Thursday, April 28, 2011

In the Beginning Were the Words

Here I sit, desperate to talk about beginnings and wondering how to start, when I think, “Eureka! I’ll share the first graphs from some of my books, and we can see if I’ve gotten any better at it.” Okay, yes, I’m a glutton for punishment. But it might be amusing; and, with all the rain we’ve had in St. Louis lately—not to mention the tornadoes—I figured amusing would be very good indeed.

Just for clarity’s sake, I’ll italicize what I cut and paste from the books. The rest is just running commentary (aka, Susan Babble).

We’ll begin with BLUE BLOOD, the first of my Debutante Dropout Mysteries for Avon (circa 2004), where I needed to set the scene for murder:


That’s what she was.

Molly O’Brien pulled her T-shirt down over her head, not bothering to tuck the hem into her jeans. She squinted at her watch, barely illuminated by the faint stream of light flowing in from the hall, and she groaned when she realized it was well past midnight. God, how she wished she’d weaseled out of helping Bud Hartman close the place! He was creepy enough in broad daylight. If that didn’t bite, now she also owed the babysitter overtime.

She grabbed her purse from its hook, slammed her locker, and turned around.

Bud stood in the doorway, watching.

In all five of those mysteries, I started with a Prologue, written in the third person, while the rest of each book is in first person (seen through the eyes of my protagonist, deb ball refugee Andrea Kendricks). It was great fun getting into the head of either the murder victim—before the murder, of course—or, in this case, the prime suspect, Andy’s old friend, Molly, now a single mom working at a Hooter’s type restaurant called Jugs. Fun fact: BLUE BLOOD was originally called STABBED IN THE BACK, which was changed to DEATH AND THE DEBUTANTE DROPOUT before it sold to Avon then ended up as BLUE BLOOD, which suits it perfectly.

Let’s move ahead a few years, to my first “Debs” book with Delacorte, released in 2008:

Laura Delacroix Bell grabbed the arm-rests of her seat in a death-grip as the Southwest Airlines jet touched down at Houston’s Hobby Airport, the wheels bumping hard against the tarmac before rolling to a stop. The kid behind her let out a wail loud enough to split her eardrums, and she gritted her teeth, willing the Flight from Hell to be over with ASAP.

Ten more minutes, and I’ll be off this cattle car, she told herself, thinking that nothing would feel better than stretching to her full 5’ 9” after her cramped ride from Austin. Besides her neck getting a major crick, she’d been stuck smack in front of the crying child who’d kicked the back of her seat for nearly an hour. As if that wasn’t torture enough, all they’d fed her were two tiny bags of peanuts.

Confession: I didn’t know what I was doing when I wrote the first draft of THE DEBS, my first-ever young adult novel. The story features four privileged prep school girls in Houston, and I wasn’t quite sure how to utilize all the different points of view. In the initial draft, I started with another character entirely, but I realized with the revision that the real starting point was Laura returning from "fat camp" where she’d been exiled for the summer by her teeny-tiny über-socialite mother. Laura probably has the juiciest external conflict in the book, and by the end of Chapter One, you can’t help but know she’s bought a ticket on a train wreck. So THE DEBS was definitely a case where my original beginning was not the beginning I ended up with.

Finally, let’s skip to this year and LITTLE BLACK DRESS, my second women’s fiction book (out August 23, 2011), which starts like this:

I never meant to resurrect the dress. I had intended for it to remain out of reach so there would be no more meddling. But I awoke before dawn with tears in my eyes after another strange dream about Anna, and I knew that I had to find it.

A bruised-looking sky bled between half-drawn curtains as I dragged myself from bed and padded down the hallway in my nightgown and bare feet. I switched on the attic light and grabbed the banister to climb, my knees creaking as sharply as the wood beneath my heels. At the top of the stairs, I paused to catch my breath and loudly sneezed.

I’d forgotten how dusty it was up there and how full of things forgotten: discarded furniture, a steamer trunk stuffed with my parents’ belongings, and more boxes than I could count. It could take me days to dig through all the detritus. I wished I had listened to Bridget about getting my life sorted out months ago so there would be far less clutter. The house was full of it now. Like so much of the past, I found it harder to face than to ignore.

This beginning was the beginning I had in my head from the start, going back to when I wrote the proposal a year ago. Once I knew what the book was about—two sisters, Evie and Anna, who could not be more different, and a magical black dress that shows each her fate and changes the course of their lives forever—I saw this scene of Evie at 71, alone in the Victorian house she’d grown up in, awakening at dawn after a recurring dream and realizing she had to unearth the dress from the attic. The story shifts between two points of view: that of Evie and that of her daughter, Toni. Evie’s voice is more immediate (first person) and Toni’s is third person limited. Somehow, the combination worked, with Evie kick-starting the tale and Toni capping it off.

It’s rare when I have that clarity from the get-go. Usually, I rewrite my beginnings over and over again as I go along. Sometimes as I figure out the pieces of the puzzle—and understand better all the nuances of each character—I see a different starting point. What I’ve learned through the years is to trust my gut and to just get the freaking first draft done. I always feel like, once I know the whole story from start to finish, the fun truly begins (aka, revisions!). But—as you’ve heard me say before—the first draft is pretty much verbal vomit.

Hopefully, I’ll start vomiting copious words very soon since I’ve got a new book to write (like, now). I wonder if Office Depot sells writers’ barf bags?

P.S. As you read this, I am trying hard to keep my nose to the grindstone, sweating over the beginning of a young adult thriller, DEAD ADDRESS, for Random House/Delacorte. No doubt, I will mess with said beginning endlessly before this draft is done. Feel free to drop by my web site any time or find me on Facebook!


  1. What a fun and interesting post, Susan :) I'll have to go back and give my beginnings a fresh look.

    Best of luck with the writing on the new series. And I love the start to Little Black Dress. Can't wait to read it!

  2. You have a way of drawing people right in, Susan. Thanks for sharing this fun post.

  3. This is great, Susan! I love your commentary and your fab beginnings!

  4. Susan, ALL your beginnings are fabulous, every single one drew me right in!! You are so quick witted and engaging!! Can't wait to get my hands on LBD!! But you didn't say "cheers" at the end. I always take it as permission to celebrate no matter the time day! So, Cheers, Susan to another new beginning!

  5. Maria, it was kind of interesting to pick a few older books and see what I'd written. I mean, I remembered how things started, but not the precise words. It made me realize that I don't really pen snappy first lines everyone will quote for eternity--I'm too wordy for that! My "first lines" are more like two paragraphs. ;-)

    Karin, aw, thanks for saying that! :-)

    Judy, I'm so glad you like the Susan Babble! You got to hear a lot of Susan Babble last night, too. ;-)

    Laura, oh, now I feel like I should go back into the post and add my "cheers" to the end! But, wait, you just did that for me. So we're good. Hee hee. Yes, cheers to a new beginning! This new one's moving a little slowly!

  6. Your focus and prolific output are an inspiration to me! I'm going straight to my WIP right now. No Facebook, no email, just me and the barf bag! Thank you, Susan!

  7. I'm glad I could inspire you to go vomit words into your barf bag, Cindy! (Hee hee.) I need to do some of that today, too. Okay, a lot of that. :-)

  8. You are a Jill of all genres, aren't you? How do you do it?!

  9. Carleen, I don't know! It's so funny how everything happened. Just kind of dumb luck and good timing, and the itch to explore new territory and see what I can do (and lovely editors who keep me on course!). I'm never bored, that's for sure! ;-)

  10. Oh, Susan, I loved reading ALL of your story beginnings! Your writing style is so fun and engaging that I wanted to just keep going...and the plots for each of the books you mentioned were different from each other but all very intriguing. Your way of approaching the drafting of your stories may feel scattershot to you at times, but the end result is consistently fabulous ;). You know how much I loved LBD, and I'm looking forward to Dead Address, too!!

  11. Thank you, Ms. Marilyn! Sometimes my approach to life in general seems scattershot...but I muddle through. ;-) I love that you loved LBD! (And you know I loved SUMMER--I keep thinking about the characters, even now!). It's so nice to have something done, isn't it? I wish I could snap my fingers and have DA done, too. But then I guess it wouldn't feel as satisfying, eh?

  12. Beginnings come to me - usually in the shower (TMI, I know). The story grows from there. Good beginnings really grab me, show me the author wants my attention and deserves it. Thank you for the great examples!

  13. Oh, man, I get so many ideas in the shower! (And on the treadmill!) Thanks for commenting...and here's to great beginnings! :-)