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Mar 12, 2009

Begin As You Mean To Go On

In my previous post, I expressed concern about certain scenes in my book and several people provoked synaptic activity in my brain with their thoughtful questions. (Prodding with a stick also works.)

Essentially, whether the scene involves sex or abortion, is it necessary to the novel? Does the book fall apart without it?

The answer, for most of the scenes, is no.

The first book could survive without those scenes, which all occur in the storylines of supporting characters.

However, since I'm writing a series, I'm trying to follow the principle of Begin As You Mean To Go On.

Later in the series, my hero and heroine will have several steamy encounters. Later in the series, a character will be brutally and explicitly tortured. Later in the series, there will be war, famine, rape and genocide. Later in the series there are also some foreys into weird literary techniques like second-person scenes. (These are few in number; please don't run). And philosophy. Not much. Hidden, hopefully. But shoved in there, nonetheless.

Those things are intregal to the plot. It's also integral to the plot that none of these things happen to the heroine in Book One. Not yet. She's only fourteen/fifteen, and although in her society that's quite old enough to marry and have babies, I arranged matters so she waits. Call me squeemish, call me a prude. I didn't want to go there.

Here's the thing. I don't want some hapless reader to coast through a gentle read about an innocent fourteen year old girl who plays with pixies, thiink, "Aw, how sweet," crack open a sequel and squeal, "WTF...? Where did all this sex, violence and lame-ass philosophy come from?"

Begin as you mean to go on.

With this principle in mind, I deliberately made a pair of secondary characters older and sexier, er, I mean, more mature, so I could show the physical side of their relationship, squeem-free. And also have someone to torture. And fight the hero in ridiculous over-the-top neolithic battles. Also, when my first draft of the book was entirely populated by twelve to fourteen year-olds, it was just annoying. (Ducks missiles propelled by irate YA authors). Wait! Let me finish! It was annoying because beta readers kept asking, "So this is YA, right?" And it's not.

Now, I still might delete the scenes I was concerned about. But only if I am convinced the tone of the rest of the book convincingly warns readers, "Here Be Monsters."  (One beta reader, after only reading Chapter One, did call Dindi's world "brutal", which was a such a nice thing to say, so maybe.)

I'm interested if anyone else is working on a series and if this is an issue for you.


Sara Raasch said...

I'm trying to write a series now (whether or not that series wants to be written is the question). But yes, I am definitely finding the "begin as you mean to go on" thing an issue. The first book was relatively tame -- no real bloodshed/death/darkness. The second book, well, the intended storyline will be extremely darker. But it's also from a different character's POV, and this different character is considerably darker than the MC in the first book. So, it may work, or it may just continue to be annoyingly allusive in my head and never let me write it. We'll see.

Scott said...

What about a very brief flashback regarding the sex scenes rather than an in-depth three page long explanation?

My personal philosophy - if the character can think 'dang, last night was fantastic . . . i never thought about doing it that way before' while having their morning Starbucks - then I use that format. I mean, sometimes, after great 'you know what' those thoughts remain for days on end, and a person . . . .er, character . . . keeps thinking about it.

Then again, this is my personal style and not yours. In the end, we write how we want to write, even though we listen to the suggestions of our beta readers. There are times, been there and done that, when we ignore the suggestions because we (as the writer) 'know' what we want to say . . . whether with an explicit sex scene or with a brief flashback the next day. Sometimes, less is more, and other times, more is definitely what is needed.

Go with your instinct, Tara! I learned long ago to go with my instinct and it rarely - okay, there was that one time - leads me astray (wait, there was also that night . . .).


Tara Maya said...

Sara, within limits, I think you can escalate. Yes, begin as you mean to go on, but hint and foreshadow at the start, to warn readers -- this is coming! Then get darker as you go.

Harry Potter did this wonderfully. As Harry matures, the kinds of problems he confronts deepen and darken, until he actually faces the three worst curses, tyranny, torture and death. But we were warned right from book one about these curses, so it doesn't come out of nowhere. And although book 7 is much darker than book 1, the themes and tone are consistent.

You may be able to do something similar with your SIP.

I also know what you mean about a "whether a series wants to be written." It's funny, I was just commenting on this on your blog before I saw your comment here. :) Sometimes, I have a great idea but I don't feel ready, somehow, to write it yet. Something is missing.

Tara Maya said...


I think it is a matter of what story questions have been raised. In a literary story (your genre, I understand), even if there are characters who are attracted or in love with one another, this is seldom the end-all of the story, and often not even one of the story questions.

By story question, I mean a major source of tension and conflict. Suppose you were writing a mystery. If you revealed the murderer by skipping the confrontation itself and having the detective thinking, over coffee the next morning, "Wow, who would have suspected the butler did it." The same can be true for sex.

I agree, there's nothing worse than simply inserting a generic Sex Scene into a book which has NOT raised sexual tension as a source of story conflict. If it comes out of nowhere it seems exactly like what it is, exploitive and crass.

A genre Romance, on the other hand, is ALL about the sexual and romantic tension. A good romance will escalate sexual tension throughout the book, and readers will fling that book across the room if you try to cheat them of the final consummation.

My genre is epic fantasy, which can include sexual tension as a story element, but doesn't need to. My personal style is to include a lot of romantic and sexual tension. It's not the main story question, but it's an important subplot.

The Screaming Guppy said...

My first manuscript I wrote (part of a trilogy that's now on hold) begins with a young girl and her happy go lucky life. But, by three chapters in her life is already in chaos and things are getting difficult. The counter weight to her innocence is a hardened warrior from a race of violent people. So...I guess I do begin as I mean to go on, as the entire book isn't mild. Oh wait...nevermind! This book starts with a prologue where a pregnant mother falls of a cliff and has to cut her childern out of her stomach so they survive. :o

I'm likely a bad person to answer this now that I think about it more. Haha! My writing tends to be very dark on the whole. I've never found myself strandling the YA line, and doubt I ever will.

I think you might want to at least hint at this kinds of things if you opt not to go into deep detial. I agree that it might be bad if the series takes a drastic turn in the second book. I'd imagine Dindi's world isn't changing much, just that she is growing up - a challenge, for sure, to demonstrate this.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I don't do series, so but I think this can hold true in any novel. Don't start with something that tricks your reader into thinking the book is something it's not. Or the series, in your case.

Tara Maya said...

"Oh wait...nevermind! This book starts with a prologue where a pregnant mother falls of a cliff and has to cut her childern out of her stomach so they survive. :o"

Oh, yeah, THAT! LOL. That might be just a little clue of dire things ahead. :)

Tara Maya said...

Lady Glamis,

I think it actually applies to branding in general. Fans of Nora Roberts wouldn't expect a book to include murders...which is why, when she decided to write romantic suspense, she wrote under a new pen name, J.D. Robb.

It's a different, but related, issue.

Within one novel, yes, the first chapter should already raise story questions which telegraph to the reader what kind of answers the book will provide.

scott g.f.bailey said...

Lady Glamis more elegantly expressed what I'm about to say, but I'll say it anyway because I'm a writer so I like the sound of my own voice.

Don't sugar-coat it: that's my advice. I'm re-reading Kipling's Jungle Book, and am surprised at how casually violent it is. I didn't remember from my childhood reading of it that every story involves someone killing someone else. It's just the Way Things Are in Kipling's jungle, and either you accept it as a reader or you don't. So you should just present the world as it is. The first chapter of my novel has childbirth, eel fishing, children beating on each other over race/religious differences, children playing together along a river bank, opportunity and starvation, acts of kindness and acts of brutality right bang up against each other because that's the way of the world in which the characters live. The casual violence of the world doesn't escalate so much as it's ever-present alongside sweetness and love. So, like, as you say, begin as you mean to go on.

Tara Maya said...

"Don't sugar-coat it" is a useful way to put it.

Mary Lindsey / Marissa Clarke said...

Go, Tara, go! Be mean. crack the whip! You can't come out of nowhere when the s**t hits the fan. Give those readers a heads up--not to what's coming but to what might come. Bambi can't morph in to Silence of the Lambs without a few crumbs along the way.

Tara Maya said...

"Bambi can't morph in to Silence of the Lambs without a few crumbs along the way."


Kate Karyus Quinn said...

I am writing a series (I think) but I torture my character pretty thoroughly throughout the first book, that my only real problem will be how to escalate it in the next ones.

I think you can get progressively darker though - the best example of this would be Harry Potter. As the books go on and he gets older things get progressively much heavier and darker.

Tara Maya said...

Kate, how to raise stakes if you've already put a lot of chips in the pot with Book 1 is another big problem!

The Screaming Guppy said...

Bambi can't morph in to Silence of the Lambs without a few crumbs along the way.

Hahahahahhhahaha!!!! xD

That is so awesome.

Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

I think there's a amount of concern in any writing about saying more than you really have to say.
I'm working on a *gulp* trilogy right now, and a beta reader gave me some advice on an early chapter that I think will help you: "Does the reader really need to know this now or later. If no, cut it. If yes, kudos for prepping it well in advance." Your scenes sound, to me at least, kind of like that.

Anonymous said...

I had a similar issue with the first draft of my novel, so I understand the dilemma. I'd have beta readers get into the beginning, then do a complete turnaround at the middle. I'd get comments like, "I didn't think it'd be this dark." Other readers wouldn't care for the beginning as much, but would reach the middle and be delighted. I took that feedback and rewrote the opening to be edgier and darker. I made it hint at things to come.

So I agree that you shouldn't make your first book sweetness and fluff if you plan to be much darker or explicit later in the series. But it's also fine to leave certain things out until later, as long as your tone remains consistent. I've read lots of series where sex doesn't become a part of the stories until five or six books into the series.

Rick Daley said...

"I'll say it anyway because I'm a writer so I like the sound of my own voice."

I so resemble that statement.

I'm working on a series. I plotted out books 2 and 3, but I haven't started writing them yet. I think that by the time I get an agent and editor and get Book 1 published, there may be changes to the story, and I don't want to paint myself into a corner.

My premise involves past lives, and I have a platform where each book tells the story of several characters past and present lives, but you don't always know which past life relates to which present life until the end.

Also, because it deals with multiple lives for each soul, I get away with repeatedly killing off my main characters in new and inventive ways.

Tara Maya said...


"I get away with repeatedly killing off my main characters in new and inventive ways."


It sounds like your SIP and mine have some things in common -- not premise or setting, but the intertwined stories of past and present. I'd be interested in knowing how you switch between showing the past lives and the present lives.