I’m closing in on finishing my current Work In Progress, the twelfth Kitty novel. I even have a title, but I need to run it by some folks first before I start advertising it. I’m at the stage where I’m reading over and revising the whole thing to make it look like the book it’s supposed to be, and not the one I thought it was going to be when I started. It’s kind of a slog, but also exciting to see it all come together.
I had a rough time starting on the read-through — because the opening paragraph sucked. I mean really sucked. I looked at it and thought, “Geez, I don’t want to read this, and it’s my own damn book!” So I changed it. Here’s the before and after.
I sat in my office at radio station KNOB waiting for the printer to finish spitting out the page I’d asked for. I’d found the picture on a website, and I wanted a different perspective on it. Hence, the printing. The full-color image took longer than the usual couple of seconds a page usually took to spill out of the machine.
This is a terrible opening paragraph. It’s not inherently a terrible paragraph — as part of a description in the middle of some other scene. What’s going on here? In the opening scene, I want to introduce a piece of folklore that’s going to be meaningful for Kitty as the book progresses. She’s printing off information she found online. But who wants to read about something as boring and mundane as waiting for the printer to print? What the hell was I thinking, starting with this? This paragraph is generic, dull, and delivers no important information for the story. It doesn’t tell me anything about Kitty, what she’s like, or what the book is going to be about. Let’s not even talk about whether or not it “hooks” the reader.
After the revision:
Online research was a mixed bag. I could find the most insane conspiracy theories, essays, and propositions, which I could then use to incite heated debate on my radio show. Not just flat earth but cubed earth, or aliens living at Wright Patterson Air Force Base, or a pseudo-scientific study claiming that vampire strippers make more in tips than mortal strippers because of their hypnotic powers. (Vampire strippers? Really? Could I get one on the show for an interview?) Or I could click through useless links for hours and feel like I’ve wasted a day.
Sometimes, I typed in my search request and found treasure.
Okay, this is interesting. From this I learn that Kitty hosts a radio show of some kind (the first version was vague on that score), and by the topics she brings up I can guess the show is pretty wacky. She deals with off-the-wall subjects — and the rest of the book probably will, too. And that line about vampire strippers? If that doesn’t make you smile, this probably isn’t your kind of book. If it does — hey, you’ll probably be happy to keep reading. And the last line, about treasure? That’ll make you keep reading to learn what she found.
The first paragraph was a list of meaningless, contextless actions. The second paragraph breaks some so-called rules of opening a novel — it doesn’t have any action, it doesn’t set a scene (I think I was trying to do it this way on the first paragraph, and failed). But it gets the reader straight inside the head of my protagonist, which for the twelfth novel in a series is the important thing, I think. People are reading for Kitty, not for printers. More than anything, though, it captures Kitty’s voice, which the first version didn’t do.
A big part of writing is developing that gut feeling, that instinct that tells you, “You know, this just ain’t right.” It can be tough — normal writer insecurity means that we often feel like it all sucks. But there’s a difference between general insecurity, and a real problem. When I’m revising, I try to read my work as if I’m coming to it for the first time, and noting the places I stumble or get bored. Because that usually indicates a problem.