Thursday, December 19, 2013

WRITING A NOVEL - Finding a Starting Point

Time seems to "fly" away. My last blog post was October 26th. As I've said from the beginning, blogging my 4th novel is going to be in real time, including all the REAL delays and distractions. One of the greatest challenges to writing a novel-length story is dealing with "life."

Although I have not posted on the blog in over 7 weeks, I have been working on the story. Once I lock onto a story idea, I can never put it to bed until it is complete. I was once told that when you decide on a story idea, be ready to live with that idea for at least a year--24/7. Looking back, FTP was a 5-year project; FID was also a 5-year project; FTP was an 18-month project. 

Although my last blog post was many weeks ago, I am satisfied with the writing I was able to complete. During the 7-week break, I was able to complete a non-fiction project: "Solving the Money Puzzle." This was a project that has been on my list of "things to do" for a long time. It was first written, under a different title, in 1995 in the form of a personal devotion. A couple of years ago, I released it as an eBook. But my final goal was to rewrite it and release it in paperback and eBook formats...which I did.  Whew! Done! It is now available on Amazon. So now I am free to devote my full attention to "The Local."

FINDING A STARTING POINT: Today I wanted to sync up where I have been and where I am going with "The Local." That is the tough part when you take a break. It takes time to get back in the groove. Thankfully, I was only in the formulating stage with "The Local" when I took a break to complete "Solving the Money Puzzle."

When I speak of "Finding a Starting Point," I'm not talking about where I will start, now that I'm back on the project, but where will the story start. The most important part of a novel (after the front cover and the short synopsis on the back cover) is the first sentence...then the first paragraph...then the first scene...then the last sentence in the first chapter. If a customer is intrigued by the cover, they might turn it over and read the synopsis, or be curious about the author and read the author bio. In these few seconds, they then might venture to open the cover and see how the story starts. This is why the first sentence is so important. It can mean the difference between a purchase or not.

I have listed a few examples of good and great first sentences from novels you will recognize. I love to wander through book stores and read first sentences in novels (especially the hot new releases) and see how far the author can get me to read before I put the book back on the shelf. Hopefully you will see what I mean. I'll start with some of the classics from literature and finish with a few from more modern times.

"It is truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." Jan Austen: Pride and Prejudice (1813)

"It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness." Edward George Bulwer-Lytoon: Paul Clifford (1830)

"Call me Ishmael." Herman Melville: Moby-Dick (1851)

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way." Charles Dickens: A Tale Of Two Cities (1859)

"All children, except one, grow up." J.M. Barrie: Peter Pan (1911)

"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all the David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." J.D. Salinger: The Catcher in The Rye (1951)

"There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it." C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952)

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish." Earnest Hemingway: The Old Man And The Sea (1952)

"It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him." Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961)

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." George Orwell: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

"It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not. Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)

"It was the day my grandmother exploded." Iain Banks: The Crow Road (1992)

"They shoot the white girl first." Toni Morrison: Paradise (1998)

And of course, I must add the starts to my three novels...

"The hot shower poured over Keri's naked body, engulfing her in a therapeutic cocoon, numbing her thoughts to everything but the pain deep within her heart, in her bones, in her head." Mike Coe: Flight to Paradise (2010)

"Captain Ryan Mitchell waited patiently in the left seat on the flight deck of the Boeing 767." Mike Coe: Flight into Darkness (2011)

"Ryan paced the house like a caged zoo animal." Mike Coe: Flight to Freedom (2013)


As the curtain opens, in a matter of seconds, the writer gets one shot at selling the prospective reader on the story. But after that key, first sentence or paragraph, what next?

I mentioned in a previous post, if the reader is not hooked by the 25% point (unless the reader is a die-hard novelist) I will probably lose them. Their nightly reading time is no longer something they look forward to, but, instead, a time that is easily replaced by more mundane chores or perhaps a new book. Yikes!!! Yes, once the interest in the story fades, the novel is tossed into the "unfinished" pile.

So this brings me to the meat of this post: Finding a Starting Point.

During the writing of "Flight into Darkness", my writing coach told me that I should find the most exciting scene in the story and start the novel there. "What?" That's what he said. As I considered the mechanics of such a daunting task, my first question was: "If I start the story in the middle, how do I avoid the dreaded flashbacks?"

In "Flight into Darkness", I attempted to tackle this task by starting the story with a crash scene in chapter one. To avoid spoiling the scene, I will let you read the first chapter in "Flight into Darkness" to see for yourself. In the third novel of the trilogy, "Flight to Freedom", I delayed the action scene until chapter two. I used chapter one to connect books two and three. In the first book, "Flight to Paradise", because of very short chapters, I used the first two chapters to build up to the blow that Keri surprisingly delivered to Ryan in chapter three. Looking back at the entire trilogy, the first sentence in chapter three of "Flight to Paradise" is the place Ryan thinks about most often during the entire trilogy. The thought of that scene haunts him throughout the trilogy, especially in book three, until he gets resolution.

My challenge now is to decide how, when, and where in the story I will begin "The Local." If you promise not to tell, I will share with you the opening of "The Local." Of course, you should know by now that this is probably not the way it will look in the final version, but it might be close. What I want you to see is a tentative starting point.
The greatest lie that has ever been told is that happiness and satisfaction can be found in things of this world.

Chapter 1
It was July 3rd, a Thursday morning at 6 o’clock, and still dark outside. Early morning commuters were fighting the clock. Each minute could make the difference in avoiding the bulk of traffic jams and accidents that would soon plague the main arteries leading into the heart of Atlanta’s Downtown and Midtown districts. Thankfully, I was in the uptown district located in Buckhead.
In my windowless office on the seventh floor of Tower Place 100, the only light was from four computer monitors stacked in front of me. Comfortably seated in my chair with my fingers lightly positioned above the keyboard, I was ready to strike. Adrenaline rushed through my veins. My heart raced, charged by caffeine, as Beethoven’s 5th Symphony piped through my headset. Like a hungry lioness stalks a startled herd of Wildebeests searching for the weak or injured to cull from the pack, I waited for my programmed algorithms to uncover my next arbitrage opportunity.
More to come...hopefully sooner than later.

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