Opening Lines, Inner Editors, and the Voice of God

Today, a reader, who happens to be a friend, reminded me why I write. It was a timely reminder, as I’d started editing a first draft of my latest work, and decided (again) that I hate everything I write. Now, that’s a normal, perhaps even healthy reaction to a first draft – provided the response to that realization is to make it better.

I’d been scanning my latest publication, Hard as Roxx, looking for a 300-word extract for an upcoming promotion. After deciding first that I loved every 300 words in the book, and then hated every 300 words in the book, I emailed my chosen excerpt as required. Of course, 10-minutes later, I read the excerpt and realized I’d found the worst 300 word section in the entire world book. Alas, the deed was done. See, I’d initially selected the opening, and then my inner editor reminded me it was shit. I sent a different 300 words.

Inner Editors Suck
Inner Editors Suck

And that circumlocutory discussion leads me back to my main theme – why I write, and whether we artists can trust our instincts.

The answer to why I write is simple, although it took me a few years to figure out. I write for those rare times when a reader will excitedly quote back to me something I wrote. I had that experience this morning, upon awaking. I turned on my phone, and it began blowing up with messages and FB postings. Those turned out to be my sweet, literary goddaughter who was excitedly reading my book. Needless to say, it made my morning.

But that leads me to the second issue: can we artists trust our instincts? I say, yes and no. Now, that’s not as weaselly an answer as you might think. I’m being literal. We can trust our instincts – that first bit of insight that blindly, optimistically, stupidly puts out a thought and allows it to be imprinted on paper (or ePaper)  where all the world can see it, point to it, and call it names. We cannot, however, trust our secondary reactions. Specifically, we must be wary of that inner self-editor who reminds us how very shit our work is and points out, correctly, that almost no one will get it.

Well, duh. Let’s say I sell a book … I mean, sell the heck out of a book, where say, 100,000,000 people buy and read it. I’m now mega rich and acclaimed and all the other meaningless nonsense that goes with it. Should I now be pumped up about the 100 million people who “get” my work, or should I be downtrodden about the 98.6% of the world’s population who didn’t buy the book? Yeah, I’m a “best seller,” but still, almost no one got the work. Right?

100m

See, artistry isn’t for everyone. We can’t write for everyone, paint for everyone, please everyone. We must please ourselves and that small bit of the populous who are our artistic comrades. They are hard to find, but worth the search.

When I’d finished Roxx – I mean really finished it, with the editing done, book formatted for print, and all the rest – my writer’s instinct still wasn’t pleased. I’d worked and re-worked the opening and never liked it. In fact, the only part I liked was my main character’s ( Roxanne Grail’s) opening line. That’s when I got a dumb idea. I “unfinished” the book, pulled out Roxx’s words, and made them the opening line. I decided that the first words the reader should hear shouldn’t be mine, they should be hers. It isn’t my story, after all.

A bloody Rembrandt, this guy, God.

That was my new opening, from Roxx’s thoughts. My inner editor was outraged. It was a twelfth-hour change. It made no sense. People didn’t know who was talking or why she was calling God a Rembrandt. All they knew, perhaps, is that she spoke more UK English than American English, and she don’t talk proper.

“Ah,” the artist in me said.

“What do you mean, ‘Ah?’” asked the editor.

“Why, that’s pretty much everything they need to know about her, isn’t it? The rest is just her story.”

“Ah,” echoed the editor. He wasn’t convinced, but he’d let me fall on my face so that he could laugh later. After all, our inner editors don’t want us to succeed, they want to be right. But there is no “right” in art. So, I changed the book, rewrote the opening, and put it out, knowing I’d just royally fucked up the first page. And then I get a text message:

“God as a bloody Rembrandt!!! Brilliant first line. I’m a big believer in first lines and that, by far, is the best yet!!! Fucking love it.”

Now, remember, it wasn’t a first line at all, except it was the only line in the opening that I ever remembered. “A bloody Rembrandt, this guy, God.” Can you feel her whispering in her own head? Can you tell she’s taken the time to be awed, to flee for her life, but not fear; to be lost in the desert, but not astray; to be oppressed with whispered, shadowed threats, but certain she is not alone?

Do you wonder if God is truly dead, has she stumbled across his resting place? Roxx does. And, in that tormented rush to finish, to filter through the myriad feedback I’d received, to sift through the voices that made me change the opening so much I could no longer hear Roxx’s voice, I remembered that inner editors sometimes lie. And I closed my eyes, re-read her opening, and heard her voice.

02164_sahara_2560x14402.jpg

It is a story, after all, not of Sci Fi, or technology, or echoes of shadowed dystopian societies, although all of those elements are there in abundance. It is simply a love story — the story of a woman trying to keep her daughters safe. My inner editor didn’t get that I wasn’t trying to write a book like any other; I was trying to change a genre from hopelessness to hopefulness.

Fuck Inner Editors.

You can quote me. We artists hear too many voices in our heads. Some help, others do not. I am still learning which ones to listen to, but I can say, they are the ones who are excited. They find the bits that God has placed, the ones you didn’t know were in there. And, when they find them, and find the godhood through you, you will remember why you were an artist.

A bloody Rembrandt, this guy, God.

Amen

10 Comments

  1. Kirsten says:

    This was brilliant!! There is that constant tension for every writer and you expressed wonderfully!

    1. Kirsten, thank you very much.

  2. araneus1 says:

    Your post was/is timely.
    I’ve written a lot of words over the past seven days and today I tried to read them. Some stuff sounded the way I thought it felt hen I wrote so fast my shoulders ached. Other stuff didn’t sound so good. Normally I’d say don’t sweat it , it’s only a first draft. But not today. All I could remember was how good it felt as it unfolded on the page, and because it was not as good as I remembered I concluded it was all crap……… it may well be, but that’s not my point………. my point is your point……… how do I trust my inner editor……. when I work it out I’ll let you know……… or not…….. but your post helped.
    Thank you.
    Terry

    1. Terry, thanks for stopping by. I’d recommend being very careful about the first reaction to reading a draft. I just finished reading a draft of a book I completed earlier this year. I loved writing it, and remember laughing as I read through the prior day’s work. When I pulled the draft open, however, I decided it was terrible. It isn’t. More importantly, I’ve had the same reactions before and had others love the bits I thought were crap. I think we react because it’s never quite what we remember. Maybe it’s just our memories that are crap.

      1. araneus1 says:

        Wise words, as usual.
        I’m often amazed at the bits of a story that people pick out and comment on. Sometimes they are bits that I liked but often they are pieces that I thought were necessary but ordinary. These reactions are both encouraging and confusing. Your advice to ‘write for oneself’ is something that I started out doing and it’s something I have to stick to.
        The first person to read my stuff is my wife and to be honest, she gives lousy feedback. She is the only person in the world that I REALLY want to like my stuff, but most of the time she seems to like what I write but she gives the same reaction to almost everything I write. THIS IS REALLY CONFUSING. Some of my stuff is really good, other stuff is just ok, so how can her reaction be the same?
        The wise thing to do would be to not read her my stories and not put myself through that but, as I said, she is the person who’s opinion matters most, so I cannot help myself. I know this all sounds pathetic and believe me I am not like this with ANYBODY else on the face of this planet….. they can kiss my shiny metal arse……. part of the problem is that she is a much better writer than I am but she does not write.

        I will not go on about this but I have to say that this is really getting me down.
        Thanks for listening……….. and feel free to ignore this comment……. just me having a bad morning.
        Thank you for all your help and advice.
        Terry

        1. Well, I do understand. The one person I want to like my writing won’t even read it.

  3. amberafrica says:

    Thank you for this post!!!!!!

    1. I’m glad you liked it. 🙂

      1. amberafrica says:

        🙂

Comments are closed.