Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tips for Writers on Beginnings

Today I’m starting a blog series called “Tips for Beginning Writers.” I’ve recently met a delightful writer who’s WIP (work in progress) uses DaVinci Code-style intrigue to uncover some astonishing, historically accurate secrets in the foundations of the government of one of the world’s most well developed nations. He has graciously given me permission to use portions of his manuscript to illustrate the writing concepts I want to talk about in this series. In the great and glorious tradition of All The President’s Men, I’ve given him, my secret source, a nickname. From now on I will refer to him as Braveheart, for reasons every writer who submits to critiquing by someone else will understand immediately.

We’ll begin our tips for beginning writers, appropriately enough, at the beginning. *

Braveheart’s beginning has some problems. This is not unusual. In fact, it should be considered normal. The beginning of a novel is a really hard place to start. Even if you think you know where your story should start, pitfalls abound when you try to put the beginning on paper.

Most of the problems with beginnings result from the need to give the readers enough information to get them into the story, while creating enough suspense to make them want to read on. This balance between information and suspense is a delicate one. Braveheart’s main problem is that he skews heavily on the information side. His story begins with an overload of background information that mires the reader in details without giving him/her an emotional reason to care about the details.

Braveheart will probably decide, later on in the writing process, that much of the information he gives here at the beginning is unnecessary. It’s all part of his own backstory—the things he needs to know about his character that the reader will never need to know. He may also find that the necessary pieces of information he’s given here will come out more naturally later on, as the story progresses. He would do better, here at the beginning, to go heavy on the suspense and dole out the information later.

Here’s the essence of the first tip for beginning writers: Braveheart needs to pound into his writer’s mind the need for forward action. Forward action will be an important objective all the way through the novel, but it is essential in the beginning if he wants his readers to stay with him.

I’m not going to hold The DaVinci Code up as an example of good writing. Most experts agree it isn’t. But Dan Brown has the right idea about the use of suspense to grab an audience. His information is communicated to his readers in the midst of emotionally-gripping, gut-wrenching, forward action. Admittedly, Dan Brown’s method of communicating technical information is somewhat bizarre. It’s hard to imagine how the intricacies of interpretations of the Holy Grail could be effectively communicated while the protagonist and his partner are running down the hallway dodging bullets, but, though the technique wouldn’t work in real life, it’s apparently effective for grabbing readers’ attention and holding it. (Millions of readers can’t be wrong, right?) The real trick is to engage and communicate at the same time. It would be even better to do both without asking the reader to suspend disbelief as Dan Brown does!

Next blog post will elaborate on this opportunity for building suspense and communicating necessary information at the beginning of Braveheart’s story. But for now it’s important to note that a weak beginning is not a major problem at the beginning of the writing process. The beginning is a stepping stone for the writer as well as for the reader. A starting place only. Once you’ve gotten past the beginning—gotten into the rhythm of the writing and found your pace—the story will take off and almost tell itself. You can always go back and fix the beginning after you’ve written the story. In fact, once you’ve gotten closer to the end of the story, you may find the beginning will fall into place naturally and easily.

* Don’t ever write like this. In blogs you can play silly word games—you can Be a Ludicrously Obnoxious Gabber—if you want because blogs are about what you want to write, not about what other people need to read. But in the real world of writing you want to avoid cleverness at all costs. People—especially editor-types—will roll their eyes and toss your manuscript in the wastebasket if you write like this for them.

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