Advice for the Writer #332 (Revised!)

Correction to my previous post of writer advice:

Don’t give your sister your half-edited MS to read with the instructions, “Don’t read it if you find yourself saying, ‘I really need to finish this for my sister.’ Just give it back and tell me the truth.” unless she happens to be a thorough, thoughtful type who is willing to tell you honestly that some parts “feel forced; and I know what you’re thinking, but you’re not going for realism. It’s fantasy, after all.”

If she’s ready to bleed red ink on your tendency to drift into conversational slang in one section and verge on purple prose in the next, then hand that sister your manuscript.

She’s actually halfway through the book! She says the story is interesting. She says there are parts where she can tell I’ve really found my stride. I didn’t ask her how few those were. 😛

Wee Sma’s

One morning last month, I woke at 4:00 A.M. and couldn’t go back to sleep. No, it is not my habit to get up at four in the morning. Generally, I would yell at someone for waking me at four. If I woke myself on purpose at four every day, I’d probably still yell at someone. I’m not nice in the morning.

As I lay there, my mind decided to revisit my manuscript. It knows I’ve scrapped the beginning of Dragonfly Prince four times now. In my first draft Casey’s story began with a prologue of entries directly out of her journal. I thought this would be a good way to help the reader get to know her. She also waxed a little poetic. It was entirely wrong…and dull.

So, I decided to jump into the action and fill in the blanks later. Well, in Casey’s case, that meant she blinked and found herself in a completely new environment. Big no-no. Literary agents don’t want another “I woke up and didn’t know where I was” beginning. Seriously, I don’t want to read another one of those. It also doesn’t help my reader understand my heroine. Casey has issues, but deep-down, she’s a sweetheart. She doesn’t really want to hurt or deceive anyone, but there’s something about being in survival mode that can bring out the worst in a person—all the fear and frustration. And that’s pretty much all you see of Casey’s personality if you start from the moment she’s dragged out of a cave by Ivan, a rescuer whose powers of persuasion affect her like sandpaper. Only glimpses of her true character are allowed to surface. Add to this the confusion for the reader, trying to figure out what’s going on along with her, and it’s just a little too much drama.

All of the above I’ve known for some time—lucky me–but it didn’t answer the question, “How do I begin this story?” When it comes to currently published fantasy fiction, I’m like every other reader. I want to be hooked by the first line. Actually, I’ll keep reading for a few paragraphs, just to make sure I’m not being judgmental. It’s not that I want the first sentence to wow me, I want it to speak to me. I want it to have a different voice from the other stories I’ve read. Or the voice can be similar to another writer I enjoy. Either way, that’s what I’m looking for. So, that’s the way I want to write my story.

At 4:30 A.M. my brain was teeming, and I slipped out of bed to type out the new beginning. At 6:30 A.M. I was finished with the second run-through. The beginning is written, and it’s right. I know it is! It practically fell out of my head! Well, it was more like unwinding a neatly-rolled ball of yarn.

Convolvulaceae
Convolvulaceae (Photo credit: shioshvili)

Strangely, the result was unexpected. In those six pages, the story took on a culture. It embraced an environment I know well and made it Casey’s. That’s what I’ve been trying to do for a year now!

I’m on page 352 of my manuscript’s 460 pages. I’ve begun the gutting process and rewrite for the ending. I know what’s getting thrown out, I know what’s staying, and I know what I want to add…all the way up to the last chapter. It is staring me in the face, daring me to draw it to a close. It’s the toughest part for me, the ending. Surely it will be easier this time around. Surely I’ll get it right this time!

And I will be at the beginning again in this writer journey.

The One Where My Heart Bleeds When It’s Broken

I truly thought it was the real thing… not like last time. My heart went pitter-patter. I daydreamed of the conversations about the future we would have, the promises we would make once things progressed. I felt prepared this time. I felt like I’d really straightened up a lot of issues beforehand. I approached with confidence, but with a clear sense that I should be completely open to what might happen. I allowed myself to be vulnerable… and I was rejected.

I invested a chunk of time into that query letter!

(Sigh.)

Okay so, looking back, I made some mistakes.

It was a big mistake not to write my letter in the same style as my story. The query was proper and respectful… and rather infested with that childlike transparency that screams, “I’m an amateur!”

I had also decided not to rely on great hooks, which are part of my style, as well. Somewhere I got the impression agents and publishers want the black and white of the story, not the hype and talk up. It was painful, and my sentences came out haltingly. I smoothed them over to the best of my ability. Still, it wasn’t me. Why did I send the query out knowing that? I really thought that’s why query letters were so difficult to write.

“There’s vulnerability in sending a query letter.”

I remember reading something to that effect; and I certainly felt vulnerable, sending letters that seemed to be dressed in a dull brown interview suit with the lapels severely pressed just so.

In the midst of my morose state, I happened upon an article where an expressive agent included her description of a good query. And I realized… *gasp* Agents are people, too!

I know, I was shocked. You mean, when an agent is perusing a list of books and summaries, he/she wants the info to persuade him/her that the rest of the story is just as appealing? Wait; I do that, too!

You know that request some agents make to include, “where you are going with your story”? I think this is misleading. Think of the boy in Princess Bride, who stops the grandpa to ask, “Is this a kissing book?” Notice, the grandpa never answers. The boy doesn’t really want an answer. He’s just skeptical. He’s afraid he’ll be pulled in; he might actually like the story, kissing and all. We’re all cynics, callous to the age-old archetypes. With the myriad, dry bones queries an agent digs through, it has to be desensitizing. Poor things, those agents. It must be a merciless existence, day in and day out, looking for that one… or two… or two hundred. Now I will take a moment to sympathize. (Cue violin music.)

As you can tell, I’m working through the phases swiftly. The shock was short-lived. I’ve had a visit with denial and moved on to anger. You can see the “clouds in my coffee” dispersing as I make pathetic jabs at agent-kind with my quill.

Now what?

Well, I’ve scrapped my dull brown suit approach and written what I’ve wanted to say all along. It took a couple of minutes, as apposed* to the two months it took me to write that second query. It’s direct. It’s appealing. It’s alot like my story.

I also went back to my novel and scrutinized the beginning again. One thing that has haunted me is the pace of the prologue. It’s a brief series of journal entries. I wanted it to be meandering, like a journal usually is. Meandering is not the way to begin a story in the present fast-food fiction climate. I had a genius moment and chopped up the beginning to follow a new angle that is more concise and spirited. (Click here if you’d like to see the old version. I haven’t updated it to the new, improved version yet, so feel free to ‘tsk-tsk’ over it.)

Voila.

I think my heart has healed enough to search for my shining agent again.

 

*Btw, why is WP telling me this word is spelled incorrectly? The two months are not ‘opposing’ the couple of minutes, right?