Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Never Begin at the Beginning

Start as close to the end as possible.
--Kurt Vonnegut 

Right now I'm in the midst of a heavy re-write and my first task is to cut to the chase, both literally and figuratively. My novel is broken up into three parts and involves an elderly art history professor named Ovid who is no longer able to care for himself. In the first third of the novel, I establish Ovid's current living situation, the relationships within his family, and pertinent information about his past. In the second part, Ovid decides he doesn't like that he's losing control over his life and makes a break for it. The last third involves the family's search for him.

I love writing from Ovid's point of view. He's verbose, a little cranky, well-read, and sees the world through the lens of art. His voice is very rich. The problem with loving a character too much is that you run the risk of falling in love with him and then he can do no wrong. While he yammers on apropos of nothing, boring your audience to tears, all you do is sigh and say, "Isn't he dreamy?"

When I was writing the first draft, I thought I had enough writing experience under my belt to recognize when I was spending too much time setting the stage for a story--but apparently not. After reading the first third of the manuscript, my agent told me the story was "a little slow." Really? This surprised me. I thought it actually moved at a pretty good clip. "Just wait until you get to Part II when he runs away," I said. "That's where it really starts to pick up."

Bingo! And just like that, we found the real beginning of the story.

So now I'm trying to condense, clarify, eliminate, and combine scenes from the first third to get to the real beginning as quickly as I can. Now that I know where the real story begins, I can see that so much of what I thought was the real beginning was just a lot of thinking out loud. It was more of an exercise in discovering character and not entirely pertinent to what was happening. While this exercise was useful to me, it wasn't necessarily useful to the reader.

I have to wonder though--how much of the problem here is me being long-winded and how much is the impatience of the modern audience? Is it absolutely crucial that I cut to the chase right away? Couldn't I just dabble a little bit in character or mood like Henry James? It makes me think back to the mid-1990's when record stores started putting in listening stations. Customers would skim through the first few songs on an album and if they weren't impressed would walk away. Musicians responded by "front loading" their albums--putting their best songs first in order to grab the listener right away, instead of putting the songs in an order that shaped the listening experience.

Are writers now expected to "front load" their novels in order to capture the short attention spans of today's readers? Are today's story beginnings much further into the plot than they used to be?

What are your thoughts on story beginnings as a writer? As a reader?


Kate Cone said...

Thanks for this! I had to send in 15 pp to a conference I'm soon attending for a ms critique. I realized my death didn't happen until page 40 or so. I had to do this edit quickly to make the deadline, which forced me to move up that scene to get it in the first of the book. I think it helped the beginning a lot.

Stephanie Doyon said...

Sometimes it's pretty scary to move so much around, but when it works it's so rewarding. Thanks for the comment! said...

When I started HS journalism class, the teacher noted that the prevailing standard was writing for a 7th grade education. While there are obviously publications that aim considerablt higher tabloids don't seem to have that lofty a goal, and PEOPLE magazine, as Jeff Goldblum noted in 'The Big Chill' is written for the average person taking the average (time to) crap.

If you KNOW that professional musicians front load their best stuff with how an album is sampled, do you check out the last 3 just to be contrary in your examination? Most probably you check 1-3, then 7 or 8, and 11.

My personal example is Dreiser. Oh MAN! was there a lot of dry extra verbiage when he was required reading in HS. Given the number of literary possibilities then vs. now, how many geeeeez! comments from people like me would have shut him down and moved to something with more ooomph?

Set you book up as you think best (hint hint).