Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Finding Rhythm and Voice for a Beginning that Sings

By Karina Sumner-Smith, @ksumnersmith

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Starting a novel can be a scary time, especially if things aren't going well or you get off to a slow start. There are things you can do to shake up the muse and find the spark to get your opening working again. Karina Sumner-Smith visits the lecture hall today to share a few tips to make your beginning sing.

Karina Sumner-Smith is a fantasy author and freelance writer. Her debut novel, Radiant, was published by Talos/Skyhorse in September 2014, with the second and third books in the trilogy to follow in 2015. Prior to focusing on novel-length work, Karina published a range of fantasy, science fiction and horror short stories, including Nebula Award nominated story “An End to All Things,” and ultra-short story “When the Zombies Win,” which appeared in two Best of the Year anthologies. Visit her online at karinasumnersmith.com.

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Take it away Karina...

We can all tell a great beginning when we read one. You pick up a book, glance at the first line–and suddenly it’s twenty pages later and you’re in love.

We can also break down the story elements that create those strong, memorable opening lines. A hook. An inciting incident. A compelling character. A problem. (Etc.)

But what do you do when you have your beginning all planned–tension, character, conflict–and when you write those opening paragraphs, nothing comes out right? No spark, no flow; the words just sit there on the page.


I know what you’re going to say: write a shitty first draft! Just get the words down, and fix it in revision. And if that works for you, great! Write like the wind, O Noble Wordsmith–and just know that I’m a little envious.

But if you’re a writer with a process similar to mine, and the clunk of words hitting the page mean your story’s going nowhere, read on.

I used to think that there was something wrong with me. I could see the scene, I knew the characters, I was intrigued by the conflict–and when I’d try to get in on the page, the words just felt flat. Clunk. And if I tried writing past the clunk? Just more words to throw away.

So I’d start the story again. And again. And again. “Finding my way into the story” is what I’d call it on a good day; “Bashing my face against the beginning” on days when yet another false start felt like a personal failure.

It’s only recently that I understood what was happening. Sometimes what’s wrong is not what’s happening in the story itself, or how, but the words you’re using to tell the tale. Sometimes the thing that makes a story fall flat is the tone, rhythm, and sound of your writing–the elements that come together to create that elusive “voice”.

Here are a few tricks I’ve learned to help fall into your character’s voice, and make your story flow from the first page.

1. Read aloud. 

One of the best ways to kickstart my writing when I’m fighting with a difficult story is to read aloud. Not my own work, but others’.

Our brains can get stuck in the rhythms of everyday life–the sounds of the voices around us, our own ways of speaking, the style of writing we use at work or on social media. Instead, we need that storyteller’s voice–that character voice, and the unique sounds of how they think and speak and narrate.

When you can’t seem to fall into the flow of words, grab your favorite novel and read the opening paragraphs or an impactful scene aloud. Try a short story, or a poem.

As you read, pay attention to how the words sound. Listen to the words as if they were a song. Hear where the beat falls; feel how the rhythm evokes and shapes the mood.

It’s often easiest if you choose something with a similar tone to your story, but feel free to experiment. (And no, sadly, just reading it silently won’t do the trick. Trust me, I’ve tried.)

2. Talk to your character.

Sometimes I think characters just need a little prompting to tell their stories. That’s why you can find me muttering as I dry the dishes, asking my characters, “What can you see? What can you smell? How are you feeling right now?” Probing and prompting, trying to find the detail that will get the character talking.

Other times I act as if I’m trying to take a character’s statement after a crime, patiently encouraging them to remember more: “So you were storming home with the pictures from the private investigator, when a call came in on your cell. Who did you think was calling?”

This can be a great way to help get your brain into the story (especially after a long, tiring day)–and sometimes your characters will reply. Those words that a character says in reply often make great opening lines.

Writers are known to be a little eccentric–and this trick will definitely make people look at you a little oddly. But hey, if it works, you’ll be running to the keyboard to get words down, not worrying about your neighbor’s startled expression.

3. Write out of order.

Beginning not speaking to you? Find a scene that is, and write that.

The key is to find the words that unlock the unique voice of the character and this particular work of fiction. If that’s the revelation at the end of section one, or the quiet moment near the end of the book, write it.

I’ve had to steer away from this approach myself–but I have friends for whom this is their go-to approach for “reluctant” stories. Maybe it’ll work for you.

4. Try, try again.

Yes, I used to cringe too. Writing the beginning over and over again made me feel as if I were stuck in some sort of writer’s purgatory: always writing, never anything worthwhile to show for the effort. (So much for those word count goals!)

Yet now it seems an opportunity to play and experiment with different approaches, different voices, as you work towards the one that comes to life. What if you started the story a few minutes earlier or later? What if you switched the point of view character, or tried to make the opening funny instead of poignant? Try giving your character a random secondary problem to kick off the action: a cold, an unexpected traffic jam, a coworker who just won’t stop talking. Experiment! You may be surprised by what works.

Good luck and happy writing!

About Radiant:

In the City, magic guarantees a life free from illness, hunger and hardship – unless, of course, you have none. Without so much as a spark of bright magic, Xhea can’t buy breakfast, can’t open doors, can’t even tell the City’s systems that she exists. Yet she has a single gift: an ability to see ghosts and control the tethers that bind them to the living world, which she uses to scratch out a bare existence in the ruins below the floating Towers.

Xhea thought she knew everything about ghosts – that is, until she takes possession of Shai, the ghost of a girl who hasn’t died, and finds herself hunted through the Lower City’s dangerous streets. Shai’s body was stolen, her ghost is running scared, and Xhea finds herself trapped between two powerful entities that will stop at nothing to regain the girl, dead or alive. For Shai is a Radiant, a rare person whose ability to generate massive amounts of magical energy make her part mint, part power plant, even as the magic destroys her from the inside out.

But soon even the manhunt for the living ghost is eclipsed by the strange power that Shai’s presence brings to life in Xhea: a magic dark and slow, like rising smoke, like seeping oil. A magic whose very touch brings death.

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  1. Great post, Karina!

    I so agree with the read aloud option - I use that one, but go a bit further and read aloud with various accents...the more extreme, the more likely my mind will get jostled into new perspectives.

    Your questioning the character sounds like my "what's your secret?" game.

    I also have several people (family & friends) who like nothing better than playing 'poke holes' with what I write. If I have an opening that's being a dead fish or refusing to be hooked, I send the first 200-500 words & they take a pointed stick to it.

    Sometimes, all I can do is figure out what I don't want. I don't want the setting changed. I don't want the character's gender changed. I don't want this or that. Then, I ask myself: why not? This can go hand-in-hand with: what does the story need or what's missing? (If I don't care about what's missing that's a whole other can of worms)

    Usually, when an opening is flat, it's because I'm not quite serious yet about the story and need to stop tormenting the poor thing.

    Thanks again for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Maria! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

      I love your idea of using accents -- though I'm convinced my attempt to do so would result in more hilarity than progress.

      And I know what you mean about figuring out what you don't want. All the little details are like breadcrumbs, leading you into the story.

  2. One of the best and informative posts I've read in a long time. Thanks, Karina! I,too, go a step further in the reading process. I also write the passage/chapter in longhand before I read it. Sometimes the flow of words as I write helps me to get a better feel for my own words that I will write.

    1. Thanks, Marcia! I'm glad you found it useful. Do you find that writing in longhand provides a different tone or style to your writing? I feel that typing vs writing longhand can often give such a different result.

  3. Great advice! Radiant sounds fantastic - it's definitely going on my list.