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False Starts

I am a woman who needs 30,000 words to get into anything.

I don’t say this in a ‘whoopee, look how many words I write’ way, but rather in a slightly self-chastising, ‘oh shucks, look how many words I waste’ kinda sense.

The first 10,000 words of a novel are, I personally think, the hardest.  If you’re starting something new, you need to establish the ground rules.  Take A Madness of Angels.  The first 10,000 words are pretty frickin’ confusing, some have said, and this is mostly because I kinda charged straight into the story without slowing down for the corners.  You have to tell people who characters are, where they live, what they want, and ideally you aim to do it without resorting to the immortal words, ‘My name is Matthew Swift and I want to talk about my angel problem’.  Have you ever read a book whose jacket promised dragons, swords, romance and Really Wild Things, only for the first hundred and fifty pages to be spent discussing whether a Fire Imp is allowed to summon a monster from within a Water Genie’s summoning circle?  I know I have. (Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind slightly pops to mind here, in that – while I enjoyed the writing, the characters and the world, I did find myself bouncing up and down with impatience at the end of a few thousand pages when the realisation that his leading character, the Kingslayer, Swordbreaker, Dragonspeaker, Archwizard and Poet-wrangler, was still only 16 years old and wasn’t about to wrangle any verse or summon much more in the way of wind, or even a light breeze, any time soon.)

Sequels also have this problem.  Many solutions have been proffered for the eternal question of how to inform new readers where you’re at, without boring veteran readers with stuff that’s gone before.  ‘Previously, in the world of Matthew Swift….’ is the unwritten tag line at the top of Chapter 1 of nearly all sequels and don’t get be wrong – sequels which don’t catch readers up on stuff that’s happened are automatic failures in my mind, but how you do it with grace, poise and above all, speed, remains a bit of a conundrum.

Getting into a story, setting down the rules, is difficult, and something, I personally think, I’m not very good at.  As many may have spotted, I usually try to get round this problem by starting in the middle, and only bothering to explain the beginning once I feel settled down with the story I’m already telling.  However, this takes a lot of false starts on my account.  Again, taking Madness of Angels, I think it took three or four false starts to break through the 10,000 word pain threshold.  On draft 1, I seem to recall that the blue electric angels were, in fact, the villains of the piece.  By draft 2 they’d evolved to more apathetic deities, and only on draft 3 did their voice finally integrate with Swift’s and whoopeee, we were off.

Oddly enough, the only books I can remember in recent years which haven’t had multiple false starts, were the even numbers in the series.  Midnight Mayor, Minority Council and Glass God were all straight off the bat from page 1 to the end, without my usual faffing and deleting of tens of thousands of words as I tried to find the swing of it.  I blame, to be honest, myself for this.  When starting A Madness of Angels, I was having to build a new world from scratch, but by Midnight Mayor I wasn’t merely warmed up, I was on a bit of a roll in terms of what I wanted to do next.  Then there was a break between Midnight Mayor and Neon Court while I went to RADA, but by the time I’d finished Neon Court was absolutely hyped and ready to go on Minority CouncilStray Souls, being in many ways a new book within the series, something entirely different, took many false starts as I tried to find my way into it, but again, having finished it there was a huge amount of momentum to just charge straight into Glass God with a gleeful whoop. To put it another way: I think I write even numbered books better.  But for god’s sake, don’t tell anyone…

Why do I say all this now?

Because I’ve just deleted 12,000 words of the next book in order to start over again with something better, and I’m feeling good…