Where to Start Your Novel

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Gay Bar by Electric Six, Say My Name by Peking Duk)

I know I’m not like a lot of writers. Some people have issues even thinking of an idea; some people make it 5,000 words into a first draft and collapse into themselves, tossing the whole work in the trashcan. As I’m taking the MasterClass taught by James Patterson, I’m noticing that, although there are great little bits of wisdom in each lesson, I’m not getting as much out of the earlier lessons as I will out of the later ones because the early writing process is easy for me at this point.

So where do I find my critical issue in writing? It’s usually twofold. I’ll have an idea for a trilogy – something sprawling and grand like the epic fantasy I’ve been reading since high school – and I write the first book all in a tizzy, flying through the first draft and growing to love my characters and situations and world.

And then I face the crisis: to edit, or to continue writing?

In some cases I’ve given myself a break and then jumped right into Book 2, trying to keep the momentum going. In others, I’ve forced myself to wait on Book 2 and instead worked on editing Book 1, to make sure it was solid before moving on. Both cases have historically ended disastrously for me.

Like I said, I see the problem as twofold. The first part of it is that I lose a lot of momentum on my second book because it’s the low point of the trilogy. Book 1 is all the exposition and worldbuilding and characterbuilding and really exciting introductory stuff; Book 3 is the wrapping up of the major plotlines and the epic climax of the whole series. But Book 2 is just the filler, in a sense – the things that need to happen to bridge the gap and set up for Book 3, but are boring in and of themselves.

The second part of the problem for me is in editing. I take a look through things myself or with alpha readers, and I examine what I like and don’t like about my writing, and it’s almost always the same – I love my characters, their dialogue, the world they live in, but something is always wrong with the plot, goddammit. When I started to look closer, I noticed the pacing was off – there would be this overarching plot line for the first book, but it would only be advanced in a select few chapters while 75% of the book was dedicated to ‘other’ stuff.

Vonnegut says “Start as close to the end as possible.” I used to hate that quote – still do, if I’m being entirely honest. I exercise my wit in saying, “Well, I can write just the very last chapter and there’ll be a story without any exposition or significance whatsoever, can’t I? But no one would read that.”

(Bear with me, I promise I’m coming to a point.)

When I started outlining my trilogies as a whole instead of outlining book by book, I noticed something. There was a lot of dead space in Book 2 which necessitated subplots and other arcs – but also in Book 3 where, without exposition, there was really only the wrap-up.

It struck me, in the matter-of-fact way that only intelligently ignorant people can understand, that maybe I didn’t have enough material for a whole trilogy – that maybe I could condense the whole thing into one book.

But Book 1 is so chock-full of great exposition and character development; there’s no way that could be condensed.

And yet even as I thought that, I looked back and saw that wasn’t true. James Patterson talks a lot in the MasterClass about every scene propelling the book forward; a lot of my expository scenes in Book 1 did nothing of the sort, as I’ve already said.

So I had a delicious thought.

What if I forced what seemed to me to be 300,000 words of a trilogy into one book of 120,000 words in which every single chapter, every single scene, directly impacted the main plot as well as the characters’ arcs? What if this was a high fantasy book written like a thriller, in which the sense of drama continued to escalate and climb in a rapid-fire pace antithetical to most modern fantasy books?

Veteran writers would probably roll their eyes at this and say, “Well, duh.”

(It’s a good thing veteran writers probably don’t read this blog, huh?)

But anyway, to get to a very roundabout point, where should you start your novel? If you’re like me, you’ve written out the last five hundred years of fantasy backstory and the whole epic scope of things. I would encourage you to pick the first major plot point of your first book – and if you’re like me, that plot point probably occurs after five or six chapters of exposition – and make that the very first scene of the entire thing. Challenge yourself to move at a frenetic, ceaseless pace through the events of your book, never letting up – because that’s what’ll keep a reader hooked.

Yours, feeling rather enlightened and a bit cocky,

-R.R. Buck

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