I’m halfway through scene-by-scene revisions on my novel. (These are the big revisions; I’ll still have cutting and polishing after I’m done—it never ends).
Saturday morning, I reread the revised 140 pages and grew depressed because the first few pages were dull, dull, dull. It gets good—it gets REALLY good—but it takes a while. A cover letter claiming, “You’ll be glad you slogged through the beginning,” is not a winner.
I’ve had a terrible time with the beginning of this book since I started it. I’ve rewritten it repeatedly, read a dozen how-to-write manuals, took all their advice and wrote it again and again, creating seven boring beginnings instead of one.
Here’s the thing. My narrator, Max, has just missed the first week of grade nine because he was away at a funeral. He’s flying home, eager to get back to his friends, football, work, life. His first line—in the most recent revision that so depressed me—was “I’d never been on a plane before.”
Boring, no? And Max’s musings grew even more boring for three full paragraphs before they became slightly more interesting. The first genuinely funny moment was on page four. Seriously. It was awful. (And the kid is a wiseass—there’s really no excuse.)
So I did the old, “I should chuck the whole thing out, I can’t believe I wasted six months of my life on this, it’s not worth another six months, maybe I’ll never write a decent thing again,” shtick. Then I dusted off my ego and let it lie, trusting that the beginning would come to me when it was ready.
In the library yesterday, I had my epiphany (less than 24 hours later!). I was picking up books and glancing at the first paragraphs, deciding what to borrow, when I realized that I should write a beginning I’d like to read. (The obviousness of my epiphany may explain its speediness.)
I’d been trying to do way too much on the first page. But as a reader, I don’t ask, “Is this the right place for the story to begin? Does it establish setting, foreshadow disaster, suggest the theme, introduce the narrator and his conflict, showcase the writer’s style?” No. All I ask is, “Do I want to read this person’s story?”
As a writer, all I have to do with my first page is make someone want to read this kid’s story. That’s it.
Theme, setting, conflict, etc.—those elements will come out but they can’t be forced in. The story comes first. And it’s always someone’s story. That was my real epiphany, I guess. I’m not writing my novel, I’m writing Max’s story. And Max would never start his story like that.
So I scrapped the first couple of pages of laboriously chosen words. I stopped trying to be a writer or adhere to any writing advice. I just got into my character. I walked around feeling like Max, his excitement building at the thought of getting home to his friends, his frustration with the ticket booth and baggage check and body scanners standing between him and his life on hold. And I wrote his flying-home scene from scratch.
Max’s new first line is: “The airport security guard was not amused when I dropped my pants in front of her.”
Much improved, no? Maybe this won’t be my last first line. But it has me on track and happy again, ready to face the godawful process of finishing my last half of revisions.