I was invited by fellow writer Sarah Madison to join a (very small, but perfectly formed!) crit group recently, and a couple of weeks ago we had our first session via Skype. I can’t tell you how helpful that was. Well, actually, I can. And I’m about to.
I’m revising the very first draft of Heart Scarab, the second of the Taking Shield series. Problem 1: I’d started it with a short prologue reintroducing the hero’s love interest, Flynn (who doesn’t really appear until ch 5).
Two Hornet squads curved in from the dreadnought’s flank, cutting across the bow of the destroyer following in Gyrfalcon’s wake. The other ships of the First Flotilla, the frigates and corvettes, were further back behind the Patroklus, faintly lit by their own navigation lights and little more than greyish shapes against the bright star field.
I had a nice sci-fi image in mind – lots of lovely fighter ships, Hornets, curving their way around big destroyers and frigates to land in the Hornet bays of the huge dreadnought, the Gyrfalcon, that leads the First Fleet Flotilla. I could see that scene, you understand. Imagine a backdrop of a million stars, the big ships of the Flotilla all hulking metal that’s been scoured silver by years of cosmic dust, lit up along their length with navigation lights and bristling with laser cannon, and the nippy little single-pilot Hornets with their swept back delta wings and fiery engines swooping around them to a stirring soundtrack. Can’t you just see this as the opening scene when they film Shield? (cough cough. As if!) Dramatic, pretty, techno. Perfect. Just great for a visual medium.
Shit for the reader though. Boring, boring, boring. Would that induce you to read on, breathless with anticipation about what happens next? Yeah. Me neither.
Problem 2 was just stupid. Get into chapter one and just as the Maess arrive on a planet to lay it waste, the hero breaks off from herding colonists into rescue transports to wax lyrical with his second in command about his unsatisfactory and selfish partner, Joss. All good stuff, but really? In about two seconds Maess drones are going to be bombing him and he’s worrying about how he and Joss are sliding apart and always fighting? Way to show military priorities, Bennet!
I knew that the pacing was off in that chapter, and it was really good to get Sarah and Claire’s views on that and the prologue. Their comments were trenchant – ditch (or move) the prologue, move the conversation with Rosie to somewhere it makes more sense (which latter bit of advice echoed some I’d had from other friends who read this guff over for me). The rest was okay. The action was fine. But heck, sort those two things out, girl.
Actually, one was the solution to the other. I didn’t want to lose my prologue altogether as it had some nice sidelights into Flynn’s state of mind, eight months or so since he and Bennet had parted. And it had some fun bits that made me grin. I’m sad like that. I hate deleting stuff if I can reuse it some place else. So the prologue was folded into Flynn’s chapter to kick that off with those lovely techy mind images.
And I moved that conversation with Rosie to front and centre. Instead of Bennet distracting himself (and Rosie!) in the middle of a battle with a silly conversation about how mad Joss is with him for going off the Telnos and not leaving the military, the book now starts with Bennet getting the house door slammed into his face. Literally, that’s how it starts now.
The apartment door crashed shut in Shield Captain Bennet’s face so hard it rattled on its hinges.
K M Weiland, in her great book “Structuring your novel” says that “The beginning of every story should present character, setting and conflict.” And she says “The opening line of your book is your first (and if you don’t take advantage of it, last) opportunity to grab your readers’ attention and give them a reason to read your story.”
The new opener’s a bit better, don’t you think? Closer to what Weiland recommends, and a far better hook to land all those little reader fishies than my pretty pictures of spaceships. I think it makes them ask questions like “Whoa! What’s going on here? Who’s having the temper tantrum? What’s a Shield Captain when he’s at home? What did Bennet do to deserve/provoke that? Did his nose escape being mashed flat? I’d better read on and find out.”
So what I’m trying to say in this sadly circumlocutory way, is that before the crit group I had an opener that would have had readers turning off in droves. Now I have one that does a much better job of pulling them in.
Join a crit group, people, if you want some real, sterling help with your craft. Be prepared to be told what sucks and what works. Be prepared to work with your fellow members’ comments and don’t get so invested in your immortal words that you get all butthurt when they tell you that the pacing is off or your prologue’s wasting your chance of getting readers hooked.
I can’t wait for our next meeting on Sunday. I really want to know what they make of Joss and his extended, sexy flashbacks…