Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Locked Box Trick

This feeds in to Kate’s post to an extent.

For the first time in several years I have a face to face/internet (mixed) writers group meeting semi-regularly. This has brought me in touch – for the first time in several years – with at least one writer who is not aware of how "things work" in the industry.

So there will be, say, these long, lovely lead ins to a short story. Which is all very well, of course, and we all can quote several of our favorites that start with long, swelling lead ins. But when you’re a beginner and dropping head first into the bottomless slush pile, long lovely lead ins – unless you find a punchy way to begin – will not get you out of it. Reality of life.

Which is why I – myself enamored of laying in ground work before plunging into a shocking sequence – spent years developing the art of the punchy first line. Hook them with the first line and they’ll sit tight for half a page or so, particularly if you are carefully ringing alarm bells behind the lovely prose. Is this how I’d normally go about it? Well... no. But I needed to get off slush and get read by editors, and this worked.

(On the same vein I’ll add that until you have a well established name, you need to hook a reader in the same way when he opens the book. Particularly in a novel. Otherwise, even if an editor buys you and you end up on the shelf [both big ifs with long lead ins] you’ll find yourself unbought and unread.)

There are other "gatekeeper" issues. We all remember, I’m sure, when every book started with a prologue. Nowadays we hear that a prologue is enough to get you throw out. I don’t know if this is true. I know that I personally abhor prologues that are dry summations and/or listings of dramatis personae. If you can’t skillfully introduce me to each character in a memorable way in each book in the series, I’m probably not going to read you. (Of course, there are exceptions.

Some writers put that in at the insistence of an editor or other.)

I have already addressed another "gatekeeper" issue. In certain houses, in certain genres or subgenres, a first person pov will throw you out. In the same way in other subgenres a third person pov might get you thrown out. (Urban fantasy comes to mind.)

Yet another issue is, say, romance from a male perspective, or romance that stays strictly in one head.

Another issue is the excessive use of adjectives and adverbs. Everyone tells you to avoid them and that they will get you rejected. Except of course, what they’re really talking about are vague, UNEEDED advjectives and adverbs.

Anyway, there are a dozen other rules, regulations, though shalt not cross tapes, and other similar barriers. There are stops and boxes all over. And I’ve often met writers – particularly beginners – who are FAR too aware of these, to the point that like Houdini, they’re doing their work up in a locked box, filled with water, fighting like mad to get out before their prose dies.

I’ve not met one who was the opposite in years, until recently.

So, what’s my verdict? Both are right, and both terribly wrong. The "I’ll do as I please and not acknowledge gatekeepers" is as much of a box as the opposite, because you’re locking the rest of your writing away from editors and – even if you get past that – from potential readers. If your objective is to be read, you’re failing.

On the other hand those who hem themselves in with all sorts of restrictions, are forgetting that some of the most successful forms of fiction break most if not all of the "rules."
There is a trick to it, of course, if you’re going to break the "rules" or even the fashionable opinions of what is good writing. One of them I’ve already discussed above. You can have a long lead in to action if you start with a punchy enough line/scene, then keep the tension up with an "underscore" of ominous notes in your soothing piece. There are tricks for everything else I’ve mentioned as well. But you have to know HOW to break the rule in a way that won’t cause the gatekeeper to toss you out, or what’s the point of the whole exercise.

You see, it’s all a trick, like "magic" is a trick. And you have to work fast so the hand deceives the eye. If you’re good enough, you’ll manage to get out of that box only slightly wet, and be standing on the pavement, receiving the ovation of the crowd. If not... your prose dies before being read.

Today exceptionally and in penalty for being ridiculously late in posting*, if you ask me how to get around your personal conundrum of this kind, I’ll do my best to tell you how I would solve the problem. Which might not be the way you do it, of course. The beauty of the locked box trick is that every bind is a little different and every set of handcuffs has a different amount of "give" and that the way you get out is what makes your writing special. However, my solution might give you some ideas. Or it might help you understand how your favorite author did it.

So, throw me some problems!

* Sorry about the lateness, but I'm trying to finish a novel -- for those of you in the know "Sexicle" -- this week. This already muddles me. But, as every time I'm doing a final push on anything, life has gone insane, (some writers believe there are supernatural reasons behind these occurrences. I think it has more to do with us trying to focus so hard we resent everything else) requiring long trips, doctors' appointments and other fun, fun, fun diversions. So I went to bed late last night, got up early and somehow completely spaced the fact that it was Wednesday.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Sympathy on the 'life getting in the way of writing', Sarah.

The book I'm currently working on has a prologue. I hate prologues but the book seemed to demand it. It sets up the whole premise for the story.

If an editor comes to me and says, the book doesn't need this prologue -- I'll take it out.

But I suspect it does. My 'inner sense of story' insists.

I guess sometimes you have to go with instinct and ignore even the rules you make for yourself.

C Kelsey said...

I am fighting my urban fantasy right now. I'm meeting all my goals, but the words feel emotionally flat. I'm certain it has to do with my first person POV.

Chris McMahon said...

I am working on the first couple of chapters of an Urban Fantasy, which I had been writing in the third person. Is this really such a death knell?

Its set mostly in New York, present day, with a few early scenes in Brisbane.

Stephen Simmons said...

I'm completely new to the biz, and don't really know anything about "rules". I'm just trying to write things I would pick up and read. Having been an avid consumer of books for over three decades, I figure that's the best benchmark I have avaiable, to start with.

Part of what I've gone with, though, is believing that the first page has to make the reader want to TURN the page ... or, in shorter work, the first paragraph or two have to accomplish that mission.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Stephen. That sound pretty good to me:)

Kate said...

Oh gawd. So many problems, so little time...

For me is that EVERY story I get, short or novel length or anything in between absolutely refuses to sit nicely into any comfortable market slots.

Urban fantasy? Sure. But the POV character is an ancient vampire, his best buddy is a werewolf with an attitude, and he's working with an undercover angel and a reformed succubus to save the world.

Alt-history with a smidge of fantasy? Yeah, but it's Dracula as hero.

And so it goes.

I'm still trying to find that box they tell you to think out of.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Yeah, I fought this with my space opera, because I didn't want it to be first person. I'm writing world-bestriding plots (particularly the next three which, hopefully, fingers crossed, Toni will buy) and being able to see what's going on in the palace while my character is fighting in the back alleys would help.

Unfortunately it would NOT be written in any other voice. And I've found if I take Thena out of it, the book is not nearly as interesting. her voice MAKES it.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Male or female? Try another first person POV. If nothing else, it will jog you out of the flat spot. Trust me. Works for me.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


It's not a death knell as far as publication, but I've found there is a decided editor preference for first person, female, gutsy... eh. My shifters published. It's not my "better selling" series, but then again... there were other factors. Like the hard cover of the first book. And besides I had this dream it was going to be a bestseller (I'm not actually joking) so I'm not giving up hope... Do what you must.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


As long as you ahve that initial hook, you'll do fine. TRUST me. ;)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Well, Kate, you can do one of two things. You can write to market: pick a category, aim for it, identify characteristics, target it. Eric Flint says that's how his sixteen thirty many came about. Also, the woman who wrote Kushiel's Dart and whose name is evading me right now. So clearly it works.

Or you can just do whatever you want but MORE so, which is what I did with DST. Of course, I have no clue if that will work, so... meh.

matapam said...

How many subplots are too many?

Really. I'm having trouble figuring out what the main problem of the book is. You'd think the three blood drained corpses would be a dead give away, but the Federal Paranormal police who think they have a right to kill vampires on sight, no proof of vampirism, let alone crime committed, necessary, seems to be muscling to the fore.

And that's without counting the werewolves changing shape and appearing at awkward times (Headline: Town Cop seen with naked teenage girl in alley!), the Wiccans, the Sirens, and the Moon Dancers getting into a hair pulling fight at the Full Moon, and the cow mutilations.

Stephen Simmons said...


I had the great good fortune to wander into Allen Wold's writing workshop at MarsCon last month, without any clear idea of what I was getting into or what I hoped to get out of it. (You grok Allen, I hope?) His workshop is for WRITERS -- he politely invites anyone who isn't willing to write, RIGHT NOW, to leave -- and it's about creating narrative hooks.

He gave us fifteen minutes to find an idea and write circa 100 words, the first 100 words of whatever story our idea formed. Then he and his panel spent two hours listening to what we had written and evaluating it. Invaluable. Better yet, I made contact with panel-member Leona Wisoker, whose first novel hits the shelves next month, and she has since invited me to join her writing group!!!

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Stephen that workshop sounds like heaven to me!

Kate said...


Um. The last time I attempted to do anything that involved deliberately picking market/formula/audience, what I got was the Evile Elves.

It's got to be being me, even more so. If that means I end up self-pubbed on kindle to find out if I'm right that other people want to read this stuff, so be it.

Heck, you saw what happened when I tried to write space opera. And what my alleged steampunk opening looks like. Maybe no subgenre is safe from me (although I don't look like finding anything remotely mainstream anytime soon), but I seem to have this innate gift of hitting them from abolished angles.

C Kelsey said...


POV character is male... the six other characters are all female. I'm purposefully taking the werelions = lion pride thing to a human extreme.

The POV character has plenty of emotion, but the words are currently coming out bland. Obviously something needs to explode and pick up the pace of the story. :)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Uh... Pam, I had that problem in a book, and it's STILL lying dead seventeen years later. I never even sent it out. I, personally, cannot juggle creditably, more than four subplots... If you can, more power to you, but...

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


That sounds great.

What I did, more or less by accident, was come across a book of "Great beginnings" with about 100 pages each of famous books. I studied why they made great beginnings for those particular books. And then I try to let the subconscious do it -- which, yes, is cumbersome, but seems to be the way I write.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Sigh. NO Genre is safe from me. And lately I'm infected with a plague of musketeers. Today, I thought "Hey, musketeer ROMANCES!"

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Put your character where it hurts the most. Start story there. Try it.

C Kelsey said...


I like that idea. I'm going to try it.

asterling said...

That's Jacqueline Carey . . .

Around my parts, the death knell is an older female protagonist. If what I've sold outside of small presses is any indication, the age cutoff is about 24.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I hadn't thought of that, but you are correct. Older female protagonists seem to be an issue. Mind you, not in mystery, but the last "mature female" I remember reading in sf/f was Tea With The Black Dragon and that was ages ago. Odd, isn't it, when most of us, readers, are somewhere in our forties? Even in Romance I've seen female MCs in their thirties and forties, but not in in SF/F. Dare one say it might be a case of the gatekeeper? They want to be young and hip. (Rolls eyes.)

BTW, one way to get around this is to have an earlier chapter, with the character at the required age. At least, judging from the fact that my book with a man and a woman in their mid to late twenties which has a chapter when they were children continuously gets rejected by presses who "don't take YA" (Rolls eyes again.)