Friday, September 23, 2011

Fiction Friday: Comparing Openings

The beginning is the hardest part to get down. I never know where to start, and the first 500 words probably goes through more revisions than the rest of the story. Here's how Finding Fiona started out, way back in 2008:

Something dark was approaching her. Fiona couldn’t tell what it was, but fear was rising in her chest. She seemed to be trapped, in a corner of some sort. The air smelled like fire and smoke, but she couldn’t see much. The dark figure came closer and closer, and Fiona screamed. 

She snapped awake, gasping for breath. It had only been a dream. Fiona wiped sweat from her brow; it had felt so real. She looked over at her clock. Seven fifty-three. She hated it when she woke up before her alarm. 

Fiona reached over and turned her alarm off, then lay still. It had been another familiar dream, almost as if she had had it before. She remembered her last dream like that - a dream where men in white coats had been holding her down and she had woke up screaming. 

Fiona sat up and turned on her radio. She didn’t want to think about her dreams, about the connections they could have to her past. Whenever she tried to remember, it exhausted her. Hannah told her to journal her dreams, that maybe it would help ‘jog her memory.’ Fiona had a journal hidden underneath her mattress, full of things she had only seen once, when she wrote them. She never turned the pages back to read them again. Maybe someday. But not today. 

Today was her graduation from high school.

Yes, it's the typical "wake up from a nightmare" beginning. I wrote about twenty pages of Finding Fiona, then got tired of it. This winter, I decided to return to it. I gave it a rewrite changed the beginning to this in January 2011:

Were they nightmares or memories? If they had any connection to her past, that only rose more questions about who she was and what had happened to her. Fiona reached under her mattress and pulled out her journal. It’d been Hannah’s idea, to help ‘jog her memory.’ She walked to her desk and turned to a blank page.

6/4/11. A new dream, she wrote. Two men pulling me out of the flames. Dragging me to a van, pushing me inside. My lungs burned from smoke. It was all around us, and I couldn’t stop coughing. I’m almost sure it was a memory.

Fiona dropped her pen, trying to recall any more details of the dream, and she sighed. Whenever she tried to remember, it exhausted her.

She thumbed the corners of the previous pages. She’d never turned the pages back to read her entries again. The thought gave her the chills. Why would she want to relive the nightmares and confusion?

She tentatively turned to the first page of the journal. The first dream she’d recorded. 8/31/10. I was running down the stairs. I think it was a spiral staircase. There was smoke everywhere, and I knew the fire was somewhere nearby. I felt someone grab me from behind, but then I woke up.

Fiona sighed, closing the journal. She couldn’t do this right now. She had to walk and get her diploma. She needed to be semi-normal.

Today was her high school graduation.

This summer during revisions, I cut the entire high school storyline. In the first drafts, she'd been with Hannah for a whole year. I thought there's no way she would have stayed hidden for a whole year, so why have the high school thing? I also decided to give Fiona some memories, just not very clear ones. Here's what I came up with next:

Fiona clenched her teeth, hoping for memories to come. Maybe if she wished for it hard enough, she’d remember.

The water ebbed back and forth, splashing against the rocks where Hannah had found her four months ago. Behind her, Troy mumbled something to Hannah. Fiona tried to block him out, crossing her arms and looking across the harbor.

Nothing new. The same disconnected memories floated around in her mind, searching for meaning. Pointless things like playing in a McDonald’s play place and taking a driver’s test. She wasn’t even sure if some of the images were memories. The fire and its suffocating smoke. The two men dragging her into a van. The girl who drove a different car while Fiona bled from her stomach. After that, the first clear memory she had was the ride in Hannah’s car and the name Fiona mumbled the entire way: James.

The strange images left her with nothing. Fiona didn’t know who James was, or who the other, blurry faces belonged to. She didn’t know what had happened to her. She didn’t even know what her name was. When looking through the name book Hannah had brought her, the name Fiona had stood out, but she didn’t know why.

Hannah touched Fiona’s arm, smiling softly. “How do you feel?”

Fiona shrugged. “Fine, I guess.”

Troy walked over to them from the car. “Do you remember anything?”

“Don’t you think I would have said something if I did?” Fiona asked.

“Sorry for asking.” Troy rolled his eyes.

“Hey, you guys hungry?” Hannah said, too brightly. “Let’s go to Cafe Mecca before I have that meeting.”

They walked back to Hannah’s green Land Rover. Fiona glanced back at the harbor once more before getting in the back seat. Someone had left her here four months ago. . .who? And why?

With this (or something very close to it) I participated in something on Critique Circle called The Hook. We posted out first 1000 words anonymously, and readers from Critique Circle read through as though they were editors or agents. They stopped reading when they lost interest, posted a line saying where they stopped, and moved on to the next "manuscript." I lost 1/3 of 32 readers in the first three paragraphs. I lost 1/3 somewhere in the middle, and the last 1/3 finished. From the comments, it seemed like I had a slightly interesting beginning, but it was bogged down by backstory and thought.

I decided to add a scene where Fiona wakes up in the hospital, then jump ahead four months to where she's on the harbor with Hannah and Troy. This is the new (and final!) opening:

Smoke choked her lungs and made her eyes water. The heat burned against her skin. She ran down the steps, tears streaming down her cheeks. Someone grabbed her from behind, strong arms wrapping around her torso. 

She woke up gasping and coughing. Her surroundings came into focus. Salmon-colored walls. A hard bed. She was in a hospital room, not in the fire. She had escaped. Her heart pounding, she looked down at herself. She wore a hospital gown, and her arms and stomach stung with pain, though covered with clean bandages. 

What had happened? Swallowing, she tried to think over the day, but all she had were blurry images that didn’t make sense. The fire was vivid in her mind, but she didn’t know how she escaped. She remembered riding in a car and bleeding from her stomach. Touching her stomach, she tried to recall how she’d started bleeding, but she faced the same maddening wall of blankness. She swore and clenched her teeth. 

Her hands shook as she pushed aside the rail on the side of the bed. She needed to get out of here. She wasn’t sure why, but she had the feeling something bad was going to happen if she stayed here. Her legs were weak when she put weight on them, and she steadied herself. 

She needed to find her parents. She tried to picture them in her mind, tried to recall their names, but there was a gap where they should have been. Instead, a crushing weight pressed down on her chest. She pushed aside her panic. It didn’t matter; she’d find them. It was just the shock. 

An unfamiliar woman walked into the hospital room. She had wrinkles at the corner of her mouth, and her eyes widened. “You’re awake!” 

The girl swayed, her legs nearly giving out, and the woman rushed forward to catch her arm. The woman eased her back onto the bed. “Don’t worry, it’s all right.”

The girl put her head in her hands. “I need to go.” But she didn’t remember why. Something important pressed the back of her mind, but when she reached for it, it faded.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked softly. 

The girl’s eyes stung with tears, and she took a steady breath, trying to hold them back. “I don’t know.”

I know we're kind of back to the "waking up from a nightmare" beginning, but it's not a nightmare. It's a memory. This one and the last one had small changes to it through advice from Critique Circle, Absolute Write, my husband, and my local writers group here in Salem. I'm so grateful for other writers and readers willing to offer their help! I hope this is the beginning that will snag readers and compel them to finish the story. 

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