Books!, Discussion, Signal Boost, Weekend Writer, Writing

Weekend Writer: Beginnings and Endings, or Chapter Three of Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer

Hey all, Dani here.

I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into by doing my Weekend Writer posts this way. For those first couple of chapters it was like 30-40 pages, so not that much material to cover. Well, hello chapter three, thank you for changing all of that for me. Yes, this chapter spans pages 73-132. It feels like I’m now assigning myself homework, but as it turns out I also kind of miss those good ol’ days in school, so I guess that’s all right.

When this post goes live, Damian and I will be running around the Ohio Renaissance Festival, watching shows, eating yummy food, and I’m “window shopping” options for my wedding dress. But later this evening, I might try to do a little bit of writing. We’ll see. I also have a stack of books I’d like to dive further into.

It would be really cool for all of us who want to write creatively (whether that is poetry, stories, novellas, novels, screenplays, RPGs, video games, whatever) to be able to help uplift and inspire each other, and keep ourselves motivated to strive for our dreams, so I decided to start this blog series here. This series will be a lot of me working through books on writing and creativity, maybe doing and sharing some writing exercises, and possibly doing some writing based discussion posts. It’s going to be an adventure for sure, and I hope it helps you as much as it is helping me.

Anyway, let’s get started with Beginnings and Endings.

Wonderbook

Summary

This all-new definitive guide to writing imaginative fiction takes a completely novel approach and fully exploits the visual nature of fantasy through original drawings, maps, renderings, and exercises to create a spectacularly beautiful and inspiring object. Employing an accessible, example-rich approach, Wonderbook energizes and motivates while also providing practical, nuts-and-bolts information needed to improve as a writer. Aimed at aspiring and intermediate-level writers, Wonderbook includes helpful sidebars and essays from some of the biggest names in fantasy today, such as George R. R. Martin, Lev Grossman, Neil Gaiman, Michael Moorcock, Catherynne M. Valente, and Karen Joy Fowler, to name a few.

Praise for Wonderbook: 

“Jammed with storytelling wisdom.” —Fast Company’s Co.Createblog

“This is the kind of book you leave sitting out for all to see . . . and the kind of book you will find yourself picking up again and again.” —Kirkus Reviews online

“If you’re looking for a handy guide to not just crafting imaginative fiction like sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, but to writing in general, be sure to pick up a copy of Steampunk Bibleauthor Jeff Vandermeer’s lovingly compiled Wonderbook.”  —Flavorwire

“Jeff Vandermeer and Jeremy Zerfoss have created a kaleidoscopically rich and beautiful book about fiction writing.”  —Star Tribune

“Because it is so layered and filled with text, tips, and links to online extras, this book can be read again and again by both those who want to learn the craft of writing and those interested in the process of others.” —Library Journal

Chapter Three: Beginnings and Endings

“How and where you start your story is critical to the reader’s reaction, the effects you can achieve, and how successfully you reach that vision in your head.” –pg 73

Honestly I think this chapter might be one of the most helpful ones for where I’m at with my geeky romance book. I’m somewhat stalled in the first couple of chapters, though I’m not without so many ideas for what can and will happen later. I’ve thought about how I can improve upon my beginning: whether I need to add in more information, whether the POV needs to change, whether I need a slightly different starting spot…and thankfully this chapter pretty much discusses exactly that.

The first main section of this chapter covers The Lure of the Hook. It pretty much explains that you need to have something happen at the beginning to draw the reader in. A hook acts like more than just a hook, though, because it is also a lure and an anchor. I don’t know that I needed the marine references, but I guess that they are pretty appropriate. Basically the beginning draws the reader in, sets up the basic plot and theme and flow of the novel, and then anchors you into whatever setting the story takes place in.

“A different issue arises when writing books in a series, a fairly common occurrence in science fiction and fantasy: How much information do you pack into the beginning chapters of book two and book three that readers of book one already know?” –pg 82

Okay, this is something I could possibly talk about in a future discussion post, but I know what my plan is for how to handle this in my future epic fantasy books. What I plan to do is have a page or two–probably in the back so I don’t mess with the digital book free previews–where I do a recap of what has happened previously in the series. That way if you need the refresher it’s there, but if not then you can ignore those pages. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, so leave a message in the comments.

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The next section in this chapter covers the Elements of a Good Beginning, so the things that are necessary to introduce or reveal in the beginning chapters: a main character or characters with a consistent POV, a conflict or problem, an antagonist, a hint of a secondary conflict, a sense of action or momentum, a general or specific setting, and a consistent tone and mood.

From there comes a series of questions that I find really helpful, but since those questions cover pages 83-87, there are too many for me to reproduce them in this post. All of the questions cover beginning elements, including a question section specific to fantasy and science fiction. All I can say is that I am very glad that Susan Dennard recommended this book, and I will suggest that everyone interested in creative writing picks up a copy. It is definitely worth it.

From there we talk about when it is okay not to commit with a beginning, what to do when the beginning needs to be unclear, or the story needs to be a lot of things or do a lot of things. For this, author Jeff Vandermeer recommends the book 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson as an example. The book is a mashup of so many different story and genre elements and the beginning stays unclear so as to not restrict the reader’s expectations to one plot/genre/idea over the others. So though the guidelines about clear focuses and goals are recommended, as with any writing “rule,” there is always room for exceptions.

What makes for a bad beginning? Again, remember that there are exceptions so some of these can be pulled off quite well. What usually doesn’t end up working with a beginning is flashbacks, dream sequences, dialogue, and following the viewpoint of a minor character. Flashbacks don’t work because the reader isn’t invested in the characters yet, dream sequences aren’t real so they generally reveal very little, starting with dialogue is problematic because we know nothing about who is speaking, and unless the minor character will be super important later we don’t need to specifically follow them at the beginning.

Okay, now here is where I’m definitely not going to be able to detail everything. From page 91 all the way through page 113, Jeff Vandermeer walks us through a demonstration of different beginning options by using his already published novel Finch. He includes a beginning, talks about what works, what’s missing, etc., and then presents an altered beginning to show the process of editing the beginning to make it stronger and more of an impact on the reader.

Without putting enough thought and effort into these decisions, the foundations of your novel will be flawed, and nothing you build on that foundation will be truly sound.” –pg 114

Oh look, we go from fishing metaphors to construction ones. But, fine, they work. We understand what they’re trying to say. We have to have a strong and sturdy beginning to get us through to the end of the story. It is crucial and essential. No wonder I panic and over-think my beginnings until I end up putting myself into a writer’s block again.

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Next up, very briefly, is middles. The notes I wrote are basically all right there in the photo I took, so honestly I’m not going to write them out again. But really, the middle gets you from the beginning to the end. Other than that, it seems like most middles vary depending on length of writing, genre, etc. Focusing on beginnings and endings seems like less complication.

Speaking of, the next section is endings.

“The truth is that it’s harder to talk about endings than beginnings, and most writing books do not delve too deeply into them.” –pg 119

Why is that, you might ask? Well, because endings are usually filled with spoilers, I guess. So it is difficult to be anything but vague with endings. But it’s okay to talk about what exactly the ending is, and the answer to that is: the climatic scene or scenes, the fall out of what comes after that climax, the epilogue or grace note of the story.

There are certain expectations and elements with endings too. In relation to beginnings, the endings return to the initial setting or character, it pushes past the boundaries of the opening to reveal more, it reveals the opening to be false, or it ends in a different place entirely but continues a similar feel or theme.

Also, apparently an ending can only do one of five different things: resolve the central questions while leaving the secondary ones open-ended, resolve all the questions, reinvent or recontextualize the question, infer or imply resolution, or be a deception or a trick ending.

“You do not need to explain everything; some questions left in a reader’s mind can germinate in entertaining ways.” –pg 123

Honestly this quote works just as well for chapter endings or part endings within a book as it does for an overall ending. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to set a book down and then I spend the next several hours (at work or running errands or whatever) thinking about the characters, the plot, and what could possibly be about to happen. It’s fun as a reader.

How does an ending become sub-par? This book offers up a few reasons. The author promises too much in the beginning, they promise the wrong thing or deliver the wrong thing, they can’t follow through, they rush the ending, they bend to reader or societal expectations, they deviate too much from the main arc, they deliver too much or too little. All in all, there are many ways to do an ending right or wrong, and I guess it’s all about studying the craft, actually writing, and then listening to feedback to make your story the best it can be.

Oh, and this chapter has two essays: The Beginning of “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman, which was a cool look at how the idea formed and how he started and restarted the story a few different times to get it just right and figure out what the story was really about, and The Challenges of Endings by Desirina Boskovich, where she goes over so many story endings (with spoilers) to talk about why they were good, or effective, etc.

All in all this was a huge chapter with a lot of information to it, but I feel like I’m ready to tackle the beginning of my geeky romance again, so maybe you’ll get a bit of writing from me in an upcoming Weekend Writer post.

Where to Get a Copy

If my thoughts on this third chapter have helped you out at all, you can try picking up a copy of the whole book from AmazonBarnes & NobleBooks-a-millionBook Depository, or your local independent bookstore.

You can also check with your local library.

Links to Other Wonderbook posts

Chapter One / Chapter Two / Chapter Four / Chapter Five / Chapter Six / Chapter Seven / Workshop Appendix and Additional Writing Exercises

11 thoughts on “Weekend Writer: Beginnings and Endings, or Chapter Three of Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer”

  1. I remember hearing in a writing class that, after you finish your first draft of your novel, one of the first things you should do is cut out your first chapter, as that chapter was probably more for your benefit then the readers. Meaning, many writers will make the mistake of using the first chapter to get a feel for their characters instead of introducing the main conflict, and they often would be better off turfing that chapter and starting the story at a more interesting place. This is a mistake I found I made in my own writing. The first chapter of the novel I wrote with a friend was kind of boring, as we thought we needed to spend a lot of time introducing the characters and establishing their relationships, so the action didn’t actually start until our second chapter. Not a great way to hook a reader 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have heard that advice as well. Finding the right balance of action and introduction/explanation can sometimes be problematic. But hey, sometimes those deleted chapters work great as bonus content after the book is out, so I save it all. Or sometimes there are sentences or exchanges that you can repurpose later in the story.

      Liked by 1 person

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