Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Writing Backwards

Maven Jacqueline BarbourNo, I'm not talking about writing from right to left (that's way too hard); I'm talking about writing the beginning of your book after you've written everything else.

You see, I'm in the throes of rewriting the first three chapters of Unbridled. And while I do need to make revisions to the remainder of the book, those changes will be on a much smaller scale than the ones I'm making at the beginning. I'll be adding a scene here and taking away a scene there, layering in some new backstory and motivations, and reworking portions of the sub-plot all the way through, but the beginning? It's like a whole different animal.

When I embarked on this project right after National, I figured it would be relatively easy to do this. I knew more or less where I'd gone wrong in the previous iterations of the beginning (there was too much plot setup and backstory that made the romance drag, and the romance is the point, right?), but I've found it surprisingly harder than I anticipated.

Part of that is no doubt because we all know the beginning is THE MOST IMPORTANT part of the book. Contests emphasize this. Agents and editors emphasize it. Everyone emphasizes it. Hook us in the first five (or ten or twenty or fifty) pages or it's all over for your manuscript.

This means the compulsion to aim for perfection in those first X pages (depending on whether you're doing a first 10 pages contest or a first chapter contest or prepping a partial for an agent or editor) is overwhelming, even though we all know perfection is unachievable. After all, what makes those pages "perfect" for one reader may not work at all for another.

Here, I have a confession to make. I've never read a single Harry Potter book. (Ducks raw eggs and rotten tomatoes.) Yes, it's true. And I even have not one but two copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (one hardback, one paperback), so it's not that I haven't tried. But I have never been able to get beyond the first few pages of the first chapter. To me, they are unremittingly, unfailingly dull. I know that there must be something worthwhile, even amazing, that happens after that first chapter, but I've never been able to bring myself to keep reading and find out what it is. (Hangs head in shame.)

The point I'm making here is that even though I didn't like it, the first chapter of that book works. Her agent and editor liked it enough that it hooked them. They kept reading. They bought the manuscript. They published it. And then millions of readers worldwide got hooked by that chapter. They kept reading. And they've continued reading to the tune of six sequels and millions of copies sold. Just because the odd outlier like me didn't love that chapter doesn't mean it was bad. It just means I have bad taste :-).

Okay, so I know the first three chapters will never be perfect, right? It should be easy, no?

Well, no. It turns out there's another pitfall to rewriting the beginning of your book after you've written the whole story, and I have to thank Maven Darcy for pointing this one out, because I didn't see it myself. Quite simply, it's that you know the characters too well. How is that possible, you ask? Shouldn't it be easier to write a good introduction to your characters and story when you know them inside and out?

Maybe it is for some people. But here's the thing: usually, when you write the beginning of your book, you're still getting to know the characters yourself. Oh sure, you know their goals, motivations and conflicts (or you should). You know their backstories and personality traits. But you don't know them the way you will be the time you write the words "the end." And that's a good thing for the beginning of your book because it forces you to explore your characters as you write in a way that reveals them to the reader. But when you go back and rewrite the beginning after you've come to know them so well, it's easy to make assumptions about what the reader knows about your hero and heroine because those qualities have become "givens" in your mind. This means you can leave out crucial pieces of information that will help your readers to sympathize with your characters and want to keep reading your story.

I'm finding this problem of knowing the characters too well also extends to the Mavens as they're reading my new scenes. They, too, know my characters inside and out, to the point that they interpolate information I haven't actually written into the scene and don't see what's missing. It's not that they're not great critique partners. But they're suffering from the same familiarity bug I am.

Which is why I need fresh eyes to read this partial when I get finished. The story starts at a much better pace now, but I suspect there are huge gaps in it that neither I nor the Mavens can see.

YOUR TURN: How many times have you rewritten/revised your first chapter (or first three chapters)? Do you find it easier or harder the better you know your characters? And do you have some spare time on your hands? I've (almost) got a partial I'd like to sell you :).


Jody W. and Meankitty said...

I don't even want to think about how many times I've revised some of the beginnings of my novels. Hurts brain. Can't see.

lacey kaye said...

*runs screaming in the opposite direction of the quesion*

What's been hurting me lately is that as I cut text to get closer to the beginning of the story, I lose that first attention-grabbing line or paragraph. I'm about to outsource Erica to write one for me :-)

Kelly Krysten said...

I've rewritten the first two chapter's three times so far.And to be completely obtuse I find it easier AND harder to rewrite once I know my character's better...

Maggie Robinson/Margaret Rowe said...

I NEED to re-write the beginning (and middle and end) of EVERYTHING, LOL. I've been looking at the first stuff (novellas) I ever wrote, and my God, they're ghastly. Am afraid to go for the actual books.

Erica Ridley said...

I'm about to outsource Erica to write one for me.

Bwa ha haa. =)

I mostly tweaked and rearranged the opening rather than whole-scale rewriting for TATTF. For DATD... dunno yet, hafta get to The End first. (Which is becoming increasingly difficult the longer I wait to do so.) The beginning for Touched I think will remain more or less as is, with the big picture revision storming in right about the start of Chapter 2. Every story is different that way, I guess.

As for knowing the characters too well... that's definitely a fear. Especially if they can be interpreted as unheroic in the beginning (as part of their arc, of course *g) because we don't want the reader to be incapable of identifying with the protagonist right from the start, flawed though s/he may be. Challenging, to say the least!

Vicki said...

I've rewritten the first couple of chapters way more than I'd like to admit.

My only saving grace is this is my first paranormal. I figured I'd better get it right in the beginning.

Oh course now that it's getting much closer to 'the end' I'm finding I'll have to go back and once more work on the beginning. This time to layer in a few things needing to be there now that my characters have decided to take a few extra turns along the way. :)

Unknown said...

How many times have we written the first paragraph of an article or book at www.TheArticleGroup.com only to rewrite is beyond count. On many occassions I find that we just simply have to start over after a quick review, trying to wordsmith or correct it is virtually impossible.

Carrie Ryan said...

With WIP I've barely touched the beginning. Maybe I'm supersticious, maybe I'm dumb. But I really like the first few chapters and I've gotten good comments on them. For me, it's the middle that has taken so much work - that part of the book that I'd sit down to write every day with no clue what came next.

But for my last book, I rewrote the opening quite a bit - even cutting the first two chapters. If I ever go back to it, I'm sure I'd have to cut more!

Manuscript Mavens

Manuscript Mavens