Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Off to a Great Start...or Maybe Not So Much

I thought I was done. My manuscript was written, revised (and revised and revised and…), polished, proofread. I’d written my query letter. I was working on my synopsis. My novel was ready for the world.

Then I entered a contest. Not a big one, mind you. It was one of those agent-sponsored one-sentence pitch contests, which I love. So I’d fashioned a one-sentence pitch that I was really pretty pleased about, and the only other thing the contest had asked for was the first paragraph of the manuscript. No problem there.

When the contest’s submission period opened, I pulled up the file for my manuscript so I could retrieve my first paragraph.

Now let me stop there for a second, because here’s the thing... I like the beginning of my manuscript. I think it’s compelling. I think I have a great hook. A man learns that his terminally ill daughter has been promised to a mysterious technology upon her death, a technology that harnesses souls as a source of power.

One problem though. Looking at the first paragraph, that wasn’t actually how the book started. Oh sure, a few paragraphs in all those things happen, but that first paragraph, well all it contained was a knock on the hotel room door disturbing a man’s rest.

Really? Was that really how I’d started my novel?

The paragraph was, I was dismayed to realize, boring. How could that be, after the number of times I’d been over the manuscript? How could I not have seen that?

Maybe because I knew. I knew what happened in the beginning of the novel. I knew about the devastating telegram that my protagonist received a few paragraphs in. So I’d never really looked at the first paragraph as a standalone, as the very first impression the reader would have of the novel, a paragraph that would either make a reader want to read more or wouldn’t.

Hell, if not for the contest forcing me to see my paragraph as a standalone, I might never have really looked at it that way.

It was a frustrating revelation, but it was also eye-opening. Maybe more importantly, it made me reevaluate my novel in a way that I’d never done before, to look at a single paragraph all on its own. And not just a single paragraph. A first paragraph.

And let me tell you, it's an interesting exercise.

The good news is that not only do I think I know how to fix it now, but I think my fix might add a whole new element to the novel, one I’d never considered before. I can already see it in my head, and I love the scene I’m envisioning. It’s vibrant and active, and while the main hook will still come a few paragraphs in, I think my new start is going to make a reader want to read on, and that’s what we, as writers, are ultimately going for, right?

So yes, I thought I was done, and now--thanks to a one-sentence pitch contest--I know I’m not. In fact, right now I’m facing down quite a bit more work to incorporate my new ideas. But you know what? I’m happy. I’m happy to have solved a problem that two days ago I didn’t even realize existed. I’m happy because ultimately the changes I'm going to make might mean the difference between selling the novel and trunking it. I'm taking this as the gift that it was.

Has that ever happened to anyone else, one small thing that leads you to suddenly view a manuscript in a whole different light? I’m curious.

12 comments:

  1. Every now and again I'll get stuck in my MS and I'll ask my 8 yo daughter for suggestion. They are usually off the wall but it always leads my story in an unexpected direction.

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  2. What a fascinating post! I'm so glad you shared this experience because it offers yet another way to approach revisions, while inspiring us all with your positive attitude toward the process. And let's face it, the process is hard enough to navigate with all its twists and surprises.

    Best of luck incorporating your latest inspiration, and querying aferward!

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  3. That's so awesome that you were able to discover this aspect about your beginning. Even though we hope a reader will dig deeper into our novels and not judge it on the first paragraph, sometimes that's all we get! Glad you're figuring out a way to move forward!

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  4. Hey, Lisa! Great post. I'm not looking forward to going back and fixing my first paragraph, but I know I'll have to once this draft is done! Ugh. Oh! Left you a "Creative Writer" award over on my blog :)

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  5. I guess it is really very tough to see your manuscript with "fresh eyes" after working so much and so hard on it. It is good that you found it and even better than you know how to fix it!

    Good luck :)

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  6. Thank you all for the comments.

    T. Anne, I love that, about asking your 8yo daughter for suggestions. Kids just have such a different, more open way of viewing things.

    Zoe, thank you! I'm heading over to your blog now to pick up the award! :-)

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  7. This is a brilliant revelation. You know what else I saw recommended? Throwing the whole printed novel in the air and then reading pages at random, to make sure any given page was compelling. I thought I was done, too, but I think I have not a single completed book, when I look at the needed revisions (never mind that I have four finished books)

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  8. Oh, definitely The best (and worst) thing about writing is the small changes. Sometimes they just really make everything gel. Sometimes they cause a domino effect that makes you want to die. But you know. Sixes. :)

    Glad it worked for you in this situation.

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  9. Great post.

    I think I entered the same contest. It made me really think about that first paragraph. No manuscript is ever really done. Even when they're published, there's always something to fix, I'm sure. I guess that's why they say to put it away for a while, so you can gain some perspective.

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  10. Watery Tart,

    Now that idea -- looking at each individual page to see how compelling it is -- is terrifying, which is probably all the more reason to do it. I bet a lot could be gleaned from that exercise. Like you, the more I look at my manuscripts I don't think I have a single completed book, although I've called at least three "finished" at one point or another. It never ceases to be a learning process.

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  11. Elana,

    That domino effect intimidates me, and it happens more often than not. I guess it's always a good thing when weaknesses are exposed, though. I'd rather see something and work to fix it than to never even realize there's a problem at all.

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  12. Theresa,

    I'm wondering if they've posted the results yet -- although after my revelation I'm not holding out much hope for my chances. It's amazing though what new insights you can gain from those small competitions.

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