I’ve been a bad novelist.
I wrote a little over 50,000 words of Kingmaker for NaNoWriMo 2017. Knowing there was something more there, I attempted to write another draft during July 2018 for that month’s Camp NaNoWriMo, with an admittedly ambitious goal to expand it to 85,000 words and make significant plot changes (namely by adding a plot, if I’m being completely honest). Camp NaNo that year turned out to be a massive bust, and I made no progress after that point.I wanted to get back into it, and the novel would bother me with ideas while I tried to work on my day job writing as well as a separate piece for NaNoWriMo 2018, but I was too busy and exhausted to give the draft what it deserved.
I made some significant life changes that I already briefly talked about, so I’ll spare you more of that discussion. After some time to adjust to the new reality, it felt like it was time. I can’t say for sure what that felt like outside of a profound feeling of “rightness” as, a few nights ago, I tried again. Not with the combination of new scenes and slightly revamped fragments from NaNoWriMo 2017 that I decided to call Draft 1.5, but from page one, line one with a true Draft 2. New Year, new me, new draft: it just seemed appropriate.
It felt right, but tremendously intimidating. I was out of practice, and expositions are among the weakest parts of my writing. One of the things I realized as I made the decision to start over was that Kingmaker needed to start where, in Draft 1.5, the third chapter was: that the previous two were me rambling, meandering, and otherwise trying to find a foothold. I knew I needed the action from the third chapter in my first chapter, but with the blinking cursor came the realization that I needed an opening line.
Everything you read about writing talks about the importance of the first line. That the first line is what sells your first chapter if not the entire book. That people want to be blown away right away. That it should incorporate tone, character, plot, and worldbuilding if at all possible. That if you’re going to make any one sentence in your novel perfect, it had better be that first one.
But there are also differences in what writers think makes a good first sentence, and all of them were putting (totally imaginary) pressure on me in that moment. Give us a moment with the main character that makes them sympathetic, but not too deep or personal of one because we don’t care about her yet. It should pack a punch, but not necessarily be action-packed because we don’t have context or a reason to care yet. Give us information about the world, but not too much because we don’t care to read an encyclopedia entry. Make us wonder and ask questions, and don’t answer them right away, but also don’t confuse us before we find a reason to care.
It all came back to making the reader care as soon as possible. First lines and chapters carry a lot of weight, and so much of conventional writing wisdom stresses the importance of making an impression immediately. Now more than ever, a lot of that wisdom is tinged with the ominous warning that modern readers don’t have the attention span for long books or slow burns, and that if you can’t hook your reader right away they’ll just pick up their phone and stream something else instead.
I don’t know that I necessarily agree with the last of those points. While it’s true that there’s a lot of media fighting for our attention now, I think that readers aren’t the sort of people to give up on a book and start watching a show instead if it doesn’t grab them within the first line. I know that I, personally, am a little more patient with books than I am with movies or shows. There’s a valid debate there, but for now, in my current writing stage, it just constitutes overthinking.
Right now, I’m in a place where I’m the only reader that matters. Right now, I care about my adventurer main character who just got a potent reminder of a lost loved one, the best friend that immediately sought to comfort her, and the third character and the inciting incident she’s bringing with her—this time at the end of the first chapter instead of the third. Right now, I just need a fresh start without worrying about marketing or being paralyzed by fear and perfectionism. Right now, I just need the joy and passion in my project to help the words come: perfection can come later.
So hello again, Kingmaker. It’s been a while. We have a lot of catching up to do.