Saturday, March 31, 2007

Impossible Sentences

Okay, so maybe I exaggerated a bit.

Last night, in my fulsome praise of staying up late, I said that this is when I do my writing. Well, that's certainly true of these blog entries; I seldom start on one before midnight. But the fiction is another story. Aside from the fact that I haven't gotten nearly enough fiction writing in recently, the truth is that what I have written in recent months, I've mostly done during the daytime, usually at lunch.

Today at lunchtime, for example, it suddenly occurred to me that Rutana, the mage who is based on my mom (Ruth Anne), has to be at least a decade older than Fayubi. This is potentially a problem, because I imply a past relationship between the two characters. Yet in the "otherworld" version of Mâvarin, Fayubi's counterpart was infatuated with her in his student days, when she was his teacher and mentor. See? Older. And it gets worse. All this time, I've thought of Rutana as being in her 60s or early 70s. But Fayubi is 52 years old in Mages. So Rutana needs to be in her early 60s at most.
(Art by Sherlock)

Thinking all this through today, I realized that I didn't have a very good grasp of the otherworld Rutana's history. Nor had I worked out how her husband, Pol Ramet, who valued truth and honor over everything else, managed to head up the police force of a morally questionable regime in both worlds.

So I did some character building as I waited for my shrimp burrito, and made a few notes after I sat down with my lunch (and mopped up the Diet Pepsi I knocked over). But I didn't have much time. I wrote less than a page, enough to get through Rutana's ten year teaching career, plus an aside about another character's secondary magical ability. I didn't get to the bit about Pol having an understanding with monarchs who genuinely liked him, and protected him from their more ruthless relatives and associates. I'm not even sure whether that works as an explanation.

Tonight I thought it would be good to work on the problem a bit more, but instead I opened up Chapter One, page one of An Adept in Mâvarin, which is the first volume of Mages of Mâvarin. It begins with a prologue bit that I quoted last Saturday night, the one about Keni's father trying to kill him. And I decided that I don't like that opening sentence any more. I ran it by John, and he agreed. It's too deliberately slam bang, too manipulative, too over-the-top. Yes, okay, one needs to get the reader's interest (particularly the first reader's interest) in the first paragraph or two, but

Keni Tarso couldn’t help noticing that his father was trying to kill him.

...just isn't the way to do it.

So what if I just left off that sentence? Does the scene play without it? Not really. The next sentence is, or at any rate was,

A few seconds before, Filo Tarso had been smiling as they sparred in front of their house, offering encouragement and praising Keni’s improved parry technique.

Yuck. First of all, the sentence is too long and complex, especially if I cut the "kill him" sentence and make this one the lead. And look at all those past participles! All that smiling and offering and praising! Gives me a pain. Plus we no longer have a clear identification of Keni as Filo's son. Yes, it becomes clear as we go along, but I mustn't start the reader off with something long and confusing like this sentence.

But how could I fix it? I played around with it for a while tonight, but everything I tried just made it worse. There must be a clear, concrete, concise was to introduce the scene, but I haven't found it. And maybe it's because I'm tired, having been up too late for too many nights this past week. Or maybe it's because I'm not very good at writing sort declarative sentences. But for tonight at least, making that sentence work seems like an impossible task.

Ah, well. I guess I'll sleep on it.



Paul said...

My sense of it is that first sentence would be fine as an opening to a first chapter, but is a little too strong (or perhaps concrete) for a prologue. There's no knowledge or expertise behind this comment. Just my personal feeling as a reader.

Is the prologue necessary? What is its purpose? Can you just make it chapter one instead?

I know the prologue has a long history of successful use in genre fiction, but it is generally regarded - I have read - as being overused, and often incorrectly used. Be sure a prologue is necessary, and you are not just using one because, "that's what you do in fantasy novels."

(see disclaimer that closes paragraph one. I don't pretend to have any real wisdom in this area.)

Chris said...

I prefer to go with "It was a dark and stormy night...."


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