Never Start at the Beginning.

September 4, 2008 at 12:17 am (Uncategorized)

After dinner last night, the other writers and I all decided to take the plunge and read something of our own work to the rest of the group. Of course I was incredibly curious and keen to hear their writing, but my stomach was dancing up quite the storm at the thought of their hearing mine. We’re five women up here, all very different writers and people but we’re getting along famously, so it’s a very supportive environment, unlike the first and last time I’d read aloud from my manuscript at the Sydney Writers’ Festival event, Getting Published. I’ll never forget Melanie Ostell’s response when I admitted I had to have a break from the MS at the completion of each draft because I couldn’t stand the sight of it anymore. She said, “Well if that’s what you think, just imagine how the reader feels!” It’s such a mean thing to say to someone! It’s just really mean! And let’s not forget I’d already fought back tears at this point because the anxiety of reading aloud from the MS was so intense. I was hardly engaged in some kind of power contest with the person who obviously held it all in her own two hands. Shit, I was also convulsing with nerves and cold. Anyway, I shared that with the other girls over dinner last night because the whole experience was so horrific the last thing I wanted to do was read from my work. Ever again. But this is such a safe house, and they’re all smart and helpful, plus I wanted to hear theirs, so of course I did.

It’s no exaggeration to say my opening went down like a lead balloon. We all clapped excitedly after the first writer took the plunge, and personally I was really engaged and impressed, so I leapt in second to get the trauma over and done with because the last thing I wanted was to be the donkey bringing up the rear. Much better to try and hide in the middle. Pull the Band Aid and pull it hard. But there was no hiding. There was only dead silence. And then one by one they started venturing cautious opinions about it, except one, who said absolutely nothing. I eventually turned to her and asked her directly what she thought, and she said she’d have to read it rather than hear it. OH GOD. Oh dear god. That is NOT good. Extremely diplomatic, but all the more damning a verdict for that. Shit.

Anyway, they made really valid points. There is a problem with the beginning. I have wondered about it myself, and now I think it’s definitely got to change. You may remember I considered this after the Melanie Ostell firing squad too. And in fact I did change it, but clearly not enough. I don’t know how to resolve it. I have important things that happen to the character at the beginning that explain a lot of her later poor choices and behaviour, but it’s all a bit grim, and she’s not really at all. I guess the crux of the issue is that the opening suggests you’re about to read a victim book, and the whole point is that she’s not a victim, she’s actually very resilient. And I think – and so does Peter and so does darling Sophie who has been such a superstar reader for me (thank you, Mrs Smoker) – that there’s a lot of humour in the book, but there is none in that opening section. None. It’s a gag free zone. It won’t even draw a smirk. And that’s not really in keeping with the tenor of the rest of it. Maybe it’s because I wrote it and added in that back story so much later than that first burst of drafting. Whatever the explanation for it, I have to address it – urgently and comprehensively – because there’s a tonal problem and a content problem right up front, right where the thing I want to be doing is telling the reader what kind of book it is they’ll be reading, and making that invitation so appealing that they have no choice but to accept. Last night, I felt everyone’s shoulders slump around me like a row of deflating souffles.



  1. charlotteotter said,

    I’m wincing for you, Di, but you have such warmth and humour in your voice that I have no doubt you will be able to inject that into your MS.

    • doctordi said,

      Mercifully, Charlotte, this was written a long time ago – that draft no longer exists. I wonder what’s brought you here now, more than two years later?? One of those ‘possibly related posts’ links, probably…

      It’s interesting revisiting this post. This was written at Varuna during my first stay there, before the Darklings became the Darklings and were just the other writers doing the Professional Development Residency with me – pretty amazing to think we’ve been a tight support network for each other ever since.

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