ID’ing the pattern

I’ve gotten a number of reviews of both Midnight Never Come and In Ashes Lie that say some variant on, “this takes a while to get going, but once it does, it’s pretty awesome.” (Or sometimes, “this takes forever to get going, and I gave up.”) I fully expect that as more reviews come in for A Star Shall Fall, I’ll get a few that say the same thing.

And I’ve finally figured out how to characterize it in my head: these books are arrangements of dominoes.

That is to say, the opening stages of each book are about lining up the stones, creating patterns that will — once set in motion — crash into each other in (hopefully) interesting ways. And the important part of this epiphany is, I’m not sure I could write these books any other way. Not so long as they are both (1) historical and (2) full of intrigue. I have to set the scene (in terms of both time and place), and I have to set up the political board (to steal from the metaphor I had Walsingham use in the first book). If I skip either of those steps, the dominoes will not fall as they should, because the reader will have no idea who these people are and why they’re doing what I just said they did.

So I don’t feel like this is a flaw, per se. Just a “mileage may vary” kind of thing. There are better and worse ways of doing the setup, and my success with it has probably been uneven; I’ll certainly be looking at the opening parts of this fourth book with an eye toward making the setup as engaging as it can be. But my feeling that the current scenes for both Dead Rick and Eliza kick them into a higher degree of motion than they were before? That’s just how these books go. The dominoes have begun to fall, and pretty soon the various lines I’ve laid out will begin to collide with one another, revealing the pattern of the whole. It’s like Lune’s Act III conversation with Tiresias in Midnight, or Vidar’s appearance at the end of Part II in Ashes, or [redacted on account of spoilers for Star].

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go knock down some more dominoes.

0 Responses to “ID’ing the pattern”

  1. green_knight

    I like your kind of book better than the ones that start with the protag in mortal danger (or their closest friends/whatever) because those books often have nowhere to go.

    However, for the people who find them slow, what about introducing a bridging conflict? A goal/mystery that’s enough to keep the reader’s attention until you get to the real point of the story?

  2. celestineangel

    It’s definitely a YMMV thing. Some people (like me) can enjoy and even love the setup because we recognize it for what it is, and love getting to know the characters and the setting. Some people want to jump directly into the action and figure it all out later.

    Personally, I can take either, as long as with the second one I do get caught up.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think at least part of it is trust. Unless I’ve been burned before, I trust the author that the importance of the pieces they’re showing me will become clear in time. “Straight into the action” more often leaves me without a reason to care.

  3. jimhines

    I did post a “It took me a little while to get up to speed” review for book two.

    That was definitely not the case with book three. Star grabbed me pretty much from page one and didn’t let go.

    I got similar reviews with Stepsister Scheme, actually. That’s one of the reasons I changed the way I started Red Hood. I figure if that many people comment on something, it’s at least worth taking a closer look.

    • Marie Brennan

      Ashes is probably the one that has the most trouble with that, and I suspect the reason is the size of the bite I was trying to chew. I could have used another year of studying the English Civil War before I tried to write that book, but, well, publishing deadlines. What can ya do?

      I didn’t find the beginning of Stepsister at all slow, but maybe I have more tolerance for that than most people. I kind of prefer getting to know my environment before things start zooming along, so long as the “getting to know” process is interesting in its own way.

  4. Anonymous

    It definitely took me a while took me a while to get into Midnight, and I think I may have put it down and picked it up a couple of times before I got through it. But I kept coming back to it because I had read your other work, and trusted you as an author, and because I also know that my attention span as a reader tends to ebb and flow. By the time I finished, I was definitely not disappointed. Ashes I read straight through, and fairly quickly, because at that point I was involved enough in the world that I was just happy to be back (if that makes sense).
    That being said, books that start with a lot of slow build up to a large “crash” at the end are a little hit and miss for me. Some I stick with, some I end up giving up on, and I haven’t yet figured out where the pattern to that is. But I have found that those kind of books, once finished, are some of the best ones to reread. When you already know where everything is going, you get to appreciate the “arranging of dominoes” in a different way.

    • Marie Brennan

      I’m reminded of Dorothy Dunnet’s The Disorderly Knights. The first half and the second half don’t seem to have much to do with one another, at first . . . then all the little pieces fall together and WHAM, you’re being punched in the face by the Fist Of Plot. Blows me away, every time.

  5. janni

    We totally need to arrange a reader swap. I tend to hear that my stories start too quickly. 🙂

    More seriously … I think this mostly falls under different readers having different reading protocols and preferences. No one book works for everyone, etc, etc.

    My suspicion is that while it’s good to pay attention to this stuff, one also has to be careful … because in trying to revise for some readers, there’s a danger of losing the readers who like what we’re already doing.

    A tricky balance, and one I’m still thinking about.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s true of all kinds of aspects, really. Any change you make in your writing might alienate readers who enjoyed what you were doing before — but failing to change is also a problem.

      • janni

        Oh, absolutely.

        I think the tricky thing is figuring out when a group of comments point up an issue to be looked at, and when they point up differences in reader preferences.

        Still working on that, myself.

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