After scrabbling around for the right material for my rewrite over the past few days (which involved a massive detour while I headed towards what would have been a very false start), I finally have a structure for the opening chapter that might work. The two words I’ve been reminding myself all week sound pretty wanky, but they’re mega-important: “Emotional Truth.” There was a problem with the old draft, which was that in trying to start everything at a hundred miles an hour, I didn’t let the reader get to know my main character before the occurrence of the key event which starts off the novel’s main narrative. Due to this, the thought process behind his subsequent decisions didn’t quite work on the page. Gaaah.
I had fallen right into the trap of going so all-out to keep an agent’s attention that I forgot about the fundamentals. Even in a thriller, the opening pace doesn’t matter as much as good writing, and maybe the crazy-fast start is becoming an unfortunate cliche. There’s nothing wrong with doing things differently. Take The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, for instance. That book’s a slow burner and no mistake, with the first few chapters containing absolutely loads of backstory and exposition, and not much really happens for a while. Yet simply because it’s all well written and the characters are compelling, it’s great to read. So the lesson for me here is to trust in my own abilities and believe that I’m able to keep the reader’s attention, even when the event that forms the novel’s premise doesn’t occur for a few pages. If I do it right, the decisions that my main character takes will not only make sense, but the reader will be cheering him along. Besides, it’s not as if the pace is going to be glacial – the novel just isn’t going to jump in at the point it currently does.
The search for emotional truth, however, has been a bit of a head-scratcher. In the end, I decided to rely on the old mantra, “write what you know”. I’ve loosely adapted a couple of difficult situations that I’ve faced in my own life, in terms of both professional and personal relationships, and given them a different outcome – the worst outcome. Conveniently these results are what faced Sebastian in the earlier draft, but now the actual events are expanded and occur in “real time” rather than just being short flashbacks. Remembering how I felt in real life and extrapolating that to the situations turning out badly will, I think, lend the opening of the book a believability which will stick around when the rather high concept premise says hello a few pages afterwards. I’ll have earned some faith points from the reader, if you like. This approach will also have the effect of humanising Sebastian a little earlier than is currently the case.
While receiving consistent feedback about one particular aspect of the opening annoyed me (I was irritated at myself for not realising what was wrong beforehand), after the rewrite I’ll likely think it crazy that the new stuff wasn’t there before. As long as it works, of course.