Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Blurb

Here's my pitch for the airship novel:

Ambitious Elsie Harrosk has run away from the lone smuggler who raised her to become an airship pilot with the all-powerful Air Alliance. The flying life is everything she dreamed until a clue about her forgotten past jeopardizes her career. Now, with the help of an escaped prisoner, she must run the gauntlet between two powerful industrial dynasties to discover the secret of her lost heritage and learn where her true allegiance lies.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

On Openings

NaNoWriMo finished in semi-good order, with my novel at about 39,000 words. Since then I've been adding to it much more slowly (having done basically nothing for all of December), and now we're at 42,652, a total that I'm not too thrilled about.

Continuing this story feels like swimming through cold molasses. What I'm coming up against, I think, is the lack of a firm foundation. I need to do a lot of background development in order to keep going. My protagonist, in particular, has lost a lot of her oomph. I've realized I don't know nearly enough about her or what her motivations are.

Reading over my story from the beginning, I noticed a particular weak point: the opening. The opening is when we need to learn about the character. Not every detail of her past, but at least her temperament, and why we should care about her. Looking for some inspiration in this department, I turned to my old stand-by, The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley. The book opens with the protagonist, Harry Crewe (she's female: Harry is short for Angharad) "scowling" at her glass of orange juice. Why is she scowling? The narration immediately proceeds to tell us. Here is what we learn about Harry within the first three pages of this book:

  • she is pragmatic ("eager to be delighted" with her new home)
  • she is "empty of purpose", which causes her insomnia
  • she is eccentric in her society (rising early, dressing herself)
  • she was raised privileged and is now impoverished and dependent
  • she wants to fit in
  • she has an energetic spirit, but tries to be good
  • she is orphaned
  • she dislikes being dependent on anyone
  • she is "a penniless blueblood of no particular beauty"
  • there is a little scandal in her family background, but she doesn't know the specifics
  • she does not care for society, nor it for her.
We also learn about the general setting, and about Harry's relationships to her brother, her late parents, and her new adoptive guardians, Charles and Amelia. By the end of chapter 1, we also know that Harry likes to read, is stubborn, is a tomboy, likes horses, has always been restless, has always longed for adventure, and is taller than all the women and most of the men around her. We learn that she was frightened but excited about her new home, and that she was sincerely interested in learning all about it when she arrived. We learn that, although she does not think of herself as attractive, a couple of her brother's soldier friends are secretly falling in love with her. We get the idea that people like her more than she gives them credit for.

So that's the opening. It is presented partly through present-time action, partly through summary, and partly through flashbacks. It's beautifully written, evocative, and engaging. Reading it now, I realize how much of the emotional impact of what follows (the arrival of the native king, Corlath, and his subsequent kidnapping of Harry) depends on what is laid out here. Right off the bat, Harry is appealing: smart, interesting, strong but vulnerable, and fundamentally incomplete. The perfect sympathetic character. You love her right away.

When I first read this book in 7th grade, I remember thinking the opening was slow, and indeed it does flout much of the conventional wisdom about how to open a narrative. There's lots of backstory, and nothing really "happens" until page 11, when Sir Charles and Jack Dedham reveal that they have been up since the wee hours in response to the news that King Corlath plans to visit them that very day. But reading it now, as an adult, I find the opening delightful. It is rich with detail and emotion. If I can come up with something half so elegant, I will be very pleased.