Getting the Start Right: Writing Excuses Exercise 10.16

Posted: April 28, 2015 in writing exercises
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bookdesign345Writing Excuses 10.16 was, as is often the case, a really good episode. Talking about the importance of the first few lines of a book in drawing readers in, they provided the usual mix of top advice and interesting points to consider. If you’re not a regular listener (which if you write you should be) I particularly recommend this one.

This week’s exercise was:

Write your first thirteen lines, and see how much you can fit into that space—character attitude, point-of-view, mood, genre, conflict, setting, and more.

In keeping with the advice from the show, I’ve taken one of the beginnings I wrote two exercises ago and adapted that. Based on useful feedback in the comments from Ben and Sheila, I’m using my third beginning, which gets quickly into the characters and plot. You can look at the previous exercise to see the original version. Now for the new one…

My New Beginning

Night was falling as the hot air balloon crossed the Prussian siege lines and reached the walls of the Red Castle. Two teenagers in livery gawped at the steam motor as they took the ropes from Dirk Dynamo and secured the balloon to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt down onto the stonework and assessed his surroundings by the light of burning torches. One hand lay on his holster, ready for whatever trap Isabelle had prepared.

Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled excitedly out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.

An elderly servant in a tailcoat held out a gloved hand. He said something in German.

“You catch that?” Dirk asked.

“Sorry what?” Blaze-Simms looked up from peering at a gargoyle.

“Ah, you are British?” The butler’s expression didn’t change as he shifted into English.

“He is.” He pointed at Blaze-Simms. “I’m American.”

“Oh.” Was it possible for a man’s face to fall without moving a muscle? If it was, then the butler managed it. “May I have your card please?”

What I’ve Done

So what did I do there to try to add extra leads into this story, which will be the fourth in my Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware?

The most obvious thing is in the first line. A big part of the plot and atmosphere of this book revolves around the castle being besieged by a Prussian army. I’ve added that in the very first line, and in future revisions I might also use that to tease out hints at Dirk’s military background.

I’ve added a motor to the balloon to hint at the steampunk genre that’s part of these books – together with the already present rattling gears and gadgets, I hope that sets the right tone.

Speaking of tone, I’ve tried to build up the action and suspense side of both the story and Dirk’s character through the way he behaves coming off the balloon. He’s not just looking, he’s assessing for danger. His hand is on his gun. This is an action hero expecting trouble.

The same lines let me introduce the conflict with Isabelle McNair, who Dirk was previously working with. The story’s other main plotline, and the main one for character development, is there straight away.

Some of the character attitudes and setting were already present. The servant’s formality and disdain for Americans, which creates instant conflict with Dirk. The castle setting. Dirk leading the way as Blaze-Simms bumbles along behind him. I’m pleased with what I’ve added. In some ways I’d like to get more in there, but I was concerned about things getting bogged down. I’ve even trimmed down some of the prose to avoid that.

What do you think? How does this work as an opening? And if you’ve read the previous version, is it an improvement or have I just made a mess – these things do happen. Leave a comment, let me know, and if you’ve done this exercise then please share how you got on.

Oh, and if you like the look of these characters then the first in the series, Guns and Guano, is free from most places you can get ebooks, including

  1. Sheila Thomas says:

    I like it. I think it sets the scene well at the same time as saying a lot succinctly about the two balloon-riding protagonists.

  2. glenatron says:

    I think it is better than any of the ones you posted last time. You’ve succinctly got to the start told us where we are and what is going on. The opening line sets up a set of interesting questions and those that follow it carry them forward.

    Now if I was being super picky, or if I was to offer an idea which I find helps create atmosphere, I might suggest that you appeal to another sense here. For example I have noticed that if you are opening a scene and you include a scent, a temperature, a texture – just something that draws the reader’s other senses into the scene.

    In this scene you have the pine scent of the forest, cooking fires from the army ( or maybe cordite if they are taking pot shots ) or air that smells surprisingly clean in spite of the army below. You have the cool of the evening sun or the last heat in the rough castle walls as they climb out, the wickerwork of the basket under Dirk’s hands, the steam and smoke of the engine and burner and the heat they give off – maybe the liveried grooms respond to this – the rock and judder of the basket as it lands. There’s a world of sensation going on and by drawing in a brief mention of it, you can immerse the reader in a way that no purely visual experience ever could.

    • That’s a really good idea about playing on other senses – it can be a very evocative technique. I’ll once again be coming back to your comments when I revise this again.

  3. Steve Hartline says:

    I loved the prologue in G&G, and this one tops that. Had I not known nor read G&G, I would immediately have been drawn in (and I have gone on record as stating Steampunk is not my top genre, but I do enjoy what you have created). As I have read the previous, this sentence “One hand lay on his holster, ready for whatever trap Isabelle had prepared.” HAS ME LOOKING FOR THE ‘BUY IT NOW’ LINK. What have you done Andrew? I want to know – well done!

    • Thanks Steve! All being well, book two will be available by the end of the week, so while you’ll have to wait a few months to find out what’s going on at this castle, there will be more to read soon.

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