This month’s question often plagues first-time writers and sometimes experienced ones. A great story idea comes to mind. You write it down so you won’t forget it, and then the notes begin. Characters form in your mind, an outline takes shape as a storyline, and the plot thickens. You create character sketches and review them (even if only in your mind) until you know each one as though you had been acquainted for years. With a working title in place, you sit down at the keyboard (or typewriter or with a writing tablet and pencil), ready to produce a bestseller.
Where do you begin your story?
Now that “once upon a time” has fallen from favor, this is often the first of several challenges that face a writer embarking on a new tale. The experiences of those whose books I’ve edited, as well as my own, indicate the first chapter or two are the most difficult to write. They can also be among the most challenging to edit. Why is this?
Even though we think we know our characters intimately—and well we may—we don’t necessarily know how they will interact with one another, and herein lies the problem. Add that unfamiliarity to the fact that the first chapter, especially the first page, must hook the reader and pull him/her into the story. Suddenly, what seemed initially to be a simple dilemma becomes crucial to the sale and success of the book.
I’m an edit-as-I-go writer (NOT recommended), so I stress way too much over beginnings. The advice I would give you is to pick a starting point, begin writing, and get the first draft on paper. After that, you can go back to the beginning, ponder its relevance, and consider its effectiveness.
Does it make sense in light of the story as a whole? Does it avoid the “huh?” factor? (Translation: is the reader going to envision the scene and jump into it, or does she feel like she walked into the middle of a foreign-language movie?) Is the starting point a great lead-in to the action?
Case in point: Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I have never gotten past the seemingly endless beginning description to savor the story (I do love the movie, however). Granted, rave reviews shouted its praises, it’s now considered a classic by many, and it was written in another time about a time even further removed from the present. So was Louisa Alcott’s Little Women written in another time. Let’s do a quick comparison.
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were. In her face were too sharply blended the delicate features of her mother, a Coast aristocrat of French descent, and the heavy ones of her florid Irish father. The paragraph continues with more of the same, and this does not grab my attention.
“Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.
“It's so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.
“I don't think it's fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.
“We've got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.
This beginning, at least, pulls me into Alcott’s story.
By today’s standards of bare-bones writing that eliminates excessive description and bloated dialogue tags, neither book would have likely have found a traditional publisher. And if by some obscure chance it did, the editors would make quick work of the excessive wordiness. In all fairness, the appeal of either story is a matter of personal taste, and the point we’re considering is beginnings, not specific books we like or dislike.
How do you begin your stories? Do you find yourself rewriting your opening chapter after your first draft is completed? Inquiring minds (of editors and writers) want to know.
Writer/editor Linda Lane works with a team of editors/mentors whose goal it is to help writers write more effectively. Her new website, Linda’s Book Nook, should be operational by the end of the year. Not only will it offer books for sale, it will also feature serialized stories, short flash fiction contests (350 words or less), and a blog to address writers’ questions and issues.