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Friday, May 28, 2010

Want to write a novel? A secret way to make yours better...

My stated goal here at "It's like making sausage..." is to tell those publishing stories that you might not ordinarily hear.  Stories of stupid covers that almost made it into print.  Weird questions I've been asked on the radio.  Goofy research trips that took me deep into the Mississippi woods where only a great blue heron would know if I fell and broke an ankle.  If I don't tell you these things, then how will you know?

A friend of mine told me yesterday that she's heard a Pulitzer Prize-winner speak about his blog.  He says that he always deletes the first two paragraphs before he hits "Publish."  He says those two paragraphs were "just throat-clearing."

Well, yeah.  But I submit to you that people read blogs to see how the blogger thinks, not necessarily to read an essay written in the spare and unadorned style of Pulitzer-winning essays.  That's my excuse, anyway.  I am a brutal editor of my fiction.  When my agent saw my first manuscript, she said, "This is the cleanest copy I have ever seen."  (This was back when I was afraid of her, so that praise will stick with me forever.)  When I write fiction, every word has to give me a reason to be there, or it doesn't get to stay.  When I blog, I like to just sit down and talk to you people.

It occurred to me to ask my friend to get the Pulitzer dude to cut those two paragraphs every day...and send them to me.  I'll post them here, then we can all read them, deconstruct them, and decide whether they're Pulitzer-worthy.  What do you think?

Okay that was four paragraphs of throat-clearing, but I'm from Mississippi, so I have a genetic gift for meaningless small talk.  And eventually, I do get to the point.

When I heard the Pulitzer dude say he always cut the first two paragraphs, I thought it was glib advice.  Sometimes those paragraphs are good.  And sometimes you need to cut five.  Better advice would be to scrutinize the first paragraphs extra hard, because they are often weak in early drafts. 

But don't stop with the first two paragraphs.  (Here's the secret I promised you up top, and it's a writing tip I've never seen elsewhere.)  Look at your novel's first chapter.  Many times, it's backstory that turns out to be unnecessary.  If you spend a chapter telling the reader your character's life history, then eventually refer to that history later, as part of the real action, then cut out the repetitive info in Chapter One.

With my first two books, I found that I'd written first chapters that dragged, but I'd progressed enough in my craft that they weren't completely extraneous.  It was just that Chapter 2 was better.  After scrutinizing them for a moment I realized that they worked better in reverse.  The material in Chapter 2 made a slam-bang beginning.  Then, after the dust from all that action settled, the material in the original Chapter 1 made a nice quiet flashback to other things the reader needed to know. 

I haven't used this technique since, but I always look Chapter 1 over hard.  If you do that, you may find that a chapter switcheroo will wake up your story and grab the attention of an editor from Word One.

Mary Anna


  1. Thou art a wise blogger indeed! Blogging is about yakking ... especially if you're from Mississippi. (And don't think I didn't consider asking Pulitzer boy to send me his cast-offs. I was willing to weave them into gorgeousness. Okay, it might have been disjointed, but each paragraph would have been a gem.)

    BTW, good point about rearranging chapters. I've sometimes done this within smaller blocks of text ... like essays or articles. It's jarring and wonderful to find the led in the third paragraph!

  2. Yakking is like oxygen to a Mississippian. Trust me on this.

    Speaking of opening chapters, I had a moment this morning when I started thinking about how to write the first scenes of the new book. When this happens, or when I start hearing Faye and Joe talk to each other in my head (no, I'm not schizophrenic, because I know they're not real), then I know it's about time to stop researching and start writing. It's very reassuring when that happens.

  3. It's wonderful to know that you've identified the moment of putting research to necessary rest. I enjoy research so much that I sometimes cling to it too long. Of course, I'm embarrassingly aware that clinging to it is the very best way in the world to keep from actually WRITING. When I catch myself in a white-knuckle grip on research, I use a crowbar. Enjoy the writing!