Self-Editing 101 - The Trouble with Beginnings
Some days, you get lucky, and you write a beautiful beginning in one sitting, and it only needs minor edits before it’s print-ready. I'm talking easy edits; you correct some spelling, check the grammar, make sure there are no continuity errors, and never look back again.
But then, there are the other stories. The ones where the beginning just won’t do what you need it to, and no amount of grammar knowledge or consulting the thesaurus is going to make a lick of difference.
If you keep writing long enough, you are sure to encounter it: the beginning you rewrite so many times you no longer bother to count the drafts. The one you start on instinct, then sink your teeth into, only to realize you still can’t crack it. The one that grows worse the more you try to save it.
So let’s talk about how to improve a first page when you don’t even know where to start. Let’s talk about choices and promises.
The process I’m going to share isn’t the only path to success, but I wanted to give you an idea of what searching for improvement can look like. The examples I’m going to give are four different versions of the first page of my current work in progress. Every part of this story has undergone heavy editing, but the beginning has been the most notorious, partly because it needs to get people hooked on a series by an unknown author, and partly because it needs to attract the right readers; namely those who’ll enjoy a dark fantasy series with copious amounts of graphic violence, that still doesn't quite reach Grimdark levels.
In essence, Silence, my main character is stuck in a horrible situation and has lost all hope of ever getting out. Because she’s immortal, she can’t even die and escape that way. But how do you convey all that without thoroughly depressing the reader, without making the character sound whiny, or going overboard on the dark elements?
The first draft
Let’s start with the first draft:
The story has two timelines, and in this draft, I mixed them throughout the chapter. We start in the past with the paragraph in bold print, and then switch to the present for the rest of the page. The past is the darker part, and perhaps I was afraid of hitting readers with too much of it all at once, but eventually, I realized that splitting up the scene made for a more confusing read. Additionally, the present part begins with Silence waking from a dream, which is something of a capital sin to a lot of readers. While I tried to defend that choice to myself for a couple more drafts, I eventually came to the conclusion that I didn’t want to scare off readers who might otherwise enjoy the story.
I’m not happy with how much Silence stays in her head here. Everyone she interacts with remains faceless. Everything also happens really fast. (To give you an idea just how much this story has changed since: in the most recent version she doesn’t step foot onto that stage until page 41.)
I wanted to show Silence’s isolation, so I spent time describing her prison cell instead of introducing other characters. As a result, Silence comes across as self-centered, because she spends time worrying about her dragonfly book, instead of engaging with the people around her. We get the sense that she dreads what is coming, but Silence also seems a bit anti-social and, worst of all, passive.
The last problem would prove pervasive throughout the next few drafts. Let’s take a look at a second version of a first page, I believe this might have been the third or fourth draft:
The second-ish draft
So this gives the scene in the past, uninterrupted by the present. I wanted to show how Silence keeps up her hope despite her dire situation, how she is trying to figure out a way to warn these people, but unfortunately we’re getting almost nothing in terms of action. We don’t really see the kids beyond her little descriptions of them. And Silence remains a passive onlooker, despite her efforts.
Once again, there is a lot happening on this first page, and a lot of information thrown at the reader all at once, I'd even go so far as to call the last paragraph an infodump of the sort that should be avoided at all times, but especially on a first page.
But more worryingly, I don't feel like this draft represents the greater story all that well. To me, the first page is also a promise to the reader, a hint of what to expect inside this book in terms of genre, tone, and stakes. But here, we're starting with a flashback, already not great, and introduce several characters by name who won't survive their encounter with the antagonist. Not only that, but their deaths don't have much of an impact on the larger story, although they foreshadow that there is going to be a lot of violence. They do mark a breaking point for Silence, and show that she, unlike the antagonist, isn't indifferent to the deaths of innocent bystanders. But overall, I would be worried that readers might be scared off by what they might perceive as a cheap attempt at shock value.
For my next draft, I moved the past scene to a later part of the book where I could give it better context, and focused on the main conflict of the story instead, putting Silence and the antagonist, the Queen, front and center. The goal was to provide readers with a clearer picture of what this story would be about.
The third draft
There is a lot I liked about this scene, and I can tell how much I grew as a writer in between these drafts. Writing out violent and uncomfortable scenes was something I shied away from before I started working on this series. So in my early drafts, I forced myself to go into the gory details, but ended up creating a somewhat monotone and depressing atmosphere that wasn't very fun to read (apologies to my earliest readers).
What you see in this draft is me thinking about how to still keep that gritty edge, but without going for the most depressing scene possible with it. Just because it's dark, doesn't mean it can't also at times be fun, or in this case starting off with a conversation that seems almost whimsical.
What I'm trying to do, is introduce my characters, and a fantasy-esque setting with modern elements (coffee, brochure), as well as elements of sci-fi (light spectra, foreign worlds), before taking on a darker tone when the Queen nonchalantly brings up the urns.
I'm not quite happy that the servant remains faceless, or that we get no sense of what is happening beyond this balcony. In the same vein, a beta-reader rightfully pointed out that the scene suffers from talking-heads syndrome, a result of me becoming too focused on finding just the right tone for the dialogue at the expense of neglecting everything else.
As a second concern, the scene feels a little aimless, and because of the lack of description or depth, a little generic, and perhaps, a bit too airy in tone. We get a sense of dread from Silence, but really these are just two people having a conversation about coffee, gardening, and light spectra. It reads a little boring and might lose readers before they ever make it to the urns.
The scene remains a key scene in the current draft, but I thoroughly reworked it, adding details and non-verbal reactions, giving the servant a role and a name, and while keeping to the whimsical tone, adding a sense of purpose to the conversation. Unfortunately, to be able to pull that off, I also had to move it back and find a new starting point. Which is how we end up at the current draft:
The magibulb flickers. Dies. In the darkness, above the hum of the anti-magic wards, a muttered prayer; the woman next door, telling herself she’ll make it out of here alive. A lie. I lower my head and pray with her, listen while she cries herself to sleep. The mortals will talk, ask questions of each other in the few days they have left, but I’m nothing like them, and I keep my silence. Footsteps intrude, keys jingle, a door creaks open. Faint scents of disinfectant and aftershave mix with the smell of fresh paint in my cell. “No, not yet,” the woman sobs. Gruff voices reply, chains clink. The woman continues to sob as the guards lead her down the hallway. I stay, crouched against the wall, listening, ready, if they should come for me. The footsteps fade away.
The magibulb flickers dimly, revealing the cell around me; the bare metal bench I’ve abandoned in favor of the floor. A water bucket, a piece of soap. I push myself off the ground, walk the three steps toward the reinforced door. Stop without touching the humming ward. Listen. The bang of the opening trapdoor, the sound of a body dropping from the gallows. The woman is free now, as I may never be. I remain, surviving, always surviving. And the only mercy in this place is that I didn’t know her name.
The light flickers, dies. In the darkness, I kneel beside the bucket, the chains tying my wrists to the wall stretched as far as they will allow. I reach for the bar of soap and dip my hands into the cold water, cleaning my face and arms before I ask the Gray Lord to grant another soul safe passage into his realm. Perhaps he hears me.
The magibulb flickers wildly, almost reaching a strobing effect. The sound of footsteps returns, too early yet for dinner. I rise when they stop in front of my door, step backwards until I hit the wall, and find the runnels under the fresh paint. The mural I carved with nothing but a piece of stone broken off the wall. They tried to destroy it, but it remains; a tree stretching its branches, growing roots. At a knock from the door, I turn around, placing my palms against the wall. Listen as a panel slides open, feel the guard’s gaze on me. A lock clicks. The guard walks in. Olkins; I recognize him by the swagger in his step. He stops, standing too close for comfort. His peppermint breath billows against my neck. “Turn around,” he orders. “Hold out your hands.” Cuffs click shut around my wrists before he releases me from the shackles that keep me chained to the wall. He pushes me toward the door, where a second guard is waiting. Minjok, the taller of the two, holds out a pair of flimsy slippers. In the wake of my guards, I step into a low-ceilinged hallway; the floor covered in razor-edged basalt.
Three corpses swing from the gallows, cast in cold white light from high above. Like an altar to the lord of the dead. I couldn’t say which one was my neighbor. Never knew her face. Three nooses yet remain empty, an open threat to all who enter this yard. Death has no power over me, but I fear the woman waiting in the shadows below the gallows. Commander Irwin stands tall in her full plate armor, skin the pale brown of driftwood, emerald highlights dancing in her black hair, shorn on one side, thin braids running along her skull on the other. Her eyes, near white, flicker unsteadily.
Once again, I've taken a darker route. While I'm concerned about scaring people off, I also feel like this draft accurately represents the level of violence readers can expect for the rest of the book. I'm not going to be pulling my punches, and no matter how airily I start this story, I'm eventually going to disappoint readers if I make them expect a lighthearted comedy. While the grim atmosphere might scare off some, hopefully it will draw in others, who will enjoy the story for what it actually is.
I'm a little sad that we don't get see the Queen in this opening, because I have so much fun writing her scenes and I would have loved to showcase that energy right at the start. But I wanted to give Silence the space she needed to not look like a passive character this time. She doesn't always have a lot of options, but in this draft, we see her leverage every scrap of agency she gets. Because agency is freedom, and that is what the character wants, most of all.
I'm also laying the groundwork for the scene with the Queen later on, during which Silence flat out refuses to participate in the show, even if it means staying here. So by implication, however bad this place is, the show must be worse. And since (Spoiler Alert!) Silence eventually agrees to do the show anyway, we are aware of the freedoms she is giving up.
Silence craves indifference about the deaths of others, not because she is anti-social, but because she cares too much. In this inhumane place, she, the villain, is the one praying for a stranger’s soul, while the guards, ostensibly the good guys, act like merciless thugs. The scene seeks to illustrate a point about Silence that the Queen fails to understand in the later scene: Silence isn’t a character asking for pity or sympathy. She lives by her own rules, with little regard for the trouble this might cause her with the guards. Silence may be powerless, but she remains in control. She doesn't speak to other inmates, but it's her choice. She doesn't have to care about the woman next door, but she prays, first with her, then for her, engaging in a makeshift funeral rite. She is in rebellion against this place, as much as she can, choosing her where she sleeps (the floor, not the bench intended for it) and evidently she has caused some damage to the walls, by carving a mural of a tree. The mural has been discovered and destroyed, but the mere memory of it is comforting to Silence; a steadfast refusal of the realities of this place.
This, once again, serves to lay some groundwork for the later scene with the Queen, who finally does manage to shake Silence from this equilibrium, this outer acceptance and inner rebellion, when she pushes Silence to sign on to one more season on the show.
When the guards do come for Silence, we see her act in contrast to the unnamed woman earlier. We sense her dislike of Olkins, but she acts calmly, following orders, rather than trying to bargain.
I was debating myself about whether or not to include the razor-edged basalt floor in the hallway, because I didn't want to go overboard with the depressing details, but in the end, I decided to include it, as well as the descriptions of the chains on Silence, because I'm trying to give the readers a sense that despite her calm manner, she isn't a hapless innocent. She is dangerous and ruthless and down there for a reason.
The mention of the gallows in the last paragraph serves a triple purpose. One, I wanted to bring it home to readers that yes, people do get vividly killed in this story. Two, it shows this prison kills its prisoners efficiently and impersonally, and does so frequently enough to warrant multiple gallows. And three, it serves to highlight Silence's fear of Commander Irwin. Silence has been calm and collected for the prior scenes and appears unfazed by the empty nooses, but admits that Irwin puts her on edge, which I thought would be an effective way of introducing a secondary antagonist.
The light and dark symbolism throughout the page goes back to the line in earlier drafts about monstrous things existing in both the darkness and the light. The Queen does a lot of her most horrible acts in full view of the public, yet, because she has power and propaganda, no one questions her or tries to stop her. Silence both fears the light and craves it, because it symbolizes the outside world, whereas slipping fully into darkness is used to describe a place of total isolation and indefinite imprisonment.
In this draft, the guards which were a faceless group in the first draft now have names, and descriptions, and they will have screen time throughout the series, along with several other characters who were mentioned in passing in the first draft, and grew into their own since.
Like the last draft, the entire page is firmly rooted in the present. There’s no waking up, no dream sequences. I wanted to anchor the reader in the present, to give a clear sense of this world and the status quo before the reality show is ever introduced.
Going back to the belief that the first page is a promise to the reader about what kind of story they can expect, this version is dark, it feels more like fantasy than the scene on the balcony, and it features violence and death instead of conversations about light spectra. The pacing is a slower than in the initial drafts, but it allows me to show off my world and characters instead of rushing through the story and having to resort to info dumps. Perhaps I'll lose some people who want a lot of action from the first page, but since this series will probably feature more philosophical debates than action-packed fight scenes, I would once again rather lose them, than string them along only to disappoint later.
That's it for today. I hope I was able to give you some pointers and ideas how to tackle rewriting your own beginnings. Let me know if this was helpful to you, and feel free to share your struggles, or your magic techniques for drafting openings.