What If . . .
I own a book called What If? by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter. One of the very first exercises in that book is to write at least one first sentence every day. With no requirement that it go further than just that: a first sentence to a story.
I’m not sure I even finished the book. I started doing that simple exercise, and it led me to several short stories (including the first one I ever finished back in 1992) and to my current novel series in progress. I did it for years, penning as few as one and as many as twenty or thirty first sentences every single day. Some of them were ridiculous; some were sublime. Some were speculative; some were mundane. Some were funny; some tragic. But the thing they all had in common was that they got my mental juices flowing. I’d think of a first sentence, and with it would come a sense of character, place, time, mood, theme, scene . . . pretty much everything but a plot.
It’s also how I discovered that I tend to randomly use the name Victor a lot. Usually in a negative manner. But I digress.
I no longer do this exercise, although I think perhaps I should start doing it again. Just to get my author juices flowing again. You see, I’m kind of blocked, right now. I have a ton of ideas, but when it comes time to put them down on paper/electrons . . . I instantly hate every syllable.
He was a dark and stormy knight.
“Feh! That sucks.”
As London burned, Victor looked down upon it with
“No! That’s even worse!”
Blood, red and sticky and still warm, dripped from my fingers into the still-open mouth of the corpse at my feet.
“No, no, no, no, NO!” <insert anachronistic image of ripping paper from a typewriter, complete with appropriate sound effects, wadding up the page, and throwing it at a trashcan overflowing with other crumpled sheets of paper, all with one sentence typed across the top>
I’m supposed to be working on my goal of writing short stories and sending them off to publishers. And I would be if I could stand a single syllable of anything I’ve written. I reached a point at which I simply could no longer look at my existing stories (editing stories I’ve already written is not my favorite thing about writing). My brain demanded that I work on what it really wanted to work on: my novel.
“Fine,” I told it. “You want it, you got it. Novel it is.”
There was a faint, gurgling squee from inside my skull. I would have been worried except that I’m used to things like that.
I churned out about 3000 words. A bit under two chapters of Death Scene, book 1 of the MCU Case Files, an urban fantasy series set in modern-day Atlanta, but with magic.
And I edited it and got it almost like I wanted it. And I triumphantly submitted it to my writing group. But with reservations. I wanted to change . . . something. But I couldn’t figure out what. Something was just not right. But what? Maybe they could help.
What I heard back definitely told me what it was. I think ‘uninteresting’ would be the polite term to use. I think the exact phrase one person used was ‘sterile and boring.’ Others used words like ‘slow,’ ‘no action,’ ‘stereotypical,’ ‘teaser-y/prologue-y,’ ‘not enough drama,’ and ‘no conflict.’
To be fair, they also said it was not info-dumpy (but was bordering on it), flowed well, drew them in, and was well-written, but as an opening chapter, it wasn’t enough. They wanted more from an introduction to a new world in which magic, the FBI, the police, and a body frozen in time during the act of being burned at the stake are all introduced.
And as each person said nearly the same thing, I nodded, because it confirmed what I’d been afraid of. And hey, it’s a chapter one. I should just move on and write chapter two, armed with the knowledge of the consensus opinion.
But that’s not what I did. What I did was start playing “What if?”
What if I increase the amount of magic the magical characters use? I mean, it’s frickin’ Urban Fantasy, right? Let’s get some magic in there from the get-go.
What if I start the chapter later? Closer to the action of examining the crime scene? Or, possibly better yet, what if I drop back a bit and start with the hapless individual who discovers the body looking for a place to get high and frisky with his girlfriend?
What if there’s conflict between the FBI and the Atlanta PD? Not stereotypical “turf wars,” but something different.
What if . . . ?
What if . . . ?
So, um . . . how do I turn it off? I’d like to write chapter 2, now, but instead I’m redesigning how vampires work and planning how I can introduce the bad guy from book 3. Yes, book 3. And ideas for the plot of book 2 are cropping up, as well.
So I guess ‘What If?’ can be a writer’s best friend or his worst enemy. At the same time. Which is a bit disconcerting.
Ooh! What if dragons . . .
Disclaimer: I am the exact opposite of upset with my writers group who gave me these critiques. I am, in fact, delighted. They were, as always, honest, thorough, and got right at the core of what was wrong with the chapter. To get angry at that would be hypocritical, since that’s the entire point of a critique group. I quoted some of their comments not because I was upset at them or was dwelling on them, but because they were particularly apt. I was so close to the story that I couldn’t see what was right in front of me.
I just wanted to say that because some of them will probably see this post, and I wanted to nip any angst on their parts in the bud. :)
This post was inspired by the GBE2 Blog On Week 108 prompt, “What If?”