Why I slashed the first three chapters of my novel

Chapter one of my debut novel Return to Desiree Bay didn’t originally start with the protagonist Skye Summerhayes driving into her home town.

I’d always resisted placing my heroine literally in the driver’s seat because, a long time ago, I took to advice from an author to avoid starting a story with a driving scene. Don’t ask me why it was a problem, I can’t remember!

Anyway, Skye has already arrived when the story opens — she’s sitting in her parked car at the beach, but I do dawdle back to describe her drive into town.

My debut novel is almost out there in the world but it’s been a long gestation.

After I finished writing the novel, I spent countless hours refining my first three chapters before I submitted them to several contests run by Romance Writers of Australia (RWA).

Chapter one originally began in Skye and her boyfriend’s harbourside apartment in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. I can’t tell you how many times I rewrote my description of the view of Sydney Harbour from the balcony.

For your eyes only, here is an earlier version followed by the final pared-back version that featured about 10 pars in from the then opening line of the novel:

Early version: ‘Who wouldn’t want to live in Sydney on a day like today?

On the horizon, a silhouette of the city’s clustered skyscrapers reminded her of an odd assortment of jars in a pantry. The Botanical Gardens and naval site of Garden Island prevented the high-rise towers’ creep to the end of a small headland, which partly concealed the tiled sails of the Opera House.

A seaplane glided in to land on the harbour, sending out a fan of ripples. Close to the sandy foreshore a woman knelt on a paddleboard, her two small children perched on the front. She dug an oar into the water to propel them to some idyllic destination.

One day Skye’s life would be that perfect. But it was already, wasn’t it?’

A later version (one of many): ‘She stepped onto the balcony and leaned on the balustrade. Late afternoon sunlight danced across the harbour and gilded the distant city skyline in a fairy-tale glow. Near the sandy foreshore, a woman knelt on a paddleboard with two children perched on the front. She dug an oar into the water, probably to propel them to some idyllic destination, Skye thought.

One day, her life would be that perfect. She was almost there. So why jeopardise it by returning her sister’s call?’

It was painful to have to chop out this description and almost 20,000 words to find the real start to Skye’s story. I even experimented with a prologue set in the present in Desiree Bay in order to keep Chapter one, set in Sydney, intact. But it didn’t work.

It took me a long time to realise that the action driving the story forward didn’t occur until after Skye returned to Desiree Bay.

So, how does the story start in the soon-to-be-published novel? You’ll have to buy a copy to find out! Return to Desiree Bay should be out in late January (around about now) but I have to fix some mistakes so it might be later.

I will write about the crucial role of the editor and beta readers in an upcoming post!

Cover reveal: Return to Desiree Bay

Soon I’ll have something to show for the years I rattled on about writing a novel, and the years that followed the completion of the first draft where I went on and on about, one day, becoming a published author.

It was a distant horizon, and it still feels that way today, less than a month from publication. I can’t believe my first novel Return to Desiree Bay will be out there in the e-reader and paperback universe* in late January, 2022. There’s some fine tuning of dates to be done but I think people will be able to pre-order from Amazon, Apple Books, etc from January 15 (I’ll get back to you on that).

The novel is not perfect by any means. It’s a fun ‘beach read’ that, unfortunately, contains a few mistakes that I intend to fix down the track. In the meantime, I will have to cop criticism from readers** for errors that could have been fixed if I hadn’t been in such a rush, and had given the book to a dedicated beta reader before the final typeset approval.

But more about my mistakes in a future post! Today, it’s all about the cover.

I don’t know about you, but I believe a cover makes a huge impression on a potential reader and influences her (his/their) decision to buy the book or move on to the next shiny thing. Of course, publishers have known this forever which is why so much time, effort and money go into a cover’s creation.

A modest fee of $450 was set aside for the Return to Desiree Bay cover design as part of the course Self Publish Your Book I completed through Writing NSW in 2021.

One of several pics sent to the designer. Photo: Shayne Collier

Initially, I submitted a cover brief to the designer which included images of covers of published novels that appealed to me and aligned with the novel’s theme. I also sent off some of my own photos of coastal settings (I snapped the one above at Lennox Head on the north coast of NSW) along with the novel’s back cover blurb.

Some weeks later, a draft cover arrived. I sent it to my friend Lisa, a talented graphic designer, and she worked with the cover designer to ‘tweak’ a couple of things such as the font (colour and style), the position of the title and author’s name, and the colour tones on the image.

I’m pleased with the result. It was Lisa’s idea to add flourishes of Australian flora that frame the image and underline the title. There’s just the right amount of embellishment to draw the eye to the woman on the beach and the headland that peters out to that elusive distant horizon.

*Return to Desiree Bay will be available from major e-book readers such as Amazon, Apple Books, Kindle and more. The novel will also be available in print on demand (POD).

**My mother and partner won’t get past the dedication so that leaves a few relos, friends and randoms who stumble upon it!

The challenges of first-person narrative in a novel

I’ve never written in first person but for my latest work in progress (WIP) I’ve branched out, with three of my four main characters written from this intimate perspective.

First person isn’t as easy as I thought it would be. I have to delve deep into the minds of three characters to create complexities I’m not sure I can pull off.

Each character has to have her own unique personality/voice. Each has to view the world she inhabits and the ones she observes from a different perspective.

In her fiction-writing workshop, The Story Doctor, author Kate Forsythe describes first-person narrative thus: ‘this voice is expressed in every single word – the authorial voice is mute.’

I have to inhabit my characters, slip into their skin and be them. I have to shut up for once and let them be themselves.

I chose first-person narrative to bring more immediacy and action to my writing.

Already, it’s a challenge to keep the characters real and not tip them over into parody or a ‘type’ that appears contrived and self-conscious. At the same time, the language I use to empower them has to be engaging and uncomplicated yet rich enough in analogies and description to keep the reader hooked.

I felt I could nail the character the reader meets at the start of the novel, Rochelle, using first person rather than my usual go-to – a third-person narrative.

Here’s a snippet of Rochelle, a 50-something self-help new-age influencer living the life and sleeping with a man who is almost as young as her son:

‘I stop briefly to admire my profile in its reflected light and, at a glance, I like what I see. 

Not bad for a 50-something woman who could definitely pass for… I frown and screw up my mouth. Dunno. Maybe late-40s? But what does that look like?

Am I ‘well preserved’, much like a jar of peaches that has been vacuum sealed and sterilised on a low boil before being cooled and stored? 

What about ‘good for my age’? What the hell does that mean? Does anyone say a 20-year-old woman looks ‘good for her age’?

I wonder what others see when they look at me. When someone meets me for the first time. I’m always amazed when someone my age asks the question, ‘How old do you think I am?’ to a person younger than themselves. 

Why would you do that to yourself? Or to them? It’s like opening a Pandora’s box of ugly truths or stammered compliments that are clearly lies.’

Mmm. Too much like me? Therein lies the problem. (No, there is no young lover in my life. I’m talking about her personality traits, not her lifestyle.🤣)

For my next blog, I will cover third-person narrative and introduce the one character of the four written using this technique.

Speak soon… in third person.