Each week, I’m doing the exercise from Writing Excuses’s excellent podcast writing course and sharing the results here. This week’s exercise was working on beginnings:
Start writing your story! Write 500 words, focusing on just one of the promises you’ve identified for your story. Then stop, and start writing another 500 words with a different promise. Aaaand then do it a third time.
For these exercises, I’m working on Sieges and Silverware, the fourth part of a steampunk series I’m working on. You can read the first volume as an ebook now, and read the exercise preceding this one here. Suffice to say, I’ve identified some cool things I want to include in my story, and this exercise is about setting up the promise that those things will happen. So, here are three beginnings, any of which I might eventually refine and use:
Promise 1: Blaze-Simms invents a bizarre steampunk defensive device.
Dirk Dynamo wouldn’t have minded so much if the hot air balloon were plummeting toward the ground. Sure, they were losing altitude fast, and there was no way this would be a pleasant landing. But at least if they were heading toward the ground he could see what was coming, get ready to roll clear or dive into something soft just before they crashed.
What bothered him was the trees. A vast swathe of dark German forest, broken by the occasional rocky outcrop. Sure, the leaves might soften the initial impact. But then the balloon would get impaled on branches, accelerating its descent. They’d be falling through twilight shadows and layers of concealing greenery onto no-one new what upward protruding spikes of wood or rock. Risking life and limb was fine, Dirk lived with that all the time. But he liked to know what he was getting into.
And if possible, he wanted to live through it.
“Any progress?” He glanced away from the approaching treetops and toward Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms, who was frantically disassembling and reassembling a mass of gears and gadgets in the corner of the basket. The Englishman looked a little too excited for a man facing imminent death, but then he always looked happy with a spanner in his hand.
“Almost there.” Blaze-Simms twisted a bolt and something glowed in the contraption in his hand.
There was a tearing sound and the balloon jolted as its ripped seam gave another few inches. Hot air hissed out onto the icy wind, and the treetops raced towards them.
“Almost ain’t gonna cut it.” Dirk grabbed a rope and braced for impact.
Leaping to his feet, Blaze-Simms slapped his device onto the side of the burner. He flicked a switch on its side. There was a whir, a rush of air that almost snatched Dirk’s coat off his back, and suddenly they were rising again.
“Great work, Tim.” Dirk struggled to be heard over the rush of air, but he was sure the grin on his face would convey the message.
Something was spinning on the top of Blaze-Simms’s device, while gears and levers rattled away around the glowing core.
“That will give us six more hours,” Blaze-Simms shouted over the artificial wind rushing past them and up into the balloon.
“Should be enough to get there,” Dirk shouted back.
There was another ripping sound and they stopped rising, though at least they weren’t heading back down into the trees.
Blaze-Simms looked up at the balloon, back down at his device, and then back up at the balloon again.
“Call it three hours,” he said. “Can we manage that?”
“Guess we’re gonna have to.”
Promise 2: A civilised dinner party in a building being bombarded by heavy artillery.
Dirk Dynamo had expected that they might face trouble. He and Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms were heading toward the castle of someone they didn’t know, and who was helping their opponents. That wasn’t the sort of circumstances where you got a warm welcome.
What he hadn’t expected was that the castle itself would be in trouble.
“I say, what a spectacular view!” Blaze-Simms looked up from his notebook to take in the ground beneath their balloon.
The forest below was a sea of green, broken by occasional jagged promontories. The tiled roofs of small German villages added variety to the scene, but their rustic charm was nothing compared with the view up ahead. Rising like a finger pointed toward heaven, the Red Castle rose in grandeur from the hilltop in front of them.
“I’d expected it to be more, well, red.” Dirk turned the propeller Blaze-Simms had attached to the balloon basket, steering their course more directly toward the hilltop fortress. It was a place that had clearly been laid down a layer at a time over the centuries. At its base were walls and towers of grim grey stone, flat and functional, a defensive measure that could once have withstood any kind of assault. Above and behind them, within the protective circle of walls and steep hillsides, were additions of brick and timber frame, mixed in with a more refined kind of stonework in which elaborate arches played a prominent part. And above them all rose a tower more magnificent and ambitious than anything that had come before, many times as tall as the old walls were wide, a fairy tale castle of pale stone reaching to a tiled peak.
“I’m sure there’s a history to the name.” Balze-Simms tapped a pencil against his notebook. “Something involving heraldry, or perhaps blood.”
“Speaking of blood.” Dirk pointed to the open ground in front of the castle. “What do you reckon that’s all about?”
As they grew closer, what had started as a meaningless muddle of human activity was turning into what could only be an army camp. Wagons emerging from the treeline showed that it was still growing, while men in blue uniforms set up tents and organised supplies. Artillery pieces were being arranged facing the castle walls, their aggressive intent clear. It took Dirk back to his own days fighting in a different blue. The memories weren’t all happy.
Blaze-Simms pulled what looked like a snuff box from his pocket, unfolded and extended it until he held a telescope. He peered through the lens toward the castle.
“I say, look at that.” He passed the telescope to Dirk. “She’s definitely here.”
Dirk closed one eye and looked through the telescope toward the point on the battlements where Blaze-Simms was pointing. Three women stood watching the movement below, champagne flutes in their hands.
Promise 3: Dirk and Isabelle reconciling their differences well enough to work together again.
Night was falling as the hot air balloon reached the walls of the Red Castle. An elderly servant in a tailcoat supervised two teenagers in livery as they helped with the landing. Taking the ropes Dirk Dynamo threw to them, they secured the balloon by tying it to the crenelations. Even before they had finished, Dirk leapt from the basket down onto the stonework and looked around in the light of burning torches. Behind him, Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms scrambled out of the basket, accompanied by the clatter of gears and gadgets rattling in his pockets.
The elderly servant stepped forward and 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, but Dirk thought there was slightly less of a formal edge to his voice.
“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?”
“Do I look like I’m carrying a card?” Dirk gestured toward the battered balloon, his filthy clothing, the bruises still fading from his face.
“I’m afraid I don’t know what passes for normal in America.” The butler managed to make the last word sound like a curse, and it made Dirk’s blood boil. With the least possible movement, the servant turned to face Blaze-Simms. “Sir, do you-“
“There’s no need for that.” Isabelle McNair stepped out of the shadows of the nearest tower. “I know these gentlemen.”
Dirk felt like someone had grabbed hold of his insides and stirred them around until nothing was in its place and everything was knotted with tension. He fought to take deep, long breaths, calming his hammering heart.
“Mrs McNair.” He couldn’t keep the edge from his voice. Everything about her reminded him of Paris, both the good and the bad. It was the bad that threatened to overwhelm him, and he pressed his anger down. “We’ve come a long way to talk with you.”
“And I look forward to talking with you,” she said. “Though I must confess, I barely know where to start.”
“Sorry would be nice.” Blaze-Simms looked absurd in indignation, his scowl so serious atop his incorrectly buttoned tailcoat. But at least he could express what Dirk couldn’t put into words. “After everything we went through, I think it’s the least we deserve.”
“If I were sorry, I would not have done it.” Isabelle took a step forward, her attention on Dirk. “But I hope that, with time, you might forgive me.”
“That don’t seem likely,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Of course not.” Isabelle smiled, though there was sadness in her eyes. She offered him her arm. “Shall we go inside?”
Dirk thrust his hands into his pockets and nodded toward the door.
“After you,” he said.
Reflecting on the Exercise
This was really fascinating. I enjoyed all three beginnings, and without the exercise would only have ever written one. It’s made me think about which promises are most important, and which help set the tone of the book best, as well as drawing readers into the characters.
If you’ve got any thoughts on which of these three is best, and why, then please let me know – I need to give this some serious thought.
And if you’ve done this exercise or something like it, please share you’re thoughts on it below – I’d be intrigued to hear how you got on.