Fools Rush In

Yesterday, I finished the last round of micro edits for my YA superhero novel before I start querying. Now I’ve just got to rewrite my first couple of chapters and spiff up my query letter, which is still a rough draft at this point. The goal is to start submitting to agents by late October or early November.

It’s crazy to think that four years ago, I was just feeling out the querying process for a much different version of the same book.

I went through a few different versions of my query letter and a list of agents, but none of it panned out. For a long time, I kept pushing through, kept pushing more submissions out–Winston Churchill, never surrender, you know?

WC FieldsBut eventually, I realized there was a difference between greeting the proverbial drawing board like an old friend and just plain quitting. Sometimes, yeah, you need to be hard-headed and thick-skinned and plow through the let-downs.

Other times, you need to sit down, shut up, and admit when something isn’t working.

Realizing that didn’t make scrapping that draft of my book any more pleasant. But looking back, I’m weirdly grateful for it. I feel like I’m a stronger writer now, and while the general spine is the same, my story and series have evolved a heck of a lot since then.

Really, it’s just a matter of knowing what battles are worth picking–and when. If you find yourself needing to take some time, step back, and approach your story from a new angle, consider Maggie Stiefvater and Eric Kripke.

Maggie Stiefvater is the bestselling author of the Shiver series and The Scorpio Races, among other things. She also wrote The Raven Boys–my favorite book in the history of the universe, and the first book in a planned quartet.

The interesting thing is, she wrote the first draft of The Raven Boys when she was nineteen years old–at least twelve years ago. She’s mentioned before that she realized she didn’t yet have the writing tools necessary to tell that story and juggle multiple POV characters, so she moved on. She still loved the story and carried it around inside her, but she wasn’t ready to tell it yet. It was a matter of timing.

So she waited, worked on some other projects, and came back to it when she was ready. And I have to say, the result is pretty amazing.

If that success story doesn’t sell you, there’s also Eric Kripke, creator and longtime showrunner of Supernatural. Before he came up with the Winchester brothers and the Impala, he set the creatures and cases against an anthology backdrop. After that, he planned to tell the stories through a tabloid reporter investigating it all. Then it was the story of Sam and Dean Harrison, raised by their aunt and uncle after their mother died and their father left.

The story went through loads of different versions–it was pitched and rejected and reworked for ten years. And it ended up being a wizard show that’s still going strong in its tenth season. If the story about the tabloid reporter had been greenlit, the Winchesters would never have been born.

So by all means–if you’ve really examined what you’re doing and feel like it’s the best it can be, go for it. But if the timing seems to be wrong, maybe there’s a reason for that.

A time and a season, and all that good stuff.

Why Writing the Opening of a Book is Kind of Like Hacking Through a Maze

Out of all the necessary evils in this world, beginnings freak me out the most. Writing them, that is.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a fan of driving or the dentist, either. But it’s finding the beginning of a story that’s the hardest of all the evils, and I think that’s because you can’t just settle on a beginning. It’s got to be the beginning.

Which begs the question: How do you find it, and how do you recognise it once you do?

Part of why The Beginning seems so daunting is that there are so many possibilities—so many different paths to take. If you’re anything like me, pretty soon the whole situation devolves into one heck of a maze, and dang—you’re out of bread crumbs.

"Longleat Hedge Maze (detail)". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Longleat_Hedge_Maze_(detail).JPG#mediaviewer/File:Longleat_Hedge_Maze_(detail).JPG

“Longleat Hedge Maze (detail)”. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Longleat_Hedge_Maze_(detail).JPG#mediaviewer/ File:Longleat_Hedge_Maze_(detail).JPG

I still don’t know of a way out of the maze, but I have found a chainsaw you can use to hack through its leafy walls. The trick is, you have to think in terms of multitasking.

By nature of what it is, the beginning needs to be a heavy-hitter. It needs to be doing as many things and hitting as many notes and slipping in as many hints as naturally possible. It has to arrange the domino chain of events that’ll trigger your narrative—then tip it all over.

It also has to introduce the main characters, give the reader a solid enough grasp of who they are and where they’re going, and get at what the conflict is going to be, so cut it some slack.

On one hand, when you look at everything the beginning has to babysit, it can seem overwhelming. But it’s time to get ambidextrous: On the other hand, there are only so many possible opening scenes that can meet that massive to-do list.

Take Rick Riordan’s The Lightning Thief, for example. It opens with the protagonist, Percy, on a field trip gone wrong. Not only does that provide an organic launching point to explain the unnatural occurrences that have knocked all of Percy’s other field trips awry, it gives readers a glimpse into Percy’s troubled school life. The nature of the field trip also lets Riordan slip in some Greek mythology, which ends up being kind of important to the plot, and Percy’s reaction to the whole fiasco gives quite a bit of insight into his character.

Say whatever you want about Riordan being a one-trick pony, but his first opening pulls a lot of weight.

So next time I feel stressed because an opening is pulling me in a million different directions, I’m going to make a list of things that absolutely need to make an appearance. From there, it’s a simple matter of brainstorming a scene—the scene—that best combines all of those elements.

What about you? Any techniques to share? Any book you feel really nails The Beginning? I’m turning this over to you now.