You Again Again, Part 1: Begin at the Beginning

So the computers are unpacked, the printer is hooked up, my collage unearthed, my coffee perked, and my giant post-its on the wall. It’s time to go back to Titanic. Or as I call it, You Again.

I have drafts of this damn novel from 2002. Also from 2003, 2004 . . . well, just look at this collection of first lines. They span ten years and they all suck. (That’s a technical writing term.)

March 31, 2002
“Zelda stood at the leaded glass window and watched the the old limo bounce over the broken drive down from the highway, fairly sure that the people on board were going to make her life particular hell for the next week.”
[That’s not a bad opening. Unfortunately, it’s not where the trouble starts.]

June 10, 2002
“Esme Whittier thought about bashing her godmother over the head with the Art Deco onyx elephant that sat on the Stickley table by her side and decided it wasn’t worth it.”
[Because nothing says “riveting opening” like a bunch of pretentious modifiers.]

March 28, 2004
“Zelda Banks stood in the chill, dark hall at Rosemore, clutching with equal firmness a heavy silver tray of martinis and her temper.”
[This is the “God, I’m clever with language” open. STOP THAT.]

April 19, 2004
“The December afternoon sun smudged through the heavy terrace doors and backlit Zelda Banks’s godmother, who looked treacherously lovely against the frosted panes, another reason Zelda wanted to kick her.”
[“Smudged” as a verb for the sun? I must have been on drugs.]

May 2, 2004
“Esme Banks saw the two ugly stone pillars before Beth did and slowed the car, trying not to skid on the slush that was rapidly hardening into lumpy ice.”
[Welcome to a book about Careful Drivers. For the State Farm Agent Audience.]

May 17, 2004
Roxy Banks eased her ancient Volvo down the narrow lane, trying not to slide off the snow-covered road and into one of the ancient trees.
[Not as bad as some of the others but still, if this chippie’s worst problem is sliding off a road . . .]

June 29, 2004
“Zelda Brass looked into the stony blue eyes of her best friend and thought, This is not good.”
[Not as bad as some of the others, at least there’s conflict. Kind of. But I have to stop using that “This is not good” construction. I use it all the time in real life, but it’s time to retire it in my fiction. Lazy writing.]

Mar. 7, 2009
“Roxy Banks eased her ancient Volvo down the narrow lane, trying not to slide off the snow-covered road and into one of the ancient trees.”
[Five years later, still trying to make this one work. No.]

July 28, 2011
Zelda Banks turned her ancient Camry down into the snow-crusted lane and thought, I am cheerfully optimistic and completely in control.
[This one has possibilities. At least there’s personality on the page. Hmmmm. No.]

Nov. 23, 2011
“The lane to Rosemore was icy and full of potholes, twisting under heavy, snow-laden trees and a threatening December sky, and Zelda Banks said, “This is not good.”
[Oh, dear god.]

Also from about that time, I have a writing exercise on first lines from my MFA classes. I think the prof gave us a list of possible first lines and then had us choose six of them to open our books. For the record, most of these possible approaches are terrible ways to open a book. (Description of setting? REALLY?)

Jenny Smith
ENG 765
First Lines Exercise: Rose More

1. Generalization/God-like Pronouncement:
There are people for whom the world is completely relational; that is, it only exists in relation to them. Rose Montgomery Parker-Ray Baker was one of those people. She had three deceased husbands she referred to by their last names since that was all they’d left her (besides stocks, bonds, real estate, and a mass of very expensive jewelry), and twenty-eight ex-lovers she didn’t refer to all since she’d spent what they’d had when she was with them. She also had thirteen godchildren whom she referred to as “my Roses” in spite of the fact that two of them were named Martin and Gabriel.
[I don’t write omniscient, so this was a non-starter before I started.]

2. Description of a Person
People who wrote about Rose Baker always mentioned her knowing gray eyes and her generous mouth, but if you asked Rose what her best feature was she said, “My breasts, darling. They were perfect, and they stayed that way for years and years. Men will do almost anything for perfect breasts. God knows they did for mine.”
[Again, omniscient. If I were going to write omniscient and use this, I’d start with “If you asked . . .” But I’m not going to. Because I don’t write omniscient.]

3. Description of a Place
RoseMore looked like a stately home designed by Walt Disney after a couple of brandies. “Carve some more of those stone roses,” Walt would have said. “Can’t have too many stone roses. And throw in some pink stained glass.” The most disconcerting touch was the bas relief heads of the lady of the house that bracketed the carved walnut front doors. Rumor had it that Rose Parker-Ray had taken one look at the reliefs and promptly gone off for what was to become known as the best damn face lift in the world, returning to make the sculptor refinish the likenesses to match. Martin looked at the reliefs now and shook his head. “Before the face lift,” he said. “Look at the eyes.”
[There’s a reason people make fun of “It was a dark and stormy night.” Opening with setting is boring because it’s not about character.]

6. Reminiscent Narrator
“Rose had her own way of handling financial disasters,” Isobel said. “She’d go to whomever she was sleeping with at the time and say, “But darling, what are we going to do with these?” and the bills would be paid. The only one it didn’t work with was Quentin. I was there when he came by one day, and she showed him the bills and looked adorable, and he said, ‘Try it on somebody else, love. There’ll be a new one along any minute.’ And of course, there was, but that was the last time Rose slept with a musician.”
[I could use this somewhere in the book, but as an opening line, it’s awful. Also, it’s freaking back story. Start where the damn story starts.]

8. Line of Dialogue
“You know, Nell,” Rose said to her goddaughter, “you’re getting damn close to middle age, and your family has all that German blood, and if you don’t start exercising, you’re going to turn into the same little troll your mother did.”
[I don’t have any huge objections to starting with dialogue as long as it’s tagged so people know who’s speaking, but it’s not one of my faves.]

11. Establish POV in 1st person, voice
“People called me the greatest whore of the twentieth century, but that’s just middle class morality. If God had meant me to support myself, he wouldn’t have made me fascinating.”
[Actually not a bad opening. Unfortunately, Rose is the antagonist, not the protagonist. Back to the drawing board.]

Yes, it was called Rosemore then. Yes, the heroine has had several names. So has the hero. It’s been set in several different time periods. It’s been a romance, a romantic suspense, and now it’s paranormal, too. Yes, I have a plan. Hell, I have a COLLAGE. That also needs updated. More about that later.

Tonight, I sort through ten years of drafts and broken dreams. Tomorrow, I go back into the sea of broken drafts and find a way to raise the Titanic fix this book.

Icebergs everywhere and not a raft in sight.

59 thoughts on “You Again Again, Part 1: Begin at the Beginning

  1. For some reason, I have had “You Again” by Jennifer Crusie on a ‘notify me’ list at Abe Books. It’s been there for a very long time. I’d like to think I’m omniscient, but really I’m just optimistic. So glad “You Again” is coming. I’ve no doubt it will be well worth the wait.

  2. I like 7/28/11 and 3/28/04 best of what seem to me a pretty good lot. Even the description of a place opening. It’s stuff like this that reminds me how little I really know about writing. I wrote 1200 boring words the first day of NaNo, deleted 200 the aecond day, and have been avoiding it ever since. Now is as good a time as any to jump back into the fray – I only have to write 2600 words tonight and every day for the rest of November!

    You won’t need a raft if you steer around the icebergs – don’t abandon ship too soon.

    1. I like both of these too. But its not that important to me. I always give a book a few chapters to grab me. (in the case of Alan Garner “Boneland” I just gave it the whole book to grab me and it never did. Thank goodness it was short). If I’m checking out a book in the bookshop, I start reading random bits in the middle. Thats more telling about whether a book is worth reading.

      Going back over old ground is exhausting! I’m trying to train myself to delete some drafts regularly. Either I don’t look at them at all, or they hold me back from creating new stuff.

  3. Okay, maybe this is dumb, but can’t you just…start with any of them (I mean, almost) because don’t you come back to fix it later? So as long as you start in the right place, pretty much, can’t it work *for now*?

    1. I don’t write in chronological order, so it doesn’t matter where I start.
      But it matters a lot where the book starts, and it matters even more how readers meet my protagonists. Since I am generally lousy at starting books (see Crazy For You for the worst beginning sentence ever), it’s good for me to get the first line right as soon as possible.

        1. I have to agree with Sarah. I just re-read the first line of Crazy For You. For me, it immediately set in my mind where Quinn was at, especially … for thirteen years gritting her teeth …
          And there she was, Quinn was reaching a turning point.
          I like the 3rd opening line of You Again. 🙂

  4. As usual, this is so fun to watch. I love reading all the different ways you go about something, and then why you say they don’t work. I learn so much and I’m entertained. I don’t really need much else.

  5. Yeah for you – you’re in NJ and starting on You Again, again.

    If you need to abandon ship in case of a giant iceberg, we’ll be here to send out the rescue helicopter.

  6. This is so good. This is SO good. I’m so happy to watch a Crusie work in progress. The last time you were writing something that you’d been thinking about in one form or another for a long long time was Maybe This Time, which I was a little apprehensive about at first (I always dropped Turn of the Screw after 100 pages and vowed never to go back to read it again). As you wrote about it I got sort of interested, but still dubious because… Turn of the Screw.

    But then it came out, and I read it the first time, and now it’s become my favorite Crusie to read and re-read. It’s got more depth and complexity than my old favorites, and I get far more satisfaction reading about everything that gets the protagonists together at the end than I do with a lighter, more straightforward romance.

    That’s what it feels like is going to happen with this one. Less obvious stuff. Less inessential furniture. More growth, more struggle, more learning. And we’ll find out if the car’s a Camry or a Volvo or something else entirely. What fun!

  7. I agree, grab the line you like the most and GO. Don’t look back until you have to and listen to the right voices along the way. We kick ourselves for 10 minutes as easy as 10 years, so I hope you just keep moving forward. As a big fan, it’s exciting!!

  8. Hey, that Description of Place does a pretty darn fine Characterization. Want me some more Martin, I do. Could be because I’m listening to some darn fine Mark Knopler and I’ve conflated Martin and Mark. Happens. Now Neil Young is urging me “Long May You Run,” and, nope, nothing of Martin at all. Gotta go before Michael Buble comes on.

    I looked it up. Yes, the dictionary dudes do have your author photo next to the word “hypercritical.”

    1. Probably, but that’s what makes the final version so worthwhile. I like authors that take ages to write books mostly because the book that comes out is a lot better.

      Quite honestly, I’d buy a book of Jenny snippets (stuff like this), because I love her voice. All the bits that weren’t quite the right line, put in a book called, “Great Lines Jenny Threw Out.” It probably wouldn’t sell much outside her fan base, but considering how many times I’ve seen people say they’d read her grocery shopping list, I think she’d sell a decent number of them.

  9. I can honestly say that I’m just thrilled that I may have a new Crusie novel to obsess over. If ever I’m feeling down, I pull out Bet Me, and if ever I’m without power (which was the case recently….) I turn to Welcome to Temptation or Faking It and escape off with Sophie or Tilda.

    Your books are by far my favorites to read and reread, and I recommend them to anyone who asks for new material.

    No icebergs as far as the eye can see in these waters, Captain. We’ll be here to summon help as needed.

  10. Of all the heroine’s names, I think I like Zelda the best. But maybe I just got used to that one because you were calling her that by the time I discovered your books. The coming posts promise to be fun and I really want to read You Again 🙂 Rose sounds like a very entertaining antagonist, can’t wait to learn more about her.

  11. You are an amazing writer. And I’ve pondered why you’ve had trouble lately, (other than the obvious health and circumstational reasons, of course.)
    I wonder if part of it is the pressure to be an amazing writer. I’ve read so many great writers who say they sometimes succumb to the inability to put words on the page because they may not be great words.
    I like this quote and reaction to the quote:
    What John Vorhaus said:
    “Burdened by the unrealistic expectation of all quality all the time, we often find that we just can’t write at all.”
    What Sia McKye said:
    “I think what John said is dead on and once you realize the impossibility of being good with every word or scene it does free you to just write. What the hell, you’re going to have to edit it anyway but you can’t edit what’s not down on paper, or erm, the computer screen.”
    I hope you continue to put words, any words, up on your computer screen. Because then you have words to edit. And then we have a new Crusie to read.
    Glad you made it to New Jersey!

    1. Clever Cherry – I like the fact that we were obviously thinking the same thing, and posting it at the same time – see mine below!

  12. My plan would be: Stop over-thinking. Focus on what you love about the story, and play with that. Write the opening last, once you’ve got a story you enjoy. (And to get to the place where you enjoy it, try forgetting all the rules completely; and especially what readers might think about it.)

  13. What everybody said. I love the first one. But I’m with the folks that say, don’t worry so much about nailing that great opening and just write the damned book already. *taps toe*

    Also, here’s a cookie. We love you. Welcome to NJ, neighbor. (Hey, upstate NY isn’t all that far…bwahahahahaha)

  14. I doubt this will be helpful to you — you seem to be presenting as a rather extreme perfectionist and that’s a tough illness to get over. But back when I tried out critique groups, I decided pretty quickly that while I was happy to read whatever people wanted to tell me, there was only one question that I truly wanted answered and that was, “Would you like to keep reading?” I’d say yes to almost all of those beginnings (although probably not the ancient Volvo/ancient trees if I didn’t know it was you). I think every book on the bestseller lists could be ripped to shreds if treated the way you’re treating your work here and none of that fundamentally matters as long as the answer to whether the reader would keep reading is always yes.

    I’ve been struggling with the first chapters of my current project for months, which seems a lot less torturous after reading this post. However, you’ve inspired me today to fall back on my own personal writing rule #1, ie “Just tell the damn story.” Thank you!

  15. Like #3 [March, 2004]. Wouldn’t have noticed the language issue. Even with you bringing it up, still works for me. Found wording to be specific & have personality & punch. For me, too much attention to language by author usually feels pretentious & self-conscious. This did neither. Made me smile and like the character immediately.

    #6 made me laugh [17 May, 2004]. The book I have out now starts with m/c skidding off the road–it’s only part of the bigger trouble she finds herself in, but still, car skidding off road. Too funny. After reading your evaluation, hoping this is a different-roads-to-Oz thing 🙂

  16. first off – great post, really nuts and bolts, and loving it!

    also, Crazy for You, has a terrific first line. I just reread it. So, there.

    And, does that mean you’re finished with Lavender’s Blue? Approximate release date?

    Mazel tov on new place! If you ever need help moving anything or dealing with contractors, you know you have a lot of crafty female fans.

    1. I think Lavender’s Blue became a UFO (unfinished object). She could come back to it eventually, but for right now, it’s not on the “to do” shelf. I think it might have been thrown in the back of the closet, behind the floor fan that no one in New Jersey will think to pull out for a good 6 months. Possibly covered with some old clothes that should be donated.

      At least that was my impression of its status. (Except that Jenny just moved, and donated a bunch of stuff, so maybe it’s just at the very bottom of a moving box marked, “junk I can’t deal with right now.”)

  17. Oh, buck up, Crusie, and edit the second-to-last one. It’ll work for now and then you can move on. Here, just get rid of 4 words:

    Zelda Banks turned her ancient Camry down the snow-crusted lane and thought, I am completely in control.

  18. I like the martini tray/temper one the best (not that you were taking a poll, of course). It tells so much so economically. The setting (high end), the time (cocktail hour), the protagonist’s frame of mind (furious, but determined to hide it). And it makes us eager to follow her into the sitting room, to see what happens next, because we know there are several people in that room, and not all of them are in agreement with each other.

    (Also, it has the same touch as one of my all time favourite Crusie lines, Davey’s kiss tasted like vodka and disaster.)

  19. My favorite opener of any of your books was “Bet Me”, followed by “Welcome to Temptation”. If I had to pin down why, I think it was because I could IMMEDIATELY get a sense of the heroine and like her. I have no idea if this helps even the tiniest bit, by the way. I just feel compelled to blather about stuff I like.

  20. Not a writer, but I like the first three, plus the one from June 29th. I think it is because they all describe what a person is feeling, not just description of the location. But frankly, I don’t care about the first line, I just have to say that I… can… not… wait… for the story.

  21. Try to remember there is no such thing as perfect because everyone’s definition of perfect is different. Give yourself a break. I will love it no matter what the first line is. And I’m not the only one.

  22. Funny thing is any of those would work for me. It’s just your voice, your intelligence, that grabs me. But obviously no one knows where to start the book other than you cuz you’re the only one who knows the story.

    I’ve been killing myself over an opening scene for my latest book for more than a year. I even turned it in with a lousy one because I just couldn’t get it right. Nobody commented on it, so I asked–what about that opening? “Oh, it’s fine.” Really? FINE? Just the kind of opening a reader longs for! So that was it for me. After more than a year, dozens of attempts, I went back to the drawing board. Just spent time researching Opening Scenes. What elements have to be in there. Hoping something would trigger SOMETHING. And then BAM, it hit me. And I wrote it. And I thank God I can put this baby to bed. Sometimes writing is so fun; other times…not so much.

    1. Smudged sun makes me think the windows need cleaned. Which reminds me that mine need done, but it’s November and they’re not getting done again until March (at least). And then I relax and enjoy again.

  23. Maybe I’m a cheap audience, but I loved the martini tray/temper one. Your comments had me laughing out loud. Thanks for a smile on a day I’ve penned (not cleverly), Discombobulated Tuesday.

  24. I like July 28, 2011. Telling yourself that you’re totally in control is usually a sign of trouble starting. It makes me think of Zelda as someone who read something like “The Checklist Manifesto” (about how to apply the same methods used by pilots to keep planes from crashing, and surgeons to keep instruments from getting closed up in the patient’s gut, to less-obviously detailed tasks) and is now determined to apply it to make her life less crash- and guts-filled. Like, she’ll now drive down this snowy road with one part of her brain ticking off “how to drive safely” and the other part trying to apply that thinking to dealing with her godmother.

  25. “Icebergs everywhere and not a raft in sight.”

    You know, this isn’t a bad opening line in itself. At the very least, it evokes that feeling of Oh-God-I’ve-Had-Days-Like-That-Too. …Which, by the way, I have.

  26. As a reader, the only first lines that I notice are the really bad ones. I’m patient enough to give a book (and a writer) at least a page or two before I start to disconnect.
    In my own writing, I rarely bother with the first line ‘perfectionitis’ until I’m practically done. That’s when I actually know where I wanted the story to go and what sort of impression I want to make for someone who is reading it for the first time, because I’ve read the thing too many times at that point.

  27. Does it help or does it escalate things having all the MFA students flailing around in the frigid waters with you?

    I was facing the opposite problem: in my innocence, I was quite happy with my opening line. Then I started questioning it and . . . well. (-: I think I’m going to wind up with a better one, though. It was really nice to be with other students struggling with their various problems, and very educational, as well.

    How do you time manage this? Somehow you manage to go on and write the book in most cases. Do you say, “OK, this week I’ll worry about first lines, and then I’m going on to XX”? Or do you just worry about it until you are done worrying about it?

    LOL, what I’m really looking for is a “stop the madness” pill. I need to let go of my thinkin’ and sittin’ phase, and just write. But instead, I sat and crocheted for two hours while listening to Fry & Laurie . . . . Pretty soon I’m going to be sacrificing chickens . . . (probably from KFC — no live chickens will be harmed specifically for my writing career).

  28. Thank you, God – and Jenny! I thought I was the only one who wrote first lines (make that first scenes) a gazillion times, changed character names, et cetera, et cetera. (Sorry – Yul Brynner is in my head, for some reason…)

    I have soooo many stories that have been revised, rewritten, tossed out and later restarted that I’ve about given up on ever REALLY finishing anything. Seeing someone with your talent go through this gives me hope. Maybe it’s a normal part of the writing process? That’s what I’m telling myself, and I’m sticking to it.

  29. I am just grateful you are writing anything–I was resigned to the idea of no more Crusies forever if that’s what it took for you to feel better.

  30. What I’ve taken from this is: don’t start with setting, start with character. I like the clutching martinis and the temper but that may be because, the opening of yours I re-read all the time is Maybe This Time and I think Andi was clutching (holding) her alimony cheques there. So maybe I just like your heroines to be clutching something. Maybe they could stomp the clutch in the car. Thank you for the post and good luck. I have struggled, and struggled and struggled with my opening. I’ve spent more time on that page than any other by a country mile. It’s so nice to see some of the comments here say they will give a book a little time (a few pages) before they disengage.

    1. “Andie Miller sat in the reception room of her ex-husband’s law office, holding on to ten years of uncashed alimony checks and a lot of unresolved rage.”

  31. Basically, I like them all except for the very last one (Nov. 23) which screams ‘dark and stormy night’ at me.
    But I can so follow your point, being the person who reads her own book after five years and still wants to call the editor and change something.

  32. Oh goody, You Again. BUT what’s happened to Lavender? Did I miss something?

    Also, Pratchett interview in this week’s New Statesman where he talks about a forthcoming BBC series called The Watch.

  33. It seems like the answer is going to be found in who your protagonist really is: is she the kind of gal who is looking out the window waiting for plot to happen to her, or is she holding the plot in her hand and winding up like a triple-A pitcher getting ready to let it fly? I truly hope you find out because I just love your stories and characters. You bring a lot of fun and joy, and a great story every time.

  34. I like the 3-31-02 and the description of a person openings. I wish you could combine the to. 🙂
    Good luck.

  35. First lines, what fun. For what its worth, I like the first one because of the sense of conflict. And it sounds like you. : )

    I didn’t take my laptop on the trip to Australia but had taken the first three chapters of my WIP and ended up writing 27 opening lines and not much else. I had a niggling that my opening line was not original. Knew it had to be one of yours. Got home and discovered I’d plagiarized the opening line to Agnes and the Hitman. Sigh.

  36. Oh, I didn’t mean I took that entire sentence, just the concept. ; ) I could never write about raspberries without thinking of AandH. Anyway, I looked at your advice above and last night when I couldn’t sleep I found the true beginning of my story. So thanks for that, I’m now one happy camper.


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