The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Written by 

king-ratClicking the picture to the left will take you to the Amazon page for King Rat by China Mieville. Seems obvious to  me that you won’t be reading this novel in preparation for reading this blog post, but we’ll be talking about plot so beware of spoilers below. Today I’m going to be talking about plot–the first act of a novel–in the sense of how Mieville keeps his readers interested. 

The Challenge:

People (and writing books) have a lot of advice for how to start a novel. Much of this advice seems contradictory–for instance the idea that you need to start immediately with high-stakes conflict, but the sort of opposing idea that no one will care about those high stakes until they care about your characters. So wait, do you start with solid conflict? Or do you start with character? Or is it some strange amalgam of both, precariously balanced? Although I don’t know yet, I imagine it’s some version of the latter, although perhaps King Rat does little to really clear this up, beyond providing an interesting example. 

The Story:

Mieville’s debut novel, King Rat, has its weaknesses. They’re fairly evident: sometimes the prose gets far too purple with little to gain from it, some major characters lack any real kind of agency (which might have improved some portions of the book), and the very end reads like rather forced, disingenuous philosophizing (although that ending still interested me, because of how different it was from most novel ends, philosophically). That said, this book blew me away because of it’s array of morally-grey characters, its distinct plot twists, and a handful of exceptional prose moments, full of poetry and voice. It also managed to really keep my attention in Act 1. 

Well, not exactly. Chapter 1 left me unmoved, and so did chapter 2, largely (although the structure of this piece, with multiple clipped little narratives, was fascinating), but the end of chapter 2 through chapter 8 really had me enthralled. I began to wonder why. What exactly was driving this opening?

The Solution:

Mieville tries to open with high-stakes conflict. The story opens with (following an excruciating driving/subwaying-to-the-story scene) the murder of Saul (the protagonist’s) father, and Saul’s subsequent arrest for this crime. Ultimately, this bored me. One reason for this was simply confusion: beyond the level of mystery, I had no idea what was going on. The disjointed narrative of chapter 2 probably contributed to this. But also, we never met Saul’s father on the page, so his death had no effect on me, and although Saul seemed pretty distraught by his father’s death, it didn’t reach me. 

And maybe part of the reason I was unmoved by this initial conflict was a lack of a clear desire for the main character. Actually, Saul does not develop a desire at all until the end of Act 1, and does not become fully active until the end of Act 2. 

But when the title character hit the page, he immediately increased my engagement with the story. He was strange, he was gross, he was dark and of questionable morality. And that level of engagement for the next six chapters remained fairly high (on average), but also kept a number of those qualities, following a fairly predictable sort of structure. Each chapter had a central purpose. Chapter 3 showed King Rat and Saul escaping from prison. Chapter 4 described Saul’s lunch. What made these chapters intriguing was context–all this took place in (as the text constantly affirmed) a new world. This Act 1 is a kind of exploration, and that exploration has the same flavor as King Rat himself–in Chapter 4, Saul’s lunch is strange and gross and dark. 

Two caveats here. (1) There were some mini conflicts going on, although they didn’t really capture me. These were necessary and important in the longer term of the plot, foreshadowing later conflicts that come to the fore in acts 2 and 3. (2) If you broaden the definition of conflict enough, you might argue that this whole act is a conflict, Saul interacting with and coming to terms with this new world he’s exploring. And there’s a good point there, but I think it overgeneralizes something super practical: some readers engage most with a story when it takes them somewhere new. Exploring a world vastly different from your own is a pleasurable part of reading. That pleasure can drive a reader through your story. 

When does lunch capture a reader’s interest? When it’s surreal. 

When does an easy prison break become intriguing? When it launches you into a new world. 

Finally:

Despite its failings, I fully recommend King Rat especially if you enjoy genuinely strange novels. What works here works exceptionally well. Perhaps the greatest takeaway for me was that strangeness can drive a story, and sometimes frontloading conflict for the sake of frontloading conflict can do more harm than good. 

What’s your take on strangeness vs. conflict? Let me know in the comments. 


Written by 

CW116 khawClick either image to see either story in this post, which will be a sort of comparison to talk about openings. To keep things super tight, I’ll just be reading the first two paragraphs of each and comparing them, so check out the first two paragraphs of each if you feel so inspired. As always, I’ll avoid spoilers as much as possible (which should be easy this time around, because I haven’t yet read the rest of the stories). 

The Challenge: 

While maybe not as hard as ending, beginning a story presents a lot of challenges. For my part, when I start a new story, it’s vital that I find the just right opening and I’ll often has as many as 12 false starts before my eyes decide that I’ve nailed the right place to start. It makes me curious, then, what other openings do and why my own opening seem to fail me so often. What about that final opening launches me into the story?

So I thought I’d take a look at two openings that got me engaged and made me want to read more. 

The Stories:

Two stories that could not be more different–the authors don’t have much in common, and neither do the venues. The opening of Robert Reeds “The Universal Museeum of Sagacity” and Cassandra Khaw’s “The Bones of the Matter” take very different strategies, but both of them made me wonder and pulled me in. 

Go read them now, if you intend to.

The Solution:

Cassandra Khaw’s story spends its first paragraph philosophizing about the power of mothers. It’s 3 sentences and 2 of them are syntactically similar, giving that sense of something building that repetition offers when done well. From the end of the first sentence, I’m not sure where this idea of “witchcraft” is going and I’m delighted to find out, in the second sentence and further in the third, that the story is building natural motherhood as something akin to witchcraft. Even though it’s a small surprise, it was enough to convince me to keep on going with the story.

And it turns again into the second paragraph, reverting back to the first line by essentially saying “no actually, this story is going to be about magic mothers”–it’s a push and pull on the micro level that’s really charming, the narrator contradicting herself. This paragraph continues on with little oratory on why magical mothers are so dangerous in their sixties but this paragraph is grounded with two real characters (Mei Fong and her mother) so that we know the story is beginning. Finally, it pushes us right into dialogue. 

Two things I think this opening is doing really well to pull me in: 1) some really pretty words and 2) a great sense of tension and conflict through the push and pull of these first couple paragraphs.

Meanwhile, the Robert Reed story begins with summary. A lot happens in these first two paragraphs, all very rapidly–an insurance man in Boston gets married, gets divorced, moves to the mid-west, gets married again, has two children, and has repeated visits from his first wife. It’s a characteristically bold opening. Why does it work better than other summary openings? Like in all things, the most important thing you can do is engage your readers. 

Andrew Stanton (writer of Wall-E and Finding Nemo) says not to give your audience 4, give them 2+2. That rule is key to many Pixar stories. You can only get audiences to invest by forcing them to invest work. 

Here are the lines in which Reed gets us invested: “Maddy was my mother’s aunt, but only briefly” and “Those were my mother’s cousins.” As easy as the solution is–Walter is the narrator’s mother’s uncle–it’s just twisted up enough that I had to stop and think “wait, what does it mean, only briefly her mother’s aunt? Who’s telling this story? Why does this matter?” It’s this little puzzle at the beginning that charmed me into swallow the pill of exposition. As in many stories though, it’s the kick-off of the puzzle that really got me into it, and that stars at the end of the first paragraph with the revelations about Maddy’s visits. The second paragraph sends us off into the story with a final bang: “Which is a story unto itself.”

Finally:

These two stories take truly different approaches on one level, but on another, they are both involving us in a puzzle of sorts right away. In Khaw’s story, it is the puzzle of what magic is and who has it. In Reed’s, it’s the puzzle of “mom’s aunt + mom’s cousin = Walter is mom’s uncle”. If I dug deeper, I wonder if I’d suddenly find puzzles everywhere, like Jim Carey and The Number 23. I’ll be sure to keep an eye out. 

Time to go read the rest!

What do you think? Anything you agree with? Disagree? Let me know what stories have openings you really enjoy. 

Have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments. Or tell me about one of your favorite opening paragraphs and why it works for you. 

Written by 
F&SF marapr16This week’s story isn’t available online (sorry!) but if you click the picture to the left you’ll find the page for F&SF March/April 2016 where it appeared and, from there, links to places where you can purchase a copy. I love reading F&SF because it is one of the most eclectic mags around, and if you give it a try you’re bound to love at least a handful of the stories in these huge issues. And just a warning: spoilers ahead. I’ll be talking plot, so there’s really no avoiding them.

The Challenge:

Sometimes one problem is not enough to get your character to the end of a story (although sometimes it is). Sometimes, you have to continually get your characters in trouble again and again, and it can be hard to think up compelling ways for them to get in trouble. It is, in fact, easy to brainstorm real awful, obvious things (off the top of my head: a set of apocalyptic heroes are starving, looking for food, so they go hunting but they can’t catch any meat, then they find out they’re poaching land claimed by a dictator, then a zombie hoard comes upon them and those zombies eat them alive).

What strikes me as more challenging is coming up with believable challenges and obstacles that push the story forward with out the sigh-worthy melodrama my above example.

The Story: 

Now, I can’t confess to being a die-hard Cat Rambo fan, but one story I read recently that really impressed me was “Red in Tooth and Cog” in F&SF‘s March/Apr issue. This story has a super clever premise: if all your appliances are vaguely self-aware and have the ability to modify themselves, what happens when they get loose? Rambo answers: they form an ecosystem and a society that we can witness only if we’re paying enough attention. 

It’s a really neat story, and it does awesome work as far as getting the character into trouble in ways that are believable and that we can relate to. 

The Solution: 

What I’ll offer first is a sort of outline of the trouble that the main character, Renee, gets into, with some commentary in between each one. If mundane, the start of this story is decidedly distinct and bold. Here is the first data point, the first piece of trouble, that I offer. 

1. “It was an expensive, new-model phone in a pretty case, and that was probably why it was stolen.” (40)

Doesn’t sound super interesting does it? But, you know, losing a phone is something many modern people can relate to and it’s an absolute pain. To help us toward this feeling, Rambo actually begins the story with a short meditation on the value of phones and, through negation, what you lose when you lose your phone. And to keep up the interest, we are shown our first glimpse into the mechanical ecosystem of this future Central Park. Her phone was stolen by a semi-conscious can opener. 

To take the stakes further though, as Cat knows she must to keep the story going, she piles on to what has already been lost. The phone didn’t really matter, but the case “was customized, irreplaceable.” And that mystery carries us until we learn Renee’s grandmother’s gemstones had been set into that case, and that not only does Renee really want them back, she is also soon to see her grandmother, who will be very angry to find the gems missing. Renee spends a few pages searching the park and learning about this ecosystem, which is fun and the little bit of stakes in the background tells us it’s heading somewhere. She briefly mentions that she has “creative time” at work that allows her freedom to be in the park. 

So you know where this is heading, don’t you?

2. “Work was suffering” (51). 

What relateable trouble to be in: she got a little too invested in something outside of work and now her job is in jeopardy. It’s perhaps even more relateable than losing a phone and is definitely an increase in stakes. Losing a job has all of these implied horrors: eviction, hunger, crushing poverty. And we’re at this point in the story where we know that Renee can’t just give up her trips to the park. She’s too invested! 

At the same time, the ecosystem in the park might not be around much longer. A park inspector is coming with some drones to scan the park for anomalies and when she finds them, she’ll send all the appliances for recycling where they’ll be shredded down to bits. 

So we know where this is going too, but we’re waiting for it in suspense the whole time. 

3. “Her supervisor called her in, a special meeting that left her hot-eyed, fighting back tears” (54). 

Not surprising right? But then, it is, because she doesn’t get fired. Or written up. It’s a warning, an opportunity, a choice: give up your obsession, come back to this job you don’t really like (her training is in art) and you can keep your job, your lifestyle, your home. You can go back to the happy bejeweled-phone life you had before. She reacts to this choice presented to her, and it could be really easy to have her just walk away at this point, choose her job–all the conflicts are resolved, there’s no obstacle to push the story forward. 

But then the next paragraph happens. 

4. “There’s a way to save the creatures.” 
     “What is it?” Renee asks. 
     “It’s illegal.”
     “But what is it?”

Right here, this exchange, made me give in to this story completely. On one hand, as a writer, I was thinking, isn’t that such an obvious move? Create a new struggle in the next paragraph? But then, it’s elegantly done (because a lot of foreshadowing has led to this point) and it’s exactly where it needs to be. Just as the tension drops away, it spikes right back up. And it’s the perfect time for this mission to appear because it is part of the choice she was presented with by her boss. 

This could be a way out of her obsession. Let them all die. 

And it’s brilliantly done because, even though she could easily get caught, it’s as simple as pressing a button. In the end, if she presses the button, she saves the little creatures and probably loses her job. If she doesn’t press it, she keeps her job, but loses this new world she’s discovered. 

The tension of this leads us right to the end of the story. What do you think Renee chooses? 

Finally:

It’s an incredible structure. Very well controlled and thought out, and quite relateable. Ultimately I think the lesson I take from this story is that stakes don’t actually have to start with life and death, as long as they grow to something serious during the course of the story. And sometimes the trouble can be really mundane, everyday stuff, and that can have greater impact than all the zombie hoards on TV. 

A lost phone? Trouble at work? Breaking the law for the greater good? We get these kinds of trouble.

They harbor immediacy. 

The first two, at least, are pretty common. And are completely free of melodrama. 

So when thinking of getting your character in trouble, maybe the best place to start is by mining your own life? Maybe something you take for granted would become real serious if it was threatened. Also, an even bigger takeaway: if you’ve run out of trouble, make more in the very next sentence. Don’t skip a line. Don’t transition. Just do it, and probably go back to foreshadow. Sometimes we are wrong when we’re writing and we feel like a move is clunky or obvious. 

Do you have anything to add? Anything you disagree with? What are your experiences with getting characters into trouble?