I’ve listened to agents, editors, teachers and friends advise, guide, support and suggest ways to approach and improve my novel. I’ve been down dirt paths, super highways, and regular old two-lane roads according to their direction. Although I have always written, the last five years have been an intensive, extensive developmental period. Let’s just say I’ve learned a lot.
Stephen King says in his book, On Writing, that sometimes one has to write with the door open and other times with the door closed. I keep expecting that the next phase will be with the door closed. My head spins with all the viewpoints, and especially challenging was the Author Salon approach, where one takes on up to five peers to review each other’s work in order for it to progress to a phase where Author Salon will present one’s work to selected agents and acquiring editors. This isn’t your usual circle of fellow authors critiquing your work. This is a detailed exhaustive step-by-step exploration of every single aspect of the story – plot, setting, conflict, story arc, characters, etc. etc., including having to find and compare similar genre and style work from published authors. It’s a very demanding process, but it’s helped. And made me crazy. For instance, one peer suggested I kill my antagonist in childbirth. Well, that made me scratch my head, since that would do away with a fairly important aspect of the story, and I would need to write a different story altogether. I didn’t kill that woman (the antagonist), although a few readers have also stated they wouldn’t mind if she were dead.
By Easter of this year I had placed the final period on The Cost of Weather. Pat Schneider once said, “When you can say, Yes, I got it, then you know that you are done.” At the time I thought that a bit misleading, since I’d had that thought many times over the course of several rewrites only to discover that I, in fact, had not ‘got it’. But at the end of March I had such a strong sense of an ending, I could say those words in good faith.
Until yesterday. I’ve heard so often that our stories often actually begin about half way through the story in the first draft, and that the first hundred or so pages serve to create backstory and write us in to the real story. I fought against that, sure that all I’d written was crucial. And of course, the writing was full of ‘darlings’. But somewhere last fall, I caved; recognized that it was true – all the pregnancy and birth scenes were backstory, and that the real story was the protagonist’s struggle to regain connection with his daughter. So off went their heads, those darlings. (I did, however, retain a few juicy scenes to drop in later as flashbacks.) And I began the story several years later – in the middle of his struggle.
Kim Moritsugu led a workshop on creating effective beginnings for the monthly meeting of the WCSC yesterday, followed by an hour of flash assessments of submitted first pages. She stressed that in an opening a character shouldn’t be alone thinking. My opening had a character alone thinking. The reason I had this person alone thinking is because I’d been advised to create a unique setting. Kim wasn’t impressed. Something needs to happen. Of course. That’s rule number one: begin in medias res; in the middle of things.
All the way home, I envisioned that first page, that darling, that lovely setting of mood; I envisioned it excised.
When I got home I opened an email from Carly Watters’ blog post: Top 4 Reasons Agents Pass Based On Your Sample Chapters. Reason # 3. “The book starts in the wrong place. 90% of slush pile manuscripts I see start in the wrong place. If you don’t know how to start your novel, or spend too much time setting up a scene instead of getting into one, you’ve already lost us. Get into the action. Make sure you flirt with how much information to give us and how much to hold back. Don’t overwrite the setting.Think: how can I make sure my reader starts on page 1 and never wants to set it down?”
This morning, I performed surgery, and the first four paragraphs are gone, and now there is an exchange between people, there is tension, conflict, and movement, AND a unique setting. Okay, so NOW it’s ready. Somebody, please take this thing out of my hands so I’ll stop playing with it. It’s done, I tell you.