I’ve been thinking about the beginning a lot lately, tweaking, making it all writerly, but this morning I had a thought of a larger and more disturbing macro nature: maybe as written it still isn’t working at all. I still think the overall book is at least moderately entertaining. But nobody will ever find that out if they don’t get past the start. It seems to lack urgency. Who cares? Why do you want to keep reading?
Something you need: you need to care about Rachel and want to root for her almost right away (Liam can wait). And you need a problem. An immediate problem. A problem that then leads to another problem.
I’ve starting reading “Black Swan Rising,” which has a great opening. What works? First, the writing is not clumsy and amateurish. Second, there is a sense of mystery; the narrator is lost in the rain in a place she has lived all her life, and wanders into a strange, nameless shop. Why is she lost? Because she has just received a disturbing piece of news: She is most likely about to lose the home she’s lived in all her life that is also her family’s art gallery. Most readers don’t have a West Village townhouse to worry about losing, so you might think we might not identify, but it’s nonetheless very specific, with a deadline, plausible and concerning. So why do I care? The situation makes me care; the writing makes me care. The narrator seems intelligent and sympathetic, someone you want to be all right. And right after the problem with the money, you have another problem: Robbers break in and steal the paintings from the safe, shooting her father in the process. That’s a problem! He looks like he will survive; that’s good. But then there’s another twist: It’s looking like the detectives think it was insurance fraud. And the narrator isn’t so sure either it’s not. There are definitely enough questions to make you keep going.
What lessons does this offer for The Jane Austen Project? It’s not a thriller; there is no use promising a thriller and not delivering in the rest of the book. The premise that draws the reader in has to be legitimate, feeding into the themes and concerns that will dominate the rest of the book. Which are what? Identity vs. deception is one: how do you successfully pose as a person you are not? And assuming you can succeed, how do you not lose yourself in the process of taking on this role? How do you seduce people? That’s what they have come to do: seduce Henry first, with the promise of new money for his bank, win him over as agreeable acquaintances who can also be helpful in a medical capacity. Then Jane, then everyone. This is one thing, and I think I develop that theme pretty well. But do I introduce it early enough? Is that the thing that needs to be developed earlier, or should some other idea sort of lead into this?
They do open with a problem: they have landed in a field, in a strange century. Can they pass? Will their fake money pass? What are the consequences of failure? I hope I make this seem like a problem. Larger issue: why are they there? Why should the reader care? How quickly do we need to know what they are aiming to do? Why is what they are doing important? What the consequences of failure?
Rachel has to be someone the reader almost immediately likes and cares about. How do you do this? I know how you don’t do it: by making her seem stupid, annoying, or whiny. I don’t think she is that. But does she come alive? Goddam, I just don’t know anymore.
I’m putting the most recent version of the opening up again in “Read an Excerpt.” Comments welcome, the franker the better. If it’s not working, I want to know. Maybe I need to start the entire narrative at a different place? I’ve been so focused on noticing what they would notice: the way it is when you go to a foreign country and time seems to slow down, as you notice absolutely everything. But even if that’s would happen, am I sacrificing narrative urgency for some misguided notion of “realness”?