A Tale of Five Opening Sentences

Until Party Lines (which will be out in January!), I had never written an opening chapter that remained in the final version of the manuscript–and I don’t mean that I made a few minor revisions to the writing. In every manuscript until Party Lines, I had dumped at least one chapter and significantly changed how I introduced the characters and the conflict. I previously shared with you the original opening chapter of Brave in Heart (compared to its actual opening chapter) and I could do the same for Special Interests as well as for my drawer novel.

In the case of Private Politics (which released yesterday! woo-hoo), I ran through five different openings. That’s right: five. There were three entirely different concepts and then, when I’d found the right one, I tweaked it until I got the first paragraph right. The reasons why the first four didn’t appear in the book varied. But let’s catalogue them!

(Warning: there are very minor spoilers for Special Interests in here. There are also references to the premise of Private Politics. If you’ve read the blurb, none of this will surprise you/ruin the book for you, but if you like to experience books without any information whatever about the premise, don’t read this post.)

This is the very first version:

Alyse Philips knew she was absolutely the worst person in the world. She knew it how she knew that gold leaf Chiavari chairs were ostentatious: instinct. As she stood in the Old Ebbitt Grill watching her best friend and roommate, Millie Frank, wilt under attention at a dinner celebrating her recent engagement, instinct told her that she was wicked.

In this draft of the opening chapter, we picked up a few weeks after the epilogue of Special Interests at Millie and Parker’s engagement party. The party was happening and Alyse was standing apart from the scene when Liam approached and attempted to flirt with her. It ended when she gently let him down.

While I liked this version of the chapter in a lot of ways, I decided I wanted to keep the question of whether Alyse knew about Liam’s feelings for later–I wanted it to feel like A Moment and it couldn’t do that when we didn’t know or care about the characters yet. I also didn’t want to start Private Politics with one of the characters turning the other one down; after all, I’d already done that with Special Interests. And finally, the chapter featured an awkward scene shift to her job where she discovered the scandal the book is centered on. This meant that we didn’t get Liam’s point of view until 20 pages into the book.

With that scraped, the second concept was to start at her job. In the timeline of the book, the engagement party still happened and there are references to it, but we don’t see it on the page. Instead, we started with the discovery of the scandal.

Here’s take two:

“I knew you’d have the right answer.”

There were few words on earth Alyse Philips liked better than those. She didn’t think enjoyment in hearing about one’s competence equated with awfulness — though okay, she’d had some doubts lately – because she was an expert on the subject of accessories. Truth couldn’t be flattery.

Alyse looked up to assure herself that her whispered conversation with Linda wasn’t ruining the staff meeting before she said, “Chartreuse is having a moment. That one for sure.”

This conversation takes place during a boring staff meeting and in a few more lines, Alyse will be assigned to help with the annual report setting the rest of the plot in motion. But I didn’t like starting with unattributed dialogue. There’s a lot of debate about whether you should start chapters (or books) with unattributed or orphaned dialogue (see here and here for example). I’m not going to pretend I have hard and fast rules about it; I’m certain I’ve done it before and will again, but I didn’t like it in in this case.

But the main reason I abandoned this version was that I decided to create a new character. As I was writing, I realized the scandal plot needed more tension. I sought out friends who had worked at nonprofits and asked them to explain the annual report process in more detail. One said, “The annual report is bad, but the annual audit is worse.” And this led to the creation of an auditor character, which ramped up the stakes considerably. (Also, boring staff meetings are bad enough in real life; who wants to read about them?)

Here’s take three:

Alyse Philips wanted men to surprise her, but they so rarely did. Sitting now in the cramped conference room at Young Women Read, Inc., the nonprofit where she worked, she could have used a man who was a little more, well, dazzled by her, but did she get one?

No.

Dazzled did not appear to be an emotion in the Fred Hammond playbook. The man probably hadn’t been so much as impressed since 2002 and really, who hadn’t felt a strong stirring of emotion in the face of Halle Berry’s Oscar dress?

Now we’re getting someplace. Halfway through writing the book, I had the concept of the first chapter down and the mechanism for introducing and propelling Alyse’s B plot. Well done, me.

Even with the concept nailed, however, I had to get the language right.

The opening paragraphs of books matter because they have to introduce situation and character. The language isn’t just conveying plot; it’s introducing the characters’ world views to the reader. We’re deciding whether we want to spend 200 pages in these people’s heads.

This third opening had a lot of ideas: Alyse looks at people in terms of what they can do for her; she wants to manipulate this guy; and she likes fashion. But I worried that she was coming off as too flaky when to my mind, Alyse is very smart and strategic. My vision of the character wasn’t translating here.

So the fourth version involved a few minor changes:

Alyse Philips didn’t as a rule like surprises—unless they involved Miu Miu, in which case she was all in. Sitting now in the cramped conference room at Young Women Read, Inc., the nonprofit where she worked, she could have used a man whose reaction to her was was a little more typical. A little more, well, dazzled. Did she get one?

While I liked the Prada reference, the surprises/dazzled thing wasn’t quite working. The first part of the paragraph didn’t seem to fit with the end. It felt jerky.

Finally, after months of writing and editing, came the version that’s in the book:

Smart, capable, and in awe of her: was that really too much to ask from the men in her life? Alyse Philips dragged perfectly-manicured nails through her blonde hair and flipped it over her shoulder. But did the accountant sitting across from her so much as acknowledge it? A practiced movement that had melted bartenders on three continents, received appreciative smiles from congressmen, and even caused her father to once issue a compliment—and Fred of all people was unmoved.

Here, we can see Alyse’s concept of herself and of the people she’s manipulating. It’s more clear (I hope) that she respects them, but also that she’s very aware of how she can tug on the strings. We get a sense of her background and her relationship with her family and a stronger sense of the immediate setting. This opening says, “Here’s who telling this story and this is what it will involve,” which the reader wants ASAP so she can decide if the book is for her.

If you want to read rest of the opening chapter, it’s here.

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2 thoughts on “A Tale of Five Opening Sentences

  1. Super interesting to see how the first chapter developed. I wasn’t sure how much I liked Alyse at first and the first paragraph was probably why. But I liked that I wasn’t sure I liked her, especially once I met Liam and loved him instantly. I’m not reading a whole bunch of historicals right now, but in the past that was almost all I read. And it’s often the exact opposite of this: the guy is wealthy, powerful, sure of himself, rakish. The girl is humble, impoverished (comparatively), powerless and insecure. I didn’t really realize it before, but part of the reason I liked Liam so much was the contrast with Alyse. Thanks for sharing the process!

    • I absolutely love the idea of inverting the power imbalance in historical. I’m ashamed I didn’t think of/intend it. ; )

      Alyse’s likability was the biggest “problem” for me while writing Private Politics, which wrote quickly and easily. I wanted her growth to be evident over the course of the book and so she needed to start at the bottom. But I was worried about her being “redeemed” by Liam. I didn’t want us to like her because he did, to think she must be pretty cool if he was into her, etc.

      I actually very much identify with her arc. I’m not a beautiful Manhattan princess, but I get the idea of reaching full adulthood and realizing that you’ve developed certain strategies for being in the world and those just aren’t working anymore or how painful it can be to see yourself and not necessarily like what’s there–which is, I think, what happens to her. But she’s so different from Millie, whose snarky inner monologue voice is more immediately appealing.

      The female characters in the series are substantially different. Michael (in book 3) is very similar to Parker (Liam is the odd man out), but Millie, Alyse, and Lydia are wildly different types of women. Not to give too much away, but Lydia’s sort of an alpha female. I’ll be curious to see what the reaction is to her.

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