Trudi Canavan

bestselling author of The Black Magician Trilogy

Making a Start

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.   

9 Responses »

  1. Trudi, you have no idea how good it is to here you’ve started on this!!!!!
    I honestly can’t wait, you have to type REALLY fast cuz now that I know you’ve started I’m gonna be really very inpatient!!!
    I feel kinda imature writing this because all the comments before me are written with wide vocabularies and a limit of one ! at a time but ah well, we all have different styles of writting! It just so happens that mine is a little more excitable!!

  2. Can’t help but say I agree to the fact that first chapters are hard!!!! I can always see the beginning I want in my head but when it comes to writing it I just don’t have the words to express what I see.
    I can’t wait to meet this leader of the bad guys. I agree with Friedrich about the everyone has a good side and a bad side but I think that some people bring on the bad and let the good be forgotten in some recess of their mind. Personally I love the bad guys to have at least one weakness otherwise how can they be defeated???
    Lastly I just want to say I LOVE the name of your new charcter, it is sooooo cool!!!

  3. Ooh well I hope you do manage to find a good beginning chapter!
    I also hope that sometime soon we’ll be granted the privilege to have a sneak peek at an extract, just to whet our appetites *g*.

  4. its great that you have this new blog because it makes me realise how little i know about writîng, it just makes me admire you even more !
    from what i understand, writing must me extremely challenging but what YOU don’t need to worry about is that no one will appreciate your work. i already have been for a few years and now that i realise (most definitely not entirely) the work that you put into your books i am sure that i will enjoy them even more (i am at the moment re-reading ”the last of the wilds” and i still love it just as much).
    as for recaps, i normally find them annoying but in well written books, like you explained, if you fit it into the story they are great for reminding / introducing people to the culture of the world the book is set in. (i personnally don’t nead them, since i read your books over and over !)

  5. I don’t know about the first chapters, never had much trouble with those. Maybe it is because I have a tendency to develope certain “punchlines” while creating the story mentally, maybe it is due to the long time required for an idea to reach fruitition (like half a year), so I always know how to start, how to introduce the world or how my characters should act, just somehow my motivation can’t keep up beyond the seventh chapter usually … 🙁
    About the bad guys matter: Maybe I am a happy-world kind of guy, but the stories which impressed me most so far had no bad guys … nor good guys. Every person has good sides as well as bad sides and I think it is an interesting concept of two people clashing against each other, both only wanting the best (but having a different concept of what that would be or how to acchieve it). But that may just be a matter of taste, I don’t know…
    Either way, I can’t wait to read the book when it’s completed.

  6. I usually read emails first thing after I turn my computer on in the morning. Since I live in Australia, most fanmail has been gathering overnight, as the majority comes from people who are awake and posting when I’m asleep!

  7. Bad guys are the best part of the story. Or rather, when they are defeated is the best part. But still, making a good evil charchter is important. and I know you’ll suceed, because all you other villians are pretty awesome.
    Can’t wait for the book!

  8. I completely agree about how hard it is to start a story, on the rare occasion that I do succeed in getting past the initial idea, I never get further than a page before realizing that it is completely rubbish. I have of course never even faced the dilemmas of a sequel, but I’m sure it will end up amazing in the end, and even now can’t wait for it to come out!
    Also, I know that this isn’t directly related to the blog, but I was wondering roughly how long it currently takes for you to read a fan email after you receive it? Would it be possible for you to put the answer to this question in a future blog?
    Lozzie

  9. It’s so incredible to be hearing all about new factors in a series I started 3 years ago . When you finish a series, you leave it behind you, often mourning it if it was incredibly good. Even if you read back over it, something passes over you, telling you that this is all you will ever read of these characters or this world.
    It’s amazing seeing more of them, hearing about them slowly come to life again. It’s making me really want to read TMG again…
    (And I like a little bit of recap, so long as it’s not repeated again and again in each book. It’s nice to mix recap and things that have happened between books, even in between books of a tightly knitted series.)