Case Studies: The Atticus Finch Guide to Writing Lawful Good

Case Studies: The Atticus Finch Guide to Writing Lawful Good

(Standard spoiler disclaimer this week applies to Man of Steel and To Kill a Mockingbirdthe book, not the movie, although pictures are from the movie because I like to be confusing)

Last week, we used Captain America to look at how it’s possible to make the Boy Scout character not be an insufferable pill.  But this week, I want to take it further.  Conventional wisdom in the writing world says, quite simply, that saints are boring.  But is it possible to take the Lawful Good character and make them just as complex, as compelling, as great as any damaged and brooding anti-hero?  Set your wayback machine to high school, boys and girls, because Atticus Finch is in the house.

I never had to read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, actually.  I took American Literature in tandem with American History, which was an awesome way to contextualize what we were reading but meant that we didn’t get the opportunity to stop and linger on the books as much.  So I’m probably a little late to this party, what with the huge amount of criticism already out there on this deserved classic.  But as always, I’m looking at these things from the perspective of a writer.  I think there are some very useful lessons that you can apply to your own characters to really push them to the next level.

Define his values

What does it mean to be a good man?

Okay, this is kind of an unfairly broad question.  After all, there are several great works of art, bodies of philosophy, and even entire institutions that grapple with it and can’t always come up with an answer.  As the author, you don’t necessarily have to take a stance on this one way or another.

However, your oh-so-heroic hero?  He probably has a pretty good working definition.

This is one of the reasons I’ve never really connected to the character of Superman.  He mainly seems to be a good guy by virtue of opposing the bad guys, and defining a character solely in the context of something else makes it difficult to connect to the character himself.  He’s boring not necessarily because it’s so difficult to put him in over his head or because he’s too perfect, but because I never get a sense of who he is as a person, of why the stuff that he does matters to him.  Generic goodness isn’t enough.  You have to get specific.

Atticus Finch’s chief virtues are compassion and empathy, and much of the book deals with him trying to hold to these virtues himself and trying to instill them in his children.  This philosophy bookends the story: when trying to convince Scout to keep going to school early on, he says, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from their point of view — until you climb into their skin and walk around in it.”  Then when putting her to bed at the very end, he reminds her, “Most people are [nice], Scout, when you finally see them.”  It’s not merely about being kind, it’s about understanding why someone is deserving of kindness.  He treats people with dignity because he sees them as they see themselves, from the Cunninghams and their refusal of charity to Mrs. Dubose and the pain of her final illness.

To-Kill-a-Mockingbird-MovieVirtue is a somewhat flexible thing, frequently more of a social construct than an absolute truth.  To our eyes, Atticus is a good father: attentive, encouraging, stoic but unquestionably devoted.  But what he’s giving his children is not seen as a “normal” upbringing, and he frequently has to defend himself to family and neighbors as “doing the best he can.”  He even second-guesses himself a few times, like when he tries to explain the family legacy to Jem and Scout.  The struggle between his parental instincts and society’s expectations generates conflict without really getting anyone’s hands dirty.

Of course, things can’t stay that tidy…

Challenge those values

There was a very disappointing moment in Man of Steel for me.  Okay, there were a lot of disappointing moments in Man of Steel for me, but I’m talking about one in particular right now.  Like many other contemporary versions of familiar stories, Man of Steel gives the villain, General Zod, a sympathetic motivation: he was bred to protect Krypton and only wants to restore his people.  So far, so good.  He poses the ethical dilemma to Superman — save the people of his birth, or of his adopted home?  Supes considers for all of two seconds before choosing the latter.

Now, it’s not like he got it wrong, but that’s kind of the point.  The movie might allow you to sympathize with Zod, but it pushes him right back into cartoon villain territory so you aren’t tempted to agree with him.  I see way too many of these cake-or-death softballs, where the hero gets faced with a choice that isn’t really a choice.  He’s the good guy, so he’s right.  End of discussion.

For the most part, Atticus Finch is right about the world, as well.  A mob backs down when a little girl forces them to realize that the man they’re planning to attack is a father.  The Black community recognizes that he tried to save Tom Robinson, even though he failed.  Scout gets her final moment of clarity on the Radley porch where she sees her childhood through Boo’s eyes.  Repeatedly throughout the story, having empathy makes the interactions between people easier.

But empathy isn’t always the answer, and there are two significant points where it fails, with tragic consequences.  Tom Robinson’s sympathy for Mayella Ewell is directly responsible for his downfall.  On the stand, his pity is damning, because how could any Negro think himself in a position to feel sorry for any white person?  As for Atticus, his belief that everyone is ultimately decent leads him to underestimate Bob Ewell as a threat.  If not for the intervention of Boo Radley, this misjudgment would have cost his children their lives.  The fact that showing compassion is the right thing to do doesn’t mean that it’s without risk.

What is your hero willing to risk for what he believes?  And — the more interesting question for my money — what isn’t he willing to risk?  Not everyone weights their own values equally, and when they come into conflict, it forces that person to choose one over the other.  Atticus hates guns, but when a rabid dog threatens his neighborhood, he still pulls the trigger.  He takes Tom Robinson’s case explicitly because he can’t choose his reputation over his conscience.  The scene where Atticus keeps vigil over Tom’s cell pits several of these factors against each other: he has no qualms about putting his own personal safety on the line, but when he realizes that his children might have to watch, or might even get hurt themselves, that’s when he shows fear.  And again during Tom’s trial, right at the moment that Atticus has pinned everything on, he’s willing to walk away (at least temporarily) because his children might be in trouble.  There’s a clear hierarchy of the things he values.

full_bgThis question of risk is one of the reasons Man of Steel didn’t work for me.  I didn’t feel like Superman had any skin in the game, like there was any personal cost of failure.  Yeah, billions of lives and all, but that’s a statistic.  It’s also hard to think that he’s that concerned about human life as a general concept given his role in the destruction of Metropolis (not to mention it’s hard for the audience to care when it was apparently rebuilt pretty much overnight).  With all the flashbacks, there’s nothing that ever backs up Jonathan Kent’s fears that horrible things will happen if Clark reveals himself, so when he’s willing to die rather than risk exposing his son, it just feels pointless instead of tragic.

Doing the right thing — knowing what the right thing even is — is frequently difficult in real life, and thus it should be in fiction.  It’s somewhat rocky territory for the writer because we’re pushing away from the safe shores of easy answers and into ambiguity, but don’t shy away from it.  This hearkens back to that tricky “show, don’t tell” chestnut.  Don’t just tell us what the character believes in; make him prove it.

Temper the idealism

I keep coming back to Superman because he’s kind of the archetype for this paladin sort of character.  And I’m sure that some of you are just itching to get to the comments, so you can tell me all about why Man of Steel isn’t really a fair representation of the character, and how other writers have handled him and made him more interesting and blah blah blah fanboycakes.  But I think the failings of this most recent incarnation show exactly how difficult it can be to reconcile this sort of character with such a jaded world.  So it’s tempting to shove him into broody angstdom, but there are other ways to strike the balance.

To Kill a Mockingbird gets accused of being somewhat saccharine, but it’s surprisingly unromantic when you get down to it.  After all, no matter how badass a lawyer Atticus is, he can’t overcome the deeply ingrained racial prejudice of his time, and he doesn’t even get to try for an appeal because Tom commits suicide by prison guard first.  If this were a fairy tale sort of story, Boo Radley’s heroism would make him a cherished family friend and would be enough to conquer whatever issues kept him shut in his house all those years.  But it’s not a fairy tale, and Scout never sees him again.  For all its idealism, it doesn’t flinch away from the harshness of reality.

The other important thing to remember is that, while Atticus Finch is definitely the most significant character and the main driver of the story, he’s not the protagonist.  That’s his daughter Scout, who’s also the narrator.  She’s a much more capricious character, which relieves Atticus of some of the burden of carrying the drama.  Scout doesn’t understand him and is sometimes critical of things like his age and his habits, and her perspective keeps things more interesting than if we spent the whole time in Atticus’s head.

Hopefully all of this gives you some things to try if you get stumped by a squeaky clean character, and perhaps a new appreciation for the old crap they made you read in high school.  Sometimes it’s more relevant than you’d think.

Just Friends: Agent Carter, Jarvis, and Platonic Chemistry

Just Friends: Agent Carter, Jarvis, and Platonic Chemistry

(Standard spoiler disclaimer for Agent Carter, episodes 1-3)

Beneath my crusty, jaded exterior, I am a sap.  I just love me a good romantic subplot, and while the key components of that phrase are usually “good” and “sub,” I’ve been known to enjoy both straight-up love stories and pairings that actually, if we’re being honest, weren’t that well executed.  However, despite my weakness for kissy stuff, I am continually fascinated by platonic relationships, possibly because they’re so much rarer.

This is one of the many reasons I’m digging on Agent Carter, the delightful bone ABC and Marvel have tossed us until Agents of SHIELD returns to answer some pressing questions, the cliff-hanging bastards.  The overarching story concerns Peggy Carter trying to prove that Howard Stark hasn’t committed treason, with the help of Stark’s butler Edwin Jarvis.  Peggy and Jarvis are not quite partners, not quite friends, and despite them both being so very pretty, possess not one spark of sexual tension.  That’s a very good thing, and while there’s still time to fuck it up, I don’t think they will.

The main reason is that Jarvis is quite happily married, thank you.  Not that writers have ever balked at using an established relationship as a mere obstacle for their preferred couple to overcome, but Jarvis’s biggest character trait is his unwavering loyalty.  Last week’s episode “Time and Tide” further underscored his devotion to his wife; the first time we ever see him get really riled is when the SSR dudebro (I admit that I can’t really tell them apart) threatens her, and he reveals that he risked his life and career to save her from the Holocaust.  This is not a man whose head will be turned by a pretty secret agent.  For her part, Peggy also shows no interest, likely because she’s still a bit hung up on Steve Rogers and because she already has a perfectly good love interest in Sousa, the fellow agent who may or may not be the rescued POW she will eventually marry (according to the archive footage in Winter Soldier).

Mind you, I’m still a little annoyed that the status of this friendship is assured by one (or possibly both, depending on how you look at it) being unavailable rather than them just not being interested.  Someday, we’ll have a proper platonic pairing who have absolutely nothing standing between them and the horizontal mambo but complete lack of desire to do so, and I will shout my joy unto the heavens.  But until then, these two make an appealing pair of guides through this world of old-school spy shenanigans.  Hayley Atwell and James D’Arcy have a chemistry that has nothing to do with uglies and the bumping thereof, and there are the hints that Jarvis is still hiding something that might undermine their growing mutual regard.  Plus, their particular relationship means that some common scenarios get to take on fresh meaning; when Jarvis chides Peggy for going into danger alone, it’s not from a place of overprotective macho bullshit, but from the logic that it’s silly to do so when she has a willing and capable ally.  He’s trying to convince her to let him take his proper place as field support rather than trying to take over.

Given that this is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-fronted property, the execution and reception of this show are kind of a Big Deal.  It would be easy to fall into the common traps of the stories deemed appropriate for girls to carry, but while the relationships in Peggy’s life are really the core of the show, it’s heartening that those relationships aren’t your usual romantic fare.  (Her friendship with waitress Angie gets much more weight and screentime than her mild flirtations with Sousa.)  Her SSR colleagues may not take her seriously, but her real friends do–and Marvel certainly does.

Case Studies: Of Fairy Tales and Face Biting

Case Studies: Of Fairy Tales and Face Biting

(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters)

Let’s do some character analysis, shall we?  Today I’d like to take a crack at one of my favorite movies, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.  Sidebar: I don’t mean “favorite” in an ironic sense or as a guilty pleasure.  I unabashedly adore this movie, and I don’t care how low its Metacritic score is.  People seemed to dismiss it as an action B-movie, missing the key fact that it’s produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.  It’s horror comedy, and while it might not be as outright funny as Shaun of the Dead or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil, its humor derives from its over-the-top cartoonishness, from its gleeful anachronisms and hyper-violence.  I’ve seen it compared to “Itchy and Scratchy,” which is pretty accurate.  You don’t have to think it’s a great movie (I mean, you’d be wrong, but you’re entitled to that), just make sure you’re judging it by the correct metrics.

Our titular heroes aren’t particularly deep or complex.  They had a traumatic childhood encounter with a witch, and now they go around exacting messy revenge on the whole species.  Aside from the intriguing brother-sister dynamic, just your standard Caucasian brunette stoic badasses, right?  Yet I find myself rather fascinated by Gretel.  At first glance, she seems like she’s cut from the standard Strong Female Character template.  She’s introduced as an adult by coolly taking charge of the situation, and when her authority is challenged:


And yet the headbutt is a rather unusual move for the textbook SFC.  Using it doesn’t require any particular training, finesse, control, skill, or any of the things that you normally associate with a great fighter–just raw force and a disregard for your own safety.

When we see a woman in melee combat, she’s usually a martial artist, employing moves that require just as much grace as strength or skill.  There’s quite a lot of overlap between dancing and fighting, but it’s especially true for female fighters.  Even when issuing a beatdown, the heroine remains aesthetically pleasing.

But there is nothing elegant about Gretel.  She’s a pure brawler, as befits her backstory of learning to fight through experience rather than formal training.  When she punches, she’s not mainly using her arm; instead, she sticks her arm straight out and swings her whole torso, an awkward move that provides power at the expense of accuracy.  Gretel’s character is not, in any sense, about looking pretty.  Oh sure, Gemma Arterton is gorgeous, and she spends the movie in these cleavagetastic bodices and tight leather pants.  She also spends most of the movie positively covered in grime, gore, and every filth imaginable.  Gretel is not here to impress you–she’s here to bite your fucking face off.


Not a figure of speech.

Gretel also doesn’t have many of the traits of a great fighter, because, well, she’s not actually that great.  Oh, she’s not a Faux Action Girl by any means.  The woman will bring the pain, no question.  But watch the movie again, and really watch her fight scenes.  She’s solid with a weapon, but in hand-to-hand, she just holds her own and never really gets the better of anyone.  Her main assets in combat are her quick thinking and tenacity–she gets the absolute shit kicked out of her, yet keeps getting back up.  Since she works as part of a tag team and most of her fights seem to be battles of attrition, that’s all she needs.  She’s merely competent, which paradoxically makes her rather extraordinary.  After all, how often do you see male action heroes who are just reasonably good at fighting, and when’s the last time you’ve seen a female fighter in a primary combat role who’s anything less than the best of the best?

I think I’m so drawn to Gretel for the simple reason that I’ve never seen anything quite like her before.  In an SFF landscape filled with action heroines who seem to have graduated from the same dojo, she’s a crass, scrappy knuckle sandwich of fresh air.  Really, it doesn’t take that much to create a new spin on something.  In this case, all you really needed was the fight choreographer.

NaNoWriMo Prep for Pantsers, Part One: Taking Stock

There are generally two camps of NaNo writers: the plotters and the pantsers (as in, flying by the seat of).  I am generally a shameless pantser (although my most successful year was plotted, surprise surprise), and in the past I’ve taken this to mean that there’s nothing I need to do until November 1st.

This is a very good way to risk not finishing.

It’s true that many people stumble and give up because they run out of story, because the characters have stopped talking to them, because they’ve written themselves into a corner and don’t have time to fix it again.  These are the places where outlining can help.  But more often, people find themselves bowing out and the deadlines passing unheeded for a much simpler reason: life got in the way.

Now, you’re not going to be able to plan for, say, a major illness striking you or a loved one in November, or someone losing their job, or a natural disaster, or any of the other unforeseeable calamities that can cause a writing competition to get pushed aside.  But even if you’re not working out a single detail of your story in advance (and hey, even if you are), you can still take this time to set yourself up for success.

This week, we’re not even really acting on anything yet.  The task this week is to assess the situation.  There’s a lot to think about before you dive into this thing, especially if it’s your first time and you don’t quite know what to expect.  I’d like to stress that none of these questions are meant to discourage you from participating, merely to help you formulate a game plan that suits your situation.

That said…

Are you up for this?

I first heard about NaNo probably back in 2003, and thought it was an awesome idea.  I first participated properly (not counting the year I started late and never actually signed up for the site) in 2010.

Why the delay?  I’m not sure if you know this, but November sucks.  Seriously, I’m glad it worked out so nicely for the original participants who put it together, but for the rest of us, it’s horrifically stressful and already overbooked.  Personally, I didn’t even bother attempting until I had graduated from college.  As much as I liked the idea, by the time I was an upperclassman I was already pumping out about 70-80 pages of material for school in November, working two jobs, and running on about 4 hours’ sleep per night.  Adding another project on top of that would have driven me insane.  I have intense respect for students who compete in NaNo, but I wasn’t cut out to be one of them.

And you know what?  That’s perfectly fine.  Above all else, keep in mind that this is supposed to be fun.  If the prospect fills you with dread, or if the idea of deadlines stresses you out more than motivates you, or if you know you just don’t write fast enough to keep up, don’t force it.  Consider sitting out a year, seeing if there’s a modified goal like a lesser word count that you can make work, or waiting for one of the other events in a month that’s less horrible.

What are you trying to get out of this?

Are you hoping to have a workable first draft at the end of November (or sometime in December or beyond, depending on length)?  Are you just trying to get into the habit of writing every day without worrying about the end product?  Are you only here for the anarchic fun and don’t care if what you have at the end even resembles a novel?  Are you rebelling and doing something other than 50,000 new words of a novel?

All of these are absolutely legitimate approaches to NaNoWriMo.  All of them are going to require very, very different processes to get through.  There’s a ton of advice floating around out there to help out WriMos, and much of it talks at cross-purposes because it’s not all leading to the same place.  Knowing where you want to end up will help you sort through to find the stuff that will actually help you get there.

What are you willing to sacrifice?

There are plenty of people here who are already spending at least two hours a day, sometimes much more, sweating over their writing machines.  Those guys are rock stars, no question, especially the ones who do that on top of day jobs.  For the rest of us, it’s probably a safe bet that you’re not currently spending large chunks of your day just staring at a blank wall.  Turning yourself into a rock star means coming up with those hours for writing that, at the moment, are being spent doing something else.  Whatever that something is each day, it’s not getting done during November, at least not as frequently as you’re used to.  There’s absolutely no way around this, unless you have a time machine of some sort.  (In which case, why aren’t you sharing?  That’s not cool, man.)

My next couple of posts will be talking about specific strategies to carve out that writing time.  But for right now, take an honest look at where you’re spending your time.  I mean, every minute of the day, because squeezing a few extra words into those stray minutes is what this thing is all about.

Think of your schedule like a Jenga tower.  Some pieces are going to pop right out, some can be very carefully removed with skill and patience, and some are just going to topple the whole tower if moved no matter what you try.  Right now, you can start tapping delicately at those wooden pieces to see which ones are loose.  This is the time to be brutally honest with yourself, because you’re going to have to start pulling those Jenga blocks pretty soon, and convincing yourself that a particular piece isn’t load-bearing isn’t going to prevent it from dropping the whole thing on your toes.

Also remember that your dealbreakers aren’t going to be the same as mine or anyone else’s.  All of these suggestions are just that.  It’s going to be up to you to figure out how to incorporate them into a plan you can stick to.

That does it for this week.  Tune in next week, when we talk housekeeping.  Literally.

The Sin of Inconsistency

I don’t watch videos online.  When I’m dicking around the internet, I’m usually in skim mode, and I’m usually multitasking.  Neither of these lend themselves well to stopping on one thing for 2-5 minutes.  Occasionally a one-off will get my attention, but there are only two channels I watch regularly: Zero Punctuation, a hilariously vulgar series of video game reviews (NSFW), and Cinema Sins, which is rather as it sounds.  Breaking down point-for-point everything wrong with a particular movie is not only entertaining, it’s a critical part of developing the instincts of a writer.

In addition to pointing out laughably bad line readings or failures to understand basic scientific concepts, CS’s stock in trade is inconsistencies, the bumps in the road that can throw you headfirst out of the story.  Examples include:

  • Visual continuity errors: Cigarettes that unsmoke themselves, shirts that magically change color from shot to shot, people who teleport around the room with each cut to a different camera
  • Wild shifts in tone: Deadly serious moralizing in a comedy, awkwardly comic moments shoehorned into serious dramas
  • Out of character behavior: Someone acts in a way that doesn’t quite fit with, or even wholly contradicts, their character as established, usually for the sake of moving the plot forward
  • Breaking your own rules: Perhaps surprisingly, the CS guys rarely quibble with the rules a movie establishes for itself (unless it’s ostensibly realistic but has characters who are basically indestructible or supernaturally talented).  But if the movie then breaks or changes those rules on the fly, oh, there will be quibbling, yes there will.

All of these are issues that plague all writers, no matter the medium.  Visual continuity might not seem like a concern for a novelist, but have you ever read a novel where the redheaded heroine suddenly becomes blonde halfway through with no acknowledgement or explanation?  What about the sex scene where someone magically sprouts an extra hand?  The dude who just disappears out of the party because there were too many characters for the author to track?  If anything, maintaining the visuals is even more difficult for the fiction writer; it’s much easier to make sure your hero is wearing the same color shirt the whole day when you have to go out and buy it for him.

It’s fairly easy to look at a bad movie and see how these problems can add up to making it a complete mess:

But CS’s tagline is “No movie is without sin,” and while a good movie will certainly minimize these issues, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid them entirely.

It comes back down to that all-important willing suspension of disbelief.  Sure, every story has plot holes and cheats, but if the audience is sufficiently entertained or engaged, they won’t care.  It’s only when they’re not enjoying themselves that they’re paying attention to what’s gone wrong.

Still, it’s best to catch these issues when you can, especially when they can be fixed without doing too much damage to your planned story.  The necessary skill is spotting these issues in your own work, which can be tricky because you’re so close to it that your brain fills in the details whether they made it to the page or not.  Editors, beta readers, and critique partners are all indispensable in this regard, but it’s possible to train yourself to be aware of these things.  As I said earlier, it’s an instinct, a bone-deep understanding of structure, character development, and the other nuts and bolts that make up a story.

If you haven’t gotten to the point where you can spot this stuff on your own, it can be helpful to have it pointed out to you.  That’s why Cinema Sins is so useful, especially for a developing writer.  Try watching a few of the videos for movies you’ve seen.  Did you notice those problems before?  Do you understand now why something is a problem?  Is a given sin something you think you could fix, or something that gets to slide because it’s still effective?  These sorts of questions can help you develop a critical eye for the work of others, which you can then use to strengthen your own stuff.

Case Studies: Where to Start Your Novel

Case Studies: Where to Start Your Novel

(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.