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Friday Speak Out!: 6.5 Months to A Beginning that Worked

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by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

I didn’t get it. I didn’t get it for 6 ½ months. But my editor, Marc Estrin, patiently stuck with me, nudging me, until I did: the opening to my novel was all wrong. The way my characters had met wasn’t “true.”

I’d set the scene with the couple meeting at a college football party. Al and Sarah ended up sharing space on a couch to view the game. Despite the team getting trounced and limping off the field, a slightly inebriated but always loyal Al rose to sing the Gopher fight song, and Sarah got a kick out of him. I loved that moment of Al’s, but I came to understand that I had trivialized my characters in this scene, perhaps made Al look silly, and so I wrote something new. It didn’t work. Nor did the next effort. Or the next. Marc kept nudging me away from the whole idea of a party, but every draft, it reappeared. It was just a different party or location. Then, at his suggestion, I wrote about their first date.

Suddenly, two things happened. In the new pages, the best of Sarah met the best of Al. One glimpses her strength and also his kindness. Right there, in the bright beginning I gave them, were the traits that would see them through what came next. No place else in the novel do they shine in quite the same way, with such hope and confidence. But that mix of hope and confidence becomes their anchor, as does their marriage, and gives them the ability to survive the bumps. More importantly, with this revised opening, readers would believe this couple had what it takes to endure. If they’d met in my original scene, would anyone have quite believed Sarah and Al could have the necessary grit?

This is an age in publishing when there are, in my opinion, too few editors. With respect, I can’t think of one who would have stuck with me, going over the same five pages for months on end. This short essay is about my revision, yes, but it is really about Marc. The best of Marc—his patience and keen eye—helped my story find the best of my characters. So thank you, Marc. 

* * *
Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University. Her story collection, TO LAY TO REST OUR GHOSTS, won the fourth annual Phillip H. McMath Book Award, Silver in the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Award for Short Stories, and was a Pulpwood Queen Book Club Bonus Book. Her debut novel, GEOGRAPHIES OF THE HEART, was inspired by three stories in her collection and is due out from Fomite Press in January 2022. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003. Find her online at caitlinhamiltonsummie.com.

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!

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