Thursday, January 17, 2013

Skipping the Start: Non-Linear Editing

I keep hearing about how you need to 'wow' agents with your opening pages. For the purpose of this blog post (and getting published), I am going to set aside my basic mistrust of people who use the word 'wow' as a verb, because such people are often very smart and have good advice.

And on this, I agree. As a reader, the first few pages have to wow me. I have been known to put books down because I hated the opening line. I can only imagine how much more this applies to agents, who are reading for work and have demands on their time.

A few days ago, I opened up the novel I'm editing, and said to myself 'Right.' (all of my internal talkings-to begin with the word 'right', said emphatically in my very Irish accent). 'It is time to edit this thing. Start at the beginning.'

I couldn't get going. The pressure of rewriting the first few pages with added wow was paralysing.

My current opening line is 'Claire was lost in a world of press releases when the text message came in.' Not much, when you stack it up against 'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they executed the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York,' or 'Marley was dead to begin with,' or 'What do you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died?' or 'Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.'

Text messages and press releases. Welcome to the 21st century :)

I kept staring at the first line. I needed wow factor. I needed top-notch prose. I needed to stop staring at the screen and do something.

So rather than deal with the internal pressure to make this brilliant right away, I decided not to edit in a linear way. I've made a list of what needs to be done, and I'm going to start by tackling the major changes, and then move on to line-editing what's left. I hope that the major plot and character changes will naturally suggest a new, stronger opening, but if not, I'll be in a better place to edit the opening when I know what shape the finished book has taken.

How do you guys edit? Any tips for creating kick-ass openings?




10 comments:

  1. I hear ya, oh, but I hear ya. I'm in the process now of writing the first chapter for my third novella. I tend to write what works at the moment, then return to it after I've picked up a bit of speed. I don't think one should expect to sit down and produce WOW without some revisiting and editing. At least, I can't.

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    1. I agree, I find that the wow factor definitely comes with editing - sometimes there's great stuff in a first draft but it takes a good edit to make it really strong, I find.

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  2. First lines are SO MUCH PRESSURE. I have a hard time starting a first draft if I am not excited about the first line. I have been known to craft whole stories around first lines that come to me and make me gleeful.

    But, deadlines don't always let you do this. I only have two techniques for digging out a first line I can live with when forced to produce:
    (1)Just write the opening scene... and then grab the first internal musing that shows some kind of internal conflict and move that sucker to line 1.
    (2)Let my inner sarcastic biotch loose and free-write a few paragraphs in the character's mindset. There's usually some nuggets in there that can be crafted into something I can stand. (but I've been told my voice is strongly irreverent... so YMMV)

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    1. Amalie, I love your techniques! I will keep them in mind, thanks so much for sharing them :) That first suggestion seems like it may work for this novel!

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  3. I have a problem with first lines of blog posts. Not of novels. When it comes to novels, I have a problem with writing the middle. But when it comes to first lines, I just think of something ridiculous and then use it or change it into something less ridiculous. Usually it works. (It's funny that Bright Young Things, which I read last night, mentions a similar technique for coming up with explanations for a mysterious situation.)

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    1. I like that idea! Every year on the Nano forums there is a thread where people post ideas for first lines. Some of the very ridiculous ones ('Katie couldn't believe she had to take the rhinoceres out of the toaster while dressed in her wedding dress and covered in muffin batter. Again.') make you smile but it's hard to imagine them working, so I like your idea of toning them down a bit. Starting with something really dramatic or ridiculous or funny can really help to get your brain working, though.

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  4. I like your first line. It tells me a lot about the character. How you follow up that line in the first paragraph would be more a determining factor in whether I read the next paragraph/page/chapter. But, I'm a reader and of course you have to get it past an editor for a reader to ponder if the first sentence depicted the overall character or plot concept.

    Your approach to editing sounds viable. Sometimes you just have to step outside the norm to move forward.

    ........dhole

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    1. I hope my approach works, Donna! If it doesn't, I can try something else - thankfully I'm not on a deadline :)

      Glad you like the first sentence, but you make a very good point - no matter how solid the first line is, you need to follow it well or the reader will lose interest.

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  5. I hate writing the start of a book. I'm much more comfortable with endings.

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  6. I started mine with an earthquake. I'm thinking for the next one, I'll start out with a terrorist torturing an informer.

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