Last November, when I started this blog, I was obsessed with revision. After all, I had spent the past few years hammering out drafts of BODY COPY, my literary small-town newspaper novel. I hadn’t started a new first draft of anything in six years.
My current work-in-progress, LOST NOTES, has grown over the past year as this blog has grown. And now, after a mid-manuscript critique session, I have enough of a novel, and enough challenges, to get back to my old love. Revision.
As far as where to start, I decided to jump back into the beginning–always a tricky thing. It’s tempting to polish the first chapter of a novel over and over until it gleams. But if that chapter isn’t doing its job, it’s hard to tell what to fix when all the words sound so pretty. (That’s how the words can turn into darlings, and it’s hard to step aside and judge what needs to go.)
First chapters always get the most attention–from writers, agents, publishers and readers. If they don’t set up the story, and the protagonist, they’ll fail, no matter how beautifully written and how carefully revised.
My book opens in a village in France in the mid-19th century. This particular idyllic village is known for music and lace. After establishing the voice and the setting, I introduce my protagonist and his brother, then ages 8 and 9, who take it upon themselves to rescue a stray cat.
When they’re teenagers, the boys form a very polite love triangle as they vie for attention from a particularly beautiful village girl. In my first draft, I mentioned how the girl used to get in trouble for playing with the brothers by the river and returning home with wet skirt hems. One of my writing group members suggested I add a scene with the brothers and the girl as children. Show them together.
Of course–this is a great example of “show, don’t tell.” With a giant epic novel, it’s impossible to show everything, and often the narrator steps in to move time along and “tell” some of the story. But this particular piece, about the boys’ friendship with this girl, must be seen. In scene.
That’s the kind of feedback that gets me raving about the importance of a good critique group. The suggestion challenged me to look at the beginning of my novel in a new way and to think about how I could squeeze the girl in somewhere.
That’s when I had my epiphany. I realized she could run outside and join the boys just when they’re deciding whether or not to rescue the cat. Her presence increases the tension between the brothers, forces them to do something dangerous, sets up the eventual love triangle and introduces the male/female power dynamics that are so central to my novel.
So that’s what I did, and I love the result.
Have you had a specific suggestion from a reader trigger an important breakthrough? If so, I’d love to hear about it.