This past week, I’ve been struggling with a side project, which is actually yet another revision of an old project, the Women’s Fiction manuscript I wrote during our McDaniel classes. The book is complete. It’s been through beta readers and revisions. It even made the rounds to a few agents and was roundly rejected. There was a lot of positive feedback in those rejections, but some negative comments as well. And the kicker was that story aspects some readers saw as positives and even loved, others saw as negatives.
Over the months of those rejections, I slowly (and painfully) made peace with the possibility that this book just wasn’t going to connect with publishing gatekeepers. Maybe someday I’d self-publish it, maybe not, but either way, other projects and deadlines and career choices called.
While I was finally ready to pack that old story into a drawer, my brain had other plans. I’d be happily immersed in 1870’s London with my new cast of characters when the three modern women from a rural Virginia town would take over my mind’s limited bandwidth. I’d be catching up with writing friends and discussing current projects, and my conversation would drift back to that old manuscript and we’d ponder what its fatal flaw might be.
The final straw came when I dreamed about the book. I spend a lot of time thinking and daydreaming about my characters and plot lines. I also tend to have vivid dreams. But rarely do these two things intertwine. I almost never dream about my writing projects. This story was different. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t quit it.
To end the constant interruptions, I decided to carve out a few hours of each day’s writing time to reread that old story in an attempt to figure out where it went wrong and whether I could rescue it. What better place to start than at the beginning?
One of the first things I knew I had to change was the opening scene. For years, the first scene of the book has been the ‘meet cute’ of the three women who will become best friends. The scene takes place in a dive bar called The Thirsty Horse Saloon. One of the characters, Sarah, is in ‘the biggest, ugliest wedding dress south of the Mason-Dixon’ and is trying valiantly to get drunk and forget about the disastrous wedding that never was. Maddie, the bar owner, and Eileen, Maddie’s best friend, are doing their best to keep Sarah sober enough to stay out of the clutches of overly-interested cowboys and get her safely back to the ‘right side of town’. It was the very first nugget of the story for me, the image that hooked me and made me ask myself, ‘Who are these women? What do they want? And what is with that hideous wedding gown?’
Here’s the thing about images of your story that embed themselves so deeply in your brain: they’re hard to shake loose. That scene has gone through more rewrites than I care to count. It’s had numerous iterations in multiple POVs. It started in Sarah’s (the drunk bride’s) POV. Later, when I realized the main protagonist of the book is Eileen, I rewrote it in Eileen’s POV, for obvious reasons. This past week, I rewrote the scene from Maddie’s POV. At this point, I’m pretty sure I won’t make any more POV changes for this scene, mostly because I’ve run out of POV characters.
But wait, you might say, does this mean the book doesn’t open with the main protagonist? Or that the book has a new main protagonist? I’m so glad you asked. The answers are no and no. What it does mean is that the bar scene is not the opening scene of this story. It fooled me for a long, long time. It pulled me in with its siren song of friendship, of a girls’ night out, of women connecting for the first time in what will become the friendship that gets them each through a dark time in her own life.
But this scene lied to me. It is not the beginning of this book.
In the comments section of a recent blog post, Jenny Crusie talked about how to use feedback on a piece of writing. Readers, even skilled critique readers, can rarely pinpoint exactly what is wrong, but they can point out that something is wrong. That’s why feedback is often conflicting. It’s up to the writer to pinpoint the underlying issue that is sending up a red flag. And so it was with this manuscript.
That first scene is full of humor and snark. Humor and snark can be great fun, and they will still have their place in the revised version of this book. I don’t really have a choice. Those elements are part of my fiction writing voice and I couldn’t lose them if I tried. But this story also has a dark undertone. Eileen’s antagonist is her abusive ex-husband. Just as she’s about to get her life together, he’s going to be paroled from prison.
In the previous version of the bar scene, there was a brief exchange between Eileen and Maddie about this, but it was telling about this pivotal plot point, not showing it, and that made it lose its power. It unintentionally set a disingenuous tone for the story, and that’s a big no-no. As many writers will tell you, the opening scene is the invitation to the story party. It’s only fair the reader know what kind of party she’s attending.
So this week I also wrote a new opening scene. It gets Eileen and her ex-husband on the page together, blows up her expectations from the beginning of the story, and plants a seed of desperation in her that will fester and grow throughout the rest of the book. Under the humor and snark and female bonding of future scenes, there will a ticking timebomb. And now, finally, the opening scene starts that bomb ticking. There’s still so, so much to be done with this revision, but I finally think I’ve conquered the beginning.
The plans for this coming week include finishing revisions in Act I and making plans for Act II. Which needs to be rewritten in its entirety. *Headdesk* And I’ll keep reminding myself of our McD motto: It’s a process.
How’s your process going this week? Have you wrestled any story problems to the ground? Are you cavorting with new loves or haunted by ghosts of stories past?