Clear-cutting

I’ve been editing my novel. Not for the first time, naturally. I finished it almost exactly a year ago and have edited the work several times since.

Right now, though, I’m whittling down the first 30 pages. In genre fiction — maybe all kinds, I don’t know — much rests on the first 30 pages. Contests generally ask for it (or the first 20 or 25, if they’re chintzy), because agents generally ask for that. Then hopefully they ask to read the whole thing.

But everything really hinges off of the first 30 pages. They’ll argue it’s a Blink thing, that a good agent or editor knows within a few sentences if the work is what they can market. Or rather, they know right away if it’s NOT. What this means though, is there’s no room for leisurely introductions or backstory. An editor at the RWA convention complained of writers who tell her the story “really gets going in the third chapter.” That, she said, is where the story should start.

Okay, I can see this. That a genre novel’s glory is its ability to sweep you away. In our increasingly impatient society, there’s little patience for the slow build. Selling books is selling excitement. Capture the reader on the first page and you’ve sold the book.

What I’m noticing as a reader, however, is how many books start off great and completely fall apart. Sometimes the first three chapters promise something that vanishes or was never really there. And the second half of the book is frequently terrible. To the point that I wonder if the editor ever read the second half.

And then I wonder, do they care? Is the market such that all the emphasis is on selling that book. Mabye it’s become immaterial whether the reader will then buy or borrow that author again.

Not that I’m not playing the game. My book is one of those where the exciting action kicks in around Chapter 3 or 4. I felt like the slow build-up was important, but I’m capitulating. I’ve condensed 60 pages into 30. No point, I figure, in holding onto the perfect opening to an unpublished book.

A lot of what goes in that kind of slash-and-burn edit is description. A (terrible) contest judge recently slammed me for too much description, which she compared to Anne Rice. The judge invited me to recall how much people hated how she’d describe the wallpaper. I’m thinking, uh, Anne Rice? Multi-million dollar best-seller, Anne Rice? One of my favorite authors before she went off the deep end, Anne Rice? Oh no, don’t write like she does!

But, I concede to the gateway and have cut cut cut. My delete key is dripping black font. I really hope, though, that the rest of the story satisfies. Perhaps a lean, mean beginning can lead to a meaty repast with a lovely, fatty, overblown dessert at the end. In a room with gold, flocked wallpaper…

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