I had a chunk of time bookended between two family commitments. I didn’t want to start a new scene in case I got stuck half-way and had to visit my mum with the other half still in my head – bad for the scene, bad for mum 🙂 , so I decided to revisit my first 50 pages. I knew I had work to do. Months ago, Jenny Crusie told me she didn’t know what to root for, because each of my scenes seemed to start a new plot, and the pieces of the story didn’t fit together. Than at RWA in San Antonio, I had feedback on the same pages from an editor who said something like “these are good scenes, but they’re all in the wrong place.”
I didn’t need to be told for a third time.
If the first scene is critical – you’ve engaged or lost your reader by the end of it – the first 50 pages (about 15k words, or half of Act I) are almost as important, because that’s typically what you’d send to an agent or editor who asks for a partial. As an added incentive, I want to enter the 2015 Golden Heart contest, and first round is judged on 55 pages, including a synopsis.
We learned at McD to think of the opening scene as an invitation to a party. You give the reader a clear idea of the kind of party you’re throwing. Send the right signals for your genre or sub-genre. Set the tone. Start at the right place in the story, the Day That is Different. Introduce your main characters, line up the conflict, and do it through action, not blah-blah-blah. Make it fascinating enough that the reader decides this is somewhere she’d happily spend a few hours.
I’ve done a lot of work on my opening scene, run it past the other Ladies, entered it in a few contests and made some changes as a result. Currently I’d give it about 7/10. It’s not perfect, but it is a microcosm of the book. By the end of those two-and-a-half thousand words, the reader should have a clear idea of what kind of story is ahead and whether it’s their catnip or not. So that wasn’t my focus this time around. My invitation is fine. Rose owns the scene, and the story. The action in the scene sets up the main story, Rose v Ian. Sasha is a fly in the ointment. All good. The problem was what happened next.
Having issued a decent invitation and (hopefully) welcomed the reader through the door, I’d failed to get the party going. I had all the necessary ingredients, but the chips and dips were in one room, the music in another, and the guests were wandering around looking bemused. I had to do a much better job at pulling the whole shebang together, or nobody was going to hang around for the fireworks.
The best thing about the First 50 was that it ended on a hook. The problem was that the hook was the next meeting of Ian and Rose after the opening scene. I’d spent all the words in between the opening scene and the one on Page 50 telling mini-stories about their worlds and their goals – stories that would grow into sub-plots and were important to Ian and Rose’s second encounter, but didn’t drive it.
It was clear that Clash Two had to happen much sooner. So I summarized each scene on an index card (pink for Rose’s POV, blue for Ian’s) and laid them out on the dining table. I asked myself which of them had to happen to drive the second encounter. There were three scenes that had to stay, so I kept those, and put the other – ahem – four scenes to one side.
I took a cold, hard look at the three scenes I’d kept, to see if they provided a clear link between the opening scene and the second confrontation. The answer was, of course, not so much. They moved the story in the right direction, but they didn’t overtly join the dots, and they definitely didn’t propel the two main characters into an inevitable head-to-head. So I tweaked them until they did.
Things were looking up, so I gritted my teeth and moved on to the four scenes I’d excluded.
- Two of them were Sasha scenes, written in her POV, that set up her sub-plot. I like them a lot, but after much thought I decided to keep her voice and those scenes until I can do justice to her story. Sasha will still be around in this book, but she’ll be causing big trouble for Ian and Rose. I’m keeping the rest of her story for another day, so I’ve banked those scenes.
- Then there was a battle of wills between Rose and her pushy, socially ambitious mother. This is an important sub-plot, so it has to go back in somewhere, soon. Right now I’m not sure where. I know it has to work harder and contribute more to the main story than it does at the moment. Still thinking about this.
- The other scene was Ian and his best friend, Robbie. I love the scene, but it was about putting pressure on Ian in general, not specific to Rose. It didn’t belong before Confrontation 2, but Rose and Rob meet shortly afterwards as a direct result of the confrontation, so I had to introduce Rob. After a couple of false starts I realized I needed a new Ian-and-Rob scene resulting from the Big Confrontation, all about Rose. I’m pretty pleased with the one I ended up with. It keeps most of the good stuff from the old scene, but now it propels the reader towards Rose’s first encounter with Rob and Ian’s reaction to that. Yay!
I don’t think I’m there yet, but I made significant, measurable progress. My biggest concern now is that the 50 pages ends with the Ian v Robbie scene, and I’m not sure whether that’s a strong enough hook. I’m saving that problem for another day 🙂 .
So today, instead of letting off steam or asking for help, I’m holding a small celebration.
Please join my party. What worked well for you this week?