Friday, May 09, 2014

And Then the Gladiator Said . . .

My next book, due out in Winter 2015, begins with a "gladiator" – a battered urban warrior who wanders into a pharmacy, has an altercation with an automated shopper's aide, then demolishes a display of cleaning products and the security guard with a roundhouse kick. My protagonist, Detective Hannah McCabe, who happens to be shopping for an anniversary card for her best friend, sees this happen and feels obliged to arrest the guy.

I got my edits back yesterday with the suggestion that I scrap this scene – in fact, that I scrap my entire first chapter and get to the action. My first thought was that I have action. But the point my editor was making is that my action in this scene isn't related to the plot. The scene with the gladiator could be discarded without damage to the book. No one but me would miss my gladiator if I banished him to the cluttered recesses of my mind. Walking into the book uninvited doesn't mean he should be allowed to stay.

I have a month to think about this. I've already figured out how to move one of the scenes in Chapter One involving another detective to later in the book. I've also pointed out that I can't scrap a couple of scenes a few pages later because the alibi for one of the characters is set up there. I can tighten those two scenes and make them work. But it's harder to defend keeping my gladiator. Aside from giving the reader an opportunity to see McCabe handle a tense situation, his scene adds nothing to the book.

Before revising, I always turn to books and articles about writing. This is my way of getting my mind working. This time, I'm reading advice about openings – about hooking the reader with the first sentence and keeping her reading through the first paragraph, page, and chapter. The most common advice is that the opening scene should provide an "inciting incident" that sets the plot in motion. This inciting incident is often the "call to adventure" that launches the protagonist on his or her journey. But, of course, in some books, the inciting incident doesn't involve the protagonist directly. My book is a police procedural, I could start with Chapter Two and the character who is soon going to be dead. I could wait until Chapter Three to bring in McCabe among her colleagues at the precinct house.

Except, I need to have McCabe encounter another character on Friday evening. Chapter Two with my victim-to-be begins on Saturday afternoon. So I really do need to leave those two scenes at the end of Chapter One where they are. . .

But I could delete the gladiator. Except I really like him. And I think he wandered into the book in that first scene of the first chapter for a reason. I just don't know what it is yet.

One of the most thought-provoking ideas I've come across about opening scenes – I had heard it before but forgotten – is that the seeds of the ending of the book should be there in the beginning. Ideally, the opening lines of a book not only establish the tone and set up the situation, they foreshadow how the book will end. A lot for a first sentence or even a first paragraph to do. But it's been done and done well. I'm giving this some thought. I know now how the book ends. I can use this opportunity to go back and rewrite the beginning.

I don't usually rewrite my opening scene after the book is done. I spend so much time struggling with my opening before I can move on to the rest of the book, that I tend to feel pretty good about how the book begins. This time, I feel good about my scene with the gladiator – but it isn't necessary and could mislead the reader about what to expect. I need to figure out why I wrote it in the first place and make that clear by adding something, or I need to hit "delete" and move on.

Except I won't be able to move on until I figure out what's going on in the first chapter. But I'm not panicking.

I'll let you know if the gladiator survives the revision process. If he wants to do that he'd better speak up and tell me why he's there.


Rick Blechta said...

"No one but me would miss my gladiator if I banished him to the cluttered recesses of my mind. Walking into the book uninvited doesn't mean he should be allowed to stay."

This is a very important point with which every writer every writer has to deal (Ha, grammar police and Miss Wolfe from high school!). It's very easy to fall in love with a scene or some bit of prose that really doesn't need to be there. The scene sounds wonderful and it's a shame to chuck it out. So why not hold on to it and maybe a future book would benefit from having it there. Could even turn out that Mr. Walk-on could turn into a main character - just not in the book you're currently writing.

Great post. Thanks!

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Believe it or not, I woke up this morning and I knew why my gladiator had walked into that scene. It isn't what he does, it is the question that he asks McCabe as he is being patted down and handcuffed. Dang (as we Southerners say), if that question, isn't what the whole book is about! Yippee!

But if my editor hadn't pointed out that the scene seemed to be unrelated to anything else, I would never have gone deep enough to figure about why he had walked into it.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Except, of course, he couldn't ask the question until this morning when I realized there was something else he needed to say -- one addled-brained question that will haunt McCabe through the rest of the book.

Hooray, for my gladiator!

Eileen Goudge said...

I don't know which famous author I'm quoting, or rather, paraphrasing here, but it goes something like this: The job of a novelist is to make the reader care about the protagonist, then he/she will follow that character anywhere. If your opening scene accomplishes that, then maybe you shouldn't scrap it.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Thanks, Eileen, for the words of encouragement. I have revised that opening scene, and I think it does work better now because it works for both character and plot development.

I'm going to have my first readers have a look to get their reactions.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Frankie, what a great way to illustrate the blasted confusion in a writer's head. It's the worst part of the whole process.