(Standard spoiler warning applies to Chalice. Additional disclaimer: I’m working off an uncorrected galley I scored a while back at San Diego Comic-Con. One of these days I need to pick up a final version and see if anything’s different, but if I say something that makes you go, “Where the hell is she getting that? It’s nowhere in the book!”, that’s why.)
You guys, I’ve become kind of addicted to Twitter live-slush. On #tenqueries and its endless variations (I think the search function on my Tweetdeck is considering a restraining order), agents, editors, and contest readers go through and very briefly give their reactions to submissions. Even before I started my own querying process, I found the cross-section of submissions and general consensus about what works and what doesn’t utterly fascinating.
Naturally, you start to see patterns crop up. One I’ve been seeing a lot of, especially on the contest circuit, is the novel that starts in the wrong place. It makes sense that this is a major stumbling block: slush readers go through a LOT of openings, and the sheer volume of submissions means they can’t allow much time to get hooked. (Before you go complaining about the unfairness of it all, readers do the same thing.)
But this can also be murky water for a writer. What does it mean to start in the wrong place? What if you have a story whose relevant action covers years, generations, or longer? What’s the balance between diving in and providing necessary exposition?
I just re-read Chalice by Robin McKinley for roughly the dozenth time, and I think it might provide some useful insight. Here’s a basic recap of the story in chronological order (I assume you’ve read it if you’ve made it this far because I am really not kidding about these spoiler warnings):
In this world, the land is basically alive, tended by a Fisher King and council (at the head of which are the Master and the Chalice). The old Master of Willowlands had two sons, the older careless and irresponsible and the younger more deeply invested in the land. When the eldest becomes Master, the two clash to the point where the younger is sent away to become a priest of Fire. The older brother proceeds to run roughshod over his land and his people, holding debauched parties and letting Willowlands literally fall apart. One of these parties ends in a fire that kills several members of the household, including the Master and Chalice. The role of Chalice passes to Mirasol, a beekeeper who received no training for her new powers, and a few months later, the younger brother returns from the Fire to become the new Master. But he is no longer human, and his people fear and mistrust him. Just as they’re all starting to get a handle on things, the Overlord names a new Heir, who almost immediately issues a challenge for the Mastership.
It’s complicated, to say the least, covering nearly a decade. From this perspective, it seems difficult to find a way in that will immediately engage the reader and not drown them in history, politics, and mythology. The point McKinley chooses as an opening might initially seem odd: the first scene shows the ex-Fire priest arriving to take his place as Master, an event that occurs less than a year before the end of the overall story. And it’s not a How We Got Here scene, either, that frequently obnoxious tactic where a flash-forward to something actually interesting serves as a prologue to hide a slow beginning; action proceeds in a roughly linear fashion from this late entry. Yet it’s exactly the right place to start.
So how do we know that this is where the novel properly begins? After all, conventional wisdom says that the story should start with the pivotal moment of change for the hero, and our protagonist Mirasol has been Chalice for months at the novel’s start. No, here we employ a different technique: to see where to begin, you have to look to the end.
The climax of the novel is the duel between Master and Heir. The result is treated as a foregone conclusion, since the Master is still more flame than man and cannot lift a sword. However, Mirasol’s bees intervene, swarming both men, stinging the Heir to death and restoring the Master to human. (This last bit is never adequately explained, beyond the implicit “It’s a fairy tale, just go with it.”) It ends with Master and Chalice standing shabby but victorious, having secured Willowlands and resolving to see it fully healed.
So the climax helps us determine the shape of the story (and not just the plot, meaning the stuff I described a couple of paragraphs back): it’s about Mirasol and the Master’s struggle to fit into the roles they’ve been unexpectedly and unsuitably thrust into, driven by their love and loyalty for their land and for each other. The plot is about the restoration of Willowlands, but the story is about them, so naturally the first scene is their first meeting. For bonus points, it also gives us a bookend, which is a favorite device of mine. On each end of the novel, we have the Master and Chalice (along with the Grand Seneschal, next in command behind them) observing a complex and important ritual in front of the Master’s house; the beginning sees the three exhausted, uncertain, and impossibly distant from each other, but by the end, they are firmly united and hopeful for the future.
But then, what about the rest of the story? All the stuff that came before that first meeting? That’s the “roughly linear” part I mentioned earlier. Though it seems like an awful lot of ground to cover, it’s really limited to two extended flashbacks: Mirasol first encountering the power of the Chalice, and the episode with her sealing up a fissure in a field. This latter serves to neatly illustrate her time as Chalice with no Master, showing her inexperience and the instability of the land, condensing several months of the story. As for the fatal accident and the history that led up to it, that’s all laid out in conversations between various characters throughout the novel. The information is interwoven when needed, once we’re already invested and grounded in this world and its people.
Now, I don’t know what McKinley’s writing process was on this novel, whether she saw its structure from the beginning or had to tease it out over several drafts. She had a few decades of experience by this point, so she may well have just walked in, knocked it out, dropped the mic, and walked out. But for the rest of us, especially the pantsers, it’s something that takes time, perspective, and above all revision to find. This is why I don’t bother to break myself of the execrable habit of starting the first draft with a character waking up. It’s like doing vocal warm-ups before a concert: essential for me, but tedious and clunky for the audience, so damn good thing they don’t see that part, innit? It’s only once I’ve gotten all the way through that I can see what the opening needs to accomplish and how to make that happen.
If you’re getting feedback that your story starts in the wrong place, take a step back and look at the big picture. What story are you trying to tell? What’s it all leading up to? Once you find the thread that is going to take you all the way through to the end, it’s easier to trace it back to its beginning–that’s where you start your novel.