New beginnings

Like most of the writers I know, I find the opening scene of a book the most difficult to write. Where exactly is the right moment to begin the story? Whose point of view should it be from? How much should you reveal to hook people in and how much should you hold back to intrigue them?

I can’t remember how many times I wrote the beginning of None So Blind before being satisfied with it. And, to nobody’s great suprise, after many edits it’s going out into the world with a completely different first chapter.

Yesterday, I opened an email attachment from my editor, Russel. It contained his first-pass comments on In Two Minds, the second book in the Teifi Valley Coroner series – all neatly done using Word’s track changes function. Each comment a little green box in the extra-wide right hand margin. As I work through the book, those little green boxes will be joined by my own red or blue boxes discussing things with Russel, arguing points, thanking him for helpful comments, thanking him even more for being kind about idiocy or infelicity and, occasionally, explaining why I’m not going to do what he’s recommended.

It will be fun.

What isn’t fun is reading the first chapter and realising that he’s absolutely right and I’ve started in the wrong place. Again.

I like to think that if I’d managed to put In Two Minds aside for six months before looking at it to see if it worked, I’d have realised this for myself. But I didn’t. Once Freight had picked up None So Blind and I’d told them that the second book in the series was complete in draught, they wanted to see it straight away. Still at the ‘do anything your publisher wants and do it quickly’ stage, I emailed it off with the caveat that I knew it needed quite a lot of work.

Still, they liked it and contracted to publish it a year after None So Blind.

So, with NSB now going off to be typeset, I’m embarking on the necessary work to get In Two Minds to that stage. Looking at my file management system, I see that the last time I made significant changes to the typescript was between last Christmas and New Year. Plenty of time in which to develop the necessary distance to stop being in love with every word you’ve written and to be prepared to ‘murder your darlings’ in Arthur Quiller-Couch’s inimitable cull-your-purple-passages phrase.

This business of needing a gap of time so that you can see the flaws in your own work isn’t a modern dillettante-type affectation. Twenty-five centuries ago Sophocles (I think it was Sophocles; it was certainly one of those Greek playwriting types – the ones with the kind of disconcertingly modern sensibility that makes you wonder if time travel isn’t just possible but has actually occurred) recommended that any budding writer should be prepared to bury their work in a jar in the ground for six months before digging it up and looking at it with fresh and less partial eyes.

Given the almost limitless capacity of hard-drives, I tend to skip the pot-burying part but I do try and follow the spirit of his advice.

So now, what with the aforementioned fresh eyes – both mine and my editor’s – I have some work to do.

And a new beginning to write.

After the weekend.

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