Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Construction Zone - 6. Beginnings

I didn't choose this picture randomly.

Beginnings are one of the hardest things to get right. I bet if I surveyed a pretty wide swath of romance authors, they'd say that they spend more time on those first three chapters than at any other point in the book. They will probably also admit that those three change more than any other section as well.

Why? My opinion is that it's because those beginnings are the foundation upon which your book is built. Weak foundation...boy, are you going to be doing a lot of patch-up work later. But you make your opening chapters solid, and even when things go wrong, you have a solid foundation to go back to.

Already I am having to backtrack - and I just finished the draft of chapter one. And you know what? This is another reason why KNOWING YOUR CHARACTERS is so important. Chapter one was flat. I knew it, my CP confirmed it. Motivations are missing, especially for my heroine. Now...I thought for a while, considered a suggestion she made, and it started taking shape in my mind. My heroine now has a whole other level of backstory. Boys and girls, I was only 14 pages in and already I'd made a pretty big mistake.

But this is what opening chapters are for. You learn right away whether or not your conflict will be sustainable. You gather more insight into motivations as you "meet" your characters, not only in your background work but as they interact with EACH OTHER. You get the foundation down. Then after the whole book is drafted, and I do the layering, I know a lot more than I did at the beginning. So most of my layering happens in the front end - I'd guess probably chapters 1-6.

Laying a strong foundation isn't easy. You need to introduce your characters. You need to have them TOGETHER. You need to show them feeling attraction and also introduce your conflict. You have to add in elements of backstory. But it's early days. So you have to do all of this carefully...while keeping the PACE going. It's one huge balancing act and that's probably why we spend so much bloody time on it.

I send my partial mss to my editor now with a caveat: "Here it is, but I'm sure it'll change by the end." I don't mean rewritten, but layers will be added. As I go through, there will be more depth. Sending the partial means if there are any gaping holes or serious flaws, they are brought to light right away. So far I haven't had that happen, thank goodness. I credit most of that to my CP, who has a great eye and points out those things right away. Like she did this morning. So now I'm off to revise my chapter and move forward into chapter two, knowing that first building block is a lot more solid.


  1. Its funny isn't it - its the beginning of a book that comes to me -the scene,the idea and yet it changes the most once the book is written - this last one I just had this opening line - that in the end never got used!
    I am way more chicken that you - I won't send a partial or anything until the whole bok is written because I don't really have the full beginning until I have the end - maybe I'll get better at that!?

  2. Donna, can I just say how helpful and informative your construction zone has been?

    I mean, you know you know it and you know others know it too, but it's nice to know what you know is right.

    In other words there has been lots of 'oh yeah, of course' moments whilst I've been reading it, lol.

    Thank you!

  3. Donna, when you slip snippets of character backstory into chapter to give your writing a contemporary feel is it best to

    a)show it in dialogue eg: Character A says to h: 'I really worry about you. Eveyone one needs to relax every now and then...etc'

    b)have the author add it in a very short piece of telling: Since splitting up with X, h's life had been one long round of work. She'd
    kept telling herself it wouldn't be forever but somehow...etc


    c) have the character think it eg: yes, her life was completely dictated by her work. So what? Being a brain surgeon was a dream come true..etc

  4. That should have read:
    Donna, when you slip snippets of character backstory into chapter ONE

    (I didn't do a preview before I posted again!)