Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Head Down In The Bone Marrow Pie*




Lately I’ve been studying the elders of our faith. Not religious faith. The other one. The one that says you must write, write everyday and improve in our craft.



I started with Heinlein, which is usually where I start. Over the next few weeks I’ll probably move to Bradbury and Pratchett, with a few detours through minor prophets as the mood strikes. (If no one has read Simon Hawke’s time war series , do, now. Massive fun. Also, read Simak’s Way Station and City and perhaps Our Children’s Children – all of them crying out for a rewrite to modern standards, and I don’t mean an edit, but a recast.)



Anyway, all of you of the female persuasion who are convinced Heinlein is anti-woman – the feminists who proclaimed that gospel never actually READ Heinlein, or not without being sure of what they would find. Yeah, he had – some – different expectations of female behavior. He was a man of his time. As we are women of ours. And if you don’t think the pendulum will swing back again, sister, I have a bridge in NYC I’d like to sell you. So take it easy and read for what’s there, and for what you can learn. (I had a friend who was furious at Heinlein for having Friday raped. She thought he was doing it because he liked the idea. Mind you, if a woman had written it, she would have thought it was because she wanted to show how oppressed women are. This type of semiotic understanding is wrong. Also the D word – Dumb. You should never allow your mind to be sequestered by an ideology. Any ideology. The rape of Friday shows us several things – besides being plausible. Rape IS a weapon used against women over most of the world – including the inner consequences of her not considering herself QUITE human.)



What I learned in reading what I consider his first work with true voice, Double Star, is the subject for another post. But what I learned in just starting Starship Troopers is the "advantage of effective beginnings." He starts ST just before a combat drop, even though he goes back to the spoiled-rich-kid-joins-the-army story afterwards. This is called starting in media-res, or in the middle of the action. (Not, as one of my character thinks "The media rests.") and it is a tricky thing to handle but very effective, particularly for coming of age novels where your character isn’t very effective at the beginning.



Have others used this? Sure. But Heinlein uses just enough... er... heinleining – i.e. burying of the worldbuilding details – to make the pay off extraordinary.



As everyone here knows by now, I devote an extraordinary amount of time to beginnings. Often a good half of the time I give any novel. And when they’re not going well, I bitch, moan, behave like a bear with two mad heads, and generally make myself a pain until it clicks. Normally, I advise everyone to start at the beginning and I rarely break that advice. So, for those who write – and read – in your experience, what are the pitfalls and side-benefits of beginning in media-res? As readers, does it bother you? Does it feel like bait-and-switch?



*Face Down In The Bone Marrow Pie is the title of a very decent mystery. The title just seemed appropriate to this post.

20 comments:

C Kelsey said...

Definitely a bate and switch IMO. Dump me into the middle of the action where the characters is at or near the top of his or her game and then take me to the beginning? Not my favorite method. However, I don't notice that it kind of bugs me until I try and re-read the book. Then I'm reading the cool actiony stuff and suddenly have boredom dropped on me, but now I know that there's more cool actiony stuff and I'll often skip most of the book to that part.

matapam said...

It's not my favorite. There's worse, mind you. At least you don't start the next chapter and find out the guy you bonded with has been dead for three thousand years.

It's either foreshadowing with a blunt instrument, or turns the whole novel into a flashback.

And, like anything, done well, it works.

RJ_CruzeJr said...

For me, in media res is one of those techniques that adds an extra level of complication to your storytelling. Now, like any complicated technique, if done right, it can really enhance a story, but there are so many ways that it can be done wrong. Especially if you're a n00b (like yours truly).

More often than not, the most simple, straightforward way you can find to tell your story is the best way to go, IMO. Some of the most mind-blowing stories I've run across often use the most basic and direct storytelling techniques at their core -- it's just that the reader's too busy basking in the sheer awesomeness of the story to notice.

Mind you, if the story absolutely needs this or any other advanced technique in order to work, you just gotta grit your teeth and get to work. Hey, Occam's Razor may get the job done, but when it comes to getting a good, close shave, I'm a Gillette Man all the way ;-)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

This being true, I must tell you that Starship troopers starting with him in his ethics class and a heaping dose of philosophy would probably be deadly dull. Now, mind you, Heinlein started pianissimo with other novels like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and kept us going, but there he was using the -- particularly effective with readership at the time -- hook of "technology, wow."

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,

I swear in that chapter I posted in the diner sometime ago, the guy is alive. It just seems like he's not. :)
I'll be finishing it too, as soon as the other stuff lets me. :)

As for worse ways -- I used to tell my stories in a circle, and man, that gets BORING.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Robert,

Sometimes even an awesome story needs backfill to begin, and one thing I've learned -- and I'm not arguing with me so much as with myself -- is that readers and PARTICULARLY editors and agents tend to think the first chapter is the book. Say your novel NEEDS a scene where your character is five. If that's the first scene, they'll keep talking to you about YA, even though the rest of the book the character is a hundred and five. (I have a book that suffers from this, and I can't seem to start another way.)
Ditto -- for The Damned Die Hard, which I snipped in diner -- if I started with her dad's funeral (which I had some months ago and posted in diner, though no one might remember) it seems like laid-backish urban fantasy with some grace touches of patriotism and small town America, while the BULK of the novel is magical-military training, grand battles and facing the horrors of the dungeon dimmensions. ("Armagedon isn't at a fixed date. Armagedon is when the legion falls asleep on the job.")
Hence the tricksy way of starting.

Anonymous said...

Well, that's helpful to know about the first chapter being the book. When I do start a book, I'll definitely start it around that piece of advice.

As far as the media-res thing, I'd prefer a book not to start with action right away. I have nothing invested in the character, and I never know whether or not to become attached to him. I prefer to start with a set-up, even if it's just right before the action so that I know this is the main character and that I should care.

I don't like the starts where the author gives a prologue of something that happened long ago and then we switch to the book's actual era. I'd rather it be woven into the story later.

As far as media-res, I'm not much of a fight scene lover anyway, so action like that doesn't entice me into a book. I love the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher, but I rush through the fight scenes to be done with them. His books are full of them, and, frankly, I have a hard time keeping up with who chopped whose arm off and whatnot. I don't remember any of these books beginning with media-res though, and I approve.

I truly suck at writing fight scenes, and I would never start a book or story with one. The only successful one (and by successful, I mean published) I've had was the one in a story I co-wrote with Steve. He wrote the first draft, and I revised it to fit the story.

Linda Davis

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Oh absolutely, Sarah. Sometimes you just gotta start juggling and hope against hope you don't get conked on the head! (Or at least keep those damned chainsaws in the air long enough so those suckers run out of gas)

It brings to mind the analogy of throwing Granny to the wolves; while you would rather have held on to that chapter for later in the book, sometimes you just have to toss it out there right now to give the audience something to feast on so you can hopefully save the rest of the story.

Though, it does have its risks, especially if you didn't pay close enough attention to the wolves. Nothing worse than having your (justifiably) pissed-off werewolf grandmother scratching at the door the following night; in a situation like that, you'll never look at the phrase "getting an arse-chewing" in quite the same way again!

:-D

C Kelsey said...

Sarah,

Yeah starting things from an ethics class and rolling there is pretty heavy for the start of a book. However, if you have a really fun teacher teaching the class, or if the teacher is the POV character it could be fun. Although I, personally, have to make the class aircraft accident investigation in order to write a fun scene.

matapam said...

Sarah,

Your current start for The Damned Die Hard is an example of the flash forward start done right.

We see what type of book this is, we meet the Main Character, and are surprised to find a female in this dire situation. In the next scene, we see that we are going to find out how she got into that mess before, presumably, we find out how she's going to get out of it.

It's brief enough that we aren't into the action and want it to continue, uninterrupted.

It's a good hook - lots of tasty mood setting bait, then the sharp jerk as we realize the MC is female.

matapam said...

Oh, and it doesn't give away the ending of the story.

Kate said...

As always, if it's done well it's wonderful, if it's not... it's not. I don't have any objections to that kind of start so long as it is done well.

Sorry, I'm not making much sense here - I've had the kind of day you want to forget, starting with bad eggs in the breakfast omelet and going downhill from there.

Chris McMahon said...

Gemmell was really good at that. He would start the novel at the beginning, but he had this neat way of starting and action scene then going into backstory -- sometimes in two layers -- that really kept you on the edge of your seat.

I know what you mean though. Sometimes this can seem a little deliberate, and overused is just damn annoying.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Robert,

You can TOTALLY have the Werewolf grandmother plot. :) Totally. It's yours. Have fun. I'd call it Red Riding's grandma... :-P

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Linda,

I was obsessed with starting at the end and making the book circular when I started writing. It's ... not a good thing. Now, mind you, I used that on Thirst, in the collection in the Free Library, and it seemed to work there, but it's a short story.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

If I were writing ST and started it with the ethics class, the only way I could make it interesting would be to use the Pope In The Swimming pool -- which is where, you're writing a boring business meeting,but your viewpoint character can look over the other character's shoulder and see the pope skinny dipping in the hotel swimming pool. The sheer oddity of that, interspersed with the mundane would keep people awake.

Barring that, I'd have to BECOME Dave Weber to be able to write that interestingly. And then my husband would get upset because, you know, he admires Dave Weber, but he doesn't want to be married to him... ;)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Matapam,

I wasn't fishing for compliments, truly. But that was part of the reason I was looking at how things were done in ST among others. And I would say ST went on a little too long, pre going to beginning -- for my taste, mind, though this is on tenth read or so. I found nothing wrong first time around. Or even second.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Chris,

It's all in how you do it. I confess I like the details interspersed as background better than in media res. OTOH because the editor/agent is going to decide you are writing whatever your first chapter is. And, oh, I didn't even mention those, but I too hate the "prologue a thousand years before" thing. Unless, of course, the guy the novel is about is his reincarnation.

matapam said...

Werewolf? Gee, I was picturing her wearing a new wolfskin cloak and gesturing with a large knife as she lectured those appalling grandkids about . . .

Throwing Granny to the wolves is going to pop into my mind every time I chop a chunk of undesirable prose, for a good long time. Thanks, RJ

RJ_CruzeJr said...

Glad I could help! I'm told I have this evil knack for putting visuals in people's heads. A few have even said that I've scarred them for life. So, it's probably a Good Thing that I decided to go the writing route.

Just think of how many people I can scar through my writing...

:-D