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!

How to edit a manuscript

I wrote Return to Desiree Bay in 2014. Back then the working title was House of the Week. I had planned to structure the novel in the same way as the classic romcom movie When Harry Met Sally.

The idea was to intersperse vignettes throughout the main narrative. My main character was a real estate reporter. The cameo characters in the vignettes were homeowners talking about what their homes meant to them.

After I completed the first draft, I tidied it up a bit and gave it to a professional editor for a structural edit (cheaper than a full edit). She told me the vignettes and epilogue didn’t work.

A couple of years later, I dragged the ms out again and gave it to my youngest daughter to read. By this time, I’d ditched the vignettes but left in the epilogue. I loved that epilogue. I saw sheer brilliance in every word on the page.

But my daughter thought differently. She told me the epilogue did nothing to enhance the story. Why have it there? That was two people telling me to let the epilogue go. A professional editor and an invested reader. With a heavy heart, I hit delete. Gone. All that work down the drain.

I then entered the ms in several contests run by the Romance Writers of Australia (RWA). Always, without fail, one of the judges would suggest that I start the story further into the book when the main character Skye Summerhayes arrives back home in Desiree Bay.

Sooner or later, it has to be done. Don’t hesitate – press delete.

I clung like a mollusc to a sea shelf, determined to keep my first three chapters which I had spent hours and hours and hours crafting to what I thought was perfection. I was suctioned to those chapters where the action took place in Sydney before Skye returned home to Desiree Bay.

Earlier this year, I sacrificed the first chapter and reshuffled the other two, not ready to give them up. I entered yet another contest and received sage advice from one of the three judges. She told me to get rid of the back story/inciting incident (in the second chapter). She told me to start in the present and dilute the backstory to ‘a few sentences’.

This is the part where I should tear my hair out. Instead, I throw out the second chapter.

It’s hard to kill your darlings but sometimes it has to be done. Deep down inside I knew those words – thousands and thousands of them – were destined for the tip.

‘So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.’