I never set out to write scenes out of order. I always think I’m starting a new novel at exactly the right point. But then, fifty or sixty pages into it, I inevitably realize that something else has to come first or the rest of what follows won’t make sense.
Sometimes this happens more than once.
Oddly, I rarely end up tossing out any of the other opening scenes I’ve written. They just become later scenes. What I do have to do, of course, is revise them to remove any character descriptions and exposition that is now included in the new first scene.
I keep hoping I’ll smarten up and be able to get it right the first time, but it doesn’t seem likely that will ever happen. This annoying tendency of mine to start in the wrong place goes all the way back to my earliest novels. In fact, with my third published book, I kept a record of the story’s evolution and used that information when I gave talks in schools about the importance of revising. Yes, that was a long time ago. Way back in the 1980s, when I still had energy enough to cope with the pre-teen set.
At that time, I was writing books for middle-grades readers. That’s ages eight to twelve. These days, eleven and twelve year olds have already moved on to young adult novels and there’s supposedly a new category of readers called “new adults,” although I’m not entirely sure what that means. Anyway, at the time I was writing, “middle-aged readers” wanted chapter books about characters at the upper end of their own age range. I set out to write the story of a twelve-year-old girl in the year 1887. For inspiration, I had my grandfather’s memoirs, in particular his account of what happened when he broke his leg as a young boy. And I had tons of information about life in New York and New England around that time because 1888 was the year of the Blizzard of ’88, about which a great deal had already been written and more was to come.
But to get back to the point of this post, the starting point, I was certain I knew just where the story should begin. A piece of advice I’d heard from other children’s book writers was “start with the day that is different.” What could be more different than a little girl falling through the pitch hole of the barn (as my grandfather had) and breaking her leg? I wrote that scene, adding a thunderstorm and taunting cousins to the mix. My protagonist, Julia Applebee (two family names) is a big city girl sent to live with relatives in rural New York state while her parents journey to China to be missionaries. As is often the case, I had the title in mind early on: Julia’s Mending. It refers to both the healing necessary to mend her broken leg and the fact that she eventually mends fences with her cousins, who start out as antagonists but become close friends.
On the surface, there was nothing wrong with starting the story a few minutes before Julia’s accident. Lots of action. Lots of drama. The problem was that I had way too much information that I needed to give my readers up front and no graceful way to do it when so much was going on. There were too many characters in the scene, too. To introduce Julia, each of her cousins (and it’s a big family!) and enough of her backstory to make sense of how they interact bogged down what was supposed to be a fast-moving, emotional scene.
I wrote and rewrote the scene several times before it dawned on me that the solution was simple. I needed to start Julia’s story earlier. I needed a different “different” day. Should I go all the way back to New York City and her farewells to her parents? To the day they told her of their plans? That would mean introducing several characters and a setting I wouldn’t use again in the story. Useful for contrast, perhaps, but not really necessary. Perhaps her grandmother seeing her off on the train that would take her to the country? I decided against that for the same reason. Finally, I came up with the idea of starting with Julia just arriving at her destination by train. A quick bit of dialogue with the woman escorting her that far sets up her situation and then she’s on the platform, all alone, as the train moves on. When no one is there to meet her, she has a few moments more to contemplate her situation . . . and make it clear to the reader.
The original starting point, the fall and broken leg, ended up on page 23, near the end of the third of fifteen chapters. As it happened, the changes in what was on page one didn’t stop with a contract and editing. Near the end of the process, the decision was made to publish the book in the U.K. as well as in the U.S. At that point, the opening line was the train conductor calling out the name of the town, Julia’s destination. I was using a real place but I’d changed the name from Liberty Falls (now Ferndale, New York) to Mongaup Falls (the Mongaup is a local river). The British editor didn’t think English school children could pronounce Mongaup and asked for a simpler name. At the last minute, the line was changed and the opening of chapter one, titled “Exile,” now reads as follows:
“Lih-ber-tee Falls,” the train conductor’s rich baritone boomed. “Liberty Falls, next stop!”
Julia Applebee clenched her journal. So far it contained only today’s entry, dated July 22, 1887. Julia gripped the small book so tightly that her fingertips made little pockmarks in its soft brown leather cover. Almost there, she thought. Her heart began to beat faster.
Julia’s Mending was my third published book.
Now, working on writing a proposal that will, with luck, be my fifty-first (The eighth Liss MacCrimmon mystery, out in 2014, will be #50), I find myself in the same quandary. Where is the best place to start? I’ve mentioned this book, the historical mystery, before. I’ve been working on it, on and off, since May, and I still haven’t nailed it. Not exactly, anyway. I’ve made three starts, each one moving farther back in time. I think I’m at the right place now, but I haven’t quite found the right combination of details to use to best introduce the characters and their story.
Stay tuned for further developments.
P.S. Julia’s Mending was written under my real name, Kathy Lynn Emerson, and published in hardcover in 1987. Later it came out as a paperback from Avon Camelot. Currently, it is available as an ebook download in pdf or epub format from http://www.awriterswork.com. If you’re interested in print copies of any of my backlist titles, check out http://www.kaitlyndunnett.com/booklist.htm
P.P.S. For those who read my post on using Story Forge cards to spark ideas for character background, the experiment was not a successful one. It could just be that I’m too set in my ways, but I found the physical act of using the cards distracting. Too much like a game? The directions say the cards can also be used in role-playing games and I can see how that would work well. Anyway, not for me, nor is using Scrivener. I’ll just keep doing things the way I always have, flawed though it may be. I figure I must be doing something right because everything comes together into a novel at the end of the process. I guess the old adage is true: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.