Setting a Tone

I’ve just posted the first section and it’s a doozy. Read that first if you haven’t already, and let’s get discussing. In these commentaries I’ll talk about my writing process or just shout opinions at you. I’m not, like, a professional writer, but I’m having fun and I think I have something to contribute.

The first pages of a book are important. They set the tone for the whole piece and color the reader’s expectations for the rest of the book. To that end, the title of the section is made to grip the reader: Dan is Immolated in a Furnace. Who is Dan? Why is he being immolated in a furnace? Akayama DanJay is made to engage via curiosity. It is to be explored. The first section heading sets the stage for a dreamlike mystery.

In the first sentences Virgil Blue looks over an ocean and two small islands from his monastery on a larger island. Then he descends like a mist. Images of nature, especially mountains and clouds, will be repeated over and over again in different contexts throughout the book; we must start them early.

The characters discuss a cosmic journey with a matter-of-fact style which reinforces that surreal atmosphere and presents the reader with new names and concepts at a reasonable pace. There is not too much to absorb in one section, and it outlines our character’s goals and concerns.

I debated including the reference to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I hope it conveys the “strap in for the ride” attitude I’m going for, where anything can happen, but I’m worried that it’s a bit on-the-nose. Maybe it won’t be in the final draft. When I read this at Seance, my campus writing club, a friend said they wanted to bring up HGttG when I had finished reading, but I had preempted him by mentioning it in the piece itself. I hope it got a laugh out of you, because I sure giggled when I wrote it. That’s generally a good sign.

During exploratory writing the deity these monks apparently worship was named “Mala.” Changing the name to “the Mountain” reduces the complexity of the system I’m teaching to the reader. It also hammers in the images I’m going to bring back again and again in stranger and stranger contexts.

I’m quite proud of how the ending comes as a shock even though it’s spoiled by the title of the section. We know Dan is to be immolated in that furnace, but the speed with which it occurs and the lack of reactions from the characters can come as a sucker-punch. When I read this to Seance there was panicked laughing, which I thought was the perfect reaction. My favorite line is Virgil Blue’s “I have never been good at saying goodbye.” To know Dan is to be burned alive with little more fanfare makes me think “wait, really?” each time I read it. It seals the deal on the dream-like atmosphere—couldn’t this be the end of a nightmare?

I’ve rewritten the first sections to paint a better picture of the monastery. It is a setting we revisit before the end of the book, so I want to make sure readers remember it when they see it and differentiate it from the other monasteries I might show them. In a story involving time-travel and alternate universes, readers need landmarks by which they may orient themselves spatially. I’ve put the monastery on the largest of three islands; when readers see islands again, they’ll be on the lookout.

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