Second Book First

by limebirdster

One thing that we were constantly reminded at university was that you start writing where the story begins. The Hobbit begins with Gandalf turning up on Bilbo’s doorstep and thus setting the whole adventure into motion. Harry Potter begins, although the reader doesn’t know it, with the death of Voldemort, and Harry being left with his aunt and uncle. The boy in the striped pyjamas begins with the family moving house, and so on.

It was a piece of advice so obvious that I thought it barely worth saying at all. Of course that’s where you write from, why would anyone start writing 5000 words before the story starts? Well, me apparently.

When I finished the first draft of my first book I gave it to my sister to read with the same feelings of pride, relief and concern that I imagine most parents feel when they drop their child off on the first day of school. The next time I saw her, a few months later, the 230 printed pages were covered in scribbles of biro in steadily messier handwriting. I asked her what she thought.

She looked at me for a moment as if deciding whether or not I could take it, and then:

‘That’s a terrible place the end.’

‘What?’

‘Nothing’s happened!’

I argued that it was only the first book in what I planned to be a trilogy and explained the plot for the next two books. She shrugged, unimpressed. She thought that it was well written, but that didn’t take away from the fact that it didn’t seem to have any actual plot.

Disheartened, I trudged back to my computer and proceeded to painfully butcher my carefully crafted manuscript. It lost around 50,000 words, and then gained another 35,000 of what I desperately hoped counted towards plot. I emailed it to my sister again. She read the entire thing on her iphone, don’t ask me how I have no idea, and conceded that this draft was better. There was plot this time.

Immensely impressed with myself, I sent it off to two other friends to ask their opinion as well and while I waited to hear back, I started writing a new book.

This was a children’s book. The first of what I planned to be a series of several books, still in the fantasy genre but aimed at a different reader. This time when I was finished, instead of sending the first draft to my sister, I sent it to my old flatmate, a friend from uni who also happens to be a Real Life Children’s Writer and an editor to boot.

The next time that I saw her I asked what she thought of it. She hesitated, and in the gap I told her what I had written so far for the second book.

Her reaction was something like this:

‘Why don’t you write that one first?’

I mentally smacked myself on the forehead. I’d done it again.

The problem with attempting to write a series of books is that you know you need to leave some stuff to happen later, or you end up with a very short series. The problem I seem to be encountering is that I get so focused on making sure the story lasts to the end of the final book, that I’m leaving nothing for the first book!

The first time I streamlined the whole thing and then added quite a few new chapters onto the end, which managed to solve the problem nicely. This time I’ve found myself having to rethink the entire idea, combining what I had planned to be the second book into the first book, and simply starting the whole thing again. I’m 30,000 words into that rewrite so far, I’ll let you know how it goes!

So, have you ever encountered a piece of advice so obvious that it barely counted as advice and then found yourself falling into the trap anyway? Are there any rules that, no matter how much you know that they’re right, you simply can’t stick to?

I think that perhaps, no matter how well you think you understand some writing rules or how obvious they sound when you first hear them, you can study as many different modules in as many different degrees as you want, but some lessons you just have to learn by making the mistakes, no matter how long that might take!

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15 Comments to “Second Book First”

  1. As my sister, S., is fond of saying, “You can’t know what you don’t know.” She says that to me every time I react 5 or 6 years later, to something she told me was very important to think about. I’m guessing this probably applies to your current situation. The important thing for me is, those lessons are far easier to remember, from the events along the way that lead up to you finally knowing. I hope you remember to be gentle with your self and your words as you proceed through your rewrites — because you can’t know what you don’t know, until you know it! 😎

    • Hi Judith, thanks for commenting. I think the most annoying thing is that I DO know the rule and when I’m writing I think that I’m following it perfectly!

      I think I’m just going to have to live by Ernest Hemmingway and accept that “The first draft of everything is sh*t”!

  2. What a great debut LimebirdSter (which I read as Limbirdster, which sounds pretty awesome). I also have the same problem as you, where I write from the middle. When I did NaNo, I didn’t write in a chronological fashion at all. I wrote the end when I started, then did random chapters in the middle that came to me. I just found it so much easier to write that way, so I can completely understand where you’re coming from.

    I’d love to read your book when it’s done! 😀 Welcome to the team!

    • Haha, Limbirdster! I think when I did NaNo I actually wrote from the end, I ended up finished before I’d actually started so to speak!

      Thanks for the welcome! Book 1 is so far in its fifth draft, I’m kind of losing steam so it might be a while!

  3. Welcome to the nest, LimebirdSter (although, like Beth, I read it as Limebirdster, and that’s very cool).

    Off the top of my head, I guess the one piece of advice that I’ve always heard and thought I’d done but didn’t at times, is to Show, Don’t Tell. Although, I will say there are some situations where telling is better than showing, so then the advice isn’t all that helpful!

    Thanks for a fun post.

    • Hi Kate, thanks for commenting. I know what you mean about show don’t tell, I’ve had serious arguements with my sister over that one!

  4. I reckon we should all be limebirdsters! Welcome to the gang Ster, great first post.

    I took a children’s creative writing class once where the teacher, a published author told us about how she’d submitted her first three chapters and synopsis to an agent and received a standard rejection. The agent hadn’t realised that she actually knew her though, and next time they met up she mentioned it, and agent said, ‘Oh I didn’t know that was from you’ – she went back over it and told her to delete the first two chapters and they were onto something – the book was subsequently published.

    Most of us aren’t going to get that opportunity for a second chance!

    • Thanks Sally! I know quite a few people with stories like that, unfortunately for all of the rest of us desperately sending our work out to everyone we can, people are far more likely to read it if they know who you are!

  5. I don’t think there are any rules to writing a book, not really. There are rules for grammar, punctuation and the like. As for the actually content and how you do it… No. Do it how you see fit. Do what works for you.

    We have to do what works for us.

    To write, first we have to write what we love if we want anyone else to love it. That’s how I feel, anyway, and I’m wrong a lot. 🙂

  6. What I’m finding helps is to know what needs to happen in each book ahead of time, if you realize in advance that you’re working on a series of some kind. I’m in the middle of outlining the second book in my trilogy and that’s what I’ve done already for each of them. I’ve made a short (for me) list of what each book puts forward in the overall story, then a list of things that have to happen in each book to make that contribution. It’s helped me balance and see what I need to set up where in the project as a whole. It’ll be good practice for the big, 5-book project on the edge of my brain, I think.

  7. I sort of did the opposite. I started what I thought was the beginning of my story only to realize that I had best get at least some of how things got to where they were when the story began (if nothing but for my own edification and to help clarify the characters).

    So, I started to flush that out and it evolved into a short story, which I’m now turning into a novel (I’ll let you know how that goes). It’s a stronger story and has become quite interesting.

    Of course, I do nearly everything backwards… like take classes on translating Latin in the wrong order. It’s sorta my M.O.

    Nice post.

    • Hi Shannon, I think it can actually be quite difficult to work out where you need to begin sometimes, too early and you might get bogged down in unessisary detail, but too late you risk confusing your reader!

      I think the important think that we need to remember is that it’s never going to be perfect first time! And sometimes the only way to know how to do something is just to do it and see how it goes, as much as that will inevitably lead to rewrites!

      How do you learn Latin backwards? Sounds very complicated, I couldn’t even learn it forwards!

      • Not sure how much I learned, but I took the core courses out of order. These are the ones AFTER the introductory sequence. There were three 316, 317, and 318. I took 316 and 318 in one semester, then I took 317. By the time I got to 317, I was good to go, but that other semester was pretty bad. However, I had been introduced to Perseus.org, which has a morphological look-up tool. Saved my GPA.

        I think you’re right about not knowing where to start. I’ve been putting off moving forward with my story because I’m not sure what I should include. Do I include the “prelude” part I’ve written and then skip some time? Do I just keep going from where I am? Do I start somewhere else and then tell the prelude later? None of them sound right to me yet.

        I think you’re right about the rewrites!

  8. I never discount the wisdom of many sets of other eyes looking at my work… Your story just verifies my sense about that. Thanks!

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