04 March 2007

Finding Where Foundling Really Starts and Ends

Foundling, the first book in D. M. Cornish’s Monster Blood Tattoo series, tracks young Rossamünd as he leaves the orphanage for his first job. This being Fantasyland, he gets lured and knocked off course, enticed into dangerous deeds, presented with rival mentors, and so on. And a good thing, too, since ordinary job orientations aren’t that exciting. Foundling is thus a novel about Rossamünd trying to figure out his place in the world.

A few years ago, I heard Newbery-winning Richard Peck intone (he didn’t seem to simply say anything) at an SCBWI conference that after completing a novel he always goes back to rewrite the first chapter. Later he told Publishers Weekly the same:

I'll take this first chapter, and without rereading it, I'll throw it away and write the chapter that goes at the beginning. Because the first chapter is the last chapter in disguise.
I’m not sure a total rewrite is necessary, but the first chapter of a novel definitely needs to set out the threads and themes of the story that follows. It should also be where life changes for the protagonist, and thus where the story really begins.

So what’s the first chapter of Foundling? “It Began with a Fight” shows Rossamünd and another boy at the orphanage sparring with sticks. Is that the last chapter in disguise? Does it lead into the rest of the book? In retrospect, can we glimpse the threads of the wafting through the air back there? I don’t think so.

Rossamünd never has to call on his stick-fighting capability during his journey, nor other combat skills. His nasty rival never reappears in the book (though I’m sure he’ll resurface later in the series). There’s no causal link between this scene and the plot that follows; despite the chapter’s title, it’s not where “It Began” at all. And this scene has no tie to the novel’s main theme of defining one’s place in the wide world.

Furthermore, by focusing so many pages on the fight scene, Cornish seems to have left himself less space to start his story. When Rossamünd does get his job offer, in chapter 3, it’s followed by several very hurried paragraphs describing action instead of dramatizing it (no dialogue at all on on pages 40-41). Yet those actions turn out to be most important for Rossamünd’s future, more than the fight.

I think the same elements could have been combined this way for a more successful launch:
1) Rossamünd learns that he’s been selected for a new job.
2) His jealous rival pummels him unfairly in the sparring match.
3) Rossamünd’s friends on the orphanage staff (introduced largely in chapter 2) cluster round to ensure that he can take the job.
4) He departs, still a little dazed, which leads into his first adventure.
A similar problem of story structure appears at the end, though of course I don’t want to give everything away. In vague terms, Rossamünd has ended up working for a monster fighter named Europe. (A lot of Cornish’s characters share names with things or places in our world.) On page 284 Rossamünd does something that annoys Europe--he knows it would annoy her, perhaps anger her dreadfully, yet he feels he has to do it. This is thus an important step in defining himself. But now he has to accept the consequences.

And what are those consequences? On page 290 Cornish shows us that Europe still wants Rossamünd to be her helper. Score one for standing up for your values! Unfortunately, the novel doesn’t end for 22 more pages, which show Rossamünd traveling to his original job assignment. That final chapter thus becomes an anticlimax, hanging around like a last bit of pie when you’re already reasonably full and the pie wasn’t stellar to begin with.

Again, with a little tweaking Cornish could have kept up the suspense he’d created to the end. Rossamünd could have left for his assignment still worrying about how Europe felt about him, fearing that he’d cut himself off from her respect forever. At the end of his journey, he receives a note from her [page 296]. Move that to the end of the novel, make that the first way she tells him that she still respects him, and the anticlimax would disappear. Then the whole novel, from very start to very end, would be about Rossamünd finding his place in the Half-Continent world.


Rebecca said...

I haven't read any MONSTER TATOO, yet find your analysis sharp but comforting -- it is always overwhelming to realize where your story falls short (or falls down). But your concise, so-very-doable-sounding suggestions remind me that sometimes the solution is much smaller than the problem.

Thanks -- I'm now reading your blog with interest.

Rebecca Stead
(Wendy Lamb Books, 6/07)

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment. When I have a problem with story structure, I always try to look for a way to solve it with what's already there, rather than to add something new. I think that approach would have worked for Foundling—if, that is, the author and editor saw the same weaknesses I did. It's a matter of emphasizing the right things at the right times.

Of course, it's so much harder to do this analysis with my own work!