A Couple of More Questions on Writing

Here are some more questions from readers, with the same caveat at last week: my answers describe my process, which may be totally different from yours. Neither is “right”; what matters is what works for you.

From Donald Kirby: When you have two openings that appeal equally, how do you choose?

That actually happened to me on Long Black Curl. I wanted to use one of my favorite gambits, one that’s very appropriate to the folkloric nature of the Tufa novels: the storytelling opening. It begins at some point in the future, when a character says essentially, “Let me tell you about something that happened a long time ago.” Then you go into the story proper.

The most famous example is probably the bracketing story of The Princess Bride. It’s present somewhat in the novel, but it’s a more general “why I wrote this” introduction. In the film, it’s literally a story: a grandfather reading to his sick grandson. And we go back to them periodically, providing a meta-context for what we’re watching. The grandson at first takes the piss out of this overly earnest story of “twue wove,” voicing the audience’s doubts; but as he’s drawn in, so are we.

The simplest example in popular culture is probably, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Although it may be hard to remember a time BSW (before Star Wars), it did exist, and without this simple disclaimer, those 1977 audiences would have been totally lost. Where was Earth in relation to Tattooine? Which political party gave rise to the Galactic Empire? Did the spaceships use technology based on nuclear weaponry? With that simple statement, though, the story was separated from any historical context: we weren’t watching typical “futuristic” SF such as Logan’s Run or 2001: A Space Odyssey. We were getting a storybook tale.

For Long Black Curl, I abandoned this kind of opening for a very practical reason: it ruined the suspense for a particular character’s fate. By having this character tell the story, you immediately knew that s/he (nope, not spoiling) survived the events of the main story, and I finally decided the tension of that plot point was more important than showing off my ostensible cleverness with this opening.

In my experience, though, the right opening will suggest itself as you work on the story. I never stop writing the first draft just because it has a bad beginning.

Working desk

From Jacki Smith: Do you make a physical map of a complicated scene while you are writing?

Simple answer is: no. Although I have done something like that once.

In the Eddie LaCrosse novel He Drank, and Saw the Spider, I found myself writing a banquet scene that included eighteen named characters who had so far appeared in the story. Eighteen. That’s a lot of people to keep up with in any situation, and to do it, I made a crude seating chart.  But the main issue was making sure that each character had his/her moment to justify his/her presence in the scene.

For the most part, I figure if I can’t keep it straight in my head, then the reader won’t be able to, either. So using too many crutches is, for my process, cheating.  Unless it’s a banquet scene.

Thanks to Jacki and Donald for their questions.

One Comment on “A Couple of More Questions on Writing”

  1. Reminds of my friend Jeff, who started to read Martin’s “Song of Ice & Fire”. When he started getting characters mixed up, he opened an Excel spreadsheet. After about a half hour of plotting names & descriptions, he realized what exactly he was doing. The series wasn’t worth the trouble to finish.

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