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.)

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From the Round File: Brave in Heart

It is a truth universally acknowledged that I always start writing books in the wrong place. I have yet to pen a manuscript and retain the first chapter through revision. I always add something or, more often, throw something out. Often, thousands of things. The delete keys speaks poniards, and every word stabs. (Quick, name that play!)

I’m currently writing the second entry in a series about DC staffers and, only about 20,000 words in, I’ve trashed the first half of the first chapter. I really liked what I cut. As an introduction to the heroine and her voice, it worked. There wasn’t a backstory dump, it wasn’t slow or boring: it introduced the dynamic for the book, but it did so in such a way as to undercut the relationship between the hero and the heroine. If there’s a sin in romance writing, that’s it. So into the round file (aka the trash) that opening scene went.

Since I can’t show that scene to you because I haven’t even shown it to my editor yet, I’m going to show you the unrevised, original first chapter of Brave in Heart instead. Needless to say, this isn’t how the finished product reads.

In this case, the cut occurred because nothing happens in this eight page-opening. In this earlier draft of the book, Margaret and Theo’s separation was much longer (brought on about a fight about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, rather than John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry of 1859). The prologue didn’t exist yet. There was just…this.

Now I like the image of Margaret on the top of the hill. And while much of this writing made it into the book (albeit in other forms), some of her backstory didn’t. As a writer, I needed to know these things about her and writing this was the only way to learn them.

What I’m trying to say is writing something you don’t ultimately use in a book isn’t falling down the rabbit hole, it’s process. It’s inevitable and futile and a little bit beautiful. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.

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The Blue Pencil

Historically, editors marked texts for revision with blue pencils. Hardscrabble publishing and journalist characters in nineteenth-century literature are often seen with those writing instruments tucked behind their ears or littering their desks. I once spent several long days in special collections at the Library of Congress reading the letters of an elderly writer written entirely in a large, scrawling hand in blue pencil.

Today, I think the words “red pen” conjure fear in the hearts of many — if we think of editing as happening on paper at all. But there’s something about the revision process that I actually like. It’s so wonderfully absorbing. So fabulously obtuse.

editing brave

At present, I’m working through a paper copy of Brave in Heart trying to finalize my changes. After this, there is only copyediting to go. So expect posting and Tweeting to be light this week. Lots of exciting teasers and posts are in the pipeline, however, and in a little less than two months, you’ll finally be able to read the book!

Now I’ve officially stressed myself out, back to my black pen…

Deep Thoughts

Dispatches from revising: why is it that “throw out your first chapter and weave the relevant information in elsewhere” is almost always good advice? Why are first drafts of first chapters fatally flawed nearly all the time?

The Stages of Hating Your Manuscript

I finished a radical revision of Together is Enough this week and I’m so very close to finishing Brave in Heart. So incredibly close. As a reward, I made the catastrophic mistake of picking up a book that shares both a genre and a setting with the former. It was a lovely book. Character-driven, tense but believable, politically progressive, compelling, and concise. Just terrific. After I finished, I said, “Damn it! I’ll never write anything as good as that!”

Those different processes — writing, editing, reading — are part of our lives as aspiring novelists. But they bring with them almost predictable attitudes towards our works in progress. I think it plays out something like this…

When you start drafting, you’re enthusiastic about your project. Out of all the ideas you have, this is one you’re writing now. So you naturally think it’s going to be awesome.

Then, you start writing and you hit the first plateau. It suddenly doesn’t seem so awesome anymore. If you’re like me, this happens at about 20,000 words.

After a lot of hemming and hawing, you push through and finish the manuscript. As you type those words, those lovely “the end” words, it is so gratifying. “Gosh darn, this project is awesome,” you think.

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Giving Away the Store

As I continue to work on revisions, one of the problems with Together is Enough — and there are many, oh so many problems — is that in the first 50 pages, I pass up entirely too many opportunities to build tension that’s internal and character-based. Instead, the text currently relies on external conflict.

The result is that there’s no suspense. He likes her, she likes him: so what’s the problem? It feels like I’m jerking the characters around rather than that they have a gulf to overcome.

I’ve been doing a lot of “killing my darlings” — eliminating pages of description and exposition, cutting scenes, moving things around, condensing — and while the product will actually be longer, it feels tighter.

Now, the hero and heroine don’t kiss in the third chapter and start dating in the fifth. That would deny too much potentiality.

Working from Areas of Strength

I’m currently working on revising Together is Enough. And as much as you try to fix problems during revision, you also have to work from areas of strength.

The middle of the manuscript is a mess. The hero doesn’t have a subplot (or flaws, really) and much of the middle of the book exists because I wasn’t ready to get the events in the last third. But rather than fixing lackluster scenes or expanding on minor characters that I don’t really like, the solution may be to take the things that I like about the first third of the book and expand on them.

Build more tension and drama into the first part of the book. Take it and turn it, in other words, into the first two-thirds rather than trying to fix what’s probably unfixable.

Contest Updates

It was a good news/not-so-good news kind of a day. First, Together is Enough placed second in the contemporary category of the 2012 Golden Claddagh. While I didn’t get a request for a full manuscript, I did get some very helpful feedback from an industry insider. I have some concerns about how likeable — or more specifically, how relatable — the heroine is. Also, the hero needs a better secondary story-line. Finally, the middle of the manuscript is a mess. (Not that the editor mentioned that, because she didn’t see the full thing; I just know it is.)

The not-so-good news is that I didn’t final in The Rebecca. I don’t have the commentary back yet, but I’m hopeful that there will be good notes. I’m not devastated or surprised in the least.

Overall, I feel very happy about both results. I’ve been writing fiction for about 10 months now. I have one project drafted and two substantially drafted. While I have a long way to go, there are things about my writing to which readers respond positively. I have so much to learn, but I feel good about my progress.

I’m not sure how to move forward, however. I still need to finish my two works in progress, but in terms of revision, I don’t know what to do next with Together is Enough. While there are identifiable problems with it (see above), I think the biggest issue may be that it’s too insider-y. Even if it was written perfectly, which it obviously isn’t, I don’t know if it has much commercial appeal. Whereas my current projects seem more universal. I need to think about it some more, but given the constraints on my fiction writing time, there may be other, better uses of my time.

In other news, I desperately need to find critique partners and I haven’t the slightest idea how to do so.

Word Count Check In

The novella has 20,053 words. It’s gotten to a very sad place and it distresses me. But I love my characters and I need them to achieve happily ever after.

I also started writing the novel of the sticky scene, and it has 3,301 words. And I absolutely love it. It’s such frisky fun and I’m resisting my normal impulse to get the hero/heroine together too quickly. I don’t think I can stand to break these two up, so it’s more of the will they/won’t they plot. We’ll see how it goes.

Plus, I finished my dissertation introduction and I worked on revisions on dissertation chapters and Together is Enough. It was a very successful writing week.


Word Count Check-In

My novella’s up to 14,231 words and I hope to write this evening. I only penned 5 dissertation pages this week, but I worked fairly extensively on revisions for Together is Enough, which I hadn’t planned for. I’m going to go ahead and call that a successful writing week.

Next week will be all about the dissertation, but I’d like to get the novella over 20,000 words.

I’ll get a full review up at some point in the future, but I wanted to draw the attention of my readers to Kimberly Truesdale’s new novel, My Dear Sophy, a beautifully realized prequel to Jane Austen’s Persuasion. I was fortunate enough to read an early draft and I can assure you that it’s delightful and squee-worthy. You should just go buy it now.

Happy writing!