On “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert occasionally does a bit called “First Drafts.” He shows greeting cards and then what he claims were the first drafts of those cards, all of them hilariously wrong. I’ve written before about how often the first draft of a book’s first paragraphs go wrong, usually in ways I don’t find hilarious. So I thought you might be interested in seeing early and final drafts of the openings of some of my novels.
I can’t show you the first draft of The Wind Reader’s opening because I seem to have deleted that from my computer, probably in a fit of horror. But here are drafts from Finders Keepers, Deep as a Tomb, and The Wysman, along with some of the reasons I changed them.
Here’s the earliest draft I still have of the opening of Finder’s Keepers, my only middle-grade book (i.e., for ages 10 and up).
“Why are you just standing there, boy?” The cook snapped his fingers like I was supposed to jump. He was Stenic. You could see it in his curly blond hair and pasty skin, but if you missed those clues, his sneer was a dead giveaway. Nobody sneered like a Sten. “What kind of lazy louts is Elgar hiring these days? I don’t see the flour here. Go fetch it.”
And here’s the version that eventually went into print.
A game! A game! Come play.—Cild, the child god
“Cut it out, Cade.” Eyes glued to his book, Roth caught the warrior game piece I’d slid across the table and flicked it back to me.
“Don’t you want to play war?” I pinged a second warrior off the lantern glowing next to Roth’s book.
The biggest change here is the point at which I started the story. In Finders Keepers, Cade’s mother disappears, and he and his older brother Roth spend most of the book searching for her. In the original draft, she’d been gone for several months. As I worked on the book, it belatedly occurred to me that her disappearance was a traumatic event for Cade and Roth, and I wasn’t showing it. So I revised to start an hour or so before they see her dragged away.
Additionally, I added an epigraph at the start of each chapter in an attempt to deepen my world building. You see that here, but it’s incidental to this being the book’s beginning. The real change was choosing where to start.
Deep as a Tomb
Deep as a Tomb is set in the same world as The Wind Reader and The Wysman but a few years earlier. It alternates between two point of view characters, one of whom is Prince Beran at age 16. Here he is in the earliest draft I have of the book’s opening.
Beran heard a thud and a chink of metal and ducked between a butcher shop and a public privy. Only then did his brain catch up with his actions and tell him what he’d reacted to. He’d heard similar heavy boots and metallic rattles daily for the last month. A soldier was coming toward him, the sound of boots and weapons betraying what the night had hidden.
And here’s the opening of the book as published, featuring the second point of view character, Myla.
The tomb pulled at Myla like the sun coaxing a sapling toward the sky. She had to fight off a temptation to run rather than pick her way through the underbrush. She glanced over her shoulder to see if Kaven felt the tug too and found him scanning the trees to one side. As if sensing her gaze, he turned to her, hand raised to ward off a trailing bush.
Once again, the biggest change is where I decided to start the story. In this book, Beran and Myla are both fostering at the home of Beran’s grandmother in a province called The Westreach. Beran’s father is, of course, the king, and Myla’s father is a would-be rebel who wants to free The Westreach from his rule. Originally I started the book before Beran is shipped off to his grandmother. I eventually decided to start a little later, with him already en route.
So that’s the time frame here, but I also decided to start with Myla rather than Beran because as I wrote, the story started to be more hers than his. Also she was doing the more interesting thing at this point, as she made her way toward a burial-maze tomb that has sacred meaning for her people. She and Beran run into one another within a few pages, so he’s not out of sight for long.
The change to Myla is an example of finding my story as I write it, something that happens more often than I expect, given the amount of planning I do beforehand.
The Wysman is my latest book, and the change in opening isn’t quite as drastic, but it is important. Namely, I changed the book from third person to first. Here’s the earliest version I can find.
Jarka felt it even in the castle courtyard, and his heart sped up. The wind was rising. It wanted him and wanted him now. It had things to tell him, then. Good things possibly, but in Jarka’s experience, more likely the divine Powers were getting ready to stage some drama at his expense.
And here’s the final version of the book’s opening.
As soon as I stepped out into the empty castle courtyard, I felt it. The wind puffed through my clothes and walked a chill finger down my back. It wanted me, and it wanted me now. It had things to tell me then. My heart sped up. I hitched across the courtyard, amid signs of the castle household just beginning to stir. Smoke rose from the kitchen chimney. A boy was just vanishing into the stables carrying a bucket of whatever horses need in the morning. Other than the boy, the wind and I were the only ones around.
The change to first person gave me a greater sense of intimacy with Jarka. I think it let me portray him in a deeper way. In the final version I was trying to live in his body and experience what he experiences. I think the greater detail in the setting is a result of that.
I have to admit I was sorry to lose the first version’s inclusion of Jarka’s cynicism about what the gods have in store for him, but on the whole, I think the final version is better.
Openings are hard to write. As these examples show, I never nail it on the first draft.