Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
August 2012

In Media Res

Years ago, before I got my first book published, I was at a writing group meeting when an infrequent but much more experienced member appeared. He listened to my first chapter, looked at me and said, "You think you're starting in the middle of things, but you've actually started far too late. All of this happens after what should be the climax of your book, after all the interesting changes in the character have been made. You need to go back to the beginning and make this chapter the ending of your book."

It was weeks and months later, as I worked through a revision that I realized how incisive he had been and appreciated his willingness to say bluntly what others were likely thinking but trying to think of a nice way to get at. In fact, that was the novel that was first published of all the attempts that I made. I did the hard thing and rewrote it entirely, starting months back in the storyline, and moving up to the point of the first chapter. The book is The Monster In Me.

The reality is that when I do critiques now as a professional, I end up making this very same critique about half of the time. It happens especially often in science fiction and fantasy. I will be reading a first chapter and be bombarded with new words, cool gadgets, a "gripping" plot, and a world that is so awesome, it defies words. Sometimes literally. I have to focus very hard to think of anything to say beyond -- I don't care about this world.

I know that there are a lot of books on how to write science fiction that insist that you want to drop you reader into the world. You're going to be using words left and right that prove how different your world is. How well read you are as a writer. How much research you have done into physics. How really, very scientifically plausible your world is.

But the problem with all of this is that a novel is not a dissertation. Believe me, I know very well the difference between the two. I wrote my first adult novel at the same time as my dissertation, using the one as a break from the other. But in reality, it took me about five years to break the bad habits of writing that I learned from writing in the academic world for so long. In academia, one is never subtle. You want to prove every point. You want to make sure that no one could possibly argue with you. You don't lead the reader to make the right conclusion on his/her own. You state your conclusion in your first paragraph and then go about proving it so thoroughly that no one can argue that you do not deserve to pass your defense.

Guess what? A dissertation very rarely sells any copies. It happens now and again that a dissertation is adapted into a book that makes sense to the lay person. And once in a while, another researcher will pick up a dissertation and quote it for his/her own dissertation. That's about it. I've got a copy of my dissertation somewhere in my house -- I think. You'd have a hard time getting through it if you were paid to do so.

So don't write your novel like a dissertation. Staring in media res (in the middle of things) properly is not a way to show off to your readers that you are smarter than they are. I'm not saying to condescend to your reader, either. Nor to start in the dullest part of your book. Don't. But don't artificially speed up the natural pace of your story in order to show off how quickly you can run through all the pertinent information. Don't start after all the most interesting things have happened to your characters. Don't start in the middle of the climax of your novel.

One of the differences between writing speculative fiction for young adults and writing for adults is that in adult sf/f, writers expect their readers to be used to looking through glossaries, examining maps on the end papers, and figuring out the complicated family trees that will be necessary to understand any scene between any character. Young adult readers (and the adults who read young adult in greater and greater numbers) will not put up with this. I am not saying I have anything against glossaries or maps per se, but I tend to get frustrated with books that expect me to do all the work as the reader and the writer to not do as much to make my life easier. Call me lazy, but I want the story to be brought to me, in all its easiest deliciousness. I want stories to be fun, and not to feel like I'm reading a dissertation.

The advice to start a manuscript in media res doesn't mean that you should start chapter one with the climax of the book. It means you should start your novel without spending pages and pages explaining everything about the world. Now, I know that in a lot of young adult sf/f that has come out lately, explaining is exactly what the first chapter does. In first person, there is often the temptation to let a strong voice do the explaining because it's faster (and easier) than showing. I don't like this tendency in young adult fiction anymore than I like the tendency in adult fiction to write enormous tomes large enough to be used as weight lifting devices simply because the author couldn't resist the urge to write put everything plus the kitchen sink into every scene.

So I am going to give some rules here on how I think in media res ought to be properly understood.

1. Begin with a character in a conflict.

This does not mean that the character should be immediately introduced to the main conflict of the rest of the novel. That can be done, but it often is not and there are good reasons for that. Introducing a character in a more minor conflict allows the reader to begin to sympathize with the character and to see the world as it is before things begin to change.

2. Begin while the world is still as it was before, just as it starts to change.

If you want a reader to feel the pain of a character's death, don't kill that character on the first page. It's really hard to stir sympathy at that point. Much easier to first get the reader invested in the character and then kill the character off at a surprising, later point. The same thing is true of the world. If you want the reader to care about the fact that the world is changing, show the reader why the world is so wonderful as it was before. I'm not saying spend a hundred pages on the world before. One chapter, maybe only one scene. That can be enough if you do it well.

3. Begin with a character who has relationships, a community.

I believe that readers need characters to relate to. Make them as human as possible, even if they are alien. If you have a Mr. Spock, you need a lot of humans around him. And remember, Mr. Spock is half-human. He's not a full Vulcan on a ship of full Vulcans because we humans would not be interested in a show about him. Think about Castaway with Tom Hanks. The story is about a man on a desert island, waiting to be rescued. It could be extremely boring. Using the soccer ball "Wilson," who has a face drawn on him to make him seem more human, is a brilliant way for a castaway to have a relationship without having a relationship.

When I wrote my first fantasy novel, Mira, Mirror, the first draft is about a mirror that has always been a mirror. She has the magical ability to speak and she has spent a long time around the evil witch from the Snow White fairy tale, so her view of humanity is rather odd. But it wasn't until my agent reminded me that if I was going to use her as my viewpoint character, I needed her to have a human past. Otherwise, it would be hard for my readers to relate to her. So I invented a whole life that she had before she became a mirror, and then she was on a quest to be human again. It shaped the entire novel properly. The other events and scenes remain largely the same as in the first draft. But the meaning of the novel was very different.

4. Have no more than two new words per page in the first chapter, and no more than one new word per page in subsequent chapters.

This sounds like a pretty strict rule, I know. I'm sure you can point to a dozen examples of novels that break this rule and have been very successful commercially. Nonetheless, I stand by my rule. One of the main reasons I stand by this rule is that I think fantasy in particular tends to make up a lot of words that already exist in English. If your word really doesn't exist in English, then I guess you'll have to make one up. But don't feel like you need to add made up words just to make your book feel more "fantasy." (I had an editor suggest this to me once and I am still annoyed with myself that I listened to her and put a handful of extra made-up words into one of my books -- I will let you guess which one. Hint: my least successful book.)

Even if you are writing in a fantasy world on another planet and the people there don't have the genetic code for things like wheat, potatoes, and pepper -- we can all pretend! We are pretending that they speak English in the first place, yes? Otherwise everything that happened there would be completely incomprehensible. So let's use regular old English words to describe what might be slightly different from our own foods. If you must, you can explain that the potatoes are purple, or that the bread has no wheat gluten in it to make it stick together properly.

I think the same rule applies in science fiction. People can call things a "phone" even if it isn't the same kind of phone we use today. I think there is pretty good historical evidence to suggest this is exactly what people do with new technologies. We use the words of older technologies. "Car," for instance, is a short version of the word "carriage," which is drawn by horses without an engine. But it's a way to get from place to place. "Ship" was originally meant for a sea-faring vessel, yet we use it for the stars, as well.

5. Story makes story interesting, not fancy words.

I get really irritated when my children come home from school with a writing assignment by a teacher who is not a writer. These teachers inevitably tell my children that they should use words other than "said" to make their writing more "interesting." They have points deducted if they use any word more than twice in their entire piece. I am serious about this. The teacher insists that it is the colorful words that writers use that makes their writing more interesting. I beg to differ and say that it is the story that is being told properly, with words that convey the exact meaning, which makes the writing interesting. Trust in your story and your own storytelling. Again, you are not writing a dissertation here to prove how smart you are.

6. Tell backstory in one paragraph chunks.

If you need to tell more backstory than that to make your story comprehensible to the reader, seriously consider the possibility that you are beginning your novel in the wrong place. Or perhaps that your readers are smarter than you think and will be willing to either guess at the rest or wait for longer to hear it.

7. Do not use flashbacks in the first chapter.

I am not saying flashbacks are stylistically wrong per se. I love flashbacks, done properly. The TV series Lost is a great example of flashbacks used extensively and used well. They never get boring. But remember, these kinds of extended flashbacks are stories in their own right with a beginning, middle, and end. These stories should stand on their own, be able to be excerpted and possibly sold as short stories separate from the novel itself.

But using flashbacks in the very first chapter makes me wonder as a reader if the writer should have started with the flashback scene. I will admit I have seen it done well, but I still recommend against it. I think the reader wants forward motion in a first chapter, a sense of progress. It's harder to achieve that in a flashback than with forward motion of the plot. Also, the problem with flashbacks is that because they have already happened and the results of them already exist, the narrative tension is naturally decreased. A first chapter is hard enough to keep tense without using cheap tricks or making the reader's head hurt.

8. Do not begin with a prologue.

Yes, I say this even though four of my five fantasy novels published begin with prologues. In Mira, Mirror, I still think I had to begin with what is essentially an extended flashback from 100 years before the rest of the story, when the two main characters meet as young women. Then I skip ahead because everyone knows the rest of the Snow White fairy tale and my story starts when that one ends.

In my Princess series, I felt like I had set a precedent in the first one with a prologue and continued to do so. I wish now that I had integrated the prologue as a story within the story instead. It was one of the things I considered, but I couldn't figure out how to do it. The only thing I will say to excuse this prologue is that it does stand on its own as a sort of legend in the world, and the legendary characters end up appearing in the novel at an important moment.

Still, the problem with prologues is that they are about characters other than those in the rest of the novel. So you are going to make your reader either care about these other characters and then refuse to tell the rest of their story. Or worse, your readers won't care about these other characters and will be bored and skip ahead. Is that what you want?

9. Begin a first chapter with the moment of change.

And when I saw the moment of change, I don't mean an earthquake or some other event that propels motion forward. I mean the change in the life of the character we are going to care the most about. If there is some cataclysmic event that propels the character forward, show how that cataclysmic event affects the character directly. That is, show the main character unable to get food because trade has been disrupted by the earthquake. Don't show the earthquake from the pov of some other character who isn't the main focus of the book.

In the Paks books by Elizabeth Moon, the story begins when Paks decides not to get married and to go off to war. In the Miles Vorkosigan books, the story begins when Miles breaks his legs in the first few moments of the test to get into the Imperial Academy, thus ending all his hopes of following in his father's footsteps as a soldier to the Emperor. In Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George, the story begins when the main character is sold to the dragon by her aunt, who doesn't care about her a whit. In Dan Wells' I Am Not A Serial Killer, the story begins when a serial killer comes to town and the kid who knows all about serial killers (because he is a sociopath himself) is there to put the pieces of the puzzle together before anyone else.

10. Show us the feelings of the main character.

A couple of male writers I had in a class recently were perplexed at first when I told them that their stories weren't working for me because I didn't feel invested in the characters. Events happened, but I had no sense of how these events made the characters feel. The writers in question thought that writing a great story was about writing great events, and that delving into feelings was for romance novels. Not so. After a week of some examples, both rewrote their stories and discovered that they were much, much better. More readable, more interesting, and the events more exciting because they had allowed the reader to see the characters' emotions. In media res is at least in part about making the reader feel as if they were in the events of the novel, and part of that is the emotional effect on the main characters.

Now I will add a proviso here that I don't want to be hit over the head with clichéd descriptions of characters' emotions. I think that this might have been what these two writers were worried about. And it's still a great idea to show not tell these emotions. Don't say simply, "He was sad, he was mad." That's too obvious. Show how the character feels physically. Sick to the stomach is a little better. But what if when this character gets nervous, her fingers go numb? Or when this character is upset, he starts laughing inexplicably and people around him react with anger?

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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