Yesterday I worked on The Ambassador’s Mission for the first time since I wrote the proposal back at the start of 2006.
I’ve always found that the first four to six chapters of a book are the hardest to get right. The main fiend working against me is ‘infodump’. There are so many worldbuilding ideas, character backgrounds, and (except with first books in new worlds) recap all demanding to be included that it’s very hard to avoid writing paragraphs of pure information. Nothing could be more stifling to a book’s narrative – it’s a classic case of breaking the Show Don’t Tell rule. I call this fiend ‘infodump’.
There are creative ways to impart detail without infodumping. You can deliver it in dialogue (so long as you avoid “As you know Bob…” syndrome, where characters stop – usually in the middle of the action – to tell each other things purely for the reader’s benefit). You can have characters learn about something through lessons, overhearing or reading something. Better still, you can have something interesting happen that demonstrates the point you’re trying to get across.
At the start of a first book written about a world, I need to show how that world works while also introducing the characters. In future books I can reduce that to reminding readers of the essential facts as well as past events – recap. (Ah. Recap. There’s an issue all of itself. Some readers hate it, some can’t get enough of it. Personally, I don’t have that great a memory and don’t often have the luxury of reading entire series in one sitting, so I like a bit of recap and can see the need for it in my books.)
Writing a book set twenty years after prior series, where the world has changed, means I have a lot of both introduction and recap to fit in. So yesterday I started writing about how I might reintroduce familiar characters while showing how much they and the world has changed, as well as introduce one new character. Preferrably in gripping scenes to thrill an old reader and capture a new one.
Now there’s another challenge to add to avoiding infodump at the start of a book. A good book should have a fantastic first line followed by a pacy first chapter. So yesterday I considered carefully which character would suit such a scene. And what sort of event might hint at conflicts to come.
But that’s not all. There is a third reason these first chapters take far more work than the rest in the book: if I introduce new characters I don’t really know them well enough to write them as well as I will later. I may have fairly firm ideas about them, but they tend to develop and change as I write a book. By the time I reach the end of the book I tend to go back to the start and rewrite their scenes with a much better understanding of who they are. Knowing this, it can be a little hard rousing the enthusiasm to write a scene I know will probably be trashed and redone later.
Fortunately I only have one new main character in The Ambassador’s Mission, Sonea’s son, Lorkin, and I know I’m going to enjoy getting to know him.
But I also realised yesterday that I’m going to have get to know another character. One I’ll have to do a bit of research on. This character is rather slippery, so I suppose it’s appropriate that I didn’t notice that he or she required some attention.
The bad guys are going to need a leader, and I’m going to have lots of fun creating him.