Editing Notes: The Dreaded Opening Line

While I’m currently sitting at about 70% through the first complete rewrite of my novel, I woke up this morning with the first chapter nagging at me.  I read plenty of advice on writing (thank you Tumblr) and while I know I’ve avoided some of the pitfalls of starting a story, I’ve dived headfirst into others.

Whenever I start a new piece, I’m hardly ever beginning at the actual beginning.  The first scene I imagine is usually somewhere in the middle, but I write it anyway, because you start with what you’ve got!

So here’s the first “opening line” from my original I’m-just-getting-this-out-of-my-imagination draft, written last summer:

Nina stood before the window, staring out over the tops of the trees.

How boring is that?  But it was never meant to be the beginning of the story.  If I’d stuck with that draft (which I still have filed away, it clocks in at a whopping 12K words), it wouldn’t even have survived as the opening line of whatever chapter it became.  But it’s how I saw the scene in my head.  She’s standing at the window when another character comes into the room and starts a conversation.  Boring.  Some stage direction is necessary, but starting a scene with it isn’t the most effective way to get your reader hooked.

That draft petered out, and I set the project aside for a few weeks.  Then I had a vacation coming up, and I knew there would be plenty of writing time in the mornings.  So I decided I would pluck the best bits of setting and character and plot that I had, and start a new draft.  Its opening line:

Paul saw a gas station ahead and weighed his options.

Not much of a hook there, right?  Without any context, the only question that line conjures is whether or not he’s going to stop for gas.  And that’s not exactly gripping reading.  Also, it’s wildly inaccurate to the story I’m telling.  He’s actually on foot.  But not having that in the first line…well, I’ll come back to that in a bit.

I soldiered on, and that partial draft got messy around 50K.  Things weren’t shaping up as well as I liked–I’m a pantser, but I did have some clue about where I was headed, since romances are usually about the two leads getting together.  Because romance.  But I hadn’t handled them well–they kept trying to climb into bed with each other far too early to suit my sense of pacing.  I didn’t throw enough obstacles at them to keep the tension going.

I started over.  (Another cardinal sin of writing, or so I hear–restarting without finishing.  Mea culpa.)  This time, I wanted to try first person POV instead of third.  My new first line, telling Nina’s story:

We usually keep going until sunset before setting up camp for the night, but when the gas station appeared down the road, I knew John was going to have us stop early.

It’s bad, it’s so bad.  Yes, the gas station is a pivotal setting for the inciting incident…but sweet sticky rice, this is bad.  And I introduce a character by name that isn’t even one of the leads!  Sloppy.  It turned out first person, despite letting me play around inside my characters’ heads, was not right for the story I wanted to tell.  There were events that I needed to show that Nina wasn’t simply wasn’t present for, and couldn’t be.  And they couldn’t be summarized in exposition without becoming dead weight.  The reader needed to be there, to see them unfold.

So I switched back to third, shuffled some plot points around, restructured my unfinished-50K draft accordingly, and finished the damn thing.  Success!  At least, for the moment. The first line was now:

Nina stared at the gas station ahead and felt a mixture of nervousness and relief.

The telling!  It burns!  Why does she have mixed feelings about a gas station?  Do we care?  Probably not!

But that was the draft that was finished, so it’s the one that went to my beta readers.  In the wake of their feedback, the beginning required some rethinking, and I tweaked my inciting incident to move the pace along faster…which meant I cut my entire first chapter in the rewrite.  Not kidding.  It’s gone.  I salvaged a few important lines to sprinkle in elsewhere, things that needed to be shown or said, but could find other homes.  Because that’s the way it has to be.

So, as of yesterday, this is the opening line:

Thunder boomed in the distance, and Paul kicked a rock out of his path instead of cursing at the weather.

He’s on foot now!  Like he’s supposed to be!  But, cardinal sin #2…now I’ve involved the weather.  Because the looming storm is what gets him to the gas station, looking for shelter, to meet the rest of the cast.  Including his future love interest.  It’s kind of important.

Is there another way I could get him there?  Probably.  Would it make as much sense in the world I’ve built?  Honestly, probably not.  The weather is a major player in how things shake out–rain keeps my characters holed up, storms wreck towns unchecked, and days of clear skies and sunshine are the best days for travel.  And winter, straight-up, is a conflict all its own.

So I need to keep the storm hovering but punch up my first line without it.  Here’s what I’m thinking:

Paul kicked a rock out of his path, watching it bounce and skitter down the highway.

Now, I feel like we’ve working towards some solid questions.  Why is he walking down the highway, not driving?  And where is he going?  I haven’t dropped ninety pounds of backstory into it–but since kicking rocks is something people often do when they’re bored or sullen or simply destructive, it’s a clue that his mood is less than cheerful. And I’ll find another way to bring up the thunderstorm in a few sentences, so we have time to wonder about Paul’s motivations a little before the weather prods him to make a decision.

It is perfect?  No, no, I’m sure it’s not.  But writing is an iterative process.  And it’s better.

And no, I’m totally not obsessing over my first line today because I’m intimidated by the thought of digging into the next chapter I should be rewriting.  Why would you think that?

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