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Author Topic: Extended openings
Rhaythe
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I have an idea for a sequel to one of my novels. Unfortunately, my idea starts during the World War 2 era. I want to tell that part of the backstory, but I'm cautious about having several chapters set in one time period, and then jumping forward to 70 years later to modern day, where the "usual" cast of characters takes over.

I've seen something like this happen before. In "The Passage", the author starts a world-wide apocolypse and flashes forward 200 years. this happens 30% of the way through the story, so pretty much everyone I got to like was dead at that point, and a brand-spankin' new cast of characters was brought forth.

Granted, this is a part 2. So it's not like I have to spend an abnormal amount of time introducing the main cast.

Thoughts? Am I right to be nervous about this kind of mechanic? I really don't like telling one chapter in modern day, the next in history, lather rinse repeat. And I'm not sure that, for the sake of the story, I can just drop the flashback in its own segment in the middle of the novel.

Or should I just shut up and write?

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Unwritten
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Personally, I don't like it when I start a book like that. It rarely works for me. On the other hand, I often enjoy switching time periods from chapter to chapter, but it doesn't sound like you're very interested in that idea. So I say shut up and write, and I predict the answer will become clear to you and page 256...and then you'll have to start over. [Smile]
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Meredith
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Write it. You can always shuffle the chapters later. Absolutely no writing is wasted, even if you never send it anywhere.
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MattLeo
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Well, generally speaking agents and editors don't like prologues, and it sounds like you've got a long, long prologue. But then they represent and publish lots of books with prologues, so the message we should take away from that is that it isn't prologues per se, it's prologues that don't work.

I agree with both Unwritten and Meredith on this one. These kinds of status quo ante openings usually don't work. But banging out three or four chapters isn't that hard. It's getting stuff to work that's hard. If you can make your pre-chapters work, then more power to you. If you can't, the material becomes backstory or a parallel story line.

I think the problem with the status quo ante openings is that you get invested in the story and suddenly you're in a different story with different characters. I understand the appeal to the writer though; you're thinking EPIC. You're thinking twelve hundred pages of James Michener book of the month club awesomeness following seven tempestuous generations of dry cleaners as they cope with economic disaster in the 30s, war in the 40s, suburban flight of their client base in the 50s and polyester in the 60s.

I totally get it. I think the danger is falling between two chairs. You can orchestrate a sprawling multi-generational epic (although it may be a tough sell), or you tell a tightly focused tale, but *just little bit* epic is tough to pull off. But if you can, again more power to you.

Neal Stephenson used an interesting technique in *Cryptonomicon*, in which he interleaves plot lines from the past with ones from the present, so they move forward in parallel. In the past characters are creating a conundrum as the present-day characters encounter and unravel it, eventually pulling threads from around the globe so both story lines end up in the Philippines.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I'd recommend getting the main story (as opposed to the back story) written and then decide if and how much back story is needed.

So it's all up to you. What parts of the story are demanding you to write them now?

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Rhaythe
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quote:
I understand the appeal to the writer though; you're thinking EPIC. You're thinking twelve hundred pages of James Michener book of the month club awesomeness following seven tempestuous generations of dry cleaners as they cope with economic disaster in the 30s, war in the 40s, suburban flight of their client base in the 50s and polyester in the 60s.
Good lord, I hope I never write something that long. The editing phase would kill me. No, this storyline just happens to feature an immortal antagonist, and the storyline started in WW2.

quote:
I'd recommend getting the main story (as opposed to the back story) written and then decide if and how much back story is needed.
Yeah, that's about what I figured. Just putting feelers out there.
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MAP
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Is the ww2 stuff really so critical to the plot that you need to show it instead of working it in as the main story unfolds, or have you created a backstory that sounds so awesome in your mind that you just want to tell it?

What is really important to the story?

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by MAP:
What is really important to the story?

Yes! The most important question, and the hardest to answer.

When I was a kid my mom had a bookcase full of "Reader's Digest Condensed Books". This was an anthology series which was published quarterly. Each quarterly volume usually contained five abridged books (mostly novels) with page counts in the 575 range, or about 115 pages for each book. If I recall the page format was roughly comparable to a modern trade paperback, so I'd reckon 350-400 words per page. That means the novels were cut down from 60,000 - 200,000 words to a mere 40,000 - 45,000. To my childish mind these books were pretty good despite being 30% to 60% of their original length. They were certainly easy to read.

I'm often tempted to pick up a few RDCB volumes to see how they hold up to my adult tastes. I suspect they'd be enjoyable, undemanding reads that in most cases fail to deliver the full reading pleasure of the original. In more than a few cases they're probably improvements on the original.

It goes to show you that quite a bit in most novels is not "important to the story" -- at least if you mean "essential for a coherent and satisfactory plot." But often you'd miss out on the best bits of a novel if you threw out the unnecessary stuff. My favorite parts of Lord of the Rings, after countless readings over the years, are the little telling details; the forlorn rooms of Bag-End as Frodo leaves, or the bosky trails of Ithilien. Those would be on the cutting-room floor in the condensed version, but I really think LotR would be hopelessly dull without them.

So what matters artistically is whether something engages the reader and moves him through the story, not whether it is "necessary". A bad or mediocre book would nearly always improve with abridgment, but a book that gives you pleasure on every page never seems long enough.I remember receiving my pre-ordered copy of Goblet of Fire and thinking, "This thing is waaay longer than it needs to be ... hooray!"

What matters *commercially* is a different kettle of fish. It costs nearly twice as much to print, transport and stock a 500 page book than a 250 page book. It takes up shelf space. So the sweet spot (I am told) for a genre fiction manuscript by an unproven author is about 75,000 - 80,000 words -- long enough for an average reader to while away an entire evening or two without everyone along the supply chain weighing its sales prospects to the farthing. Given that a typical RDCB abridgement is in the 45,000 word range, 80,000 does give you a little room for extras. But as a reader I generally prefer novels of at least 100,000 words or so. Few of my favorite novels are shorter, the exception being Alfred Bester's *The Stars my Destination*, which is about 80-90K.

So bringing this back to Rhaythe's question, I'd say it depends on how entertaining and satisfying the WW2 material is, how seamlessly you can transition into modern day, and how the net word count of the novel affects its marketability. If you are going well over 120K on word count, you might think long and hard about cutting it. If you're at or below the 100K mark, and your test readers like the material and don't complain about the transition, keep it in.

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MAP
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Matt, I didn't mean that you should write a bare bones story without any atmosphere or flavor, but sometimes writers get a little self-indulgent and add stuff that doesn't really move the plot along just because they think it is interesting. For example: The Wheel of Time series. [Smile]

I think it is always good to think about what is necessary for the story and not go off on tangents.

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Grumpy old guy
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For the 'epic' I'm currently writing, the 'main' story is bookended by a very lengthy 'Prelude' set the night Troy was sacked, and an epilogue that will tie everything together with, hopefully, a giant "Ahh" moment. It's the only way I can make the story work. So, for me it isn't a choice, I just have to make certain the reader doesn't feel cheated when the protagonist in the Prelude dies.

If the writing and storyline is strong enough, I don't think it matters all that much how the story is constructed.

Phil

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by MAP:
Matt, I didn't mean that you should write a bare bones story without any atmosphere or flavor, but sometimes writers get a little self-indulgent and add stuff that doesn't really move the plot along just because they think it is interesting.

I agree, I wanted to point out that we ought to think carefully about phrases like "necessary to the story", especially when doing critique. I think it's better to say, "I was bored here" than "this wasn't necessary to the story."

Subjective reaction is important; evoking subjective reactions is what writing fiction is all about. So we should identify our subjective reaction and report it. But as people interested in the craft we shouldn't confuse our *reaction* with an *explanation*. That's why "Is this necessary to the story?" is a bad question, even though it's the most important question. It doesn't get you anywhere until you examine the basis for making that determination. Perhaps it'd be better to ask, "Does this *feel* necessary to the story?" and then ask, "Why or why not?"

Calling a writer "self-indulgent" is another example of this problem of confusing subjective reader reaction with a diagnosis for what's wrong with a work. I suspect most manuscripts are at least a little self-indulgent, but to know with any certainty the degree to which a passage is self-indulgent you'd have to be able to read the author's mind. It's better to say "This book irritated me," or "This book felt patronizing." That kind of feedback gets right to the important issue - the difference between the reaction the author probably wants (charmed, intrigued, impressed) and what he actually achieved in your case (bored, irritated, contemptuous).

Your craft-base analysis of why you reacted as you did comes after isolating that reaction: the first act was unusually long; the plot was driven by obvious coincidences; the characters lack depth and conveniently make the author's point (the hero is perfectly virtuous and the villains utterly depraved).

We have to be careful about our diagnosis, because it can end up driving our reaction rather than explaining it. I watched a number of 30's and 40's romantic screwball comedies in preparation for writing The Keystone, and without exception the romantic antagonist is a total drip. This would seem to be a case of sloppy writing, a classic case of a weak antagonist, but the writing is actually quite sharp. The real conflict in those movies isn't between the heroine and her rival; it's between the heroine and her love interest. Those movies are about the heroine rescuing her love interest (against his will) from what the rival *represents*: materialism, conventionality, sexual frigidity. A lot of critics tend to seize on some rule like "make your antagonist strong" then apply it without any actual critical thought.

The only way to know for sure whether your getting the reaction you want is to run a MS by some readers. Yes, there are strategies like "avoid prologues", but every book is a special case. Don't be afraid to be unconventional, just don't be surprised if it doesn't work.

[ October 04, 2012, 09:27 AM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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Robert Nowall
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Well, if worse comes to worst, you can always rename your prologue "Chapter 1" and renumber the others accordingly---let the editors spot it and talk you out of it if they can.
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MAP
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Matt, I see your point, and I try to be thorough when I critique. I always try my best to explain my reaction. But I'm not critiquing here. I'm merely posing questions for Rhaythe to consider, and he/she is definitely capable of determining if he/she is being self-indulgent.

I know these things are all subjective, and while critiquers do point out things that they see as problematic, the only opinion that really matters is the writer's. At least until an editor buys it. [Smile]

[ October 04, 2012, 11:10 AM: Message edited by: MAP ]

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EVOC
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There are other ways to do it. For example in the novel Haze by L. E. Modesitt Jr. he starts with the "present" and then after a chapter or two goes to the "past" for a chapter or two. Thus getting the back story in place while also keeping the story active.

KDW has a good point. Write the main story and see what is really needed in the end. You might find the back story is explained well enough as the story progresses that you earlier explanation is no longer needed.

Most novels have some type of back story. Many times the telling of the back story can be done in the context of other chapters, ect. I've never cared much for prologues. Because it is my opinion that if the story really needs the prologue than that should be Chapter 1. Of course there are exceptions to everything.

So, I wouldn't stress to much on it at this point. Write the story and then go back and figure out what belongs and what you can incorporate into the story as you tell it.

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Rhaythe
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quote:
Most novels have some type of back story.
Pretty much every novel I write has a prologue. It's just part of the convention of action-thrillers, and it fits the genre. It obviously sells; it's everywhere. In media res is a common tool in my chosen realm.

quote:
If the writing and storyline is strong enough, I don't think it matters all that much how the story is constructed.
A valid point - which belies the true answer: Just Write!

quote:
...or have you created a backstory that sounds so awesome in your mind that you just want to tell it?
You don't pull punches, do you?

quote:
and your test readers like the material
Point taken.
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MAP
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quote:
Originally posted by Rhaythe:
quote:
...or have you created a backstory that sounds so awesome in your mind that you just want to tell it?
You don't pull punches, do you?
Was I too harsh? I'm sorry, I never intended to be insulting. I didn't mean to imply that I thought this was the case.

I just know that from my writing that developing backstory can lead to some pretty awesome ideas that I can get really excited about, and I've had to hold myself back because I didn't want the backstory to detract from the main story.

I think as writers it is important for us to ask ourselves some tough questions, to determine what will make the story stronger and what will make the story weaker. I'm sorry if you thought that I was passing judgement on you. I really wasn't.

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Robert Nowall
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If the backstory in the prologue is awesome enough...maybe it'd merit its own separate story away from the other one.
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Rhaythe
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I did end up scraping much of the original prologue in favor of something that can be covered in one (longish) chapter. Feels like I cheated myself a bit, but hey, it's just an outline. We'll see once it's written (yay Nano!).
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