I had lunch with Robert MacNeil* in the early 1990s just after Doubleday published Burden of Desire, his first novel. You might have thought that after years of telling stories — on major news networks, on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, and in a series of nonfiction bestsellers — writing a novel would be child’s play.
But it wasn’t. While he found the business of making stuff up to incredibly liberating after years of sticking to the facts, he had to solve all the problems of writing a novel by himself, in front of a computer, with no one to guide him. He needed to find his voice, and creating realistic dialogue was much harder than it looked. He needed to explain a great deal to the reader, but he couldn’t let the pacing falter, or readers would lose patience. He was challenged as he hadn’t been in decades.
I’m not Robin MacNeil by any stretch, but I have been a professional writer, on and off, for 20 years. I’ve never counted, but I expect that I have more than 1,200 bylines. So I can write.
But the challenge of creating a YA novel is daunting. I have the story in my noggin, but I’m scrambling to find my voice. Crafting realistic dialogue is an enormous headache. Pacing is crucial. I want readers to understand my protagonist’s frustration, but not get so pissed off at his self-centeredness that they stop reading. It’s a balancing act, and — like one of the best journalists of our generation — I’m learning as I go.
It’s hard, and it’s incredibly rewarding.
Nothing’s set in stone. I originally opened my WIP with these 300 words.
The school was empty where, just 15 minutes before, it had been crammed with 800 restless kids, all chafing at the bit, anxious to begin their summer holidays.
But not Jacob Julius Jollimore. Jacob had become uneasy over the last seven weeks whenever he thought about this day. No, not uneasy. What an insipid word! Uneasy didn’t even come close to covering it. Uneasy was Madame Benoit announcing a pop quiz, or giving him a letter to deliver to his parents. Jacob sought a better description. Anxious? For sure. Agitated? Yeah, that was better still. Maybe a feeling of tension this overwhelming needed a phrase to describe it. Sheer dread… Good, good, he thought.
Oh, wait… I have it.
He imagined a swelling of music near the end of a horror movie, bringing with it a sense of ominous foreboding.
Only it wasn’t that much fun to be this scared. Jacob had been so sick to his stomach this morning that he hadn’t even eaten breakfast. He had taken two Gravol before school, but they hadn’t helped. He’d never been this nervous before. And what surprised Jacob most was that he couldn’t quite figure out where all this fear had come from.
But this day was a huge part of it. The school year had ended, and now his last hold on his old life was slipping from his grasp.
Jacob wondered if he was singular, if he could possibly be the only kid in the entire history of the Montréal educational system who didn’t want his school year to close.
No, that couldn’t be true. Montréal was an old city. Surely some kid had been through this before. But the thought brought him no comfort.
He was walking slowly past the Grade 3 classrooms, stopping to look at 22 self-portraits — rendered in bright crayons — that graced the walls.
The writing is fine but, as introductions go, it’s BORING! It’s like when we were kids, clamoring for dessert after a meal, and my Mom would offer us bread and molasses. There was no quicker way to shut us up. We’d rather go without dessert.
It took me a long time to realize that my opening chapter was bread and molasses. I realized, through Kristina’s constant prodding, that I had one, maybe two pages to hook the reader, and that I needed to make a splash.
And so, the current version of The Mystery of the Hotel Maisonneuve begins much differently:
Jacob Jollimore didn’t hesitate; his fight-or-flight instinct was missing the fight half. His feet barely touched the aisle as dashed to the bus’s rear doors, which were seconds from closing.
He could actually feel every throb of his heart in his mouth. But he was nearly at the exit, and to safety.
He jumped, landed, even enjoyed the brief sensation of flight.
But he couldn’t believe it, the Neanderthal was giving chase, having shoved his way through the half-closed doors. Jacob turned and sprinted. Faces blurred, as he dodged in and out. He glanced over his shoulder. Could he outrun such a big kid? He looked pretty athletic, but… it was possible. Running was the one sport that Jacob enjoyed, and he was good at it. If he was honest about it, some really stupid part of him was even enjoying this chase, dancing on the head of pin, darting this way and that.
He glanced back a second time. He was exhilarated by the small distance he’d opened between them. No sweat.
Something caught his shoulder. It was more a brush than a bump, and he might not even have apologized under normal circumstances. He certainly didn’t have the time now. Only his peripheral vision gave the impression of a couple of cans and maybe a zucchini in midair, ejected from a paper bag.
She didn’t cry out, not then. And of course Jacob couldn’t hear the bones snap or the dull thud of a fragile skull on concrete.
Later, he was embarrassed to admit even to himself that his first thought was: Excellent — that should slow him down. He kept running for six more strides until he heard the shouts behind him. And through the din, the mocking laughter and buck-buck-buck that he’d come to hate so much in just a few weeks.
Before he looked back, he knew it was bad. It sounded bad. There, in front of the deli.
The Neanderthal had joined a small commotion surrounding a figure slumped on the sidewalk, but it was obvious the chase was over for today, at least. The mess Jacob had made was far worse than the thumping his nemesis had intended to dish out.
What do you think? Have you ditched whole characters, or chapters, or themes? Or have you been spared that trauma? Do you actually like the new beginning? The opening line?
Do you want to know what happens next?
Give it to me with both barrels. I can take it.
*Robert MacNeil is a wonderful storyteller. He had me falling out my seat with laughter recounting some of his early adventures in radio and television.