I stayed up way past my bedtime last night to finish Curtis Sittenfeld’s Romantic Comedy. I chose the book as my BOTM pick for reasons that would gratify any publishing team—the title, author, and overall package—and had no idea what it was about until it arrived.
The flap copy explains that it is a story about a disenchanted comedy writer, who meets a dreamy pop star backstage at the weekly live SNL-esque sketch show where she works, and sparks fly—as a bonus, it’s the same week she’s pitching a sketch about the dating double standard that a schlubby guy in comedy can land an A-list female partner, but that you would never see the reverse.
The book goes on to explore both the chemistry between these characters and the double standard in a super fun, smart way, with delightful cameos from SNL figures sprinkled throughout. Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones are the besties, there’s a Pete Davidson-Ariana Grande relationship, and Sally, the MC, feels like Tina Fey in a universe where she never set foot on stage. I loved Noah the pop star, an amalgam of John Mayer and someone blonde and likable—maybe he Swedish guy in Tall Girl?
Anyway, there’s a lot that’s done well in this book, but the thing I thought was done the best, the thing I woke up thinking about this morning after racing all night to get to the end, was the beginning.
It’s really hard to begin a book—you have to be engaging and seductive while also meticulously laying everything out in a way that doesn’t feel too stodgy or like you’re leading the reader. I teach a structural editing class once a year, where part of the offering is that I edit 7500 words of each student’s work-in-progress. They can choose any 7500 in the book, but I always lean on them to choose the beginning, because why wouldn’t you get as much feedback on that mama jama as possible? It’s the hardest part of a book to nail, and it is also, often, what decides its fate. Just like how a job interviewer makes up their mind in the first 30 seconds of meeting a potential candidate, in the words of my agent, “The first fifty pages need to fly.”
What delighted me most when I opened Romantic Comedy, is that we catch up to everything in the flap copy summarized above^ by page three. Meaning that in just three pages, my mindset shifted from, “How long is it going to take to get to the good stuff?” to “What happens next?” So exhilarating! I read the next fifty pages in one sitting, and only stopped because I had to go to work. I can’t remember the last time that happened to me.
There is a really valuable lesson in this. I don’t think it makes sense to fret the opening of a book on a first draft—you’re just putting pilings into the ground for the house you’re going to build. However, upon revising, I do think it makes sense to take your opening in hand and ask yourself as you review the structure: “What is my editor going to put in the flap copy?” (editors usually draft the flap copy). If you’re holding out details or plot points that are *just going to be given away in the sales copy*, can you use that to your advantage? Can you get to them sooner?
What Romantic Comedy~and indeed, rom coms in general~accomplish, is that they don’t make the reader wait before getting to the fun thing. Snobby writers might balk at this, but there are plenty of “upmarket” or “literary” authors who borrow this trick. The fact is that in a media economy in which attention has become the only currency of value it is more critical than ever to quickly enter into a contract with the reader. Boiler plate premises can allow for this without having to negotiate the terms of an entire world; and so can the flap copy.
Doing this takes courage. Why? Because “giving it all away” up front can require admitting to yourself that some, if not a chunk, of your book is actually filler or developmental chaff. Painful as it is, your readers will thank you for making these cuts.
For what it’s worth, I rewrote the opening scene in my book at least a dozen times.
ANYWAY this concludes my craft talk. I hope you have enjoyed. And if you want to check out Romantic Comedy, you can do so here!
Wishing everyone a happy Independent Bookstore Day tomorrow and joyful weekend!
I’m totally put myself on the massive waiting list for this book after reading your post! And I agree, delivering the promise in the premise within the first three pages (even within the first 50) is terrifying to me because what am I going to talk about for the rest of the book?
I’ve been on the fence about reading this one, so thanks for the nudge. This was great.