Saturday, 4 June 2011

The evolution of an opening scene: first paragraphs revised

I thought it might be interesting to compare and contrast the opening lines from my first draft of Merely Players and my third draft (which is where I am just now). I wanted to reflect on the changes I've made to the novel's start because it tells me a lot about what I've learned from fabulous blogs by writing gurus like Jody Hedlund and Aimee L Salter, thoughtful critique partners like Andrea Walpole, Bronwyn Stuart and Helen Kolacevic and helpful first readers like Aysha Awan and my sisters Patricia and Kate .

Merely Players Draft 1: Paragraphs 1-3

"It isn't worth a damn." He hurled the manuscript across the room. It crashed into the wall in a blizzard of ink-blotched paper and caused the tallow candles on the nearby table to gutter.

Trotwood looked blearily over his glass. "No need to take on so, Ghis. It'll come to you – always does. Just need the muse to take pity on you. Prob'ly help if you have a snifter.... clears the mind. Always at my best after a snifter..." He subsided into the chair in a heap of brandy-stained velvet.

Ghislain Warwick sighed, flinging down his pen on the rutted oak desk. "I have two weeks, Trot. Two damn weeks before Farrow wants his play – and it has to be good or we’re all sunk. After Hesperides we don't have a lot of chances." He placed his elbows on the desk, leaning his aching head on his hand. "By which I mean I don't have a lot of chances. Even Ana's crowd of sycophants barely stayed through the performance." He rubbed his temples: his headache was worsening.

Merely Players Draft 3: Paragraphs 1-3

What if she was wrong? Rachel Stern lifted her hand to the knocker and hesitated. What if the woman she had followed was a complete stranger? There was still time to leave. She could think of any number of things she could be doing right now; composing a fiery sermon for her father to rain down on the heads of the ungodly or handing out temperance pamphlets to the fat merchants hurrying round London's docks, stockpiling their wares for the winter season. Anything but standing here on this cold Covent Garden street about to make a fool of herself by chasing a ghost.

She gritted her teeth. “Be of good courage, and He shall strengthen your heart,” she whispered to herself, not for the first time that day. If there was a possibility that Sarah was alive, she must act. There had been too many years of grief and suspicion to have her courage fail now.

She knocked and listened as the sound echoed in the hallway beyond. Footsteps clattered in the distance and her heart leaped to her mouth. The door opened, but the woman facing her was no blue-eyed golden girl. She had a face like dried leather made ridiculous by the bright rouging of her cheeks and the sharp-pencilled lines above her eyes.

Why the changes? Responding to Criticism

First things first, let me acknowledge that Draft 3 starts with a different scene than Draft 1. In fact, the scene in Draft 1 has disappeared entirely from the manuscript, which was not accomplished without some trauma and reluctance. The following feedback gives some reasons as to why I did that. From my first critique partner:

1) The introduction is very heavy, and it seems a lot to get through before you have your couple meeting. I would be strongly tempted to cut some or all of this.

2) There is an awful lot of information in the first couple of pages, it feels a bit like you are being bombarded.

3) I would say that you have too many characters. I’d stick at two main, and three supporting as a maximum.

Feedback from the overall manuscript pointed to too many characters, minor characters trying to take over the story and different point of views (POV) being shown. My own view was that starting with the Ghis scene sets the story up in a misleading way. The overall storyline of Scene 1, Draft 1 was something like this:

Playwright Ghis has lost his inspiration and decides he needs a muse. Through his dialogue with Trotwood it is shown that he is desperate to succeed because if he fails, he might end up having to go back to his father in Lincolnshire, a prospect he loathes. To find the muse in question he decides to call on Sarah, his former leading lady, to see if she can introduce him to suitable woman. On an impulse, he rushes out to call on Sarah.

There is a suggestion here that the two main characters are likely to be Ghis and Sarah. There is no hint of the actual heroine Rachel, Sarah's sister and in fact, scene two is between Ghis and Sarah which further promotes this idea. The reader has to wade through two scenes of Ghis and Sarah and one of Rachel and Sarah, before Ghis and Rachel meet. And one of those scenes is written from Sarah's POV.

Initial feedback on the first draft was that Sarah threatened to take over as a character - there was a risk that her story was more compelling than Rachel's. Rachel, the heroine, was getting squeezed out of her own story.

Something had to give.

What I Changed and Why

Empowering the Heroine: My main purpose in introducing Rachel to the reader upfront is to allow her to take control of the story. The reader sees what is driving her - her fear of losing her family, her attachment to her father's work and how this history shapes her reactions. That's all important later on in defining how she reacts to Ghis.

Character Assassination: The other purpose in deleting Scene 1, Draft 1 is that it was an interaction between Ghis and Trotwood and sadly, Trotwood has disappeared into the cut file. His name lives on as the name of Ghis' manservant, but the character himself is gone for good. It's sad but when your minor characters are threatening mutiny, it's time for tough love. Trotwood was an enjoyable distraction but ultimately unnecessary. Bye bye Trotwood, bye bye Scene 1, Draft 1.

First Impressions: There are other advantages. For example, Ghis and Rachel now meet much sooner in the story. Our first physical impression of him is through her eyes, so the reader rapidly gets a sense of his physical attractions and charisma. In Draft 1, the reader first saw Ghis through Sarah's eyes - and it was a rather jaded impression.

Contextualising: Throughout Chapter 1, I have also built in more context to frame the story. In conversation, Ghis refers to Napoleon's defeat which helps to place the novel in a historical continuum and there is more subtle detail about clothing, lighting and other such things which strengthen the sense of time and place. I've built up the physical image of Rachel more too. The reader now gets an impression of her looks, age and bearing much earlier to it is easier for them to grasp what she looks like to Ghis. This too was missing when much of the text concerned Sarah's POV.

The Overall Impact of the Changes

I think the start is stronger and the response from my critique partners has certainly been positive. I quote:

Super duper! What an amazing difference! I read this at twice the pace as I did before. It’s much quicker, and feels much more natural. The backstory was drip fed and not in big clumps. I found Ghis more likeable (he came across a bit whiny before at the start.) Rachel feels better, and I have less sympathy for Sarah. (Also less interested in her, the story is clearly about Rachel.)


Chapter One begins in a great place, with a strong inciting incident. I wouldn't change that. I feel like it sets up the conflicts of the characters in a great way. Rachel and Ghis come together almost right away, which I know is also an important concern in this genre.

There is still more to be done in tightening up the start and improving the overall quality of the writing, but I feel like I've learned a lot since I started Draft 1. I fully expect to be on Draft 15 by the time the bloody thing is finished, but I'm pleasantly surprised by how enjoyable revision is. Not precisely in a scab-picking sort of a way but more like a successful diet, where discipline and hard work facilitate the emergence of a honed and lovely new you.

I would love to hear about how other people tackle the revision process - what do you find useful and what do you find unbearable? How do you approach it and where do you get your guidance from?


Andrea said...

Weird to see my own comments! I should have been more careful in what I said! haha. Something I've been learning on the eharlequin site this week is that it is a good idea to get a rough idea of what the story is about in the first paragraph if not the first line. The pivotal point in Sarah's life at that point is standing up to her father, so maybe you could try getting that in earlier?

The first draft of my current WIP had a very similar beginning to your draft one out of interest.

Meg McNulty said...

Sorry I should have asked!

That's an interesting idea - I'm going to investigate some romances to see if they manage to do that. I imagine it would be quite challenging. Do they give examples?

vmichelle said...

Thanks for sharing some inside insights into your WIP and your process. It sounds really interesting!

Meg McNulty said...

Thank you! I just took a sneaky peak at your blog - I love the images. You've got me thinking about tumblr...