Posted On April 6, 2012 by Print This Post

Carve Out a Better Beginning with Dave Thome

We’re excited to have romance author Dave Thome at the lectern today! Dave’s book, THE FAST LANE, debuted on Amazon in November 2011. Dave makes references to compost and dead wood in his post. He’s not talking about gardening but his first chapter.  www.manwritingaromance.blogspot.com/

I have never heard anyone say, “I went through my entire novel and changed everything but the opening.”

When I was writing my novel FAST LANE, I got all kinds of advice on how to improve the opening. I needed to “start in the middle of the action.” I needed to get readers to like or to identify or side with the characters. I needed to have a hook.

All three were essential, but seemed mutually exclusive.

One critiquer even told me I had to start in the middle of the action and introduce the characters later and introduce the characters more thoroughly right away because, since he didn’t know anything about them, there was no reason for him to care about the action.

In math, that’s known as a null set. Math confuses me.

Besides, I thought I was starting in the middle of the action. FAST LANE is about a woman who insinuates herself into a playboy’s life with the intention of destroying his image and his business because she believes they’re ruinous to women, so I opened with the heroine, Lara, pitching her plan to a potential backer.

Members of my writer’s group said they needed to know more about Lara and see her transformation from “regular girl” to “woman who’d be able to seduce a billionaire playboy.” So I filled the next thirty or so pages so with background information about her, interwoven with details about her preparation—workouts, waxing, tanning, hair dyeing, lessons on how to lie. Beta readers said the result reeked of datadump.

Do you feel a migraine coming on? I did. Even now, just describing it.

Fortunately, I have a sharp editor. Her name is Mary Jo. She’s my wife, too, but that’s a different story. Like me, she puzzled and puzzed till her puzzler was sore, and came up with a solution. Flying around the first thirty pages of my Word doc, she developed an outline of what should be in FAST LANE’s opening. My brain didn’t feel any better at first, but slowly I came to realize that the circles in the graph were moving closer together, that it was possible for these seemingly incompatible demands to intersect, wiping out the null set and fulfilling the requirements that make up an effective opening.

My original first line was:  Lara Dixon folded her arms and glared out the window. “Because,” she said, “Clay Creighton must go down.”

Middle of the action? Or was I was confusing “the middle of a sentence” with “the middle of the action?”

That opening did convey that Lara Dixon is the main character. That she’s pissed off at this Clay Creighton guy. And, maybe, that she has a plan to bring him down. But from there it was straight downhill for one-seventh of the book. And the most critical one-seventh at that.

What do you do when people say you need to change your opening? Delete Chapter One? Maybe. But maybe there’s a better Chapter One hiding inside the one you already have. What you need to do is find it. Whittle it out the way a woodcarver fashions a fishing lure from a basswood block.

• Start by making a list of what readers absolutely need to know to get into the story.

• Then pick a few choice cuttings from the overgrown tree of your prose that demonstrate those points.

• Then look for the place where your heroine stands on the brink of a new phase of life and shape that into your opening line.

 

Easy, right? I’ll be the first to admit it’s not. But here’s how the process went for me.

Step 1

List the minimum amount of information necessary to pull readers into your story. Here’s what readers needed to know at the beginning of FAST LANE:

• Lara’s pissed off at Clay.

• Clay’s made billions instructing men on living the high life.

• Clay has a gimmick called The Rotation—three women who are always on his arm, with one member replaced every six months.

• Lara’s ex-husband was a serial cheater and a Fast Lane devotee.

• Lara’s made herself over to be more appealing to Clay.

Step 2

Find details that matter. For example, Lara’s prep—1,800 words in my original first chapter—could be summarized in just 68 words:

Lara thought about the weeks she’d spent in the gym. The coaching sessions on how to lie, with a mysterious woman whose name and accent changed daily. The hours poring through the enormously popular Fast Lane website, reading Creighton’s daily encyclicals on materialism and carnality until she could easily extemporize on the advantages of gadgets she’d never use and the attributes of running backs she’d never cheer for.

Even better, those 68 words pruned two branches with one snip by also introducing the Fast Lane business model—something I’d taken more than a thousand words to explain in the original draft.

I’d also spent more than a thousand words explaining why Lara was so angry with Fast Lane and Clay. Here are the ten that survived:

An instructional guide on how to screw over your wife.

Step 3

Find that threshold moment, where your heroine is about to enter a new world. This is the final opening line to FAST LANE:

The limo jerked hard to the right, sending Lara Dixon sliding across the slick leather seat.

Middle of the action? Within a couple lines, you learn that Lara is way beyond proposing her scheme. She’s in the car, minutes away from putting the plan into action. On the cusp of a life-changing event. Literally at a crossroads.

Like all the pieces I’ve mentioned, this was hidden in my original draft:

Neither of them expected the car to jerk so hard to the right that Lara thought maybe they had hit something.

Which appeared on page 18. Eighteen! That’s where I had buried the most effective opening of the book.

After a few weeks of blood, tears, sweat and toil—and swearing and surliness and migraines—I took the new opening, 703 words as opposed to more than 3,800, back to the very people whose comments had led me to add a bunch of back story to the front in the first place—my writer’s group.

And they loved it. In fact, several of them said they understood the characters, the set-up and the back story more than when the passage was five times as long!

And there was a bonus. If readers could get what was going on from my new svelte opening, there was no need to find places to wedge in the compost I’d removed. I did not have to go through my novel and change everything but the opening.

Odds are that after you’ve finished your first draft someone—if not everyone—will say you need to change Chapter One. Do not despair. Everything you need to craft a killer opening—one that grabs readers, connects them to your heroine and launches them into the story—is almost certainly there. You have to prune back the dead wood to find it.

***

Have you ever reworked your first chapter? Cut it out entirely? Share your agony with us.

***

Author Virginia Kantra joins us on Monday, April 9th.

***

FAST LANE is available on Amazon in e-book and print format. Here’s a quick blurb:

Lara Dixon goes undercover to bring down notorious Fast Lane media mogul Clay Creighton and his entourage of beautiful women known as The Rotation. But Lara discovers Clay and Fast Lane are not what they seem. Can Lara put the brakes on her plan and remain on the road to happily-ever-after?

And an excerpt beginning with page one:

The limo jerked hard to the right, sending Lara Dixon sliding across the slick leather seat.

That can’t be good.

The man seated across from her—the man Gina had found to introduce her to Clay Creighton—scrambled upright and banged on the plexiglas partition separating them from the driver, a uniformed woman who had quarter-inch silver hair peeking from beneath a livery cap.

“What the hell?” he demanded as the partition slid open. “Did you hit something?”

The driver met Lara’s questioning gaze in the rearview mirror. “Oops.” The partition slid shut.

That really can’t be good.

Lara flipped down a mirror to fix her hair. Her natural color shimmered through the semisweet chocolate veneer. Hard to get used to after thirty-two years as a blonde.

“Just a bump in the road.” Anton Roche worked his neck like a preening turkey and settled back in as the limo raced past Paradise Cove on the road toMalibu. “As I was saying, the girl thought she was the aurora borealis,Liberty’s torch and the leprechaun’s pot o’ gold rolled into one. But she knew she looked even hotter in my bustier.”

Lara suppressed a sigh. How does Gina put up with this guy? The lingerie designer had prattled about his life with the glitterati from the minute he’d picked her up at her humbleSanta Monica apartment. She wished he’d let her concentrate on this new experience of riding in luxury. After tonight, she might never step into a limo again. Then again, Roche had put his turkey neck on the line to talk up Lara to Clay Creighton.

He has his own axe to grind, but I should at least pretend to be interested.

“Why is it the ‘STP’ bustier?” Lara asked, though after weeks of researching Creighton’s Fast Lane empire, she knew the answer. Never hurts to practice. You’ll be lying all the time if everything goes right tonight.

Roche straightened with pride. “‘Seconds toParadise.’ It’s goddamn brilliant. Builds up the bust—and a man can unhook it one-handed like that.” He snapped his fingers. “You know how much money Creighton’s made from that thing? It’s the biggest seller in the Toy Store. But do I get the credit?” He looked more closely at Lara. “It wouldn’t have been a bad idea for you to wear one tonight.”

Lara had considered buying one from Fast Lane’s notorious online gift shop back when she was married. “I thought STP had something to do with gasoline.”

“Yeah, well…Fast Lane: Racy cars, the high life…and all that.”

Fast women, fast cars, fast living. I know all about Fast Lane and Clay Creighton.

***

Bio: Dave Thome likes football, cooking and women, though not necessarily in that order. His 2012 novel, FAST LANE, is available as an ebook and paperback from Amazon. The companion “making of”book, MAN WRITING A ROMANCE, is available only as an ebook. Dave is also written several screenplays, including four that were optioned by film production companies. A journalist who writes a weekly column on automotive technology, he lives in Shorewood,Wisconsin. www.manwritingaromance.blogspot.com/

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28 Responses to “Carve Out a Better Beginning with Dave Thome”

  1. Morning Dave!

    Oy, the first chapter! Nothing gets redone more than the first chapter I swear. I always think you should write the entire ms, then go back and toss out the first chapter and start with a fresh beginning.

    I’m glad you toned yours down to a reasonable opening that you’re happy with – it’s definitely a lot of work, and certainly migraine worthy!

    =)

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | April 6, 2012, 6:50 am
    • I think Mary Jo and Adrienne hit the nail on the head below when they say the beginning often needs to change after the first draft because you don’t know the characters well enough when you write it the first time. Plus, if people don’t like the first chapter–the first page, even–they don’t read further. So there are reasons we sweat out those first few passages.

      Posted by Dave Thome | April 6, 2012, 10:54 am
  2. Hi Dave,

    I’ve changed names, locations, professions, and book titles based on the first chapter. I gave up trying and write the last chapter first.

    Mary Jo (hi to your wife)

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | April 6, 2012, 7:11 am
  3. This could not have come at a better time! I am as we speak sweating over chapter one of my new book and you’ve given me great motivation to dig in.

    For me, sometimes I feel like I don’t know the characters well enough when I write the first chapter. I will typically do an “ugly draft” of it and then go back to it after I’ve completed a first draft of the entire manuscript. I’m always amazed at how much easier it is to write the first chapter last!

    Thanks for a great post, Dave!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | April 6, 2012, 8:06 am
    • Writing the first chapter last is undoubtedly a good strategy for many people. I, on the other hand, absolutely cannot write anything out of sequence. It’s amazing what you learn about yourself when you write.

      Posted by Dave Thome | April 6, 2012, 10:59 am
  4. Hi Dave! I love this line – I have never heard anyone say, “I went through my entire novel and changed everything but the opening.”

    So true!! My first book, the learner book as is often the case, had major surgery. I cut the first twenty pages, then another twenty-five. Very painful, but very necessary. I eventually learned to avoid all that by starting at the crossroads in the first place. Very good advice.

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | April 6, 2012, 8:26 am
  5. This topic hits me where I live. I really like the term, the threshold moment. Yes, a couple of times, that moment has bonked me on the head screaming, “This is it!”

    But not usually.

    I’m one of those that has to write whole scenes of information about the characters, what’s going on, beginning at “the beginning”–as in the beginning of the world. It’s all incredibly boring, as my critique partners tell me, but which I MUST write to understand my story and characters.

    Yes, I’m a pantser. I know sort of where I’m starting and definitely where I’m going, but the middle is muddled. So too is my actual beginning. Sometimes I have to write the entire first draft before I figure out what the beginning is.

    Then I have to find the perfect ending! Ack!

    Cheers,
    Ann

    Posted by Ann Macela | April 6, 2012, 8:53 am
    • One thing about writing a bunch of info upfront is that you get a better idea of the character and the story. But, of course, you always know more than the readers do.

      Sometimes, after you’ve written all the way through and have gone back to change the beginning, you find out what you need for a perfect ending. It’s all interconnected. Or at least it should be.

      Posted by Dave Thome | April 6, 2012, 1:26 pm
  6. In my first draft, I put so much backstory and world-building into the beginning of my novel that I realized I had started the story in the middle. My husband told me to reorder all the flashbacks I thought were essential and put everything in linear order. I was skeptical, but I tried it. Lo and behold the inciting event is smack clear in the opening scene. And all the world-building could be inserted slowly throughout the first half of the novel. The order of the factors does indeed affect the product.

    Posted by Patchi | April 6, 2012, 8:57 am
  7. Dave – Thanks so much for a great blog! Have I ever reworked a first chapter? More to the point, have I ever STOPPED reworking my first chapters?? I’m never satisfied with them.

    It’s great to have you here today – I hope M.J. will join us, too!

    Posted by Becke Davis (Becke Martin) | April 6, 2012, 9:15 am
  8. Dave –

    I agree with Adrienne that I’m often just getting to know my characters when I draft chapter one, so it’s important not to get completely married to the way that scene is constructed.

    Great reminder that everything can be fixed!

    Thanks,
    Kelsey

    Posted by Kelsey Browning | April 6, 2012, 9:18 am
  9. Dave, I wished I’d had this post a few years ago. I probably wrote a million words in my first chapter. “It needs to start when . . .” “It dosn’t start in the right place.” “The reader doesn’t need to know all that.” Did I finally get it right by the time I published the book? Probably not. But I learned a lot. Next time I struggle with an opening, I’ll use your 3 points listed above. Thanks, Kathy

    Posted by Katherine Lowry Logan | April 6, 2012, 9:23 am
    • You know, there are rules of thumb. As far as I’m concerned, The Help starts on page 105 after a bunch of info dump. And while I’ve been told never to open a story with the hero waking up in the morning, The Hunger Games opens with Katniss waking up in the morning.

      In any event, I’ll probably have to reread this post the next time I start a new novel.

      Posted by Dave Thome | April 6, 2012, 11:10 am
  10. I’ve not written a story that the beginning doesn’t change multiple times. Before anyone else ever sees it. Always worried that I’m starting in the wrong place.

    Posted by PatriciaW | April 6, 2012, 9:46 am
    • A writer worry? Never heard that one before.;) But letting other people see your work before you’re 100% sure of it–especially if you’re struggling–can do wonders. In my case, I actually made the problem worse before it got better, but that was part of the process, I guess.

      Posted by Dave Thome | April 6, 2012, 11:13 am
      • I’ve gone back and forth on crit groups, Dave. I’m in a space where I think it’s important to get the first draft completed before inviting feedback. Otherwise, my story and voice would get totally lost.

        But I think the trick is to do exactly that, get the story out, before even I begin tinkering with it, including the first chapter. Working on making that my process.

        Posted by PatriciaW | April 6, 2012, 12:00 pm
        • Yeah, critique groups can be all over the board. You have to find out what works best for you.

          Posted by Dave Thome | April 6, 2012, 12:24 pm
        • Patricia, I’m extremely lucky to be in an awesome critique group, where each person is encouraged to write in her own voice, and we call her on it when she slips up! We each write in different genres, have completely different voices, and respect each other for this. Don’t paint all CG’s with that indictment.

          Posted by Sherry Weddle | April 6, 2012, 7:36 pm
  11. Hi Dave!

    Sorry I’m late commenting. I’ll follow your steps and go through the first chapter in my finished ms and the current one too. I’ve played with my first chapters countless times wondering if I’d started in the right place, put in too much back story, etc. I found my opening buried in chapter two of the first draft.

    The example you provided is extremely helpful. Your post reminds me of the post Alicia Rasley did with us a couple weeks ago on pacing. Make the reader ask question in one chapter and postpone the answer for another scene to maintain the pace. Not everything has to be asked and answered in the same scene or chapter. Still shaking my head over the 1,800 words pruned to a lean 68!

    Thanks for joining us today!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | April 6, 2012, 2:06 pm
  12. Hi Dave, sorry for being so late to the party! Fantastic information in your post. Beginnings are the bane of my writing process. In my debut novel, I probably rewrote the beginning a half dozen time before I settled on the scene that originally sparked the story idea. I shied away from writing it because I thought it was too gritty for historical romance. Seems gritty is good these days. :) I rewrote the opening for my second book four times, I think. I’m in the editorial process now, so I’ll see how it goes! Thanks for joining us!

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | April 6, 2012, 6:07 pm
  13. I also wanted to reply to Dave’s teaching about first chapters. In my first book, I struggled and struggled with my opening chapters, rewriting endlessly until my excellent critique partner (thanks Ann!) suggested I cut the first 9 chapters!! A whole country’s action was deleted, which brought my story into the present (timewise and location) and is a much better opening. All the backstory that I thought was so important could be inserted in a very few dialogues.

    Posted by Sherry Weddle | April 6, 2012, 7:41 pm
  14. Dave, thanks for blogging with us today. And thanks everyone for stopping by and commenting. Have a great weekend!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | April 6, 2012, 10:15 pm

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