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  • Belle Brett

The Ever-Evolving Beginning

Writing is all about revision, and Gina in the Floating World is no exception. I have shredded and re-crafted it numerous times. Although my official records indicate 14 drafts, I know there have been many more micro-revisions in between drafts. Curious about its own evolution, I copied the first few sentences of each of major revision as well as the final draft, which was a tightening at the sentence level. Below I share these along with my summary of how I arrived at each. These changes didn’t happen in a vacuum, of course, and I am indebted to my many readers (and teachers) over the years for their invaluable feedback and insights.

Draft 1: I wonder if I've waited so long to tell my story because I was ashamed of what I did or because I was embarrassed at my naiveté. I believe initially it was shame, but over the years I have come to forgive the young woman that was me. Although with time and experience I have some insight about the forces that held me captive in what seems now to be an unthinkable situation, I still struggle to understand how I ever allowed myself to go there in the first place.

This first draft included a prologue, indicating that my protagonist is looking back at her life, and summarizing who she was at the time the story started. Too much telling and yet too coy about what the protagonist actually did, too apologetic, and not a great way to begin a novel.

Draft 2: Everything hurts. Especially my head. For a few moments, I have no idea where I am or what time of day it is. I prop myself up on my elbows and look around the room for clues. Through gauzy vision, I note that one edge of the room is lined with old-fashioned school desks, the kind with beige metal legs and wooden tops that lift up.

A radical shift. I wrote the second draft after attending a four day novel writing workshop that focused on making our novels highly marketable. The leader of the workshop loved my concept and thought it had great potential. But he encouraged me to make my story much darker and to start with something with more shock value. This scene actually occurs in time much later in the story, and the novel circles back to it. This five page scene is also a prologue.

Draft 4: “Do your lesson! Dance, Gina!” Shinytop ordered me in heavily accented English.

From his perch at the edge of the bed, he grabbed hold of the two handcuffs dangling from the ceiling like long stirrups, standard fare in a Japanese love hotel. He was enjoying his role as my “teacher” a little too much.

Staying with the “in media res” concept, I amped up the shock value by including the image of the handcuffs. At an “Agent Idol” session at the Boston Book Festival, in which agents critiqued writers’ anonymous first pages, one agent scoffed at the handcuff detail, saying that handcuffs never come from ceilings. The lack of credibility of this detail made her stop reading. In fact, in these old “Love Hotels,” according to my research, handcuffs can come down from ceilings, but the moral of this lesson was that I need to win my readers over before including something which may not seem believable.

Draft 7: I stepped out of my plaid pleated skirt and whirled it around my head like a lasso, swiveling my hips in time to the thumping disco beat of the karaoke machine. The skirt reminded me of the uniform I wore just six years ago at my Catholic school back in Joliet, Illinois. And this eerie replica of a classroom, with its row of wooden topped desks and moveable chalkboard, conjured up visions of Sister Archangel snapping a ruler on a textbook as some poor girl butchered the holy Latin language.

In Draft 7, I stuck with the same scene but wanted to give readers more initial information about the protagonist’s background and maybe create some sympathy. We still don’t really know where she is or what she is doing here

Draft 8: After changing trains twice from Tokyo International Airport, standing the whole way through the late rush hour throngs, and hulking my weighty bag for three long blocks, I fought back tears. A steady rain accentuated the glare from both the traffic and the winking signs of bars and restaurants. Tomorrow, this new city and its random address numbering system would seem intriguing. Now, I just wanted to find my hotel.

I axed the prologue with the dramatic but unpleasant sexual scene. My beta readers reported not feeling sufficient sympathy with my protagonist to care that this terrible thing was happening to her. I began instead with chapter one—when the protagonist first arrives in Tokyo and seems a true fish out of water, an important theme of the story.

Draft 9: The year Dolly Parton’s feminist hit “9 to 5” reached number one on the charts, Sandra Day O’Connor became the first female justice on the Supreme Court, and the space shuttle flew its inaugural mission, I chose to be a whore in Tokyo. I was twenty-three.

When I arrived in Japan to undertake a banking internship, I envisioned myself as a pioneer on the frontier of international commerce--brokering creative deals, networking with high rollers, making lots of money. That summer of 1981 I did all these things. Only not in the way I’d planned.

Draft 9 was a tightening up of the Draft 8. In it, I got my protagonist more quickly to her hotel. However, I also included another big change—a short, two paragraph opening in italics just above chapter one that let the reader know in what year the story takes place (1981) and where she will end up (a whore in Tokyo). Draft 8, without the love hotel scene, lacked some punch. Now, my hope was that the reader would wonder how a young Catholic-educated young woman from the Midwest makes such an unconventional choice. A couple of readers thought I was giving too much away, but most liked this addition,

Draft 11: In 1981, the same year Dolly Parton’s feminist hit “9 to 5” reached number one on the charts and Sandra Day O’Connor became the first woman justice on the Supreme Court, I chose to be a whore in Tokyo. At the time it seemed like the natural thing to do.

“Ah, Miss Falwell, I’m sorry if you were given the misinformation that we were going to pay you.” Mr. Yamaguchi focused on a pile of manila folders on the corner of his sleek, plexiglass desk. He turned the top folder ninety degrees and patted it. “But how could we justify that? You are in training.”

Draft 11 was another radical shift. After being a participant in Grub Street’s intense, year-long Novel Incubator program in which I had revised a different novel, I returned to Gina with a fresh eye. In this revision, I deleted a lot of pages, killing my darlings—scenes and characters that I had loved—and tightening up the story. This new beginning takes us to the event that sets the story in motion—when my protagonist finds out that her internship doesn’t pay and she will need to find another source of income. I cut out one of the opening italicized paragraphs and condensed the first to just two sentences.

Draft 13: In 1981, the same year Dolly Parton's feminist hit "9 to 5" reached number one on the charts and Sandra Day O'Connor became the first woman justice on the Supreme Court, I chose to be a whore in Tokyo. At the time it seemed like the natural thing to do.

“Ah, Miss Falwell, how could we at the American Bank of Tokyo justify paying you?” Mr. Yamaguchi focused on a pile of clean manila folders on his sleek, Plexiglas desk. He swiveled the top folder ninety degrees and patted it. “You are here to be trained, yes?”

In this final draft, I focused on the sentence level, both placing the protagonist in a specific setting and removing extraneous words. I kept the newly condensed opening sentences from Draft 11. I also proofread carefully!

It’s always difficult to know exactly when to stop revising. As I've neared publication,I continued to make more edits. But now, it's out of my hands. That is both scary and a relief.

Image: Neon Heaven (watercolor painting) by Belle Brett

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