Monday, June 22, 2009

Your place or mine?

I have etchings. And the sound of a mountain stream out there in the moonlit darkness. Let me take you away...

Okay, still harping away on beginnings (because we all have to start somewhere... even with a cliche sometimes. I have a short that begins. " She awoke with a terrible start. Rubbing her eyes and looking at him again, she had to admit maybe he wasn't that terrible, just a bit homely, and not comfortably old, fat and rich. Not quite what she'd have chosen if she'd been sober the night before. A girl had to begin somewhere... ")

To get back to the point, an author has the difficult task of taking the reader away into the world they create. Sometimes the reader really wants to go. Will fall right in with a cheesy invitation to see etchings, especially if they've loved the author's other books. However the suspension of disbelief, the entry into world we build for them, is usually much harder than that. The start, which will lead us away from the mundane (and safe) is a tricky thing. Yep mostly the reader wants to go... but not if you might be an axe murderer (or the wrong kind of book). I always put it this way: The first few pages of a book have severely overworked words, because they have do so much. They have to pick you up, carry you away to a different place, they have to make you care about the protagonist's fate (want to see them come a cropper is fine too), they have reassure the reader that actually the charming invitation to come to their place is not so you can be dismembered and served with fava beans (which strikes me as odd. What are the bits going to do with those beans?) and also advance the plot.

In summary:


2) setting

3) Show type of book (really, readers do not actually like surprises. They wanted an Aga-saga and you gave them horror with Aga-saga start, you'll have to be brilliant to get them to forgive you. They wanted fantasy - and you gave them sf - better hope you had them adoring the book before they figured it out. Yes. I am guilty. I hope readers forgave me. I was young and mislead by an evil companion, me.)

4) Invest emotion in protagonist (love or hate, but care)

5)Move the plot forward.

If you're a best-selling author that readers know will deliver you have some space to do these. If not... the sooner the better. We've talked about hook and somewhat about character.

Let's talk about setting and type of book. Now because these beginning words are multipurpose and overworked (poor things) these too can be part of the hook, part of the magic, part of the character dispay that gets you to care.

"I am a watchdog. My name is Snuff. I live with my master Jack outside of London now. I like Soho very much at night with its smelly fogs and dark streets. It is silent then and we go for long walks. Jack is under a curse from long ago...."

If anyone has any doubts what kind of book this is or what sort of setting they're being drawn into... I can recommend some pills :-)

Or to do it even quicker - "Once the palace of a thousand chambers had overwhelmed Imoshen...."

or this

"The dragon flew above the rage of the elements. Above the tumultuous maelstrom of ocean swirling into the void. Above the sheet lightnings and vortexes of dark energies released as the tower fell, with the vast granite masonry shattering into swirling dust. A fierce delight filled his dragonish heart as he looked down on it."

Ok - let's see some starts that show setting and type. I'll try and offer constructive criticism. And you can see if I get it right. (And sweetlings, the reader is always right. If i don't get it, it's back to the drawing board. Or rather, keyboard. This applies to me, Stephen King or Joe-the-newbie. The reader is write... uh right.)

And which three books did I quote?


Anonymous said...

Okay, I see I'd have to post two pages to show what sort of book this is. Dead give away. Time to chop a bit . . . try this:

"Good morning Beowulf, what's new in the world?" Captain Sid Hollis took a slow inhalation of coffee, the rich aroma an antidote to the sterile, over-filtered air of the underground office complex.
"Councilor Miller's pre-session speech has been censored by Chief Councilor Sykorski, but it had already been spammed all over the Grid." The baritone voice came from a speaker to one side of the desk. "Apparently she recommended the World Council call a constitutional convention to consider reforming the government into a looser federation, in response to both widespread demands and the practical considerations of stellar colonies months away."
Sid set his coffee mug down and turned on his old fashioned hardware peripherals, standard MilSpec under the mountain. The vid display showed the Council Security Guards escorting Miller from the podium. "I wonder what they'll charge her with?"
He opened his standard windows and prowled through the headlines. "Anything up our alley? After all, our job has nothing to do with politics."
"Don't you wish. I'm still getting the runaround on the Turkey incident. I know that vid was inserted into his files from outside, and that it's a damn good fake, not the real thing."
"And they don't believe you?"
"What? I should tell them they're talking to the only hal – the only Artificial Personality semi-legally in existence? They'd either not believe me or they'd freak."
Sid grinned at the vid pickup beside the speaker. The hal himself was, of course, located elsewhere. "Now tell me you wouldn't enjoy scaring them."
"Ha! I get enough of that from the people I putative work with. Want me to replay you stuttering through introductions? Although you were a lot more accepting than our new commander." The artificial voice was glum.
Sid nodded, Major Wentworth's first week as commander of the Special Grid Security Operations section of the North American Division had not been a roaring success.
The lanky man leaned back in his chair and propped his feet on the desk. "What we need is a nice solid situation to investigate, show him how we run a field operation and so forth. Can't you find some emerging Artificial Personality we can go exterminate?"

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, setting, and ID (science Fiction - moderately hard, not too far future) were pretty clear by 'desk'. I did develop some rapport with the character, but to be honest it could use an earlier hook.

Amanda Green said...

I know the books. Do I get to answer? [VBG] Since there's no prize involved, I'm going to. The first is A Night in Lonesome October by Zelazny. The second is Dark Dreams by our own Rowena. The third is, I believe, Dragon's Ring by a certain coconut-throwing monkey we all know and love.

As for openings, this is the first page of my current w-i-p:

Winter settled on the city, blanketing it with a fresh coat of snow. Several blocks away, ice covered the Neva River, reminding everyone Spring was still a long way off. Clouds hung heavily in the sky and only the pale light from an occasional street lamp broke the darkness that mimicked an early dusk. Snowflakes, larger than any he’d seen in a long while, danced in the wind, mocking him as he moved as quickly as he dared down the street in the direction of Rastelli Square.

Why had he told the cab to drop him so far from his destination? Surely the need for discretion didn’t require him to chance freezing to death. Still, a little discomfort was a small enough price to pay to avoid discovery. That was a lesson he’d learned all too well over the years.

A gust of bitterly cold wind blowing in from the Gulf of Finland cut through him, chilling him to the bone. His step faltered as his boot heel landed on a patch of ice. For a moment, he felt his balance teeter, and he struggled to keep his feet. He would not fall. Damn Peter the First for moving the capital to this city. It was too far north and too cold in the winter. He understood the political reasons behind the move but, just then, he could care less about them or about the beauty of the city. None of that mattered when he still had several blocks to go before reaching his destination.

He quickly recovered his balance and hunched deeper into his heavy coat, reminding himself that, cold as it was, this was nothing compared to all those winters he'd survived in Siberia as he grew into manhood. Not that the memory helped warm him any.

Still, the weather did act as his ally this day, keeping all but those who had to be out off the streets. The threat of being caught in one of Russia's infamous blizzards kept the faint of heart safely at home, all but insuring he'd be able to make his way to Smolny Cathedral without curious eyes seeing. He might look like someone from ordinary peasant stock -- which was exactly what he happened to be – and, therefore, no one of any importance. But, as the last few years had proven, sometimes unpleasantly, he was no ordinary peasant, no ordinary man. Because of that, even the most lowly of St. Petersburg’s citizens knew his face and that worked against him now, when it was imperative no one mark his passage.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, it's plainly historical, plainly Russian. Because I know what you're writing and because I know more history than is really good for me, I know what it's about. Now answer me a question - is it - alternate history (there is no metion of magic - but insuffient data for most readers to be sure) or as a less likely possibility, fantasy (but no hint of magic.

Good use of powerful place names that conjur images.

The first two paragraphs are very good, and the 'Still, a little discomfort was a small enough price to pay to avoid discovery' built tension well. To be brutal in public - (maybe there is a reason?) from 'Winter settled on the city, blanketing it with a fresh coat of snow. Several blocks away, ice covered the Neva River, reminding everyone Spring was still a long way off. Clouds hung heavily in the sky and only the pale light from an occasional street lamp broke the darkness that mimicked an early dusk' Omniscent (everyone) to what I assume will be third person (he) ' Snowflakes, larger than any he’d seen in a long while, danced in the wind, mocking him as he moved as quickly as he dared down the street in the direction of Rastelli Square'

You are, of courese right about the books.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, thanks for the input. It is an alt. history with a bit of magic in it. And I will admit (hangs head here), I took a guess on your book. It sounded like your work and I do plan on reading it as soon as I can put my hands on it.

Dave Freer said...

Your publisher can cheat for you and put on a cover that says 'this is alt hist/fantasy. The title can say so. But I suspect alt. hist buffs finding fantasy they don't expect will be more irritated than fantasy readers realising this is alt history too. It's a tough line to walk, Amanda. I am not prescribing but it quite an important thing to do - cue the reader in to what they're buying. I suggest you think if it could be done (not always possible I know). I'll gladly re-read and comment if that'll help. Dragon's ring is unusual in that the cover is also the first paragraph of the book ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Thanks, Dave, and I know what you mean about not wanting to ambush readers who think they are reading one genre/sub-genre and then find out they aren't. I'm doing edits on another work today and tomorrow, but plan on returning to this the next day. I'll look at it and see what I can do. And thanks, you confirmed one of my concerns.

Anonymous said...

Amanda, clueing in the Alt Hist/Fantasy could be as easy as a few words.

"Damn Peter the First for moving the capital to this city, and damaging the Imperial magic that held Mother Russia together."

Or something to that effect. We readers take hints pretty easily.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah A. Hoyt said...

(this is from a book I'm writing with my friend Sofie Skapski)

His Grace

Chapter One

If any bystanders were looking closely at the gentleman as he approached the double doors to the ballroom, they would have noticed he held himself somewhat stiffly. Not as though he were injured or embarrassed, but more as though he were excessively careful of all his movements.

The two uniformed footmen exchanged a look before opening the doors. His grace, the look said, was a trifle disguised. Which explained his being so late to the ball. He’d clearly been out drinking.

Neither of them would have dared say it was just like His Grace, and – if it came to that – a lot like His Grace’s late father, but it was plain that they both thought it.

As his Grace, Seraphim Ainsling, Duke of Darkwater paused in the doorway, in the full glare of the brilliant magelights positioned all around the walls, all eyes turned his way.

The attention was not due to the exquisite tailoring of his green evening dress, that showed off his muscular body to great advantage, or his commanding height and stately bearing. That he was possibly the handsomest man in the room, with his thick, raven black hair, aquiline features, and dazzling emerald eyes, formed part of it, but more importantly was his being the head of one of the oldest and most prestigious magical houses in the kingdom, not to say in the world.

But the real reason his late entrance called such attention was that this party was being held in his honour, and he was unfashionably late. His mother had almost given up all hope of his appearance, as had his betrothed, Lady Honoria Blythe.

The betrothal had as yet to be formalised but everyone present expected the announcement to be made sometime approaching midnight. Whispers that he planned to cry off had already traversed the room.

After a pause that was so silent it was almost as if the orchestra had stopped playing – which it certainly hadn’t -- the conversation and dancing resumed.

Darkwater walked into the room, still walking with exaggerated care, reached for a glass from a tray held high by a passing footman, and tossed the champagne back in one swift move.

From across the room, his mother saw it and flinched.

Amanda Green said...

Pam, thanks for the suggestion. That is along the lines of what I've done several pages back. I'll revisit the first page after I finish my edits of this other work and see what I can do to make it clear from the first without beating the reader over the head with it.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

What book is this Sarah? It looks interesting. I'm a Georgette Heyer fan from way back (aren't we all?) and you're giving it a fantasy twist.

I really like it when people make their characters act within the restraints of society.

Kate said...

Okay... First paragraph of one work in progress:

Jack McClatchkey strode through the airlock before the iris finished opening, stepping over the partially retracted lens. He didn't so much as hesitate at what the clean-room -- which served Galway Mining Station as a customs inspection station and extra storage the thirty days of the month there wasn't a ship docked here -- held. It was one of the many things he'd learned from his dad before the old man bought it rigging emergency repairs in an uncharted branch off the wormhole lines. You never let anyone official see you sweat unless you wanted them to think you were scared.

And of a second one...

Nothing says you've left normal reality like walking into a hotel lobby and seeing a Clone Trooper chatting with a Sith Lord. The sign on the back of the Clone Trooper's armor, 'Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies. Tonight. Room 1226', was really just corroborating evidence.

Both are the openings of novels, and one of them is a sequel to a novel on an editor's desk right now. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It's actually both Heyer-like and modern world. This is one of the worlds in multiverse (think DWJ) where society and mores "froze" at regency or was slower getting there or whatever. The other main character gets dropped into this world from ours. She's a computer programer. :)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sarah, tell me when it comes out and I'll get a copy!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

LOL. Rowena, I'm sending the proposal to my agent this week. And half ready for her to tell me that "no one is buying this sort of thing."



Dave Freer said...

Sarah, regency (or regency style) Fantasy. And yes, it is all my fault

Dave Freer said...

Kate - is McClachkey (as a name) intended to make me look for humor? (because it did) - otherwise the iris and follow on looked sf, possibly space opera.

The second I would guess at probably literary fiction in the style of Winterson or Atwood.

Kate said...


You're absolutely right on both openings.

It was the deep inner symbolism of Dark Side cookies that gave me away, wasn't it?

Dave Freer said...

"no one is buying this sort of thing."

Well, maybe no _publishers_ are.

Write a good story and they will come....

Dave Freer said...

Kate, yes, it was the dark side cookies... otherwise it was just so infinitely much better than that drekk, I would never have guessed.

Kate said...


I'm devastated, truly. Your flippant dismissal of the deep chocolatey layers of dark side cookies and their crunchy reflection of life's dilemmas wounds me to the heart.

(At which point I'm going to have to stop before my bullshitometer explodes)