Guest Blogger: Daniel Palmer
When it comes to writing novels, beginnings can be difficult. A blank page at first appears liberating, but it can soon become utterly paralyzing. As writers, we’ve been taught to grab the reader’s attention in the first few pages—the first sentence if possible—and then hold it with prose that’s as sticky as crazy glue. I started writing my most recent novel, HELPLESS, in the fall of 2010. Yup, you read that right. I had signed my first book contract, a three-book deal with Kensington Publishers, in the spring of 2009. My debut novel, DELIRIOUS was already written when I signed the contract, but Kensington needed to slot my book for publication, so they opted not to publish it until winter of 2011. Two years! I had two blessed years to write my sophomore effort. Two years to come up with a truly grabby beginning, a sticky middle, and a jaw-dropping dénouement. Two whole years—what could possibly go wrong? I would later learn that beginnings could go wrong; those dang beginnings could go very, very wrong.
The first line of HELPLESS reads: Love can make you do surprising things. That was not, however, the first line I wrote in the fall of 2010. Back then, when my pages were blank and my optimism boundless, the opening line read: This is the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write. Those two lines, innocuous as the change between them might seem, translated into seven months of rework. Here’s why . . .
I knew I wanted to write a story about two fathers, former friends, who in the course of the novel become adversaries. To say that was a loose premise for a book is like saying people haven’t seen Jimmy Hoffa around for a while. It was my editor, John, who suggested that I write about sexting. Cool, I thought, I’ll write about sexting. The idea immediately intrigued me, as I’m attracted to stories that explore the hidden dangers of commonly used technologies. But I didn’t want the story to center on what happens in the hallways of a high school when a teenage girl’s compromising pictures are shared among her peers.
That’s a scary premise for sure, but not scary enough.
Still, I knew as soon as John said “sexting” that I had a story here.
I just needed to find it.
Then one day, while doing research, I found my story.
It’s dinnertime. You hear a knock on the door. You open the door and standing before you is a federal agent. The agent his holding nude photographs of your daughter. She explains that the FBI arrested a child pornographer who was in possession of these images. The agent requests to see your daughter, and then asks to verify that she is, in fact, the girl depicted in the lurid photographs. Your daughter, who had sent these pictures to her boyfriend, is asked to sign and date the back of them. Your daughter is utterly mortified and frightened. She will be given the opportunity to write a victim impact statement. This statement will be read aloud at the time of sentencing should the accused be convicted. Not only will your daughter’s statement be read at this particular trial, but also it will be put on file and read at the sentencing for any trial where your daughter’s image is included as evidence.
And this will go on in perpetuity.
When your daughter is in college.
After she gets married.
After she has children of her own.
Now this, I thought, was very scary.
Great, I had my story. The question was—where do I begin?
After some hashing and rehashing, I decided I would start with a letter that reveals a secret. That secret would eventually pit the two fathers (a.k.a. my vague initial concept for a novel) against each other many years later. Once I had the beginning fleshed out, I thought about the ending. I wanted it to be wild. It was going to be intense, high-octane kind of stuff. You know, a real thriller. I decided the ending would tie directly back to the beginning. I was attracted the symmetry of it all. In essence, the ending could not exist without the beginning, and all that flowed through the middle was equally dependent on the way the novel started.
And so I began to write . . .
I turned the book into my editor thirteen months later. Whew! I thought. Now, I’ll have more of a runway to write book number three. Or, so I thought. My editor called me after reading the manuscript. “Daniel,” he said to me. “I loved the ending! That thing with the thing and that stuff that happened in that place, great, simply great!” Note: I’m being intentionally vague here so as to not hand you any plot spoilers. “That’s fantastic,” I said to him. Then he paused, one of those long pauses that can make you gulp and ponder your own mortality. “The beginning has to go,” he said. “It’s simply not going to work.”
“But . . . but . . . but,” I stammered.
My first instinct was to explain to him about the symmetry I wrote into the novel. I wanted him to understand that everything—the character’s motivations, all of their actions—flowed from that beginning. I needed to make him aware that if I changed the opening line to anything other than: This is the hardest letter I’ve ever had to write, there would be some sort of cosmic collision of such epic proportions I couldn’t be responsible for the consequences. Okay, that might be an exaggeration. What I wanted to tell him was that his five-second critique of my manuscript would force me to rewrite the entire novel. Changing the beginning meant changing everything.
You know what I did?
I said, “No problem. I’ll change it.”
I went through the book and tossed out about half of the novel. I came up with new ideas. I sacrificed the wiggle-room I thought I’d left myself to write book number three. I did what he suggested because he was right. The beginning had to go. The end result was a heck of a lot better—a much stronger novel. PUBLISHERS WEEKLY and LIBRARY JOURNAL gave HELPLESS starred reviews. I doubt that would have happened if the book began: This was the hardest letter I ever had to write.
I learned a valuable lesson—one that applies to life as well as to novel writing. You’ve got to start someplace, but you can’t be afraid to backtrack, change your approach, and try to do things differently. The end result just may surprise you.
Daniel Palmer is the author of the award-winning thriller DELIRIOUS and HELPLESS (Kensington 2012). Before directing his talents to storytelling, Daniel was a musician—he has recorded two CDs and licensed his songs for commercial use—and was also an e-commerce pioneer, helping to build first generation websites for Barnes & Noble and other popular brands. Daniel comes by his author credentials honestly; his dad is legendary thriller writer Michael Palmer. He currently lives in New Hampshire with his wife and two children.