August 27, 2011

When it's not epic

I've participated in a couple of Writer's Digest online seminars, one featuring Kristin Nelson and one feature Sara Megibow both from the Nelson Agency. During Kristin's presentation, she mentioned that the main plot of your book, that first serious hook, should occur within the first 30-50 manuscript pages.

Now this took me back. Having come up in epic fantasy (even though I'm currently not writing epic), the plot often started well past 50 pages. Often it doesn't start until the second book! :) Was it possible to drop the hook that early?

So I looked at the various single-volume fantasies I was writing at the time and with the exception of one, they all dropped their hooks in the first fifty pages. That one that didn't? It ended up getting rewritten and conforms to that as well (in Times New Roman, Courier pushed me over by a couple pages). It has proven to be not so much an invaluable rule as it is an obvious rule. With an average-lengthed novel (so we're not including epic), a story without a hook at the beginning just feels like a meandering exploration of the writer's imagination. That's all well and good, but we're reading the book for a story and eventually we need to start down that path.

Keep in mind I'm just talking a hook here. We don't necessarily need to blaze a trail down the story (though I fall mostly in Twain's camp1 on what should happen in any given chapter). Just something to promise the reader, "Yes, this is going somewhere."

And that was so exciting about PRINCE OF CATS. I didn't just have the hook, I came up with a good chunk of the story all at once. (Surprisingly, it's the end that eludes me as I keep debating whether I should kill a bunch of characters or not.) The thing was, once I started writing, the hook kept getting farther and farther away. Hello page 80. I'll get to the hook soon. I promise. Just 20 more pages or so.

And it wasn't working. I had all these dramatic moments that weren't that dramatic because there were no stakes involved. Unless we're reading this thing just so we can watch Mirza and find out his uncle-turned-father2 has been lying all these years about how his mother died, in which case we're all set by chapter 12.

So I took chapters 8-12 and shoved them back. They'll still appear. They're good stuff, but first I need a hook. Because once there's something at risk, then we're not just learning about Mirza, we're seeing how Mirza responds to what he learns and wonder as to the fate of Shahzadi Parisa. Then all these secrets about his mother have the heft they deserve.

Unfortunately, turning the uncle into the father and then shoving 4 1/2 chapters back has really thrown a wrench into the gears of my rhythm. I have been cranking this story out, and now I've come full stop while I insert the separator and crank everything apart. Then I have to go through and make sure everything fits together. Usually this is saved for the second draft. But hey, it'll save me reweriting in the future. Hopefully when I'm back at work and not staying home to deal with construction people3, I can get make to a more acceptable level of progress.


1 Mark Twain famously said that each chapter should advance the plot or advance the story else it should be cut from the story entirely. While I don't hold to this 100% of the time, I hold to it 99.5% of the time.

2 I realized the other day that I had fallen into the MG/YA cliche of making my main character an orphan. In adult work, I try to stay away from all the character tropes that have been bludgeoned to death over the years. I don't have characters that are orphans. I have characters that had loving, well-adjusted parents, so their own eccentricities are just that. No need for the orphan who's sworn an oath to hunt down his paretns' killer. Batman has had that covered for near on a century.

3 We had a furnace leak that grew a healthy amount of mold in our basement. This has been an incredible headache. I do not advise it.

1 comment:

  1. I tend to side with Mark Twain on this debate, except that I am very generous in terms of what I consider an acceptable advancement of the plot. :D

    And I love how you've explained this hook thing. It's not that the "hook in 50 pages or less" thing is a rule that can be broken on a whim (which it still can be, of course), but you're failing around trying to get to the point without stakes until then.

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