Book Done Yet?: The Unbearable Slowness of Set-Ups

Putting up all of these WiPs has given me a good look at a common problem in first drafts: the terrible slowness of setting up the world. It’s a conundrum: I have to hit the ground running with the plot but I have to establish the ground on where the plot is happening, not just the geography but the population. And although I have the first act to do that completely (roughly the first third of the novel) before I have to stop introducing new things and just start powering through the action, I really need to do some things in the first two chapters (roughly 10%), some things in the first chapter (roughly 5%) and some things on the first page (roughly first 200 words). It’s almost impossible to do that well in a first draft, which is why every first draft I’ve ever written has needed to be cut back. A lot. Usually by about ten percent, sometimes by as much 25%.

That means that the first page has to establish the mood, tone, world, and–most important of all-protagonist. The reader comes in looking for somebody to root for, and I don’t want to make her wait. I’ve never gone back and looked at all the openings of my books, but I’m betting the later ones all start with the heroine heading into some kind of conflict. Why conflict? Because two of the best ways to show character are action and what other characters think of my character.

So I have . . .

• The first page of Nita’s draft ends when Button asks, “Is that a dead body?”
That gives me Nita in the first sentence, the fact that she’s a detective and the setting is a crime scene somewhere called Demon Island just after midnight, and she has a new partner who’s anxious to please her, a power imbalance that Nita accepts as her due but doesn’t exploit. Also it’s in the north because it’s cold. I think there’s some hook in her being a detective and her brother being the ME; that is, I think that’s something that’s mildly interesting that a reader might want to know more about. I think there’s some hook in the contrast between Nita and Button; although that needs to be more interesting later, this is the first 200 words and I need the strong contrast to characterize both. I like the bit about the streetlight because that’s good clue to how balanced Nita is, she can look past a corpse and notice damaged infrastructure (and also because that’s going to be a read-a-different-way-once-the-book-is-finished kind of easter egg, although that’s not reason enough on its own to put it in there). I think the only crucial thing that’s missing is Nick, but that’s one of those choices you make writing a romance: do you introduce the heroine and hero in different scenes so that the reader can anticipate their meeting, or do you start with the meet? I like separate scenes, I’m big on readers getting a chance to participate with anticipation.

• The first chapter ends with Nita saying, “I’m not finished with you,” a massive understatement that the reader knows more about than Nita does, since I think the foreshadowing for the romance is there. I’m not into one-look-and-it’s-love plots, that takes all the fun out of writing romance. I am a fan of the plot that pits the two against each other and then forces them to work together. I’m a huge fan of showing a relationship begin and grow through hard work and intense pressure; I think it’s a good microcosm for long term relationships, showing how they cooperate and protect each other. I think this first chapter needs to be cut back to make that a lot more clear: They’re both going after Joey’s killer for different reasons, so they’re going to end up on the same path.

• The second chapter ends with them both falling asleep, so that has to change, but it is a good 10% of the book which is my rough guideline the point at which everything has to be established. We need to know protagonist, antagonist (even if he or she isn’t named or on the page, there has to be a sense of something working behind the scenes against the protagonist, in this case the unnamed person who paid Ralph to shoot Joey), goal, setting, mood, tone, a sense of the community or communities, and above all, enough hook that people will keep on reading. The sad truth is that most people in stores or on the net reject a book after the first page, and very few will keep reading after a first chapter if they’re not intrigued by something. I always think that’s character, but different readers are grabbed by different things. Something has to be there, though. So by the end of the second chapter, Button’s shot somebody and she and Nita are at the beginning of an odd couple relationship; Nita and Mort have a brother-sister bond that’s appealing; Nick isn’t just the Devil, he’s Daglas and Rabiel’s boss and they make a good team, plus now he has Vinnie, mixed blessing that he is. The big drawback to what I’ve got is that between Joey getting shot before the story starts, and Button shooting the demon in the second to last scene in the second chapter, there’s not much action, just a lot of people talking. I like the part where Nita shakes Nick’s hand; I think this needs more physicality throughout. And to be cut. And I think maybe the chapter should end when Nick sits down at the breakfast table or, depending on how much I cut, at the end of that scene when Nick says, “It kills demons.” Except that’s at the 15,000 word mark, which means I’d need to cut at least 4,000 words. Which is probably about right. I don’t think I can claim I’ve achieved a full set-up until something strongly links Nita’s goal with Nick’s.

The good news is, this is all business as usual for a first draft, so nothing to worry about. I’m also trying to get a better grasp on Nick; Tom Ellis is lovely but he’s wrong for what I want, or at least he’s only part of what I want. So that’s good, too: I’m sharpening up my concepts of the characters. I think Button’s going to stay the same: an amalgamation of Rachael Harris and Melissa Rauch because they’re both cute, semi-fluffy, little blondes who will cut a bitch. I need more dimension to Mort, but that will come. Vinnie’s pretty much there, and the rest of the supporting characters are fine where they are for now.

So basically, I need to keep writing to find out who these people are and what they’re doing. You know, the fun part.

And now, back to Demon Island, where Nick and Nita just fell off a big rock. Because it was there. IT’S A FIRST DRAFT, I DON”T HAVE TO KNOW WHY.

29 thoughts on “Book Done Yet?: The Unbearable Slowness of Set-Ups

  1. “I’m not into one-look-and-it’s-love plots” #instalust yeah, also not a fan

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  2. That works.

    A thought. (Trying not to jiggle your elbow.) In Manhunting we knew the Guy was The One because in his first scene, immediately following her first scene, he contradicted her intentions explicitly. Pretty much likewise with Sophie and Phin. Which always makes me rub my hands (virtually) with glee. For Nita: Mort is her brother, so no; she doesn’t like Button; but it’s not obvious (to me) that she wasn’t going to rescue Vinnie and that it was Nick she will be paired with. I can suspend a lot of information-need if I know who my couple will be.

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    1. That’s interesting. Nick didn’t automatically fall into “potential love interest” because he was the PoV character in the next scene.
      Must cogitate on that.

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  3. On the other hand, it was obvious (to me) that it was Nick and Nita. Vinnie just seems….not that guy.

    I love what you do and I love what you teach us, but I REALLY love what you do in terms of creating people I want to spend time with. I am IN already in this book – and your others – and am only bummed that there’s not MORE. Your talk of cutting makes me sad.

    I know it’ll be great and better for it, but I already love it.

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    1. Agreed–on both counts–Nick being POV character but also Nita admitting (clinically, but still) that Nick was very very good looking made it clear to me he was Our Guy. Vinnie’s not smart enough, and he’s already got a relationship with Nita (calls her “Spooky Dodd”) that clearly isn’t romantic or heading that way. I would have been pretty peeved if Vinnie was the hero after that first scene of theirs!

      And I miss Liz. And Cat. And like Briana said, I’m bummed that there’s not MORE!

      I know that’s not very helpful feedback… but I’m very interested, love the community, love Button and Mort and Rabiel and Daglas and the donuts/iron filings twist, and can’t wait to read more!!!

      I will say that I thought perhaps too much time was spent on the description of The Nita (despite my love of a good diner burger) – that was the only time I felt impatient, so unless that’s going to be thematically significant (which it might, since Nick’s coming back to “life” and getting interested in food) I didn’t think it added much.

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  4. If I could change one thing, I’d want more of nick sooner – I love that his dad the pope bargained to get him a better position in hell, I love his approach to food, I love him slowly getting more human.

    At first he comes off to me as a hot guy in a great suit on a mission. Which is good, but I don’t really invest in him until you start giving me the more personal stuff. With Nina and co I’m invested from the get go.

    Thanks for sharing! You got me through a mildly sexist business trip.

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    1. I think I figured out what it is. I’m invested in Nina and her goal. I’m not invested in Nick’s goal, and it’s slowing down my investment in him and his storyline. Although I’m hooked overall, and would read this in a heartbeat.

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      1. I feel the same way (thanks for putting how I felt into words :-)).
        Nick’s too laid back in his first scenes with Vinnie for me to be engaged in him, but he gets more interesting the more human he becomes.

        I think I’d be more invested if he first appears when he’s being shot…

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        1. Nita has to get the first scene.
          I’m trying to think how much it changes things if he gets shot in front of her. I don’t think that works.

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    2. Maybe that was it — the set up in Manhunting had the brothers talking and I could picture them both easily and once Our Hero said he wasn’t getting married no how no way and his brother said, “Maybe she’s the one calling right now,” (and she was) I was hooked. Nick isn’t as clear in my mind’s eye as Vinnie, as (from what I remember of devouring the pages). Nick was still fairly generic, at least to someone who hasn’t seen Lucifer (the series) on tv.

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      1. Yeah, and I don’t want him to evoke Lucifer on TV, so that’s a problem.
        This is really good, it’s making me see that scene in a new way.

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  5. From a storytelling perspective this interests me:

    “…do you introduce the heroine and hero in different scenes so that the reader can anticipate their meeting, or do you start with the meet? I like separate scenes, I’m big on readers getting a chance to participate with anticipation.”

    Totally get the idea of anticipation, but think this takes skill. I write in 1st POV so my characters only exist in the orbit of my protag, but in films & books I read I’ve seen both approaches with 3rd POV. And I’ve seen both work and not work.

    Thinking key for me whichever route is taken is that I need to care about the individuals.

    I have not read your WIP yet because I’m in writing mode and can’t get another writer’s voice in my head, but wondering about your thoughts on building that anticipation. Do you think it comes from just knowing the couple will eventually connect or do you think there needs to be a bonus payoff of sorts after seeing each individually? Like some little tidbit about each that only really sparks when together?

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    1. For visual media, if they go the “separate scenes” route, then they have to nail the matching structures, as well as include good transitions. Highlight their similarities and contrasts so that we already have an idea of what their initial dynamic will be like, and thus anticipate it.
      “She’s a mess at home, cut to–he has a tidy house, cut to–she’s ruthless at work, cut to–he’s browsing social media at his cubicle, etc.”

      From a reader’s perspective, I tend to be lax about it for books, much more willing to see where the meandering threads go. But more books confine themselves to the single POV, for which separate scenes don’t make sense.

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      1. I don’t think they need matching structures as much as they just need to link. They’re both addressing the same problem, they’re both in the same place on a collision course, their goals align, whatever. Just something that tells the reader they’re heading for each other. I’ve never been a fan of the she’s a firefighter/he’s an arsonist approach just because I think it’s been done too often and because it doesn’t really work most of the time because readers are left wondering what they see in each other. It’s okay for contrast but the reader has to know that their basic values are in line.

        Which is a long way of saying, I’m a mess at home, so I’d never go near anybody who’s tidy because I don’t need the guilt trip.

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        1. Yes, perhaps not 1-to-1 matching, but if back-to-back scenes aren’t establishing the same categories for the two characters, there definitely needs to be a strong transition link. “She takes a call, cut to — he ends a call/he schedules a call/etc.”

          But preferably, if the one scene was about establishing her social network, then the next scene should be commenting on his. And then the end of that scene establishes another category for him, that then next scene will touch on for her.

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    2. I think you have to go for the “this should be good” reaction. Not even sparks, you can’t get that until you get them both on the page, just the juxtaposition of two people with competing/complementary goals or outlooks. As an admittedly flawed example, in the first scene in the WiP, Nita is rumpled and grumpy and sick and she has no time for any supernatural crap because that stuff doesn’t exist. In the second scene, Nick is smooth and in control and clearly a supernatural being. But they both want to find something, and in the rewrite, they’re both going to want to find who killed Joey. So that sets up tired/sick/rumpled/non-believer vs awake/healthy/smooth/supernatural BUT they both want the same thing. So they’re going to be stuck with each other, and that should make people want to turn the page.
      The other big thing for me is that this is not a book about Nick and Nita. This is a book about Nita. She’s the protagonist, so I have to invest people in her first and foremost. The reaction to Nick (for me, not suggesting this is a rule or anything else) is in part a reaction to what’s going to happen when he meets Nita. Which means he can be the most fascinating character ever, and nobody’s going to care if Nita is flat. But if Nita is great (and I know she’s not yet), then readers will want to follow her into that bar even if Nick is blah on the page.

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      1. That’s something that bothered me – how does Nita deny the supernatural when she sees blood when she shakes a guilty person’s hand?

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        1. Well, there’s a fairly big gulf between a psychic ability and the Devil shaking your hand.

          She doesn’t think she’s psychic, she rejects that explanation over and over. She had seizures when she was little, and she thinks it’s an aspect of that, some kind of subconscious awareness that sense guilt and then skews her perception. It’s actually in the first act, I just didn’t put those scenes up, but as you’re pointing out, it needs to be there up front. I’ll have to cogitate.

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      2. Agree re getting readers invested in protag first and foremost. And I’m guessing this is a “yes” to the need for bonus payoff question in my original comment. Mostly because you bring up the link & common goal bits. Thanks for the thoughts:)

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  6. Argh. Clearly I missed something, since I didn’t read the stuff you’re all talking about. Where was it posted? (I’m not surprised I missed it, what with all the nonsense going on in my own life, and trying to go full steam ahead on my own WIP.)

    Also, it’s really too bad you’re not writing this book.

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    1. Bottom of Sunday Notes or go to the website and hit the About/WiP tab.
      Sorry about the nonsense in your life, babe.

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  7. I’m soooo loving the WIP. I devoured it on my phone during my kid’s baseball game. Apparently, he got a great base hit. Oops. 🙂

    Here’s a thought, FWIW. I’m no fan of insta-lust, and I love watching romance develop on the page for organic reasons, so I was hoping to see Nick and Nita have more of a growing awareness of/interest in each other by the end of chapter four.

    There’s a hint of Nick’s interest in Nita when he “sits down to watch” her do her thing at the beginning, but that dissipates and he seems more annoyed than intrigued by her. Being annoyed is fine (even fun) but it’d be great to know that he has some pull toward her, too (he respects her competence or even her skepticism, or she upends some preconceived notion he holds, and that intrigues him, or ??). For Nita’s part, she seems only to acknowledge that Nick’s a good looking space heater 🙂 I know it will all come, and I’m definitely anticipating it, but was hoping for a few more clues in the set up.

    Oh, and for the record, I *love* the descriptions of the various Devils and their work styles and the whole organization of Hell. That’s just plain fun. Can’t wait for more.

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    1. Yep.
      I’m thinking a major restructuring here of the first chapters, thanks to all the comments.
      This is good.

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  8. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but you people either already were or are becoming really good beta readers. Focusing on details, explaining why you think those are weak spots or strong points, not offering fixes . . . this stuff is gold for a writer who’s drafting.

    So thank you all very much.

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  9. The story is great, and your blog post about your thought processes is great. I’m not going to squee for paragraphs about how great it is, although I could.

    (-: I’m just going to point out that I also love what is developing into:

    Crusie’s Guide for Emergency Plot Prodders:
    Get hit by a rock.
    Fall off a rock.

    Possibly to be followed by: looking under a rock? getting a rock (sapphires are my favorite)? finding out rock is sentient (no, that’s Pratchett)? finding out rock is not a rock? scientists report rock is hurtling toward Earth? a rock god comes to visit? LOL. Possibly not. Still, I was unaware of the possibilities of rocks until just now.

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