This week I finished the prologue and got a start on the first chapter. Unless I were able to work on this project full time, it looks like there’s no getting around the fact that it’s going to take longer than I’d hoped; I know I can make this novel into just what I’ve envisioned from the beginning, but it’s simply going to take a lot of work. On the plus side, I’m in the honeymoon phase with the prologue right now, as it feels very strong. After I got it all down, I spent some time tweaking and polishing it. The more I worked on it, the more it made me cry–and since it relates a devastating, tragic incident, it would seem that I’ve done something right.
What’s making the first chapter go slowly is that I’m pulling in material from the original draft that was written a gazillion years ago, as I mentioned last week. Though I rarely have the kind of self-doubts some writers seem to be plagued with, sometimes I have whimsical little worries that amuse as much as worry me, and after I got everything in place on the opening page, I had a bit of a laugh when I reread it.
It popped into my head that someone might say it was ‘boring’ to open the first chapter of a novel with a description of a sunset and the thoughts of a young man who’s experiencing anxiety about his new wife, while his new wife is pulling spring vegetables in a garden . . . Then it struck me as funny, because boy, does that sound ‘literary’. (I guess I’m not kidding when I say I write literary fiction that also happens to be speculative fiction!)
Another thing that’s kind of funny is that I was tempted to say here that I think the prologue is beautiful, but decided not to risk sounding too immodest. I’ve noticed it seems to be unfashionable in writers’ forums to say you’re very happy with your own work. I do get the impression, however, that although there are some very experienced pros who frequent those forums, the majority of the folks who are most active on those sites are young and inexperienced–or they’re spending time there specifically because they are frustrated with their writing and are seeking others to commiserate with.
I’ve been reading Gene Wolfe’s On Blue’s Waters, and I couldn’t help thinking that, based on the critiques I’ve seen on my favorite writers’ forum, the vast majority of the members would tear the opening chapter of that novel to shreds. The narrative path is very organic–you might say its circular. But by the time you reach the end of the chapter, you know exactly what the situation is, you know a great deal about the narrator’s relationship with his family and community, and you know what the narrator has to do and why.
So even though he makes the reader ‘work for it’, all the information is given just as if it had been a straightforward, conventional narrative. And in the long run the way he does it makes it a very rewarding read. Thinking of that as an example of how to construct a brilliant first chapter, I’ve decided I’m probably going to move some of the explanatory details so they come later in the book, and try to do something more along those lines–something that makes the reader use their head right from the beginning.
Though the first priority has to be keeping true to the story itself and making the world and the people I’m so passionate about come alive, whenever we write with the intention that the book will be read and enjoyed by others, the issue of audience is always there. I think most of us would love to write something ‘everyone likes’, but in reality that’s like Aesop’s fable about the old man, the boy, and the donkey, which ends badly for all concerned because they keep trying to please everyone they encounter.
Most people agree that the best way to write a good book is to write one you would love to read yourself. With this novel, that means accepting that I’m not writing it for those who would find the opening of On Blue’s Waters frustrating or uninteresting; my audience is those who adore Wolfe’s work as much as I do.
And I’ll stick to being unfashionable and confess that I always enjoy reading my own work. Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating when I find something that just isn’t working right, but I truly enjoy the challenge of fixing it. Whether it takes a few hours or a few weeks of pushing the pieces around, I know that in the end I’ll figure out how to create something that accomplishes just what I was going for. And when things are working well, I’m not ashamed to say it feels wonderful. The moments when you think, ‘Wow, that’s gorgeous–did I write that?’ make all the hard work worthwhile.