Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Confessions of a Sophomore Author - Part IV - Let's Start at the Very Beginning

It occurred to me as I began my latest story, that figuring out where to start is one of those things that either comes to me immediately and ends up in the book, or I struggle with it and end up cutting scenes I didn’t need to start at the real beginning. Either way, any editor will tell you it’s crucial to find that right place to start. Readers will tell you the same thing – the book either hooked me or it didn’t. I wanted to see the hero and heroine on the page faster.
            First impressions are golden.

            In my latest WIP I wanted to get my heroine and hero on the page in the first scene, but as it turned out I couldn’t. I needed a couple of short scenes to set the premise of the book up, otherwise I would have been trying to insert that crucial backstory into that moment I wanted to be electric… where my hero and heroine meet. So better to set it up as quickly and efficiently as I can, then get to that meet scene.
            This was a struggle I had when I wrote The Divorce Party for Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write competition. I had a huge battle going on in my brain about where to start it. I had two scenes at the beginning I loved – one in third person omniscient point of view that set up the mood of the evening – the city’s most talked about divorce party of the season, and a scene I loved between the hero, Riccardo, and his brother Gabe in the mansion’s wine cellar that established both of their characterization. But in the end, I cut them to get to the action faster. I think it was the right decision, because particularly in a competition where you are weeded out in the early rounds, you need to grab people right away. However,  it doesn’t mean you will never get to write that kind of an opening, and in fact, I just did for my fifth book called The Magnate’s Manifesto due out in Dec.
            I thought it would be fun to share with you the original opening for The Divorce Party and, if you’d like to see what went to print you can find it here.

 The limos were lined up a mile long outside the stunning limestone mansion in one of Manhattan’s most desirable neighborhoods.  Normally a quiet, privilege-soaked street where an owner might walk a dog under the canopy of giant oaks and hear only the whisper of the leaves rustling overhead, tonight the neighborhood was buzzing—overrun with the gossiping presence of the New York elite.
They had come to see a spectacle—an event of epic proportions. Ricardo and Lilly De Campo were divorcing and throwing a million dollar party to celebrate. And not one person on the impossible-to-get-on guest list wanted to miss a second of it. It was to be the most scandalous, juiciest, talked about water cooler event of the season.
The guests swept out of the sleek long cars, an elegant tide of politicians, society types and business associates of the De Campo family, and made their way through the grand entrance of the Georgian-style home, all of them searching for a glimpse of Ricardo and Lilly, the couple many had agreed were the only passionately in love couple left in New York. Ricardo, oldest heir to the De Campo wine empire and glamorous former Iowa farm girl, Lilly, had made an undeniable impact on the social fabric of Manhattan society from the first night they’d appeared as a couple at the historic Hospital for Sick Children Christmas ball. They had been the it couple, the couple everyone wanted to be—but what had fascinated New Yorkers most was the spark that had always arced between Ricardo and Lilly. Like the Fourth of July fireworks over the Hudson River that transfixed the crowds on Independence Day, watching the couple was like watching an explosion poised to go off.
It was fascinating, intense, always floating just below the surface. And, apparently, given tonight’s event, hard to sustain.
‘I knew it would never last,’ the primped-to-within-an-inch-of-their-life New York socialites who’d tried to catch the elusive, single Ricardo said. ‘They were too perfect. And what couple could really be that much in love?’
‘You can take the farm girl out of Iowa,’ others, who’d watched Lilly De Campo try to keep up with her husband’s glamorous life, said, ‘but you can’t take the Iowa out of the farm girl…’
Speculation was flying as the catering staff directed the couple’s closest friends and family to the huge, second-floor ballroom. They held their Cristal-filled glasses, discussed how bizarre it was that intensely private Ricardo De Campo had chosen such a public way to announce the end of his marriage, and took in the spectacular, chandelier soaked ambience of a room the De Campos had rarely opened up to the public. They had finished their first glass when speculation turned rife and the tall, dark couple had still not appeared.
Where were the De Campos?

There you go. I still have a soft spot for this opening. In the opening I went to print with, I do still have a set up scene between Lilly and her sister, but I get to the meet between Lilly and Riccardo a heck of a lot faster than I did in the original. And the conversation between the sisters sets up the essential backstory and mood without bogging the reader down in narrative.
Here’s a few tips on writing your opening:
·      Start in an exciting place. Sounds obvious enough, but you need to hook the reader. Try and avoid clichéd openings like a heroine packing her suitcase
·      Only use the backstory you need to make sure the reader isn’t lost and knows what the story is about. Trust that they will follow if you make the opening compelling enough. They need something to make them want to read on
·      Get your hero and heroine on the page as soon as you can. After all, that’s why people pick up a romance
           I'm curious, do you find it easy to figure out where to start a book or do you find yourself writing a couple of scenes, then chopping until you have it right? I’m always fascinated by how different we writers are!
            Cheers and thanks for dropping by! Until next month…


  1. Great post! This is something I struggled with in my romances, coming from a literary fiction background. My SYTYCW2013 entry started with what I felt was essential backstory, and the hero/heroine met too late. I revised it to make them meet quicker and set up some of the same conflict. I'm trying to blend/fold in the backstory from the older beginning now. It is painful.

    I'm finding a few stories later that I've gotten much better at finding the right opening and getting the characters together faster. Using less backstory allows me to tantalize the reader further into the story with a bread crumb here and there. It's taken a lot of studying and practice to fine tune this skill for me.

    I like seeing the original beginning of The Divorce Party. I loved the beginning that ended up in print and thought it was well done. Can't wait to read The Truth About DeCampo.

    1. Thanks for dropping by! :) Yes it's tricky to balance that back story in the beginning and tell only what you need to so the reader 'gets' it, but I always remind myself they don't need much if your story carries them along. It is hard to go back and make those changes, sometimes harder than starting fresh. Thank you and so glad you're looking forward to The Truth About De Campo!

  2. It isn't just writing. I often struggle with presentations for work on how much context do you need before you get to the big reveal? People only have so much patience to sit through the lead up, they want to get to the action, you can fill in back story later if you need. Sometimes you don't!

    As a reader of many a book, I do know that if you haven't hooked me quickly it will be hard for me to finish the book. But I do like both your beginnings!

  3. Thank you for sharing this alternate opening, Jennifer. I thought The Divorce Party was a delicious read just the way it was, but this scene would have hooked me off the top too. LOVE the DeCampos and can't wait to read more from you!

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