Archive for August, 2012

Related to my last post about middles, I’m going to share a few thoughts about inciting incidents.

Inciting incidents aren’t precisely beginnings. Even if a story starts in the middle of the action, as some do, the inciting incident may not occur until a bit later. I’m thinking here of HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON by Naomi Novik (quite a fun alternate history about the Napoleonic Wars–if both sides had an air force composed of dragons). This book opens with a sea battle, definitely in the middle of the action, but the inciting incident doesn’t occur until a bit later when the captured dragon egg hatches.

The inciting incident is the event that sets the rest of the story in motion, the thing that makes it impossible for the main character to continue on as they have been. The inciting incident also sets up what will be the central conflict for the story. For example, when Frodo discovers that the ring Bilbo left him is the One Ring of the Enemy.

Generally speaking, the inciting incident should occur within the first ten to fifteen percent of the story, or by about page thirty of a three-hundred page novel. Usually, the sooner the better–especially in young adult or middle grade fiction. My general rule is to try to have the inciting incident in the first chapter. In fact, if you were to look for the inciting incident in one of my novels, the last scene of the first chapter would be an excellent place to start the search.

Often, of course, especially with fantasy, the story needs a little set up before things start to unravel following the inciting incident. The reader needs a chance to find their feet in this new world that’s being introduced and a chance to learn to care about the main character. It’s a delicate balancing act.

There are different kinds of inciting incident, too. If a story is going to be about the internal journey of the main character, the inciting incident may not be a big external event. It might be something that other characters barely even notice. In an action-oriented story, it’s much more likely to be a big dramatic event.

This is where I’ve run into some questions from critiquers on recent stories. The later scene which I intend as the end of the first try/fail cycle may be much more dramatic. I’ve had a couple of critiquers on different stories misidentify the inciting incident.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. What it likely means is that even though I mean the inciting incident to be something of importance only to the protagonist, at least at the start, I need to ramp up the significance to that character.

This is something I’ll need to consider when, later this year, I start the revisions to THE BARD’S GIFT. It will also be an important consideration when I figure out exactly which of several possible courses I’m going to take with the rewrite of MAGIC’S FOOL/MAGIC’S APPRENTICE (formerly THE SHAMAN’S CURSE and THE IGNORED PROPHECY). Who know what the eventual title(s) of that story will be.

But titles are another subject entirely.

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As I launch into another revision of MAGE STORM, I’m moved to think about middles. Every part of a story has its own issues.

It can be hard to know where to start a story. In the middle of the action? Just before? Enough before the action starts to give the reader a sense of the world you’ve built? Each has its plusses and minuses.

Endings, I’ve never had too much of a problem with. They seem to follow naturally out of the story for me. Of course, you’ve got to make that climax work or the payoff won’t be very satisfying.

Middles, though. I think every writer at some point or another has a problem with the middle of a story. And that’s one of the problems with MAGE STORM. It took reading a mostly unrelated post during WriteOnCon to make me realize it. Just one of those epiphany moments that sometimes happen.

Yes, there’s a problem. The middle advances the story and moves things along toward the climax. The problem is that there are about four or five chapters in which my main character is mostly inactive. He’s not trying to do anything–well, except stay alive. What he does even makes sense. It’s just not interesting enough. 

I knew there was a problem with those chapters the last time I read through it. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I tried to solve it by cutting it down, making it shorter. That’s not a bad thing, but it didn’t get to the core of the problem. The real problem is that I have to give my protagonist something to do, even if it’s futile. Even if it’s counter-productive. He’s got to be acting, not reacting.

That’s the main thing I’ll be addressing in this revision, but it’s not all I’ll be doing.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, something else I learned at WriteOnCon was that there’s little to no market for stories with thirteen- to fourteen-year-old protagonists. While I never explicitly mention Rell’s age in the story, there are several things that make it clear that he’s going through puberty–and therefore right in this no-man’s-land age range. So, I’ll be cutting those references (voice changing, growth spurts, unprovoked emotional outbursts) and adjusting his relationship to one of his friends who happens to be a girl, ratcheting down the level of interest and the angst over how to approach it.

The third thing I’m going to do is to look critically at some of the scenes and see where I can apply a little help from The Emotion Thesaurus. This dandy little book is a great reference for showing the outward and inward signs of emotions.

That’s the plan for MAGE STORM. Once the revision is done, it’ll be back to querying this one again. It’s a story I really love. Plus, I’m itching to tell the sequels, too.

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I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m mostly a discovery writer. I usually have a few sign posts marked before I start, to keep me from going too far off course, but I don’t outline before I start.

This post on last week’s WriteOnCon was an eye-opener for me. I was really intrigued by this concept and can see some real benefits for story structure and pacing.

I’m still in the first draft of THE BARD’S GIFT, though I think the end is coming in sight. I definitely think I’ll try this method–or some variant of it that works for me–when I’m ready to start the revisions.

It’ll be fun to give this one a try.

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Something new I learned in the very last event of WriteOnCon this year. Apparently there’s a gap between the middle grade (8 to 12) age group and the young adult (14 to 18) age group. Nobody wants books about twelve- to fourteen-year-olds.

The reason given? Bookstores don’t know where to shelve such books. The main characters are too old for middle grade readers and too young for young adult readers. It seems like a pretty thin reason to ignore an entire group of readers. Makes me think that online bookstores, like Amazon, are a very good idea. It’s no big deal to create a new category in the database and nobody has to move bookshelves or books.

Plus, of course, that skips over the difficult period called puberty, which strikes me as just cowardly. Admittedly, it’s been a few years, but there are parts of that time that are indelibly etched on your memory. Not only is it a time just rife with conflicts, which we all know make good stories, it’s also a time when reading about others going through some of the same embarrassing, confusing things might be more than usually beneficial. But, there’s no space on the shelves for it.

It also makes me wonder about something else. The standard wisdom that you’ll see quoted around the internet by industry professionals is that girls graduate from middle grade to young adult, while boys, if they keep reading, graduate straight to the adult section. I have to wonder if at least a part of the reason for this is that the romance element of just about all young adult stories satisfies at least a part of the needs of pubescent girls. On the other hand, the young adult stories in which the boy is almost always older, hot, and at least socially adept enough to ask a girl out without blushing maybe just don’t address the needs of pubescent boys, so they turn elsewhere.

Part of me wants to say that this is an under-served audience just waiting for the right books. On the other hand, I can wonder and even rant about this as much as I want, but one fact remains: getting started in this business is an uphill battle as it is. Making it any steeper than it has to be is akin to banging your head against the wall because it feels so good when you stop. An established author with a great track record might be able to write these books successfully. A debut author–or a writer hoping to be a debut author–just hasn’t got the horsepower to get up that hill.

Rats! And I’d started MAGIC’S FOOL with the MC at age thirteen. I’m shelving that one and the sequel, MAGIC’S APPRENTICE, while I decide what to do. Make the MC younger? That complicates the plot of MAGIC’S APPRENTICE enormously. Make him older and take this story to the younger side of young adult? It’s ironic that he was fifteen in the original version of this story. In that case, I’m going to have to weave in a subplot or two or else change the central conflict to expand the story–a rewrite, either way. Otherwise, at less than 50,000 words it’s just too short for a young adult novel. Hmm. I already have at least one idea for a subplot, though.

It’s not all bad, though. I got a couple of really good ideas on how to improve MAGE STORM and make it even better before I start sending it out again. That will probably be my next project after I finish the first draft of THE BARD’S GIFT.

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Really short post today since I’m spending most of my time over on WriteOnCon yesterday and today. How can you not like a writers’ conference that’s free and online?

No requests at this point. But I’ve gotten lots of comments on my queries and first pages for both FIRE AND EARTH and MAGE STORM.

Even better, one of the posts today sparked the idea I need to make some revisions to MAGE STORM. I’ve been dissatisfied with the middle. Now I have a very good idea on how to fix it.

Very worth while despite the occasional frustration with internet connections.

There’ll be a more substantive post on Sunday, I promise.

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Kind of an equestrian metaphor in the title, I guess. Well, I’ll let the secret out, then. Back in high school, I had a couple of years of riding lessons. What these riders do in the Olympics–I was never close to brave enough to do that, although I love to watch it. I quit when the jumps went from 3′ 9″ to 4′. That was too much for me.

Anyway, back to writing. I’m past the midpoint in the first draft of THE BARD’S GIFT and I have to admit it’s not going quite in the direction I’d planned. For one thing, this is a fantasy and most of the fantasy elements haven’t even shown up, yet. I thought I’d already be at the dragons by now.

I think I’ve mentioned probably a dozen or so times that I’m more of a discovery writer than a plotter. I do insist that I know the central conflict and have a pretty good idea what climax I’m aiming for before I start writing. More is good. Sometimes, I’ll write out what I call a proto synopsis with the main points of the story. I don’t do a chapter-by-chapter outline. I tried that once or twice and I spent as much time revising the outline as I did writing. Totally not worth it.

So, I’m letting this story go off in a slightly different direction right now. I like where it’s going. I like the character development it’s giving me. And it’s still not too far off course.

Besides, it’s a first draft. I can fix anything in the revisions.

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Another new issue for my YA alternate history project. Do I go for authenticity or reader accessibility and is there any middle ground.

I put the first part of the first draft of THE BARD’S GIFT up for critique on one of the writers’ forums I frequent. The first response I’ve gotten back indicates that certain words are causing a problem. Interestingly enough, not the ones I would have predicted. There are a couple of jaw-breaker words that I expect to have to reconsider.

The story is set against the failure of the viking colony in Greenland. In places, I’m using the actual terminology that these people would use–hopefully with enough context and/or explanation to let the reader know what is meant. A cargo ship is a knarr, for example. Other terms, because of their similarity to English words, seem to be more of a problem.

So, now the question I have to consider is whether I stay with the actual historical term for accuracy or change to something more recognizable to a modern audience. And whether an alternate history ought to try to be as accurate as possible.

These aren’t problems I’ve faced with straight-forward fantasy. When I get to build my own world for a story, the only issues are consistency and not doing anything that throws the reader out of the story. Then again, maybe terms that are confusing because they look too much like English words with different meanings will throw the readers out of the story.

Well, it’s still a first draft. I’ve got time to figure some of this stuff out.

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I don’t much like flashbacks and don’t usually write them. I’d much rather read or write a story in chronological order. Every once in a while, though, you have to work in some information on something that happened before the story opened. If that means a flashback, my preference is to make it as short an undisruptive (is that a word?) as I can.

That said, I just wrote a flashback in Chapter 17 of THE BARD’S GIFT. At least it’s not right at the beginning.

Of course, this is a first draft and nearly anything could change, but I think this works. My alpha and beta readers will let me know if I’m wrong.

The reason for a flashback in this one, is that the main character is suddenly remembering something she saw when she was only six. She saw it but didn’t understand what it meant at the time; now she does. And the knowledge will color the way she responds to another character (who happens to be the antagonist) from this point forward, so its important.

Sometimes, you just do need a flashback. Make it short (if possible) and connected to the where the character is in the story. Try to make it flow with the story and not force it to a screeching halt. Hopefully, I’ve done that. If not, well, this is a first draft. Everything can be fixed in the revisions.

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