Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Fiction Day - Toss the Opening

After reviewing so many essays for the 10th Annual FundsforWriters Essay Contest, (and the nine years before) and having written several novels now, I've learned without a doubt that the first paragraphs we write are usually trial runs and highly in need of a delete button. I must have thrown away twenty paragraphs before finding one that worked to open Chapter One, and only then did I edit it for conciseness. I saw many contest entries with 50-100 extra words opening the piece before the author finally made his point.

In our draft phase, we tend to feel the need to warm up, put words down just to be putting them down. No problem, that's what drafts are for. The rub comes when we don't realize it and keep those weak openings for the final draft because we hate throwing anything away.

Most of the time, the openings are passive, telling (in lieu of showing), or full of back story. It's like we have this idea in our head that the reader needs to know this information in order to understand what's going, or to "get" the character. In reality, readers are much smarter than we think.When you throw a first draft on paper, I'd bet money that your story starts around paragraph three or four, when the action starts.

We all do it. And like finding your voice, it takes time for you to see that you are doing it. In your mind, those words are necessary. I'm the queen of minimalism, so I tend to take cutting to the chase to the extreme, which only means if I do it, most other writers do it, too.

Next time you write anything - fiction or nonfiction, journalism or flash, prose or poetry - cross through the first paragraph and see if the story can start at paragraph two. If not, then cross through paragraph two and see if three does the trick. I'm telling you, we rev up the engine when we start a new story, which means we tend to idle a moment before putting the machine into gear to head anywhere.

And yes, it's perfectly okay to delete it. In doing so, you see the opening in a new light as a stronger, better piece. What ticks me off is I never see the fluff before I write it, only after it's taking up space on my page. Now I toss those empty words as if they were spam in my email box. No saving Draft One or Saved Paragraphs because I think one day I'll need them. Delete that excess baggage. You feel like you've shed extra pounds after two months of dieting, and you'll look so sleek.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Hope,

This is one of the most important lessons I've learned during the past year. I'm editing my first draft now and I've deleted a lot out of chapter one. My manuscript, although still requiring more editing and reworking in some scenes, is much better for it.

The message really hit home when I read "Hooked" by Les Edgerton. Do you know it? Edgerton only focuses on crafting the first chapter in his book. He spends a lot of time on the very first sentence too.

Thanks for your post. It's good to read consistent perspectives on editing!