Monday, February 20, 2012

Rewrite Your Beginning Before Submitting

I've started editing the stories for issue #16 and I'm struck, once again, at how the bulk of the editing suggestions apply to a story's first few paragraphs. That's not always the case, but it's a safe bet, even for the stories that win a prize. In stories that don't win a prize, the beginnings generally have even more problems.

When you first draft a story, you're still making basic decisions about where it's going and what's going to happen in it. As a result, when you first draft the beginning, you know less about your story than you will at any other point in the writing process. But the beginning is the most critical part of any story you're hoping to sell, so why are you writing it when you're the most ignorant about your story?

I once said in a newsletter that you should write your story's beginning last, but that's hard to do. Even I have trouble with that rule, and it's my rule! So here's what I do instead: 

Once I've re-written a story enough times to be satisfied with it, and I'm pretty sure I could submit it as is, I put it away for a day or so. Then I go back and read the story starting from a few paragraphs in. In other words, I skip the beginning but read to the end. When I'm done, I understand much better what my story is really about, both plot-wise and thematically.

Armed with that knowledge, I read the beginning, and I usually cringe. Because now I see an image, or a word choice, or a phrasing issue, that fit the story I had in mind three drafts ago, but no longer fits the story I'm planning to submit.

Sometimes I just edit the beginning, but I've also had good luck deleting the first few paragraphs and starting from scratch, right then and there, because now I know what fits and what doesn't, and I also know the absolute minimum that has to happen to set up the rest of the story. More importantly, now I can finally get the tone right, and I know what details to put in to set up what's going to happen next. When nothing that is not vital to the story's plot, character, mood, or theme appears in the beginning anymore, I submit the story.

Three of the last six stories I used this technique on were accepted by the first place I sent them. Try it!

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