Thursday, December 10, 2009

In the Beginning, There Was...Confusion

By Beth Terrell

I've met writers who say their first chapters never change. The first words they write are the first words the reader reads. Let me just say, I hate those guys. Okay, hate is a strong word, especially since every single one of them is someone I like. Let's go with, I wish I worked that way.

My beginnings apparently serve one purpose and one purpose only: they help me start the book. They act as a springboard from which I can cobble a story with a middle and an end. Then I go back and realize that nice shiny opening I thought I had just doesn't work. What the...? How did that happen?

The first draft of my first book, Racing the Devil, began with Jared, our hero, musing on the circumstances that led to his being framed for murder. "I think every guy has one woman he wishes he'd said no to. I wish I could say mine was a tall, busty blonde with legs up to there and a smile like a Swedish supermodel, but the truth is, she was just a not-bad-looking woman with dishwater hair and big teeth. All I can say is, if I knew how things would play out, I'd have held out for, say Cindy Crawford."

Bleah. Awful. To begin with, nothing's happening. Just a guy thinking back on a relationship that went badly. How boring can you get? To make matters worse, it's one of those, "little did I know" sections that I absolutely hate. Whenever I see them, I hold up a cross and a string of garlic in hopes that they'll slink back into whatever crypt they crawled out of. Worse still, while it was necessary for Jared to become...uh...intimate with this woman, it was completely out of character for him to pick up a complete stranger in a bar and shag her. No matter how I twisted and turned this scene, I just couldn't make it believable. He wouldn't do it.

I needed a better opening. It had to be evocative, and it had to plop the reader directly into the scene, and something had to be happening. Most of all, it had to make sense in the context of his character. Since the plot depends on her having seduced him (so she could plant his DNA at a murder scene), I needed to figure out what would make him do something so uncharacteristic. Yes, he's grieving over the dissolution of his marriage, but that's just not enough. Fortunately, he has a weakness I could exploit: he's a sucker for a woman in trouble. If I can convince him that this woman is in distress, he'll relax his defenses. Or, for all you Star Trek fans, "His shields are down, Scotty. Phasers set on stun!"

With that insight, I knew I was on the right track. I needed a damsel in distress. I just had to figure out what kind of distress. A flat tire or vehicular breakdown would get his attention, but how would she be sure he would be the one to stop? Then I had it. She is--or seems to be--a battered woman with an abusive boyfriend, and she asks Jared to protect her. His Galahad complex rears its head. Once he's agreed to help her, she pushes for a more intimate encounter and he realizes she wants something more than a protector. He resists at first, not wanting to take advantage, but she insists that she needs the comfort. With the hook set, she reels him in.

The new beginning goes like this: "Even in the dim light of the bar, I could see the bruises. Beginning just below one eye, they spread down the side of her face and neck, tinged the blue rose tatoo above the swell of her breast, and seeped beneath the plunging neckline of her scarlet halter. She paused inside the door, hugging herself. Her gaze swept the room, lit briefly on one face, then another. Looking for somthing, or someone. Or maybe for someone's absence."

It may not be Faulkner, but I think that's a heck of a lot better.

You'd think I'd have the whole beginning thing down now, but no. Book 2 began with what I still think is a terrific first line: Flirt with the devil, and don't be surprised if he asks you to dance. Unfortunately, the scene it preceded was the wrong place to start the book. Not too soon, the way most books on writing warn, but too late. As it turned out, I needed to start the book about three scenes earlier. Of course, I couldn't just figure this out in one blinding flash of insight. I realized I needed to show the scene before "flirt with the devil." Then, when I'd done that, I lollygagged around for awhile, thinking it was the new shiny beginning I needed. After awhile, I realized I needed to go back and do the scene before that. More pemature satisfaction. Finally, I found the right first scene. The ending of the scene is spot on, maybe the best thing I've ever written, but I'm still struggling to find the perfect first pages to lead into it. I've written two very different versions and still can't decide between the two of them. I know I will, but those first fifty pages are crucial, and I want to get it right.

Fortunately, writing is a fairly forgiving pursuit. In writing, unlike professional baseball, there are do-overs.


Mark W. Danielson said...

No words are as important as the first and last. I'll spend countless hours focussing on those compared to everything in between. In the end, I'm never sure they're exactly what I wanted.

Jean Henry Mead said...


I think they lied to you. Louis L'Amour always claimed that he only wrote one draft, but when I interviewed him he admitted to making changes after the draft was finished. I've interviewed hundreds of writers, many of them bestsellers, who never claimed to have not tweaked a first draft.


Tenn Irish said...

I know, or knew songwriters whose muse apparently served up words on golden trays fresh from Eden's misty moors. I'll own up to hating least just a little. They'd never mix a meadow fir the way I just did, or go through a hundred drafts just to find the right number of syllables so that it would actually scan, No, and they never worried about off rimes, thinking, I suppose that they were cute. But ya know what? When their muse is busy talking on the big white telephone, my hours upon hours of practice--the constant rewrites--stand me in good stead. It really does become like second nature, given enough time.

Beth Terrell said...

Jean, you may be onto something there, though the authors I mentioned did do multiple drafts. They just said they never--or rarely--changed their beginnings.

Ben Small said...

I look at the story as a series of scenes. I will no doubt edit each chapter, but relative to the first chapter, the scene has been well worked in my head and that won't change. How I express it certainly will.

Beth Terrell said...

Tenn, one of the nice things about writing is that you can take all the time you need to cover up the seams. Whether your work flows like water the first time or whether you have to polish and tweak ad nauseum, when you lay them side by side at the end, no one can tell the difference. If you've done it well, they both look effortless.

Ben, your OLIVE HORSESHOE opening scene is a knockout. I write in scenes, too. The scene I opened RACING THE DEVIL was always Jared meeting the woman in the bar, but boy, did it change. In Books 2 and 3, finding the right scene to begin with has been a real challenge.