WFMAD Day 25 – Dive in


One of the differences (for me) between an early and a late draft is that as I revise, I trim or cut the opening chapters. I have a bad habit of frontloading too much information in early drafts. I see this when I do manuscript critiques, too. The author goes on a long-winded explanation of the culture of the world where the story is set, or they give every detail about the night the main character’s grandparents met, etc. These chapters have a great deal of “telling,” usually in the narrator’s omniscient voice, and not much in the way of “showing,” i.e. action or dialog.

If you are feeling a little guilty after reading the paragraph above, knock it off. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer. It means you’re still arm-wrestling an early draft.

But at some point, you need to take a deep breath, cut out all the fluff, and dive in to your story.

We shove all that background stuff into the front of the book where it doesn’t belong, because WE, that is, the author, are still figuring out the world of the story. The trick is once you’ve figured out all the background and the situations that led up to your opening dramatic scene, to cut out most or all of it. (The Latin for this is in media res.) You’ll find ways to subtly weave in the information as the story unfolds. If you absolutely, positively cannot bring yourself to cut out the four pages of chapter one in which you explain why all the characters have one foot, and the etiquette of how a left-foot person asks a right-foot person to dance, and the overthrow of the government that was the direct result of the covert importation of the first sneakers ever seen in this distant land, then I have news for you.

You might want to find a different opening scene, one that is so compelling, you don’t drown your reader in backstory.

Ready… Clear your throat. For real. You sound like you’re coming down with something. Do you want a lemon drop?

Set… “Finally, I try to work slow. I plod, double-check, and triple-check and then check a couple more times. If I go slow enough, I can hopefully craft something that the reader will fly through in a straight rush. That’s the goal, anyway.” Joe Hill

Today’s prompt: Write “Once upon a time,” and then complete the sentence. BUT! Make it an action-packed sentence. No background. No explanation. All showing, no telling. Make it the kind of sentence that will put your reader on the edge of his seat and beg you for the rest of the story. See if you can write at least fifteen of these sentences in the next fifteen minutes.

Scribble… Scribble… Scribble…


Thank you.

The 4th Annual WFMAD Challenge is almost over. What would you like me to discuss in the days we have left? Any burning questions? Pet peeves? Ponderous problems? Tell me all about them and I’ll see what I can do to help.

OK. Now go do that scribble thing.

14 Replies to “WFMAD Day 25 – Dive in”

  1. It’s not just the first chapter either. I’ve always dove right into the story, but several drafts into my first book, I realized I was starting every new chapter with a few paragraphs describing the weather, how the character felt, etc (anything to set up the action of that chapter.)

    I took the same approach as above. I cut out the first 3-4 paragraphs in each chapter. If a sentence was important, I worked it in later. I replaced those narrative paragraphs with action or dialogue.

    The reason for the narrative excess was the same as above too. I was finding my way with the story, so I took several paragraphs per chapter to warm up to where I was going.

  2. I would love it if you could talk about giving yourself permission to suck and how to move from that to looking for/recognizing the nuggets among the suckage. On last summer’s project I was gloriously good at that, but this summer’s doesn’t feel the same way. Each project is different, but it can’t be that different–or can it?

  3. This post is so true. I see it with my fourth grade students’ writing all the time. They are at a point where they realize they need to give their readers more description of the characters, setting, etc. but their solution is often to put it all at the beginning. I’d love some ideas for helping 10 year olds begin to weave that information into the rest of their stories.

    In my own writing I think I’ve been more aware of trying not to “front load” my stories. Although I’m very much still trying to discover an inner-writer in myself. I never much enjoyed writing, and still have plenty of days where I begin “I don’t have anything I feel like writing today, …”

  4. Oops! I basically reiterated the above comment (I seriously didn’t even read it before writing this out. I’m seconding her, I suppose πŸ™‚ ):

    I’m having problems finishing my second draft because I keep thinking it’s just as bad, if not WORSE, than the first. I’d really love to hear an amazing author tell me that it’s okay for the first few drafts to suck and to just keep moving forward, I can separate the wheat from the chaff later when I get a better grasp of the difference between the two.

  5. I immediately started a new synopsis since I’m waiting for my critique group to finish the last several chapter edits on my completed story. Over the past four years, I’ve been gathering research (historical adventure!) and have written a few short stories that use the settings/characters for the new story, but nothing long-term.
    My project being edited–the one you will read (pinching self!)–I’ve been living with for over five years. I feel almost guilty leaving the old MS alone and starting something new. So much, that I’m struggling NAMING the new story. And I usually start with a title so I feel all out of sorts…
    Is it normal to feel weird when beginning a new story? Or do you think it’s anxiety about letting the old one go?

  6. How do you start again after stopping for a few years? In writing three novels, I built skill upon skill and felt pretty good about the third. Now I am petrified to write again. I start, the writing is horrible, I stop. I’m not even sure I can write a blog anymore. Could you address starting over after taking a long break?

  7. I am at this point right now. Wrestling with the opening, deciding what’s really necessary. I found movie directors DVD commentaries useful on this subject. Almost on every commentary they tell how they cut down the script, had to do away with telling too much in the beginning, and get on with the story. As we know from novel to movie adaptations, they have a much harsher time than novelists. Typically being restricted to 90-100 minutes to deliver 300-500 page books, and having to omit a huge amount in the process.

    Despite the different media, John August has said novelists could learn a lot about reducing exposition and showing from screenplays. That’s what I’m considering right now. I’m imaging my story as a movie and making sure I wouldn’t be calling “get on with it” from my seat πŸ™‚

  8. I’d love to know what kind of nerdy-compulsive things you do when revising. I say “nerdy-compulsive” because almost every writer I know has certain things they do. I’m fascinated by these. Some have certain color sticky notes, some make color-coded spreadsheets, etc. I’d love to know what you do or recommend.

  9. Hello my name is Sarah and I am a third-year WFMAD flunk-out.

    Nevermind that I’ve had the cumulative discipline to finish two books — three if you count the practice novel under my bed — and that I’m smitten with what I’m working on now. Nevermind the dust jackets and royalty checks with my name on them. I am convinced that to be a REAL writer I should be writing on my WIP — and only my WIP — every day. But every time I try, I make it through maybe a week before I start hunching up like I’m digging my heels into my own chest. More than once I’ve caught myself sitting in front of the open file on my computer, mutinously not-writing. Next thing you know I’m sneaking whole days off out of sheer defiance. Part of me thinks I could overcome this roadblock with a little willpower, but another part of me suspects I’m secretly using my all willpower to resist the whole concept.

    Instead, I spend at least 15 minutes a day badgering myself over my word count, regardless of whether I’ve written anything that day. Fact: I am slow. I do not write every day, and on the days that I do write, I grumble at myself about how I haven’t written “enough.” (In my world, 250 words is good. 250-500 is great, and 500+ is downright astounding. For a while during the first draft of The Lost Crown, I was settling for a minimum of 50 words a day.) Even on the days when I do manage to get my 250 words in, I can still needle myself for not having written for “long enough,” because I generally top out at 2-3 hours.

    In every other aspect of my life I am an ordered, routine-driven person. WHAT IS MY PROBLEM?

    The most distasteful part of all of this is the moralistic attitude I’ve adopted toward my own work ethic. A day of writing is good and virtuous; a day of not-writing is bad and shameful — a waste. And since I spend most days not-writing, or writing not-enough, I am constantly shaming myself. If this was about counting calories instead of words, I’d sound like a candidate for an eating disorder.

    Oh, and guess what — it’s past 10:00, I’ve had the whole day off, and I haven’t done my 15 minutes yet. (I have spent 40 minutes or so on this comment, but that voice in my head says it doesn’t count.)

  10. Congratulations. Really astounded with the caliber of the advice presented. I sincerely hope that you keep up with the brilliant work accomplished.

  11. First, in yesterday’s post, you captured the self-defeating track that runs through my head about running … not to mention the fact that you have the same ITB- knee problem I struggle with, and now you pinpointed the problem I’ve been wrestling with for a week re: the beginning of my manuscript. A little eerie, but on both fronts, it’s good to know I’m not alone!

    Ideas for remaining posts —

    –I hear the ‘show, don’t tell’ phrase a lot, and while I get it, I think I still have a lot to learn when it comes to fully grasping that concept and recognizing it in my work. (I don’t think it’s possible to show all the time … so what are examples of situations where it may be best to tell?)

    Thanks so much for all of the words of wisdom — and especially reassurance.

    Carla (Kids’ book blog that I do with my 10-year-old writing daughter)

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