Knowing if you’ve started your novel in the right place has got to be one of the most difficult things to master for a writer. Fortunately, there are professionals who read books and manuscripts for a living, so they have a finely honed sense of what makes a great jumping off point.
Unfortunately–for those of use who have yet to land an agent or an editor at a publishing house–we have to muddle along with help from fellow amateurs, trusting our instincts as readers to guide us to finding that magical point where a character’s story is ready to have a reader join the journey.
My writing partner has an excellent novel she’s been polishing for awhile. It has garnered contest wins and accolades from peers, and I certainly enjoyed reading it when we first became writing partners. However, the opening pages were hard to get through, and I thought it was something to do with presentation. I worked with her for some time trying to fix a problem I couldn’t quite put my finger on–was it the main character? The setting? The mix of dialogue to prose?
She recently got feedback from an agent and another professional who told her she wasn’t starting the novel in the right place. Instead of starting the novel with a magical duel between the main character and a rival, they suggested she start with the MC limping home from a fight.
My writing partner was worried I would be disappointed that she was essentially scrapping pages of stuff we’d worked on over a period of weeks, but I was excited! That sounded like the perfect place to start the story, and I looked forward to reading the new beginning.
In writing, you can never fall in love with your pages or become so invested in a partner’s work that you’re resistant to starting fresh.
Now, if only I could tell the best place to start my novels… 🙂
Mary Stayed Out All Night
TV Show (16 episodes, complete and available free on Hulu.com)
Korean romantic comedy starring Jang Geun Suk and Moon Geun Young.
When I last reviewed a Korean drama, I complained about the “scheming mean girl rival” and “go abroad at the end to provide more complications” plot devices used so frequently in Korean and Japanese dramas. The very next show I watched uses neither! Let’s hear it for Mary Stayed Out All Night.
Wi Ma Ri (Mary, as everyone calls her) is cheerful, practical, and accustomed to having to dodge the loan sharks who are always hounding her dad for money. But when her dad strikes up a deal with his wealthy childhood friend to marry her to his friend’s son, Mary knows she’ll have to do something drastic to avoid marriage with a complete stranger–like pretend to marry the handsome rock singer she met last night.
I feel like Mary Stayed Out All Night takes quite awhile to hit its stride, which might make it hard for some people to get into the story. Preposterous situations abound, but that’s kind of par for the course in these dramas. Ultimately, male romantic lead Kang Mu Gyul isn’t as hilarious as that actor’s character in You’re Beautiful, so it took me awhile to warm up to him and appreciate the more subtle layers in his personality.
A GREAT kiss between the two leads. Asian dramas can be rather hit-or-miss when it comes to realistic kisses, but when Wi Mary and Kang Mu Gyul finally kiss for real, it’s fantastic. I truly enjoyed some of the music in this show, most of all Kang Mu Gyul’s marquee rock song “My Bus.” The story is more emotionally mature as well, especially since the beautiful actress who struggles with her jealousy over the relationship developing between her ex-boyfriend Kang Mu Gyul and Mary actually seems like a real person. Sometimes she succumbs to her bitterness, but more often she rises above it–making her one of the few romantic rival characters I actually admire.
People say they don’t read the news because it’s depressing, and I get that–sometimes I feel the same way.
So imagine my delight when I opened my newspaper during breakfast (yes, I’m one of those people) and saw an article about a guy who goes all-in pretending to be Batman while visiting sick children at hospitals. You can find the whole story here.
I also love that he’s been doing this for years, and the only reason he’s getting any publicity now is because he got pulled over in his Batmobile–wearing his Batsuit–earlier this week. So he isn’t doing this for attention, just to spread a little joy and hope in the lives of children dealing with horrible illnesses.
How cool is that?
As writers, we name a whole lotta stuff. Characters. Towns. Fantasy and science fiction writers name entire worlds. But a name isn’t just an arbitrary placeholder meant to differentiate people and places in your book.
In unillustrated works, the name is the face.
Think about that. You get a character’s physical description a handful of times in a book. Maybe you get clues to his personality a handful of other times. But how many times do you see his name? In a 300 page novel, the number is probably close to a thousand times. If your name sounds weak, the character will seem weak. If your name sounds brawny, the character will sound brawny. If your name is an unpronounceable mouthful, readers will skip right over it and probably not connect with your character very well.
I really want to know what Suzanne Collins was thinking when she named Peeta in The Hunger Games.
J.R.R. Tolkien used the power of connotation and our linguistic heritage to give Middle Earth its intense depth of history. This article in the New Yorker explores the power of brand naming and linguistic connotations. Naming isn’t the most important thing we do as writers, but we can’t afford to overlook it.
No Strings Attached
Movie (108 minutes, R)
Starring Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher
Two “friends have casual sex and–oops–fall in love” rom-coms came out in 2011, but unfortunately, the more highly regarded one (Friends with Benefits starring Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake) is not available on Netfix’s streaming service. So how does the other one stack up?
Adam and Emma (Ashton Kutcher and Natalie Portman) have known each other off and on for years when they finally reunite as adults. Adam is still stinging from discovering his ex-girlfriend is now dating his father, and as a full-time resident at an area hospital, Emma has no time, no interest, and no faith in romantic relationships. They decide to distract themselves with casual sex, laying a number of ground rules to keep them from becoming emotionally involved. We all know that won’t last, so the primary entertainment is in seeing how they go from “friends with benefits” to a real couple.
This film is unnecessarily raunchy in places. There’s no real nudity, so the R rating rests solely on the dialogue and one rather awkward sex scene. The funniest parts were not even the crude ones. On a larger scale however, the movie fails to really show why Emma is so deathly afraid of emotional intimacy. She keeps turning away from what seems to be a no-brainer relationship with the wonderful Adam, and simply saying her parents divorce fifteen years ago turned her off of love doesn’t cut it. Maybe it turned her off marriage…but dating, too?
Some of the dialogue is fun, and it’s hard not to love Adam’s character. Especially the way he throws himself in headfirst, refusing to let uncertainty rule his decisions the way Emma’s fear paralyzes her. The romance between them works–barely, but it works.
Today’s Wednesday Writing is a short one since I’m only expanding on a tip I gleaned from a literary agent I follow on Twitter.
@AdviceToWriters: Make your characters want something right away even if it’s only a glass of water. KURT VONNEGUT
I really like that idea. It’s so simple, and like Vonnegut says, it doesn’t have to be a big thing—maybe your character just wants to punish her little brother for quoting her diary at the dinner table—but just the simple desire and attempt to get something draws the reader in: will he/she get what he wants?
BUT (and this is a big caveat) it’s probably a good idea to make the wanting relevant to your overall plot.
Tie it together, and the reader’s interest won’t wane after a few pages in. You got them reading, don’t let them drop now!
The Scarlet Pimpernel
By Baroness Emmuska Orczy
Many modern adventure stories owe a severe debt of gratitude to Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel. Blackadder has parodied the character. Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation novels function on the assumption that not only was the old Scarlet P a real person, he eventually retired and his flower-named pupils continued spying for England. I love both Blackadder and the Pink Carnation, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
To imitate the book’s language…
It’s 1792. The Reign of Terror has Paris in its grip, and the guillotine drinks deep of France’s noble blood. A league of young English gentlemen dash back and forth across the Channel, rescuing French aristocrats from a revolution that has lost its way. Their leader calls himself the Scarlet Pimpernel—he plots every move and slips like a wraith through the French authorities’ fingers.
Now the French government has their best agent on his tail. He intends to blackmail Lady Marguerite Blakeney into helping him unmask the Pimpernel. If she doesn’t, he’ll have her beloved brother killed. Marguerite moves in the highest English circles thanks to her fabulously wealthy, incomparably stupid husband, Sir Percy Blakeney, but even she doesn’t know the secret that makes her part in betraying the Scarlet Pimpernel so awful: she’s married to him.
Although I love the fact that Marguerite is a strong, active heroine who tells almost the entire story from her point of view, the overwrought palpitations of her heart will probably be off-putting for anyone with a low threshold for melodrama. That being said, the book is more than a century old and it gives me a happy ending, so I throw it a bone.
Percy, Percy, Percy . . . you care for nothing, yet you watch your wife with incredible longing. You make the world think you’re an impeccably dressed buffoon—all so you can save innocent people from the barbarism of the guillotine. You laugh like an idiot, plot like a genius, and love like a starving man. You are worthy of Marguerite’s love, and you make the novel. Bravo.
I have a bittersweet topic for today’s Friday Frivolity, so beware.
To write YA books, I have to do a lot of reflecting on my teenage years. That involves trying to remember all the feelings and experiences of growing into adulthood. Many of the memories are fun (I didn’t have an angsty adolescence) but a few make me kind of wistful.
Have you ever thought about how many “last times” of our growing-up years have been lost to the ether? Most of us don’t keep doing the same things we did at 4, at 7, at 11 … so, logically speaking, there had to have been a last time for lots of things—but they’re gone, never remarked because at every age, we sort of assume that life will continue to be the way we know it today.
For instance, I can’t remember:
Growing up is tough, and letting go is all part of the process. I guess my point is that even in adulthood you never know when will be the last time you do something you love. Instead of letting that be a depressing thought, turn it into an inspiring one.
Make new memories. Enjoy every second. They’re all worth it.