Finding Your Way In

My last few posts have been about using a new text-to-speech program, Dragon Dictate, in writing an actual manuscript.

The program gets more accurate and easier to use the more I use it. The biggest problem I find myself facing involves one of the basic challenges of writing anything. It’s the question writers ask themselves whenever they begin something new. What is this story supposed to be about? Why am I writing it? Who is the reader? Who are the characters? What problem  has to be solved? How will it be solved?

Writers have been wrestling with these questions since they wrote with quill pens. For all I know, they might have been struggling with them when they wrote on clay in cuneiform. (I’m amazed! Dragon Dictate just nailed the word cuneiform.)

I thought my issue would be learning how to handle the new technology that I was trying out. Instead, the technology was hardly an issue. My main challenge was dealing with basic writing issues.

The key question I found myself trying to answer was how to get into the story. The beginning is crucial. One might say that nothing in the manuscript is as important as the first sentence. This is what makes the reader decide whether or not he or she wants to continue reading. I’m the same way when I pick up a book. Don’t tell me it gets better by the third chapter. By then, I’m long gone.

So in telling this new story, Snot Boy, I find myself having to set up things differently from the way I did when I originally wrote it as a picture book. Picture books are all action. There is little space for the details of setting or character development.

However, setting and character development are vital for chapter books because I can no longer assume that illustrations will carry a good deal of the load. So when I began this story, I focused on the sister, Hummingbird, and her relationship with her brothers. Then I described the monster, Two Face.

I read over what I’d written, several pages worth, and realized that it just wasn’t working. My critical opening chapter had become what we call an “info dump.” This is a trap amateur writers, and sometimes professionals, fall into. It’s the tendency to give the reader all the background information in one clump. It never works because the reader properly says, “Why do I need to know all this? I’m not sure if I even want to continue reading.”

I was giving far too much information and far too little action. I needed to get into the story right away. Compounding the problem was the fact that the main character, Snot Boy, does not show up until a couple of chapters into the story.

How to solve this problem? The first step is to admit to yourself that what you’ve written isn’t working. The second step is to toss it out and start again.

So I did. I began by asking myself, “Who’s the most interesting character at the beginning of the story?” It’s the monster, Two Face. I’ll start with him. A cannibal monster is more likely to hook a reader than a nice little girl.

Right after that, I’ll deal with Hummingbird, who is the protagonist at this part of the story. I’ll make her more spirited than she was in the original version. She wants to hunt with their brothers, but they won’t teach her. Hunting, don’t you know, is for boys.

Hummingbird gets her own bow and arrow and heads off into the woods to learn how to hunt. If her brothers won’t teach her, she’ll teach herself. She practices shooting arrows at a large tree. Her target turns out not to be a tree at all but Two Face himself. Sticking the monster with a couple of arrows mutes the terror of the scene and adds a touch of comedy.

I also billed Hummingbird’s character by not having her run. She doesn’t flee in terror when Two Face comes charging at her out of the woods. She stands her ground and manages to stick him with a couple more arrows before he grabs her and runs away. Her brothers, who are hunting nearby, hear the commotion and Hummingbird’s screams. I’ll use this as a means of putting them on her trail and getting into the next part of the story.

The challenge at the beginning of every new story is finding a way in. How am I going to tell it? How am I going to start things off? I always find myself coming back to storytelling because storytelling is such an important part of my writing. I began as a storyteller, so I can’t but help imagining myself, even as I’m sitting in front of the computer, with an audience in front of me eager for me to begin. What’s the best way to pull them into the story? How can I grab hold of them and never let go. I”m looking for the door.

Every story has a door, the way in. That, to me, is the hardest part. But once you found the door, the rest is easy. You’ve hooked your audience. Now go ahead and tell the story.

Snot Boy was a difficult story to start, especially in the chapter book format, which doesn’t come easily to me. There were several times this past week were I was ready to give up the whole thing. Not now. I’ve made a big creative leap over the last two days. I found the door. I found my way into the story.

From now on, all I have to do is keep going.

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