The beginning of this blog post is partly (or mostly) me talking to myself. Not only is writing this story fun, but it’s making me think about how and why I do certain things when I write.
Learning is never a bad thing, and improving is a worthy goal no matter where you are on the curve. I’m pretty sure I want to keep learning more about writing, and improving, my entire life. I want my next book to be better than my last, and the one after that to be better still.
As soon as I posted the first part of this story, (which I’ve decided to call City of Jewels) I saw a whole list of things I needed to add to the beginning. Most of what it needed were a lot more details and information.
Other writers might give this process a different name, but I call what I’d doing layering. Think of pastry built from filo dough, with all those thin, nondescript layers adding up to something rich and full. That’s how I’ve always thought of adding details to a story.
Beginnings of stories have to carry a lot of weight. I need to introduce the main, most important characters, establish the setting and start worldbuilding–which I always think of as letting the reader know they aren’t in Kansas any more. I have to start revealing plot and planting narrative questions in the reader’s mind.
You–meaning me–have to start establishing and front loading conflict, both the greater, overall conflict arc, and the internal conflict arc as well.
A beginning needs to start letting the reader know what the stakes are, large and small. How large and how small depends on the story you’re telling, but the stakes need to be there. I ask myself who is in danger? Why is what’s happening important to these people? How are the goals/wants/needs/desires of my protags conflict with those of my antags? How do I make readers care?
All of this needs to start from the first page. And it’s a balancing act between presenting enough detail–enough layers–to hook a reader and keep them reading, and overwhelming them to the point of boredom.
There are other things to think about, such as pacing, voice, and making your characters more than a micron deep, but I’ve already listed more than enough.
I looked at the beginning of City of Jewels that I posted and realized I’d left out way too much information, and left far too many unanswered questions. Why was Arlandria climbing to the top of this building, and for that matter, why was she in this city? Scaling a building in the dark implies not wanting to be seen, and maybe even underhanded motives. What did she and Mishka hope to gain?
There were other questions, other missing layers of detail. I needed to go back and clue readers in to what was in my head.
In the process the beginning almost doubled in size. It’s richer and fuller now, closer to what I want–but it’s still a first draft. If someday in the far, distant future I revise this, I’m sure I’ll see ways to make this better.
And at the end of this section I introduce Prince Rory Alexander, and more of what’s at stake. The story also begins to get creepy at that point.
Hey, this is me. What did you expect?
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Scrambling over rooftops wasn’t new, but the rounded tiles glistened with fresh rain, slippery and treacherous. Arlandria took her time climbing, using every trick she’d learned over the last three years. Mishka struggled to find his footing right behind her. He swore each time either of them slipped, the curses he called down on Prelate Manley’s head growing more colorful as the ground got farther away.
“Save your breath for climbing, Mish.” She found a stable handhold and hauled herself up another few inches. “You can curse the prelate later.”
They reached the roof’s peak and she leaned against the largest of five chimneys to catch her breath. The Sea Trader’s Hall was the tallest building in the city, the view unobstructed in all directions. From here they could map the boundaries of all the different districts, see which had spread, and which had gotten smaller. Getting their bearings before going after Rory would help them plan escape routes, and avoid being trapped.
Cold wind whipped Arlandria’s dark cloak around her ankles and worked its way under her clothing, a minor discomfort she chose to ignore. She wanted to savor her first glimpse of home. Three years was a very long time to be away.
The sleeping city of Talen sprawled before her, both deeply familiar and strange. Lapis blue lights still glittered along the harbor’s jagged edge, bright as the sea at midday. The tanner’s district was smaller then she remembered, but shone with the same faint golden shades of citrine. Emerald and jade lights burned for merchants’ shops and the homes of guild masters; amethyst for taverns. Each district gleamed with a unique color all its own, a piece of the founders’ craft that had endured more than a thousand years. Talen was the jewel city in truth as well as legend.
At the center of the city, lights the deep red-orange of carnelian pulsed, a beating heart that pushed back against the night. The color was closer to blood red than she’d remembered, but her father’s murder was likely responsible for the change. He hadn’t passed his kingdom to an heir. She wasn’t even sure the prelate’s soldiers had bothered to bury him before burning the manor.
Surrounding the bright carnelian was a void, a ring of nothingness that held no color at all. Watching how the darkness drank light made her shiver.
“I expected more changes. This is one time I’m glad to be wrong. Maybe the prelate isn’t as powerful as we thought.” Arlandria gripped the pommel of the short sword at her side. The blade woke, whispering Rory’s name and promises of revenge. “Rory’s down there, Mishka, somewhere on the other side of that dark circle. And he’s still alive if the sword can be believed.”
“Believing the ravings of a fae blade will get you killed, Highness.” He stood behind and to one side of her, tall and strong, watching Arlandria’s back as he had since they were children. “One day you’ll listen to me and toss that cursed thing into the ocean.”
Mishka had arrived in her father’s court the year they both turned seven, a scrawny, frightened orphan sent to be fostered by strangers. She’d become his friend and his champion within a day. Arlandria defended Mishka against anyone who’d mocked his accent or his clothes, not caring if those she fought were older or stronger. Her father hadn’t interfered unless blood was spilled.
“And one day you’ll learn the difference between curses and fate. Finding the blade was fate. That it talks to me is all the proof I need.” The sword purred under her hand, a cat who loved being stroked. “I need to talk to Callie when we get back to the inn. She might know what that dark ring means.”
He scowled. “It bothers me that we haven’t heard anything about this. The lights going out in a section of Talen is worthy of dozens of rumors.”
“That worries me too.” People should be talking, if not inside the city, then visitors who’d come and gone. Changes to a legend didn’t go unremarked. She pulled her cloak tighter. “There used to be a market full of weavers and booksellers’ stalls just inside the prelate’s district. We’ll find our way there after breakfast. Three more shoppers won’t attract attention. I want to see what the dark area hides.”
Mishka edged his way over to a smaller chimney a few feet to the right. He pushed against it, straining his muscles and putting all his weight on the mortared stone. When the stonework proved sound, he unhooked the coil of rope attached to his belt and looped it around the chimney three times before tying it off. The balance of the rope snaked down the roof tiles, and dangled off the edge, giving them an easy drop into the alley. “Nothing good. Definitely not anything I’d want to confront unprepared and at night. I must admit to a certain relief that you don’t want to charge in immediately.”
“Fate doesn’t make you stupid, Mish. If anything it makes you more careful. With Callie’s help we’ll find a way in, but first we need to know what we’re facing.” She tugged her leather gloves up tight before waving him toward the rope. “You first. If we fall I want something soft to land on.”
Prince Rory Alexander woke choking on panic and unable to breathe. Chains tethering him to the wall pulled him up short as he came up off the wooden pallet, the sharp pain in his shoulders and arms waking him completely. He flopped on the edge of what passed for a bed, panting and watching blood from reopened wounds on his manacled wrist flow down his hand, and wondered if he’d finally gone mad.
The whispers filling his cell lasted longer this time, words twisting around each other. He heard his name spoken in a harsh voice he didn’t recognize, a voice that uttered vows for vengeance against those who’d made him suffer, and made Rory’s heart pound in terror.
And this time he imagined hearing Arlandria’s voice amidst the tangled whispers. She was coming to find him, making plans with Mishka to take him out of this filthy cell and away from Prelate Manley’s tender ministrations and periodic rages.
That more than anything convinced Rory he’d lost his mind. Arlandria was dead and Mishka with her. He’d seen their bodies.
A deeper cold filled the cell, followed by the shuffling sound of something moving across rough stone floors in the corridor. Rory managed to pull the blanket around himself in time and lay down with his face toward the wall. Manley’s creature, a misshapen thing that might once have been a man, slid open the grate near the top of the door, peering at him through the metal mesh.
The grate closed and the creature moved away, but Rory didn’t dare move even after the room warmed again. He couldn’t risk attracting attention in the dark.