It sounds like I’m talking about making drinks. Unfortunately, I’m talking about the first few pages of my current work in progress. I have “alpha readers” who are awarded the questionable distinction of reading my early drafts (these are not “first readers,” who see polished and full manuscripts). The problem is, my alpha readers haven’t been too happy with my opening scene and with every modification (that I think counters their criticism), they like it even less.
What’s the real problem?
Actually, the real problem is my confidence. I snipped and smoothed until my readers said I took out too much. My beginning is now so smooth, it’s bland. It reads like a soporific magazine article. It’s like one of those sweet blended bland drinks that might be a daiquiri, or maybe a piña colada?
So I’m throwing it out and starting over. Readers like the next scene in chapter one, as well as the following chapters. I think it’s because those pages sound like me, and they tell my story confidently, in my natural voice. Unfortunately, those first pages are no longer mine—they’ve been through the blender too many times. I can at least recognize when I’ve lost my own voice.
Can we trust our instincts?
Writing and editing the opening pages of a novel is hard for any writer. There’s so much at stake on those pages (you have to hook the reader in one sentence! maybe three!). There’s so much advice thrown at writers about beginnings (start in medias res, start with action or dialogue, make sure the problem is presented, never start with the weather—regardless of the many classic examples in literature that don’t follow these simplistic rules.) All this pressure makes even published and experienced writers mistrust their instincts.
So how can you write, or even recognize, the “right” opening for your novel? Mandy Hoak (fellow Pikes Peak Writer) talks about finding the right beginning, and decided to check her favorite novels and analyze their openings. This is an excellent exercise, provided you stay with authors whose writing and stories match your voice and tone, respectively. Within that group, you should look for openings that strike a chord with you, particularly. Why? Because the best openings are the ones that are true to your own voice, built upon your own emotions.
How to ruin your voice
After I made the decision to do a full rewrite, I read Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s More Modern Writer Survival Skills, which is actually part 19 of a series covering changes in the publishing industry (I recommend reading the entire series of posts). But, with respect to my own over-editing disaster, I was intrigued by her emphasis on storytelling. Excerpts follow:
Writers need to focus on the elements of storytelling—great characters, great plots, real emotions, cliffhangers, fascinating settings and situations—rather than lovely words. Lovely words might get you admirers, but lovely words won’t get you readers. Readers will put their dollars behind the person who moves them seamlessly from chapter to chapter. The book that keeps you up all night when you have an important meeting in the morning was written by a storyteller, not by a stylist.
This, my friends, is how “terrible” prose writers hit the bestseller list. (That judgment, by the way, comes from critics who are so wrapped up in their critical reading [which is not how readers read books] that they miss the story altogether.) Writers who write sentences that won’t make it through an English 101 class and whose books sell 1 million copies know more about language than the stylist whose sentences reach English major perfection. Those writers know how to sling the language like a weapon.
Rusch explains what “voice” is, using American Idol as an example (I’ll let you go to her blog for that, since I’ve never seen the show—yes, I’m probably the only person in the U.S. who hasn’t, other than my husband). She also distinguishes voice and style:
Style is something you fake. You think from your critical brain—ah, that looks lovely, I should put that word here. You rewrite and rewrite and rewrite, putting in your stylistic flourishes. Or so you think. What you’re really doing is removing all trace of voice.
And that’s exactly what I did to my opening. I’ve got to go rewrite it now.