The Door Into a Story, pt. 1

You’ve got an amazing tale. Sterling characters. Brilliant details. Rich language. Action and tension crackling on every page…

And you enter the story via an unimportant childhood moment.

This palm-to-face moment is brought to you by the bestseller I’m reading right now. In the interests of not sabotaging my own writing career (in case I meet this author) I cannot divulge name or title. Let it be summarized as this: The first half of the book is an episodic series of cliches plus one beat-down–and little more.

Why?

 

Where do we enter?

The place to begin a story was a contentious mystery for fellow writers back in my college days, and it still is. Do you tell the whole story as a flashback? Do you start when your heroine is just a wee lass of 9 years? If so, how come?

Teachers urged us to make it interesting–focus on the heart of the tale–and that’s what I’ve always aspired to do. (Yup, I’ve made some colossal mistakes along the way.) Entering a story can seem like the proverbial dartboard toss, with your best guess held up to plenty of scrutiny. It isn’t only writers block which fills the wastebasket with crumpled tries.

So, I’ve tried. In The Churning and Tempest Road, the heroes are already in a lot of trouble on the first page. Movie versions would open differently–Why can’t we see the abduction in grainy glory?–to spare most audience members a head-scratching moment.

In Endgame (Woman at War 1) we start in a battle. The war has begun. The belligerent Mitasterites have already displayed despicable behavior (sending unarmed teen-aged soldiers out to be sniper fodder). Heroine June Vereeth is about to take one of many important shots. Bam, you’re dropped right in it! Attempts at diplomacy or appeasement exist as fragments of wishful thinking in the past. I didn’t want to spend pages on them. (And with an entire world to build over the span of the novel, too much backstory would become uninteresting mud.)

The second in the series, Destruction, opens with our heroine’s boots dangling 3,000 feet over a fog-shrouded rock wasteland. Climbing ropes and old-school projectile weapons (when you read it, you’ll understand) and a ridiculously challenging mission. And bad guys. And an unforeseen menace. Sure, there’s plenty to tell about Vereeth’s adventure between P-75 (Endgame) and this mountain-climbing nightmare, but why lead with any of that?

 

Openings I Love

So, as this post is about the tricky waters of where to enter a story, let me list a few of my favorites (before I get to those no-nos).

Something Wicked This Way Comes.” Two innocent teenage boys are approached by a lightning-rod salesman. Within hours, Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show has arrived to take over the sleepy Midwestern town. The carefree boys will never be the same.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” With the story told from “Chief” Bromden’s point of view, Kesey gives us just enough of the asylum’s machinery and insanity to set the scene. Enter the all-consuming R.P. McMurphy and we’re off to the races. The book could not have ended correctly any other way than the way it was writen. Brilliant.

The Lovely Bones.” Susie Salmon, our narrator, is dead. While we experience some of the fear and hesitation of her young life’s moments, there is no tease of possibility that this good, likeable little girl escapes death. Now let’s get on with the story.

The Art of Racing in the Rain.” Enzo, our immensely likeable narrator, is a dog. Garth Stein’s most famous work to date may be a bit of a gimmick, but it’s a beautifully written tale of the challenges of modern life and man’s best friend. And the first page (no spoiler alert) ends with a line that hits you like a hammer.

 

to be continued…

Justin Edison's books on a shelf

Three of Justin Edison’s books on a shelf

LP1

The cold metal of the bars defies the night’s warm breeze.

I should not be lost, though I am.

Before me, the darkened hulk of curves and shapes seems to hum.

I can imagine laughter, screams, like echoes.

Not a single light is on.

The boardwalk between myself and the carnival is defiantly dark.

‘Closed per orders of Mgmt.’

I don’t understand.

 

~

 

The fortune-teller’s box is lit—the only thing—so I go.

“I have money. I walked here,” I tell her.

Green gown, blue eye-shadow, angled earnestness.

“Unfortunate,” she replies, head tilted down. As if in sorrow.

“I’ve done what…” I begin, certainty fading suddenly.

“It’s not in the cards,” she says, a light bulb above blinking on.

Quiet hum of motors, arms moving, breeze against the glass panes.

 

~

 

“Can’t I just?” I start, gesturing to the fencing, meaning to climb over.

“Forbidden.”

I leave her box and return to the metal gates. ‘Desperation’ meets ‘stymied.’

The rides are so much fun—I know it.

On the left, the pale arc of a towering loop. Swallowed by darkness.

Where are the workers, I wonder.

How can this be on a Friday night?

Beyond the loop, across the water, a hospital looms.

Brightly-lit brick, straight lines, cold demeanor.

Lights in every window.

An ambulance rolls up, its red lights blinking through the median trees.

Silent, tires on wet pavement, no urgent voices. It disappears.

Night breeze, waves lapping.

The thrum of distant machinery.

I sniff, trying for buttered popcorn, cotton candy.

“Grow up, Boy.”

Just the fortune-teller.

My mouth forms the words—denial, rejection.

No thoughts emerge, turned as I am, facing the place of dreams.

Darkened.

Sketch of a darkened ferrias wheel, roller coaster and more for Justin Edison's poem 'LP1.'

Killing Characters

How do we kill those characters we like?

You can’t write a story about war and not have a death or two, right? For God’s sake, half the characters in ‘Catch-22‘ bite the big one (a few of them memorably, like Snowden). Military conflict and death go hand-in-hand. Some important characters must meet their end.

Other memorable scenes include R.P. McMurphy in ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ of course. It was a tragedy that had to happen. Or scientist Matt Hooper from ‘Jaws.’ (Spared in the film, his gruesome literary end would leave anyone in Brody’s shoes with survivor’s guilt.)
Or Sirius Black from ‘Harry Potter and The Order of Phoenix.’ This one bugged me. Harry needs this living ‘family’ member, a connection to the past that was his parents. And the way Rowling killed him off–his being hit by a spell and falling through the gray-veil doorway–left it open for Harry to bring him back. I wonder if the author herself wasn’t sure what to do about him, thus the mystery. Sadly, he never reappears, and Harry is left without any mentors.

A smug Sirius Black, played by Gary Oldman, from the Harry Potter series.

Killing Characters, the How and Why?

Taking the axe to someone we’ve brought to life is a morbid facet of writing. Obviously, many authors really enjoy it (and some are guilty of, er, overkill).

So how do we kill of people correctly? What is appropriate?

I’ve always tried to write with certain parameters in mind. What is likely? What is realistic? Let the answers to these questions inform the all-important ‘How.’

Combat action is very fast. The different accounts I’ve read (such as ‘Black Hawk Down‘) tell how an intense firefight can last a mere 30 seconds, with thousands of rounds traded across an alley. That doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for a tearful, schmaltzy farewell.

The Harsh Reality

In ‘Destruction,’ a lot of people perish. It is, at its heart, a story about war. And, for the sake of being realistic, that meant killing off a gentle character I enjoyed creating–a man I’d like to see in other tales and settings. (They could all be tainted by the barn-door analogy, however, a la ‘Solo.’)

Like June Vereeth’s mentor/boss Joffe in ‘Endgame,’ it happens in a flash. (In ‘Endgame’ all Vereeth knows is that the cave ceiling is collapsing, and she and her friend are being shoved away, by Joffe. After the dust settles, she finds his hand protruding from a pile of rock.) This time, she has to watch it–from a distance, unable to do anything about it, during action.

Justin Edison's Destruction, second in the Woman at War series, will be out in 2018.

It’s what fits. And, in a story where Karma is turned on its head, this likeable man perishes while a sexist asshole lives. Obviously, this echoes real life. Fair? Not a chance. Art imitates life, doesn’t it?

And could any of us picture McMurphy carrying on as a piece of broccoli, anyway?

Endgame cover by Greg Simanson Designs. Cover shows characters, rockets and a woman's eye against a green-ice background and twin suns, orange lettering. "The war begins" is added at the top.

Editing Destruction

Things are looking up for Captain June Vereeth. With friends, she escaped the madness of icy P-75. She brought a couple trophies (prisoners of war) back from the outlaw world of Shen-Zinkh. Now she’s even having fun climbing the picturesque mountains of Zycarsus with a new male friend, smiling in the sunshine…

Well, not exactly. She and this new friend (nicknamed Hulk) and 30 other soldiers are hauling themselves up 3000 feet into a maddening fogged-in world. They’re looking for a downed freighter. They’re lost, because they can’t use anything electronic and nobody has a map. And those pesky Mitasterites will have some competition for deadliest foe in this abandoned world.

Justin Edison's Destruction, second in the Woman at War series, will be out in 2018.

First draft done, coffee chugged, I’m now editing Destruction (love my cheery title). And it’s going…well, it’s going. To once-again begin the process of editing a book is to wrestle with a bunch of questions.

Is this what I wanted to write?

Is this story good enough?

Do the right people die (it’s about war) or lose their way?

Am I accurately rendering Vereeth and her flaws and strengths?

Can this heroine reconcile the terrible cost of armed conflict, when she’s often stuck with the most difficult choices?

After two years of notes (the opening chunk came to mind before I was done with ‘Endgame‘) do I have the product I need to have?

Am I a good-enough writer for this?

Justin Edison's three available books on a shelf

Justin Edison’s three available books on a shelf

Time will tell.

Maybe.