Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Those murderous first 20k words

Writers talk a lot about being blocked, getting over blocks, getting unstuck: the malaise has a lot of terms. And a lot of solutions. Just Google "writer's block" and settle in for a bunch of fun reading. But what if the block is more than just a block but is actually more of whole-thing a slog and you wouldn't call it writer's block, exactly?

Further, what if that slog-state happens every time you start a new book? Every. Single. Time.

Here's my fancy term for when that happens: the murderous first 20k. And if you're experiencing that, man, I feel ya.

If you've ever taken a workshop or read a book on story structure, you're familiar with that 20% mark. It's where the first major story-spanning conflict is introduced. I mean, inciting incidents happen before, but right at that 1/5 spot, your story approaches a cliff and should be ready to leap off into the great adventure it's about to become. It's a heady moment for both story and storyteller. If I know my characters and their mission at that point, the rest of the book is like a roller coaster: it just speeds along and takes my breath away and is so freaking fun.

But everything leading up to that point? Is hell. Figuring out who my characters are, what they want, what their mission is, what's making that mission impossible ... as an organic-style "pantser" type writer, I'm often figuring out those things as I go, which means a lot of rewriting and rethinking goes on in that first fifth of the story.

Here's the hardest truth I've learned about the first 20k: if I get to that cliff and am not excited about shoving my characters off it, the story premise probably isn't very good, and readers probably won't be very engaged. So I end up stopping at of stories right there.

In business, management types sometimes adopt a "fail fast" strategy, and I guess that's kind of what I'm advocating here. If the first 20% does not work, if every word to that point was a slog and none of it is coming together at that point, your story might just be a victim of those nasty, murderous first 20k.

1 comment:

  1. It's pure magic when you hit the take-your-breath-away-fun part of writing. Pure magic. Too bad we have to get through the blocks and first 20k to get there!