Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 5: Get the F— Out of the Way of Your Story

Four weeks ago, I introduced the five common mistakes writers make in their first few pages, which Chuck Wendig originally posted on his blog, terribleminds. He identified these mistakes after critiquing several writers’ WIPs while at the Pike’s Peak Writers Conference. I then applied

to my current WIP.

This week is the last one…#5: Get The F— Out Of The Way Of Your Story

Chuck sums it up like this: “Get. To. The. Point.”

We’re merely the storytellers. What’s important is the story, so don’t bog the reader down with some story side show, grandiose verbiage, or the like. He gives a good example:

Here, look at it this way: you ever have a conversation with someone and they tell you a story — something that happened to them, some thing at work, some wacky sexual escapade featuring an escaped circus shark and a kale farmer named “Dave” — and you just want to smack them around and tell them to get to the actual story? Like, they just dick around in the telling of the tale, orbiting the juicy bits and taking too goddamn long to just spit it out? Maybe they think they’re creating suspense, but they’re only creating frustration.

He’s pretty clear. Cut the marshmallow. Serve the meat.

I have spent the last week working on my first scene. Completely rewriting it, actually, for a few reasons. First, was this blog series. After reading Chuck’s blog post, I realized I had way too much fluff at the beginning of my story and not enough story. I’m not sure if in my final rewrite I’ve cut out fluff or just traded it for different fluff, but it’s not as slow as it used to be…at least I don’t think so.

Second, no one knew Susannah’s goal (quite frankly, neither did I). Her goal is now stated upfront (huge shout-out to Rachel Beecroft for helping me figure out Susannah’s goal! See? Our 8LW readers are valuable to us!).

Third, I had been hanging on to my “old” first scene for far too long. I was trying to shoehorn a version of Susannah into the scene without rewriting it. For whatever reason, I’ve always had a “woe-is-me” version of Susannah in my head, but I think that’s a carry-over from the romances I used to read a long, long time ago (and, perhaps, because this is my first book). In my book’s reality, Susannah is a kick-ass chick who knows what she wants and will go after it, to save both her sister’s hide as well as her own. By rewriting this scene and giving her more gumption, determination, and drive, she feels like a different character…the character I want her to be.

If you want to read last week’s version, you can view it here. Today, on the fifth installment of Five Common Mistakes, I’m posting my original first scene (before doing this series) and my most current version.

The original:

The falcon’s talons reached out, ready to grab Susannah, and she gasped. The stuffed bird of prey was the first thing she saw when she stepped through the door of her father’s old study. Surprised to see it there, she glanced about the room, tears springing to her eyes. No, not this room, too, she thought. An immense pressure in her chest threatened her next breath as she took in the changes. What had once been a refuge filled with shelves of leather-bound books had been transformed into something from a Gothic horror story. Every book was gone, the bookcases had been taken down, and the walls, once light and airy, were now papered in dark green damask, covered by a grotesque display of stuffed birds and animal heads. The animals looked vicious, their teeth bared and eyes narrowed, and the birds were no better, with wings extended and talons out as if ready to pluck prey.

And finally, the “final” rewrite (yes, this is about 2x longer than the original, but it’s what I’d consider the “first page” of the story):

Breathe. Slowly. Susannah closed her eyes in an attempt bring her boiling rage down to a simmer. Her nose twitched as it adjusted to the antiseptic smell in the room, so unlike the musty, beeswax-polish scents of her youth. She instinctively reached for her talisman, the small, gold watch that had belonged to her mother, then opened her eyes once more. She glanced around what used to be her father’s study. Gone were the intricately carved bookcases and her father’s beloved book collection. In its place was an assortment of animals, fierce-looking creatures that had been shot and stuffed, with teeth bared and claws out.

But it wasn’t the changes to the study that angered Susannah. It was the long white and silver gown on the dressmaker’s dummy in the middle of the room. Perhaps it’s for a ball. She laughed to herself. Not likely. She turned to her guardian, Jackson Humphries.

“How kind of you, Uncle. A welcome-home gift.” Her voice dripped with sarcasm.

“Of sorts.” He smiled, but his gray eyes glinted steel. “You’ll wear it three weeks hence.”

Susannah’s nostrils flared. White dress. Three weeks. So he does mean to marry me off.

Almost instantly, Susannah was transported in her mind to her sister’s house in Jamaica, where she’d been living since her parents died three years earlier. Visions of her sister, bruised and beaten by her husband, flooded her brain. The first time Susannah had seen Isabelle wearing strap marks on her back, she promised herself she’d rescue her sister from him. 

Now she was back in England and one step closer to saving her sister. She had returned at her uncle’s behest — he had been ordering her to come back for nearly a year — yet her only objective was to attain her majority and complete the necessary paperwork with the solicitors to finalize the inheritance of her late mother’s fortune. Indeed, she had timed her trip as such. Marriage was not in her plans…not now or ever.

Susannah walked over to the dressmaker’s dummy and fingered the delicate silver stitching on one of the sleeves, then let it go. She would get to the dress soon enough.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this series! I sure had fun applying the principles to my WIP. I encourage you to do the same.

9 thoughts on “Justine: Five Weeks Analyzing Common Mistakes. Week 5: Get the F— Out of the Way of Your Story

  1. Oh, outstanding! Thank you for taking us along on your journey. I really like the way you brought the sister into this — we’re not just rooting for Susannah right now, but her goals as well!

    • Thanks, Michaeline! This was so much fun! Frustrating, but it really forced me to think (for a long time) about what I was doing in my first scene. It was very eye-opening and revealing and I’m pleased that the net result is the “real” Susannah. It also helps with her character arc — going from someone who is independent to someone willing to accept help from others.

      I think back to one of the things Jenny taught us — bring the reader full-circle. I fully intend, at the end of this book, to have the first “scene” of the next one, which is about Isabelle. So Nate and Susannah will get their HEA, but a page later, the reader will be thrown into Isabelle’s story.

  2. It’s been a fun series, and a blast to see how you’ve revised your first scene. Good going! It takes a lot of courage to rip out those first pages and redo them a zillion times.

    • You know, I love reading the different versions a writer has for a scene. I think Mary Buckham does this in her Writing Active Setting books. She starts off with the first draft of something, then shows how the writer layers in different things. I find things like that incredibly useful, and I have really enjoyed watching the evolution of my own first scene (not just the first page).

      On a side-note, I decided to save the dress-ripping for the end of the scene, rather than the end of the first page. That’s when Susannah really throws down the gauntlet. So Susannah and her uncle tip-toe around other topics involving control (her Caribbean wardrobe, colonial manners, a sponsor, etc.), but really, it comes down to the arranged marriage. Having her rip the dress at the beginning would have been anti-climactic.

  3. I like New Susannah, Justine. Now she has a powerful goal, compelling motivation and she’s driving the interaction with Uncle instead of responding to him, I’m much more invested in her. She chose the timing of her return home, and I love her reaction to the dress. This is a smart girl, and no victim. As Kay said, good going, and thank you for sharing your process with us.

  4. It’s absolutely great Justine – and as I said last week, this has been a really fascinating series. Can’t wait to read more of it….

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