About a third of the way into my current novel, I was lost in a forest of good ideas. You know how it is when you first encounter an intriguing book idea — there’s excitement, drama, and a never-ending flow of possibilities.
I had put all of those possibilities into the first three chapters of the book. Every last neat-o tech gadget. All of the fun science-y conceits. I found myself in a really cool world going nowhere fast.
I puttered around on the book for a few days weeks. I started to lose interest. Maybe it wasn’t such a good story, after all. Then, inspiration struck.
I wrote my query letter. Query letters — the note introducing my novel in a couple of riveting paragraphs to literary agents — would typically come at the end of the writing and editing process. Doing it now would force me to show what was at stake for my hero.
I started my query:
My main character sees a hole in the… Who cares?
The protagonist has to help fix the… Why does he *have* to?
This guy wants to figure out… *click* <– The sound of an agent deleting my email
There’s nothing quite like condensing the (lack of) action down to two paragraphs to make it very clear that you have a really neat idea, but not a whit of conflict or momentum. I scrapped the first third of the book and put some stakes in there.
When you hear the phrase, “kill your darlings,” it doesn’t just mean characters. It can indicate, as it did for me, that you have to surgically remove all traces of the very cool science fiction idea that prompted you to write the story in the first place. Ouch, that was hard. But it didn’t make sense to the narrative. There were better ideas that created more conflict. I set the original idea aside for a sequel and wrote from there.
Today, I’m happy to report that the remaining two-thirds of the book were written in two frenzied words-tumbling-over-words weeks. Once there were proper reasons for the action, the story practically unfolded on its own.
Sometimes, when you’re stuck at the beginning, you have to start with the end.