Fantastic Beginnings: taking it slow, with Carol Berg

I have recently started reading Transformation, the first of the Book of Rai-kirah, by Carol Berg. I met the author on a panel about torturing your characters and recognized each other as kindred spirits. She’s actually the first person both my editor and I thought of to blurb Elisha Barber, but the bad and good news is that she’s been too busy with her own work. As a fan, I certainly don’t want to slow her down.

But it’s actually taking it slow that I wanted to talk about. From the first few pages of Transformation, I was already hooked, and now, as an author who’d like to learn from her, I’m trying to figure out what Carol has done to get me invested so quickly. As I’m considering her approach, I realized that one of the things she does is take it slow.

This seems counter-intuitive. The author wants to grab the reader as soon as possible, and it’s hard to even make it to the bookshelf through trad-publishing if you can’t excite the reader from page one. As a result, many authors bend over backwards to make something big, important and gripping happen in the opening line. This is one reason so many novels have prologues: you can use that big, impressive moment from the past or future, make it a vivid scene, then step back and introduce your world and protagonist at a slower pace. These prologues are often disguising flaws in the work. If the story you want to tell and the characters who will convey it are not interesting enough to be on page one, that might be a red flag.

So we find a way to start with action and conflict. There are other ways to hook. Some authors will go for a world-building hook, placing the coolness factor up front with a dragon, a beautiful landscape, a description of the cultivation of pipeweed. . . but still, one frets that it will be too slow for the modern reader.

Here, I’d like to digress for a moment to talk about rock climbing. As you may know, I also work as an adventure guide. When I’m working with new climbers, I often find them desperate to scrabble up the wall as fast as possible, flailing, hanging, missing better routes in the effort to get to the top. Sometimes, I quote them an old military mantra: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. Think about that. Absorb it. Because I’ve recently realized that the same can be true of writing.

The opening of Transformation is a first-person narrator being purchased at a slave market. We know almost nothing about this guy, except that he’s been a slave for 16 years, and was a warrior of a conquered people. That’s a nice set-up, sure, and the scene builds in some tension about the fact that the prince who buys him is capricious and without mercy, though the action here is pretty subtle and involves local politics and culture. What makes it work is that Berg is taking it slow, and making it smooth. It has a beautiful, organic movement. It builds the two protagonists and the world they occupy with deliberate care, like an expert climber on impossible rock, stringing together just the right moves for a thrilling ascent. Slow, smooth, and, in the speed with which she draws in the reader, startlingly fast as a result.

Rather than lunge quickly for a big, obvious hook, the reader is tantalized by this marvelous lure. Yes, I’m curious, show me more. As the chapters unfold, every tiny element of that careful first scene becomes freighted with meaning, and the apparently minor action of the opening leads to enormous consequences. Berg’s work is breathtaking.

Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. I’m reading this book nice and slow, hoping to grasp even an ounce of what it can teach me.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
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