Why it Doesn’t Matter How Your Novel Opens

“He was one of those inexplicable gifts of nature, an artist who leaps over boundaries, changes our nervous systems, creates a new language, transmits new kinds of joy to our startled senses and spirits.”  ~Jack Kroll

The way your novel opens is totally meaningless in the larger scheme of things.

Holy smokes, did she really just say that?

Yeah. I did. Here’s the painful reality: If your book is great, nobody will give a rat’s bald ass how your book opened because … well, as previously stated … the book is great. If it isn’t great, then nobody will give a rat’s bald ass how your book opened because … well, as previously stated … it isn’t great.

In other words, NOBODY CARES EITHER WAY!

“Don’t open with a prologue.”
“Don’t open with your protagonist in thought.”
“Don’t open with your main character waking up.”
“Don’t open with the weather.”
“Don’t open with dialogue.”
“Don’t open a novel with immediate action.”
“Don’t open with tons of description and backstory.”

Why don’t you just go ahead and say, “Don’t start your book with sentences … because um … only the good ones work and you may not be able to write any of the good ones.”

I’m SO over the number of authors who blog about this drivel. Seriously, stop with the rules and the strict as iron guidelines. Have you learned nothing from the success of Stephen King’s ‘On Writing?’ It worked, not only because it was Stephen King, but because he didn’t talk down to his audience. He assumed a certain amount of competence.

“But what if the beginning makes or breaks the novel?”

What? Are you hearing yourself? If the opening reeks that critically of the bowels of hellish prose, then nothing can save you. NOTHING. Do you have any idea how many books are on my shelves? Do you know how many of them were good, but not great enough for me to give a damn how they opened? The ones that were great, that stood out, were great because the author chose the opening that best fit the book. And that’s the difference.

There is no universal right and wrong in how to open a novel.

There is, however, a right and wrong way to open YOUR novel. Instead of freaking out over what not to do, why don’t you worry about what you should be doing instead. What does the story tell you? What do the characters tell you? Open your creative mind a little—just a tad—and eavesdrop on what your muse is doing. Deep down, below the industry blogs and posts you’ve got pinned on your FB wall, below all of that … you know how to proceed. You’re not giving yourself nearly enough credit for being the strong, confident author, that I know you are!

Allow me to assume a higher level of competency for you, than you have for yourself. listen to me. YOU. You are capable of writing the best opening for YOUR story. And do you know what’s more? No one else is.

No one else is.

That’s right ladies and gentlemen. Your story’s fate is in your hands and yours alone. You can’t put this off on other people. You can’t blame its success or failure on the weather or rules or Donald Maass. I know … frightening isn’t it? Along with competency comes responsibility.

And it’s your responsibility to focus on only what is true and necessary to the work. Nothing else matters.

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Any Way But Lightly

“Success isn’t a result of spontaneous combustion.  You must set yourself on fire.”  ~Arnold H. Glasow

No matter how you measure it, writing has to be done on a regular basis. Like any other art, it has to be practiced. Yeah, you already know this. It wasn’t news to me either, but for one reason or another, my motivation has been lagging ever since I signed my first book deal.

So, a decision was made today and I figured hell, why not share it with you guys?

The picture to your right is my bulletin board. I added the calendar on the bottom. If you look at it closely, you’ll see stars. I’ve decided that each day I write, I’ll mark the day with a color-coded star (beginning today). At the end of the month, they will all get tallied up and however much money I’ve earned will go into my little “writer” savings account. What do the stars mean?

Gold = 3,500 words or more   $5.00
Silver = 3,000 words                 $2.50
Purple = 2,000 words                $1.00
Green = 1,000 words                 $0
Red = <1,000 words                  $0

Dumb … yeah, sure. I should be self-motivated. I write full time, why is there this ridiculous need for an accountability chart? No clue. Maybe it’s the lack of a schedule. Maybe all those hours writing through lunch breaks and after work conditioned my creative brain like Pavlov’s dogs to a bell. Who knows. But, I’m not going to sit around and wait for inspiration. Oh, and editing won’t count toward stars … only new material. Revision might in the case of added scenes, but only in those instances. So, we’ll see how it goes.

Now, you didn’t think I’d just end this post here did you? No, this got me pondering about other writers and their habits—how they manage their time. I’ve often heard the, ‘thousand words a day’ thing tossed around. Here are some famous authors and their particulars:

Stephen King: In his book On Writing, he said that he writes 10 pages a day, even on holidays. If you average 350 words per page, that’s about 3500 a day.

Ernest Hemingway: He wrote 500 words a day, no more, no less. It’s also been said that he only wrote in the morning and never wrote drunk. One fact might beget the other.

Here is a GREAT post on writers and their rooms of choice, weapons of choice, and times of choice. Really, really, it’s a post worth reading so do yourself the favor and read it.

Finally, I’ll leave you with a  quote from King himself on the act of writing: “You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair–the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.”

Requiem

“If man were immortal he could be perfectly sure of seeing the day when everything in which he had trusted should betray his trust, and, in short, of coming eventually to hopeless misery.  He would break down, at last, as every good fortune, as every dynasty, as every civilization does.  In place of this we have death.”
~Charles Sanders Peirce

I can vividly remember sitting at the conference room table, on my lunch break, beginning the journal that would eventually serve as my plot book for Fable. About a month later, towards Halloween, I sat down with my laptop and without any thought to when I would finish it or if it would be published or even if anyone other than myself would ever read it, I began to write. I’d realized, through the most sundry conversation in the world, that I had to either step out in faith that I had talent enough to do what my heart wanted, or give up and walk away. No more talking about being a writer, no more saying that one day I’ll get around to it. That was 3 1/2 years ago. On March 30, 2010 I was offered a publishing contract on Fable, which will tentatively launch sometime in November/December of this year.

And just as I embarked on a journey then, walking blindly into unknown territory, I am doing so again as I go through the process of negotiating the contract and beginning a relationship with Rhemalda Publishing. It is the death of one part of my life and the birth of another. And even now, before having stepped farther than two feet down this path, I can assure you that it has brought irrevocable change to who I am as an author.

I once had fears that I would never be able to finish Fable; not that I wasn’t motivated but fears that I was unable (in more romantic moments I would have said unworthy). But, the words never stopped coming and within 12 months I’d finished all three books in the first trilogy. And even though there may have been a point in my writing life where I was convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that I would be too thrilled about a contract to care about anything else, I still fear being unable. I’ve grown considerably as an author since I wrote or even revised book one, and of course there will be an editor going through the manuscript and hopefully fixing my adverb abuse (wasn’t aware that I had this problem until recently). All that aside, there is this little part of me that feels like I’m standing on the edge of this huge precipice staring into utter nothingness and everything in me wants to cling to the cliff and not leap off. But, I will leap. I owe the book that much.

Evergreen

“If in my youth I had realized that the sustaining splendour of beauty of with which I was in love would one day flood back into my heart, there to ignite a flame that would torture me without end, how gladly would I have put out the light in my eyes.”  ~Michelangelo

I hear, from time to time, other authors speak of their old work in hushed tones, often in embarrassment or disdain or both. I’ve grown considerably since I first began to try my hand at this particular art of storytelling, but I realized something tonight that I’d known, yet forgotten all the same; youth is exempt from the fear of mortality and therefore has no concept of future misgivings. For most children there is always the promise of tomorrow and with it, the possibility of everything they long for. The fear of failure, when it comes to their dreams, is as foreign as the reality of income tax and termites.

After sending out a submission and getting unrealistically (and unnecessarily) wrapped up in all the ‘grown-up’ stuff we authors have to deal with, I sat down in my oversized chair and randomly went through a few old files—stuff I hadn’t so much as glanced at in a decade. I flipped absentmindedly through the papers and before long, I found myself stunned by my own past, in awe of a love affair with worlds I’d long since forgotten. I knew I’d written five ‘books’ when I was fourteen or so, in collaboration with my best friend at the time. I’ve read over them now and again for old times’ sake, but what I’d apparently put out of mind was a staggering amount of work—prologues, story sketches, scenes, character and plot maps; pages upon pages of what probably amounts to over 500,000 words or so. This is just prose, not journal entries (which exceed that number by far).

You’re probably asking yourself why you’re still reading this post by now, but give me a second here. My point in bringing this up, is that I want to remind you what it meant to write with such abandon. I clearly, clearly couldn’t have cared less if those words ever saw daylight, let alone publication. As adults, we still write with ourselves in mind (mostly—then editors, our readers, etc), but there is such a tremendous difference. It isn’t merely the lack of experience or lack of quality that would accompany any childhood ramblings that makes these penned worlds what they are. There is something else, something evergreen that literally jumps off of the pages. This girl, who worked free of boundaries, is why I started writing again three years ago. I didn’t merely love to write: I wrote with no concept of what it meant to be an author. I walked through the divide between what is, and what can never be, with no consideration of how it affected me personally.

What I’m saying, is that I didn’t care about voice, or style, or genre; I didn’t have any notion of royalties or advances or contracts. I didn’t fear rejections because frankly, even had I known what they were, I still wouldn’t have given a damn. Put simply, the story was all that mattered. We say this all the time as adults, but do we mean it utterly?

And really, when the day ends, what differentiates good prose from great? What distinguishes one work and discards another? That single quality, that crucial element that will, without fail, lend validity to your work is its ability to be evergreen. The irony of it, is that it isn’t something that can be forced. It either is, or is not. The choice is up to you and how willing you are to let go of your boundaries. As youth, we gather our materials and ready ourselves to construct mythical kingdoms, great and lofty palaces. Yet somewhere along the way our adulthood steals our confidence, tells us that all we have collected is of no consequence, convinces us that degrees and titles and awards are the only things that will build a future.

To hell with adulthood.

It’s in my blood. Perhaps I am romanticizing this time, but you didn’t spend the last three hours reading what I read. I’m ashamed of how much fear I’ve let slip in over the last year or so. But, the good thing about writing youthfully; there is always tomorrow. And tomorrow, I start fresh…no more fear or doubt (or Dragons if you’ve been reading this blog), only evergreen.

Guest Blogger: Ien Nivens

“You don’t mind putting in long hours, and you like punching people, so let’s combine the two. I’m going to teach you ‘chanting’. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of precision, and doing a whole lot of steps exactly right, but when it works, you can make some pretty awesome stuff.”

Bone Shop

“Awesome would be a nice change,” Marla said.

–from Bone Shop, by T. A. Pratt

Available at http://www.marlamason.net/boneshop/

Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart
By Ien Nivens

Tim Pratt’s Bone Shop is the foul-rag-to-dubious-riches story of a street urchin’s rise through the ranks of sorcerers in the East Coast city of Felsport.  A prequel to Pratt’s Marla Mason series, the hectic urban eclecticism of this introductory novella is wound in prose as frank as baling wire—tarnished here and burnished there—and bound by the spittle of broken promises, dire prophecies and talking jawbones.  I’m going to say this once, maybe twice:  Download it.  Read it.  It’s as free as a dirty needle, and the odds are better than even that it will infect you, leaving you jittery, addicted, and wondering if you’re sick. It’ll be OK.  There’s more where this came from at http://www.marlamason.net

Pratt has peopled Felsport with a cast as intriguing as the magical artifacts they find, finagle and fiddle with in this tale of jiggered hopes and cracked dreams. Jenny Click deserves a novella of her own (but don’t give her a copy; she’d only set fire to it) while Artie Mann’s ideas about sorcery deserve at least a spread in a dirty magazine.  In the end Bone Shop is, oddly enough, a morality tale.  At least, I think so.  I can’t tell you what the moral is exactly, because that part of my memory has been wiped clean by a tincture of lethe water.  But I’m pretty sure that it has something to do with cobbling one’s ambitions together around a vacant heart.

There are problems with the hodge-podge of narrative fabrics and other magics that Pratt has grabbed off the racks at the thrift shops of myth and imagination. Nothing so threadbare that it can’t be mended, but a little backstitching here and there would keep this dream from always threatening to unravel.  In a few places, where the seams are turned needlessly inside-out, a little clipping is all that’s needed.  Let me show you what I mean.

Bone Shop begins with Marla Mason as a sixteen-year-old dropout.  Literate and homeless, she spends a lot of time at the public library, reading to keep warm.  We never learn why she’s on the streets and not in school, but we do come to understand that it’s a matter of preference.  She is mentally tough and determined to improve her circumstances but certainly not by way of a traditional education.  She is not a stickler for rules.  Except, apparently, grammatical ones.

Marla finds Artie—the man who has taken her in, made her his apprentice, given her a semblance of a home and a family—disemboweled.  She must go in search of his murderer.  Whatever sense of loyalty she may (or may not) feel toward the sorcerer has been augmented in advance by a magically binding oath of vengeance called a geas, which takes the form of Artie’s voice screaming in her head until his killer is dead.  Stalking the killer, Marla “[pushes] open a door marked ‘Employee’s Only’ – that stupid apostrophe [makes] her grit her teeth…”

Mind you, apostrophe abuse annoys me, too.  But an author poking his fingers through the fabric of a story with his pet grammatical peeve, while his protagonist is breathing down the neck of a serial killer is enough to make me wince.   (But I wax as pricklish, surely, as Pratt’s sanctimonious angels, who stumble about in bum’s clothing, accusing everyone of…well, of something not quite proper.)  I reluctantly absolve Pratt of the little crimes he commits and move on to Bone Shop’s bigger sins—of omission.

First is the baffling failure to introduce Somerset—a sorcerer of great historical significance in Felsport, apparently, but who knew?—until Marla needs a new nemesis.  Somerset is brought back from the dead, before we know that he ever lived, to fill in a plot hole in the next to last chapter.  We learn that the democratic structure of the sitting “sorcerer’s council” is a reaction to Somerset’s “reign of terror” while he was alive.  Since this is information that a teacher/sorcerer like Artie Mann might have imparted to his apprentices in memorable detail, its absence from Marla’s early curriculum is regrettable.  It leaves the final levels of the fictional structure top-heavy and out of joint.

While Somerset’s tardy appearance damages Bone Shop’s rickety structure, a lack of sufficient character development with regard to Marla’s one and only love interest, Daniel, saps vitality from the novella’s soul.  The peripheral and superficial treatment of Daniel’s personality prevents two important events from achieving sufficient credibility, or even comprehensibility.  The first of these is what Jenny Click, believing that Daniel must be dead, decides that she must do about it.  (I won’t tell you what that is, because she is one of the most intriguing minor characters I’ve met in recent fiction, and you really should get to know her for yourself.)   Jenny’s action stretches the cables of my suspension-of-disbelief bridge to the snapping point, not because it isn’t possible or likely, but because Daniel has so far been presented as little more than a cute butt with a vague Southernness that we never quite hear, see or feel, and the rare ability to nourish himself on the energies of other people, places and things.  Marla has fallen in love with Daniel, apparently, but how hard and what for?  We just don’t see what she sees in him.  We aren’t given the opportunity.

Pratt is not a prudish writer, but he glides over the intimacies of Marla’s and Daniel’s relationship with an almost juvenile coyness.  Maybe he assumes that telling us about all the wild sex these two teenagers are having is enough to convince us that they mean something to one another.  It’s not.  A little tenderness in these early scenes, an emotional resonance that the reader can tune into, would go a long way toward making the finale as unendurably poignant as it’s meant to be.

Hearts are ripped out of their chests in this story; guts get wrenched, mangled and left steaming.  But not the reader’s heart.  Not the reader’s guts.  And that’s a crying shame.  This improbable structure of bone and magical gewgaw that Pratt has somehow rigged together is surely sturdy enough, complex enough, lifelike enough to support the organ of poignancy he tries, too late, to animate.  We end up surprised by an ending that might have shocked his story to life—and shocked us numb with its bitter beauty.  But owing to a simple lack of preparation early on, that doesn’t happen.  Pratt fumbles for the heartstrings of a strong plot and plucks them hard, only to find that they haven’t been properly tuned.  They could be.  They ought to be.  The independent publishing platform that Pratt employs would allow for it.  Bone Shop has all the claws it needs to rip, wrench and mangle its way to an awesome conclusion. All that’s missing is the tender vitals.

Ien Nivens’ reviews of independently published fiction also appear at http://www.berkshirefinearts.com/

Painting by Cindy Kaplan

Thank you Ien! As always, your presence in and support of The Asylum is always appreciated.  ~J.S.

*If you’d like to write as a guest blogger for Welcome to the Asylum, feel free to email me at batman0762@gmail.com.

You Want a Piece of Me?

Time

Olympic athletes train every day. They wake up at absurd hours because they need more time than a normal human schedule allots. Before the average Olympian has ever won a medal, they have supporters. The public cheers them on because they want them to succeed. When they compete, they are known for either life altering mistakes (broken limbs, public falls, etc.), or dream achieving performances. If I have my facts right, most of them don’t hold full time jobs while engaged in a ‘training’ season.

Writing is no different. Save the public’s basic understanding of what it takes to become a master of our craft. Family members question our absence at holidays or get-togethers. Friends whine about unanswered phone calls, unaddressed emails or short visits. In-laws, acquaintances and neighbors ask why we don’t do something more directly related to gainful employment…or worse, success. I suspect they don’t truly know the definition of the word.

Publishing companies, those few who are willing to accept unsolicited submissions, make the bold requirement, ‘No multiple submissions’ yet with the same tongue, ‘Expect a reply within 6-8 months.’

For each agent, a writer must research all the particular likes and dislikes, the format (there are just as many ways to submit a query as there are stars in the sky), the amount to include (five pages, no pages, query only, full synopsis), and even how to address the agent. This essentially boils down to personal preference. Agent X doesn’t appreciate being addressed by their first name. Agent Y wouldn’t get past the greeting if it didn’t specifically address her by first and last name. Bottom line: you don’t want us to succeed.

I don’t want to hear the usual crap I hear from the publishing world about professionalism, courtesy and all of the excuses used for  supposedly ‘streamlining’  the process. We get to read all of the time about one author or another who had the audacity to….fill in the blank with the offense of the week.  I’ve read more than once how it isn’t possible for an agent, NOT to be FOR authors. Really? Step outside of your self-righteous shoes and read your bullshit for what it is. “Don’t submit to anyone else for half a year, wait for me to send you a form rejection.” Really. That’s–FOR authors? Did that sound supportive to you? Oh wait, you didn’t say it like that, did you? But that’s what you meant. There are whole blogs dedicated to educating authors on how to better get along with agents by way of bettering their queries and synopses. How about a blog dedicated to agents on how to respect the amazing amount of time and soul it takes to write a single piece of work? I’d be blacklisted in a NY minute. If I’m not already. Oh and don’t bother telling me that they are being magnanimous enough to spend a few moments of their precious time to ‘help’ us out.

*Sigh* I’d love to see just one agent, make a single dime from selling books without the authors they’ve signed. Wait, books don’t exist without us. So, unless HAL develops literary aspirations, we won’t EVER see that.

Why would I be blacklisted? Free speech right? For everyone but us. I have a big problem with the amount of arrogance it takes to expect every writer to take hours out of their time researching your personal tastes in such depth that a simple slip of the tongue could warrant a rejection slip. Don’t think that possible? Do a little research and then come tell me it’s never happened. I have better things to do—like, I don’t know, bettering my craft, for example. I know, how dare I expect to spend my time actually practicing, actually writing. Will I stoop to this heinous act myself?

Yeah. Because if I ever want to see my work on the shelves of a brick and mortar store, I don’t have a choice in the matter. But let me assure you—should fortune ever smile on me, and I find myself in a position to REALLY say something about this, they’ll get a serious piece of my mind.

Oh, and because I know some smart-ass will either ask or think this. Yes, I would be saying this if I were published or currently signed with an agent. Don’t believe me? Well, nobody’s perfect.