I've taken the week of Nov. 26-30 off from writing, to let the finished draft of Kindred cool a bit (and to get a jump start on Christmas). During this brief hiatus I chose to read one book on the writing craft. There are scads of good ones out there. A couple of titles I've found helpful:
Self-Editing For Fiction Writers, How to Edit Yourself Into Print, by Renni Browne and Dave King, tops the list. This is classic.
Modern Library Writer's Workshop, a Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch is another good one.
In the beginning I took up a pen and simply wrote. I didn't read a writing craft book for the first couple of years. I'm glad of that now, though it meant learning the basics of the writing craft the slow way. But I know me well enough to say that had I studied "how to write" before I had written, all the rules of writing fiction would have put me in a creative straight jacket. Along the way I began to learn those rules, most of which are rules for very good reasons (they make for good fiction, clear prose, characters that live on the pages), but some of which can, maybe should, be broken now and then. After they are mastered, and if there's a good reason.
The book I chose to read this past week, recommended by an editor friend of mine, is Hooked, Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go, by Les Edgerton.
Hooked explores in depth a novel's (or short story's) opening scene, what elements it should contain to pull a reader in, and what elements will only serve to distract, bore or confuse, and therefore should be cut from the opening scene. There are chapters on Inciting Incident, Initial Surface Problem, and the Story-Worthy Problem--that question or challenge or goal that will be answered, met or reached by the novel's end. To briefly define those terms from Edgerton's book*:
The Inciting Incident is "the crucial event--the trouble--that sets the whole story in motion. It triggers the initial surface problem and starts to slowly expose the protagonist's story-worthy problem."
The Initial Surface Problem is "the problem that occurs as a direct result of the inciting incident... it propels the protagonist to take action... and assists in the eventual revelation of the story-worthy problem."
The Story-Worthy Problem is "always the paramount problem; it's what the story is really about in the final analysis... a true story-worthy problem is closely associated with the protagonist's inner self."
For more on the crafting of opening hooks, check out Writing Hooks (not Crooks) by Kat Feete.
In the pages of Hooked I was happy to find an example of the technique I employed in my own opening scene of Kindred. The opening of Chapter 1, that is. I do have a prologue. I'm not sure if it will make the final draft, but I think it will. I have an epilogue that echoes the voice of the prologue, just like the final scene of the last chapter carries echoes of the opening scene of Chapter 1. In fact, the way I figured out how to end the book was looking back closely at my opening scene, making sure I understood what questions I had raised therein, and having my viewpoint character, Ian Cameron, conscious of how they had been answered.
But that ending is a long way off for now as I begin the editing process, in a much more linear fashion than I wrote the first draft. Both beginning and ending may change during that process. I hope both will be strengthened and improved.
The opening scene technique I was referring to, that I used in Chapter 1 of Kindred, is what Edgerton calls "entering late and leaving early." We enter the scene with the protagonist, Ian Cameron, in medias res, with no explanation of how he got himself into his present and very obvious trouble. Then comes a brief slide into immediate back story, then back to the present, all in the space of a few paragraphs, with no space breaks and, hopefully, no jarring. The challenge in making this technique work is to create an opening situation intriguing enough to hold the reader's attention across those few paragraphs, to make them interested enough in Ian and his troubles to want to know how he landed himself in them, and most of all want to know will he get himself out?
In my next couple of posts I'll share excerpts from Kindred. The prologue, and the opening scene.
*quotes cited from Hooked, by Les Edgerton, Writer's Digest Books, Cincinnati, OH, 2007; used for review.