I get up on a soapbox about many writing realities, among them the following:
1.) Make sure that stepping back to assess is part of your writing process – that you’re not just writing forward blindly. If you can use a professional to help you with this step (a coach, an editor, a writing class, a writing group with a solid critique process in place) all the better.
2.) Don’t be afraid to throw out work that isn’t working. Holding onto pages just because you wrote them doesn’t serve your story or your reader. It just makes it harder later to let go.
3.) Make sure that you are inviting the reader into the work by showing, not telling, and by letting the story unfold on the page. We want to BE there, not just hear about what it was like. (**For my take on how this applies to non-fiction, see below.)
I thought I would take a moment to show you what it looks like to put those Big Ideas into practice.
Over the last two weeks, I have been assessing the pages of the novel that I began working on in Lisa Cron’s Story Genius book. I used the feedback I got from my agent about what was working and what wasn’t working (which was not specific to the start of the story – it was about the way the protagonist was coming across to the reader in general), and I made the decision that I was not starting in the right place.
I was coming into the story a little too late. In my zeal to start at the very moment the wolf was at the door for my protagonist, I left a lot of the story off the page – including the chance to have my protagonist’s beloved actually make an appearance in the story (rather than be dead through the whole thing.) Too much of the opening was told in backstory – and I saw that if I backed up a little bit and actually told it in real time, I could go a long way towards showing more of my character’s relationship to the man she is about to lose.
Not too long ago, I used those opening pages to teach a lesson in the Story Genius workshop on weaving in flashbacks. I think it was a good lesson and I think I did a very lesson. If you studied those pages for that purpose, fear not! Everything still holds. In fact, everything about those original opening pages is still good. It just wasn’t good enough. It was a draft that has now been supplanted…
So here’s what I did to move forward:
· I opened a blank document. I wanted to give myself the experience of starting at zero and not worrying about “saving” anything I had already done.
· I closed my eyes and pictured a scene – an actual moment in a singular time and place when something was happening that was directly related to my protagonists’ struggle so the reader could FEEL her struggle.
· I assessed my idea and decided it was viable according to some key criteria: it would still be a moment with a lot at stake, a lot of forward momentum, and a lot to show the reader. It would still be tied directly to the spine of my story.
· I brought the characters onstage – onto the page – introduced the conflict (both large and small) and wrote until that conflict (the small one, the scene-specific one) was resolved, which is the end of the scene.
· I wrote the opening lines of the next scene that would happen as a result of what had happened in the first. If there’s not a cause-and-effect trajectory driving from the start to the end, your story will fall flat. My goal here was to make sure that what I was writing would drive towards the scenes I had already written. I had taken these scenes out of play but they were still THERE in my mind, lurking, waiting, hoping…. And I believe PARTS of them will still work. Not all of them – not by a long shot. But a chunk of them. I will have to do some massive rewriting (taking out the flashbacks that now happen in story present, for one thing) but that’s okay.
· I used “TKs” (to come) to stand in for information I didn’t yet know.
· I assessed what I had written again, and decided I liked it better than where I had started before.
· I went back in and made sure the character’s reactions and motivations were on the page.
Some of you may recall seeing the original opening pages I shared here before. If you have not seen those and would like to look at them for comparison, you can check out the back-to-back posts HERE.
And HERE are the new opening pages – rough as can be – but alive in the world. For the moment anyway, they have risen above the original opening and are now the presumptive opening of my novel.
** Everything I say here applies to non-fiction just as strongly. I was working with a client recently on a book that is a prescriptive how-to for business executives. He showed me pages from a chapter where he had written a long recitation about his own life – from back in the day all the way through to the present. It was meant to show the reader that he understood their reality but it was flat and somewhat indulgent. We discussed a better way to begin, and he came up with a fabulous story that takes into account the cultural zeitgeist of this moment, and his readers’ reality, and his own place in it all. It was dazzling – 1000x better than the other opening. And he only got there because he was willing to do what I just did with my own work, which is to put it on the chopping block.
So what about you? Where do you need to start over? Maybe it's not the beginning of your book. Maybe it’s just the beginning of a chapter. No matter where it is, follow these steps and just do it.