- the immediate gratification? No.
- the royalties? No.
- the control over just about all aspects of the book? Sort of.
For years I wrote for myself, creative writing teachers, and writing groups, but didn't have any interest in pursuing publishing (I was intimidated). When I was in my teens and early twenties, I read a lot of books on writing. Then I eventually consciously stopped doing that, because it was fueling my internal editor, and my internal editor, when fueled, is a nasty mofo. My point is that while I knew some things about writing, I really never paid any attention to writing to sell.
So going on that forum opened my eyes: the first paragraph of my novel would put people to sleep. Okay. So I gave that some thought. At what point in The River and the Roses did things really start to pick up? Well, that question was easy to answer. My main character, Veronica (the same Veronica as in "Veronica in Paris" fyi), has been repressing her psychic ability for most of her life, but when a murder happens near her apartment, a nightmare-vision of it overcomes her defenses. This is the inciting incident for the novel. I figured, perfect. I'll start the novel with the dream, and then flashback over the day leading up to the night of the murder (important stuff happens that I couldn't cut out). I sent this new version to a couple of my beta-readers, and they both liked it a lot. So I thought, alright. I'm good. I'm ready for this novel to go to the contest. And I posted the new opening paragraph. That's when some comments I got started to make me uneasy.
"Never open with a dream."
Agents hate it. You'll sink your manuscript the moment the agent realizes you're starting with a dream.
At first I figured, well, maybe that's true most of the time, but Veronica is a psychic. She's very much inspired from tv's Medium. How can it be wrong to open with a dream in her case?
But the more I read, the more this got hammered home. I read agent blogs. I read other forums. I read articles. Everyone said the number one bad way to open a novel was with a dream. So I scratched the opening and started over. I tried starting the novel a few minutes after the dream, when Veronica finds the body and the police arrive. She's in shock, there are flashing lights, they're taking her in for questioning. Exciting, right? Good opening, right? No, apparently not.
Disoriented characters are a no-no, too.
Plus, this flashing forward and then flashing back to the day that preceded it wasn't going over well with critiquers either.
So I went back and cut the flashforward scene entirely. Now I was left with a similar opening paragraph to the original, although I'd chopped the description down a lot. But still, it was pretty low energy. So I tried cutting the very beginning out and starting a bit later, when Veronica is at least doing something, planning a party and shopping, and after a couple of short paragraphs she has her first weird psychic thing. Nothing major, like the dream, but still.
So, I got it, right? It's a decent opening, right? No.
"You have to start with action! You have to grab your reader by the short hairs and yank them into your book!"
Sigh. I wrestled with ideas. I'd come up with something, and then throw it out. It got so I hated that opening chapter. And then I came up with a new thought, which tied in to a subplot I had already decided to introduce throughout the rest of the novel. I wrote it up: Veronica is walking her dog on the morning of the day of the murder, and she sees a ghost. She's embarrassed because she reacts to it and no one else can see it. Good, right? You guessed it. No. Too dream-like.
Luckily for me, at this point, one critiquer said she did like it, and she pointed out some ways to ground it more so it wouldn't feel so dreamy. So I took her advice, and I'm pleased with the result. I'm not changing the opening again, people. I'm done.
So this is a super long-winded way of getting at the coolest thing about epublishing, but I still have more I have to tell you before I can get to it. Still there? I'm amazed.
While I was laboring over my novel's opening, I was also still reading novels before bed. I read one called Unholy Ghosts, by Stacia Kane. Good paranormal suspense book: I recommend it. As I started this novel, it struck me that Kane opened it exactly right. High action, introduces the character and what she does, etc. In fact, it was so perfect, I felt like it must have gone through the vetting process at absolutewrite. As a quick explanation, absolutewrite is a big writer's forum. It's got some amazing people on it. There are experts who will explain things to you never thought you could find out about (in my case, arson investigation, the territorial disputes between PDs and FDs, Koreans and shamanism, and more). There are people who will give you step by step instructions to accomplish some formatting feat in your Word document. And there are the Share Your Work boards. Maybe it's because I opened myself up to it by saying, "Critique me with your gloves off," but I have gotten beat up one side and down the other of those forums. The worst being "Query Letter Hell." But my first chapter of River didn't fair well, either. And to be honest, most of the feedback I got wasn't very helpful, because people would say I was doing this or that wrong, and never suggest how I could do it right. Anyway. So I'm reading Unholy Ghosts, and I'm thinking, man, Kane is nailing it. She's got it down. Her book would totally pass muster on absolutewrite. Yeah, because she's a mod there. No joke. And there's nothing wrong with that. Is there?
"We are the same"
I started to think about this experience I'd been having, with the opening. And I'd also been reading a lot of articles and forum posts about other right and wrong ways to do things (you can even see the results of some of that in my blog post from earlier this month about naming your character and ending your novel). In fact, I became obsessed with the idea that I could write a perfect novel that followed all the rules (a bit like Kane's). I started gathering all of the rules I could find in a notebook. I outlined a novel to follow every one of them.
And then one day, as I was walking my dog and chatting with my husband, I started feeling uneasy about it. Not so much because I learned long ago that I can't force myself to write something, even if I like the idea (Stephen King talks about how he wishes he could write like Amy Tan, but he can't--I can totally relate--I want to be Jacqueline Carey so much; it's like she took all of the things I love and put them in Kushiel's Dart... but I can't write like her). But because I started to think, wow, eventually all the commercial novels out there will be fundamentally the same. Not the stories, but how they are told. A horror novel and a mystery novel and a western and a romance--they'll all start the same way, follow the same path, and end the same way. Not blatantly, you understand. But the skeleton will be the same--start with some nondreamy exciting incident, go through the correct number of plot steps, include all the important aspects of a plot, and end by tying all of those together. And the only novels that won't do that will be from established authors who can get away with ignoring the rules.
I already can tell you the ending of most movies or what a character will do next in tv shows without having seen them before. Knowing the structure and rules of novel writing means I can do the same thing when I'm reading, and the best I can hope for is that while I'll know a twist is coming, I won't quite have figured out what it's going to be.
How sad is it to know a twist is coming?
Which brings me, at last, to the coolest thing about epublishing.
There are no more rules.
Don't get me wrong. I think River's Veronica-sees-a-ghost opening is good, and I'm keeping it. I'm glad I had to work on it so much, because I do think it's better for it. But the cool thing is, if I want to open my next novel with a dream, because that's the best way to open it, I can. No agent will look at it and say, "Damnit, another dream opening!" and throw it in the garbage. Epublishing means the only people I'm beholden to are my readers. I'm guessing that breaking all the rules may create a big mess, but just think of the creative possibilities of that mess! Just imagine the weird directions novels can now go in! Or, how about this... I have a critiquing partner on a forum who wrote an epic fantasy that's the first book in a trilogy and it's something like 200K words. He's been told on forums like querytracker that he's got to cut that thing down because no agent will consider publishing a first novel that long, epic fantasy or not. But he feels that it's already as trim as its going to get. So if he epublishes it, does he have to amputate some part of it that he feels is vital to the story? No! How cool is that?
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Is this really a good thing? Don't authors need the gatekeepers in traditional publishing to force them to tighten their prose, make better plotting decisions, etc.?"
I put it to you that the answer is no. The only people authors need to please are readers. If my friend publishes his epic and he gets readers, that's all that matters. Now what may happen is that when an author puts a novel up, very few people will buy it, because it has massive flaws and gets bad reviews. Then it's time to go back to the drawing board. And who wants to have to keep pulling their novel off the retail pages to fix it? No, I think good authors will work their hardest to create the best novel they can to begin with anyway. Most of us are not hacks trying to throw a few cliches together and thinking it will sell. Most of us love what we do. We love our characters. It matters to us that a story hang together well. It feels good when you come up with a solution to that plot point nightmare you've been struggling with for weeks. So while there will be people who epublish before their novel is ready, they'll learn. And once they do, they'll become better writers for it. And best of all, the novels they will produce will be original and wonderful and not fettered down by rules!
Pretty cool, huh?
You've made it through this whole post. That means you have an unusually robust attention span. So tell me, what do you think about all of this?