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Kate: First words

A number of times a day I have a thought followed by, oh, this will make a good blog post. I walk through the day writing paragraphs in my head. Some of these paragraphs are very good. Some are not. Regardless, by the time I get the kids to bed (especially when D is gone, which he was last week), I am too tired to type, and I’ve forgotten those smart paragraphs I had labored over earlier in the day. (Yes, I know I should carry a small notebook in my back pocket or invest in one of those itsy bitsy tape recorders, but I don’t.)

The result is that you have no idea what a serious blogger I am. You have no idea how often I “post.” I know that doesn’t count; I’m just groveling for a little affirmation here.

This morning I’m at the coffee shop for the first time in almost two weeks, and I feel rusty. I have a list of things I need to work on: 1. revise book, 2. finish an essay I promised an editor months ago, 3. organize teaching stuff in our radon-filled office basement, 4. prepare for AWP. (I could go on, but I don’t want to stress myself out.)

My goal with the book is to re-type the whole thing into the computer. That’s crazy, isn’t it? Crazy. It’s 97,000 words. But I haven’t looked at it, much less read it, in almost two years, and it’s time to “make it the best book it can be.” I certainly have emotional distance at this point, so I can be brutal with my prose and my scenes. And I will be brutal; I’m actually looking forward to it. But it’s difficult to begin this process because I dislike the first paragraphs of the book. I’ve always disliked them. There, I said it. Time and again, I’ve gotten hung up on these paragraphs. I’ve been obsessive about this word or that word, changing “lie” to “lying” to “lie” to “lying” a dozen times. And I know that this sort of piddling always speaks to a larger problem, a problem that screams: “These paragraphs suck!”

I know what I would tell a student if she came to me with this problem. I would say, “Skip the first paragraphs. Sometimes those are the last to be written. Come back to them.”

I’m absolutely confident that I know what I’m talking about when I doll out this kind advice. I smile and nod encouragingly. I ask my student, “Who says you have to write a book from beginning to end?”

So, I am staring at myself now and nodding encouragingly. (I look slightly foolish, as you can imagine.) But I’m ready to take my advice. I’ll come back to these paragraphs, and soon I’ll discover whether: a) I’m full of shit or b) I really know what I’m talking about. I do hope it’s the latter.

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7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Kate, I’ve been there, too. I rewrote my beginning chapter over and over and over again. Finally got it to where I wanted it. The cadence sang, the pacing was marvelous. It was going to knock an agent’s socks off the prose was so pretty. And then I went to a writer’s conference…

    I had the chance to attend several slush fests, where agents and editors would read the first page of people’s novels and give their criticisms. As I hoped, they raved about my writing. But I wasn’t quite there. They lost interest after a few paragraphs because I didn’t begin the story in the middle of the central conflict. I spent too much time getting my story out of the gate. So it was back to the drawing board.

    I think the book is better for the changes I made, but nothing stressed me out more than that first chapter.

    Good luck with yours!

    January 19, 2009
  2. cathy #

    we all have our particular challenges, fortunately beginnings seem to be my strong point, but middles getting draggy or writing what i visualize as the ending can be the toughest part.

    kate, if you want, email miranda and she’ll give you my email, if you like an objective look at first paras from someone good at beginnings. it may be something simple like a turn of phrase that just doesn’t sit right, a small hump to get past when you aren’t so close to it.

    January 19, 2009
  3. I like this idea–rekeying, rather than simply line editing. I think the process must be liberating. Please keep us posted!

    January 19, 2009
  4. i continue to be in awe of anyone actually writing a novel, kate, so regardless of how you may be feeling about your progress or your first paragraphs, the whole process to me is just awe-inspiring. i can’t imagine it! sounds like you’ve receivied some great advice from brittany, cathy, and miranda.

    January 19, 2009
  5. Kristine #

    I am also a big fan of retyping manuscripts as a way of editing. There’s something about the physical action of typing words that gets my juices flowing again.

    Good luck with that beginning. The opening chapter is always rough.

    January 19, 2009
  6. Yes, yes, and yes. My first paragraphs are trash, too. I recently went back and re-worked them – (the whole first chapter, if you want the whole truth) – and most likely will do so, again.

    It’s funny, once you get into the flow of a book, the insides are much better than the beginning chapter. The beginning chapter comes across as forced, sort of unimaginative, and seems as if it’s hanging there all by itself, with no particular relationship to the rest of the chapters. Even the second chapter in mine is suspect.

    Re-write, re-work, let the old haunted thing go. Or flesh it out, add to it, make it sing like the rest of your book. It feels good.

    January 19, 2009
  7. Thank you all! I’m making progress. It’s amazing how freeing it is to retype! Not having set pargraphs in front of me does, indeed, allow me to see more clearly! It’s slow, but it’s coming!

    January 20, 2009

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