Since last Saturday, my mind has been buzzing with ideas and suggestions about how to make my writing better and more attention-grabbing, and I’m really trying to remember it all before it fizzles away into the arid dustbowl inside my head. I learned a lot from the agents who spoke to us about what makes them take notice of a submission – make your opening snappy, make your first sentence brilliant, don’t overlook the importance of the first five pages – but it was a lot to take in.
Then I had an idea: compare a current WiP with an earlier version of the same story, and see how far you’ve come – if indeed you have progressed at all. It can be really hard to think objectively about your own work when you’re so isolated from other writers; you don’t know how you compare, where you stand, whether you’re any good in relation to them. So, the next best thing is to compare your current work with what you were doing years ago and see whether you’ve improved.
This, of course, can be a scary prospect.
I’m currently working on a new book, one without a title (so we can call it ‘Mara’, after the main character); it’s based very loosely on an idea I had years ago but which quickly ran out of steam. According to the file, the original work dates from 2006; I couldn’t believe it had been so long. It’s an idea that never quite left me alone, which is why I’m currently working on it again.
In the original version of this story the character was called Molly, not Mara, but everything else is the same. She is a young girl of twelve whose father was lost at sea almost a year before the story begins, and she is finding it hard to cope with her grief. Here’s the opening paragraph of the first version of this story:
Molly wrapped herself tightly in the old tartan shirt that had once belonged to her dad; it still smelled like him, a faint hint of his old aftershave soothing her, making her feel safe. The shirt was red, her dad’s favourite colour, and it was soft and downy against her cheek. Falling asleep had been hard since her dad had died. It had been nearly a year now, so perhaps the scent that Molly could barely detect on the shirt was her imagination, or a memory. She snuggled deeper into it, her forehead wrinkling with effort, praying for the smell to stay with her. Just as she was about to fall asleep, her eyes jerked open, and she glanced towards her wardrobe door. It was open. She blinked into the half-darkness for a couple of breaths, her heart thundering in her chest, before flinging the shirt to one side and clambering out of bed. How could the door be open? She had asked Mum to close it before she went to bed… She shut the door hard, convinced she had woken her mother up with the thump, but there was no stirring from the next room. She crept back over the floor, swaddling herself in the shirt once more, and, checking one last time that the wardrobe door had stayed shut, fell into a fitful sleep.
Right. So much for that.
Now, here’s the opening paragraph of the current version of the book – bearing in mind it’s a first draft, let’s compare the two:
Wait for it, thought Mara. Any second now…
The car swung round the bend, like it did every morning at ten past eight, and the big white arrows appeared on the road, as usual. This way to Fun! screamed the sign, looking even more garish than it usually did. It was covered in pictures of kids laughing as they careered down plastic chutes wearing inflatable rings around their middles, and giant hotdogs danced with knives and forks all the way along the bottom. The South-East’s Best Holiday Destination! it announced, as if anyone didn’t know.
‘That stupid place,’ griped Mum, her knuckles whitening around the steering wheel. ‘If I have to look at it one more time…’ Her words fizzed away into mumbles, but Mara didn’t need to hear. She said the same things every morning as they passed the motorway exit for the waterpark.
‘It’s supposed to be quite fun, actually,’ said Mara, gazing out the window as the brightly-painted sign whizzed by. ‘Some of the girls in my class went – ‘
‘I don’t want to talk about this, Mara. All right? Just, I don’t know. Turn on the radio, or something.’
Mara sighed, twisting around in her seat. She leaned forward slowly so the safety belt wouldn’t cut into the side of her neck, and reached toward the radio buttons. ‘You won’t have to do this much longer anyway, Mum. Bring me to school, I mean. After next week, you won’t have to pass it any more.’
Mrs Fletcher’s head snapped around like she’d been slapped. ‘What are you talking about? What do you mean, I won’t have to bring you to school? Why wouldn’t I have to bring you to school?’ Her eyes were bugging out, and there were two tiny white spots on either side of her nose.
‘I – just – the summer holidays!’ said Mara, her words flapping about like a freshly caught fish. ‘I mean, you won’t have to bring me to school because of the holidays. That’s all.’
Mum licked her lips, and looked back at the road again. She blinked, and coughed a bit, and wiped one hand over her forehead. ‘Just – don’t do that. Don’t talk like that. All right?’
Mara slumped back in her seat. ‘Like what?’
‘You know very well what, Mara Fletcher,’ snapped Mum, glancing around as she got ready to indicate. ‘You know very well.’
And Mara did know. She should’ve thought before saying anything. Mum had been like this ever since Dad had died – always thinking the worst, and expecting the worst, and waiting for the next disaster.
Soon, it would be a year.
Mara wrapped her hand around her conch-shell necklace, and stayed quiet until they pulled into the school car park. When she told Mum ‘goodbye,’ all she did was nod.
I’m not sure which version you prefer, but I know which one I like better – the second, by a mile. It’s like it was written by a different person. This is the difference that almost eight years (eight years!) can make to your writing. The first version is flat – it tells, rather than shows,the reader what Molly is going through. We get no real insight into her mind, or her relationship with her mother. It’s also riddled with clichés – the scent of a deceased loved one lingering on their clothing, a story beginning with someone falling asleep or waking up (this should, I now know, always be avoided), abrupt transitions from one narrative thread to another (the shirt to the wardrobe door), overwrought language – and, frankly, it’s boring.
Forgive me. I was young and stupid when I wrote this.
The second version – though far from perfect – is more dynamic. It makes use of dialogue. It sets up the important things in an opening scene: the relationship between the protagonist and her mother; hints at a couple of different sorts of conflict, not just the obvious one; the reader is shown the grief they are feeling and the stress it is causing rather than being simply told.
Comparing these pieces of work has illustrated exactly how important the lessons I learned at the weekend are – you really can’t overlook the importance of your opening sections when writing a novel. You need to begin in the right place, hooking a reader into an emotional relationship with your characters just before you yank the carpet out from under them. You have to really work at the opening scenes because that’s the only chance you have to attract a reader’s full attention. Personally, I also believe you owe it to your reader to keep that standard up throughout the book – I’ve read so many stories that start off brilliantly but taper away as they go – but it’s definitely true that an agent, or a potential reader, won’t keep struggling with a book that starts off clumsily.
I recommend doing this exercise (comparing something you’re writing now with something you wrote years ago) because it shows you that, even if you didn’t think it, you have progressed. It’s only natural that you’ll get better as you go, and the more you work at your writing the more polished and interesting it will become.
Even if reading your old work does make you feel a bit like this: