Welcome back to our 'Teeth and Bones Editing Contest'. Here's the scoop:
How to enter: Comment on the Novel Matters blog anytime between Monday, September 6th, and Friday September 17th. At the bottom of your comment type TABEC (short for Teeth and Bones Editing Contest). Only comments with these letters at the bottom will be eligible to win (we understand that not all our readers are interested in this level of editing, but would still want to be free to comment and discuss editing - that's the reason we require interested people to please use the TABEC letters at the bottom of their comments). The winner will work one on one with Bonnie Grove via e-mail. The winner will consent to having the first paragraph of the work posted on Novel Matters in a before and after comparison. This means the winner will agree to have the first paragraph of your WIP appear on the blog, first as it was originally written, then in its edited form.
I want to address a crucial consideration that can be difficult to face, or even consider facing, during the editing process: does your story start in the right place? And while it may not be the wrong place exactly, are you willing to do the major rewrite necessary to make the story the best it can be?
You may have heard that many stories actually start on the third chapter. Cut the first 3 chapters and you cut the fluff and get down to the action. You'll never miss them. I've had to do it myself, and it's really painful to amputate what represents many months of work and research to perfect the story. But this advice doesn't work for every genre. Opening with the action doesn't fit every story, so we have to consider who is giving the advice, which 'how-to' book we're reading and the type of fiction that particular author writes. I had this experience at a writers conference when I submitted my proposal for critique to a well-known author who writes exceptional thrillers and his advice to me was to cut away to the action. Do away with the first five pages. Start with the tension high, place the protagonist in the thick of things. Before I followed his advice, I submitted that same proposal to an editor at the conference who did not agree with the suggested change. He pointed out that it wasn't the same type of story, and happily, he liked it just fine.
At least in literary or upmarket fiction, the place where your story begins isn't always where the book should start. Most stories are linear - the story starts at the beginning and finishes at the end, but that isn't necessarily how the story should be told. Consider Water for Elephants, with its opening sentence establishing the protagonist is near the end of his life, as does Marilyn Robinson's Gilead. There is determination and urgency in telling the story from the perspective of a life having been already lived, looking back at how it all unfolded, for good or ill. That's putting the character into the thick of things emotionally, driving the story along.
I recently read Olive Kitteridge, which has a unique way of telling Olive's story. It's not written from beginning to end. Every chapter is written either from Olive's viewpoint, or from someone who knew her, revealing different aspects of her character in their interactions with her. The story begins with her husband's perspective instead of Olive's, which I think sets the tone for the book. I can't say that I truly enjoyed the book, but it was worth reading for the unique structure and the characterizations. (language & subject matter warning)
A word of caution: Some writers start with prologues, but these are not generally met with enthusiasm by editors. I'm sure there have been some excellent books that opened with prologues, but none come immediately to mind. So, if you have a smash-up prologue, go for it. Just don't make it a deal-breaker. Some writers get around the whole prologue issue by placing the first chapter or opening scene out of sequence with the rest of the story. It could work. It probably has.
Personally, at least for upmarket fiction, I feel it's imperative to consider your book as a whole, look objectively at what point in the story it's understood what the protagonist wants or must overcome, and begin there. Readers will only invest themselves in a book when they respect the protagonist and feel the goal is legitimate, and when this is expressed early enough to maintain interest. That kind of story is worth the rewrite.
Let us know what you think & for a chance to win that critique!