I met my last reader, Mary Sreden, for lunch at Renaissance Bistro in Brunswick. Across from the old mill on the Androscoggin River, the tiny restaurant is a crimson gem of local art and ingredients. I have to admit I enjoyed the atmosphere more than the food, but that was only because the mint dressing was too oily on my duck salad. My starter, an apple-pear-squash soup, was very good. It was cozy and warm, which was a relief since the morning’s minus five was still below plus five at noon. The bright sun helped, but the stiff breeze did not.
Mary is a nurse who grew up in the Midwest and attended state university. Last June she left her four children with her husband and joined a male crew to deliver a sailboat across the Atlantic. She was the cook and nurse but had no previous sailing experience aside from day tripping. The seas were rough, and she came home bruised yet loved it. I figured she could tackle the novel experience of reading critically, especially since she’s a voracious consumer of women’s fiction. I had noted and admired her ability to speak her mind but with tact and sensitivity.
If you don’t count my family and my literary agency, I’ve had six readers. These women have read drafts of Moose Crossing and offered invaluable commentary. Half of my readers were writer/editor friends, but the others were typical readers of my genre, commercial women’s fiction. Half were local and the others “from away,” as we say in Maine.
When I asked Mary to read, I had just added a prologue and cut over 30 slow pages from my opening. The problem was I had the 101 other versions in my head. I needed fresh eyes to find the flaws and the vestigial traces of old plot.
Mary found an irritating dialogue and one embarrassingly corny line, but she enjoyed the rest. She mentioned several scenes that were either funny or emotionally resonant. The characters felt real to her. Most reassuringly, she was totally hooked on the new prologue and eager to read beyond the opening chapters.
I often find what a reader doesn’t say is as important as what she does say. If she doesn’t mention a scene, perhaps it is too slow and could be cut. The trick is to preserve what is working and prune out the rest, no matter how hard you worked on it. This is no more crucial than in the opening chapters of a novel.
I love the first title in the Lemony Snicket series: The Bad Beginning. Openings are so challenging partly because you write them before you truly know where you’re going. You need to grab the reader’s attention in those first few pages or you’re lost.
Just remember your last trip to a bookstore. How far did you read? I spent a morning at Bookland reading first pages before I tackled my new beginning. Search inside Jodi Picoult’s novels for the catchy first sentence.
Even with a punchy prologue, the job isn’t over. You must move the narrative along while introducing characters and setting while weaving in back story. Good writing takes not only talent, it takes the ability to absorb criticism and use it constructively.