Happy 4th of July!

Cover of "Hunter's Run"
Cover of Hunter’s Run

What am I doing writing a post on the 4th of July? Shouldn’t I be out at the beach? Or with friends and family? Or anything other than in front of my computer?

Yeah, well, I’m a writer. (Yikes, I said it.) And today is a day off from work, which means I will be spending my day working on my writing projects instead of enjoying this gorgeous California sun, eating BBQ’d stuff, and/or watching firework displays. (sigh)

There are worse things in life, and remember – I choose to be here.

So, what do I have for you this fine Wednesday?

Since big bangs is a recurring theme for the 4th of July, let’s follow through on that. New writers are often told to start out their story in media res, in the middle of the action, preferably during or immediately after some huge crisis (fireworks maybe?) that catapults your protagonist into action. Jump! Hurry! Your protagonist is running for his life and you must follow.

At least, that’s the idea.

And, you know, that’s good advice.

I was walking my dog this morning, as I do every morning, and I started thinking about the book I’m reading. It’s called Blade Dancer by K.M. Tolan. I’m about 90% through the book and I’m just about beginning to really like it. And I thought, why the heck did I have to push myself through 90% of the book before I started to like it? To be honest, if I hadn’t agreed to review it, I wouldn’t have kept going past the first chapter.

Nothing wrong with the writing, mind you. Nothing at all wrong. There are more typos that I would like to see, but none too glaring. Over all, Mr. Tolan has written an excellent story, but it just didn’t grab me right away. And I tried to think of why…

Well, for one thing, though he starts out the book with his main protagonist in a battle that goes horribly wrong, that’s not really where her story starts. In my humble opinion, her story starts when she meets her mother – half way into the book. After that huge revelation, the story gets very interesting and I now plan on continuing the series of this science fiction epic. The world is richly layered, the battle scenes expertly detailed and written, and I’m confident as a reader that the author will take me on an exciting journey.

But! If I hadn’t been reviewing the book, I would have never drawn that conclusion. Though action packed, I really didn’t connect with the protagonist until I really thought she had something to lose.

That got me thinking of a series of books that I had a similar experience with: Jon Sprunk’s Shadow Saga. I enjoyed this fantasy assassin’s tale and fell in love with the main protagonist, but like Mr. Tolan’s first book, I had to force myself to read through the first quarter of Mr. Sprunk’s first book.

While watching my dog chase the rabbits in the vineyard, I tried to think of a story that never once made me want to put the book down. Throw it across the room, maybe, but not put it down out of boredom or frustration that the story seemed to go no where.

I thought of Hunter’s Run by George R.R. Martin, Gardner Dozois and Daniel Abraham. In case you haven’t heard of it (many haven’t for some strange reason), this book starts out with the protagonist literally running for his life from some scare-the-shit-out-of-you aliens. This is a science fiction adventure tale so it makes sense to have him running for his life, but it’s not just that he’s literally running: the story truly starts in media res.

We don’t know who Ramon Espejo (that’s a pun, you’d get it if you had read the book) is, we don’t know who the aliens truly are, and we definitely don’t know what’s coming – the authors just plunk us down into the story, running along with Ramon, trying like hell to figure it all out, all the while being expertly drawn into a story that will stay with you long after reading. A deep book with some amazing character development and a story arc that made me return repeatedly to the beginning to re-read, I couldn’t put this book down from the first sentence.

So that made me realize, I’m making the same mistake in my first book that Mr. Tolan and Mr. Sprunk did. I could easily cut the first two chapters of my current WiP. Hell, I could probably cut the first seven chapters and have a better book for it.

Until my character has something to lose, there’s really no point in telling his story.

Later, my friends. And remember, write in media res and start with a bang.

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14 thoughts on “Happy 4th of July!

    1. Ah…it’s gritty. Very gritty, with a hard-to-sympathize-with protagonist (I didn’t have that problem). But, in my opinion, an *awesome* book.

  1. I think the advice to throw people into the middle of the action sometimes gets over-applied (IMHO, there is a temptation to over-simplify a lot of writing “rules” that deserve nuance, to try to cut down on variables). Some of my favorite books start in a very laid-back fashion, but the language and description draws the reader in, and there is “action” in the sense of movement and conversation, just not a car chase or gun fight.

    In some cases, I think what the advice is really trying to get at is that a lot of authors tend to ramble around for a few chapters that just establish background, and these could be cut in favor of getting to the point where things happen. I know my first few chapters tend to be shakier just because when I first write them I’m often still getting a feel for the setting and characters. But you can ramble around semi-pointlessly while writing action scenes as easily as you can writing about someone sitting on his porch.

    1. Exactly.

      I don’t think I was clear enough in my post. But, yes, both Mr. Tolan and Mr. Sprunk started out their books with “bangs”. Blade Dancer had a huge battle and Shadow Son had a huge kill and chase scene, but there was nothing going on story-wise. So, it was just, like, “So…”.

      Hunter’s run also started out with a huge action scene, but it was truly en media res: both in the immediate sense and in the story sense.

      It doesn’t have to be about action action (chases, explosions, etc), but as you said, no waffling on with setting up the story before starting it.

      It is a common mistake and I see myself making it over and over, but it really hit home when I compared those three books.

      Thanks for stopping by. 🙂

      1. Of course I will take the middle ground on this one. It all depends on the story. Sometimes, if you want the hollywood blockbuster action film, this method is fine. But I have read many stories that take a while to get moving and still loved them. Like anything else, it is the balance in execution that counts. Move too slow and your reader falls asleep, too fast and they get confused. Think of sampling in stores, give them a taste of the good stuff to hook them but not too much so they feel content and don’t buy that day.

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  3. I think in media res beginnings can only work if they address the “who cares” question just as immediately. If someone throws me into a big battle and I don’t have a reason to care, I get annoyed and put the book down. That happened recently with a book called Madness of Angels — this guy wakes up after being dead (okay, cool, but…) and then starts running from some unknown force, and I really, really didn’t care. I just feel obligated to finish the book because I bought the whole trilogy.

    Bad Emmie.

    You’re absolutely right, it’s hard to pinpoint how exactly to make those beginnings effective. I think I need a little more setup most of the time, and I usually try to begin my novels with a disturbance rather than a huge dramatic scene. Readers always expect action to escalate, so if you start with a mugging and end with a tax audit, people tend to get lost along the way.

    I thought Robert Jordan opened The Eye of the World (first in the book barge that is the Wheel of Time) very well. He shows Rand and his father trying to go to a festival and then jumps into an attack on the tiny village by these monstrous creatures everyone thinks are a myth. Aside from the fantasy farmboy hero cliche, it’s spot on for me.

    Kudos to Martin and Co. for managing an in media res beginning with a rather unsympathetic protagonist. I bow to the masters there. 🙂

    1. All good points. I may expand on this subject in a separate post. Beginnings are so important and hard to get right. I think the subject deserves more attention from me.

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