something (almost) like this:
I had to chop forty pages from my book before I found the beginning.
The moment he said that, I knew that I to do the same: saw off the head and shoulders of my novel and expose its heart.
Now that the first forty, fifty pages are gone, I have a lot of plot-tightening and story-concentrating to do. Which is frustrating, of course–to be back at the beginning. Editing. Again. But it’s different this time–I’m aiming for emotional turmoil and the beginning of character growth to snare the reader, instead of shock and action. Which leads me to my next bit of pseudo-advice…
4. Never start a story with action.
Actually, this probably isn’t true. NEVER is an absolute and absolutes tend to be boring and lacking resonance. But I bring this up because there’s some truth to it–sure, action is exciting to read in a story, but it’s not the action itself that’s important. It’s what the action does to your characters that’s important. Basically, how it fucks them up. Characters without problems aren’t really human–I’ve yet to meet anyone without difficulty and tension in their lives. Their problems might be trivial first world mewling, but in their mind? Life’s miserable.
So avoid beginning with action–instead, begin the moment after. With a revelation. A reaction. Begin in the moments between action–action’s just occurred, is about to occur, but hasn’t just quite yet. In this way, there’s still forward motion to your first scene, but it’s primarily about the character–and not the character doing (because doing often overrides character). And ultimately, I read books because I want to read about people. Not sparkles and explosions.
Also, opening with action doesn’t sell well.*** Maybe this seems like a petty, hungry reason for beginning your book a certain way–but I’m a hungry writer. And maybe a little petty, too.
5. Don’t let voice warp your prose.
I’ll elaborate: one of my main characters, Kelli, comes from a society of realists. He’s bitter, foul-mouthed, and doesn’t talk much. My book’s written in third person limited, so I really want my prose to reflect my character’s voice. To do this, Kelli’s POVs are written in terse sentences. For the most part, this works–I still keep them varied, the rhythm smooth, but not predictable. But I went too far. Too few pronouns, too many abrupt sentences–all of which make for great tools, but not great style. So in this newest pass of editing, I’ll be writing more robustly. I’m confident Kelli’s cutting voice will remain intact–but because of word choice (Anglo Saxon diction is great) and carefully chosen sentence structure–not sentence-starvation.
6. Don’t be confusing.
I have this problem with not letting the reader know what the hel’s going on. I’ve no trouble immersing them in lovely, visceral sensory detail, but I’m less than stellar when it comes explaining what’s what. You aren’t going to give a shiit about any of my pretty darkness if the story and backstory aren’t there, are you? No. Thought not. Info dumps are bad, but info only weighs down the story if it’s cancerous. Don’t let it bulge your text. But don’t make your story go hungry, either.
7. A critique of 1/25 of your whole manuscript can often be applied to everything.
This might only be true for me, but it’s something to think on. What you glean from the gutted mess your critiques make of your writing sample may be applicable elsewhere . They aren’t just telling you what’s wrong with your writing sample, they’re telling you what wrong with your writing, period. Which–I know–is like saying they’re telling you what’s wrong with you, period. But don’t take that to heart.
Actually, do. Otherwise, you’ll never rise up like some bloody intestine-phoenix and reach for better things. Like publication. Or a non-dumpstered meal.****
**The reason I began the story with these two is because I didn’t want to strip away their humanity by leaving them out of the story. I didn’t want them to be devices that existed just to make my main character suffer. But my plan backfired. Putting the girls in only to kill them nine pages later was dehumanizing. In the end, I have to do what I set out to do–tell the story I meant to in the first place, and hope I can make the girls real, vibrant human beings who matter beyond the male character they effect, even if they never appear beyond back story and memory.
***As according to the agent of one of my workshoppers. Considering that agents are excellent people who sell a writer’s work to other excellent people with money and machines made for disseminating books, their advice is most probably solid.
****Though these are often awesome and delicious.