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You will rarely write anything where you don’t – at some point – hit a stumbling block, a wrong turn, or a dead end.

I hit my first wrong turn in TFSoLY, which is a result of me still trying to feel my way through the world and find out more about it. I like the introduction of the two central characters, but then I wanted a tour of the protagonist’s daily life.

Only the way I was doing it wasn’t working – a wrong turn.

Taking a wrong turn is a bigger problem than hitting a stumbling block or a dead end. A stumbling block is a minor annoyance – something you can work through. Often, with a stumbling block you can use a patchwork solution that will hold until revision provides alternatives. You hit a dead end and that’s it. You know that’s not the way to go and you need to take a different way. Usually, that’ll take time to discover. You might ruminate on it for hours, if not days (and, granted, there’s more extreme cases).

But in taking a wrong turn, the words are coming. I happily wrote 500 words about Luke’s daily professional routine. We got to see the bar/bistro he worked in (as well as learn a bit about its history), and met two of his co-workers, as well as his boss. I could’ve gone on and on. But, as I wrote, the editor in me was examining the scene and declaring it was already too long, and if I continued it that it would grow longer without adding too much to the overall story.

When this happens, I always correlate it with trying to find exactly where I want to go. It’s like driving to a location you’ve never been before, and only having a rough idea of how to get there. You might have to take a few wrong turns and explore a few wrong streets before you work out that’s not the way to go. But in taking those wrong turns, you usually will work out the right way. The problem is how much time and energy you waste on exploring those wrong turns – hopefully it’s not so much that you become disenfranchised with the whole project.

Ultimately, I cut the scene and stuck it in a new file – TFSoLY (EXTRACTS). I’ve done this for all my major works (books and screenplays), archiving these cut scenes, the way DVD and BluRay releases of movies nowadays feature DELETED SCENES.

Interestingly, Just Another Week in Suburbia and August Falling didn’t need EXTRACTS files because the early drafts emerged relatively well-formed. Still, to be fair, after Just Another Week in Suburbia was selected for the Hachette Manuscript Development Program in 2013, the wonderful Bernadette Foley – then the fiction publisher for Hachette – gave me such precise feedback about what I should be looking at in the early draft of JAWiS, that I cut and rewrote about one/third of the book, which then became the draft that Pantera Press accepted. Those cuts now exist only in earlier drafts. Such cuts weren’t required from August Falling, but my fantastic editor at Pantera, Lucy Bell, provided me such comprehensive feedback that I worked out what areas I needed to develop.

Anyway, the biggest extracts file I have is 8,000 words, which is not a bad effort given it’s for a novella that’s only 20,000 words. In that case, much of the original openings were cut. For one of my screenplays (which ended up being optioned in 2006), I got to 95 pages (of an intended 120), felt it wasn’t working, and cut 90 pages and started over. I have heard of authors who’ve cut much, much more of their work.

But now I do feel I’m on the right course. I’m sure there’ll be other wrong turns, but I like the way TFSoLY is going.

 
Last Week’s Lie: I said while handwriting my book way back in 1985, I’d survive on a diet of tea and cigarettes (true), or seven or eight Red Bulls. That part of the sentence is a lie. Red Bull was created in 1987 in Austria, and didn’t arrive in Australia until 1997.

378

Something I consider irreplaceable in any form of writing – and particularly in writing a novel – is getting the first line right.

The right first line unlocks everything that’s required for a novel:

  • a way into the story
  • establishing the world and characters
  • finding the road that the story will take.

Which is what’s made trying to get started on ‘TFSoLY’ so frustrating. Throughout the week, I sat down and hammered out some openings, but every one felt wrong: one came in at the wrong place, so it felt like I was on some ill-lit side-road to the story; another was summarising too much, which made the first page mundane; another was so far from being right, nothing came after it.

As I’ve gotten older, something I’ve become better at is using placeholder first lines. I know they’re thereabouts and that they land me near-enough to the vicinity that not only can I – and will I – eventually find that correct road, but it’ll illuminate where it came from, and that’s where (and when) I can go back and nail that first line down.

In the case of one previous novel, the first chapter ultimately became an unnecessary prologue to the story, but it introduced me to the world, the characters, and their circumstances. Once I felt sure enough working my way through the story, I cut that prologue, and revised the (new) opening chapter, so that it worked (well, I thought it worked). On another novel, the opposite happened – I felt good about the existing opening chapter, but then went back and wrote a prologue that provided context that had been missing for the story.

Writing any form is hard. Writing a novel is like fluking a miracle – juggling everything and setting it down so that it’s recognisable enough, and competent enough, to work in conjunction with all the other pieces requires perseverance, skill, and a good degree of luck. Then (hopefully), revision takes care of smoothing everything out.

Thanks to American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels, from which I picked this top ten (as they’re books I’ve either read or tried to read) opening lines:

    Call me Ishmael.
    – Herman Melville
    Moby Dick (1949)

    Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
    – Vladimir Nabokov
    Lolita (1955)

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
    – George Orwell
    1984 (1949)

    It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
    – Charles Dickens
    A Tale of Two Cities (1859)

    I am an invisible man.
    – Ralph Ellison
    Invisible Man (1952)

    If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
    – J. D. Salinger
    The Catcher in the Rye (1951)

    All this happened, more or less.
    – Kurt Vonnegut
    Slaughterhouse Five (1969)

    He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
    – Ernest Hemingway
    The Old Man and the Sea (1952)

    It was a pleasure to burn marshmallows over the bonfires.
    – Ray Bradbury
    Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

    Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.
    – Margaret Atwood
    Cat’s Eye (1988)

All these opening lines pose a premise, or create intrigue, which hooks the reader into moving onto the next line. From there, a story is built – well, hopefully. The wrong line can lose a reader, or do an injustice to the story, so it’s important that every piece of the structure is essential and does exactly what it’s designed to.

In my resignation, I found a placeholder and it was good enough to let me in. But then, in revising that opening page, I found not only my opening line, but a thematic device that can recur throughout the story. So I’m happy … unless further writing reveals I only landed in the vicinity, and not on the spot.

But I’m 378 words in – it’s not a lot, but it’s a beginning.

 
Last Week’s Lie: Everything about my new book – the title of Valley of the Farters, the synopsis, and the character of Grace Abbott – was a lie.

I can now reveal that my new novel is actually entitled August Falling. Look for a cover reveal soon!