Writing This Novel part II

by Kathleen Bradean

In Part I, I told you about how I
came up with the idea for my WIP (work in progress) and the title. This article
will focus on the beginning of the novel.

Word One. Or, where to start.

You might be thinking “Hey, you
told us about your vision of the story in Part I, why don’t you open with
that?” That’s a great question. Many times your first impression might be your
natural opening scene, but not always. I found this out the hard way with
another novel I wrote. I had this wonderfully compelling first vision. However,
after writing two drafts of the novel that didn’t work, I realized my vision
scene was part of the problem. It set the tone for the main characters’
relationship, but it took place a year before the rest of the story. When I
very reluctantly gave it up as something I’d know about but it wouldn’t make it into the novel, the third draft fell into place. Moral of that story: you can
only try to make something work for so long before you have to drag your writing down to the cellar and shove it into a shallow grave with all your other
darlings. I’m not going to open The Night
with the train station scene I mentioned in part I and I’m not
sure it will make it into the novel at all, which means I have to come up with
a different way to start my story.

The common advice writers hear is to start a
story in medias res (In the middle of
affairs). The definition of in medias res
is that an important catalyst for the plot has already taken place before the
story opens, a scene that will often be shown in flashbacks. Some writers take it to
mean they should open the work in the middle of an action sequence. While opening
your story with your main character busting a chair over someone’s head is
action, without context a fight means nothing to readers. If you add context,
the action is broken up by a lot of back story that muddles the scene and kills
the forward momentum of the fight. Not a good choice. But going the opposite
direction is also a problem.

Recently, I beta read a friend’s
fantasy novel. It was good once I got into it, but it took a long time to finish
the first chapter because he used what I call the Sound of Music opening. If you’ve seen the movie The Sound of Music, you probably don’t
remember the very long opening sequence that flies you over the alps forever, swings toward
Salzburg (are we there yet?) picks an alpine meadow to focus on (are we there
yet?) slowly brings your eye down to a young woman sauntering through the lush
grass, gets closer and closer until you can see her face, then she twirls,
opens her mouth, and begins to sing. You probably only remember the twirl and
the singing. And do you know why? Because it’s action. It’s interesting. That’s the place
where the networks tend to begin the movie broadcast because they don’t want
you to flip channels after two minutes of snowcapped peaks. Similarly, my
friend’s opening chapter started with the long shot view of the mountains,
slowly bringing the focus down to a little village as it talked about the
weather, the economy, the political structure of the area and the geography. That
kind of opening sequence is bound to lose readers. The TV networks figured this
out, so should writers. My friend fixed that in his rewrite and it made a huge

Instead of jumping into action without
context or using a Sound of Music
style opening, a better idea is to show the main character doing something
(action rather than simply sitting around thinking) that will bring him/her/hir
to the inciting incident rather quickly.

The inciting incident is what
causes the story to happen. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, the inciting incident is when the Emperor orders the Duke to
take over management of the planet commonly known as Dune. You never see that
scene. That happens before the opening chapter, a good example of in medias res. As the story opens, you
see the Duke’s household in the midst of preparations to leave their home
planet for Dune. From word one, the story is in forward motion. Another good
technique is to ease the reader into the setting and characters by starting a
short time before the inciting incident occurs. Margaret Mitchell’s approach
for Gone With the Wind gave the
reader a chapter or two of normal life on the plantation, but still with forward
momentum leading to the two inciting incidents– Ashley announcing his engagement
to his cousin Melanie (effectively dumping Scarlett), and news reaching the
party that the war has been declared.

In my novel The Night Creature, I open the story at a party. The female and
male lead characters see each other across the room. She wants to hook up with
him and he wants her, but they remain on opposite ends of the room no matter where they move in the crowd. They’re chasing and evading each other
simultaneously. This foreshadows the plot. It’s also in medias res because you find out later that he’s been pursuing
her for a while and she’s been purposefully evasive. By
the end of the evening, she lets him catch her. During sex, he bites her. This
is the inciting incident. The bite transfers their roles. Now she pursues him
and he runs away. As they find themselves trapped in a game without end, they
struggle with all-consuming desire, obsession, and madness. I did mention that
this story is gothic horror, didn’t I?

The opening of a novel doesn’t just
introduce the character and their world. It should also give the reader a taste
of what’s at stake for the main character. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlett wants Ashley, to flirt and be admired,
and to get her way. She wants life to continue as it has up until now for her,
only better. In Dune, the Duke
Atreides, his consort Jessica, and heir Paul want to survive the political
intrigues of the Emperor and eventually get off Dune with their fortune, power,
and lives intact. My characters want the game to end. Yeah. Not going to
happen. But that’s not the point. Show what your character wants, briefly. Then
yank it from their grasp with the inciting incident. That’s where your story
starts. Every book is different, so you could get to the inciting incident
within a thousand words or it could take you a couple chapters, but get to it
as soon as possible.

For an erotic novel, you might go
with a sexual the inciting incident. Desire, lust, attraction, a gang bang,
whatever is right for your story should be the catalyst to get the story
moving. Sometimes the inciting incident is a situation that makes sexual
discovery, seduction, submission, etc. possible. However, be wary of literary
tropes. This is an excellent article describing them:   http://www.irosf.com/q/zine/article/10360
I review erotica and have judged both erotica and erotic romance for contests,
and I’ve seen a few tropes so many times that, as this article suggests, they
make me want to hurl a book across the room. It’s a good thing I like my Kindle
too much to fling it. So please, do not make the inciting incident be a bad
break up. Don’t have your heroine take a bubble bath as she thinks (what did I
say about sitting around thinking?) about making a radical change in her life.
Don’t have her buy a fabulous house out in the middle of nowhere with only a
mysterious Byronic hero alpha male for a neighbor. Just. Don’t. For me. Please.

How do you decide where to start?
Do you go with your first vision? Is starting the novel the hardest part for

Next time, I’ll talk about whymaybe I should learn to outline (but it
won’t happen) and what to do when you feel like you’re up to your knees in muck
that’s sucking you down into a writerly funk and you don’t think you can slog through
it to the next chapter.

Writing This Novel, part I

     This is my first post for ERWA blog. Although I see that
Lucy Felthouse is also talking about her experience writing a novel, I thought
I’d write about the process as I’m working on one. Anyone who has ever tried to
write a novel knows this is tricky. I might not finish. I might get bogged down
in the middle and have no clue what to do next. And you’ll get to see me fail in
real time! Oh, wait…

     Several years ago at a writer’s conference, Poppy Z Brite
commented that you don’t learn how to write a novel. You learn how to write this novel (as you’re writing it). I’ve written a couple novels since then and agree with her comment.

   Where do you begin? With the idea of a story. That sounds
logical but I’ve seen people claim they sit down and ‘just write.’ I have no
clue how that works. It probably doesn’t. Have an idea of the overall story you
want to tell even if you don’t have the specifics, who the main characters are
(I suggest you have a solid fix on them), and where you want the story to end
so you have a goal to aim for. Sure, there are people who claim to be pantsers
–- seat of the pants storytellers who don’t outline—but I’m sure they have an
idea of what they want to do when they start. Otherwise it’s like entering a
forest without a path, walking for several hours in whatever direction your
feet lead, then the sun starts to set and you ask yourself where the hell you
are and how to get out. That’s how people end up writing two hundred thousand
word novels with no end in sight. That’s not the best use of your precious
writing time.

     Stephen King, in his fantastic book On Writing, admits he doesn’t know where his stories come from. In
the ‘writing is a talent’ versus ‘writing is a craft’ debate, I’m firmly in both
camps.  However, I believe that the
ability to imagine a story is a talent. You either have it or you don’t. If you
have it, you understand why Stephen King can’t tell you where stories come
from. He can’t, and I can’t. But I can tell you how this novel began for me.

     I had a vision. It’s sort of like daydreaming, like a
snippet of a movie, but so vivid that I swear I can smell and feel things.
These scenes hit me while my mind is wandering. I’ve never sat down and said,
‘I will now imagine something.’  This
particular story idea came to me after reading comments by Remittance Girl on
the ERWA Writer’s list as the group discussed what defined the erotica genre.
She (I’m paraphrasing) said that the central question of erotica is how we (the
characters) deal with desire. I mulled over that for a few days and this vision
came to me:

(I’m not going to record this in any attempt at pretty prose
since this would never go into a story raw. This is the way I would have jotted
it down on paper.)

    Fog hangs heavily in the air. It condenses on the bare limbs
of winter trees and splatters on cobblestones. It’s just before dawn, and even
though my vision is in color, it feels like a black and white photograph, like
the movie poster from the Exorcist with the priest under the gas lamp in the
fog. Street lamps cast cold light on a small train station. A young woman in ratty
punkish clothing paces the station platform and stomps her feet to keep warm.
She wraps her arms around her waist and mutters to herself. I can’t hear what
she says, but she repeats it over and over, so I know she’s losing her mind. At
the far end of the station platform, a man appears. He’s been there all along,
but she (and I) just noticed him. The young woman is suddenly ravenous and
aroused. Her gaze lingers on the groin of the man’s jeans. He’s cold too, with
his nose buried in a thick scarf and his hands shoved into the pockets of his
thick coat. Just a guy, going to work on the early train. She walks over to him
and asks in German, “Want to fuck?” (although I’m convinced that she’s

    That’s it. That was all I had to go on. It takes five
minutes to write down, but in my mind, it was only a ten or twenty second
movie. As I do with most of these visions, I immediately asked all the
pertinent questions. Who was she? Clearly the main character. Where and when was
she? The train station’s architecture said Eastern Europe. The gas lamps, black
and white tones, and train travel suggested the past, but her clothes said
1990s to 2000s, so I knew that the story would be set in current times but have
a timeless feel. I also knew from the lighting and the fog that the story’s tone
would tend gothic and share genre elements with either horror or noir (a term
which technically only applies to movies, but you know what I mean) Why is she
at the train station? She’s chasing someone. Why was she losing her mind?
Hunger. What was she hungry for? Sex.

    Where do those answers come from? Imagination. As I’m asking
myself these questions I’m filling in details. They may change as I’m writing
the story, but these are my characterization, setting and tone starting points.
This is also where I ask myself: What is the story about? The answer is one
sentence, hopefully under twenty words. I write it on a piece of paper and tape
it to the wall above my computer so it’s always there to remind me as I write. I
also get a summary idea of the story (which can and will change). This isn’t
the same as plot, but it’s similar.

   I let my mind run with those answers for a couple days. I
sensed a novel in it, but was so caught up in the intensity of the story that I
wanted to get something down. Plus, I worried that a story about someone
chasing a lover (or lunch, depending on where I went with it) wasn’t a big
enough idea for a novel. So I threw myself into writing a short story which
ended up on ERWA’s blog in October under the title It’s Lovely. It’s Horrible.  (If
you missed it, the story has already been picked up by an editor for a vampire
anthology even though it’s not what I’d call a vampire story.) Almost every
critique on ERWA’s Storytime list stated that the idea was too big for a short
story and I needed to expand it to a novel. So that’s what I’m doing.

    A note about titles. I either get a great idea for a title off
the bat or I struggle. Orbiting in
– flash of inspiration. She
Comes Stars
– came from a line in the story. It’s Lovely. It’s Horrible – I settled on only after I mentally
shoved bamboo slivers under my fingernails. And believe me, that was the best I
could do after some truly awful ideas.  That wasn’t the title I wanted to use for a
novel so it was back to the bamboo. Desire
was my initial title idea since a discussion about desire sparked the story idea,
but what the hell does Desire tell
the reader? Not much. It could be a great title for another work, but not this
one. I flirted with the idea of Consumed
for a while but I recognize a yuck title when I see one. I think I was taunting
myself with that one. “Pick a better title or you’ll be stuck with this one!” At
that point I gave up trying to find a title and forged ahead with the story.
You don’t have to have a title. It’s nice to have one, but you can work without

A couple chapters into the first draft I stumbled into a
title. I’m still trying to decide if it’s The
Night Creature
or The Night Creatures,
and if I’ll drop The, but it strikes me as a good fit. The Night Creature warns you that the work will be dark. It hints
at horror. That’s the tone I want to set from the beginning.

Next time I’ll talk about how I decided where to begin the

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