Hello again. I am excited to continue this topic with all of you. We have been going through a step-by-step process of a deep edit. If you are a writer and you have missed the last four blogs by Tracy and me, I highly suggest looking at them. Following the process we have laid out will not only improve your work, it will help you begin to self-analyze. It is not easy to critique yourself, but it is a necessary skill if you want your writing to improve.
Before I get started on editing the collective impact of your writing, I want you to do an exercise with me. Go to your bookshelf and read the very first sentence of some of your favorite books.
“Locke Lamora’s rule of thumb was this: a good confidence game took three months to plan, three weeks to rehearse, and three seconds to win or lose the victim’s trust forever.” The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
“Angel pushed the canvas flap back just enough to look out at the mud street.” Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers
“‘I’ve watched through his eyes, I’ve listened through his ears, and I tell you he’s the one.’” Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
“When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.” The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by C.S. Lewis
“It was Felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn.” The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
What do you think? How did yours turn out? Did you notice how each of these beginning sentences had a specific impact on you? Impressions of world, character, and style took shape in your mind while questions fired off in the background.
Sometimes I’ll do this at a bookstore to see what other, apparently published, authors are up to, and sometimes I leave feeling miffed that some of those authors got published. Your first sentence must be strong enough to pull your readers in and keep them going, chapter by chapter, until the very end.
Really, my advice here is simple: don’t be a try-hard. While it is important to ensure that your first sentence is doing its job, that doesn’t mean it must be profound, poetic, or exciting. Have you heard of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest? It’s a contest where writers submit a terrible first sentence to what would be the worst novel ever written. It’s amazing how intentionally practicing bad writing can be good for you. You want a fast and quick way to see what makes a terrible first sentence? Check out this link to view the entries of the winners. The 2014 fantasy winner is my particular favorite.
Now that you’ve explored successful first sentences and remarkably unsuccessful ones, go back to your book or short story and look at your first sentence. Now what do you think? Does it start with a doorbell ringing, an alarm going off, or the weather? Is it lengthy and wordy? Is it too extreme or uninteresting? Rewrite it.
I caution you not to agonize and overthink this. Knowing how to start can be the hardest part, but just go with your gut. Try writing out a few choices, and see what best fits your story and style. Let me tell you, I’ve read books where the first sentence is one word. And then there’s Tolkien… Oh, Tolkien.
Thought you were done, didn’t you? While I laugh manically in the background at such a notion, take a look at the end of every chapter of your favorite books. What do they all have in common? They make you want to keep reading. I’m guilty of spending ten plus hours reading a book. I’d sit there thinking, “I’ll just finish this chapter, and then I’ll stop.” Before I knew it, it was five chapters later, and I’m thinking, “One more chapter couldn’t hurt.” It is an evil, evil, evil trick that writer’s pull, and I hope you learn it because it’s genius. Go ahead and review the endings to all of your chapters. Do they successfully pull you into the next chapter? Be careful here. It doesn’t mean that the end to every chapter has to be a cliff-hanger. It just has to have pull, intrigue, or questions that must be answered. Don’t be afraid to re-arrange scenes, change where the chapter ends or begins, and rewrite endings to achieve this effect.
Let’s take this a step further, shall we? Look at the beginning and ending of every scene. Do all scenes begin with dialogue or a character’s name? Do all of the scenes end on dialogue or an overly dramatic thought? You should reconsider them. You want your beginnings to properly ground your readers and pull them into the scene. Your endings should be a balance between closure and dissatisfaction. It’s tricky, but it’s about giving your readers enough that they’re appeased but hungry for more, leaving them no choice but to continue reading.
Finally, look at your scenes as a whole. It might benefit you to outline your story by writing the point of each scene. Every scene must contribute something to the collective story. There must be forward motion, a positive or negative impact on the reader, a discovery, etc. Look at the big picture of each scene. If you notice that you have a two-page scene for only one line of dialogue, you should consider either rewriting the scene to make it important or cutting the scene and incorporating the important part into another existing scene. If the scene is not serving a purpose and impacting your reader in some way, rethink it.
I have set quite the task before you, but I promise it’s worth it. Remember that this is a process of refinement, and editing the collective impact of your book or short story is what brings you closer to that luminous, quality work you want to achieve. Go ahead. Fashion your story such that people won’t be able to put it down—be an evil mastermind.
By Rachelle Clifford