With the launch of Badlands now just one week away, on my social media channels I’m currently counting down to the release with a series of posts under the heading 10 Facts About Badlands.
Every day I’m posting a fact about the characters, settings or creation of the book and today’s fact was…
So why was the first scene in the published book the last scene I ever wrote for it? Well…
Common writing wisdom is that the first line and the first page are the most important part of your book, particularly if you are unpublished. It’s your calling card to any agent or publisher who picks up your manuscript, and is considered to be the make or break part of your query package.
The first line and first page also has to carry a lot of weight. You’re introducing at least one character, a setting, a potential conflict or at least a question that you hope will keep the reader turning the pages.
If you’re a student of story structure, the first page should be your hook, with the next section being the set-up followed by the inciting incident that kicks the story off.
So getting it right is key.
It’s also ridiculously difficult precisely because of all the reasons listed above.
When it came to Badlands, I had a dilemma. The inciting event in the story is when Willow receives a text message from an anonymous number that she believes is from her estranged sister, Ellie.
But, when she gets the text, Willow is in Sydney, Australia. She’s ended up there after running away from home and burning every single bridge she had with Ellie and her family and friends.
So my problem was if I started the story before Willow got the text, I had to set the scene in Australia, and then jump back to Cornwall a few pages later and set the scene again.
But if I started the story with her arrival in Cornwall (which I preferred) the inciting event has already happened before the book starts.
When I look back through the drafts of Badlands, the scene that changes the most is the opening scene.
It never felt right, but I completed the book, went with what I had and started querying to a wall of deafening silence.
In the summer 2021, I picked up the writing guide “Saves the Cat Writes A Novel” and in that, the author talked about having a strong opening image.
Once I read that, everything fell into place.
The book opens with Willow, tired, dirty and footsore from three days of travel, trudging along a deserted country lane in Cornwall. In the next three pages I managed to weave the key plot lines, plus an image that foreshadowed what was to come into the text. From there, the text continues pretty much as previously written, with just one minor adjustment in the final scene to bring the book full circle.
After this revision, I queried again, and this time I got three full manuscript requests, and finally an offer for publication.
While advocates for story structure will argue about the importance of every beat being featured in the book, I prefer to think of structure as a loose framework which underpins everything.
In Badlands, the inciting event happens before the book starts and Willow is already on her journey when we first meet her.
This technique is called in media res which means the story opens in the middle of the plot (the most famous use of this is in Hamlet, where the play starts after the death of Hamlet’s father, which is the inciting event).
Reading the opening scene now, it’s clear to me how much better it is than before.
I strongly believe that re-writing the opening scene last summer, and bringing all my understanding of the story built up over countless drafts to bear in that new scene, was the key to landing a publishing deal for Badlands.