Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Where to begin...

I have a confession to make. I can listen to workshop after workshop and read up on a subject and, even though I can spout all the proper words, and help others with revisions, sometimes I simply don't "get it" in my own work.
Here's my example: I wrote a book years ago that made me tingle. It was a pure paranormal roller coaster ride-before paranormals were hot. I wrote it on a whim and in 30 days, since I was published in sweet historical romance and had a deadline on another book. Still this story pulled and tugged and I had to get-it-out. Once I finished my deadline book, I went back and revised the paranormal and queried it. I found a NY editor who loved it as well. She kept it with promises of copy edits and taking it to her editorial board. But after two years she ultimately failed to sell it to her board. So, the book sat until I decided that there was something there and queried it out to agents. I found a NY agent who loved it and convinced me it was going to be huge. Unfortunately the paranormal tide had yet to turn and after 7 rejections said agent lost interest in both the book and me. BUT-(here's my point.) This time I had the advantage of reading publisher rejection letters. They seem to be more helpful when telling agents why they are rejecting a book. The one comment that stuck with me was "There is not enough world building." Of course, my thought was this: "Its set in Kansas, what's to world build?" I puzzled over this for years as the book sat and I wrote other stuff.
Then a year or so ago the word went out that YA Paranormal was huge. So, I returned to this book and re-read it and discovered that book 2--yes, NY agent had me write book 2--was more YA than single title adult. I spent the time to re-write book 1 with a YA bent-it was already snarky and a coming of age story so that changing it to YA was not a big problem. I then tested the waters by sending it out to various agents- most of them agreed that the YA paranormal market was saturated and this story was now nothing new. But one beloved agent said this to me: "There isn't enough world building in this story." Gah!
She hit that sore spot. What do they mean? I've researched the topic. I've gone to seminars. Its Kansas, what's to world build? (Sometimes my brain can be stubborn.)
This last residency week at Seton Hill University's MFA program, I signed up for a course in World Building YA given by Shelley Bates. (No, not paranormal but any kind of YA.) I was determined to try to figure out what was missing from the novel.
When Shelley launched into the subject of her latest Amish YA and how she built the world around her heroine. I carefully compared how she constructed her world to how I constructed mine and it hit me like a fast pitch softball. duh.
I started my story at the first turning point in a moment of trauma and breathless action-where the heroine's stepmother is murdered by a nightmarish demon hound and how she uses her "imagination" to escape only to discover that her reality has changed and her choices become terrible-save herself or save the world; believe the men who try to guide her in the outrageous new reality or believe the smooth talking devil who tells her she is merely having hallucinations and needs a doctor's help.
I was certain this was the perfect place to start with serious action and the call to adventure.
If you've ever read the Hero's Journey you probably already see what I did wrong. And in fact I had listened to yet another workshop on the Hero's Journey just the day before and had not put it together... What did I do wrong?
I did not start with the ordinary world.
It's that simple. I felt like a dunderhead. I know and have given talks on the Hero's Journey. (If you haven't heard of this, let me know I'll write a blog.) I have given talks on how the first two minutes of a movie always give the viewer the ordinary world before the first turning point so that they can relate to the protagonist and understand how important the call to adventure is and why the protagonist is forced to choose it.
In this case I skipped the ordinary world thinking that starting at this powerful point of action would suck the reader in like a vacuum. It was a vacuum alright, an empty space where the reader had nothing to compare with the problem.
Even crazier is that in book 2 I start with the ordinary world, but, of course, no one ever read that story since book 1 failed to sell.
So there it is--my example of how sometimes it can take years, a few subtle clues and tons of rehashing of writing craft before you can see why a book failed to sell. And yes, I'm going to go back and rewrite the opening of this book if for no other reason than to practice world building. Maybe someday this book will sell and someone will get to read book 2. Meanwhile, I am happy knowing that I finally figured out what I could do to make the story better. And that, after all, is what being a writer is all about. Cheers~


Judy Croome said...

Hmmmm. Nancy I think you may just have given me a clue on what's wrong with my mainstream novel that I'm struggling to sell. Back to the drawing board for me as well...!!

MaryC said...

Nancy, that was a great blog post. I'll have to reread it a few times and mull it over.

In some ways I'm a craft junkie, but focusing on craft also paralyzed my writing spirit for a long time. I'm struggling now to find a middle ground.

BTW - I am familiar with the Hero's Journey but I'd love to read a blog by you about it.

Marilyn Brant said...

Way to go, Nancy! I know we get such conflicting messages--to start where the action is vs. to show the ordinary world first--but I think you've probably pinpointed exactly what your story needs. I think, based on your strong understanding of structure, that you'll have an even better novel on your hands soon with just that extra bit of revision. Congrats!!

Jessica Nelson said...

Wow, very interesting post Nancy! This is good for me to remember. Start with the ordinary world...I'd forgotten about that.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Judy, funny isn't it where little clues come from. I love your writing and am glad to be in such great company.
Hi Mary, I'd be happy to post a Hero's Journey blog next week. The example used in the seminar was from the Wizard of Oz.
Thanks Marilyn, mwah! I don't know if the book will ever sell but I sure learned a lot writing and rewriting it.
Hi Jessica, We learn so much craft it's crazy how sometimes we miss the simple things.
A screenwriting course taught me to check the first two minutes of any movie- you'll see ordinary world and then turning point- every time.
Thanks for stopping by, everyone. Cheers~

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

This is a perfect example of perseverance and I have a feeling it’s going to pay off. I have never heard of “world building,” (I’d think it would have something to do with sci-fi). I also don’t know about Hero’s Journey so I’m looking forward to learning more.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane,

Actually, you need to world build no matter what you write- YA, contemporary, historical, sci fi, etc. It's all about bringing in details and rules of the fictional world your characters move around in.
I'll post a blog on that as well in the coming weeks. Thanks for letting me know. Sometimes I run out of ideas not knowing what writers want to see more of in the blog. So this is very good to know. Cheers~

MaryC said...

Thanks, Nancy.

I'm going to have to go back and look it up myself too because after reading your blog I'm wondering how THJ applies to ordinary - as in non-action - romances.

My confusion with that reminds me of what you described in the blog. I've read about THJ and been to workshops that refer to it, but I've never really synthesized it into my writing.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Mary,

THJ really does apply to ordinary romances. That was how I first learned about it. If you look at it as an emotional journey not an action journey it works.


Linda Kage said...

I can see how this would be important. In Harry Potter, they start in regular England until Harry learns he's a wizard. Suddenly, we're thrust into Hogwarts World, but we get to experience this new realm as much as Harry does and that makes it so much better.

Oh, what a great post. I'm so glad you wrote about this. It makes perfect sense.

Heather Snow said...

For so long I've been hit over the head with "start with the inciting incident", that even the idea of spending even a moment starting with the ordinary world scares me to death!

Still, like anything, I think it really is about finding the right balance. If you can start in the ordinary world while still moving the story along quickly, it should work. Shouldn't it? Gonna have to go get a craft tape... ;)

Nice post, Nancy.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Linda,

Yes, Harry Potter is a great example of starting with the ordinary world. Also- Wizard of Oz- she starts in Kansas.

Hi Heather,

I know what you mean by being afraid of the ordinary world- but if you think about Linda's example of Harry Potter- his ordinary world started to change in small bits- think of the snake incident he couldn't explain and then the letters are the call to action or inciting incident.

You all have me thinking of a couple of craft posts now! Thanks!!

MaryC said...

Nancy, I just had to stop back by this post to thank you. I'd thought I was starting my story in an ordinary enough spot, but thinking back on what you wrote here made me realize that I needed to go for even more ordinary. I did and the scene clicked. So thank you.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Mary C,

You are most welcome. Glad it clicked for you. I read all kinds of blogs for that very reason.


~Sia McKye~ said...

What a great post, Nancy. I'm now going to go back and reread it to really get the points. Probably pick your brain later too.


Olivia J. Herrell said...

Hi Nancy, just found your blog through a link MaryC shared in her comment on another blog. Great post! But of course now I'm totally wondering whether I started my ms in the wrong place. I look forward to reading your upcoming posts to get more clarity.

Thank you! that rebel