Openers: Starting Too Early

If you’re wondering where I’ve been in my periods of online silence, I’ve been tinkering. I finished writing the new opener for my story. I was very pleased with how it turned out, if a little shocked by how details could make it feel invasively graphic. I had to concede that maybe I shouldn’t be making the reader feel that so early on.

Online, I keep seeing people say, “Don’t start with a dream” or “Don’t start with a wake-up scene.” The reasoning that almost always follows such statements, is that these beginnings are cliché. Well, fine. I’ll write a wake-up scene that breaks the cliché by scaring the pants off of you, faking an action scene. That’ll get you interested. Then I’ll give you a glimpse into my main character’s temple life, and how she feels about it, and throw a kink in it that sends your head as reeling as hers. Problem solved.

But when I cracked open the books on writing that I’ve been hoarding lately, clichés weren’t the reason they gave at all. They said wake-up scenes were indicative of starting a story too early. You’re starting at the beginning of the day, but not necessarily at the beginning of the action. And apparently the action doesn’t matter unless it qualifies as an “inciting incident”—the incident that sets everything else in motion.

Well, I can’t start with the action of the inciting incident; that’s a near-rape scene, and that’s not the expectation I want to set in the first few lines. I have a paranormal romance, which means I have a world with alternate rules to snapshot and two characters to draw together from the very beginning…yet you’re telling me I can’t start with any introductory info? Sure, I can just start with my temple servant character walking into a new scenario that is the catalyst for action. But the moment I tell anyone that my main character is a temple servant, the first thing they ask is about the temple. (-_-); Needing that background to understand the rest of the story is kind of unavoidable. I can sneak mentalities in here and there around transitions, meetings, and dialogue. But the reader HAS to see Pandora (the most obvious villain) in action BEFORE the inciting incident, or you won’t care.

Needless to say, I feel like I’m getting mixed messages. I could make a list of things to cut, but all the tension I just built up for the end of chapter 1 will disappear if I cut the wrong one. I can’t “show” (not tell) and start with action, without horrifying the reader for no apparent reason. Yet I keep reading that having to include background is the mark of an amateur. Which is ironic, because every fantasy novel I’ve ever read starts with elaborate background.

Just a little frustrating.

I do have a good portion of chapter 10 written—enough to constitute a legitimate chapter, but not as long as my normal chapters. I have two more scenes to throw in before it’s ready.

Beasts, Alphas, Doms, and the BDSM Line

First, I’d like to thank my anonymous reviewer for their compliment, in saying that my story was well-written. But second, I would like to address some concerns that this reviewer brought up.

For those of you who haven’t read the review, the subject is the mentality behind alphas and dominants, and what that tendency actually says about the person in question. This begs the question of whether an alpha can ever be considered a well-rounded character. Since one of my two main characters is a beast character, and he is the focal point, this tension is makes up the crux of my story.

“I have always found over-the-top ‘alphas’ or ‘doms’ to be more than a little repugnant…”

Alphas and dominants certainly cater to a particular taste. The stories that revolve around them often center around the issue of control. This is because being an alpha means being at the top of the food chain, and therefore usually at the top of a societal structure. Think “natural leader” who’s got the fate of his clan or community or business in his hands. (Note that when most fantasy or paranormal readers see the word “alpha,” they typically think “werewolf pack leader.”)

Control for an alpha is a double-edged sword. On the one edge, he has to keep control of his pack—settling squabbles, administering justice, appeasing offended parties, protecting against outside forces. He’s the politician and the ranking military commander at the same time. On the other edge, he has to keep control of himself; he’s the most powerful member of his community, and he’s accountable for how he handles that power. Theoretically, he has the ability to bring down the whole pack with him. Not to mention every life he is responsible for is on his conscience.

Now, let’s move on to beasts. If you’ve snooped around Beauty and the Beast stories and TV shows, you’ve probably noticed that there are two types of beast characters that writers present: the man who is beastly on the outside, and the man who is beastly on the inside. Often beastly characters end up ugly on the outside as a reflection of being ugly on the inside (i.e. by a curse or a spell). But there are exceptions where a kindly man is unfortunate enough to end up with a repulsive appearance by no fault of his own. The woman who can see through that guise is richly rewarded—either by the amazing character of the man underneath it all, or by a more material peeling back of the ugliness to grant the heroine a physical representation of the beautiful man she knew him to be all along.

Now let’s look at my alpha beast character specifically.

My reviewer is right: Rome is incomplete, and he is damaged. His parents were murdered when he was a child, leaving him orphaned, and he didn’t cope well. Then he got a beast persona shoved into his already-existing personality. And then his best friend and crush dumped him, and he doesn’t know the whole story of why. He’s been abandoned most of his life, he’s in a constant psychological battle for his sanity, and he doesn’t understand love.

What he does understand, is that he has issues—the kind that make him unsafe for people to be around. He feels a very strong connection to Labriella, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. He doesn’t trust himself to do the right thing, but he can’t bring himself to stay away from her either.

Labriella, for her part, does not stick around for the pain and pleasure of the experience. She sticks around because she feels the deep connection too. She sticks around because she wants Rome himself—even if that is impossible for him to comprehend. And she’s willing to demonstrate that by putting up with a lot.

If you think Labriella is the type to just “roll over” once she’s comfortable, though, you’re greatly mistaken. Rome has a way of bringing out the adventurous side of her. You’ve only had snippets of it so far. Remember, she’s used to that spark inside her being extinguished by the temple. Once she learns that Rome’s baiting her (rather than just trying to push her buttons)…well, let’s just say things’ll get a little steamy. Just give the tables time to turn.

What kind of relationship does that make this? Is it BDSM?
Well, Rome’s an alpha beast, so we’ve already got the “D” for “Dominance.” I did consider putting some light bondage into the story—the handcuffed or tied-wrists kind, not much beyond that. I’m still undecided as to whether that’s a good idea, though, because that might give you the idea that Rome has to tie her down to make her stay. And while he may think that, it doesn’t make it true. As for SM…well, the only pain between the main characters in this story should be incidental. Hurting one another isn’t going to make them happy or satisfied. In fact, Rome is deathly afraid of hurting her. Only a few love-bites might be on purpose.

The idea is that letting one person in can change everything. (…Well, that’s one of the ideas, anyway.) So, you’re right: Aggressive posturing is not the way. But my intent is not to glorify Rome’s aggressive posturing. The intent is to introduce a new element to soften it, and bring balance to the equation. And that element is Labriella.

So I would ask you this about Rome: Is he immature because he is an alpha? Or is he an immature alpha?

Because I would say that an alpha is supposed to take care of others. He shows his maturity by fulfilling this responsibility. But living alone does not facilitate relating to people. An alpha without at least one person to depend on him…How can he possibly learn how to be a good leader? How to be a good husband? How to be a good friend?

As for the kinds of women who are attracted to this kind of male character…

I theorize that there are 4 common draws to fictional alpha characters:

  1. the quest for power
  2. the desire to not be responsible for once
  3. sympathy for the emotional plight
  4. curiosity

Quest for Power. I’m talking about that man or woman who always has to be in control, be the best there is, or come out on top. They don’t care who they have to step on to get there. In fact, stepping on certain people might make them feel more powerful. And that’s good, because it’s all about them. They want to be that alpha. They’re jealous of him, so they’re studying him. One day, they’ll have more; they’ll be better. Or one day, they’ll have someone like him, to love and control. He’s the top dog, so they’ll make him submit, to prove that they are the only one who can do it.

Desire Not to be Responsible. Some people just plain get tired of being in control. They have to make all the hard decisions all day, every day. They always have to look out for themself, because nobody else will. They have to take care of their entire family, and they want to know who’s going to take care of them. Or they realize that they’re reserved or reclusive or socially awkward, or will always say “maybe later” to the person they’re actually dying to be with. To these people, an alpha male looks like the perfect solution. Maybe they’d push back in real life. But in the safety of their own head? He brings out their repressed wild side. And maybe, just maybe, they can trust him.

Sympathy for the Emotional Plight. It’s not about control at all; it’s about the person on the other end of it. The alpha has the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he may or may not know how to handle it. Who’s going to help him? Who’s going to care for his heart, when everyone else just cares about what he is or isn’t doing for them? Who’s going to hold him when he comes home exhausted and broken at the end of a long day? Who’s going to be his sidekick when nobody wants to follow his lead, or when he doesn’t believe in himself, or when the problem’s too big for him to face alone? “I’LL DO IT!” scream ten million fangirls. Because it’s not just about where he has the power and the prowess and the bravado; it’s about where he doesn’t. (Otherwise, he would be a hatable character.)

Or maybe they look at the alpha male, and say, “Hey, that reminds me weirdly of me…or how accomplished I wish I was. Where’s my sidekick love-interest?”

Curiosity. These are the outsiders looking in. They’re not really sure what’s going on, or how they feel about it, but they’re interested to see a new-to-them concept play out. “To each his/her own” is their motto. They’re just wondering what some people’s “own” looks like. They want to see something new and exciting. They can’t wait to see what happens next, because it doesn’t play according to the usual rules of engagement. They want to dip their toe into the forbidden pool. Or they just want to slake their curiosity so they can stop wondering what all the fuss is about.

Feel free to chime in with another reason to add to my theory. Or if you’re thinking, ‘Heeeey, that’s not right!’, feel free to correct. What good is a theory, if it’s not perfected?

I will end by saying that I by no means think alpha males should appeal to everyone. I myself am rather on-the-fence about it. I don’t like a character to be too strong, but I don’t like them to be too weak either. For me, it comes down to what that character does with what is given to them—them learning how to use it, what they learn from having it, and watching them grow from it.

Openers & Character Intros

Remember when I said that subconsciously my creative efforts wanted to be redirected toward revising? For the past several days I’ve been indulging them, and it’s going slow but well. Everything I read about in articles and in all those books about writing seem to have diffused into my head and culminated, because those tips are coming out on paper in ways I didn’t know I could orchestrate.

I’ll give you an example.

Before:

Only as my roommate carelessly discarded her blanket on my sleeping form, the rough material slapping abruptly across my face, did I blink myself awake in startled confusion. Forcing myself from my sleepy stupor, I sat upright on my mat and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. Blearily I searched out the bare mat beside me and deposited the offensive blanket upon it. Reluctantly relinquishing the warmth of my own blanket, I stretched and stood, shaking off the dredges of sleep that still clung to me. I folded my blanket and placed it back on my mat, before following the other servant girls out of our room. Waking later made me one of the last from the room, but I did not rise so late as to be late to the dressing room.

There were several dressing rooms. Since I was young, the dressing room I was assigned to contained only washbowls and small towels. I knelt on the stone floor before a bowl of water and rinsed my face, hands, and feet, drying them with the small towel provided beside the bowl.

This happened, that happened, I saw this…tell, tell, adverb, describe, explain. This is at the beginning of chapter 2. It’s like a temple life info-dump. Not horrible, but not exciting either. You’re either caught in the lull of rhythm, or you’re trying to make a list to keep track of all the details in your head, or you’re employing patience until you can find out why all this matters.

After:

I jolted awake when a weight dropped onto me. Howls still echoing in my ears, my eyes snapped open, half expecting to see some unnameable creature ready to pounce.

My assailant was…a blanket.

I flopped back onto floor with a groan. One of my many roommates had ditched her blanket on top of me again. Seriously, how hard was it to put it back on her sleeping mat? Or in the laundry? Or folded up in a corner?

Alright, I sighed, shucking my own blanket. Enough grumbling. What if one of the taskmistresses hears you? There’ll be hell to pay.

I stumbled into the next room with the others, kneeling in front of a basin to splash the sleep from my face. Unfortunately, the cold water could not wash away my dream. No matter; I knew how to hide such things. By the time I dabbed the last drops from my face, my mask of neutrality was carefully in place.

It’s a mundane morning routine, but I made-you-look with fake suspense, kept you with her attitude, and then used her attitude to point out stuff about the room and drop hints as to what her life is like. And this is all in the first few lines of the first chapter! I read that wake-up scenes have been overdone as openers in fiction. But hopefully, since I scared the pants off of you by making you think the main character was getting woken up by a wild animal pouncing on top of her, you feel blindsided rather than clichéd.

Hopefully a bit more attention-grabbing than this:

Before:

All living beings are governed by relationships. But sometimes one relationship does not just affect two beings, or create a small ripple in the sea of time. Sometimes one relationship affects the world.

Neither of us was destined for great things. We were outcast, pariah, hidden away from the world. But the winds of change lulled me away from my assigned path, to the childlike feet of perhaps the most dangerous man alive. Had I ignored the wind’s guidance, or stood like stone, my life would have been a very different story.

I was a very unremarkable child, ordinary in appearance and unnoteworthy in ability. The temple drafted me into service at a very young age, offering me food and shelter in exchange for a life of monotonous dedication. I doubt I thought much on the offer of whichever magnanimous soul deemed to reach down into the dirt and rescue my scrawny form from starvation, though truthfully I cannot remember back that far. The temple became my life, and it was not for me to question the ways of it.

I guess it could be fine, as far as a world-scale recollective intro goes. I was going for a taper effect: starting with “all,” funneling down to “we,” and then focusing on “I.” But it doesn’t connect you to Labriella; you’re not really trekking through the crap experiences with her. And it doesn’t leave you at all in suspense of what is going to happen next. I do go on to say “until [she] met him,” and other vague things that imply change. But now you know that whatever else happens in the story, this character has to get out alive to tell the tale—which would not otherwise have been a given (especially since I can switch to the beast’s perspective at any time).

I’ll be honest: Labriella is a troublesome character to write. Rome can show his thoughts (or the opposite of his feelings) with his actions. But Labriella is more likely to reflect her feelings by what she doesn’t do. She’s a trained servant who’s used to being bullied, so she’s not typically going to voice her opinions or fix her best friend’s annoyingly frizzy hair. She’s in survival mode, and she should be at least slightly sour or depressed underneath that because, as far as she’s concerned, a life without her best friend/crush is noticeably lacking. Trapped or depressed people don’t spontaneously decide to seek closure. So following Kitiora’s advice to go see Rome is probably a no-go—especially after what happened last time.

 

Rome? Let’s just say he’s not going to feel any more inclined to visit the village than he did when he was younger. But certain things can irk him into action. Like an ex-friend/ex-crush returning from a several-year absence to scream for him on the edge of his territory. Or having to live with his conscience if he were to knowingly let her suffer at the hands of human men, only a few feet from his reach. That’s enough for him to make a brief appearance.

 

In case you didn’t catch the implications of the above statements, I’ll be ditching chapters 1-3 (to be alluded to later), and rewriting chapters 4-6 & 10. That should shave off a few thousand words by getting rid of lengthy backstory and explanations. And, if I play my chapters right, the first chapter will rope you in, and by chapter 2 (a.k.a. like 12k words in) you’ll be in the heart of the story. Chapters 7-9 will get pushed back until after that, and probably interspersed between noble events.

I’m also toying with the idea of shorter chapters. Usually I aim for 7k-word chapters—which seems to suit my readers just fine as long as I routinely update, or if a delayed chapter ends up as 11k words to hold them over. But at this point I’m thinking scene breaks might come more naturally at half that amount, which would get updates out to my readers faster. So I guess I’ll see where I can naturally end chapter 1, and try to judge from there.

How long do you guys prefer chapters to be?

Long enough to hold you over?
Or short enough to feel accomplished for getting to the end?

The Boring Agony of Book Shopping

I think I’ve come to hate book-shopping. Which is really, really sad, because I absolutely LOVE reading. It’s just that there are so many things out there that I don’t want to read, that searching for the right story becomes a chore. This is why I only read series: Because if I’m going to go through all that effort to finally find the story I want to read, it better be awhile before I have to do it again. After the series I like ends, I’ll try to stick with the author. But usually when the author writes another series, I just can’t get into it. Maybe that’s just part of having a “book hangover,” like that quote I related to on Pinterest—inability to move on due to still being stuck in the last book’s world. Or maybe all that really matters to me is the story. I would call myself a book-whore, except I’m probably far too selective to merit such a promiscuous title.

Alright, I’ll tell you what my problem is: I like romance, but I don’t like it when the characters hardly even kiss, or when sex is thrown in my face. I mean, sex is welcome in the story, but I’m not reading the story for arousal purposes, so you’re going to have to make me care about the characters and the story and not just the sex. And I do NOT want something about a normal-life couple; I can walk outside to see that…sometimes I don’t even have to walk outside to see that. Give me something with fantasy or paranormal elements, where those things are vital to the story but do not overshadow the romance. I’m here for the depth and complexity, not the flashiness or the “don’t you want me?” One additional stipulation: no zombies or angels/demons, and for now I’m trying to stay away from vampires. What does that leave? Werewolf stories, but hopefully more than that.

Feel free to make some recommendations! I’m fond of mysterious male characters and not-so-chipper heroines, and I’m not afraid of a dark story tone. I do like shifters (mostly because of the mateship and alpha concepts), but I wouldn’t mind branching out of that category. I can do some sci-fi too, I’m just a bit more hesitant.

I’m finally starting to understand where following book reviewers comes in. Looks like it’s time to become a reviewer groupie.

Spontaneous Plotting

This is going to sound weird, but…I hate plotting. In fact, I can only plot when that is not what I set out to do. Today, for instance. Here I am, copying a typed bit of my manuscript into my notebook to get a different look at it, trying to pick up momentum for my next scene while entertaining ideas of how to revamp the beginning of the series. And what comes out of my head? An entire new plot sequence that has me dashing for my Idea Notebook. Tell me how that makes any sense.

Something I read in one of the writing books I bought recently said something about having fewer minor characters to perform more of the tasks. I think the idea was to make the cast as small as possible, so that readers would not have so difficult a time remembering all the characters’ names and functions. Somehow, after letting it sit on the backburner of my mind, I got out of that that I should consolidate scenes and settings, so that the pace of the story will move quicker. I also started trying to connect minor characters to each other more, rather than just connecting each one individually to the main characters.

So this is what I spontaneously came up with:

WHAT IF…

Labriella is kidnapped by lowlifes and sold or brought to appease a nobleman. The nobleman intends to use her for the contest. Kit goes to find Rome (who Labriella told her stories about) when Labriella goes missing, suspecting that Labriella has been taken. But by the time Rome rescues and claims her, the temple already considers Labriella a runaway and is out looking for her and a missing temple maiden whom she is believed to have helped escape. Rome’s interference puts him on the nobles’ radar and the top of their “suspicious interest” list, and he starts getting invitations to parties as a way to vet him and assess his usability. Meanwhile, Labriella is reeling from the news that her new master is actually her transformed childhood friend.

Would you believe I came up with all that in 10-20 minutes? Oh the power of procrastinating distractions.

What do you think? PLEASE tell me if it’s cliché. I like to twist things.
What do my current readers think? Do you like the current story progression better? Or would you rather have a faster pace in volume 1?

See “Revision #2″ under “Series Info” for more a more practical overview of what it would look like.

The Quest for an Exciting Recollective Beginning

I finally broke down and did it: I began revising from the very beginning.

I can practically hear the communal groan. “Aren’t you done revising yet?!”

No. Not yet.

Before you throw your computer across the room, think back to chapter 1 of volume 1. And think how boring that was. Well, okay, 270k words later, you might not even remember there WAS a chapter 1. But I do, because I spent hours belaboring the opening after a friend of mine who majored in publishing put track changes all over my manuscript. That was years ago, and I changed it since then.

But then I met with a friend of a friend, who has an agent, and she said intro stuff like prologues and childhood chapters should not exceed one chapter combined. I’ve sat on that knowledge awhile, unsure how to scrunch three significant background chapters into one.

Lately, I’ve been reading all these articles about “purple prose,” exorbitant details, packed dialogue, unnecessary dialogue tags, the importance of a good “hook,” and how much of a story readers, editors, and agents really look at when they’re deciding whether to stick with it. Meanwhile, I’ve been toying with alternate recollective openers, in both Labriella’s and Rome’s perspectives. I even thought of putting in both perspectives as a dual opener, on pages opposite one another for contrast (which, of course, would fail in an ebook). But I could not make a recollection exciting in the way that people keep saying is important.

Then I realized that, as much as I love recollective works, they aren’t exciting. Intriguing, perhaps. But their openers are not at all representative of whatever action may lay inside. That’s fine for me, if I’m buying the book, because I love the main character’s level of intimacy with the reader. As long as I get lost in the middle, I’m sold. But if I’m trying to draw in an editor, publisher, or agent to make them see in a few short lines that my book is different (and that that difference is exciting), recollective tense may not be the best way for me to market my book. I’m having trouble with the “Chronicles” aspect of it anyway, considering I have two main characters who would allegedly be chronicling at the same time (one of whom has no love of writing, due to his claws).

So today, I finally said “Screw it,” got out my pen and new notebook, and started writing an opening in the same tense as I would in the middle—like the character’s personality had already been developed and established. I completely shaved off the childhood chapters, and began integrating personality, dream, and temple aspects right from the beginning. I left off all the explanations and narration, and left Labriella with actions and quips. At this rate, Rome will be introduced as her savior by the end of chapter 1, and you’ll grasp just enough temple context before it gets the heck out of dodge for the real storyline.

What I’ve written so far makes the first-revision Labriella look like a flat character by comparison. I’ve been feeling for awhile like Labriella was a static character, so it’s about time I figured out how to change it. I kept reading things about making sure the beginning reads the same as the rest of the story, but I didn’t understand what that meant until now. By starting the tone like I’m in the middle, I’m boosting the actual middle, raising the standard to make it more energetic.

The other thing I’m looking to do is to make Rome more beastly and wild from the beginning. With his childhood taken out of the way, and little reflective clues dropped throughout, perhaps the reader will catch on to what happened as Labriella does—or a couple steps behind her, since she knew Rome once. If orchestrated correctly, the beast-fear factor might be something overcome in the beginning or throughout instead of at the end.

For those of you who wish I’d just finish volume 2 and call it a book…so do I. But I’m blocked. I’ve tried for the last month to force my way through it, and I know I can. But when I do that, my chapters take longer, and they just aren’t as good. I think a large part of my block is because subconsciously my creative effort wants to be redirected toward revising, and I’ve been denying it that outlet to try to press forward. It’s time to go with the creative flow, and see what comes out. That is how I’ve always written, after all. It would be foolish to think I can force it another way now.

Chapter 9 Emerges!

Alright guys, the time for posting is finally here!

I know, you probably want to smack me by now, because I’ve taken so long. But that’s not because I wasn’t working on my story! I’ve actually been rewriting and reworking chapter 9 for the entire last month! No matter what I did, or how many adjustments I made, it just didn’t seem right to me. Finally I forced myself to take a break from writing and revising for a week, to just let ideas culminate in my head. It got me out of routine, which annoyed me. But perhaps it was worth it, because when I returned to the chapter today, I was able to make some final adjustments, and was actually satisfied enough to post it! It’s called “Against Better Judgment” on FictionPress (a title I’ve been wanting to use for a long time). But make sure you read my revisions to chapter 8 first!

Wondering what chapter 9 is about? Labriella makes the mistake of running from Rome (a predator), and Rome responds by doing something that he can’t take back. Then the two have to figure out where that leaves them.

I’ll be the first to warn you that chapter 9 has two explicit limes, and the first is borderline-consensual. What do I mean by “borderline”? I mean Labriella is unsettled by the setting, the position she’s in (literally), and the new fear factor introduced at the end of last chapter (which Rome has done nothing to help), so she’s not so inclined to give in to a lime. But that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t like what’s happening. So let’s just say, if you cry “rape,” then I haven’t done my job. But I’ve been really careful about my portrayal, so hopefully you’ll see it as it’s intended. If not, tell me please.